20 Years of Free Software

It’s 2013.  It’s cold outside.  I’ve had a couple of drinks.  It’s the perfect time to sum up my career in free software.

 I think it was yonder in 1992.

That them there old days.

I’d started using GNUS (the Emacs newreader) to read Usenet news.  My most pressing concern was how to read the, er, alt.binaries.pictures.furniture group, because I needed to, er furnish my student apartment.  (It’s true what they say about what the Internet is for.)

A couple of years was enough of that, and I started looking around for a free software project to really sink my teeth into.  I was all riled up by Richard Stallman’s rhetoric.  I think I may actually have asked the FSF what to do, but in the end I decided that I wanted to expand upon Umeda-san’s GNUS work and develop that into a comprehensive news/mail reader.

And so I did.

The mid-ninetees were heady years for me.  I had a spiffy 486 machine at home, but it was really too slow to compile (ding) Gnus (as I called my version), so I had to transfer it daily to the university’s systems to do the compilation/failure/publish cycle.

I had started my Gnus version without asking permission.  I was told repeatedly that this wasn’t a good idea.  And it probably wasn’t. It was kinda rude.  But there were two reasons:  1) I was too shy to ask.  2) I didn’t want anybody else to butt in.

But Stallman accepted my work into Emacs anyway. So I had the pleasure of telnetting into the FSF machines and working with the Emacs RCS system to install my stuff.

Gnus usage took off.  People started contributing and writing emails to me, complimenting me about my work.  And I know this will sound churlish,, but that was really hard to deal with.  My natural reaction to someone saying “Hey, thank you for foo” is to say “Oh, foo should be so much better.  It’s a piece of shit, really”.  Because I know.  It really could be so much better, if only I had spent more time on it.

After a while I understood that responding this way is rude.

If somebody compliments you, the proper response isn’t “No, you’re wrong”.  It’s “Thank you.  That’s very nice of you to say.”

Most of us free software programmers occupy a somewhat strange place.  We’re about as famous as second runner-ups in Belgian high-school badminton competitions.  But still we get these emails thanking us for our awesomeness.

It can lead to delusions of adequacy.

And it’s really difficult to talk about.

Anyway, I was allegedly studying, and then I was allegedly suddenly working instead.

And then I came up with Gmane, which is more of a service than a software project.  I often regret that I started it.  Programming is fun.  Keeping a service up is excruciatingly boring.

My main problem as a developer is that I’m monomanicially and stupidly focused on one thing at at time.  If I’m thinking about work stuff, I’m thinking about work stuff, for weeks on end.  If I’m doing Gmane stuff, I’m not even considering doing Gnus stuff.

As exhibit A, I present you with a chart detailing the number of non-work emails I’ve sent per week since 1996:

The erraticness! (That should be a word.) It burns!

It doesn’t look any better on a year-by-year basis:

What you can read from that chart is that I started getting back into Emacs and Gnus development after a six-year hiatus, sort of.

A lot of that time was dealing with work stuff, but Gmane (and now Gwene) soaked up most of my remaining brain capacity.  Handling the death threats and Indian court proceedings were discouraging enough.  It’s not that I needed the money, but having Google ads on Gmane somehow validated the concept somehow.  And then they dropped Gmane, for something I can only classify as “not reasons“.

Which brings me to the main point of this drunken trip down memory lane:  Most of all, free software development for me is all about bad conscience.  There is so much that I want to do, and that I know that I could have done, but that I have chosen not to do.

Every time I sit down with a book, or go out to a concert, that’s time that I could used doing something productive instead.  I could have handled a bug report.  I could have answered a user question.  I could have reviewed a patch.  Instead I choose to do something else.

So there you have it.  Free software leads to a life of embarrassment and bad conscience.

But it’s also funner than shit (to paraphrase Team Dresch).

Whenever I write something, I can’t wait to say git push to let the world see what I’ve written.  It’s (almost) instant gratification.  Minutes later people grab what you’ve done, use it, send you comments, send you patches.  It’s pure pleasure.

That’s why I’ll be doing it for another 20 years.  At least.

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