Why I Support Free Software


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Aug 14, 2011 GMT
Jon maddog Hall


One of the great pleasures of helping to represent the Free Software community is to meet a lot of young people who have done some amazing things.


Often in my talks I show a slide of some of the young people I have met in the fifteen years since I met Linus Torvalds and became involved with the GNU/Linux system. Of course a lot of them are no longer considered “young”, as they are in their mid-thirties or even (cough) approaching forty years old.


However, when they started their various projects a lot of them were either in university or still in high school, and some even earlier than that.


I still remember the Texas parents of a young man, aged twelve, who stood in front of me with a large red and white striped “Cat-In-The-Hat” head covering telling me that “he just came home from school last month, wiped his computer disk clean and installed Red Hat Linux. He swears he will never use Microsoft again.”


At a Linuxworld trade show I heard three people arguing about the proper way to decompose applications to work on a high-performance Linux-based supercomputer. The three people were two engineers from Hewlett Packard and an eleven year-old programmer. The interesting part was that the two engineers from HP were wrong and the young programmer was right.


Often statements that I made had long-range effects......


I was visiting a friend in Hawaii in 1995, and gave his college roommate a copy of Red Hat Linux that Digital had sponsored to celebrate the port of Linux to the Alpha. The roommate seemed somewhat interested, but not impassioned about Linux.


Three years later I called Los Alamos laboratories to talk to a person who was in charge of one of their supercomputers, using them to simulate asteroids crashing into the planet. Of course the supercomputer ran Linux. When I introduced myself on the phone, the voice on the other end said, “You don't remember me, do you? You gave me that copy of Red Hat Linux when I was attending college back in Hawaii.” Because of that one copy of Linux given out, many of Los Alamos' computers ran Red Hat Linux for a long time.


Another time I was in Soweto, South Africa. Soweto was township of approximately 500,000 people, mostly black and in the lower economic regions. I mentioned to a government official that there were probably Free Software people in Soweto, and he did not believe me. After I left the country the official mentioned what I had said to his manager, and to their credit they went to see if it was true. While they were holding a “Free Software” meeting in Soweto, they found a young man who was running a consulting service out of his house, using dial-up lines and sending email to Linus Torvalds helping Linus fix a problem in the Linux kernel. This so impressed the government officials that they opened up a Free and Open Source competency center in Soweto.


I met a young university student in Brazil who was working with the Arduino processor. He was organizing events in his free time to introduce the Arduino to other college students. He called these “Hack and Beers”. I encouraged him to think about putting on courses for the Arduino and to be paid for them. He organized the courses, a web site, and was able to quit his other jobs and to teach courses and consult about Arduino full time.


There have been many more people that I have “influenced”, and I feel really good about them.


One day I received an email from a fifteen year old who lived about five miles from my house. He wanted to “get together” since “he too liked Linux.” We met for pizza (alas, due to his age I did not indulge in my normal beer accompaniment), and talked about Free Software. He had been programming since the age of nine, hacking the Linux kernel since the age of twelve, and writing device drivers for his father's company starting that year. Later he went on to become a network administrator for a small New England College, and his work in setting up honeypots to help the FBI trap network intruders gained him an article in Newsweek magazine. Still later he met the person that did the special effects for the Star Wars movie and worked with him on future effects.


He is now married and lives in Oregon, doing consulting. I am happy to have officiated at his wedding.


Or the fourteen-year-old that created his own distribution of Linux and had shipped thousands of copies before his parents found out what he was doing.


Another young man was the step-son of a friend. My friend's stepson was going through a rough age, and would even punch holes in the wall with his fists. Invited to dinner one night I gave him a copy of Red Hat and an early copy of Matt Welch's “Running Linux” book. Within a short time I was told that he had installed Linux on his system at home. Then he set up a wireless network for his house, allowing his parent's systems to share a printer and the Internet. Before long I learned that he had taught himself “C”, and that his high-school grades were improving over-all.


He started a computer club at school, then he joined the football team (not really expected, since he is rather a small-framed person) and became one of the best-liked players on the team. After he graduated he went on to Northeastern University and by Junior year was doing graduate level work in computer security. Now he has graduated and is flying around the world working for a company that specializes in computer security.


None of the above people (and many thousands more) are extremely “famous”, although many of them have earned or are earning their living with “Free Software”. All of them were able to go as fast and as far as they wanted by studying Free Software and working with it. Many started their path because they were doing it “just for fun”.


And where I have said “young men” or “he” in this post, I also mean young women too. I am proud of the Free Software community in embracing diversity. And finally, it is lucky for me that the Free Software community also embraces older people.....


No one asks these programmer/entrepreneurs their age, their race, their religion, their sex or their "sexual orientation”. No one asks them if they were physically challenged, what country they came from, or their political views. No one told them “don't go there”, “don't do that”, “you are too young”, “you are too old”, “you are just a...” or “you can not succeed”.....because (as one of my favorite cartoons points out) “on the Internet no one knows that you are a dog”.


All the Free Software community says is “show me the code”.


I work with Free Software because you do not have to ask anyone's permission to use it. You can pick up Free Software and form your own business without having to have huge amounts of money, and huge numbers of lawyers. You can develop Free Software even on cast-off computers that most people would throw away as scrap. Indeed I have many friends who take these cast-off computers, refurbish them, and help people who could not otherwise afford computers to have access to one. Free Software helps to level the playing field of the “haves” from the “have nots”.


I continue to work with Free Software because I believe it is the great chance for me (and the world) to find the next “Albert Einsteins of Computer Science”. Free Software developers are not shielded from our view as are their “closed source” counterparts. The world can see the contributions of Free Software people in the mailing lists and source submissions. On finding these people, we can reach out to them and skim them off the top of the stack of programmers, much like skimming cream off the top of non-homogenized milk.


I am not so arrogant to think that the next “Albert Einstein of Computer Science” will come from the United States. They might come from the United States, or they might come from Soweto, or Brazil or even as unlikely a place as Helsinki, Finland.......but in any case we have the tools to reach out and encourage these young programmers and entrepreneurs to do their best, learn the most and to...


Carpe Diem!

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