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.

1995: Till Damaskus/Ett drömspel

I couldn’t remember buying this, and it turns out that I didn’t.  It was forgotten by somebody at my apt, and he’s since gone onto become a theater instructor.  How appropriate, since this is a collection of two plays by August Strindberg.

I probably get a more abstract impression of the plays than originally intended.  I mean, they’re full of madness and symbolism (it’s Strindberg!), but the Oldee Timey Swedish Grammar (from 1898) combined with the general christianey drift of the plot makes my  brain not quite grasp what’s going on all the time.

But the plays are definitely powerful.  And quite amusing in places.

Det är synd om människorna!

Rating: Symbolicious.

4AD in the Early 90s

I used to be a 4AD fan and kept a discography going back in the 80s.  Or 90s, I guess. 

I also used to buy lots of British music papers.

Rooting through the basement storage here today, I found a cache of snipped 4AD-related articles and reviews that I had apparently collected back then, but had never done anything with.  So I thought I’d just scan them and assemble them into PDFs.

The scans should probably be cropped for easier reading, so I was thinking about writing an Emacs-based image cropping mode.  But then I thought “eh”, and wrote this teensy little library that just queries you for file names, and then uses the Gimp to do the cropping.

Gimp supports opening several files “remotely” (i.e., without starting a new instance for every image), so this turned out to be a workable way to, er, work.

The time period turned out to be 1989 to 1993, which isn’t the prime period for 4AD by any stretch of the imagination.  Half the articles are about Lush, I think.  I mean, I love Lush, but, you know.

So there you go.  Enjoy the fabulous early-90s British music journalism.

I should fold these into the general database, but that would mean getting the C++ program I wrote in 1989 to compile now, and that’s not…  fun…

1995: The Woman in the Dunes

Continuing the stooory of 1995, for some reason or other I had bought this book by Kobo (The Meat) Abé.  Probably because it was on sale.  Which also explains why I didn’t read it.

It turns out to be a fantastically written punch in the stomach.  It’s a sandy, moist and claustrophobic horror show.  And I kinda loathed it.

Well, that’s putting it too strongly.  I liked bits of it, but…

There you go: It’s great, but I didn’t enjoy it.

I do enjoy the way some bookstores put the date they bought the book onto the price tags, though:

So the bookstore got the book in June 1988.

And I apparently bought it in 1995, on sale.  And then I read it 18 years later.

Rating: Loathalicious.


I’ve just seen what may be the best movie ever.  Boom, with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams, with Elizabeth Taylor and Whatisface playing the leads.

I mean, just look at it.

Look at it!

Pet Peeve #942: Amazon Packaging

If you order a book or two from Amazon, they know how to pack them. If you order more than that, they just throw everything into a thin cardboard box, and if the books are heavy, they then sometimes throw that box into a mail bag.

Exhibit A:

Thin cardboard boxes with heavy books inside isn’t a very good idea.

Look at all the packing material used. That’s like … four? plastic balloon-ey things. That all burst the moment they were put into the box.

So I should have learned my lesson by now: Never order more than two books at a time from Amazon.

Alternatively, Amazon could learn how to back books into boxes. I think they should know how by now.

1995: Forsøk i kjærlighet

I hadn’t kept up with the 1995 project in a while, so I pounced on Essays in Love: A Novel by Alain de Botton yesterday.

It’s a somewhat unusual novel.  As it says on the cover, it’s sort of an essay collection, and it’s sort of a novel.  So very avantey.  But not really.

It’s a love story, but the protagonist tends to overthink things.  It’s quite amusing.

But I just couldn’t get past this bit in the opening section.

Our hero is calculating the chance that he and The Love Of His Life were to sit in neighbouring seats on the plain from Paris, given that a) only this woman is TLOHS and b) they both were to take planes from Paris to London that day.  Fine.

But the numbers are somewhat odd.  And it doesn’t help that the Norwegian translator is mixing up decimal commas and decimal points, either. 

The chance of sitting next to each other, given that they take the same plane, is said to be either one in “162,245” or “162,(245)” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), which doesn’t seem all that unlikely to be correct.  (There are 192 seats on the plane.)

But then we get to the bit where there are six planes, so we should multiply the chance by 36?  And we should end up with a change of one in “5 840.81”? 


And what’s up with all the decimals, anyway?  Grr!  Pretend precision is Pet Peeve Number 241.456!

So while reading half the book, half my brain was kinda going through the maths while the other half was reading the book.  And I really don’t have half my brain to spare.  I can’t spare even a tenth.

Finally I went to An Online Retailer and looked at the English version of the book:

There all the numbers are totally different!  AAARGH!

But they look more sensible there, at least.

Did the Norwegian translator just throw down some random numbers on the page, or did de Botton fix this in later printings?  Could someone check an early (1993) copy of this book in English?
With that out of the way, I could finally pay more attention to the rest of the book, which made me notice stuff like the thing above.  It’s supposed to be an illusion, but the longer arrow is 3mm longer than the short one.

I’m totally open to the idea that de Botton would do something like that on purpose just to annoy us nerds, and if so, I applaud him.

Rating: Baitalicious.