The Heart of Linux
The story of a donation that should have happened, but didn’t.
That sinking feeling. The feeling you get in the microseconds after someone sneaks up from behind and scares the bejeebus out of you. The feeling you get when you pat your back pocket and discover your wallet isn’t there. The gut dropping three seconds directly after reading the email notifying you of imminent layoff. The feeling that something has taken place that is going to impact your life, and possibly the lives of others, in the most unpleasant of ways.
I had one of those moments just last week. As much as I tell myself that I can’t erase the event or remind myself that suckification happens…it still nags at me like a tenacious ear ache or like a hangnail that induces the impulse to scream every time it’s brushed against something. It’s the feeling that washes over you when you find out you have lost something extremely important and there is no way in the real world that you will be able to reverse that loss.
Most of you already know that I am the founder and executive director of Reglue, or by its proper legal name, Recycled Electronics and GNU/Linux Used for Education. That’s the 501(c)(3) that friend and co-conspirator Don Davis gave us. The organization he stepped out of, which allowed us to step into was a recognized organization in-good-standing we were financially unable to create ourselves. We are a non profit that fixes donated computers and then give them to students who cannot afford one. It’s the most gratifying work I have ever done, and it’s only right that I mention that without Dr. Davis, Reglue would probably not have happened.
Operating a project like Reglue is intense. Without a steady flow of cash and hardware, we cannot do our job. It’s those of you within the Linuxsphere who devote much of your time to free and open source software, with your donations of cash and tech hardware, that allow us to achieve the success we’ve experienced since February, 2005.
Often we get phone calls, emails or texts asking how to donate hardware to the Reglue cause. If it’s local, as within a 50 mile radius (or 100 miles for the really good stuff), we offer to pick it up. If it’s further away and it’s not going to break the donor’s bank, we give our shipping address.
Sometimes, however, the amount or weight of the donated equipment rules out shipping due to cost. That’s when we have a hard decision to make. Is the equipment good enough or plentiful enough to be of real service to Reglue? Will acquiring this stuff allow us to go beyond our abilities at the time? If the answer is yes, we then begin to plot a way to go get it, whether that be by renting a truck or accepting a Reglue supporter’s offer to make the trip in their truck or vehicle. We will find a way to get it, even if it involves a time intensive cannonball run to, uh…let’s say Indiana.
I mention Indiana because I once took a trip to the Hoosier State in the 3/4 ton monster Ford pickup truck of a good friend of Reglue — back when we were known as the HeliOS Project — who offered to drive me to pick up such a load. Those dozens of computers and monitors served the needs of our organization for months.
I was reminded of that trip recently, when I was notified that another old friend had quit his job in Indiana and had moved back to Austin to accept a much better paying job. I had known this guy for years, and while he had never taken an active role in supporting Reglue, he had often promised that when he graduated college and started making some real money he would help our effort.
His let’s-meet-and-catch-up phone call mentioned that he had almost been able to do so before he left the Midwest to return to Southeast Texas.
“Yeah,” he said. “I had 25 laptops I was going to bring with me from work. They had been released for recycle so they were mine to do with as I pleased. But after looking them over, I decided they were just too old and I would be burdening you more than helping you. I pulled the hard drives and crushed the rest.”
I nodded to myself in agreement. Not too long ago, someone “trying to help” dropped off 20-some Pentium III laptops, along with nine 21 inch CRT monitors and a slew of obsolete cabling and other assorted junk. They left the stuff by the back door of the shop while we were closed with a note saying, “I hope you can use these.” No name, no organization, and if being saddled with this garbage wasn’t bad enough, the majority of the laptops were broken, as were seven of the monitors.
So I thanked my buddy for his consideration.
“We just got in brand new Lenovos and Chromebooks so those old Dell Latitudes were boat anchors,” he said and laughed. “They were still running Vista Business. I can imagine the look you’d have on your face when you opened the boxes and saw all those dinosaurs”
He was drawing a breath to continue when I stopped him.
“Dell 6500s? You crushed 25 Dell Latitude E6500s? What the hell were you thinking?”
He waited for a few seconds, as if trying to gauge my tone. That’s hard to do when you are listening to someone speaking through an electrolarynx.
“Man, do you have any idea what we could have done with those?”
It was a long five seconds before he responded. “You are kidding, right? You’re giving those kids that kind of junk? What the hell do you expect them to do with those?”
“Junk? Those are enterprise-grade laptops and they were meant to last for years and years. I have a number of grad students using them, as well as maybe a dozen other kids in high school. Dude, those are mostly core 2 duos. Those could have…”
That’s where he cut me off. “Ken, today’s student needs at least an Core i5 machine with 8 gigs. You are not helping them at all by handing them junk like the Dells I crushed. I’m going to have to strongly reconsider my donation path to your organization.”
With that he hung up. Enter sinking feeling mentioned above.
When thinking about my buddy, I take into consideration that he was raised in and around wall-to-wall affluence. His first car was a Christmas present, a Lexus SUV parked in the driveway. He wasn’t just born with a silver spoon, his family owned the factory that manufactured them. But in all, I’ve spend the better part of a week thinking about how out of touch someone has to be to destroy monster laptops like the E6500s.
Sure they were heavy. They’re probably better suited as a desktop replacement than a laptop. Compared to the Samsung 14 inch paper-thin laptop I gave away earlier in the month, the E6500 is a blunt instrument. A blunt instrument with a screaming CPU and an HDMI port, that is. Did I mention that the least memory in any of the crushed laptops was 6 gigs? He didn’t even bother to harvest the memory. I’m sure that someone at the company that crushed them harvested that RAM, not to mention the chips and the DVD drives. I know I would have.
So here I am, sitting in the presence of some of the tech-smartest people I’ve ever met. Some of you are extremely well off, others are like me, living on a disability stipend and struggling from month to month. The majority of you are comfortably in the middle. You are raising your family, climbing the corporate ladder as it were, or you are still in school, trying to figure out what you really want to do with your life.
Whatever you decide, remember that someone, somewhere, is going to look to you at one time or another for help and that what you might consider junk may something of immense importance and value to those seeking your help. Pick up the phone and ask.
A two minute conversation could potentially impact a single person’s life in a profound way, or it could impact many people in the same profound way. In the time that you can comfortably hold your breath, you can turn someone’s uncertain world into a hopeful place. Two minutes.
May your stomach never sink.
Ken Starks is the founder of the Helios Project and Reglue, which for 20 years provided refurbished older computers running Linux to disadvantaged school kids, as well as providing digital help for senior citizens, in the Austin, Texas area. He was a columnist for FOSS Force from 2013-2016, and remains part of our family. Follow him on Twitter: @Reglue