Macs For Refugees

30 Jun

Near the end of May of 1999 I was offered the opportunity to assist the State Department and the U.S. Information Agency set-up and configure some computers on the internet for the Albanian refugees at Fort Dix.

 

So what the hell are Albanian refugees going to do with a bunch of computers?

 

I was told that the top three requests that the refugees ask for are food, clothing and news of the war. The USIA asked several companies to assist by donating products, services and people to set up some computers to allow the refugees to get access to a variety of news sources via the internet.

The USIA also had a web page that had news stories, audio and video feeds in various languages for the majority of the refugees that don’t speak english. But that page seems to be long gone along with the entire web site.

So how did I get involved in this? I kept wondering that all that first day, turns out it was an old story: My best friend’s, mother’s, cousin’s, husband’s, older brother cut Elvis’ hair…

But seriously, that’s not far from the truth. The company I work for is a member of the National Technology Alliance. One of the former big guys in the NTA works at the State Department and remembered his contacts at companies that were not too far from Fort Dix in New Jersey. As the resident certified Apple technician at Sarnoff they came to me to assist in the setup of the 13 computers that Apple donated.

Thursday afternoon (May 13th) a gentleman who also works at Sarnoff (well actually NIDL), and I, ventured Southward from Princeton to rural central New Jersey.

 

For those of you who have never been to New Jersey or only been to New Jersey near Newark Airport may snicker at the thought of someplace in New Jersey being called “rural”. I got news for you, it ain’t all smokestacks, petroleum refineries, seaports, warehouses, toll booths, dirty water and an endless spaghetti of highways. This is as lovely a part of the US as you find in the East. Green hills, trees as far as you can see and nary a toll booth in sight.

 

When we arrived we were greeted by the smiling face of Dave Zweigel. Dave works for the USIA and is in charge of putting together this lab. He is also a sweetheart of a guy and a hard worker. The first time I saw the smiling but bedraggled form of Dave it was clad in an Apple Mac Evangelist shirt. I knew immediately we would get along fine.

We hooked up with a couple of folks that Apple sent out and a couple of other techs from Princeton area companies. I tell you it was a breath of fresh air talking with these guys on the way over to the trailer.

 

You see Sarnoff is doing away with their Macs and I sometimes feel like a vampire on a day-pass, constantly defending the Mac against the onslaught of a tidal wave of PCs. I put up a fight, and defend the faith and continually post Pro-Mac articles, cartoons and posters around my cube. Thank god my boss has a sense of humor about him, and is rather tolerant.

 

All of a sudden I was in the company of people who got it: Macs are better, easier and more reliable then any Wintel PC on the planet. And very shortly we proved it.

The USIA had rented a trailer which was placed in the area cordoned off for the refugees at Fort Dix.

 

Seen one trailer you've seen 'em all...

Seen one trailer you’ve seen ’em all…

 

When we got to the trailer, there were 12 brand new 333MHz iMacs and a G3 Appleshare server waiting for us. But first the obligatory group pictures were taken. It was amazing, we all whipped out an assortment of digital cameras and spent 15 minutes swapping camera duties. The only “old fashioned” camera in the bunch was Dave’s and it was one of those el cheapo disposable cameras. Well, there’s one in every bunch!

 

 

Left to right Dave Pulkin (Apple), yours truly and Emory Osgood (Apple).

Left to right Dave Pulkin (Apple), yours truly and Emory Osgood (Apple).

 

Every time I meet a representative of Apple computer I am always delighted to meet friendly, intelligent and highly motivated people who are fun to work with. Dave and Emory were no exception.

 

 

Left to right Mike Wolk, Dave Zweigel, Dave and Emory from Apple and Bill Malpas from Sarnoff/NIDL.

 

Earlier I mentioned something about the Mac’s much vaunted ease of setup and use. The iMac is especially designed for quick and easy setup, so 6 Mac fanatics and my cohort from Sarnoff (he doesn’t care much which brand of PC he uses, as long as he can get his work done, which is OK by me!) should have 13 Macs set up, configured and on the internet in record time.

 

Yep, sure did!

 45 minutes later we were surfing the web on all 12 iMacs and the G3 server.

 

Oh, hey, there's Robert from NEC in the foreground and me, badly in need of a haircut and a shave.

There’s Robert from NEC in the foreground and me, badly in need of a haircut and a shave.

 

A plug for the rest:

Bell Atlantic donated a T1-line to the internet (more internet bandwidth than most companies have).

The friendly folks in the Fort Dix IT department brought the T1 link to the trailer into 3 small ethernet hubs. Hewlett Packard provided an HP LaserJet 5000 printer which was also set up in
record time.

 

I always thought Apple's design for the monitor made it look like an Art Deco Spacecraft from a 50's B-Grade Science Fiction movie... But then I laugh at the jokes on MST3K

I always thought Apple’s design for the monitor made it look like an Art Deco Spacecraft from a 50’s B-Grade Science Fiction movie… But then I laugh at the jokes on MST3K

 

After we got the lab set up we noticed that, while the iMacs had OS 8.6 on them (released only a few days previously) they didn’t have Quicktime 4 or the Realaudio player installed on them. Dave mentioned that there were plans afoot to have the VOA Albanian language broadcasts streamed over the internet in Quicktime 4 format. Also some of the content on the USIA site was in Realaudio format so we gleefully set about using some of that wonderful T1 bandwidth.

 

Quicktime 4 may have still been in beta at the time but it installed…

…flawlessly, quickly and easily on all 13 Macs. Never having seen QT4 in action I was expecting your typical grainy, postage stamp sized, jerky internet video I was used to. Emory just sat back and smiled as our gasps of amazement were heard at the quality of the BBC Quicktime internet feed. It has to bee seen to be believed. It made the RealPlayer look like yesterday’s news.

There was a problem (I can hear all the Mac bashers out there snickering now, “A-HA! so much for the Mac!”) Well snicker on you DOS weenies, because the problem was that Bell Atlantic somehow dropped our T1 connection. It took the talented Ft. Dix Network folks a bit of sleuthing and us Mac geeks a bit of quick work with Neon Software’s wonderful OT Tool to trace the problem to where the T1 met the Ft. Dix infrastructure. Since we were almost done installing the RealPlayer and QT4 software and it was getting late we called it a night.

 

As there wasn’t much left to do in the way of configuring, I agreed to come back the next day by myself to finish them off with Dave. Which we did with few problems.

Unfortunately I did not get the opportunity to work in the trailer. Work responsibilities, you know. however Dave showed up at the PMUG (Princeton Mac Users Group) meeting in June with some videotape and some good news:

The trailer was a huge success, people standing 5 and six deep around each iMac, drinking in the news of the war. They had also set up a registration web page where refugees from the US and all across Europe could register to find relatives and tell their relatives they were OK. When the refugees made their first contact from Ft. Dix to a camp in Europe the attendance at the trailer more than doubled and they started getting a lot more women using the Macs.

 

With all of the use and abuse these iMacs got and are getting you would expect some problems. Yeah but no more than you would expect from inexperienced people who don’t speak or read English. Most problems are due to inexperience and clicking on the wrong button at the wrong time.

Interestingly enough Dave observed a behavior we have seen in many new computer users in the US. When the connection is slow, or slower than you want many people tend to move the mouse up and down rapidly; because we all know that doing so speeds up the computer. I’ve done it myself. Cute.

Dave also said that Ft. Dix was the only refugee camp that had Macs, the rest of the camps in Europe had Wintel PCs. They had to hire a technician for each of the other labs. There was nothing that required the services of a technician at the iMac trailer at Ft. Dix. I should know, they had my beeper number and were instructed to use it in case of a problem. It never went off in the 2-3 months the trailer was in operation.

 

I got a nice thank you note from the Stephanie Baldwin at NIDL. She was the first to come to me about this. Also included was the text of an article from (I believe) the NY Times. Here it is. Several months later Stephanie discovered that the Vice Prez had sent Sarnoff a thank you note. It took her a while to track it down but I ended up getting a copy of a fax of a copy of a fax… So I finagled me a fresh photocopy

 

All in all It was an incredible experience. And that would be putting it mildly

 

 

 

Originally posted before I added WordPress to this site. Published date is approximate.

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