October 17, 2004

California Dreaming or: When the Undiscovered is Discovered

I was thinking recently about Linux and computer enthusiasts in general, and it got me thinking about my little corner of California. It is hard to describe my affection for the spare rolling hills of the Sierra foothills. As I drive along the undeveloped stretches (which are getting fewer and fewer) I reflect on my own memories of these hills which as early as five years ago held no houses, strip malls, ever widening highways, or big box collectives.

When Christine and I were looking to purchase a house somewhere near or in Placerville, we played with the idea of building a house on some land in the El Dorado Hills/Cameron park area, and I was struck with the real beauty of the hills. I had mostly kept to the bay area, which is beautiful in its own populated way, so the search for a house off the beaten path was something new for me.

For those unfamiliar with California geography, Placerville is midway between South Lake Tahoe and Sacramento. Placerville was the county seat during the gold rush and was previously known as "Old Dry Diggins" and then "Hangtown". While accurately descriptive (you wouldn't have wanted to jump a claim in the gold rush), this name was considered a bit to brutal by the townfolk who prompted the name change in 1854 to the pretty, if a bit bland, "Placerville", referencing the kind of rock where gold could be found.

El Dorado Hills and Cameron Park are both about 20 miles west of Placerville and both are going through a vast explosion of population due to their proximity to the newly invigorated town of Folsom, which now hosts an interesting mix of tech companies, including a large Intel campus.

While depressing isn't the exact word that my wife and I feel when we see the explosive growth overtaking the rolling hills and oak trees on the North side of the highway on the way down to Sacramento, there is a bit of disappointment in the change from the peaceful beauty of the tall grasses and spare dottings of brush and oak to neighborhoods consisting of 4000 and 5000 square foot homes. For instance, the Serrano development, has approval to build 6500 homes on their sites in El Dorado County, and I'm guessing they're maybe a quarter of the way into their plans.

Suddenly, this area of austere natural beauty is no longer austere. Lots more homes, cars, commerce and people. I don't hold much weight to the idea that our idyllic life in placerville is "ruined". I've never really believed that things necessarily get worse because more people enjoy them. Also, placerville still enjoys a 18 mile buffer from the expansive (and expensive) growth of the flatlands.

While I do feel that the sprawl of our western neighbors is taking away something from the charm of gold country, the same can't be said for the advance of Linux adoption.

While the analogy doesn't hold a one to one match, the terrific thing about Linux and its BSD cousins is that, with more people using it, it gets much much better for their influence. Linux is about 7 years into what I would call its adolescent growth spurt. Before 1998, the only people really using Linux were scientists and programmers, many prototyping for a "Real" Unix like Solaris, BSD or HPux. Yes, I know this is a vast over generalization, but stick with me here.

Starting at or around 1998, you started seeing some very real adoption of Linux as that final target platform. You saw the growth (ongoing especially now) of the KDE and Gnome desktop metaphors. You saw IBM, HP and just about every company come up with a strategy about how to join the Linux party (or attempt to call the cops in an attempt to have it shut down). It is the rare large technology player that has an ill defined strategy around Linux and Open Source Software. I myself am employed in this role for Google, a noted consumer of Open Source technology.

There are some that would say that the influx of these "non-traditional" influences represents a pollution of the ideals around Linux and Open Source Software. While I don't like to call these true-believers zealots, it is worrying when I see them reject these changes simply because of their source, namely the corporations or those who want to profit off of, and take part in the development of, free and open source software.

For these people who are uncomfortable playing with these kinds of people and companies, there are a number of distributions that cater to their needs, being both terrific and non-dependent on any corporate/capitalistic influences. I speak of course about Debian and Gentoo.

These distributions are capable, powerful and very influential. Without Debian, would the idea of online package distribution and maintenance have become so widespread? I doubt it. Similarly, Gentoo's focus on speed and its cutting edge nature provide for a solid testbed for all the latest programs and architectures. Not to take a potshot at Windows, but they've appeared to have had a hard time taking true advantage of the 64 bit opteron chips from AMD and the Itanium series from Intel.

Gentoo is quite nimble when it comes to chip hopping, in a way that's so cool its almost scary. I don't recommend either Gentoo or Debian for companies, but when a person emails me asking how they can go to that next step of Linux use, I commonly refer them to both of those distributions and Linux from Scratch.

Luckily, Linux scales in a way that the local geography has not, so I don't look out over the rolling hills of Linux with ennui as I do with excitement with what is to come from the ever growing Linux development community.

Chris DiBona
Location: Hangtown, Ca
Posted Via: The Blogger Interface

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