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Video Phil Shapiro: Slashdot Reader, FOSS Activist, and Library Computer Guy (Video) 30

Phil Shapiro isn't famous, but he's a pretty good writer whose work appears regularly at opensource.com. He makes his living as the tech support person (he calls it "public nerd") at the Takoma Park Maryland Library. He has also -- see the link to his bio page above -- lived in New Delhi, India; Copenhagen, Denmark; Paris, France; and Scarsdale, New York. He got started with Linux as a "social justice" thing; because Linux and FOSS helped make it possible for people of modest means (we used to just call them "poor") to learn about computers and get on the Internet. He's still a big "computer for the masses" advocate and computer rehab volunteer. What's especially interesting about this interview (which is slightly out of sound/visual synch; you may prefer reading the transcript) is the amount of credit Phil gives Slashdot for spurring him on and getting him excited about FOSS. He also sees Slashdot as instrumental in helping start the Maker subculture. Do you agree? If so, should influencing the future of technology be Slashdot's main mission? Also: If so, how do you suggest we do it? And more specifically, do you know any other non-famous Slashdot readers (or people in general) we should talk to because they are doing interesting things?

Robin “Roblimo” Miller: I’m Robin “Roblimo” Miller for Slashdot. Today we are talking with Phil Shapiro, who’s been a Slashdot reader since I believe 45 B.C. and runs a rack of Linux computers at a library. Which library is it, Phil?

Phil Shapiro: Takoma Park Maryland Library. It’s in the Washington D.C. area. We have 28 Linux stations for the public.

Robin Miller: Okay. The public like them?

Phil Shapiro: They love them.

Robin Miller: How did you get started with Linux? How did you get from “I know what’s a Linux” to where you are now?

Phil Shapiro: Well, you know, I came at it from the social justice angle. One of my Linux mentors, Jeffrey Elkner in the Arlington Public Schools, he was setting up LTSP thin clients in low-income apartment complexes in Arlington, Virginia.

Robin Miller:How did you get started with Linux? How did you get from “I know what’s a Linux” to where you are now?

Phil Shapiro: Well, you know, I came at it from the social justice angle. One of my Linux mentors, Jeffrey Elkner in the Arlington Public Schools, he was setting up LTSP thin clients in low-income apartment complexes in Arlington, Virginia.

Arlington is actually the birthplace of the internet, right there near the Pentagon. And typically the apartment complexes he was helping were immigrant families and I thought it really exciting that he was providing Internet access to the apartment complex. The only thing the owners of the property had to do was to pay for the Internet connection and to pay for one server computer and then he and his high school students would provide 10 or 12 other computers and then they had a room where everybody was online. It was pretty exciting. That was in the late ‘90s.

Robin Miller: I did a little volunteering. I installed some free educational software on those computers and then I kind of got hooked. I found the Slashdot website. I thought the community was a lot smaller at that time. And then when I saw Slashdot, I said, you know, this isn’t a matter of thousands of people and it’s not a matter of tens of thousands, that it might be as many as hundreds of thousands of people that are interested in free and open source software. And so I thought that was pretty exciting.

I thought it was also exciting where I submitted stories to Slashdot and every once in a while my stories were accepted and then every passing month it became harder and harder to get into Slashdot. And I found that both annoying and exhilarating because it was such a vibrant community that they didn’t need stories, they had thousands of stories each day to choose from.

I was also really intrigued by the Slashdot effect, where literally tens of thousands of passionate computer users would end up on a website and bring down that website because of their interest. So, the Slashdot effect, I mean, that was pretty fascinating to read about and once in a while I’d see it on stories that I submit. The volume of web traffic from people around the world, a lot of them were interested in free and open source software.

Robin Miller: So, let’s move on to today. We went from that, the niche, to what we have now. Do you think Linux still deserves, it needs the ordinance, zealotry of the early years or is it just there?

Phil Shapiro: Good question. I think some of the zealotry can backfire and that I try and think of myself as a quiet warrior for free and open source software, in that I don’t insist that it’s good for other people. I just tell people that it works well for me and that I alert them to possibilities. At the public library where I work, whenever somebody buys a laptop, I tell them, I loved Firefox and these days I use Google Chrome or Chromium. And I just tell them about options. But you can have too much zealotry. It really does backfire like any kind of fanaticism.

I think, one thing is for sure, that the smartest youth and adults who walk in to my library love Linux and that’s pretty interesting to see, to notice. I mean, I have yet to see somebody who is like brilliant at computers is a Windows or Macintosh person come up to me. And that’s kind of interesting to just observe. Maybe it’s because our library is kind of a Linux library, but I don’t think so. People don’t even know the library is a Linux library. They just come there and get their stuff done.

We have no virus problems and anybody can download whatever they want in our computers. Put it on a Flash drive, as long it’s not violating copyright law, I say go for it. You want to download stuff, just go for it. It makes people very comfortable. They feel that the computer is there for their needs and that we just don’t have all that much lockdown other than you can’t get to the command prompt. But besides that you can do a lot on our public computers.

Robin Miller: Let me ask you a question, which came first in Takoma Park, the Linux or the Phil Shapiro?

Phil Shapiro: Good question. It was my supervisor Rebecca Brown, yeah. She is a social justice kind of person and she is the one who decided that the library was going to choose this Linux solution called Userful out of Calgary, Alberta and

Robin Miller: Which? Yeah, Userful. Right, right.

Phil Shapiro: Yeah, Userful, right. So, she actually did an analysis of what would bring the most value to our community in terms of public access computers. Actually looked at all the Windows and the Mac and the Linux and the community I work in has 92 nationalities, so we needed to have a multilingual public access station and this Userful does support multilingual. You can login in lots of different languages.

So, by and large, they’ve done a real good job in my regard of, they provide the support. So, I go to work and I don’t call myself tech support, even though I’m pretty skilled at computers. I call myself the “public geek” because I’m public and I’m geek, but I’m not tech support. I’m there for the benefit of the people.

Robin Miller: So, you guys are still running Userful, then?

Phil Shapiro: We still are, yeah, and it’s working real nice. We have one station, one tower runs six or four computers at the same time.

Robin Miller: This is what I was going to say, I was going to say tell me how it works. I know how Userful works. I think I wrote the first story about it ever. It’s one of those I discovered. I thought it was very cool and I experimented with it.

Phil Shapiro: What’s funny is also when you call them in February, Calgary, Alberta can be the second coldest place on the planet.

Robin Miller: Really?

Phil Shapiro: Yeah, it’s a cold place. So, if like I’m calling him, I go, well I’m kind of glad I’m not there but you guys got the tech support.

Robin Miller: Columbia, Maryland also went Userful, did they not? In fact, I believe before Takoma Park.

Phil Shapiro: They might have. Yes, you know, Columbia, Maryland has got some very smart library administrators there. They were written in up Slashdot.

Robin Miller: I know.

Phil Shapiro: And, I think they are a larger library system, we are just a single library, we are a municipal library and they are a library system. So, they made the bigger step, the bigger leap and I commend them for that.

Robin Miller: So, you are involved in the Linux and FOSS community besides your job. In what way?

Phil Shapiro: Well, what do I do? I like to write for OpenSource.com. It’s run by Red Hat. It’s a great website. They don’t pay me for writing for them, but they provide me an editor to make my writing look and sound better. And they connect me up with other people who care about free and open source software.

So I’ve met interesting other bloggers on their website and they’re interested in open source not just as a software but as a way of life, as a core human value. And that’s really fascinating to me, that it’s not just about the software, it’s how do we work together as human beings, how do we imagine a different world, how do we maintain all of our options without some other companies, some large corporation choosing the features of the software that we’re using, how can we prevent them from making the choice of the software that we’re using. So, I love that website.

I go and I make presentations around town, sometimes to non-profit organizations. I gave a recent talk about MultiSeat on Fedora-17 that you can set up your own multiple computer thing just like Userful in your house. Using Fedora-17 is really exciting. All you need is this little pluggable device which costs $65 each. You could even use a donated or totally free computer to setup a computer lab in a low income family’s house.

And some of the families that I support with my volunteering that I like to do, they might have two families living in one apartment. They might be as many as 8 or 10 people, some adults, some high school, some elementary school. I mean if you have just one or two computers, it doesn’t cut it. One or two computers doesn’t cut it. The apartment is too small to have eight computers, but it’s not too small to have eight stations. So, you have one computer and a couple of extra LCD monitors. And what’s really, really exciting is that Comcast, a company that I’m not a fan of, but yeah

Robin Miller: Will all the Comcast fans please put your hands up?

I see no hands.

Phil Shapiro: But they’ve done some good things with this $10 a month Internet Essentials. So, I got a family from the Cameroon to Internet Essentials at $10 a month and I haven’t set up a MultiSeat for them yet but I’d like to. And of course, if you setup a MultiSeat kind of situation for one family, if they form a friendship with another family in the same apartment complex, they can even take that $10 and share that $10 cost between two families. So, that each is chipping in $5 and has a lot of Internet access.

Then, of course, I show people where they can learn touch typing skills for free on the web, and there is a website called typingweb.com. I show them where they can learn English language skills. Our own public library has English language and foreign language material that’s multimedia that you can access from your home. So, if the computers are free or low cost and the Internet is $10 a month, it opens up a lot of possibilities.

Robin Miller: But wait, wouldn’t these people be better off if they all had those $999 on special Dell computers with 82 inch monitors and 150-key keyboards, and I don’t know what

Phil Shapiro: Yeah, right. No. The thing about access to technology is how you use it, and really not the speed of the processor. I mean, I sometimes take a Windows 95 computer to a first grader. And that first grader is writing their first sentences on that computer. The computer is not connected to the internet, you have a 24-point font and for that first grader, their experience with that Windows 95 computer is identical to if they had a MacBook Pro with a retina display, because they just want to write a sentence, or if they have MacBook Air, there’s no difference between a MacBook Air and a Windows 95 laptop for a first grader. They’re sitting there with a laptop and they’re writing a sentence with a large font.

And so, people are quick to dismiss older computers as obsolete and I think that word is a bit pejorative. It’s not whether the computer is too old, it’s whether we care enough about using that resource to benefit somebody rather than throwing it in the thrash, throwing that resource in the thrash. When you throw resources in the thrash, it’s a little bit like throwing the people in the thrash and probably the people don’t deserve to be thrown in the thrash.

Robin Miller: We don’t?

Phil Shapiro: Yeah, we probably don’t need to throw people in the thrash.

Robin Miller: Oh, okay. I’m not going to say anything political here. I promise not to, no, no, me and 47% of those. No, no, no, that would be somebody else.

Phil Shapiro: I can tell you one story. I took a donated computer to this one third-grade girl and she had just come from Africa, from Ethiopia. And I told if she wanted to learn how to type, there was a typing tutor. The family didn’t have enough money for the Internet. But when she was in fifth grade, she came up to me at the library and she said, “At my elementary school they measure my typing speed and what do you think I type at?” So I said, “You probably type like 20 words a minute, and that’s really good.” She goes, “No, I type as fast as you type.” She goes, “I type at 70 words a minute.” And she is in elementary school who is a fifth grader. So, I said, “I predict you practice like a 100 to 200 hours.” She goes, “Yeah, I practice about 100 to 200 hours of typing.” And so anyway, that was a success story. The kid is helping her mom through college as an elementary school student, now she is a middle school student, but she was helping her mom through college as an elementary school student. And that’s cool to think that I had a role to play in it.

Robin Miller: Social justice, this is social justice and you learned about Linux, well you said, from personal contact plus reading Slashdot.

Phil Shapiro: Right.

Robin Miller: Do you think that that movement, the outward spread is continuing now?

Phil Shapiro: I think it is. I do hear these – some kids walk up to me, some middle school kids and they said, “You know, I’m getting really interested in Linux?” One kid I talked to I said, “You know quite a lot about Linux.” I said, “Did one of your parents show you stuff?” He goes, “No.” He said, “I just a read a lot about it on the Internet and then I tried things out at home and it’s really interesting.” So for me the fact that there wasn’t a parental introduction, that makes it even more fascinating that somebody has acquired a lot of skill. Although, I’d love to hear that a parent has shown the kid.

I remember back when I first got into Linux, there was a Luke Faraone. He came to listen to IBM talk about Linux at the Yorktown High School, Linux User Group. He showed up in his Cub Scout uniform with his mom, his mom had gotten him into Linux and he was a third grader. And he ran down to the front of this small auditorium, and he went up to these IBM folks and he goes, “I just love Linux. I just love it.” And as a third grader in a Cub Scout uniform, they’d probably never forget that moment. They’d probably have something to tell folks back home. Linux is here, this kid in third grade; now Luke is getting his computer science degree. He’s a college student right now, actively supporting one laptop per child. So, that kid makes me proud.

Robin Miller: Say anything, say something about Slashdot and then I’ll stop this?

Phil Shapiro: Sure. So Slashdot, I think Slashdot, the passion of the people on Slashdot is what, I think, most distinguishes that website. The number of comments, they’re not always polite comments, but there’s just a lot of energy. And Slashdot for me is the website that defines the birth of Linux as a more mainstream movement, that it wasn’t a kind of a fringe movement that it became harder and harder and harder to ignore Slashdot in the technology field. It was just too big of a phenomenon. And it took Linux away from being kind of a side interest to being something that’s more difficult to ignore. That it was here to stay, Linux is here to stay.

And Slashdot, I would even credit Slashdot as being sort of like the Whole Earth Catalog was to Apple Computer, the originating soil. I think that Slashdot might have been the originating soil for the Maker Movement, for MAKE Magazine and Tim O'Reilly and stuff. I think that Slashdot, I would give it some credit as being the soil from which that grew.

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Phil Shapiro: Slashdot Reader, FOSS Activist, and Library Computer Guy (Video)

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  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohnNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday November 05, 2012 @04:33PM (#41885875) Journal

    He also sees Slashdot as instrumental in helping start the Maker subculture. Do you agree?

    The software side, maybe. Slashdot leaves much to be desired on the hardware side of the necessary skills in engaging in the Maker subculture.

    If so, should influencing the future of technology be Slashdot's main mission?

    Regardless of my prior answer: yes, please yes, oh for the love all things noodly yes.

    Also: If so, how do you suggest we do it?

    Well, I know that this is popular in the comments but probably not so popular with the new Dice overlords but I will be frank for the betterment of Slashdot. Slashdot BI [slashdot.org] is bad. The people that write for it aren't bad but the material they are told to cover is bad. It represents a lot of things that are wrong with technical journalism today: buzzwords, lists, how-tos that tell you how to do nothing, focus pieces on companies and the worst part about it all is that it's largely positive "news." I suggest that you swap this out and you go here [slashdot.org] and you ask yourself why it doesn't look more like this [hackaday.com], this [makeprojects.com] or even this [spritesmods.com].

    Tell me, you have this formatted page for Business Intelligence with subdirectories and paid authors and all sorts of stuff. Where, oh where, is the equivalent for Makers? What, the exposition pieces you do for Amazon's latest cloud launch bring you more revenue than a how-to on hacking USB I/O with the Raspberry Pi? Well, if that's the truth, that's the truth!

    Why is it that story submission has special entry fields for book reviews but not for Make projects? You get my book reviews because you have made a space for them. I feel like there is no space for Maker stuff on Slashdot and, most importantly, there is no space for non-news maker stuff. Your commitment so far is to hit the big things [slashdot.org] and that's very cool but the Maker subculture isn't only about high value targets. It's also about the small projects and replicating projects you find all over the place like here [themagpi.com].

    Let's face it: if somebody does a learning project and uploads a video to YouTube that shows how to integrate a very specific Arduino board with a very specific LED board and puts up some ugly source code on github, it's not going to make Slashdot's front page. And most of the comments will be "I could do better" and "congratulations, you're doing what I did in fifth grade." However these are some of the resources that get Makers started and drive the community. There's tons of not-news-worthy stuff going on in the background and right now the Slashdot front page isn't the place for this nor does there even exist a subpage for it.

    Slashdot is only interested in hunting elephants and bringing one in once every six months while there are Makers trying to learn how to cultivate soy beans. You could try having a subpage like BI where people can grow ideas and share tutorials no matter how inane and besotted with errors they are. But that stuff will probably have to stay off the frontpage.

    And more specifically, do you know any other non-famous Slashdot readers (or people in general) we should talk to because they are doing interesting things?

    Why not reach out to the other pages I linked? They're doing it right but they lack the readership. You have the readership but lack the Maker diversity. Surely there could be some value shared there?

    • Slashdot is only interested in hunting elephants

      This better be an euphemism for pageviews, if not, you're just trolling.

      Thinking of Slashdot as some community driven thing is great until you realize that editors have to pick the stories on the home page. We do all the hard work of searching out stories that are interesting for them, so what gives? Why don't the users get to do that last bit too? Just grant "meta moderator" status to a select few, as they do moderators, and call it a day. Seems like all you ask and more would be possible if users ac

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Slashdot is only interested in hunting elephants

        This better be an euphemism for pageviews, if not, you're just trolling.

        Read the rest of that paragraph and you'll see it's an analogy for the size and impact of the project. Quoting half of a sentence out of context can be really hilarious:

        Thinking of Slashdot as some community driven thing is great

        Awesome! I'm glad you're on bored!

  • "Influencing future technology" isn't really a thing. People are influenced by Slashdot as evidenced by this very nice gentleman and his video. Slashdot is a social space, not a technical workshop.

    "Without me, my rifle is useless, without my rifle, I am useless." Making techology into this sort of monolithic, God like entity has always been a major failing in the computer geek culture. You need human's first to have technology. If no one wants to play with your neat toy, it may be very neat, but it may not

    • I read 13 tech blogs today. And I commented on THREE of them! And I tweeted @Apple. I'm SO influencing future technology.
  • Interview me. Not because I am an arrogant, breast-thumping prat. But because now, at age 45, I look back upon about half my career - a career in which Slashdot was highly instrumental, since 1999, in making choices. A career that was deeply marked by the advent of Java, in which I started programming in 1996 ( !! ). A career that was, also, marked by countless attempts, some successful, to introduce open source software and open source design in various european government agencies, major and minor corpora
  • Wow. Except for having a full head of hair and not having a job, I could be mistaken for this guy. :p
  • We were all makers then. Except, we called it Electronics.

    I remember creating an FM transmitter for my term project. I asked to go to the bathroom before my turn to show off our projects, and walked behind the out-building our lab was in, then tuned into the Oldies station my teacher always listened to in the background. I keyed in my transmitter and stated that my electronics teacher "has won the student's choice award for best teacher, call in within the next 10 minutes and mention the phrase 'Chicken

  • by Tough Love ( 215404 ) on Monday November 05, 2012 @06:31PM (#41887239)

    should influencing the future of technology be Slashdot's main mission?

    Maintaining as high as possible a concentration of clueful posters and interested readers should be Slashdot's main mission. Then influencing the future will take care of itself.

    • Maintaining as high as possible a concentration of clueful posters and interested readers should be Slashdot's main mission.


  • I've been working on the Free Charge Controller project for the last three years. A charge controller is a black box that sits between a solar panel (or wind turbine) and a load (like a battery) and makes sure the two 'play nice' together.

    The project is still very much in it's infancy, but we've been working with Jameco, and electronics part supplier, to create kits. The kit will be launching in the next day or two.

    See FreeChargeController.org [freechargecontroller.org] for more information if any Slashdoters are interested in

Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder. -- Dr. Laurence J. Peter