December 17, 2005

Was the Neuwied penguin incident a Microsoft conspiracy?

Author: Nathan Willis

Fans of Linux, trains, and the bizarre were amused worldwide last month when the story surfaced that a passenger train was brought to a sudden halt outside of Neuwied, Germany by a human-sized stuffed penguin found laying across the tracks. While the encounter seemed comical at first glance, details that have emerged since suggest that it is no laughing matter.

According to Ananova, the stuffed toy penguin was found laying across the tracks outside of Neuwied on Sunday, November 13 2005, interrupting the train scheduled to arrive from Linz. A collision was averted only because conductor Udo Vergens spotted the figure and pulled the emergency brake, believing it to me an unconscious man wearing a tuxedo. The police were called to the scene but were unable to account for the presence of the penguin and, noting that it was waterlogged, suggested that it had washed ashore from the Rhine.

Holes in the public account

A man-sized stuffed penguin is suspicious in and of itself, regardless of its location. According to Froogle, the largest publicly-available stuffed penguins on are the order of 30 inches tall. The average adult male German is 69-70 inches tall.

This suggests either exaggeration on the part of the conductor, or a plush penguin constructed in secret and kept hidden from the general public.

The name Udo Vergens, the man identified as the train's conductor, appears only in the Ananova story. Ananova, who broke the story to English readers, picked it up from Austrian paper Krone Zeitung via a Central European wire service. Neither Krone Zeitung nor any other German-language account of the incident, name the conductor -- casting more doubt on his role.

Moreover, there is no record of a man by that name anywhere in Google's index not associated with this story. And, more troubling, in tests conducted by the author, participants were able to spot far smaller (10-12 inches tall) stuffed penguins and correctly distinguish them from men in tuxedos in five out of five trials.

Then there is the question of how a man-sized stuffed penguin become lost in the first place. The Neuwied police are quoted in the story as saying that they find it difficult to believe that a penguin of that size could go missing without the owner noticing. Furthermore, participants in the author's test correctly pinpointed when the penguins were removed from sight in all five trials.

The solution to the origin of the Neuwied penguin is found in the German press. The photo accompanying the Krone Zeitung story shows a plush penguin in an indeterminate locale, in front of a faux-ice-flow landscape. This supports the story as both Ananova and Krone Zeitung reported it, but digging into alternate accounts uncovers this N24 article, accompanied by a picture of an entirely different penguin.

Krone Zeitung may have passed the story to Ananova, but they are located in Austria (which will become significant later), not Germany, and avoid claiming that the photo shows the authentic penguin. N24 appears to have gone to the scene firsthand and photographed the genuine Neuwied penguin, allowing the world to see that it is undeniably a home-made artifact.

Motive

Clearly, the presence of the Neuwied penguin on the railroad tracks was not an accident. But the question remains, why was it there?

To begin with, notice the date of the incident. November 13, 2005 -- just three days before the start of the World Summit on the Information Society meeting in Tunis.

Microsoft is known to have sought the removal of pro-open-source language from the WSIS Tunis agreement. An embarrassing incident involving the mascot of a popular open source operating system just days before the summit would surely play into the software giant's hand.

Then, consider the nature of the Neuwied penguin incident itself. The penguin was placed on railroad tracks, ensuring that it would be struck by a vehicle. In contrast, a penguin placed on the Autobahn or in major shipping lanes could possibly evade being hit by traffic thanks to driver skill.

The Neuwied penguin was also placed close to the train's final destination, where the train would already have begun braking -- thus guaranteeing both that passengers would get a clear look at the obstruction and that police and press would respond quickly.

Even at low speed, a stuffed penguin struck by a train or other vehicle is likely to be reported in the popular press as "Penguin causes crash" -- almost certainly the desired result.

In fact, only the location of the incident in Germany has yet to be explained. Microsoft took part in an invitation-only workshop in Vienna, Austria weeks prior to the WSIS summit. The Vienna meeting produced a draft document called the Vienna Conclusions on ICT and Creativity, from which the company managed to successfully remove the open source language to which they objected.

While a penguin-based train wreck too close to Vienna or to Microsoft's German headquarters outside Munich in Unterschleissheim would be too obvious, perhaps Neuwied, on the far Western side of Germany, would be perfect. Close enough to reach and return from in short order, easily accessible via the Rhine, and yet far enough from HQ and the Vienna meeting for plausible deniability. In a different country, but one that also speaks German, meaning the Austrian press could pick up the story and run with it immediately.

Particularly convenient is the early involvement of Krone Zeitung, and the spurious penguin photo in their story; a search of their archives reveals several suspicious stories, perhaps planted in advance of the Vienna meeting to alienate conservative delegates from Linux, suggesting links between Linux and Fidel Castro. A false photo leaked to the media could be part of a last-minute cover-up after the penguin failed to be destroyed.

Backfire

But perhaps the most convincing proof that opponents of open source engineered the Neuwied penguin's placement on the tracks is the fact that it did not work. The train did not crash, it in fact did not even strike the penguin. Consequently, there was no bad PR for Linux, and in less than one week, the WSIS summit concluded, with pro-open source language intact in the Tunis agreement.

Are there other possibilities? Perhaps. Perhaps disgruntled Deutschland Rail employees, Antarctic separatists, careless zoo-keepers, distraught Burgess Meredith fans, unruly teenagers or stuffed-toy snuff-film addicts were all involved. But the facts as they stand now point towards one conclusion. The Neuwied penguin was a well-engineered plan that failed. A well-engineered plan brought down, it seems, by an eagle-eyed engineer, and the overly-efficient engineering of the train's German-made brakes.

Microsoft declined to comment for this story before press time, as did Sun, Apple, Google, Red Hat, Novell, Ubuntu, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, SGI, PenguinGiftShop.com, Linuxtraining.com, Krone Zeitung, the German government, the Austrian government, the Neuwied Police Department, the ITU, the United Nations, the OSTG Editorial Board, and the author's friends and family.

Category:

  • Humor
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