Linux Advocacy…A Fool’s Errand or a Mission of Mercy?

It was a small gathering. Maybe 23 people at most had taken their seats in the little computer clubhouse beside the main activities center. We had been invited to speak at a meeting of the Sugar Creek Computer Club. This well-known retirement community boasted all the amenities and comforts of home. The Sugar Creek Computer Club was well outfitted. 30 Dell computers hummed quietly beside each work desk. Some had the well-worn fish screen saver flickering against the wall, others just had the Rolling Hills of Microsoft with the white puffy clouds adorning the screens. Sprinkled among the various screens were the ones we were here to help with. The ones with bright blue screens and white block letters…The Blue Screen of Death.

The Blue Screen of Death was what we were here to fix.

There were 9 of them that exhibited the blue screen symptoms. As we walked among our seniors and introduced ourselves, it became evident that some folks were frustrated. Some had laptops with them as well as desktop units in the club house. I let my eyes glance toward the hardware as I made my way around the room to introduce myself. Top of the line Dell’s, every one of them and all of them running Windows XP Home Edition. As soon as we had shook hands with everyone, we began our interaction. What was it that they wanted to know? How could we help make their computing lives better?

The answers were varied, but one theme filtered to the front quickly. “The computers wouldn’t stay stable.” Jennine, the obvious leader of the club, hence their elected President summed it up quickly. “They only stay fast for a few weeks, after that they go to hell pretty quick.”

The machines were wired into a T-1 line and each acted as a stand-alone machine. None of the residents knew anything about networking and had no idea what it was. I had seen the “router room” when their tech guy showed me around the week before. Nothing was amiss with the networking it seemed…the clutter was definitely in the hard drives. Given the wording of the complaints, it was fairly easy to rule out network congestion or bottleneck.

Myself and two Lobby4Linux volunteers split ourselves up between the residents and began researching each machine. Every computer was equipped with a Norton Protection Suite and an additional Sygate firewall. Our standard tests proved out our suspicions. Each machine was infected with at least two nasty spyware programs. Upon disinfection, one particular computer reported 61 different spyware or adware programs on the machine. We have come to commonly refer to these monsters as the “click here” worm. I think we all have seen the popups saying that our computers are not running at their top performance and that you should “click here” to fix it. Seniors tend to be more trusting than most of us and why someone would intentionally harm their computer is beyond them.

Well, it seems more than half of the residents of the Sugar Creek Computer Club had “clicked here”. The results were an abomination to any respected hard drive. It is at this point that we generally make our move. Some of these computers can be restored but many cannot. This is the place where we insert our Linux live cd, and with the computer owner/operator watching, we let it boot up.

We let the computer owner take charge of the computer then. With one of us at their side, we show them the different programs and utilities that are included with the cd. We also tell them that Linux is different from Windows XP because it does not rely upon a registry. If we are going to lose anyone, it is at this point we begin to see the eyes glaze over. If we see that we are losing them, we back up a bit and continue to show them how easy “The Internet” is (the browser IS The Internet to some people). We also show them how simple their email will be and how to write letters and print them, log into their online banking page and so on. If we find that their computers are just too far gone to fix, we give them a choice…take the important files such as pictures, music and documents off the computer and reinstall Windows or install PCLinuxOS.

We expected lower numbers for the Linux option. We do explain to the resident that the Windows system is prone to becoming bogged down again with the same problems. We also explain to them that the Linux system will take them a few days to get used to, but that it is fairly easy to learn. The one thing they will not experience is the problems they encountered from the Windows system. We also offer to partition their hard drives so they can boot into either one as they wish. Surprisingly enough, if they are going to chose the Linux option, they usually opt for just the Linux install. Dual booting seems like a waste to them.

That evening in all, we reformated and installed Linux on 14 computers. We let the resident take charge of the install session as much as they were comfortable in doing so. It is fun to watch their confidence grow at each click of “next” or “ok”. It’s almost as if they are holding their breath until the dialog box pops up telling them its ok to proceed to the next part of the install. Some of them clapped their hands and bounced in their seats as each successful portion led to the next. Other seniors would come over to their station and see what the excitement was all about. The residents that were having Windows reinstalled on the computers lost interest quickly. Three even asked if it was too late to have Linux on theirs too.

There were a few residents that wanted PCLinuxOS on their laptops. This is where I held my breath. I have yet to have a Linux install fail on a hard wired network cable connection…wireless cards are a different matter. As luck would have it, of the 4 folks who wanted their laptops reformated, only one had a wireless card and it worked perfectly out of the box. That is not rare, but uncommon enough to give any admin a moment of uncertainty.

At the end of three hours, we were packed up and saying our goodbye’s. It is hard not to become attached to these people. They have seen and done so much in their lives that I feel at times somewhat of a fraud for “teaching” them something. It is I that usually come away with the valuable lesson. It would seem that all was well with the Sugar Creek Computer Club, but I knew better. It was only three days until the first call came in.

It was Jennine and she sounded flustered. “Can you come back out here today? One of the ladies you helped is having trouble with her computer and she wants you to fix it.”

I thumbed thru my DayTimer as I tried to make conversation. “What kind of trouble is she having Jeninne.” I ran my finger down the PM side of the planner and saw that my evening was open.

“Well, I’m not sure…” Her voice waivered a bit. “She said something about a black screen and a password, but it didn’t make any sense to me. Can you come see?”

I cleared my throat. “Yes, I can be there about 6:30 this evening if that is good. Will that work?”

Jennine sounded distracted. “Yes, I suppose. Here is my number. Call me when you get to the front gate.”

I assured her I would and at 6:30 was ringing the security buzzer to be let in. “Hello…who is it?” Jennines voice sounded frail through the intercom system.

“It’s me Jennine, the computer guy. I’m here to see what’s wrong with Lila’s computer.”

“Oh, she said…”yes…come in.” The black iron gates began to swing inward and I pulled my truck around the circular drive and parked in front of the activity center. I was surprised to see 9 members of the Sugar Creek Computer Club in the room when I walked in. Lila, the 79 year old great grandmother who had hosed her xorg.conf rushed up to me, almost in tears.

“I really didn’t mean to ruin anything…the instructions said that I should…”

I smiled and nodded. “It’s ok. We’re going to fix it for you.

As it turns out, this 79 year old grandmother had taken it upon herself to upgrade her Kernel and reinstall her Nvidia drivers. Let me say that again…this sweet little old lady got her hands filthy inside a .conf file. With the rest of the seniors looking on, I told her to insert her disk and boot it up. Once it booted, I showed her how to replace and restore her lilo.conf and xorg.conf files. Within minutes, she was up and running, fully knowing what she had done wrong and how not to make the mistake again. One by one, the others began telling me of problems they were having with their Linux installs. One of them could not get his icons back in Konq, another had created 7 desktop envionments and did not know how to manage them, and yet another fellow had decided he wanted to install an rpm from freshmeat because he could not find it in Synaptic.

In the next hour and a half, I learned more about the computer/person dichotomy than I had ever known. The logic that divides the two entities is pure and that is what makes it complete. I also learned that people were not near as computer stupid as I had assigned them to be. While the Windows users just accepted the errors and mistakes, the Linux users were digging in the forums and wikis, trying to understand their new computers. The differences between the two stood out in stark contrast to me that evening.

As I pulled out from the iron gates, I glanced at the LED on my radio. 11:40 PM. My wife and kids were asleep and I had an hours drive before I could join them in oblivion. “Screw sleep, I’m hungry.” I thought to myself. Two miles down the road found me in Georgetown Texas and there was a 24 hour burger joint just daring me to park my truck in its driveway. I stretched as I walked toward the smell of fried onions and burnt meat. As I got closer to the door, I could see an older guy stirring his coffee and straining to see the screen on his laptop in front of him. I walked back to my truck quickly and reached into my briefcase. Walking back into the restaraunt, I thumped the cd case against my leg like a tambourine.

It was 3:42 am when my dog greeted me at the door.

12 Responses to “Linux Advocacy…A Fool’s Errand or a Mission of Mercy?”

  1. TechnoPrimitive » Blog Archive » � Blog Archive � Linux Advocacy�A Fool�s Errand or a Mission of Mercy? Says:

    […] � Blog Archive � Linux Advocacy�A Fool�s Errand or a Mission of Mercy? » Blog Archive » Linux Advocacy…A Fool’s Errand or a Mission of Mercy? Now this is […]

  2. etownson Says:

    This is a facinating story. I’ve been a software developer for 20 years and am always learning about how people interact with computers. How many of the seniors do you think will stick with Linux?

    I’ll throw out some wild speculation here. I think it’s possible most will stick with it. Windows is often a “working-not working” binary proposition and I think some will like the idea they can take control of their computing destinies. Plus, seniors have more spare time than most people and I think a few will like the hobbiest and community aspects of it. If there are just a few geeks in the bunch they will likely be able to support the others’ needs and keep the whole lot running well.

  3. helios Says:

    If there are just a few geeks in the bunch they will likely be able to support the others� needs and keep the whole lot running well……

    Bingo! That is exactly the way it works. We are surprised to find that less than 20 percent of our seniors switch back to Windows in a year’s time and that is attributed to the fact you outline above. In Every community, at least one person knights him/herself as guru and helps with the problems that arise.

    This has shown some unintended consequences as well. We are getting phone calls from time to time, from the adult children of these seniors, asking about “that thing you put on my mom’s computer”. We always take the time to send them a disk as well.


  4. etownson Says:

    That’s great to hear! I really wasn’t sure how that would play out.

    What sorts of things do the seniors like to do with their computers? Our retired neighbor is strictly EMail, Internet, and printing out digital pictures. A limited footprint like that would be perfect for a purpose-built Linux desktop that was so stripped down you really wouldn’t know the OS is there. I’m not exactly sure what would work best but I’m convinced it would look a lot different than Windows, OSX, or most Linux desktops. Maybe one frameless window with tabs stating “Intenet”, “Email”, “Picture”, etc. Something like a WebTV but without the MSN.

    It seems the trends are for a lot more media content to be easily-accessible and Apple and Microsoft are locking customers to proprietary OS’s with proprietary formats and especially DRM. Pocasts and Video Podcasts are open enough to be easily deployed but WMA, WMV, and Quicktime are awkward with free distributions.

  5. etownson Says:

    Do you find the older Linux converts become advocates themselves? Also, do you find they care that Microsoft is causing harm with their monopoly or is it strictly a practical matter of wanting a stable computer?

  6. helios Says:

    Aside from IRS, the three most loathed letters in the alphabet are DRM. My God in Heaven, don’t get me started…please. for the sake of any children that might read this down the road…it would be best not to evoke these emotions LOL.

    You would be surprised what they do with the Linux Distro’s. I have the distinct pleasure of being friends with Alice Kensington. Alice is 108 years old, walks without assistance, uses no wheelchair and just recently (at age 89) quit smoking. Alice is a big fan of Inkscape and Gimp, although she says The Gimp could take some lessons in tool layout from Inkscape. No…honestly, she actually emailed the developers of The Gimp to leave that suggestion. Others are way involved in the MythTV tools while some have learned to download music (shame on you helios for showing them frostwire) turn them into audio cd’s and making cd’s for their friends. Once they see all the software they can have for free, I would say a good 60 percent of them learn how to use some of it at a professional level.

    Some of them become angry about how MS has not been honest with them about things, most of them really don’t care. What they care about are two things in this order.


    The politics of it, they leave to you and I.


  7. Psion Says:

    Wonderful story, h.
    You definitely give more motivation for spreading the news.

    Keep it up.
    Hope you are doing well.

  8. Vox’s bookshelf » My other geeky hoby :) Says:

    […] rning job :) and about the results of one particular advocate in doing what he likes to do.Linux Advocacy�A Fool�s Errand or a Mission of Mercy? On a different note, I’m posting this usin […]

  9. Vox’s bookshelf » My other geeky hoby :) Says:

    […] rning job :) and about the results of one particular advocate in doing what he likes to do.Linux Advocacy�A Fool�s Errand or a Mission of Mercy? On a different note, I’m posting this usin […]

  10. Vox’s bookshelf » My other geeky hoby :) Says:

    […] rning job :) and about the results of one particular advocate in doing what he likes to do.Linux Advocacy�A Fool�s Errand or a Mission of Mercy? On a different note, I’m posting this usin […]

  11. alsicorp Says:

    Gret job! It is hard not seeing the kids before they go to sleep…. but what a great service you are doing..

    etownson, there is a distro that runs from a cd, launches firefox and such. I undersand it was used after Katrina hit… to allow people to stay in touch with loved ones (they also are using my favorite–asterisk– to make free voip calls).
    You can find the iso at:
    I do not know if it will do ALL the things you listed… but it is worth a try!

  12. Blog of helios » Blog Archive » 86 Year Old Great-Grandmother Hoists The Jolly Roger Says:

    […] One of the truly extraordinary experiences in my “career” as a Linux Advocate, has been donating my time to our senior citizens. In a nutshell, myself and two other volunteers visit Senior Citizen Assisted Living Centers and help them with their computer problems. It was during one of these visits that I met “Alice.” […]

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