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There is No Linux Cabal
An underground group of gurus makes the world safe for Linux

Annalee Newitz, Special to SF Gate

A secret society is lurking at the Robert Austin Computer Shows. As geeks pour into the monthly Bay Area event to network, get the latest tech info, and gobble up new hardware and software, this clandestine group casually sets up a bunch of non-descript, unmarked picnic tables.

Then they begin to munch on bagels.

That's when the others come. In ones and twos, holding CDs marked "Red Hat" or "Debian," perhaps even lugging a Pentium box with peripherals, they find their way to the Linux Cabal InstallFest.

At the InstallFest, members of the Cabal will help these lost souls install Linux from scratch, or answer any bizarre question you could possibly imagine about the best damn operating system of the twenty-first century.

But, as anyone sitting at those picnic tables will tell you, there is no Linux Cabal.

The joke goes back to the old days of Usenet, a pre-Web collection of newsgroups where Internet geeks once congregated to hash out ideas. Usenet types used to half-seriously honor various individuals by accusing them of being in a secret cabal that was running the Internet.

Ten years later, the weird, organized-chaos structure of Linux programmers and user groups lends itself well to a similar kind of ironic paranoia about who really controls Linux. Is there a Linux Cabal out there running everything?

No. There is no Linux Cabal.

Except in San Francisco, where web hosting is available at locally-owned URL nestled in the chambers of a San Francisco Internet café called Coffee Net. The Linux Cabal website proudly announces that "the CABAL" will conduct a Linux InstallFest each month at the Robert Austin show.

But when I approached the low-key group at the December 12 show and asked Duncan MacKinnon about this Cabal -- he was in the middle of answering a question about Korean character recognition under Linux -- he grinned and said, "There is no Linux Cabal."

Solitaire MacIan, sporting a Miskatonic University t-shirt (a reference to HP Lovecraft's horror fiction), was in on the conspiracy. "There is no Cabal," he reiterated, "but if you want to know more about it, ask Rick Moen

"Yeah," said a random bystander, "ask Rick."

Rick, grinning broadly, materialized from behind a group of people watching file names flash by on a monitor hooked up to somebody's battered old Pentium box. Every surface on the Cabal's tables was taken up with similar monitors, piles of unlabeled CD-ROMs, boxes with exposed hard drives, and, of course, stacks of Linux bumper stickers.

When I introduced myself to Rick, I didn't even try to ask about the Cabal. "So I understand there's no Linux Cabal," I said. "Could you tell me about that?" Suddenly, I was surrounded by happy faces, eager to tell me the history of an organization that no one will admit exists.

"It all started with the San Francisco PC user group," said Solitaire. "So many people were going to the Linux meetings of SFPC that at a certain point it became a matter of the tail wagging the dog. So about two years ago the Linux users broke off."

Added Rick, "And we used the term CABAL to describe our user group. It actually stands for 'Consortium of All Bay Area Linux.'"

Most of the CABAL members gather every two weeks at The Linux Cabal meeting room to geek out, swap Linux tips, and hear Linux experts divulge their technical secrets. Over the past few years, they've watched Linux grow from something known only to a fringe group of hackers, to a global phenomenon.

"Things have changed really quickly," noted Duncan. "In early 1998, people were coming up to us at this show and asking us what Linux was. Now they're asking us very specific questions about how to use it."

A PC box is suddenly plunked down on the table next to us.

"I want to install Linux," said the new user, hand on hip.

Looking on, Duncan pretended to size the computer up with his hands, as if he were a painter measuring a grove of trees before taking up his brushes.

"Let's Mandrake him!" exclaimed Rick gleefully, referring to the popular and user-friendly Linux distribution called Mandrake.

"Ah yes, let's," agreed Duncan, rooting through a pile of CDs.

Meanwhile, Mike Higashi filled me in on one of the most controversial topics you can possibly bring up among members of the Cabal: Linux distributions. (A distribution is when a company -- like Red Hat or Caldera -- releases a version of Linux compiled together with an installer, a graphical interface, a file system, and often with some basic tools like X windows, etc.)

Although most Cabal-oids prefer Debian, they admit that this is not the best place for new users to start. What about notoriously easy-to-use Red Hat Linux, the hottest product from recently IPOed Red Hat?

"Distribution is a religion question," conceded Mike. "Red Hat raises especially charged issues. Some would say that Red Hat's purpose is to make money for themselves, and that's in conflict with the greater Linux community." So, Mandrake remains the "easy" distribution of choice in this crowd.

For users who wonder whether they can get decent support for Linux, the Cabal FAQ says it all: "If you want the type of support that is available from proprietary software companies, we will try to find a consultant to sing to you on the phone for half an hour, then give you the wrong answer."

Life in the Cabal isn't just geeking out on code, though. Rick, the closest thing this revolutionary cell has to a founder, also helped organize some spirited pieces of Linux guerilla theater.

Perhaps most famously, he was instrumental in pulling off "Windows Refund Day," in which hundreds of people descended on Microsoft's Foster City offices and requested refunds for the unwanted copies of Microsoft Windows that had come pre-installed on their computers.

Laughed Rick, "We came as customers, hat in hand, and said we're only doing what you told us to do in your Windows license agreement. It happens that we're coming en masse with a brass band, but it's the thought that counts."

For their efforts, according to Rick, all they got was a canned speech from a Microsoft corporate rep. Then, when the boisterous crowd refused to disperse, the Microsofties locked out their floors on the elevators.

Although the Linux open source community has always been anti-corporate, and virulently anti-Microsoft, members of the Cabal aren't fazed by the recent IPO frenzies associated with their beloved operating system. "Because the community controls the source code, nobody can push the community around," asserted Rick. "There's no conflict between corporations and the user community because there doesn't have to be."

The heady cooperative spirit of the InstallFest is testimony to Rick's point. Nick Jennings, a Linux aficionado totally unconnected with the Cabal, wandered by the Cabal tables, then stayed to help somebody install Red Hat. "I stopped by and just figured I'd help out," he explained.

You can't get much more communitarian than that.

Annalee Newitz is a writer and Linux groupie in San Francisco.


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