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April 12th, 2016

Teaching New Linux on Old Hardware

The Heart of Linux

It seems, according to this, that the customer service offered by Reglue far exceeds that offered by any big box retail outlet — and the clients get preinstalled Linux to boot.

In 2005, I found myself at a career crossroad. A career-ending injury threw the biggest of monkey wrenches into the works for me. I owned my own business and business was good, but it was only good with a maximum of four employees, counting myself. I attempted to become a “gentleman” owner but I found that paying the extra man proved to be costly as well as difficult to administer. That injury led to me doing what I do now.

I give computers to kids who cannot afford one.

The decision I faced was life-changing either way I went. My inclination was to go back to school and get the certs I needed to work in the Linux administration field. I already had the base knowledge and experience; it was just a matter of jumping through the hoops to get a piece of paper saying I already knew what I was learning. Not that I wouldn’t learn a thing or two along the way.

But my eyes had been opened to a serious need in our community. Kids in the Austin, Texas area had, according to the Austin Independent School District, an uncomfortable percentage of students without a computer at home. During my convalescence, I began tinkering with old computers, repairing them and then giving them to my youngest daughter’s teacher to hand out.

It didn’t take long for Amanda’s teacher to see the extra work this project would entail, and she began putting me in touch with these families in order to see if they wanted a machine in their home. I can’t remember…it’s been a while, but I don’t believe that anyone turned down the chance to have a computer in their home.

This caused some extreme friction between the walls of the Starks household. My business had been doing obscenely well for the past two years, and with my wife working we were making a comfortable six figure income. With me taking a lesser-paying job and devoting time to what was the first iteration of what is now Reglue, things became tense. We could pay the bills, but we couldn’t take two cruises a year and buy new cars every couple of years, which put a strain on our marriage.

It’s funny that our subsequent divorce led to the unarguable success Reglue has achieved. Even my ex grudgingly admits so.

“If the timing had been better,” she said.

Well, whatever….

The fact remains that sometimes unpleasant things happen in order to make way for better things to come. It’s just hard to see that from a position of “well, this sucks.”

While fixing the computers and making them ready for our Reglue kids can be a challenge, the one thing I did not anticipate was the difficulty of teaching people how to use their computers. It wasn’t that teaching kids how to use Linux was difficult; it was teaching their parents how to use computers that raised stress points all across the spectrum.

It was nothing to return to a household for a scheduled checkup and find that the kid had figured out how to change the admin password or how to place his or her IP address in DMZ mode. Kids figure that stuff out quick — much faster than you or I would think. But it’s important to note that the computer needs to be monitored by the parent or guardian, and that’s where the rubbin’ can get raw, because first the parent or guardian needs to know how to operate a computer.

The hardest thing I’ve ever had to teach folks is that they are in charge of their computer. They are the ones who have control. I’ve learned that by telling them they can’t break anything that can’t be fixed helps some, but it’s a slow process getting them to understand that.

The whole right versus left mouse button can be a challenge itself. Teaching folks how and when to click each button can be a task without peer. Getting them to understand the function of each button was driving me nuts, until I realized that I am in Texas where there are a lot of gun owners. Equating the clicking of mouse buttons to firing a weapon works well, but only if they are gun savvy. In Texas, that equates to about one in seven. I’ll take those odds.

The InternetI begin by ‘splaining to them that each button is responsible for doing different things. I set them up by having them imagine they are going to aim and fire a pistol at a target. When they right click an area, whether its a white field, a word or a link, that action gives them a choice of targets at which to shoot. When they have their target in sight from the given choices, then left clicking that choice is the same as pulling the trigger. There are going to be problems with this analogy as all analogies fail at some point, but this has worked for me better than any method I’ve tried.

Another challenge I’ve faced is the whole “Internet thing.” I can always tell when an adult child of one of our users has been instructing their parent. Regardless of browser or operating system, the one footprint they often leave is the big blue “e” on the desktop with the label “The Internet” under it. Is that taking the lazy way out? That depends. How much is your time or their time worth? I’m subject to be leaving the big blue “e” a lot more in the future.

All of the things that can make your tech support phone ring are not necessarily software issues however, especially when you are dealing with used components inside an older computer. And troubleshooting over the phone can be an adventure.

For example, we made an installation on the third floor of a housing project in Austin. This was back in the day when we were still using CRT monitors, and the one we were placing was a Sony 21 inch monstrosity that an Austin based gaming company had donated to us. Let me tell you, carrying that monitor up three flights of stairs wasn’t the high point of that day.

Some time later, the mother of that family called to complain that her monitor was no longer working. She stated that she had shut it off the night before, but when she went to fire it up that morning there was nothing from the monitor. No lights, no sound…nothing. I made sure she looked behind the computer and monitor to check that everything was plugged in correctly. After fifteen more minutes of troubleshooting, I told her that I would bring her a new monitor.

That’s when she told me that the family had moved to the town of La Grange, a 140 mile trip to and from.

I brought another Sony 21 inch monster and found that the family was now in a second floor apartment, an improvement but not much difference when carrying 58 pounds of clumsy, sharp cornered glass and plastic. Once I was let in, I placed the replacement monitor on the floor and took a look behind the old monitor to unhook it, but found that someone had already done me that service. I plugged the cable into the monitor, turned everything on, and voila!, we had a working computer.

It turned out that her husband had moved the computer from one desk to the other and forgot to reattach the monitor plug. When I asked her to check behind the computer to make sure everything was plugged in, she checked the wall outlet, not thinking that “plugged in” could mean the back of the computer and monitor as well. I told her I was going to leave the other monitor with her so she’d have a spare if there was a problem. Read that to say, I was not going to carry that nightmare down two flights of stairs and back to the shop.

So, had I known how much of a hassle doing what I do could be, would I have returned to school and taken the other direction for my career? No, I don’t even have to think about it. Even though I don’t get paid a dime for what I do, I gladly do it because it’s the best feeling in the world to see the excitement on a child’s face when they start their first computer. There’s not much that could replace that. Fact is, there’s nothing that could replace that.

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

1 comment to Teaching New Linux on Old Hardware

  • Unbeknowst

    > Even though I don’t get paid a dime for what I do, I gladly do it because it’s the best feeling in the world to see the excitement on a child’s face when they start their first computer. There’s not much that could replace that. Fact is, there’s nothing that could replace that.


    (by a great author and from a genius illustrator)

    I’ve been mocked by registering a support ticket for an unplugged monitor and for going paranoid over a Linux PC in a windows shop with a disconnected Ethernet cable. I was about to curse network support because I couldn’t ping any other machine. The joke was on me but, hey… good times!

    Regarding learning, most of the time the limits are self-imposed. I know someone who simply can’t use a computer. He’s 100% sure and doesn’t give a darn for those “evil” machines (in his view). But smart phones came and he got one (albeit simple) and become interested in receiving over email photos of his grandson to use as wallpaper. Talk about double standards…

    And about “the timing being better”, we all go through that all the time. We all are judged by our looks, how much money we got, our attitude, our view on life and opinions. Some say we’re winners (don’t fall for that!), some dismiss us labeling us as losers — but they can’t know. Love should triumph but some hurdles are apparently too high.

    But it’s great that you can see our future in a poor child, while others just see a dead load for society.

    When someone graduates, or becomes an inventor or a great artist, or manages to build and maintain a family — you know, everyone looks and notices you were right to trust that child and they were idiots with their prejudices — that is something to be proud, but more importantly… it is also very fun!