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Open Source Household

by Daniel Dern

As owner and president of Brooklyn Linux Solutions, it's hardly surprising that Ruben Safir uses Linux on a regular basis. Indeed, it would be suprising if he didn't.

Brooklyn Linux Solutions is a small company based in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. It provides Linux-based office solutions to companies primarily in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area. The company's customers include small businesses and offices as well as midsize industrial clients and companies needing large network environments.

Also a member of New York Linux Scene, an organization that provides resources to the New York City-area Linux community, Ruben says he's been using Linux exclusively since 1996.

What may be surprising, however, is that this use of Linux, and open source software, also extends to Ruben's home--and not just for his own use, but for the entire family, including his wife, Ellen Safir, and their six children (two boys and four girls, currently ranging in age from five to fourteen). The house has half a dozen computers in it (more or less), all networked together and connected to the Internet through DSL.

The operating system on all of the computers in the house is Linux, using a combination of Red Hat, SuSe, and Slackware, although, notes Ruben, "Some of the setups are so old and hacked that they are beyond recognition." In addition, the software on the computers is nearly all open source or other freely available code.

The Safir children are native Linux/open source users. "Our kids don't know anything different," says Ruben. "They've developed the ability to [work on the] command line and have their own desktops and different window managers. They've also become pretty adept at finding programs to install, especially games."

Linux hasn't proved to be an obstacle to the Safir kids becoming computer users. "When someobody says, 'People need to use Windows because it's easy,' I tell them that my five year old has been able to click and go with WinMaker since age three," says Ruben. "He's more than capable of handling his own thing: loading programs, draging icons onto the clipboard, et cetera."

When asked if they find using Linux easy? Hard? More convenient than Microsoft Windows or a Macintosh? replies from the Safir family included: "Linux is easier and fast," from Dovid; and "It's the same," from Shani. Ruben adds, "the other children have never used anything else."

Proprietary and other "closed" software aren't prohibited at the Safir household. For example, "We're running Applix," says Ruben. "And we've had other software here at times." On the other hand, Ruben concedes that the absence of a Windows environment puts some inherent limits on what can be installed and run.

"Recently I was running WINE [a non-Microsoft implementation of Windows 3.x and Win32 APIs that lets Unix/Linux users run Windows programs without using Microsoft Windows], and the only Windows software I could get running was a Bicycle card game. There's some Jewish software that runs under Windows; I'll look into making it run under WINE if we can't get them to rewrite it for Linux."

A wealth of free resources

When the Safir kids go to other people's houses and sit down at their computers, "They can't understand where GnomeHack, a GNOME front end to NetHack, is." (NetHack is a text-based role-playing game (RPG) a la Adventure and Zork.) "They've also recently discovered Crossfire" (a graphical RPG with multiplayer capability).

"They're very frustrated with the programs [on other people's computers]. For example, they feel very limited by not being able to change the window manager, or, most importantly, flip virtual desktops. We usually have between five and seven virtual desktops; in Windows, you're restricted to one."

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More often, says Ruben, "the neighborhood kids come here to do work, because we've got more things available, especially games. Most of my kids' friends are also religious Jews. A lot of them have computers for work or gaming, but, like us, no TVs . . . and many of them don't even have computers or Internet connections. When they come over here, they discover there's a LAN around the house. That's still unusual around here."

Both games and applications are proving popular with resident and visiting kids. "GnomeHack has been the big rage; they learned how to turn off the Kill feature and get to the deeper, empty levels of the Dungeon." Other popular games in the Safir household include gnome-stones and Nibbles, which all the kids play. Dovid, who is ten, says he's also playing Gnome Robots II and Margon variants.

I asked Ruben to poll the kids on what text editor(s)/word processor(s) and other applications they use. Taly uses Applix, Itka uses gedit, and Schmuley uses Paint. Favorite programs: GnomeHack and chess--David; "diamonds" (gnome-stones)--Schmuel; GNOME/bill--Itka; and GIMP and chess--Taly.

For Web browsing it's Mozilla, reports Ruben, "but they don't know that." For schoolwork and other study, Applixware gets used, along with a dictionary, a periodic table, and the Internet.

Non-game software also gets the attention of visitors. "Usually it's the GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) that blows them away. Most houses don't have spare copies of Photoshop."

House-wide computing made more affordable by open source software also encourages the children to make fuller use of technology, according to Ruben, for both school and social purposes. "Everyone in the house can talk by email with friends and relatives."

Not surprisingly, ready access to free software also helps the Safirs when it comes to schoolwork. "They use a lot of statistical and plotting packages that come with SuSe in the science and math areas, mostly using Science Lab 2.5, which has a bunch of scientific experiments that can be run. There's an interactive periodic table, and much more.

"Now that Taly, my eldest daughter, is in high school, because she has far more resources available than anybody else, she gets further in science projects," says Ruben. "It's hard to imaging doing without open source software; it would be far more expensive to provide all this."

Open source breeds computer literacy

Although fuller access to computers is encouraging computer literacy, it doesn't necessarily breed new programmers or computer scientists, says Ruben. "I've been trying to encourage them to program but haven't had much luck. My 14-year-old daughter isn't that interested. But my ten-year-old son is beginning to show some slight interest."

On the other hand, "There's a whole non-constraining element about computers and computing in our house that makes using them easy. They have no limitations. This changes the way the kids view things. When there are no restrictions on what can be done, it becomes, 'What does this system have on it?' and 'What does this do?' rather than 'Do you have [this]?'"

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"And their friends have also learned they have no limitations . . . by the time they get done asking our kids whether they have this game or that, they find they literally have hundreds of them. The other day, I found my son playing chess with a friend across the street, via the Net, using a Java-based version. They also play Risk; I had to kick them off and make them go to sleep."

Having his children use Linux and other open source programs isn't just a financial decision. "It's an issue of familiarity and computer literacy," Ruben states. "I've been advocating computer literacy, but what does that mean? It doesn't mean learning to use WordPerfect or Word. It means programming and the administration of a computer, understanding how it functions and how you can use it--not just how to make a Word file."

And, claims Ruben, serious computer literacy requires making use of open source software. "If you want to raise children that are able to leverage computers to meet their own goals as free citizens, that's not possible with commercial software, period. Free software makes more possible," says Ruben. "If they were limited to commercial systems only, the kids would have no chance to do much of what they're currently doing. They couldn't make the sound files they make, run the video stuff they run, do the graphics they make."

"All the things that XP is advertising now, we've been doing this for five years already. We're educating our children and giving them the ability to further express themselves using computers, and the ability to use computers as a voice and a way of getting information and communicating."

Daniel Dern is a freelance technology writer. Most recently he was executive editor of Byte.com. His Web site is www.dern.com.

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