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Monday, October 15, 2018

Exceeding All Expectations

Exceeding all expectations. Pretty much a cliche' any more. But in this case, it's the only string of words I can come up with to describe the last 13 years.

When I began doing the work that is now Reglue, I had no idea where it was going or just how far it would go. I think maybe we were all a bit surprised. Over the years, I have received countless thanks for what I do, but to be fair, that thanks is a bit displaced. It's I who owe a debt of gratitude to those who've assisted me and my team in doing what we do. Hundreds of underprivileged kids have received Linux-based, Free Open Source Software computers due to our efforts. "Our" efforts, meaning you and me. Without you. "Me" would be sitting on a bank drinking beer and fishing instead of the work we've done since 2005.

There's still plenty of time for that. Universe willing. So why am I the lucky guy?

I've spent time with some fairly special people. I've learned that Asperger's Syndrome is a blessing and not a disability. I've gathered with some of the greatest minds within the Linuxsphere while being treated as a peer. I'm not you know. Many of you have forgotten more about Free Open Source Software than I will ever know. Most of you do your work using bash scripts. Not me, I use smash scripts. About the third general parsing error, I smash my monitor. But still I covet your embrace. From sitting Governors to (ahem) school teachers, social workers to police chiefs and all those in between, I've gained a lifetime of insight from those interactions.

But the most memorable, and to me the most precious of those interactions have begun with the people for which I install computers. We've discussed many of them over the years, but I think the one that stays lodged in my memory is one I did a few days ago.

Her name is Lois and she's lived a life that many of us could not comprehend. The most vivid moments of her childhood were spent in London bomb shelters during the German firebombings and V2 rocket attacks. She was not alone. Her mother worked as a nurse in the shelters, trying to save the lives of the burned and injured people around her. Lois assisted her mother in ripping open gauze, fetching morphine injectors and salves for the wounds. By the time she was 8 years old, Lois could perform simple interrupted sutures.

And if that wasn't enough, her father strapped himself into a British Spitfire to intercept the incoming bombers. He has the distinction of flying every iteration of the Spitfire, to include the last one which was built to intercept the V2 rockets. If you are interested, there is a documentary about that plane entitled The Spitfire, The Plane That Saved The World. Contact me privately and I can guide you as to where to watch it. Her father is interviewed briefly in that film.

Lois has two extremely gifted grandchildren and they spend their summers with their grandmother, in
order to attend an advanced placement school here in Taylor during that season. And yes, they attend school 12 years out of the year. They are twin girls who accel in mathematics and music. Lois contacted me through our website, asking of we could be of assistance in placing a computer for her grandchildren during the months spent in Taylor. I was more than happy to oblige. For those curious, I installed a dell quad core with 12GB of RAM so horsepower isn't a problem. I would also like to present each of them with a Dell Latitude E5550, but I'm short hard drives and RAM for those machines at this time.

So yeah, when the counting is done, I'm the one who is grateful for the job I do. Not a job really, since I am not paid to do it but more of a community service. A service I am more than honored to provide. I couldn't count myself more lucky. Well, there's the lottery but let's be real. Maybe a couple of hard drives and some RAM. Maybe. I'll leave a tooth under the pillow and see what happens.

All Righty Then...

Sunday, August 19, 2018

True Believer

True Believer:

"One who is deeply, sometimes fanatically devoted to a cause, organization, or person: “a band of true believers bonded together against all those who did not agree with them” ( Theodore Draper )"

I've lost count as to how many times I've been asked the question. When I show new Linux users the advantages and freedoms of the operating system, many inevitably ask:

"Why haven't I heard of this until now?"

A young single mom of four asked this question last Tuesday and it took me back to the time that I asked the same question.

The calendar page had  recently flipped to the new century when I had my own Road To Damascus moment. It was, in the truest sense of the phrase, a profound revelation. It built up in me like an electrical charge. A moment I realized that the monitor in front of me reflected something that was going to not only change my life, but had the potential to change lives of millions.

It was the revelation that I was no longer beholden or bound to an operating system that restricted the way I used my computer. A system that went behind my back and did things I explicitly told it not to do. I didn't have to put up with this on my computer any longer. Not just my computer, but the computers of millions of people around the world. The mind-bending fact that I could run an entire operating system from a single CD. That alone left me in awe. And when it came down to that moment, it manifested itself in the simplest and most elegant form I could imagine.

linux@linux-desktop ~ #

It was that moment I became a member of The global Linuxsphere.

With the fervor of the evangelical, I began to spread the word far and wide. I read incessantly, from Stallman to Torvalds, Searles, Moody, Knaapen, Raymond and Schroder, I learned the history and mechanics of Linux. I read not only of my new freedom but of the restrictions and limitations of other proprietary operating systems. The more I read, both my anger and excitement grew in equal measure. I took it upon myself to join The Movement against anything and anyone who stood in the way of spreading the news. This new way of operating your computer could indeed change the world. The Blog of helios began... 

and so it went. Surely The Year of the Linux Desktop was at hand. Year, after year, after year. and surely. It wore on me year after year, breakthrough after failure, hope dashed by hopelessness. Until the harsh, glaring truth descended upon me like a shipping container full of anvils.....

We never had a prayer. We entered a race with all other contestants miles ahead.

I rattled off a list of names above. Those who have inspired me and in more than one case, probably saved me from something terribly grim. Glyn Moody is one of those names. Glyn has been an inspiration to me since the turn of the century. I've come to count on Glyn for insightful and brutally honest commentary. He's a brilliant writer and wastes no time with hyperbole. But aside from that, Glyn aided me at a time when I thought my life was over. To this day he has no idea, the part he played in turning me away from something horrible. We'll just leave it at that.

Recently, Glyn penned an article for The Linux Journal titled, "Why the Failure to Conquer the Desktop Was Great for GNU/Linux."  Within that article, Moody maps out the evolution of Mark Shuttleworth's understanding of Desktop Linux. Or more aptly, why it was a poor idea to further follow it down the rabbit hole. It's a great read and as usual, Glyn entertains as well as explains his idea. Why the Linux Desktop failed and why that could possibly be the best of all possible outcomes. I won't spoil it for you. It's well worth your time to read.

In my opinion, he nails it.

The climb Desktop Linux faced was insurmountable. Microsoft had all but locked down the enterprise, and as most of us know, what's used at work is most times used at home. With Microsoft Office the de facto office/business suite, getting anyone to disrupt their business by introducing new and strange tools was an uphill slog. It's not hard to find instances where IT departments and other vested interests forced an organization to return to using Microsoft Windows and associated softwares after they declared the FOSS alternatives "unsustainable". Of course, Munich is the most noteworthy of instances, but others aren't difficult to find.

And then comes my much beleaguered topic of marketing. Bringing a new product to market can cost millions of dollars, even billions. My own experiment in running a radio ad for Linux showed just how complicated our landscape is. Couple that with the sometimes confusing terminologies we use and the shear number of Linux distributions available...well, it's no mystery why the public could become confused, if for nothing else, the fact that something this good could be free. Microsoft had billions of dollars in the bank. Their budget for marketing is a rounding error for some small businesses. For those a bit late to the game, Steve Ballmer the then CEO of Microsoft said this about Linux:

"Linux is not in the public domain. Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches. That's the way that the license works."

And now? Microsoft embraces Linux as part of their Azure cloud-based network system. Cancer, huh?

But when it comes down to it, what exactly did we "lose"?

In the long game, Linux may not be a household name when it comes to computing. It's not even a widely-referred to name within the industries that use it. From Android phones, to the worlds largest super computers, Linux powers unimaginable resources. My home thermostat software is Linux-based. The navigation system in my car operates on Linux. As does the software for my body that controlled chemotherapy and hormone released into my system as needed. SpaceX Falcon and Dragon capsule systems are operated by a specifically modified version of Linux, as are is many of the US military and maritime global navigation systems. And Elon Musk's global spread of satellite broadband? Yep. Linux.

Many of you will say that we're arguing apples and oranges here. And maybe we are, but to say that Linux has "lost" anything is simply a matter of perspective. I can show you over 1600 instances of school kids and college students currently using Linux computers to further their studies. I hope to continue expanding that number in the future.

So the next time someone asks me, "Why haven't I heard of this before...?"

I'm going to tell them that tens of thousands of people have banded together to make their new computer available to them. It would simply take too long to name you all.

All Righty Then...

Friday, August 3, 2018

What The Future Holds? You Are More A Part of it Than You Know.

During the annual school summer vacation here in Taylor Texas, it's not uncommon for some of our Reglue kids to come into the shop, looking for something to capture and maintain their interest(s). Some like to come to help with computer repairs, while others look to expand their life-learned skills. These skills might not transfer toward an accredited school and degree, but hands-on experience in things they probably wouldn't have an opportunity to learn elsewhere.

Those experiences can range from learning the correct way to lift heavy objects to correctly operating a hand dolly. safely using a hand dolly doesn't come pre-packaged in our brains. Much too often, these kids cannot judge the weight-to-tilt ratio in order to make the task safe and easy. Some have not learned to do simple things like this without hurting themselves or having it come tumbling down around or upon their feet. We don't just teach computers and Linux at Reglue.

Some will ask to learn how to back a trailer into a relatively small space. I drove a truck in the armed service and as a civilian so I teach those who want to learn. Some of you may laugh at this, but you might be surprised by how many young kids, and even some not so young kids, cannot bring a loaded hand dolly to the proper tilting angle to push or pull it. And backing up a trailer? Unless you have done it before, don't snigger about someone not knowing how to accomplish this seemingly easy task. Some of you might think it's a straight-away deal. Go ahead and jump into the cab of a truck and back it into a dock. We'll wait and have the pleasure of giggling at you.That is until you get frustrated and walk away. This is a skill that can take years to perfect.

However, the majority of our Reglue kids come to the shop to gain knowledge about computers. Many of them have previously received a Reglue computer and many of them are enthusiastic about learning to use a system much different to their Microsoft experience.

Much of this extended education begins in our classroom. We have a small learning lab that allows kids to "float" sessions they've missed or arrived late in previous classes. Of course, I don't do this alone. My deepest thanks goes out to James Lantzch, Pete Salas and other volunteers. My buzz-box voice can get difficult to understand the longer I try to use it. Unfortunately, some of these kids can be freaked out by the sound of my electronic voice. Especially the younger ones. The volunteer help has given me the time to pursue other Reglue tasks and allows me to get both Diane and myself to our various doctor or medical appointments.

So with the steady influx of kids coming in for various activities, we often hold "lightning talks". Kids take their
places at the various tables around the classroom and someone will yell out or ask for discussion of a particular topic. Sometimes it will be a question about performing a particular task on their Linux-powered machines. Tasks like how to find a particular software file that is not offered in their system repositories. Other times, it might be a question about how to choose and use a backup solution for their systems. Recently, a question/topic was introduced which seemed to take on a life of it's own. It was hands-down and presently a favorite topic of discussion.

Why are there so many Linux Desktop environments?
On Windows and Mac computers...what you see is most often what you get. You can, if so desired, decorate your Windows or Mac machine with different icons and styles, but for the most part, unless you purchase third party software, your computer still remains the same machine you initially purchased. Rarely do any of the cosmetic changes alter the way the computer works. But as we all know, those of us living in the Linuxsphere; this ain't the case for us at all.

Thus, the discussion raged.

Herein, we are dealing with high school students, ranging in age from 14 to 17 years of age. All of them are recognized by their peers and teachers to be techno-geeks and wizards. But as it is with many of us, it was our interests that piqued our curiosity. After 4 weeks, in which all 9 of them attended 2 hour workshops weekly, the subject matter was collected, dissected and inspected thoroughly. But as it often is with discussions like this, when it appears that loyalty cuts the groove trail for the discussion to follow; it's not uncommon for bias to color any remarks or responses.

So who'd we dissect? All of them mostly. All but the most obscure and lost in two decades of evolution. From KDE to LXDE, Xfce to Mate and Cinnamon...and yes, even Unity. Not to mention the many iterations of The Gnome Shell.

We tore them all down. Explored their abilities and limitations, discussed how they could be improved or tweaked. Some of our advanced kids are even studying Python, HTML and other languages in order to affect some of the changes they'd like to see. Two of them have advanced far enough to become novice developers withing two well-known software programs. I couldn't be more proud, although sometimes I feel like a complete fraud...spurring these youngsters on to do things I have not or can not do. How does that saying go? 

"Those that can, do. Those that cannot; teach".

That saying never meant much to me until recently. If the shoe fits, and all that.

As it pans out in this study group, The most tech-wise and gifted students gravitated toward a simple desktop solution. "Bloat" is a word that is often used to describe software or systems that have a lot of stuff going on within it. But what you refer to as bloat, I see as a feature or tool. Two within our group discovered IceWM and Fluxbox while one especially gifted Junior in high school elected to use ssh with X forwarding.

But when it came down to it, the core of the class settled on Cinnamon as their DE of choice. Possibly because it was the closest thing to Windows for them? Maybe. Or as one student noted, "it gives me what I want without having to go looking for it." And it doesn't hurt that it's easy on the eyes. My Cinnamon desktop with the joy-blue controls theme.

Now, I do have some quibbles with Cinnamon. I'm all about customization. I tried the latest Kubuntu, as I like the theming options KDE gives me; but so much has changed within that structure, I just can't get it to the level of aesthetics I achieved with KDE4. My problems with Cinnamon are silly to some. I like to be able to change the icons in my system tray. Unfortunately, those seem to be fixed. And yeah, there's Mate. Mate allows those changes but try as I may, and again this is just me; but when I've done all that I can do with my Mate Desktop, it still looks like 2003.

That being said, Mate has proven to be the most stable desktop I've used in the past 3 years.

So come this Sunday evening, when these kids start rolling in and taking their seats; we'll see where the topic takes us. I have a feeling that we'll finish our discussion on VPN solutions for Linux. There are many more than I expected there to be and your input is valued here. Is a VPN tied to one machine or a network? Concerning Linux, what are your experiences and thoughts on VPN services available? And foremost, if you were a teacher of mentor and were to be asked what the computing language of the future will be, what advice would you give?

I think it's a fair question and one that I am humble enough to admit not knowing the full answers.

But through it all, what I want you to know is that these kids getting their first computer is opening a new world for them. A world without restrictions, a world you built for them. I wish you could have been with me the past 13 years...seeing the absolute joy and wonder these young people experience when they finally "get it". That a computer is more than just a means to consume or play. It's a factory to build, to design and to work in any manner you wish. It's a gateway to understanding an entirely different philosophy of freedom.

No matter what part you have played in using and building the Linuxphere, rest assured a bit of you goes into every computer we place for these young people. And you should take pride in that. Yeah, maybe we are all simply cogs in the machine. But the machine we run is changing the world.

All Righty Then...

Monday, July 23, 2018

A Freedom Perspective. Let's Catch Up

Yeah, it's been a while and no, this isn't the old Blog of helios. For reasons that Google cannot figure out, I no longer have the ability to interact with my old blog. It's a fairly new development, since I have logged in and made changes to my profile within the last couple of months. I have three tickets in to Google Help Desk and so far, this seems to be the mystery of the month. I'm tired of fighting with it. No matter. This new home is a bit plain for now, but I'll dress it up as I go along.

This is the new and official place for all things Reglue. And maybe other stuff of whimsy from time to time.

I got sick a year ago. More ill than I let on, and in ways that frightened me more than I cared to admit. I posted about it on Google + so if you want the specifics, you can go there to read it. I don't want to rehash it here. Done is done and things are better. Probably better than I deserve, and no...I have not been counting down from 9. Only cats do that, or so I'm told. I'm not even keeping track any longer.

While I was on a restricted duty status, I forwarded my emails to Evie so she could keep track of what I needed to know or who I needed to contact. Unfortunately, I discovered much too late that the default spam filters were set to paranoid, so I am still going through those emails and addressing them. If you emailed me and I did not respond, it wasn't because I was ignoring you. My email address is in the right margin should you need to recontact me.

Even with my part time status, we still remained acceptably productive. I spent much of the late summer and winter months, tracking down and upgrading/replacing computers already in the homes of Reglue kids. In that they are spread over a three county area, it took me longer than I anticipated but I'm happy that those I was able to locate, are up to date or replaced. As I have stated earlier, we will no longer be able to conduct any more of these upgrades. That is, unless they are close. The cost of doing so has severely depleted our funding and I can't justify the expense. At least for the time being. We'll be addressing that at a later date.

Although it was weeks ago, I want to tell you about this past 4th of July.

Freedom seems to be a relative term, dictated by context and perception, but I think most Americans realize what the the 4th of July is and why it is celebrated in the USA. In the larger picture anyway. Even if my friend Andreus from Sheffield thinks we're a bit cheeky for doing so. He faithfully emails me every 4th of July with the opening, "Dear Cheeky Yank"... 

This 4th of July presented an opportunity for me to demonstrate another level of freedom, as small as it may seem; this freedom is the cornerstone of a movement that has changed the world for the better.

Her name is Tanya and she's a single mother of two daughters. Micah, age 14 and Tanika, age 11. With a father that is incarcerated for aggravated assault and robbery, he's going to be out of the picture for a long, long time. Tanya works as a medical assistant at a hospital in Round Rock Texas and also works weekends and holidays as a server at a local eatery. She is currently taking online classes to earning her degree in nursing.

The girls, despite their situation are getting fairly good grades. Micah excels at mathematics and general science, and helps her younger sister with her maths, as she struggles a bit with it. Still, she works hard at it as she wants to follow her mom into the medical field and understands that good grades in mathematics is essential for her to enter college.

There is a computer in the home, but it's a laptop assigned to Tanya from the hospital and the kids are not allowed access. There was a home computer for a while, one that was given to them, but during a Windows 8 update, it blue screened and they were never able to get it to work again. A neighbor takes the girls to the library to use the computers there but there is often a line and only 1 hour's use per individual. The neighbor that shuttles the girls to and from the library contacted me to see if Reglue could help.

It's nothing fancy. A dual core i5 HP with 8 gigs of RAM and a 23 inch Asus monitor. It was 9:30 on the evening of the 4th and the family gathered around for me to introduce them to their new computer. We could hear the local city fireworks show begin with a salvo of booms and fizzle pops. As I opened the menu, Tanya explained that the computer they had was not supposed to do any updates, and that was the update that ruined their computer. The lady that gave them the machine told her that she had to do those updates herself and that it was safer that way. Tanya could not understand why the computer chose the middle of the night to update itself on it's own and then kill itself.

Talk about a segue.

I nodded sympathetically. It's a problem that's been plaguing Windows users for decades, I explained to her. When Microsoft deems it necessary to step in with a "security update", then they can bypass your do not auto update settings. She didn't seem to understand how anyone could just reach into her computer and do something that wasn't supposed to be done. That's when I posed the question to her.

"So if Microsoft or any other software company can access and change your machine against your will, then who really owns your computer?"

That hit home immediately, and thus began the discussion about GNU/Linux and Free Open Source Software and the driving force behind it. Not surprisingly, it was Micah who seemed to be laser-focused on my discussion. As I walked them through the basics of using their new Linux computer, I told them how the operating system with the Linux kernel came to be. No one will be accessing your computer, at least no one involved in creating your operating system. You can choose when and what to update and you most certainly have a say so in what software you want to install.

Since Tanya and Micah already had Gmail accounts, it was easy enough to set up the Chromium browser for each of them. Of course, both young ladies were more than ready to discover the varying levels of The World of Goo. I gave them a demonstration of The Gimp, and I introduced them to LibreOffice. By 11PM, I began packing up to leave when Tanya stopped me at the door.

"Are you sure there isn't a charge for this?" She was looking at me as if ready for the other shoe to drop. I told her that she had caught me...yes, I told Tanya. There's always a cost.

"You need to let me know when Tanika gets a B in maths on her next report card."

She smiled and nodded and quietly closed the door behind me. I could still smell the cordite in the air from the fireworks earlier that evening. It reminded me of what might have been the opening salvo of the Revolutionary War. A war for Freedom.

But more importantly, it reminded me of the Smaller Freedoms. Freedoms which now resided beyond the door that had just closed behind me.

All Righty Then...