When Linux is the face of kindness

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Original photo by Rikki Endsley. CC BY-SA 4.0

My late father, Lou Shapiro, was an early leader of UNICEF, so relief work was baked into the genetics of my family. His work was centered on emergency relief for the survivors of earthquakes and other natural disasters. Whenever there was an earthquake in the world, I knew dad would be coming home late from work—and I was so proud that some family experiencing trauma would be sleeping in a dry tent, with warm blankets and clean water, because of my dad's work. Following in my father's footsteps, my own relief work has been centered on digital inclusion—and open source is the tool I turn to most often.

Let me share two stories with you in that regard. In April, a young dad visited the public library where I work. He appeared interested in using the public computers our library offers. It turns out someone had stolen his family's only computer, a Macbook, and his tax return was due that day. When I learned about his predicament, I asked, "Would you like to borrow a Linux laptop until your family buys another laptop?" He perked up and asked, "Does this library lend laptops?" I replied, "The library doesn't, but I do. You can bring this back to me after you're done with it."

I purposely didn't ask him for his phone number. His trust had been betrayed and it was vital for this nice community member to be now bathed in trust. He asked me, "How do I return the laptop?" My answer: "You walk up to me and hand it to me when you're done using it. Here is my email address, in case you have any questions about it."

On that difficult day for him, he experienced Linux as the face of kindness. He might have never used a Linux computer before, but here was his opportunity to do so. Maybe this Linux laptop was the silver lining to his stolen Macbook setback? He returned the Linux laptop promptly and gratefully after his family had saved money to buy a replacement laptop—about a month later. Linux saved the day. It wasn't me who saved the day—I was just the delivery vehicle for Linux.

Another community resident recently called me frantically, "My Windows desktop computer stopped working. I need to be online and I don't have money to buy a replacement." My answer: "Let me stop by after work and loan you the Linux desktop I have in the trunk of my car. I'll find you a donated Windows desktop, but it's going to take me about a month or so." I was able to find her a nice donated Windows 10 desktop and the Linux loaner suited her needs very well during the interim. I loved her comment to me when she returned the Linux loaner: "I loved exploring Linux and except for the fact that Linux doesn't run Hulu. I'd gladly switch from being a Windows user to being a Linux user."

My reply to her was, "I want you to use the computer that works best for your needs, whether that be a Windows computer, a Linux computer, or something else." I don't want folks to use Linux if that's not the best computer for their needs. While she was borrowing the Linux loaner computer, she sent me several very interesting technical questions about Linux. That Linux loaner computer served its purpose well. It tided her over while allowing her to explore Linux as a possible option for her own needs.

When people are experiencing hardship in their lives, I try to lessen their burden using refurbished Linux desktops and laptops. I say, let them experience Linux as the face of kindness. For some, they can experience this kindness as a simple act of kindness. For others, it may open new doorways of opportunities in their lives. And then they themselves might choose to offer Linux as the face of kindness.

If you'd like to give this kind of thing a try, here are a few tips. Even though it will slightly reduce the fuel efficiency of your car, I suggest carrying a spare Linux desktop (or laptop) in the trunk of your car, ready to lend out on short notice. Somebody, somewhere will be immensely grateful that you anticipated their need—in the same way that UNICEF anticipates the need of earthquake survivors. Go the extra mile and bundle in a page or two of helpful instructions, if you feel so inclined. Place the most useful applications as icons on the desktop. Make sure you install TuxPaint, because the loaner computer might be used by young kids who would find that software immensely enjoyable. Bundle in an optical mouse. Don't forget to tell the recipient the computer system password.

And if you don't own a car, find a Linux buddy to work together on such a project. The dividends from such a project can be emotionally lucrative. And if the world has greater kindness as a result, we all could live with that. Let a wave of kindness wash across the world. Who knows what it will wash away.

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Phil Shapiro has been an educator, teaching students from pre-school to graduate school for the past 30 years. He currently works at a public library in the Washington, DC area, helping youth and adults use 27 Linux stations.

10 Comments

Thank you for a glimpse of the warm feeling inside and a nice idea that might spread.

I can think of so many people that would have benefited greatly if I would have given them a loaner laptop over the past five years when they really needed one. However, when I think about the type of person these people were.. I cannot think of any that would have had the patience to go the extra step of adapting to Linux even for a brief time.. It's unfortunate : <

Linux doesn't support Hulu? I'm watching Rick and Morty on Hulu right now on Ubuntu 14.04. Which specific OS was it?

Huh, I never thought of Linux as kind, in my experience with dpkg/apt and git :p

It does make sense to use FOSS for this kind of effort though. I keep an unlocked smartphone available to lend someone when they lose theirs. It seems more vital these days than a full fledged computer and immediate replacement saved a lot trouble for friends.

Unfortunately I let a friend borrow it for an indeterminate amount of time and my mother's phone caught me unprepared with a factory defect. It's nice to be nice, but sometimes you're the one that needs it (surprisingly, I thought of a temporary workaround while writing this post so we'll see about that).

Anyway, it's more a FOSS thing than a Linux specific thing, no? I prefer FreeBSD personally, for irrelevant reasons, but it works much the same as a desktop, if you configure it beforehand, as suggested, or just use PC BSD. Also, I would keep an android as my next spare phone when I upgraded anyway, but now It's intentional and it will probably sport a Free version of the OS instead of the manufacturer ROM, replacing the borrowed (given away) iPhone 4.

PS: a smartphone is more easily carried and acquired, if you can't do a computer.

That's a wonderful story Phil. Recently I was able to help a lady who has stage four brain cancer and had lost her Windows XP computer to age and malware. I took a spare laptop and installed Linux on it and trained her to use it for her personal needs. She was very grateful too. I just love the humanitarian spirit that abound in open source communities and your work is an exemplar.

Hulu does work on Linux now, though... Just only through Chrome

Hulu was an issue on linux many months ago, just thought it might be worth mentioning that Linux does now run Hulu (and Netflix) under the latest version of chrome without having to anything special like wine or a vm. Was awhile ago, so I don't recall if there was anything else special I had to do, but it was pretty minor like a plugin if anything, and should be easy find. If you can't get it working and can't find it quickly let me know and I'll try to reproduce... I am running under fedora, and ubunutu should also go easy among most other distros.

Good work and a good idea. But I don't understand the lady's remark about Hulu not working with Linux. I recently sigfned up for the Hulu trial offer, and it worked fine in Linux Mint(KDE) with Chrome browser. I dropped Hulu after the trial because there is no way to control the quality when streaming to my Roku. I mostly watch Netflix on TV via the Roku, and did the same with Hulu, but I did watch on my desktop and laptop occasionally. Unfortunately, I had to stop watching Hulu before the trial was over to avoid exceeding my 350GB/month bandwidth cap.

I had been using Linux and Windows for the last few years, but a friend switching totally to Linux motivated me to try to do the same. And I have not used Windows for more than a month now, and am not looking back!

Once again, Phil, you knock it out of the park and show us all how it's done! If the 2% of us who use Linux were more proactive about caring and sharing, we would not remain the 2% for long. Great job, as always!

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