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Linux users: why you should watch The Wire

Simon Brew ponders one of the finest television programmes in recent memory, and wonders if its advocates share parallels with some in the open source community…

This article originally appeared in issue 92 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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I absolutely love the TV show The Wire. Seen it? It’s the quite brilliant HBO drama that examines the problems of a city – Baltimore, in this case – from the perspective of those trying to make and enforce the law, and those who, on the whole, don’t. It’s devastatingly good, and the final episode, after five excellent seasons of the show, had me blubbing like a baby.

Now I’ve long since come to realise that the world is divided into two. There are people who have seen The Wire. And then there are those who have, at some point in their life, been told that they should watch it. Quite often, as I’ve discovered, said people have been nagged to the point where it’s put them off the show full-stop. That because The Wire seems to attract evangelists as much as fans, it has the effect of putting people off the programme. I hate to say it, friends, but Linux has a habit of going the same way. And appreciating that any currency I’ve earned over the past months of writing these columns is about to be cashed in, I can’t help but conclude that we’re not doing ourselves any favours at times.

For I would argue this: that there is a groundswell of well-meaning Linux advocates, whose dedication and enthusiasm for the open source cause may well be sending people running in the opposite direction. That is, whether we like it or not, a natural by-product of something that we feel passionate about
and I’d always argue that we win more than we lose here.

What bothers me though is when there are elements of snobbery involved. One of the most pointless debates I’ve seen come up from time to time in all the while I’ve had an interest in Linux is its name. I have absolute respect for GNU, for the work it did in establishing the foundations on which the Linux kernel was built, and for its vision in pushing a free open source operating system when most of the market was heading in the opposite direction. I also appreciate that the proper name for Linux, if you go by the book, is GNU/Linux. Sadly, I can’t recall a point where I’ve called it that in my life.

I do this not out of disrespect for GNU, which deserves appreciation and thanks. I also don’t aim these words at it. Instead, my frustration is that, ultimately, naming isn’t the first thing that needs to be put across to people. And twice now in the past month or two, I’ve seen that happen. I’ve witnessed, both online and in person, someone expressing an interest in ‘Linux’, only to be corrected – with different levels of politeness – as to its moniker. What also didn’t help was the snobbery intoned in one of these conversations, where the enquirer was treated with a degree of disdain for running Windows on their system.

This, surely, helps nobody. It’s a tough enough goal as it stands to try and woo a world weaned on proprietary software to something just a little bit different. But what’s crucial in spreading the reach of open source software is approachability, both in the software itself and the people who advocate it. Sadly, on a few occasions now (and I accept that they’re the exception rather than the rule), it’s the latter that’s been letting the side down. And it’s meant that I know of at least one person who has been put off for the time-being as a result. That’s surely something simple, where an obvious improvement can be made. And in the meantime, you really should watch The Wire. It’s bloody brilliant.

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