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Editor's Note: Shouting Down a Twister

Jul 02, 2004, 23:30 (15 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

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By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

This Sunday, my Great Aunt Blanche passed away, and then my Aunt Ginny passed suddenly on Wednesday night. As I write this on Thursday night, I am literally between two funerals and am about to depart for Louisiana for the second.

I have just returned from Blanche's funeral. She was 103. And she didn't take nothin' from nobody.

Thursday was the funeral and many people in the small town of Monticello, Indiana attended the services with my family. While Blanche did not rate a 21-gun salute, her status as one of the oldest living residents in White County certainly drew a lot of friends and acquaintances.

When people speak of Blanche, they speak of her drive, determination, and faith. She was a widow much longer than she was a wife, and even living alone, she was determined that life would not pass her by--cetainly not without a word or two from her.

There is, in my family, a certain family legend about Blanche that indicates just how determined she was.

On April 3 and 4, 1974, the most destructive outbreak of tornadoes in the 20th Century occured. According to the Indianapolis Star, during a 16-hour period, 148 tornadoes hit 13 states, including here in Indiana. The path of destruction stretched 2,500 miles. More than 300 people died and more than 5,000 were injured. In Indiana, 21 tornadoes struck 39 counties, killing 47 people. One of those tornadoes ran straight through the town of Monticello--smack dab through downtown.

The tornado was later classified as an F3, the National Weather Service says, though right after it passed through the town and continued the rest of its 56-mile run, it became a stronger F4 storm. So, this was no puff of strong air.

The family legend goes something like this: when Blanche heard the storm approaching, she marched her 74-year-old self out onto her front porch and yelled and cursed at the tornado as it approached. She did this for a few moments, until flying debris forced her back inside and into the storm cellar.

And though many homes in her neighborhood were severely damaged, her house was untouched, save for a few lost shingles and one broken window on the front porch--stove through by a large tree limb that went through the very same spot she'd been yelling at the twister.

My Mom and I visited Blanche the next day, and though I was just seven years old, I remember the damage I saw quite well. Tree after tree just flattened. Homes and the materials inside literally scattered to the four winds. Except for Aunt Blanche's house--a tall Victorian refuge in the middle of destruction with its doors open as a shelter for her neighbors until they could get their homes and lives pieced back together.

As years went by, the story of what Blanche may have done grew in my family to legend status. I say "may," because Blanche never struck me as a person with the low common sense demonstrated by standing outside near a tornado, and as a good Christian woman, I have a hard time believing anything like a curse came out of her mouth. But, it makes for a good story, and an allegory that I carry with me to this day.

To me, shouting down a tornado is indicative of any fight that seems to be too big or too overwhelming. When it appears that all the odds are against me or the cause I am supporting, I think about this little old lady facing off an approaching storm and winning.

I thought of this example yet again this week, when someone sent me a link Wednesday to an article on The Center for Public Integrity's site. The article, "Foreign Lobbyist Database Could Vanish," details a problem within the Justice Department's Foreign Agent Registration Unit. Apparently, their closed-source database that registers foreign lobbyists and other agents is so corrupt, it may be unrecoverable.

The article goes on to explain how the Justice Department found itself in this mess, why a critical piece of software is still running on Windows 95, and how they hope to go about fixing it before all access to the data is lost.

Since the article did not have anything to do with Linux directly, I did not post it on Linux Today. But the person who sent it to me wrote why this article was worth looking at anyway: "...[H]ere's a great example of the kinds of games one can play when the source ain't available or the community is not allowed to participate in something clearly in the public's interest."

And he is right. The government's dependence on closed-source and proprietary vendors is slowly and surely catching up to it. As software obsoletes and hardware falls to entropy, there are increasing pockets of important data that are being rendered unusable. And, even if there is rescue made, how much money is wasted in the rescue effort?

Sometimes, in my discouraged moments, it seems to me that convincing the government here to get away from the closed-source trap is a futile effort. That proprietary vendors' camapaign contributions are too big, their lobbyists too influential. I look at other countries and I wonder why we can't seem to get this proprietary monkey off our backs. Open source makes sense, but how will we ever get that sense into our government's collective head?

There are rays of hope in the US, of course: the recent migration to Linux by the US Federal Courts, and this week's migration to a SUSE/IBM law-enforcement infrastructure by the State of Mississippi. So all is not lost. And, it really never was lost.

Because I remember the story of shouting down a tornado. And how sometimes, one voice may just make a difference in the face of an oncoming storm.

And was it a tall tale? Well, if you look at this map from the National Weather Service, you would see an odd little inward curve in the storm's path just southeast of the town's Central Business District. A curve that shows the tornado managed to miss Blanche's old house by just one block.

I look at that deviation and I wonder... I just wonder... and I have hope.


Programming Notes: First, I must thank Gus Venditto for stepping in and covering LT for me Thursday and Friday. Also, because of my sudden travel plans, the feed this weekend will be sporadic, for which I must apologize. For those of you celebrating this weekend: be safe and be fun. That goes for the rest of you, too! Peace.