The Coastal Post - June 2000

Will Junk Computer Geek Guru Return to Marin?

By Jim Scanlon

In 1998 James Burgett stopped taking advice from well meaning people proposing ingenious ways to interest the Marin Community Foundation to fund his computer recycling business. His self supporting, Marin Computer Resources Center was in crisis. The price for ground up computer motherboards--his bread and butter product--- crashed due to the Asian economic crisis and he was paying his staff late, junked computers were streaming in, exhausting his storage capacity, spilling into the parking lot, driving his landlord and neighboring businesses crazy. He couldn't pay the rent. Although he was approved as a non profit providing a service everyone thought vial, he could not secure a grant.

"It was frustrating" he said, "foundations were funding people to study computer recycling when I was doing it. I would have preferred someone helping me rather than studying me."

Although he loved Marin he closed down his operation that provided free classes in computer repair so they could be sold or donated to non profits and moved his dedicated staff to a vacant food processing plant in San Leandro where he paid no rent--until it closed. Marin had become a bad dream--but he always intended to return.

Burgett has since relocated to East Oakland where he has set up a stable operation recycling computers and other high tech equipment. He got a grant from the Alameda County Waste Management Agency which helped and now that he has enough cash flow from the sale of electronic scrap he is trying to set up a satellite operation in Marin County. He has a lead on space at Indian Valley College where he would like to offer free classes again in computer repair, give away refurbished computers to non profits, and establish a container drop off spot for individuals and corporations to leave old high tech equipment. It's still up in the air and he needs support.

James recently led the Coastal Post on a tour of his Oakland depot. Our visit was sparked by reports of a super computer put together from recycled computers mostly slower Pentium IIs linked into a network. We entered the "Beowulf Room" named for a massive array of small computers arranged into a parallel processing super computer by scientists at Sandia Laboratories in the South West.

The Coastal Post asked James about a report in the British Science Journal "Nature" of a super computer constructed by biologists at the American Museum of Natural History using off the shelf equipment: 129 computers (known as "boxes"), Pentium IIIs, with hard drives, 512 Mbs of RAM, connected together over a switching network running at 100Mhz. This system cost $300.000 for parts and $300,000 for building modification and air conditioning.

James, a large man who could pass for a professional wrestler, smiles. "Look at this" he points to a rack of mini tower computers with their backs pointing out, "We have a super computer constructed from 170 junked computers. It cost $2,000 plus 6 pizzas to build and operate!" It runs on Linux a free operating system, the same on used by the New York Biologists and, it seems all the super geeks building super computers these days." Linux is free. We couldn't have done it without Linux. Anyone seriously interested in supercomputers has to walk away from Microsoft"

James read about one of these projects on the Internet, and looking around his warehouse it suddenly occurred to him that he had everything there---almost everything--to build his own. Together with a small group of 5 students and friends they meet on Saturdays to work on the computer which they hope to expand to 500 boxes. James buys the pizza. He demos a computer graphic on NEX which takes a 400 Mhz Pentium III two and half hours to construct. NEX does the job in a minute and a half. The Coastal Post watches as a picture of a chess board slowly appears on the monitor screen like Kirk and Spock being beamed down to some planet.

Lots of people have heard about the computer, which he calls NEX (Not Enough of this, not enough that, "X", which stands for everything, processing power, memory, storage, time etc.). A delegation from Lawrence Livermore Laboratory came by and one from UC Berkeley. He says he can't talk about it right now, he has to keep mum, but he has already had an $80,000 offer for NEX and if things work out his non profit will have a sizable chunk of a high tech IPO.

James has come a long way and wants to go a lot further. Born in the upper Mid West he was moved and dragged over much of the county growing up in a dysfunctional family. His father was a top programmer with Intel but he never saw much of him after divorce when James was 6. He attended school after school in California finally dropping out of school in the 8th Grade.

When asked "why"?, James seems stunned by the question and stares up at the ceiling for several seconds before answering decisively "drugs". He wandered all over the country, lost, but he never went to jail or juvenile hall.

When asked "What made you stop"? he again seems stunned and mutters "What made me stop? I met my wife" he says suddenly." I'm close to 300 pounds now. I weighted 100 pounds when I met her". So a woman's love did it again.

James is completely self-taught when it comes to computers. He remembers constructing a plastic toy logic machine he got from his father when he was six. and working with a computer in the science lab of a continuation school. He got into the recycling business by accident and found the chaos satisfying. One thing led to another.

He hopes that one of his refurbished computers and the training he provides is of some help to kids like he was. " I'm not ashamed of my past" he says, "I'm actually kinda' proud of it"!

James can use the help of anyone out there who knows of the work he did with the Marin Computer Resources Center when it was on lower Lincoln Ave. Write to him if you support his plans to move back to Marin. Please write Alameda County Resources Center PO Box 150759 San Rafael CA 94915.

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