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Editor's Note: Penguins in Hot Pursuit

Jun 24, 2005, 23:30 (10 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

This week I am reading, for the sake of pure pleasure, Mark Svenvold's Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America. Weather has long held my interest. As a pilot, knowing the weather is a great way of keeping yourself from getting killed.

But beyond that, I am a bonafide weather geek. As such, I have a certain fascination with those people who run around the American Midwest looking for and running towards the cyclonic paths of destruction that lance down from brackish-greenish skies. In my common sense-ruled universe the object, it would seem, would be to run away.

But, until I can afford to take the time to galavant around the countryside looking for twisters, I will have to experience storm chasing vicariously. Hence the book.

Svenvold seems to have his feet firmly gripped in reality, though he is as drawn to tornadoes as the chaser community around him, due in part to his own chance encounter with a tornado in 2000. From then on, he was hooked, and the book chronicles his immersion into the chaser community in the spring of 2004.

What struck me about this book, though, are his descriptions about the chaser community. There are luminaries who others defer to like meteorlogical demi-gods. There are the ever-increasing wannabees, whose blind exurberance is often countered by their complete lack of knowledge that either puts them in danger, or leaves them staring at big, puffy, harmless clouds. Then there are the commercial chasers who track storms for profit: guiding tornado tour groups, taking commercial photo and video footage... even getting sponsorship to drive a custom-built SUV into a tornado.

If those divisions of community sound familiar to you, then I am not alone. While reading this book, I clearly recognize the dynamics of the Linux community within the chaser community. Right down to the commercial entrepreneur that everyone hates because of his self-aggrandizing, litigious, nature and to the semi-respected pundits (a.k.a., local weathermen in their slicked up satellite TV vans).

Chasing's goals even seem parallel to Linux'.

There is the goal of helping the common good: tornado chasing and strudy will lead to better detection and warning. The use of Linux will promote free and open technological use in almost every user segment.

There is the goal of having a blast: Tornado chasing is a huge thrill. Using Linux is a huge thrill.

Relatively speaking, of course. Even when compiling a kernel, I never felt my life was in danger. Though the computer's continued existence might have been.

Like any community, there are differing methodologies for accomplishing different goals. And many in the community will argue their points until the cows come home. I have long maintained this is ultimately good. Lately, many pundits in and out of the Linux community are arguing that the time has come to stop arguing and start working. There needs to be more commercial involvement, more focused app development, a more unified vision for the desktop, they say.

And I would agree.

But, I do not think the diversity should discontinue. Part of what makes Linux such a force to contend with is its diverse nature--something its commercial, single-owner counterparts simply cannot grasp. Heck, sometimes it's hard for me to wrap my head around it.

Why such contradictory statement? Unification and diversity? Because while I think there is a real need for some focused projects, it should not--indeed, it cannot--take away from other development avenues that others are trying. While the resources of the Linux community are not infinite, I think they are large enough to allow for larger app projects and smaller, scratch-an-itch development.

Diverse avenues of development gain us two major advantages: first, that of technological breakthroughs. If everyone started to work only on GNOME, then what would happen to a whole new interface paradigm that might have been evenutally uncovered by the KDE team? Or windowmaker?

Second: diversity breeds competition, which in turn breeds energy. When developers compete, they are doing it for recognition, for funding, and sometimes just to have fun. It's fun to work on your own thing. When it's part of a greater overall good, like Linux--or storm chasing--thet's even better.

I am not so worried about the Linux desktop as some of my collegues. One story this week was a very strong indicator that Linux will come along just nicely, thank you. That story was the distribution of a million OpenOffice.org CDs in India. This event, and others like it, tell me that ultimately, Microsoft is in for a big decline in market share.

My thought process goes like this: one million Indian users get OpenOffice. They run it on their Windows machines. They prefer it to paying for Microsoft Office. Microsoft will start to directly lose revenue, a fact exacerbated by their inevitiable cuts in Office's price tag just to compete. To make up for the lost revenue from their biggest money maker? Increased license and support costs for Windows and other product lines.

"Increased costs from Microsoft?" Other business owners will say to themselves, "The heck with that!" And Linux will be even more attractive. More money will come in for development, and the app library will grow.

It's a simple line of thought, but I think in the end, simplicity will rule out over complex business models and paid-for TCO studies.

Microsoft seems to want to try to be the tornado here, cutting a swath of destruction right through all that is open and free. It didn't figure on the slightly insane Linux storm chasers to stand up to it, run towards it, and call it for what it is.