The HeliOS Project is now.....

The HeliOS Project is now.....
Same mission, same folks...just a different name

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Gurlz Just Wanna Be Geex

There's not much wiggle room in the statement, "Linux is a Boys Club".

Always has been...

But slowly, like the acceptance of Linux on the desktop...things are changin'.

Recently, a friend of mine, a firefighter and all around nice guy mentioned that he recently had some contact with a family of a Mom, three girls and no computer.

That sounded like something we might want to look into so I took the address down and that evening, made a inpromtu call on Brenda Meiendez. Brenda is a single mother of three girls, Evelyn, Arlene and Daicy.

It didn't take long to become absolutely captured by this family. No compelling story, no tragedy, no real "hook"...just a solid all-girl family trying to make it in today's world.

Without a computer in the home.

After talking with them for a while, I felt comfortable in working with these people. Now that may sound a bit odd so let's put a bookmark in this story here and take a short side trip.

In 2008, it happened on more than one occasion. Three times actually. We had to retrieve some of the computers we donated from pawn shops. Lowlife live-ins or other ner-do wells sometimes find an opportunity to score a few bucks by hocking the kid's computers. On all occasions that this was reported to us, we dutifully reclaimed the machines, returned them to the kids and password-protected the bios so that no one but the child could log in.

I pay for that...not The HeliOS Project. You can bet I'm not going to let that happen again.

Now that sounds as if it could put the child in a clumsy situation and I suppose it could...but in every situation like this, we haven't received another call to spring one of our machines from The Dollar Pokey. That's why we "interview" the family prior to leaving one of our machines. We've developed a fairly good gut instinct on the environment there and if the machine is going to be used in the way it was intended.

I started bringing in the components and the the two oldest, Evelyn and Arlene followed me piece by piece, even carrying the smaller stuff in. The excitement was obvious as they closely watched me assemble their computer.

That should have been my first clue.

They closely watched me.

I mean "on-hands-and-knees-with-me-as-I-hooked-stuff-up" watched me. Not sitting on the couch and politely, not these girls.

Arlene, 11 years old and by far the most inquisative, even asked about the little green light that came on when I plugged in their newly installed Time Warner Internet cable.

"Does that mean we have Internet?"

Her gaze was so steady and hopeful, I almost hugged her.

"You bet it does honey."

She looked at her older sister and they both clapped. I immediately got the impression that MySpace was about to gain two more residents.

Sound check...graphix check with the most sophisticated 3D test available...a quick run of Extreme Tux Racer...Cube spin...Sub woofer was woofin'....

Houston, we have a computer.

I sat down with Brenda and began writing out some things she needed to know and asked her about any particular filters she might want on the system. It wasn't five minutes into our talk when Arlene pulled at my sleeve.

"Which one is the DVD burner?"

I looked at her then over at the computer. Evelyn had already found K3b and had hooked her Ipod to the machine, using Songbird to manage the sync.

The computer had been on less than ten minutes.

I told her the top one was the master, both cd and dvd burners, and the bottom was cd rom/burner only. She nodded and rejoined her sister at their mixfest.

I suppose what continues to amaze me after well over 500 installs is the quickness that these kids pick up the system. There is no stodgy hesitation of adult handling of the mouse as if it were an unstable explosive...

They drop the menu, start digging into stuff and commence learning.

And they don't stop.

And I am gratified..

In more ways than I can come close to expressing.

All-Righty Then

Friday, December 19, 2008

2008 HeliOS Project Christmas Raffle Winners

The following people are winners of the First Annual HeliOS Project Raffle. From Larry, Tom, Bob, Darrel and myself; thank you for making this year's raffle a success. We will be able to build approximately 20 computers with what was donated during this raffle. The names of each winner will be posted here after the Twitter posts at 6 pm CST, 12/20/08. See the winners as they are drawn and posted on twitter.

look on Twitter for helios17.

You folks are a huge part of what we do and we thank you for thinking of those who cannot always provide for themselves.

As a side note, if there are any Austinites or Central Texans reading this, email me if you wish to go out on any of our HeliOS Project installs. It's not only gratifying, it's usually a lot of fun.

First Prize Winner

Clarence Beckham
Alexandria VA

Second Prize Winner

Nichole Uhlik
Austin TX

Third Place Prizes
Autographed Linux Networking Cookbook

George Socker, Owlings MD
Peregrine Concepts, Brush Creek TN
Samuel Woods, Round Rock TX
Robert Williams, Lancaster OH
"watdat", Newark DE
Lee McLain, Cuyahoga Falls OH

Mandriva 2009 Live CD w/4 gig thumb drive

Rich Bacchetta, Rochester NY
Ryan Southard, Harrisonville MO
George Gatewood, Belfast ME
John Pelrin, Carver MA
Jenny Vincin, Missouri City TX

Again, thanks to everyone who helped us get through this Christmas season. I was able to go out today and install two computers in Florence Texas that would not have been available had it not been for the fine people that entered our raffle. From my heart to yours...

Thank you.

All-righty Then

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand......

Anything I have to say about this would be redundant. I am placing a call this morning to the people responsible for this and asking why this is. Far be it from me to jump to any irrational conclusions....they can lead to messy misunderstandings as I hear it told.

Thank you to Thomas Holbrook for bringing this to our attention. You can see his insightful postings at

The phrase "their tentacles are everywnere" comes to mind. Then again, it may just be a silly over-reaction. I am curious to know what you think.

EDIT: David Liu of Gos has responded: While currently we do not have a relationship with MS, but most of our hardware partners do. Cloud will be customized into different versions, it may have Google, Yahoo, or Live.

That's fine...we just think that it might have been a better choice to put a Google representation know...the company that built their business on Linux Dave?

And oh by the way...sometimes links just won't become happens some times. For those inconvenient moments, a firefox extension has been created that allows double clicks on those annoying text links to act as regular hyperlinks. You can find it here.

Your welcome.

All-Righty Then

Friday, December 12, 2008


It never was my intention to attack anyone personally....

My sights were set on correcting some obvious misconceptions. It was a focused attack on ignorance but with some unsolicited commentary on a particular group.

Whether by proxy or focused intent, it appears that is what has happened, however.

A particular teacher within the Austin Independent School District now sucks.

The consensus began building about 24 hours ago when I published a blog strongly chastising a teacher who emailed me. She made, what I considered to be, some amazingly ignorant statements, statements that I felt attacked the very core reason for my existence. It made me much angrier than it should have.

I'm human, so sue me.

No wait, scratch that last line...don't sue me. It is being discussed.

Her tone didn't help her case much. She insinuated that I may had done something illegal. We build/refurbish computers for kids who are financially disadvantaged. We also build and present computers to kids of high achievement. To even hint that I am involved in anything that approaches breaking the law is not only silly, it evokes emotion better left un-evoked. I've worked for years to bring the level of success, however limited, we have now. The last thing I need is to lose it all for something silly.

So instead of crafting a measured, count-for-count personal response, I chose to share her obvious ignorance with members of the Linux Community. It was meant to illustrate the maddening ignorance and bias a Linux Advocate faces in a Microsoft Windows world. It was also meant to digitally spank the hand of the offender. It was a good direction to go I thought.

Things pretty much turned to fecal flakes from there.

Look, I write this little back-water blog to document what we do at the HeliOS Project and to advocate Linux in general. One of our main focuses is to see to it that Linux begins gaining a foothold in the computing public's awareness. And no, my goal isn't to convince you to switch to Linux.

That's my desire.

My goal is to make you aware that you have a choice in how you operate your computers. And yes, a bias exists on the Linux side of the ledger.

Ya think? People don't realize they are prisoners in their own computers when they use Microsoft Windows. If they ever read the EULA, they'd understand quickly.

So boasting a stunning readership in the dozens, I go about my business writing about things that happen in our day to day operations. Every now and then, something or someone does or says something that I believe needs attention.

Holy Crap!

Well, we got attention. When I published a part of the email this Teacher sent me, it experienced something known as "The Slashdot Effect." Slashdot is a website devoted to the tech/internet world and is read by hundreds of thousands an hour.

Yeah...hundreds of thousands an hour. My article scolding this teacher ended up on the front page of Slashdot.

For whatever reason, this story took on a life of its own. By 10:30 AM, I had to turn my cell phone off. Poeple were getting my number from my business website and calling me with their comments and reactions.

Not all of them were particularly on my side.

I received calls from South Africa, The Netherlands, Croatia, The Land Down Under and Russia.

It's the one from New Zealand that bothered me the most.

The caller identified himself and then further identified himself as an editor for a well known magazine published in the UK. He was extremely to-the-point with his call.

He would donate $1000.00 immediately to The HeliOS Project if I would give him the name of the Teacher I blogged about.

I hung up the phone.

"This is madness." I thought to myself. What is the big friggin' deal here? This is a non-story.

And my phone buzzed again but it wasn't with the incoming call was a text message being received. I cued the caller ID and it returned as "unavailable".

I pushed "read message" and waited for the text to appear on my screen.

"Can I call you?"

I pulled the truck over into a parking lot and answered:

"I guess. Who r u?"

The inactivity was so long that I started the truck and began to put it into gear and re-enter traffic when the buzz came again. I pushed the read button.


It was my turn to hesitate. Finally, I toggled Reply and typed in one character.


She didn't call right away. It took her about 15 minutes to finally call me. When she did she didn't say anything for the first 15 seconds. When she finally did speak, it was obvious she was crying.

"Why did you throw me to the wolves like that?"

I didn't even have to think of the reply.

"I didn't throw you to the wolves Karen, I threw ignorance to the wolves. Let me ask you something. If I had not emailed you a link to my blog, would you have even known about this?"

Again she hesitated. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that if you didn't know I had written that blog, would you have known about all these comments? Has anyone called you or bothered you about this? Have your co-workers mentioned it?"


"Then the wolves didn't touch you Karen. If I had included your last name or email address, then yes, you could ask me that question but as it stands, you are just a nameless school teacher that evoked a public response from me."

She didn't say anything for several seconds. When she did, it was a quiet and simple:

"Thank you".

Yeah...thank you. Like I deserve that. Let me share a couple things with you here. First off, I want to sincerely apologize for some things I did say, things that were way off base and even if they were situationally true, they didn't add anything of value to the conversation.

I want to apologize to all the hard-working and honest NEA members. My statements were based on an isolated but nasty experience two years ago, and, while I developed a nasty dislike for the people in that situation, it was both unfair and short-sighted to say the things I did. The teachers that we entrust our kids with on a daily basis do us a service that is under-appreciated, under-paid and over-criticized. My mini tirade didn't add anything of value to the situation and only served to inflame an already volatile area of debate. You have my sincere apology for slapping you all with such a wide brush.

Karen isn't alone in her ignorance. I have sat in a PhD's office...a PhD that happened to be a principal of a school. She told me that according to her "tech staff", it was illegal to remove Microsoft Windows from their school computers. So who is ignorant here? The "tech staffer" afraid of losing his MCSE position or the Dr. of Education that didn't bother to check into such a statement. Ignorance isn't the sole possession of this particular school teacher.

Karen and I have talked on the phone now for a couple of hours, here and there. We've come to understand each other more and had she said some of the things in her email that she said during our phone conversations...this black ink on white digital paper probably wouldn't exist.

And neither would over 2000 comments that were less than kind on one end of it and absolutely brutal on the other.

The student did get his Linux disks back after the class. The lad was being disruptive, but that wasn't mentioned. Neither was the obvious fact that when she saw a gaggle of giggling 8th grade boys gathered around a laptop, the last thing she expected to see on that screen was a spinning cube.

She didn't know what was on those disks he was handing out. It could have been porn, viral .exe's...any number of things for all she knew. When she heard that an adult had given him some of the disks to hand out, her spidey-senses started tingling. Coupled with the fact that she truly was ignorant of honest-to-goodness Free Software, and you have some fairly impressive conclusion-jumping.

In a couple of ways, I am guilty of it too.

Karen seems to be a good teacher, and as she stated to me today, she has learned more about the tech world in a few days than she's learned in five years.

That's because she's trapped in a world of Windows. Most people are.

I have contacted the technology department of AISD and have discovered it has a rich technology environment that uses open source software in all aspects of instruction, operation, and administration. The District has over 36,000 desktop and laptop computers. While about 24,000 of those computers run some version of Windows, AISD is anything but a Windows shop. Their current standard teacher/student image includes both Open Office and Firefox on all Windows computers, and recently has added Open Office to the Apple OS image. Other open source software on both images include audacity and lame, and other free software such as Google Earth, iTunes, Adobe and many plug-ins. They also are members of the world community grid; their 36,000 computers are providing many hours of spare processing time (during the work day) to organizations trying to solve major world problems such as energy, cancer, and AIDS. Additionally, they are running more than 100 Linux servers. Other Open Source and Free Software AISD uses include:

apache for web servers
samba for file sharing
nagios for server monitoring
mySQL and postgreSQL for some databases
sendmail for email services
ISC DHCP and bind for DHCP services
moodle for course management
tomcat and jboss for web based applications
perl and php to build in-house applications

As an Austin citizen I am proud to see that AISD is a solid supporter of the open source community and is not blindly following a Microsoft centric architecture. In fact because they are reasonably agnostic they make an overt attempt to find applications that are multi-platform and save money. Also, it is not unreasonable that an organization with approximately 6,000 teachers representing a cross section of America with many different teaching specialties, that there will be some individuals that are not totally aware of current technology trends.

Now to the meat of the matter. Many, many of you have pushed for the identification of this teacher.

I cannot or will not relinquish that. Read the comments from slashdot alone or the hundreds on my blog to understand why!

There isn't any amount of money I will accept to throw a human being into that cement mixer.

The fact that I did it to a profession is bad enough.

All Righty Then

Monday, December 08, 2008

Linux - Stop holding our kids back

This blog is momentarily interrupted to bring you a snippet of recently received email.

"...observed one of my students with a group of other children gathered around his laptop. Upon looking at his computer, I saw he was giving a demonstration of some sort. The student was showing the ability of the laptop and handing out Linux disks. After confiscating the disks I called a confrence with the student and that is how I came to discover you and your organization. Mr. Starks, I am sure you strongly believe in what you are doing but I cannot either support your efforts or allow them to happen in my classroom. At this point, I am not sure what you are doing is legal. No software is free and spreading that misconception is harmful. These children look up to adults for guidance and discipline. I will research this as time allows and I want to assure you, if you are doing anything illegal, I will pursue charges as the law allows. Mr. Starks, I along with many others tried Linux during college and I assure you, the claims you make are grossly over-stated and hinge on falsehoods. I admire your attempts in getting computers in the hands of disadvantaged people but putting linux on these machines is holding our kids back.

This is a world where Windows runs on virtually every computer and putting on a carnival show for an operating system is not helping these children at all. I am sure if you contacted Microsoft, they would be more than happy to supply you with copies of an older verison of Windows and that way, your computers would actually be of service to those receiving them..."

Karen xxxxxxxxx
xxxxxxxxx Middle School


I suppose I should, before anything else, thank you. You have given me the opportunity to show others just what a battle we face in what we do. "We" being those who advocate, support and use Free Open Source Software and Linux in particular.

If you find my following words terse or less than cordial, take a breath and prepare yourself...what I have to say to you are soft strokes to your hair in comparison to what you are about to experience.

First off, if there was even the slightest chance that I was doing something illegal, it would not have been done. To think that I would involve my kids in my "illegal" activities is an insult far beyond outrage. You should be ashamed of yourself for putting into print such none sense.

And please...investigate to your heart's content. You are about to have your eyes opened, that is if you actually investigate anything at all. Linux is a free as-in-cost and free as-in-license operating system. It was designed specifically for those purposes. Linux is used to free people from Microsoft. The fact that you seem to believe that Microsoft is the end all and be-all is actually funny in a sad sort of way. Then again, being a good NEA member, you would spout the Union line. Microsoft has pumped tens of millions of dollars into your union. Of course you are going to "recommend" Microsoft Windows". To do otherwise would probably get you reprimanded at the least and fired at the worst. You are only doing what you've been instructed to do.

You've been trained well.

I don't know when you attended college Karen but the Linux of even two years ago pales in feature and ability to what there is available now...and that in turn will pale in a year's time. linux is superior to MS windows in so many ways, they are too numerous to mention here...I am weary of enumerating them. Unlike Microsoft who meters their "improvements" and then shovels them to you every five years or so for purchase; Linux releases their improvements upon their completion. We receive the newest and the best of the system when it is tested to be usable and stable. Karen, you have no idea the slavery you work under...but you don't know any better. The shame of it is, you are trapped with millions of other teachers in obeying the NEA and preaching the goodness of Windows and Microsoft. A superior, free and absolutely entertaining method of operating your computer is within reach and you are unable to grasp it.

The most disturbing part of this resides in the fact that the AISD purchases millions of dollars of Microsoft Software in a year's time when that money could be better spent on educating our children. A dedicated School Teacher would recognize that fact and lobby for the change to Free Open Source Software and let the money formally spent on MS bindware be used on our kids.

A teacher who cared about her students would do that.

That is sad past my ability to express it to you. Don't shackle your students in your prison Karen.

Now. You give that boy his disks back. Aaron is a brilliant kid and he's learned more using Linux than he ever did using Windows. Those disks and their distribution are perfectly legal and even if he was "disruptive", you cannot keep his property. I have placed a call to the AISD Superintendent and cc'd him a complete copy of your email. It looks like we will get to meet in his office when School starts again after the holiday. I am anxious to meet a person who is this uninformed and still holds a position of authority and learnedness over our children.

Ken Starks
HeliOS Solutions

All-Righty Then