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December 1st, 2015

Welcome to Linux: The Stone Age OS

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

–R. Buckminster Fuller

Let’s talk about the future, as understood by today’s children who will ultimately shape that future.

In the course of a normal day, for every adult with whom I speak, there are two kids who add to the day’s conversations. Sometimes they are 17 year’s old, sometimes they are anywhere from 9-12. Regardless of the “sometimes,” one thing remains a constant: These kids will shape the world in which they live, equaling and surpassing the accomplishments of their fathers or even their grandfathers, those fearful but heroic men who faced withering gunfire and certain death on foreign beaches, men who prematurely ended the Third Reich to insure those after them would not have to, and men who died so those approaching the land could advance.

Linux users

Linux users, according to one of Ken Starks’ critics.

Their sacrifice changed the future of millions, and the kids I work with are indeed that future. Kids like Brandon, a well-spoken eighth grade student in Taylor, Texas.

The organization I head, Reglue, supplied Brandon and his family with a computer so Brandon would not have to walk home from the library after dark. His family does not own a car and the library was the only place he could go to use an Internet connected computer, necessary to complete his assigned homework. Greatly influenced by Neil deGrasse Tyson — who in turn was influenced by Carl Sagan — he hopes to one day be an astrogeologist, and is already talking with his teachers and parents about the things he has to do to prepare for work in this field. Having a computer in the home on which to study is a good first step.

There is one person, evidently representing many, who disagrees with me. For a period of four months a few years back, he was a sure-fire first commenter on articles I posted on the Blog of Helios. “You’re not doing those kids any favors by giving them a Linux computer,” he would write. “In the real world, at most, Linux is a curiosity. The rest of the world is using Windows, and you are giving them rocks and a stick.”

Rocks and a stick? That’s a curious way to express Linux, the kernel that is the center of the majority of supercomputers around the world. I’ve heard it expressed or compared a lot of ways, but I don’t think “rocks and a stick” was one of them — up until then at least. But he’s not alone in his way of thinking. I remember a conversation I had with a colleague in 2005 who held the same view and went so far as to stop working with our newly-formed organization. He stated that he would not put his efforts into a losing cause. I vaguely remember that my response made mention of asses, doors and all of that.

Originally, in 2005, Reglue was called The HeliOS Project. Many of you might be surprised to know that at first we didn’t consider Linux for the operating system on the computers we’d be handing out. It made sense to me that if the rest of the world used Windows, we should probably do the same, even though my business was a 100 percent Linux shop. However, using Windows on our outgoing computers immediately hit a concrete wall, which we smacked into pretty good.

We contacted Microsoft often, asking them to donate a few licenses for our nonprofit use, but not once did anyone from Redmond have the courtesy of returning our calls or letters, even though some letters were sent certified mail. Microsoft is big on talking about building sustaining communities as long as the cameras are rolling. Outside of that, not so much. In our case, not at all. The loudest response we received? Cue the chirping crickets. In a way, one could deduce that Microsoft actually left us no other option but to use Linux on our computers, and it was the best thing that could happen to us.

Fighter stickersWe even made it a practice for a while to snail mail Bill Gates letters every month, depicting the number of new Windows computers we replaced with Linux machines. Early on, we would remove the Windows case badges from our computers as we made the switch and stick them on a World War II fighter, designating one more “kill” for our Linux shop. They ignored those too, but in reality there wasn’t anything they could do by way of reaction. Eventually we stopped acting so childish and ceased the weekly mail-outs to Redmond…mostly.

But back to our latest critic who thinks we are harming our Reglue kids chances of success. All I can do is shake my head as I mentally count the number of our kids who have entered college using Linux, who’ve been accepted into graduate programs using Linux, and who’ve found an affordable way to extend the life of their older machines by using Linux.

If we’ve been supplying unusable computers to these kids, it looks to have paid off. Some of those we’ve mentored have gone on to earn six figure incomes as software engineers and architects. Many have taken their use of free and open source software into classrooms of their own, teaching computer science and engineering.

I offer this critic the opportunity to come work with me for a week, side by side, and to see for himself what we do and who we work with. I can promise him, that whether he admits it or not, he’s been dead wrong all of these years.

Tomorrow, I will place two more stickers on that old airplane. Somehow it just makes me feel good to do so.

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Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

24 comments to Welcome to Linux: The Stone Age OS

  • juan

    Do you have an idea how many PCs you switched to Linux?

  • Uncle Ed

    These arguments are perversely amusing. As you point out, the supercomputers and Internet servers show Linux seems to be doing something right.

    Back about 1983-84, I was working with a group of students on something, using a Commodore 64. A young man walked up and began expounding on the failures and limitations of the C64. I controlled my snappy comeback and rapier-like wit (oh, go ahead and snicker) and just gave him a blank stare. The irony was that the young man was afflicted with a debilitating disease and was on crutches and leg braces for life. Nice of him to tell me what the computer couldn’t do.

  • Mike

    Linux is the OS for makers and tinkerers who are future scientists, engineers, movie producers, and software designers.

    Windows is the OS for future office drones.

    Please choose wisely.

  • W. Anderson

    I am somewhat informed about the work that Ken Starks has done for community computing in his state, and admire his commitment to continuing to assist those in need to experience modern computing – with Linux, without which they would otherwise miss.

    Ken is unfortunately a bit naive to think that having a “nay-sayer” in his presence for a week will change their dysfunctional views, based solely on their hardened position with false information.

    I have been a technology professional for more than 25 plus years, working primarily with Linux, BSD UNIX-like and other Free/Open Source Software (FOSS)solutions to provide clients with exceptional results in several countries in North American region.

    Unfortunately the Microsofties will never be convinced otherwise, irrespective of all the mountains of empirical evidence and “real world” case studies presented to them – from NASA and aerospace companies, video animation studios that produce films like Avatar, most of the Fortune 1000 and especially financial Services firms, or even direct testimony from more than 20 plus European Union governments and municipalities t hat Linux and FOSS have proven for them to be significantly superior technology solutions, not only in Reliability, Performance/Scalability, Flexibility and critically in greater security, but saving these entities on average between 35% and 70% over similar configurations based on Microsoft Windows technology.

    Keep up the good work. I cannot deal with slavish Microsoft supporting idiots sufferung absolute denialism any more.

  • Ken, I support your efforts to make people have a foothold in this ever evolving world of information technology. And also applaud you for extending the life of computers that usually would be sitting in a landfill. But the Microsoft sheeple always want to say that Linux is useless for “the real world” because the business world uses Windows. What they don’t realize is that the websites they visit use some sort of LAMP stack.

    Bill Gates wants attention regarding his philanthropy… Donating computers, and Windows licenses, as long as he is an attention whore. The media has to speak of Microsoft positively. If there is even one mention of a consideration of Linux, his foundation screams and cries.

    And @Uncle Ed… I kind of laughed at your story about the Commodore 64, but was laughing with you, because I have a similar story. But with the Trash-80 (Tandy Color Computer)…

  • Kevin

    Ken, project reglue is awesome! You are doing great work! I have been a “hacker” since I was a young kid (about 7 or 8) always breaking, fixing and learning. I graduated High School in 2005 and switched to Linux the same year after tinkering with it for a while. I was never able to afford college and since I’m a regular run of the mill white boy and not a minority (not that I am prejudice at all) I never had an opportunity to go to college for free either. Today thanks to Linux and the Open Source community I am now a programmer, web developer and run a computer store. The people who use Windows are not smart people, they have been brainwashed into it and sadly this has ruined for them the basic understanding of computers required to do anything but click on Word or Internet Exploder so that they can do the “stone age” things that Windows people do. My point? Keep doing what you are doing, you are making those kids smarter about technology and opening a door for them that would have otherwise been hidden behind a wall of morons.

  • David

    This is interesting. It’s really ironic that the people criticizing you are the ones who are the cavemen. Windows, as most of us know, is a legacy OS. Probably partially due to being developed in the Cathedral model, and partially due to hanging on to an increasingly outdated view of the world (and their existing customer base), Windows has failed to keep up with the times in both its design and implementation. I feel sorry for those older folks who are no longer willing to learn anything new and feel so chained to the Windows legacy. Fortunately, our young people aren’t chained as such. Speaking of preparing for college is a good point. 15 years ago, everyone entering college was expected to be able to do everything on Windows. I’ve seen a bit shift in the last 10 years, where many college students are coming in with Linux laptops (obviously primarily in computer science and engineering programs) and those who don’t have some familiarity with Linux are already behind. Windows really has no place in mobile, the internet of things, servers, the cloud, basically all of the things that will be important in the future. I guess people like those critics will hold on to their legacy Windows systems as long as they can, but as the saying goes, eventually you have to adapt or die.

  • Tom

    I use Linux all the time at work. I couldn’t do my job, building openstack clouds an devops without knowing it.

    I use things I developed on SunOS, Solaris and other unix systems 20 years ago. I don’t use the Macintosh System 7 or DOS or Windows 3.1 stuff from back then.

    With my Linux knowledge I’ve been able to learn Windows XP, 7, 2000, 2003, 2008 , active directory and gpo automation over the years.

    I learned to fish instead of just eating what I was given by Microsoft.

  • Unbeknownst

    If I gained a dollar every time someone looked at me with that astonished look, finally understanding how much Linux is better…

    There is a lot of money spent in marketing campaigns to repeat over and over that proprietary OSes are easier, or better.

    You cannot help people and still be responsible to correct wrong views which people acquire after viewing such an amount of propaganda.

    I would calmly ask the critic in question about how he thinks the donation receivers would buy the next version of the excellent OS he suggests. How are they going to acquire the proprietary equivalents of Linux programs which can be had for free.

    Linux brought a lot of advancements before others could do it (I’m thinking Windows here): 64-bit, USB 3.0, IPv6, multiple desktop workspaces, a powerful command shell/terminal, software repositories, three-button mouses etc. etc.

    In fact, Linux is much more advanced than common off-the-shelf proprietary alternatives.

    Again, don’t lose your time. While you try to enlighten the critic, however noble that could be, think that he must learn by himself instead of parroting marketing views from big corps.

  • What the real DOERS know is that a computer is a computer is a computer. BUT, How you get it to do what you want is under your control limited only by the OS, and the licences that limit your doing and freedom to craft it into your own.

  • Eddie G.

    As a Linux user since 2004, I have come to learn more about computers on a whole than for the entire time I was a Windows System Admin. I have ditched Windows since 2004 and have not looked back. But as with all good things, I didn’t keep it to myself. I have an older sibling who works as a network architect and it’s a basic “Windows Shop” in that all their servers, desktops, laptops etc. are running Redmond’s finest. She was the hardest of all my “Jedi Disciples” to convert, she was reluctant to let go of the “Simply Windows” mantra, the Point-And-Click vibe that it entailed, the “Find The Icon” game on a desktop cluttered with over 100 different little images that represented a different spreadsheet, application, or shortcut to the same thing as the previous icon three rows over. After letting her “see” my Fedora laptop in action she got curious enough to say she would install Ubuntu on an old Dell laptop the company donated to her since it was out of warranty and they wouldn’t get anything for it. Ever since that first week? That Dell has become her Number 1 machine, her servers at home run CEntOS, and her husband and their eldest son run Linux. I’ve converted my Mom, my younger brothers, and the youngest brothers wife, my nieces, my cousins, my aunt, my girlfriend, her friends from college, and the list goes on. I don’t ever bicker or argue with those who cannot fathom nor comprehend the value that Linux brings to the world. Granted its not easy, I’ve learned more from my mistakes trying to install various distros, than I ever did with a textbook in my hands. But a lesson once learned? stays with you for LIFE! So its simple, those who are willing to see things with an open mind? will be the torchbearers for Linux in the future. Those who cannot? will be the “unwashed masses” who are stuck using Windows #X: and then there’s the Apple community who feel like elitists, which for an “Lx’er is just fine. Let them remain in their ivory towers, we have The World at our fingertips and can move mountains with some lines of code! LoL!

    Mr. Starks? Don’t you DARE stop working with kids and introducing as many people as you can to Linux! You can be considered the “Gandalf The White” of this day and age!…and that goes for all the other people out there who repair people’s PC’s and devices and show them a “better” way with Linux on their machines. Then there’s the devops guys and the programmers and builders…..when you really think about it? the entire Linux Global Community is one big family! It doesn’t matter if you use Fedora…..Ubuntu…..openSuSE…..CEntOS…..PCLinuxOS…..Arch Linux…..Puppy…..Slackware…..Peppermint…..Debian…..Linux Mint…..Red Hat……Gentoo…….the list of distros is endless! And it doesn’t matter which one you choose we’re all in this together, and really can be considered the biggest “family” in the world! There are “users” in Africa, Latin America, Korea, China, Japan, Germany, England, and everywhere else that computers connect to the internet!!

    So to my “extended family” I wish you all a Merry Christmas And a Happy New Year!…LoL!

  • Jim

    Windows people like to point out how prevalent Windows is. They like to point to graphs showing a line at the top representing Windows and a line at the bottom representing Linux. When I talk to people about Linux I use a pyramid metaphor where Windows is for the masses at the bottom of the pyramid and desktop Linux users are at the pinnacle of the pyramid. Admittedly it’s a snobbish comparison where Linux users are at the top of the computer using heap, but in all the ways that matter (knowledge, flexibility, and troubleshooting skills) am I not right?

  • KRS

    I think all of your critics’ arguments boil down to them having ossified brains that can’t adjust to new interfaces. Personally, I don’t have a problem doing that, but some people who haven’t been exposed to computing as a child or teenager can barely deal with one interface and can’t learn anything different. They don’t realize that today’s children will grow up switching interfaces when they go from their desktop or laptop to their mobile device. When they grow up, it won’t matter to these children what OS or interface they learned first. If their workplace requires them to switch to Windows and MS Office or to MacOS and Photoshop, they will be able to handle the transition.

  • Sarah

    In fact I recently switched to Linux, and quite honestly I don’t think I’ll be looking back. Windows in general has been increasingly pissing me off just anyway.

    Sense switching to this distribution, my computer hasn’t frozen up inexplicably anywhere near as much. And when it does for nowhere near as long.

    And while I know I’m preaching to the choir here, a lot of stuff you can get for Windows can be easily replaced with open source alternatives for Linux.

  • Duncan

    I paused at this sentence…

    “In a way, one could deduce that Microsoft actually left us no other option but to use Linux on our computers, and it was the best thing that could happen to us.”

    … Because for many years I’ve said exactly the same thing about my own experience. Tho I had been looking forward to finally getting off the still partially 16-bit MS Windows 9x, when MS put malware on what I’ve since called eXPrivacy, they crossed a line I could not and would not cross. Tho I had bought and installed many MS software products until then, at that point, they left me with the stark choice of either pirating the software to avoid the malware (never a good choice as you are never sure what other malware you’re getting to replace the malware you’re trying to avoid), or starting over on an unfamiliar OS after over a decade on MS, and having to regain all my expertise on a new OS.

    Sure, to that point I had looked at Linux, and would certainly have chosen it if starting new, but with a pile of expertise already acquired on the MS platform, I was a bit reluctant to make the jump and dump it all. I really don’t know if I ever would have made that jump on my own, but as in that quoted sentence above, MS really left me little choice, and looking back, for me at least, I’m /so/ glad they didn’t, giving me that last little push I needed to actually make the jump.

    Of course that only left the millions that didn’t jump in deeper bondage, with many still in it today, but at least it’s a bondage they can opt-out of if they’re as sufficiently determined. And unlike for example ISIS today or East Germany in the cold war, while leaving might involve some temporary relative hardship, it’s not like you get shot or drown in the process. =:^\ And the good news is that while there’s always the “haters gonna hate” faction, in this case they generally /don’t/ have guns pointing at you, and there’s lots of people waiting to try to help you make that switch and integrate well in your new land of software freedom, as well. =:^)

  • CFWhitman

    To someone in the tech field, it doesn’t generally take that long using Linux to realize that in the long run using Windows involves a bunch of trouble that you don’t need.

    To explain, if you are the type of person that buys a new computer every three years and just uses that (be it desktop or laptop), then you may not notice the trouble that Windows entails, that is, if you are savvy enough to avoid malware. However, if you are the type that likes to have multiple systems running, and you want to take full advantage of any older hardware you might have, Windows becomes a liability. Dealing with license issues and planned obsolescence is simply more trouble than it’s worth. Running a lot of proprietary software on multiple systems becomes prohibitively expensive rather quickly, and if you switch to open source software there’s very little reason left to run Windows.

    Of course, if you really need (or perhaps are much more comfortable with) certain proprietary applications, it can make sense to keep one Windows installation (or perhaps two) around. Generally, though, additional computers will still be less trouble with Linux on them.

    Of course people who want to set up a gaming LAN for Windows only titles may find a reason to have multiple Windows machines on a home network, but generally those are temporary and supplied by multiple people anyway.

    When it comes down to it, using Windows makes me feel boxed in, while using Linux makes me feel free to do what I want.

  • Keith H

    I read with interest about the personal stories in the switch to Linux. I too, took the leap around 2005 and have not looked back. I still use Microsoft at work, but I am always amazed at the lack of options, the quirky process, the hidden menus and icons (#@%! ribbon), and the removal of functionality between versions (particularly in Office — eg. Ctrl + Shift + V no longer brings up ‘paste special’ dialogue, however this combination still works fine in Libreoffice). In fact, I often find myself creating documents and spreadsheets in Libreoffice then saving as MS file to send to my colleagues — it’s that much faster for me.

    My reasons for switching all of my home computers are similar to those already listed, but in 2005 Internet Explorer had massive security flaws that just bogged down my computer systems. As I discovered a system called ‘Linux’ I was intrigued and tried-out many distros over the years — each had it’s good and bad points, but viruses were never an issue again. Later-on, my practical reasons for using Linux turned more to an ideology of freedom; With Linux I can try-out what I like; choose to upgrade or not, run a bare bones OS or one with bells and whistles — all without a nag screen telling me to reboot. Choice matters and freedom makes a difference. Long live linux.

  • 3arn0wl

    🙂 Excellent work, congratulations.

    I think we’re beginning to see the adoption of FOSS, if not Linux, in governments’ departments around the world. It would be a paradigm shift if schools were to upgrade their IT departments to non-proprietary systems (and not an inconsiderable saving for them either). That would mark the start of the end for both Microsoft and Apple, at least in their present form.

    – People don’t know about Linux
    – They don’t realise that it’s every bit as good, if not better, than the alternatives
    – They think it’s for techies, and not for the average user.

    If using Linux in school was the norm, all those barriers would cease to exist.

  • Juan, thanks for asking. In 2013 we suffered a nasty series of lightning strikes and those strikes caused catastrophic damage to our office and home electrical devices. Unfortunately, while we did have our data on three different computers, they were all damaged in the storm. To the best of our ability, we’ve painstakingly tried to rebuild that data base.

    With a cautious look back through our few existing records, we can say with confidence that we’ve helped somewhere just a bit over 1600 kids in Central Texas. We will begin in 2016 to recreate that data base.

  • W. Anderson

    In at least two ways, this story from Ken Sparks reveals a sad reality about Microsoft Windows users, particularly here in US where the Operating System (OS) and MS applications are so prevalent and revered.

    Several years ago IBM did a study which showed that a Windows (business) PC that initially cost $500.00 actually came out to cost approximately $830.00 or more after first year, due to malware protection costs in protection software and OS re-installs and re-configurations. Any comparisons to an equivalent Apple desktop were therefore shown at about similar cost outlay, with primary difference being “lost productivity” from Windows PC downtime and frustration levels.

    The other significant revelation came in the retirement speech of Richard Clark, appointed Cyber Czar by George Bush and kept on for about a year in the the Obama Administration, serving a ‘Cabinet Level’ position to co-ordinate and manage all technology security issues of USA between the Defense Dept, National Security Agency, research Universities and Silicon Valley technology corporations.

    He stated quite clearly and unambiguously that one of the greatest threats to the USA in Cyber Security was in Microsoft software that is so pervasive and popular here, which was never designed for advanced and sophisticated Internet/Networking, and very weak in robust reliability and particularly critical security requirements and capabilities.

    This reality has come to pass, and unfortunately most Windows users, even texperienced echnologists have very little understanding and knowledge of the technology base and history behind Windows, and possess little or no technical knowledge or experience in the NIX (UNIX/Linux) environment.

    Unless and until a significant proportion of individuals, organizations, business and even municipal, state and federal government agencies acknowledge and act on this serious Windows threat, Cyber attacks through Windows (software) mainly and severe national productivity breakdowns will continue unabated.

    Much of Europe, Central and South America, Asia – particularly China, Taiwan and Vietnam, even parts of Africa, long cinsidered a complete technology backwater, have already and/or are starting to move elsewhere – primarily to Linux, BSD UNIX-like and other more stable and robust OS and applications solutions.

  • Sum Yung Gai

    Yep, I hear that “in the REAL world” business, too. That’s what I call “the MCSE drumbeat”. It’s scared MCSE’s afraid of losing their jobs that say this. It’s scared teachers and office administrators, and trainers whose salaries are, in their minds, dependent on Microsoft Windows and MS Office.

    How do I know about that? I used to be an MCSE, and I was scared of anything UNIX-y, too. That changed quite a few years ago.

    Remember Upton Sinclair’s wise advice: “it is very difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon him NOT understanding it!”

    Folks, at work, I have to use Microsoft Windows; that’s the company’s decision and their right to make that decision. But at home, I’ve been “Microsoft Free Since 2003” and intend to remain so.

    GNU/Linux, *BSD, and other F/OSS are the way of the future. Get with the program, or get left behind.

    –SYG

  • Tom

    “Windows people like to point out how prevalent Windows is. They like to point to graphs showing a line at the top representing Windows and a line at the bottom representing Linux.”

    That may have been true before the iPhone, but it’s not true anymore. Windows is no longer 90%. Frankly nowadays, it’s similar to the argument that you learn to fix only one brand of cars & not the others. No car company controls enough of the market that you can ignore the others.

    Bill Gates (and his Microsoft) feared Netscape and Java applets and tried to destroy them because they could replace the need for a windows desktop. He succeeded with Netscape and got slapped by the DOJ for a monopoly. The last threat MS successfully killed was netbooks running Linux instead of Windows.

    Google was able to create AJAX and do everything in the browser while MS let Internet Explorer become irrelevant.

    Later, when consumers were able to do everything on a smartphone and it wasn’t running an x86, MS couldn’t replace the OS on it for $0 to keep iOS and Android out. Android is Linux based and iOS is MacOSX based (really!) and that is based on a Mach microkernel with FreeBSD, another Unix.

    Microsoft is now playing catchup to the consumer market (phones & tablets that run web browsers and apps). They’re trying to build a table interface with Win 8 and 10 and don’t care about the office environment that wants a Windows 7 desktop with Outlook and Exchange.

    My son’s school has gone Chromebook. Everything runs on a chrome browser with Google Docs. I can see that working for many office workers too. CAD users and developers will switch back to a Unix (Linux) desktop like they had in the 90s and a Chrome browser will cover Office + email for everyone else.

    Linux will be running all the servers. >90% of the top 500 supercomputer run Linux. None run windows. Google, Amazon and Facebook run Linux for their cloud infrastructure and the VMs they run on that cloud. The other large cloud provider is Azure running Microsoft and they support Linux VMs in their cloud.

    OpenStack is used by many ISPs for their cloud offering. It’s used for private cloud as well. And it’s all Linux though it will support running Windows as VMs if you want to pay licenses for your VMs.

  • Randal

    There have been several points made, that I no longer need to touch on. One point, not made, that I would like Ken to think about, is being able to duplicate functionality. Since losing his voice, he has the big kick about designing for all users. Early on, my father helped with some of those issues in IBM, after a coworker was crippled, physically, not mentally, by the Hyatt skywalk collapse. (she hadn’t worked long enough for disability, and had a while before any settlements).
    With Linux, if you don’t like a way the desktop works, you could change it, or have someone else change it back. For your shortcuts, you can keep the scripts/config files, etc. and transfer them from machine to machine. When Windows changes its desktop, and loses things like the paste dialog (Keith H’s post) or the Link command from the dos days, you may not have that option. There are things like Classic Shell that can help, but not once the functionality is removed, and not just hidden away.

  • MrAdminus

    Moved to Debian for about 5 years ago and that’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It got me interested in both administration and smaller development. Without that move to Linux I would never have my own servers today.