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UFOs and flying penguins

May 24, 20043 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsLinuxOpen Source

The Mexican Air Force reported in the middle of the month that one of its pilots had encountered what might have been UFOs a month earlier while flying a drug surveillance flight. They even released a film showing some bouncing blobs of light. UFO fans immediately touted the report and film because it was the first time a major government had formally released such a film.

A few days later, in what I assume was a coincidence, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution released the latest in its long-running string of anti-open source “reports.” (I use quotes around the word “reports” because not everyone would agree that these screeds rise to the level of logic that would be required by even a high school teacher to qualify as reports.)

I’ve written before about the institution’s views on open source (see Fighting terrorism with obscurity). I’m still not quite sure why the group has such a burr under its saddle about this topic, because its mission, according to its Web site, is to study “the spread and perfection of democracy around the world.” About half the topics listed on the home page seem to be related to democracy, or at least mention the term. But it seems a stretch to say that stories about how Linux will collapse because of software patents, how governments can save money using IP telephony or how outsourcing (and open source) will destroy the value of companies relate to the spread of democracy.

That said, I don’t think it’s a bad idea for people to look at these issues, whatever the cover they want to use to do so. But I do think it’s a bad idea to publish what looks like a paint-by-number portrait of the evils of something that it is not clear you understand, and to do so without offering any specific recommendations of alternatives.

It is not clear who prints the patterns that the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution so carefully tries to color within the lines. Microsoft admits to funding the institution, but, as I noted the last time I wrote about the group, it’s hard to believe Microsoft would hire people who drew such crude lines to fill in. There are real issues hiding in here somewhere. It is sad that the institution does not do a better job of exploring anything but the anti-open source side.

I suppose that the open source/Linux community should take the institution’s attention as a positive thing. I doubt the group would make the effort if no one were using this software. This Penguin (as the institution calls Linux) is flying high enough and fast enough that maybe the institution mistook it for a UFO. News reports now say that maybe the Mexican pilots just saw ball lightning and not some manifestation of otherworldly intelligence. At least for now, we might have to rely on the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution for that.

Disclaimer: The Harvard Divinity School, by its mission, cannot be restricted to worldly thinking; such restrictions are optional at the other schools. But the dismissal of such efforts in this column is mine alone.