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From the Desktop: C Stands for ctwm... and Confrontation

Ambush at the PTA

  • October 17, 2000
  • By Brian Proffitt

Before I focus on this week's window manager, ctwm, a brief digression.

I went to a party this weekend, a sort of get-together for the parents in my daughter's class.

You must understand that in my little world, standing around drinking pop and talking about what you do for a living qualifies as party. And before you fill up the talkbacks with snide commentary: yes, I know this is rather a sad state of affairs, because we all know what party animals Linux users are. Mosh pits galore!

So, there I was, getting buzzed on Coke (liquid, not powder) and chips (potato, not silicon) and halfway pretending to listen to other people use their gift of gab while I was trying to keep half an eye on my two daughters as they terrorized the other parents' kids, when this really tall guy looms over me and says in a really not-deep voice:

"I hear you're a writer."

After getting over my initial surprise at how high this guy's voice was for someone a full 6 inches over my six feet, I dredged the dusty social memory banks in my brain for a suitable reply:

"Yes, I suppose you could say that."

Safe, noncommittal. A nice easy lob back over the net.

"I just did."

Shields up! Smartass detector registering dangerous levels!

Outwardly, I chuckled at this guy's wit, looking through the crowd for my wife, who is far more skilled in social graces than I and also has the handy skill of knowing when to catch me when I start faking a migraine to get out of a conversation. Nowhere to be found.

"Er, right. Yes, I write computer books and I have a column on the Internet," I replied. The thing to keep in mind here is that I don't normally announce this all at once in a conversation, since it sounds rather pretentious, particularly to nontechies. But this guy with the squeaky voice was looking for trouble and I wanted this conversation to end already.

"What about?" Great, he wasn't thrown off, which meant he was a wannabe-geek or, worse, a true techhead. Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound, and I used my next answer the way many of us in the Linux community do: as a badge of honor/social bludgeon. You know the tone we use; it's the wanna make something of it tone?

"Linux," I announced. "I write about Linux." And I went back to counting the fizz bubbles in my drink, satisfied that this would end the conversation. Statistically, the odds were in my favor, as the city that I live in is not known for its population of tech workers.

The odds changed drastically when he said, "Linux. Pfft."

And sure enough, when I looked up from my drink, there was the age-old look of contempt on his face, glaring down at me like some smug Nazi from a bad B-movie.

Which meant MCSE. Red alert.

"I take it," I began, "you don't like to use Linux?"

"Never used it, nor would I want to. I just find it interesting you can write books about it, that's all," he said.

I set my drink down. I was about to gesticulate and I didn't want to spill anything. "And you are?"

He introduced himself and I recognized his last name as the same as a boy that decided to pick on my daughter earlier this year and found out just what a green belt in Tae Kwan Do can do when she's threatened. I had a feeling that this conversation was stemming from that earlier conflict. I picked my drink right back up, not wanting to appear physically threatening.

"Well," I chuckled, "it can be interesting sometimes, but I really like it as an operating system." Then I stuck the knife in a bit. "In many ways, it's a lot better than Windows."

"It's a hack job. It's just a rehash of a forty-year-old operating system trying to compete in today's market. It'll never work."

He was persistent; I'll give him that. I have heard comments like this before, of course. It's some kind of ritual you have to go through when you start communing with the Great Penguin. The Brotherhood of Redmond brands you as some kind of freak to be reckoned with. But this was the first time I had to do this outside of the halfway-congenial atmosphere of an IT department.

I should have, at that point, let the argument go. I have a real blind spot, like most men, for knowing when to end a discussion before it turns heated. Besides, this guy had an actual swagger to him that just begged to get tripped up.

"Actually," I said, "it works very well. Particularly on the server platform." I'd just hit him where he lived. "If you'll excuse me, I think my wife--"

"It"ll never succeed, you know. There's just no user base," he said in this weird sort of monotone.

I could have gone on with this, I really could. But the other parents were starting to form a slow circle of interest around us, and I did not want to be known as the guy who argues about operating systems at a nontechie party. The only thing worse than that is arguing over the technical merits of matter-antimatter warp drives versus artificial singularity warp drives.

"Well," I shrugged, "to each their own." And that was the end of that, I thought.

"Why is it," he said loudly as I turned away, "that Linux operators can never argue the merits of their operating system"

I then saw my wife, who had been behind me. I tried, my look said to her, I really tried.

"Why is it," I replied as I turned back to him, "that Windows users always feel the need to attack other operating systems? Perhaps some feelings of inadequacy creeping in?" Though I couldn't see her, I could sense my wife's head falling into her hands.

My opponent looked genuinely puzzled. "I don't use Windows," he said with disdain, "I use a Mac."

What the--?

Imagine the feeling over motoring along the highway, zipping right along, when someone drops the transmission into neutral. That's about the feeling I had at that moment.

"Listen, if you use a Mac, then what's the big deal?" I asked, "You of all people should know what it's like to run an alternative to Windows." I figured this brothers-in-adversity tack would get him to settle down.

"Macs are not an alternative, they're just as mainstream as Windows," he petulantly replied. Oh, this sad tall man.

That was basically the end of it, then, as the hostess of the party sidled in and started to change the subject. I heard no more of it for the rest of the afternoon. But I mulled it over in my head and came to two conclusions.

The first, and most important, was to tell my daughter later to keep half an eye on this guy's son for the next few days at school. I don't advocate violence, but I don?t want her to get surprised by some little jr. Mac-punk shenanigans, either.

Second, I began to ponder the relationship of Macs, Linux boxes, and other non-Windows machines in the IT universe, and I wonder if the Mac folk are actually upset that their vaunted spot as Number Two on the desktop is being usurped by Linux. This argument I had was, I'm sure, exaggerated by the situation we found ourselves in. But if it is a sign of things to come, then I truly regret it.

The server and desktop machines of the world can be used by a variety of platforms. Do I think they should be all Linux? Sure I do, in my heart of hearts. But realism dictates that there are some OSes that will always be better than others in certain areas. No one operating system should ever dominate, because, ultimately, it comes down to the choice and needs of the user.

To each his own. Hers, too.

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