June 12, 2003

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 its curriculum.

A one-day install

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+ certifications.

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 Mason.

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 computers.

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 begins.

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 things going.

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 some.

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 kidware 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.


About the Liberty City Learning Center

Miami's Liberty City Learning Center is not a federally-funded or state-supported venture. It was started seven years ago by Sam Mason, 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 math.

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 right.

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 understandinging Jim's Kentucky-flavored accent.

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 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 one.

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 way-old Dells.

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 lot."

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 hearing.

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 else."

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 they are.

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 clients.

But today is done. And nine volunteers, working off-and-on for about nine hours, have left behind a fully functional neigborhood computer lab without spending a dime on software or using a single piece of new hardware.

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 like that."

"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?"

Photo Gallery (courtesy of Southwest Florida GNU/Linux Users Group)

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