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Teaching Linux in the Dark

I like living here. “Here” is a low-cost, no maintenance condo-type neighborhood for us folks who are 55 or older or have a disability. A good friend of mine, a bit older than me, told me that since I live here now, I need to start acting my age.

Well pass the Ensure and bingo cards Gladys …I’ll get right on that.

The same good friend also described me once as the oldest juvenile delinquent he has ever met.

Linux gremlins be goneBut there’s really no getting away from the fact that I’ve reached the stage of life when grandchildren are finally accepted and I no longer wince when one of my grand babies address me as “grandpa.” Yeah, it took me almost a decade to be comfortable with the fact that I am indeed a grandpa.

A medley of aches, pains and cramps often remind me that I can’t do stuff as fast and for as long as I used to. These days, my life consists of blazing my way through my work day then hobbling to my comfy sofa, moaning my regret for all that day’s blazing.

This is a nice place to which to come home. One of the great things about living here is how close the residents are…and not in just proximity. We lived in a fairly nice home prior to moving here and in the three years we stayed there I couldn’t tell you the last names of the people living next door or across the street from us. In less than a week here, almost every neighbor had stopped by to say “hi” or to bring various house warming baked goods.

This past Thanksgiving, Diane and I went to the pot luck community gathering at the community center. To be honest, I really didn’t want to go. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving I had promised a computer to the kids of a single mom, but while installing it, gremlins found their way into the machine. The computer that worked perfectly on the workbench suddenly decided that a kernel panic was in order. I needed Thanksgiving evening to myself so I could get another system ready, but a long, chilly look from Diane was enough to forestall that mission…for a couple of hours anyway.

These are some great people here. I talked with a Korean war veteran who lost his right foot to frostbite in the battle for the Chosin River Valley. I spent time with two ladies who travel to Austin when the weather gets cold to distribute coats, scarves, gloves and shoes to the homeless. They gather them throughout the year and then give them to people who might not survive without them.

So yeah, I like the place and the people here. Of course, when you are tagged as “the neighborhood computer guy,” that news travels faster than the crashing North Korean Internet. Even those neighbors you haven’t yet met…they seem to find their way to your door with no difficulty whatsoever. Like Jacob, for instance, who doesn’t have a wheelchair…he has a mobility chair. He says wheel chairs are for people who are disabled.

Actually, he’s a disabled veteran who was paralyzed while serving during the Vietnam War. His motorized chair is complete with an American flag on a whip antenna, flames on the sides of the chair and a bumper sticker that reads, “No thanks, I don’t heed your help.” Apparently the sticker doesn’t include not needing help with his computer.

I met Jake a while back while out walking Astro and we hit it off fairly well. We have a lot of shared geography and history, even if we didn’t know each other all those years ago. Jake has a two year old Asus laptop which had slowed to a crawl. I asked him how he came to have eleven toolbars on his Internet Explorer browser. He just shrugged and told me “They just showed up.”

See, that’s the problem with many people in my generation. If something happens or is added to their computers, they believe it’s supposed to happen, that “the Internet knows what I need.” Apparently, the Internet thought Jake needed eleven toolbars and so many JavaScript exploits that the damned thing took over five minutes just to open the browser.

Jake thought he had a broken computer. I told him his computer was fine; it was his system that was broken. I asked him if he was in a hurry and he informed me that he was not. I made us both coffee and then pulled up a chair next to his mobility chair. It took me twenty minutes to get him to the point where he pretty much understood the problems he faced and the relatively easy fix.

Hands up with LinuxI booted the computer with my Linux flash drive and we went through the files he wanted to keep and the files that could go away. On another drive, I backed up two gigs of music and pictures. Once I had unmounted the flash drive and verified the stability of the files on the saved drive, I proceeded to install the new system on his computer.

Did I tell him it was Linux? Did I give him the party line on freedom-as-in-beer-and-code? No. I didn’t tell him anything except I was going to fix his computer.

When the install was done, I imported his IE bookmarks into Firefox and loaded his music and pictures into the appropriate directories. I did not set him up with multiple desktops, nor did I blingify his desktop. He wanted to play his online games with his friends, he wanted to check his bank account from time to time and he wanted to access his Yahoo email account. That’s all. Oh…and he wanted to play World of Goo. It’s his new and favorite obsession.

It took me all of one and a half hours to get him fixed and out the door.

In the years I’ve been doing this, it’s only been recently that I’ve learned an extremely important lesson. Not everyone needs to be saved from one entity and changed to another. Not everyone wants or needs to know the important philosophical truths about free open source software. Sometimes, people just want their computers to do what they tell them to do and in the shortest and most simple way possible. The end result was a happy friend and a neighborhood computer I will not have to fix for a long time.

I watched Jacob motor down the sidewalk to the end of the block where he lives…flag waving in the breeze and that huge bumper sticker proclaiming that he didn’t need anyone’s help. I didn’t help Jake, I educated him. If that’s what he needs to keep his spirit independent, then I was glad to help teach him.

Considering the number of people I talked to during our Thanksgiving gathering, I’m sure he won’t be the last.


  1. Terry Gillett Terry Gillett December 23, 2014

    I’m 29 years old and even people in my generation don’t know or seem to care about the importance of free open source software and what it means to the internet ecosystem. They like your friend Jake just want it to work and don’t care about the philosophy, hours of constant activism and the voluntary community that makes it all happened.

    The only different with my generation and your friend Jake’s generation is has to be flashy, trendy, cool and horribly expensive to operate otherwise they won’t go anywhere near it.
    This is why I dislike companies like Apple or Microsoft who have spent trillions of dollars in advertising. To dumb down people so much so that they figure the computer they purchased know’s better than there own mind does.

    Companies like Apple and Microsoft have long sought out to destroy the critical thinking computer geeks and convert them into good little consumers. Who don’t stop to think that maybe their computer is inherently flawed from the minute they pull the wrapping off it or that they can modify it to do some really awesome things. Like removing the original base operating system (i.e. Windows, OSX) and installing some good old fashioned linux onto their machine. Which might make perform better, faster and way cheaper.

    But no this not the world we live in and their is not as many linux users out their and even if there are they’re dual booting their purchased operating system with linux. Which to me is a slap in the face to those who have sacrificed hours of their own lives to make a real difference in the world of computing.

    Then these same companies like Apple and Microsoft have been known to steal linux code and showing complete disregard to the GNU GPL rules and violating them to make bigger profits. Especially Apple I mean there terminal is a total copycat of the linux terminal found in most linux distro’s. Then there’s Windows using the KDE desktop environment to make their desktop look flashy and marketable.

    Linux is not a marketing tool, it’s free open source software as in free beer.

    Best Regards
    Terry Gillett

  2. Mike Mike December 23, 2014

    Sure, most people don’t care about software freedom…but they should.

  3. Jim Anderson Jim Anderson December 24, 2014

    I ran into a senior who runs a computer skills learning group for other seniors. Being an old fart myself I offered to help get their old XP laptops running better. I’m been talking to them about Linux and they are very excited that there is a OS out there that doesn’t cause the problems for them that Windows does. I’ve put Linux Mint on some of their personal laptops(dual-boot) and given Linux Mint DVDs to interested others. I’m putting Xubuntu 12.04 on the class’s old Pentium M (non-PAE)/512 MB RAM laptops and it’s making these old dogs run like new, even running LibreOffice 4.3 and the GIMP. Unlike others I’ve run into, they came with no pre-conceptions and are just happy that their computers now work better for them than ever before.

  4. Eddie G. Eddie G. December 27, 2014

    As for me, I’m in the “Middle-Aged-40-something” age bracket, and I’ve helped so many people with their computers, I find that trying to give them the speech about “Freedom And Software” sopmetimes isn’t necessary, like this article states, sometimes they just want someone to help them do what they want to do on their computers with no headaches or problems. So what I do is show them at least four different desktops (via USB flash drives or CD/DVD’s) and explain to them this this isn’t Windows, they won’t have “Internet Explorer 10″…they won’t have a “Windows Media Player” and they should not look for “Microsoft Office 2013”. After I “take those things away” from them, I then show them what they’re getting in it’s place, and most times some people get upset, thinking I’m trying to snowball them into paying some kind of fee or exorbitant price, but when I explain they will never have to pay for an “upgrade” to their office suite, or their OS in genral, THAT’S when they start to get more interested in “exactly what IS this”?. I think the best way to introduce someone to Linux is in small pieces and not all-at-once, also if you know someone is not the “JWM / OpenBox” type then don’t even bring it into the conversation, you’ll only just confuse them and give the impression that there’s so much options in Linux that they won’t know where to begin!! Also I try to keep it simple, as is the premise behind Linux, yes…you can have multiple web browswers installed, but someone who’s used to just having ONE?…probably should only JUST HAVE ONE! …just my thoughts about it.

  5. Thesean Ship of Fools Thesean Ship of Fools December 28, 2014

    You can’t teach the “average computer user” about the difference between Linux and Windoze any more than you can teach a chicken to yodel. Just stick in a Linux live dvd, kill that spaghetti-coded nightmare, and replace Firefox’s icon with a big blue E, comprende? You don’t want to hurt their little heads.

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