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Editor's Note: You Are Cordially Invited...

Jul 08, 2005, 23:30 (15 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

This weekend is my high school reunion. Those of you familiar with this tradition will very likely picture the wince on my face as I type that.

It has been 20 years since I last graced the halls of my alma mater. Twenty years, one wife, two daughters, and one heck of a receeding hairline later, I would hope I have gained wisdom and maturity since that time. Certainly my wardrobe has improved. (Remember pastel t-shirts and white linen jackets? Oh yes, I shamefully emulated Sonny Crockett.)

I am wincing not because I didn't enjoy my high school experience; I did. In fact, my friends think I am rather odd because I don't have some kind of trauma associated with those years. So, seeing old friends and classmates will be good.

No, I wince because of the inevitiable comparisons that are made at such events between what was and what is. And also because of my special social handicap: explaining Linux to non-technical people.

Let's be honest, Linux is something that doesn't come out at many social gatherings where nerds aren't in full force. And, unless your significant other is a full-bore geek too, they will work darn hard to make sure it doesn't get brought up at a social gathering they are attending.

There is some merit to this sort of restraint. Geeking out tends to make people turn a bit glassy-eyed and I would prefer the people I am taking to don't pass out with boredom. You tend not to get invited back that way.

Still, Americans tend to be obsessed with their jobs (so my European friends tell me) and nowhere is this more of a full-contact sport than a high school reunion, where success is measured in superficial things more than quality of one's life. (Non-Americans, feel free to roll your eyes here.)

So, my job is reporting and commenting about Linux on the several Web sites I manage. That's the 10-cent description and, if I am lucky, I can leave it at that and move on to how beautiful my wife is or how smart my kids are (See? I'm starting already). Invariably, I get the question "Linux? What's that?"

When I first started working on LinuxPlanet and was writing some books on Linux, my answer used to be "Linux is an operating system like Windows. It's free, and is very popular in Europe, more than the United States."

That answer seemed to satify most people, though they looked puzzled at the "free" part.

Later, as I grew to know, use, and appreciate Linux more, I tended to give a more politically slanted answer: "Linux is an operating system that is much more stable and secure than Windows. Best of all, it's free. Free to download and free to change however you wish."

That's pretty much the answer I still give, but it's a loaded response. I either get someone who is or knows an MSCE, and will therefore rise up to try to challange me in a verbal match of technology over the canapes. This is huge mistake. If I am well supplied with finger food, I will rock anyone's world in an argument.

Or, regrettably, in mentioning the instability and insecurity of Windows, I will have triggered the opposite response: a deluge of "oh, my computer did this weird thing the other day. Do you know how...?"

Now, as I am sure we have all experienced before, this is the Free Advice Syndrome. Doctors, lawyers, and Those of Us Wise in the Ways of Silicon are endlessly innundated with questions with the hopes of gaining free knowledge. From "I have this funny wart" to "I have this funny blue screen," these questions are the bane of our existence. For Linux users, it is especially painful, since most problems presented to you by non-technical people are Windows problems.

I mean, sure, it would be great if the former captain of the cheerleading squad came up to me and asked me about cron jobs... (oops, free associating there, sorry)... but we all know that isn't going to happen.

When people start in with these questions, I try to be polite. I do. Really. But little do they know about the near-psychotic narrative running though my head: "UNINSTALLWINDOWSINSTALLLINUXUNINSTALLWINDOWSINSTALLLINUXUNINSTALLWINDOWS..." No, all they see is me nodding sagely and then hear me reply: "Sure, just reboot when that happens." Regardless of what problem they have.

(If I think they have a modicum of tech savvy, I will point them to Linux, never fear. But these people are unfortunately rare.)

So, on the eve of this social gathering, I find myself with the dilemna of the ages: how to describe Linux to non-technical people in a way that doesn't bore them to tears, illicit whiney Microsoft vengance, or trigger Free Advice Syndrome. Suggestions are welcome, and remember, you're not just helping me, but all your other brother and sister penguins in arms. Because if we get a good, catchy answer, we'll keep getting invited back to more social gatherings.

With lots of wine and, of course, finger food.