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Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The "Oldest Pirate" Passes

I've often made the statement that if the phone rings after midnight, it is rarely good news.  A phone call at 1:26 this morning proved out that point.  Martha Grimes of New Haven Connecticut called to inform me of the passing of her mother,  Ms. Alice Kensington.  Alice was and always will be a dear friend.  She taught me more about life in a few dear months than I had learned in a lifetime and I will miss her.  I will miss her to tears.

What follows is a story about Alice I wrote in 2006, published in the now-offline website.  I am reprinting this for those who may not have read it and to spend some personal time in remembering Alice.  Many of the provided links are in archive so they take a bit to load.  I've attempted to remove the ones that show "not available" and apologize for not supplying them here.

Aarrr me Maties, and what treasures has their spilled blood bestowed upon our scurvy husks?….aarrr.

No, I am not going to tell you her real name. She is a criminal now and I made her so. 86 years of lawful living, survived without so much as a speeding ticket. Her now-blemished essence is  the foulest of stain on my duplicitous hands. She hastily uses her internet connection to research South American countries and their extradition laws as they apply to the United States.

She has calculated the penalties and withdrawn substantial amounts of her retirement fund and hastily written goodbye letters to her children. At least the ones that aren’t yet dead. Two ex-husbands will grope for answers and friends will wonder for years.....

She must flee under the cover of night. Visions of swirling fog and Stoic good-byes… plane engines roaring in the background of the Casablanca airfield clutter her thoughts. No, she cannot afford melodramatic fantasies…she must plan, she must escape those worse than the Gestapo. Ruthless men, those who consider the KGB as pariah…it is these men that stalk her.

She does a final check of her belongings as she drags them to the door and then to the awaiting cab. Her frail frame is soaked as the rain falls through the blackest of nights. They must not capture her, no…it is not an option. She would rather die, have her heart stop in mid-beat before she would give herself over to them….she shudders as she dares even to think their name.


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.”

Alice is not your typical 86 year old Great Grandmother. Her demeanor is as salty as her language, and regardless of your age, those of thin skin do not fare well around her. It seems to me that she can sniff a “sensitive soul” out like a barn cat finds mice…I am beginning to think the mice fare much better. She has no patience with indecisive or soft-spoken people. I knew it was Alice immediately upon answering the phone. I answered it without checking the caller ID.


“Yeah, you got the first part of it right, cause if you don’t help me fix this G* *** computer, there’s going to be hell to pay.”

I laughed and was sincerely glad to hear her voice. “Well, hello Alice, Just what have you broken now?”
Her laughter didn’t sound like an old woman’s.

“It’s not mine that's screwed up…It’s Betty’s and the G* *** CD won’t play.”

I thought quickly about the citizens at this particular center. Ah, THAT Betty…I remembered now. She was one of the only ones that would not let us put PCLinuxOS on her computer. She liked her Windows XP, and even had a legitimate copy of it. You don’t argue with someone that was welding rivets into a World War II bomber before you were born. You do as they ask. I reformatted her hard drive and did indeed reinstall Windows XP on her machine, as much as it chapped my backside.

I heard her voice through the cupped bottom half of her cell phone. “I said I would take care of it, just shut up and give me a chance to talk to the man.”

I could hear a further-muffled voice on the other end and it was Betty asking Alice something. “No, he’s not the fat one, he’s the bald one with the round glasses. You’re thinking of the air conditioning guy.” She uncupped the phone and spoke to me.

“God, if I get that simple when I’m old Kenny, just put one between my eyes, would you…and don’t miss, my luck, I would end up being a one-eyed obnoxious old lady. Now, are you coming over here to fix this computer?”

My schedule is fairly full, trying to raise funds for a trip to Washington DC and work two regular jobs. Still, telling Alice no is akin to kicking a grizzly bear in the butt. I cleared my throat and tried to inject an alternative choice.

“Tell me Alice, what is it doing…I mean, instead of playing the CD, what is it doing?”

“Betty, move your butt and let me in there.” I could visualize the transaction in space management taking place in the cramped workspace the residents had to call their “computing center.”

“OK, I’m putting the disk in…right now, and…..” She waited for the dialog box to appear on her screen. “Alright, up to now, it acts right, but watch this.” She spoke to me as if I were sitting next to her.

“Bam…there it is!”

“There is what Alice?”

“The friggin’ problem Kenny…here is the problem.” She was impatient with my inability to keep up with her. “It is telling me I am attempting to play the CD in an unauthorized media.”

I understood immediately. I sat down at my computer and pulled up Firefox. “Alice, do you have the CD case right there in front of you?”

“Well, yeah…where else would it be? You think she carries it around in a napkin?”

I laughed at her spontaneity. “No Alice, a ziplock bag maybe, but not a napkin.”

“So what’s the problem here? What’s so unauthorized about this media. And what is a media anyway. do they mean the computer?

I put her question aside for a moment to ask another. “Who is the artist on the CD Alice, who is singing.”

Alice answered without hesitation. “Kelly Clarkson, my daughter made this cd for Betty and when she came to visit last weekend she brought it with her so I could give it to Betty the next time I…”

“You mean it’s a home-made CD, it wasn’t bought out of a store?” I typed “Kelly Clarkson” and “label” in the searchbar and had my answer in the first hit.

“No you putz, I told you my daughter made it for Betty. You think my daughter works at the recording studio or something?”

I smiled again at Alice's' demeanor. I really wish you could meet her.

“OK, the “media” the message is talking about is your cd player in the computer…not the computer itself. See, Kelly Clarkson is contracted with RCA Records, which is a subsidiary of Sony-BMG…now I need you to pay attention here…”

I spent the next 10 minutes explaining to Alice about DRM and what it is doing to people who legitimately purchase music. It seems that the DRM’ed CD allowed itself to be “ripped” but when the copy of the CD was attempted to play in MP3 format, the DRM kicked in, and the “screw you” message, as Alice refers to it, appeared on the screen.

Alice listened without interupting. I could hear her scribbling furiously as I spoke but she never stopped me to repeat something or clarify a point. When I finished and was sure I had covered the entire issue, only then did she speak.

“And to think I voted for that ungrateful little b****.  If I knew where to find her, I’d rip those tight jeans off her and ram this disk up her…”

Editor's note - Kelly Clarkson was the winner of American
Idol and was "voted" the winner by public opinion."

“No Alice…no…maybe I wasn’t clear. Many of the artists don’t like DRM on their recordings. They know it’s going to kill their sales eventually. It’s the RIAA and Microsoft who makes all the money off of DRM, not the artists.” I could again hear Alice’s pen scratching against the paper on the desk.

“So what do we do about this friggin’ disk? Are we just s***-out-of-luck Kenny?”

I thought for a long moment then told her that she had an alternative. Then It struck me as funny.

“I say something funny computer-boy?” The amusement in Alice’s voice was obvious.

“No Alice, you didn’t. It just occurred to me that I am going to tell you to use the means that DRM is supposed to stop.” And it is funny if you spend a moment thinking about it.

In the first place, I told her that the disk would play fine on a Linux System…that the DRM coding on the disk was made for Windows systems and that a Linux Machine would simply ignore the code that told it not to play. I went on to tell Alice about Frostwire and Shareaza. In short, I turned a 86 year old Marlboro-smoking, Chrysler Sebring Convertable-driving, Pinochole-playing, Maroon-Five listening Great Grandmother into a music pirate. An enthusiastic one at that. I should be ashamed of myself.

I’m not, but at least I have morals enough to know I should.

She had her unencumbered Kelly Clarkson music in less than 10 minutes.

This is where the story should end,but it doesn’t.

As I promised to do, I stopped by Alice’s apartment on my way home from work that weekend. She was so excited to see me, she couldn’t tell me things fast enough. I will spare you the dialog, it went something like this.

Alice knew from my warnings that downloading music via P2P was not only illegal, it was dangerous. I told her about the RIAA monitoring and the thousands of lawsuits the RIAA had initiated and won over the past two years. Alice had something for their asses. She sat me down at her computer and pulled up GTK-Gnutella…her seemingly favorite weapon of choice. She also showed me her installation of PeerGuardian. It was with great pride she demonstrated her knowledge of how to update the IP blockList and incorporate it into the program.

As amazed as I was, I hadn’t seen anything yet.

She opened konqueror and dropped down her Menu of Networked Folders.

I came close to falling out of my chair. Listed among the Local Network and Samba Shares were icons like “JakesJoint, TuxTurf, DayDreAmbeliever and NadKnocker. (don’t ask me what a “NadKnocker” is…I don’t wanna know.) Since every 8 apartments shared the same router, Alice had not only showed her new “partners in crime” how to use Frostwire, Shareaza and GTK-Gnutella…she had also formed “hubs” with the different router clusters for individual networks. I moused and clicked my way thru some of the offerings. I found one titled “If you don’t want to be disappointed in me, don’t look.” In all, 24 of the residents at this Center were now officially “Music Pirates.”

Addendum:  I have since learned that a child of one of the residents in the Senior Center assisted Alice in doing this...he may have done it all, but we'll never know now.

I was speechless. I remember the first day I came there and helped these poor souls with their busted-up Windows machines…and then I look and see what has evolved since then. I really should be ashamed of myself…I really should.

But I’m not…in fact, I think its a riot that the very thing DRM was supposed to curtail, it made flourish and flourish without consequence.

Go figure.

All-Righty Then...


Chelle Minkin said...

Ken, I read this with glowing memories of Alice while tears flowed. Thank you so much for letting me be a part of your Senior Living Center project. Alice is the epitome of what I want to be when I am 86. I loved her attitude and courage.

May God hold her safely...


Anonymous said...

"I remember the first day I came there and helped these poor souls with their busted-up Windows machines…and then I look and see what has evolved since then. I really should be ashamed of myself…I really should."

No Ken, the worst thing you did was encourage civil disobedience. Someone there was just savvy and helped propagate the process. The woman was wise enough to know that if she or anyone she knew bought more music CD's they would be directly supporting the concept of DRM. You done good.

PV said...

Beautiful story. I wish there were more souls out there like this.

a Linux Mint user since 2009 May 1

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that Sony is the perpetrator of a rootkit and a woeful "fix" for said rootkit.

As for civil disobedience, didn't Sony hire graffiti artists to tag PSP ads in cities around the world?

I refuse to support such a despicable company that thinks it is judge, jury and executioner all the while playing the victim.

I wouldn't touch one of their discs with a twenty foot clown pole. If you know a dog has fleas, why would you pet it.

So disgusted am I that I didn't even look at their goods when purchasing my last TV, despite their reputation for excellent quality (and my compulsion to only buy high-quality).


Amenditman said...

I love this story.

It's one of the funniest, saddest true-life stories I've ever heard.

Nice work, Ken.

Anonymous said...

Amen people!


Gavin said...

Anonymous #2 : "As for civil disobedience, didn't Sony hire graffiti artists to tag PSP ads in cities around the world?"

Well, heck, you just talked about one in ten large corporations in existence. Quite a few companies have done this to some extent or another in some country or another at some time or another.

Not that I am defending Sony in any way, shape, or form - I just want you to be aware that this is not a Sony-only "activity".

Anonymous said...

Ah Ken - a lovely post. Sad to hear of Alice's passing but it is nice to know she enjoyed her later years in part to the efforts of people like yourself who helped her discover the internet and so free herself from being a stereotyped "Old Codger". I love it when the elderly take to technology, as you found, they are very adaptive.

You did good Ken.

God Bless Alice

..Phil - Perth - Western Australia

Sum Yung Gai said...

Rest in peace, Alice. I remember when I first read your story. It was one of the first I'd read of the Lobby4Linux site.

Ken, you may not know this, since I've been out of touch, but I've been kinda busy over here. Alice's story was one of the inspirations for that.


Anonymous said...

A wonderful story and one that needs to be posted much more often. May God bless you and Dear Alice. J. Pro North Carolina

ajlec2000 said...

I have a new hero. Wish I had met her.

Anonymous said...

Lovely story ...
Thanks Ken, for sharing this- reminds me of my grandma.

Anonymous said...

Rest in peace Alice. I remember very well reading about you. I didn't realize it was four years ago. It just didn't seem that long ago.
Again, rest in peace.
Paul Sams