April 22, 2019

The StartX Files: Roughed Up by Flightless Water Fowl

A Midnight Interrogation by Naked Bulb

  • May 29, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt


The duct tape is ripped from my mouth, taking half my beard with it. I scream in pain, cursing the darkness that surrounds me. My hands, which had been tied together by a slimy stringy substance, are freed from the chair I am sitting in. Rubbing my face, I notice my hands smell strongly of salt and fish. In fact, I realize, the whole place smells like fish.

After massaging my face, I rub my arms--because it's very cold in this dark room. Close by me, I hear wet slaps, like rubber on pavement, or waves in a pool.

"Who's there? What's going on? Where--"

Smack! A wet rag slaps me across the face, eliciting another string of curses from me.

"You've got a pretty smart mouth there, writer-boy," hisses a voice from the darkness.

I don't answer, squinting in the darkness for the source of the voice. Big mistake.

"Lights," the voice says. Now I am blinded by searing white light. Through the blinks and watery eyes, I can start to make out small black shapes on the ground around me.

"Who are you? What am I doing here?"

"You're here," the voice answers, "because we hear you've been asking a lot of questions."

My mind whirls, trying to take all of this in. "That's what I do. I'm a journalist. Care to narrow it down a bit?"

By now, my vision is almost adjusted to the light. The dark shapes around me no longer look like bowling pins, though I wish they were. Now they look like...

"You've been asking questions about Tux," the voice says from behind me.


I am in a room made of pure white walls, sitting near a pool of dark water. In the water and on the floor around me are dozens of little fat penguins. One can see lot of interesting things in Indiana, but this sight is not usually on the list. I turn in my chair to see who's talking to me, expecting to see some deranged zoo-keeper. My expectations are not met, because instead all I see is one, big, fat penguin.

"I don't like that," says the big penguin.

"Holy @%#!" I yell, leaping out of my chair. Instantly my legs are grabbed by several flippered wings, keeping me in place.

"You, you, you can talk!" I stammer, trying to make sense of this new reality.

"Yeah," the penguin smirks as he waddles around the chair towards me, "I can talk. Nothing gets by you primates, does it?"

"I suppose not," I weakly reply, as all of my clever circuit breakers are completely thrown.

"Good," the penguin says, "then you'll understand what I'm about to say to you next: stop asking around about Tux."

I think back to the story I have been researching recently. Nothing about it would seem to offend anybody, let alone this waddling little bird.

"I don't understand. Tux is part of the Linux mythos. I'm not trying to change that, just define his role in the whole scheme of things."

The penguin glowers at me. "Maybe," he says, "I don't need to be defined."

Lightbulb. "Wait, you're Tux? Tux is just a GIMP drawing made by Larry Ewing based on a concept by Linux Torvalds. He's not real."

"Said the man talking to a penguin," Tux replies. He had me there. "Who do you think modeled for Ewing? Who do you think got him to capture my sweet and innocent side?"

"No, no, no... even your name is made up from a contest they had on the Linux kernel mailing lists back in 1996! A guy named James Hughes came up with the name that stuck. Tux is not short for 'Tuxedo,' it's actually an acronym for '(T)orvalds (U)ni(X),' I explain to my short captor.

"You know the backstory pretty well, for a country boy. Maybe that's what I want people to think. Maybe I like my privacy. But you are getting too close."

The initial shock has worn off, because now I'm starting to get angry with this fat little bird. "Close? Close to what? Look, some readers e-mailed me a while back and asked about the usage of the term "Tux" in the open source community. They wondered how so many people could use the name for their different projects and whether that usage might be confusing to new users.

"Here's how it looks to the new user," I continued, warming to my subject. "You come into this new operating system and you see this cute penguin logo here and there. You find out it's called Tux. After seeing it enough times, you may come to think there's something 'official' about this name and logo."

"Yeah, so what's the problem with that?" my interrogator haughtily asks.

"The problem is that the name 'Tux' isn't meant to be an official sanction at all. If a project like the tux2 filesystem or the Tux Messenger Project chooses to use the name, newcomers might think they are something official in Linux, when they are not. They're just using a cute name."

"So you don't want these projects to use my name, is that it?" The penguins at my leg are starting to pull me backwards ever so slightly.

"No, that's not at all what I am saying," I reply, "I don't see the harm in using the Tux name for a project. I just think that it's important to educate the newcomers to open source software that Tux-named projects are no better or no worse than any other open source project. They have to be judged on their own, just like all the rest. Once people realize that, they should be fine. Frankly, I don't think the developers on these projects anticipated this name recognition problem in the first place. Who would have thought new users might be confused about the use of the name Tux? Hey! Stop pulling me!"

The penguins at my feet are getting more insistent now and I am having trouble maintaining my balance.

"Well, Mr. Smart Guy, maybe I'd like a little name recognition. Did you ever think about that? Maybe I'm trying to build a brand name for myself, strike out on my own in this goody-goody open source party you people have got going. But now you come along and say my name doesn't really matter!"

"As it relates to projects, it just links you to the Linux kernel, nothing more. But that's still a good--"

"Clam up!" Tux yells. "I've heard enough out of you! Now you get to find out what we do to people who mess with Tux! Boys, show him the box!"

A cardboard box slides along the white floor through a gap in the penguin flock at my feet. I look inside to see the mangled remains of a paper clip staring up at me with two pain-filled eyes. I look up at Tux. "Is that Clip--?"

"Yeah, he's one we took care of. And if you know what's good for you, you'll lay off the Tux piece, or you'll look like him!"

Now I realize what the penguins have been doing. They have slowly edged me over to the pool of water. It looks black and very, very cold. I try to stand my ground.

"Listen, you stupid bird, this isn't going to get you anywhere! People will educate new users about you! They'll realize there's nothing mystical about you! You're a cool logo, nothing more!"

Tux glares at me with his big round eyes. "One more time, back off the story, or we'll spread info on you that you're a paid shill for Microsoft."

I laughed at him. "Other people have tried to hang that label on me and any other Linux journalist they don't agree with. You'll just be one more shrill paranoid voice in the crowd. You'll have to do better than that!"

The big round eyes glint with anger. "Toss 'im, boys."

I kick at the birds, but several grab my upturned foot and shove me off balance. My arms flail at the air, and I am in the water. Icy. Cold. Black!

I sit upright in bed, heart hammering. It is the dead of night and I am home safe.

It was, after all, just a bad dream. I lay back down and roll my eyes at the stuff my subconscious mind comes up with. Talking penguins. Sheesh!

I close my eyes and remind myself to cut out the pizza before bed.

Except... is that fish I smell?

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