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The Spirit of Ubuntu

"A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others"

  • June 21, 2010
  • By Emery Fletcher
My father-in-law Ron is 88 years old, a member of what Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation, those who survived the Great Depression and went on to fight World War II -- in Europe, in Ron's case. Time is taking its toll now on all of those folks: limited mobility, slower reaction times, often reduced vision. It can happen to all of us who live that long.

Ron gets around with a walker, but it doesn't make for a wide range of wandering -- in fact, he's largely housebound, which is not a very stimulating environment. I can hear it sometimes in his voice on the phone: just tired, nothing interesting going on. He lives 500 miles away so we can't visit frequently, but the VA has arranged for a home helper, a Haitian man called R.C., to come in three times a week. Ron is fiercely independent and resented R.C.'s presence at first, but finally acknowledged the need.

I sent copies of my articles to Ron from time to time. He had been interested in computer hardware some years ago and had accumulated a good many bits and pieces, but had long since given it away; unfortunately, a lot of his enthusiasm had gone with it. Still, he always read the articles and a few months ago he remarked that Linux sounded interesting. Naturally I jumped at the opening, offered to send him a Live CD, and to my surprise he said he'd love to try it. I sent him Ubuntu 9.04, a short summary of it, and references to the Ubuntu sites on the web.

Re-awakened Interest

The first problem was -- you guessed it -- the BIOS setup. His computer was set to boot from the hard drive first, and when I tried over the phone to explain that there would be some boot menu setup key indicated on the first (OEM) screen, it was clear that the screen flashed by so quickly that his eyesight couldn't catch it. I suggested he send me the full model description of his computer, and I'd see what I could find about the proper key.

Some days later I got a call: on his own he'd found the Wubi option for installing directly within Windows and had already installed it. "Only trouble is," he said, "I don't know where Windows put it, or if it's really installed at all."

Windows, the Great Roadblock

Oh, great -- my first Help Desk call and I'm baffled! I had never used Wubi and my ignorance of the Windows file system is truly profound, so all I could do was get him to use the Control Panel > Add and Remove route to see what was listed as installed. There was Ubuntu, all set in place and presumably ready to go. Before another moment passed I made sure to talk him through setting the timeout for the boot option screen to 30 seconds to give him plenty of time to see what his choices would be.

It took one more call to straighten out another small problem, and then there was a silence of several days despite the fact he'd not yet reported getting past the sign-in page. I had emailed him the PDF version of Keir Thomas's Ubuntu Pocket Guide, so I thought he might be making his way through it, studying before proceeding further. Then I got a call from him one night, much later than he usually stayed up.

"How do I turn this damn thing off?" he growled.

He had not only succeeded in teaching himself to boot the system, he had been exploring the possibilities of it for hours and he was delighted. "This is MUCH more interesting than Windows!" he said. The only problem was that he'd not yet spotted that little power button in the upper right corner, which settled the matter at once.

Again some time passed. In her weekly calls to him, my wife reported, he didn't say much about Linux or Ubuntu or even computers, and we both feared he'd lost interest or hit a snag and didn't want to ask for more help. I would send along an encouraging or informational email to him from time to time, but I didn't want to pester him.

Finally we found out what had happened: without saying anything about it, Ron had been busy upgrading his 9.04 first to 9.10, and from there to 10.04. He'd done it entirely on his own, which is testimony not only to his defiance of the obstacles of age, but also to the ease with which an interested beginner can come to terms with the Ubuntu version of Linux.

Ubuntu Goes to Haiti

But that was not the truly jaw-dropping news. In the process of all this, Ron had been talking more with his home helper R.C. Born and raised in Haiti, R.C. has close contacts with a school there which was devastated by the earthquake, and he was accumulating computers to send down for the children. Ron knew all too well of the problems that could arise if someone tried to re-use a computer with a proprietary OS registered to the original purchaser, so he had burned several copies of the Ubuntu 9.04 disc for R.C. to install on the donated hardware. And down in Haiti those discs can be re-used again after that, and more can be burned...

It practically brought tears to my eyes. Not only had Ron learned on his own how to work with Ubuntu, he had spontaneously demonstrated the very spirit of Ubuntu, the Humanity Toward Others that Archbishop Desmond Tutu expressed simply as "A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others." I can't think of a better example of it than this.

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