|FROM ||Dave Williams
|SUBJECT ||Subject: [hangout] I kind of remember suggesting something like this...
One-day Linux project brings Internet to disadvantaged Miami kids
By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller
Miami's Liberty City is one of the worst neighborhoods in a city famous
for bad neighborhoods. The Liberty City Learning Center is a
privately-run effort to help neighborhood children break the cycle of
ignorance that keeps them there. And now, thanks to volunteers from two
Florida Linux user groups and hardware donations from local businesses,
Liberty City Learning Center can add computer and Internet training to
The install was scheduled for Saturday, June 7. All wiring was supposed
to be in place before then, part of a project two local men did to help
them earn hands-on experience they needed to get their A+
The assortment of old donated PCs was neatly stacked, with a bag of mice
and several shelves full of keyboards. Monitors were there, tested, in
place on the wall-mounted shelves installed to hold the computers. The
one heavy-duty piece of hardware, a surplus dual-CPU server donated by
Miami's Channel 4 , was tested and ready to go.
Several people from the brand-new Miami LUG (MiaLUG), aided by three
professional sysadmins from the Southwest Florida LUG, based a two-hour
drive away in Fort Myers , expected to install LTSP software to make the
donated PCs into network-booted thin clients, install necessary
application software on the server, make sure everything ran decently,
then go out to supper.
Naturally, things didn't go quite as planned....
10:50 a.m. - The Ft. Myers contingent finally arrives. They were
supposed to show up at 10, but first they stopped at the home of Gonzalo
Porcel Quero , the MiaLUG person who organized the effort after his
girlfriend, Martha Arrazola, introduced him to Liberty City Learning
Center director Sam Horn.
Martha had met Sam through her work with the Partnership for the Study
and Prevention of Violence ; Liberty City is one of Miami's most violent
areas, and the Partnership works with the Learning Center because it
believes giving local children a chance at a decent education helps
prevent violence. The Linux computer lab/Internet idea for the Center
was heavily Martha's. Sam had gotten hold of a few old computers and
donated educational programs, and found them fine motivators for the
many latchkey kids he mentors, but he couldn't afford to buy more
And when Sam finally did get a whole stack of donated computers with
help from the Channel 4 Neighbors4Neighbors program, he ran into
licensing problems with Microsoft and other proprietary software
vendors. "We didn't have money to pay them," Sam says. So those programs
couldn't be used. Liberty City residents have an average income of less
than $8,000 per year -- less than many Third World countries -- but they
are in the U.S., where the BSA and similar groups run rampant (and can
bring in Federal marshals to enforce their financial demands), so
proprietary software was a no-go here from the beginning.
Neither Gonzalo nor the other LUG volunteers asked for money. They
brought dozens of CDs full of software licensed under the GPL and other
Open Source licenses, and set to work installing it.
11 a.m. - Chris Williams, a Ft. Myers programmer and sysadmin, huddles
with Gonzalo. They decide to replace the existing Red Hat installation
on the server with Mandrake 9.1 because of its ease of administration,
plus the fact that Gonzalo is used to Mandrake, and he's the one who
will be responsible for ongoing maintenance of the Center's computers.
"Of course, we can always SSH in and help him if he has a problem,"
Chris points out. But still, having a familiar (and easy to use)
administration interface is good, and Mandrake's user management is
extraordinarily simple. The Center expects to constantly add, delete,
and change user accounts, so Mandrake it is. The server OS install
Meanwhile, in the other large classroom in the Center's building (there
are two main rooms, an office, restrooms, a little storage, and that's
about it), Ft. Myers-ites Frank Sfalanga and Bert Rapp, along with
Martha Arrazola, start checking the client machines.
Hmmm, some seem to be missing hard drives. This is not a big deal, since
they're going to be thin clients with all programs and user data living
on the server; it just means they're going to need boot floppies to get
going. Looks like a job for ROM-o-matic !
11:30 a.m. - Mandrake 9.1 up and running on the server. Testing the
first connection to the first client. It doesn't work. Uh-oh.
Chris does some head and beard-scratching. Hmmm -- they had one going,
then two, now none of them work.
Thinking, diagnosing, wondering now dominate the rooms.
12 noon - More MiaLUG people arrive, specifically Martin Gaido and Oscar
Ferrando. A few minutes later MiaLUG member Claudia Grigorescu shows up
with one of the day's most important necessities: Pizza! Soda, too.
2 p.m. - Oscar is still new to Linux, but he makes his living installing
commercial network, phone, and TV cable. He has power tools with him,
and sets to work organizing the badly done cable the A+ hopefuls had put
in. He discovers, along with Bert and Frank, a lot of bad cable, plus a
hidden network hub up in the ceiling. They string a cable along the
floor from the server to the hub in the computer room that connects to
all the clients, bypassing the hub and wiring in the ceiling, and the
connection problems disappear.
You can have all the Linux expertise you want, but sometimes it takes a
guy with drywall dust on his hands and power tools in his case to get
Now that the problem is traced to bad cabling (and possibly a bad hub;
the thing in the ceiling looks pretty old and ratty), the trick is to
figure out which cables are bad and to repair or replace them.
This leads to a major Oops! "I knew I should have brought some CAT-5
cable with me," Frank says. "I have a whole roll at home."
Nobody has any cable tips (CAT-5 connectors) either. So after some
consultation in English and Spanish, Claudia and Oscar run up to
TigerDirect , which is about a half-hour drive from the Center, to get
Meanwhile, clients get set up, their MAC addresses get registered with
the server, and applications get installed. One PC is left with (legally
licensed) Windows, and Martha installs all of the (legal) Windows
kid-ware she finds around on it. She also asks Chris to download and
burn a copy of OpenOffice for Windows for that PC, since Microsoft
Office is certainly not in the Liberty City Learning Center's budget.
Miami's Liberty City Learning Center is not a federally-funded or
state-supported venture. It was started seven years ago by Sam Horn,
personally, out of his pocket. We need to back up a little here to get
the whole story, and it's worth getting.
Sam moved to Miami from New York City 15 years ago after retiring from a
city job in labor negotiations. "My retirement lasted about two weeks,"
he says. "I had to have something to do."
Sam went to work for an Urban League offshoot working to build
businesses in and generally bring prosperity to some of Miami's worst
neighborhoods, among them Liberty City. Along the way ("About eight
years ago," Sam says) he saw literacy, specifically the lack thereof, as
the biggest single problem facing Miami's black population, and no one
was doing anything about it in any effective sense.
"We have five high schools that feed from this neighborhood, and all of
them get 'F' grades," Sam says. "Imagine allowing that anywhere else. It
would never happen. Someone would do something."
In Liberty City, the only real "someone" turned out to be Sam, and the
"something" was using his own savings, plus money from his brothers and
sisters, to purchase a nearly worthless former insurance company office
at a state auction seven years ago. He opened the Liberty City Learning
Center in it, with home-done sprucing up, home-made (but neatly
lettered) exterior signs, and scavenged desks and chairs, all without
any external funding or support from any government agency.
The original plan was to have schools send "at risk" children, but that
never happened, Sam says, "because the school people thought we were
after their jobs." So he turned to the community, putting the word out
that he and perhaps a few volunteers were willing to help tutor
neighborhood kids after school if they were having trouble with reading
And the children come. Sam says the majority of them are brought by
grandparents, not parents, a factor he attributes to family breakdowns
in the black community. But causes of illiteracy aren't as important
here as getting up and teaching kids to read. Sam says, "Reading is the
key. You can't learn math unless you can read. These kids do badly in
school because they can't read. We teach them, and to teach them we have
to motivate them."
That's where the computers and Internet connection come in: Sam noticed
that kids like to play with computers. But schools in Liberty City have
few computers if any, and local residents certainly can't afford them,
let alone afford ISP fees and proprietary software. So the idea of the
Liberty City Computer Learning Center morphing at least partly into a
neighborhood computer training center came about. Sam learned the hard
way that software from major proprietary vendors, even with educational
discounts, was priced for formally funded institutions, not ad-hoc
volunteer efforts like his.
And so, today, a group of volunteers is setting up computers at the
Center with free software and donated hardware.
4 p.m. - The run to and from TigerDirect took longer than expected. "I
don't believe I got lost that many times," says Claudia. But here we
are, finally, with enough CAT-5 cable and connectors to get things
going. Wiring gets strung, Claudia and Martha run down to the little
corner store a block away to get more soda, computers get tested, and so
does the hub found in the ceiling, which doesn't seem to be working
There's another hub that seems to work, and a single cable between it
and the server makes things work. Now it's a matter of putting together
boot disks and setting up the variety of old hardware.
Some of the donated PCs have half duplex NICs that are taking up a lot
of network bandwidth and slowing down the clients in which they are
installed. A few others have video cards that don't get along with LTSP
and give out fuzzy or distorted images. Or is it the monitors? Test,
test, test, swap, swap, swap.
This is the first installation of this type for most of the
participants. Jim, a new MiaLUG almost-member ("I've only been to a few
meetings"), is providing plenty of lift-and-carry action, working with
Oscar even though Jim's Spanish is nearly nonexistent, and Oscar only
speaks a small bit of English and has trouble understanding Jim's
Lots of smiles and lots of pointing at things seem to help.
Communication is achieved, a bit at a time, not only between the
computers, but between the people working on them.
The computers are a mixed bunch, and so are the people. One is from
Colombia, two from Argentina, one from Spain, one from Venezuela, one
from New Jersey, another from New York, one from Massachusetts -- and
Jim from Kentucky, of course.
Sam Horn watches them work, and shakes his head. "This is the most
wonderful thing I've ever seen here," he says. "All these people, from
all over, doing all this work... donating their time and talents."
Sam is aware that today is just the beginning; that he will need to
learn to use Linux himself -- which won't be hard since he's a young man
of 77, not some oldster set in his ways -- and pass his knowledge on to
others, while other volunteers -- probably from the University of Miami
and Florida International University -- come in and work with
neighborhood children and adults, and pass on their computer and
Internet knowledge. And hopefully the neighborhood people will learn
enough to keep the knowledge chain going, and going, and going.
6:30 p.m. - Winding down a little. Some people leave. The heavy lifting
is done. Chris has been trying to find an LTSP driver for the NICs in a
whole stack of old 166MHz donated Compaqs -- he knows there's one out
there -- but has not succeeded so far.
Most necessary applications are on the server now, and Chris is making
sure users have the necessary permissions to run them -- an important
step that can't be forgotten in a client/server environment like this
Now it's just test machines, look for those drivers, and make sure
everything is working right -- and everything is, except for those pesky
Compaq drivers and a couple of recalcitrant video drivers in some
7:30 p.m. - Inside, just final checks. Outside, Sam is walking around,
smelling the lovely smoke from the Bar-B-Que grill across the street. A
girl, perhaps 12 or 13, comes up to him shyly. "Mr. Sam, do you remember
me?" she asks. "You helped me when I was having trouble reading back in
third grade. I just wanted to let you know I'm doing fine now. I read a
Sam talks with her in the twilight, softly, and smiles. He is not
talking down to her as an adult talks to a child (except for the fact
that he is well over six feet tall and she's in the sub-five-foot
range), but treats her as an intelligent human whose words are worth
A few minutes later, Sam says, "That's the secret with these children.
Talk to them like you expect them to be smart, not as if you expect them
to fail and fall behind all the time. They get enough of that everywhere
8:30 p.m. - Chris is doing a last checkout, making sure Gonzalo knows
how to create and delete users while Frank and Bert make sure the 10
client workstations they've set up today are fully functional, which
The obsolete Compaq NIC driver hunt has failed. Since these are small
machines, and counter space in the informal computer lab is at a
premium, Gonzalo decides it may be better to hunt up cheap NIC cards and
install them in the Compaqs, which otherwise make fine little thin
But today is done. And nine volunteers, working off-and-on for about
nine hours, have left behind a fully functional neighborhood computer
lab without spending a dime on software or using a single piece of new
9 p.m. - The Ft. Myers group heads out. "The cable problems really
slowed us down," Frank says. "We should have been prepared for something
"This is the first time we've done an LTSP install where we didn't do
our own cabling," Chris says. "That's the problem. We trusted someone
else. A+ trainees... tells you something..."
"Well, next time we'll know," Bert says. "But right now, let's find
someplace to eat. We're all hungry, right?"
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