An interview with Ken Starks about his organization, Reglue (Recycled Electronics and Gnu/Linux Used for Education).
They say you never forget your first computer. For some of us, it was a Commodore 64 or an Apple IIe. For others, it was a Pentium 233 running Windows 95. Regardless of the hardware, the fond memories of wonder and excitement are universal. For me, I'll never forget the night my father brought home our first computer, a Tandy 1000. Nor will I forget the curious excitement I felt toward the mysterious beige box that took up a large portion of the guest bedroom. This happened at a time when simply having a computer at home gave a school-age child an advantage. I have no doubt my experiences from that time positively influenced my path in life.
In the decades that have passed since the beginning of the personal computer revolution, computers have gone from being a rare and expensive luxury to a mandatory educational tool. Today, a child without access to a computer (and the Internet) at home is at a disadvantage before he or she ever sets foot in a classroom. The unfortunate reality is that in an age where computer skills are no longer optional, far too many families don't possess the resources to have a computer at home.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Ken Starks about his organization, Reglue (Recycled Electronics and Gnu/Linux Used for Education) and its efforts to bridge this digital divide.
BC: Tell me about your computing background and how you got started with Linux—the obligatory “what was your first distro” question?
KS: My very first computer was an Optiplex GX-1. It was a Pentium II with a whole 64MB of RAM, and it was an absolute screamer—for its day anyway. By today's standards, it traveled at the speed of smell. In 2001, I bought nine Dell Dimension 4300's with which to build my business. My power-washing company had offices in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. All of those ran the obligatory Microsoft Windows OS.
In the late summer of 2002, my Tech Guy called me one morning and informed me that we had a big problem. Our entire system had been infected by the klez virus—all three offices. By the end of the day, it was clear that the only way to clean this up was to reformat and re-install. I promised to bring him the installation disks immediately, and he told me that I didn't need to worry about it. He would take care of it. We closed our offices for the week, and I paid my folks for their “vacation”. When I returned, all of my systems and my network was back up and running Linux—Libranet Linux to be specific. I've never looked back. Even after I sold my business, I remained a full-time Linux user.
BC: How did Helios/Reglue get started?
KS: I am the founder and Executive Director of Reglue, which began life as The Helios Project in 2005. This project started as “a lucky break”. I was working 38 feet in the air, pressure washing a building for my power-washing company when the lift failed and I fell, fracturing my spine at the neck. While restrained and convalescing, my then 11-year-old daughter Amanda asked me “How does a computer work?” I had her get one from the office, and we took it apart on my lap.
It was from there that The Helios Project began. What started as a hobby by way of boredom turned into my life's calling. I enlisted the help of two friends in gathering old machines and fixing them. The work surface evolved from a halo-device wheel chair to the dining room table to the garage at my house and then to a donated facility in Lakeway, Texas, and now a permanent facility in Taylor, Texas.
The HeliOS Project evolved into Reglue in the summer of 2012. Since 2009, HeliOS had been working under the umbrella of Software in the Public Interest. As an invite-only organization, HeliOS was glad to be included. It gave us the opportunity to give tax receipts to donors and gave HeliOS some recognition that it might not have had otherwise. By 2012, HeliOS had outgrown its association with SPI and had a fantastic opportunity to become its own 501(c)(3)—an opportunity that HeliOS simply didn't have the money to pursue.
That's when friend and supporter Don Davis stepped in to help. Don had an almost identical project named Reglue (Recycled Electronics and Gnu/Linux Used for Education) working in and around San Marcos, Texas, but being a Doctoral Candidate, he found little time to participate in the project. Don and his directors invited me and our directors to a meeting. Don's board voted each of the HeliOS members in, and once that was done, each one in Don's organization resigned their positions. That left the HeliOS Project operating in an already-established nonprofit organization.
However, the HeliOS Project did not completely go away. It remains an active project under the Reglue umbrella. HeliOS is the educational arm of Reglue, responsible for all classes and computer education.
BC: What were the factors leading to the decision to use Linux? Which distros have been used and which one is being used now?
KS: In 2005, we tried to start with Windows because that was what everyone used. This effort was short-lived, however, because the best Microsoft could do was to offer us Windows XP SP1 licenses for $50 each. For the first few years, we were not a nonprofit, and the whole thing was being funded out of my pocket. Even doing only ten computers a year would bankrupt us. It was clear Microsoft wasn't concerned about helping us. That's when we decided to become a 100% Linux shop.
We started out with Mepis and used it for a few years. We had brief flirtations with Connectiva and Mandrake (and as an aside, I still believe that Connectiva was the best Linux distro available at the time). When they combined with Mandrake to become Mandriva, I didn't like the constant nagging to “upgrade to a fuller Mandriva experience”. In 2009, we moved full time to Ubuntu.
Right now, we are using a combination of three Linux distros: ZorinOS 6.4 Educational version 6.4 LTS (Based on Ubuntu), an educational respin of Linux Mint 13 (Maya) with the Cinnamon desktop and OpenSUSE LiFe-Education edition. We had been working with prodigy extraordinaire Ikey Doherty of SolusOS fame, but when the help promised from the community for the 2.0 release backed out, he had to walk away. SolusOS was to be our distro when Ikey finished with our respin.
We will continue using Zorin and Mint, but if either one of those one-man-driven distros disappear, we always have OpenSUSE to fall back on. Besides, OpenSUSE's Studio on-line tool is easy enough for our non-tech volunteers. If an ISO needs certain tools, it can be done on the fly with Studio.
The OpenSUSE system is used for older kids and machines with 4 gigs of RAM or more and the PAE kernel, while ZorinOS and Mint are reserved for younger kids and machines with 1–3 gigs of RAM.
BC: What are the challenges of using Linux? I would imagine that the varying levels of hardware support by the Linux kernel and/or availability of drivers must present some challenges when trying to assemble working PCs from such a wide variety of hardware.
KS: The challenges of hardware aren't even worthy of mention anymore. Somewhere around the 2.7 kernel release, wireless went from “Wireless sucks in Linux” to “Holy crap, wireless works in Linux”. Of course, we still have a number of the Broadcom drivers and Texas Instrument chunks that still need a hard connection to download the wireless device firmware, but for the most part, we have few problems anymore.
The biggest challenge we face is keeping parents or siblings from blowing away the Linux system and putting Windows on it because they see something different and they freak. They can't play World of Warcraft out of the box, so they screw up the kid's computer by installing a cracked version of Windows. Then they call and complain a week later that they have a virus. We now have the parent or guardian sign, saying that if another operating system is introduced, we will not support that computer any longer. We make sure they understand that. It happens only in maybe 8% percent of the cases, but a small organization like ours cannot spend time re-traveling our steps to fix someone else's mistake.
Besides, the kids take to Linux right away. We rarely have issues now, and most of those are failed hardware, which we replace. We're seeing more and more school districts using Chromebooks and Google on-line tools now. Google Docs has gained traction in the schools, and that has lessened the choke point Microsoft had with Office. The kids just turn in their work, and it is read or printed from Google Drive. As a taxpayer, I'm personally enjoying it. It bothers me that the schools we pay taxes to support spend money on software when they have no real need to do so. Up until lately, they had an excuse, but now with Google being such a factor, schools are beginning to take advantage of it and save money at the same time.
BC: What is Reglue's position regarding non-OSS (binary blob) drivers and software? Is the focus on ideals or on the best possible user experience? Are those mutually exclusive?
KS: At first, I was a hard-core Stallman-ista. I could recite to you pertinent parts of the GPL chapter and verse, but as it is with all unbending ideology and dogma, it will wither away when exposed to the direct light of pragmatism. We refer to this code as our “naughty bits”. As much as I agree to the principles of Richard Stallman's Manifesto, it just doesn't work in the real world. I can't give a kid a computer, then present him with a list of things he can't do with it.
So in essence, without these tools, we are giving these kids a multi-component, 40 pound typewriter. I live and work in the real world, so I've come to an understanding. I'll use FOSS when I can and augment it with binary/proprietary blobs when I can't.
BC: How are the recipients of Reglue PCs chosen? Are there any expectations/requirements placed upon them?
KS: Now that we are well-known in a tri-county area, our referrals come from Child Welfare Offices, policemen, firemen, school teachers and other public workers as well as neighbors and friends. We really don't have a matrix that we use to qualify recipients—that hasn't worked for us. A single mom with four kids might look like she's living large making 4K a month, but with the cost of daycare and other expenses, she's literally living at the poverty line.
These are the people we are trying to help. Every one of our candidates is considered on a case-by-case basis. Once a family is selected, we make an “initial visit” to the home to see if they qualify. Most of the time, though, when we show up for an initial visit, we have their computer in the delivery vehicle. Once we check things out, we install on the spot.
BC: How many PCs have you placed in the community? Do you provide follow-up support?
KS: To date, we've installed close to 1,600 computers.
Once a Reglue computer is installed, it is supported for the child's entire school attendance, even through college. Unfortunately, many of the people we help move around a lot, so the recorded address of any given install has a 65% chance of being incorrect after the first year. But yes, we provide support for as long as it's needed, up the point of replacing the entire computer/laptop.
BC: What are Reglue's biggest successes/achievements?
KS: We've had many shining moments, but one in particular stands out. We were approached by a young woman named Christina Collazo in the summer of 2009. She is the Director for Sí Se Puede Learning Center. One of her centers was located in a large Catholic Church on the east side of Austin. She asked me if our organization could set up a 25-station computer learning center in the Church. It was to be a center open to the community at large, as well as being used by daycare kids and parents. She figured she would ask for the moon and settle for what she could get. To her surprise, we were able to put that project together.
Shortly after that, we received notice that an icon of Linux support was dying of brain cancer. Bruno Knaapen was a well-known provider of support and encouragement for those new to Linux. He was personally responsible for answering more than 40,000 inquiries on Scot's Newsletter Forum. I thought it only fitting to name our largest learning center as The Bruno Knaapen Technology Learning Center. We had the privilege of doing so before he died. It made him happy at a time when happiness was in short supply for him.
While we have had our victories, I think building that center stands out the most. Since then, we've set up four more, but nothing as large as the 2009 effort.
BC: What is the status of Project Reglue now? And what are your plans for the next five years?
KS: At the moment, we're juggling our normal business with getting our shop in better shape. I was off work for more than a year while I recovered from cancer treatments. However, that didn't slow down the flow of donated computers and equipment. Our volunteers were bringing in computers of all types and stacking them in the workshop. When I was able to go to work, I walked into a pile of computers, monitors and other hardware that we still don't have properly sorted, but we're making progress.
At this time, we have two working projects. One is The 12 Geeks of Christmas. We are asking 12 people from anywhere in the US to find a child who's family cannot afford a computer. We will ship a laptop or desktop to the volunteer to set it up in the child's home, give them some instruction and provide support in the event they might need it (note: this interview was conducted in late November 2013, please see the Resources section at the end for follow-up on this project).
The second thing we have working is a partnership with the Taylor Texas Fire Department's “Red Santa” effort. They will identify ten kids in the area who need a computer, and we will install one, even on Christmas day if necessary. Of course, this isn't just for those who celebrate Christmas. Anyone from any faith can participate. I'm not concerned about what banner it's done under, as long as it's done.
But speaking to the future, we hope to get back to the level where we once were. Installing 200–300 computers a year is a huge undertaking. Now that I have much of my health returning, there is no reason we can't do that. We're also going to look more closely to funding. The money we have now won't last long, so we have to plan for the future. The biggest problem we've faced in getting funds is the lack of grants used for day-to-day expenses. Foundations want to give you equipment or money for equipment, but we already have equipment. What good is having computers to give if you can't put fuel in the vehicle to deliver them? Hopefully, we'll find that source in the coming year.
BC: Recently you wrote a blog post about how you're working with an Internet service provider to bring high-speed Internet into the homes of Reglue recipients. Can you tell us more about the status of that effort?
KS: Getting Internet connections for our Reglue kids can be a challenge. Many of our kids mow lawns, babysit and do odd jobs around their neighborhood to pay for their monthly Internet costs. But sometimes, that's just not possible.
For the most disadvantaged families we serve, we've set aside enough money to help these people get connected. We call this our Prometheus Project. We've made arrangements with Time Warner to pay the initial fees and three months Internet service for these people. At this time, we have enough to help 20 families a year. That gives them 90 days to budget for their Internet costs (see the Resources section at the end of this article for more information on this project).
BC: What advice do you have for people who are considering starting an effort like Reglue in their community?
KS: Brian, first off, you need to have a source of project funding. For four years I ran the whole thing out of my house and out of my pocket. That was fine when I was making a six-figure income, but when you whittle that down by 90%...well, you simply can't do it.
You also need to have a source of computers. We have a core of 11 small- to medium-sized businesses who donate equipment to us on a regular basis. But we wouldn't have near that many if we were not a nonprofit. If you anticipate doing this at anything more than 2–3 computers a month, you are going to want to be able to provide donors a tax receipt. We wouldn't have the donors we have today if we weren't able to do that.
Second, protect yourself at all times. I mean that in a couple ways.
Liability insurance is a must-have. First, if anyone gets hurt while volunteering or working in your shop, you are responsible for any injury or damage suffered. Second, we never enter a home without a parent or guardian present. In fact, we ask the adult to remain in the room so we can show them how the computer is assembled and how the operating system works. What we are really insuring is that the parent or guardian has line of sight on our people at all times. We live in an odd world, and even a hint that we acted with untoward behavior would ruin eight years of work. It might sound strange but it's really an important policy to maintain at all times.