Shoulders to Stand On

Doghouse – Courage and Imagination

Article from Issue 234/2020
Author(s):

maddog calls for courage and imagination to overcome our prejudices and address the world's perplexing problems.

Today I received news that Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician who performed many of the calculations used by the space program to put people on the moon, has died at the age of 101.

For those of you who did not see the movie Hidden Figures, Ms. Johnson had to fight against both racial and sexual discrimination to have her work accepted in the white male-dominated climate of that day.

I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1950. I saw the "white persons water fountain," the "white persons lunch counter," and the signs that told black people to go to the back of the bus. Even many of our religious leaders told us that the white race needed to "take care of our black brothers and sisters." With all the prejudices that were present at that time, we can appreciate Katherine Johnson's contribution all the more knowing the obstacles she had to overcome. We can also see how the space program benefited from her presence.

In FOSS, many of us work remotely, so we often do not know the race, age, nationality, or (in a lot of cases) sexual identity of the people we communicate with every day. Many FOSS people have names like "rasterman," "maddog," and "IT Guy," which masks a lot of the things that make us different.

The phrase "show me the code" was an early cry that said, "I really do not care about our differences, only the code you create and how good it is." The FOSS community is at its best when we hold true to this ideal.

I have traveled the world, more than 100 countries, and visited most of them more than one time. For many of them, I have spent not just a day or two in the country, but weeks or months.

Every country I have visited has large and modern capital cities, most with rich and poor people inside of the city. Some countries I have visited do indeed have less infrastructure than other countries and fewer universities, but the Internet and modern technologies can bring education to places where it has never been before. Free and Open Source Software and Hardware (FOSSH) allows people with less capital and fewer resources to do more.

When I started programming (around the same era as the events described in Hidden Figures), networking was carrying boxes of cards down the hall, security was locking the computer room door at night, and graphics were ASCII art on a line printer (I question how many people even remember a "line printer").

Even the smallest computers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (and USD$1,000 was a lot of money back then). Not having access to a computer at a company or university meant you could not learn computing. Today I can simulate those "huge" computers using SIMH running on a Raspberry Pi, and my programs run even faster than they did on the big iron.

We now have the tools; what we need is courage and imagination.

Courage to believe that if we work together we can fix some of the problems that we see. Courage to throw out our built-in prejudices. Imagination to think outside the box and create solutions for all, and courage again to implement those solutions.

I would like to see computer science and engineering mentors who would encourage young people to enter the field no matter what their race, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality. Help them learn the things that we learned over the years. Answer their questions. Spend time with them.

If you believe in the ways of FOSSH, then petition your schools, governments, and employers to use FOSSH and to help build the infrastructure in your town, state, or country to create local jobs. Yes, you are tired at the end of the day, but if we all work together, then "many hands make light work," as we know in FOSSH.

I have heard many times in my life the words "It cannot be done." I am sick of those words. There are many things that "cannot be done." I cannot jump to the moon. I can not hold my breath for 50 hours. However many things that people say "cannot be done" are simply difficult.

Years ago, an engineer told me that Unix could not configure itself the way that VMS did. In two hours, I developed a method of having our installation configure itself. I showed it to him and said, "I did the impossible in two hours; what if it were merely 'hard'?"

Some of you will question why, in a technical magazine, I write about courage and imagination. It is because, at this time, we need it more than ever.

Carpe Diem

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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