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Interview with Ken Starks

March 14, 2012 2 comments

It’s fairly common knowledge that if anyone on the planet eats, drinks and breathes Free/Open Source Software, it’s Ken Starks. A tireless advocate for FOSS and Linux, Starks is the poster boy for walking the FOSS walk after talking the talk. In the Austin, Texas, area he provides underpriviliged kids with Linux boxes through the HeliOS Project, which takes donated hardware, refurbishes them and gives them to needy children in the Austin area.

Starks had overcome a cancer diagnosis in the past, but he is now engaged in fighting a new battle with throat and neck cancer. While the HeliOS Project is the sum of its parts, Starks is the voice and face of the organization he founded. With a health condition possibly sidelining him for the time being – and possibly longer – this interview provides the most current information on his medical situation, and also provide a report on the direction of the HeliOS Project going forward.

In this interview, we take a look at where Starks and HeliOS has been, where it is now, and where it’s going.

Q: Let’s go back to the beginning and bring us up to where we are today at HeliOS Solutions. How much of an impact has The HeliOS Project made in the Austin area?

Ken Starks: Statistically, we have placed just under 1,500 computers to underpriviledged kids since 2005. Over-all impact is honestly hard to measure. Sure we can give the tools to build but how many use them to their full potential?  We are just not big enough or funded enough to track that info with any science. However, If the weekly feedback we get from our kid’s parents us any indication, we can measure ate least some empirical evidence of an increase in both math and reading skills.

Outside of cold, hard statistics though, you really need to take into account that “aha” moment. That moment when a child glimpses the possibilities at their fingertips. I cannot measure that Larry, and I don’t think anyone can. Still,that does not make it unimportant.

Q: You’ve won local awards, you helped organize the Lindependence Project a few years ago, and you’ve keynoted last year’s Texas Linux Fest. You’ve had a very busy few years recently.

KS: Thanks for noticing and it really was accidental notice. I take some pride in being awarded The Dewey Winburne Community award more than anything but the rest of it has been fun, too … but onward. Laurels wear out quickly in this business and resting upon them just crushes them to the ground.

Q: The HeliOS Project is all about providing Linux boxes to kids. Can you explain how the concept of providing children with technology resonates with people and why it’s a necessary goal for HeliOS?

KS: It’s really the only goal for HeliOS, Larry. When I first got involved with this project, it was something to do while I healed from a work-related injury. But when I began placing the computers, and seeing the huge “digital divide,” it rang a clear, concise and commanding bell within me

Q: Over the years, you and the HeliOS Project team have grown the project to where it stands today. In large part, the project has flourished under your leadership. How does this change with your current health condition?

KS: It leaves much unanswered, Larry, and to this point we’ve always had a pool of great volunteers to rally and help us get the job done. However, out of all of them, should I have to step aside for any period of time, I can’t think of anyone that could take a full lead position. I’m not saying that it’s that hard, but if you have other things pulling you in other directions, you are not always going to be focused where the project needs you.

I was in the hospital for just under two weeks and in that time, we have fallen 20-some installs behind, we have received machines for donation that are just lying about without triage and our landscape has grown to jungle proportions outside of our facility. I am amazed the City of Taylor hasn’t contacted us. I am receiving both chemotherapy and radiation Treatments and to be honest, Larry, I am mostly dead inside. I just don’t have the energy to
go from the bed to the bathroom until I can complete this treatment. And hopefully, we will kill this frickin’ monster forever.

Hopefully, we can gather a small pool of volunteers to go do the installs but if not, it’s just going to have to wait until I can get better. Honestly, the last thing I want people to imagine is that HeliOS is languishing.

Q: Is there a real chance of that, Ken? Languishing, or worse?

KS: Larry, I think so. When you have a project who’s vision and dream are guided by one person, then if that person disappears, the void takes its toll. Again, I don’t know anyone that is in the position to step in and take it over. It is an unpaid position at this point and even with some upcoming funding, the Facility Administrator job will pay tops of 28K. I can work for that but most people can’t or won’t. I do have some very real concerns over HeliOS lasting this health problem. I have to balance my life right now with the needs of the project and the demands on my health.

Q: You mention upcoming. How are you funded now?

KS: Except for donations and things we sell through the HeliOS eBay store, I pay for most stuff out of pocket and and then request reimbursement if there is any money in the SPI donation fund. I work small contracts to pay my bills. If there is money in the donations fund, I submit for reimbursement. The biggest problem I have now is that I lost two working contracts while in the hospital due to lack of my ability to go forward with the work.  That’s going to prove to be a big short term problem but hopefully, we will get by this with a little help and we can move along.

I’ve come to the community often in the five years we’ve needed help, and once before when my health was bad. And to be honest with you, I’m not real comfortable with doing so now so verbally, I won’t. It’s just where I/we are at the moment. I have no doubt that if I can regain my health, we can get back on track again. And to be honest Larry … I’ve had a full, interesting life, full of things from all sides of life’s spectrum, both good and bad, innocent and evil, and as I come to realize that my life’s clock may actually be showing the last quarter, the most I could ask for is another five years of productivity so I can make HeliOS a self-surviving entity.

If you care to, you can contact Ken at his prime mover email address: helios@fixedbylinux.com

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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Eliminate DRM!

Calling all Pythonistas

October 7, 2011 1 comment

Two blog items ago, I mentioned that Ken Starks and I don’t talk enough anymore, which is true. So in catching up recently, he informed me that he’s got another proverbial iron in another FOSS fire.

It’s one that deserves special mention, because it has to do with autism.

Ken blogged recently about a project some folks are doing in Python around getting autistic kids to use a mouse. He notes at the end of his blog that “within 48 hours of this posting, we have a Python developer and several professionals in the autism field who are being pulled together as a DevTeam. We will publish the early team members here by mid-week. Hopefully, we will also have the beginnings of a software map for this project…yet unnamed.”

In an e-mail exchange, he asked me to beat the bushes for Python developers who might be interested in this. So that’s what I’m doing here — if you know Python and want to contribute to this yet-to-be-named (see below) project, drop Ken a line at helios-at-fixedbylinux-dot-com.

In a later blog post, Ken mentions that they’re now looking for a name for the program, meaning that the clock is running on this program, now that there’s one coder on board to go with the folks with advanced degrees working with us to begin mapping out this software.

But there’s always room for more.

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy and Larry Cafiero, are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND license. In short, this license allows others to download this work and share it with others as long as they credit me as the author, but others can’t change it in any way or use it commercially.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software in his new home office. Watch this space.)

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Eliminate DRM!

Deep in the heart of TexOS

October 4, 2011 3 comments

Both Ken Starks and I have full plates, rhetorically speaking, when it comes to things we’re doing, things we’re planning to do, and things we’re actually getting done in the FOSS realm.

The up side of this is that things are getting done and we’re both staying out of trouble — although I can only speak for myself on the latter. The down side is that, in these busy days, I don’t get to talk to Ken as much as I’d like. But my good friend from the great state of Texas (no, that’s not sarcasm, Ken. Honest) passed on an interesting link that I think deserves special mention.

As most of you know, Ken gets Linux/FOSS boxes in the hands and homes of underprivileged kids in the Austin area through the HeliOS Project. He and I also organized the Lindependence event back in Felton and, as mentioned here in an item back in 2008, he and I are living breathing proof that Linux/FOSS works across political lines for a greater good.

Meanwhile, back at the original point of this blog, Ken passed on a link to something I find very interesting and something that needs to be shared, if not actually built upon.

The link in question is for TexOS, the Texas Open Source Project. The Texas Open Source Project, according to its site, “is working with local, non-profits in the San Angelo, Texas, area to provide technology to students who don’t have access to it at home.”

San Angelo is almost smack dab in the center of Texas — if “smack dab in the center” were me aiming a dart at the bull’s eye of the Lone Star State and being where the dart ends up (just to the left) after I tossed it — just West-Northwest as the crow flies of Austin.

Looking at the “About TexOS” page, the project encompasses a FOSS mentality, especially in providing “low cost access to educational and other useful software for all other purposes.” That’s where we — those who advocate for, and use, Linux and FOSS — come in.

A good example of this is the item posted about how TexOS used LibreOffice and Kalzium, a KDE program, for a school project. This combo is one of may ways that FOSS can be used in an educational setting providing free — as in beer and freedom — software to the classroom/student environment.

The folks at TexOS hold workshops to go with the placement of hardware, so users get a head start with their new machines. This is a definite plus for the kids — who are, according to one report, ages 10-13 — where they get an idea of what they’re getting into with FOSS. They’ve held two so far, with the third coming this Saturday.

This looks like a great program, and I would like to think that Linux/FOSS advocates will take a close look at TexOS as a blueprint in getting the same kind of program promoting Linux/FOSS in their own community.

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy and Larry Cafiero, are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND license. In short, this license allows others to download this work and share it with others as long as they credit me as the author, but others can’t change it in any way or use it commercially.

[FSF Associate Member] (Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and has just started developing software in his new home office. Watch this space.)

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Eliminate DRM!

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