Musings on the Last Day of 2007

by Jon maddog Hall

This year a combination of travel and snow storms influenced me to stay at home on New Year's Eve. I had returned to my home from a night out in Boston the evening before, and after battling a snow storm while returning home I did not feel like going out again. A fire in the fireplace and my favorite beverage in my hands was all I wanted on the last night of 2007.

Yet the end of the year is often used as a time of reflection. Sometimes you think about your life, the roads that you have traveled, those that you have not taken, and the people and events that you have affected. You wonder if you have made people's lives better.

This New Year's Eve I thought about one of the people I had seen the previous night, a young man who is going to college in Boston. We met onthe evening of December 30th at his favorite eating establishment and talked about what he was doing at school and at work.

I first met him when he was in grade school. I met him though his father, a business acquaintance, and let's just say that the young man "was having trouble finding his way." Often angry, not doing well in school, one day he even put his fist through the wall of his room.

I went over to their house for dinner one night to talk over plans for an event that Linux International was helping to sponsor. This was in the early days of Linux, so the conversation at the table was rife with the talk of why Free Software was better than closed-source, proprietary software. I also talked about many of the young people who I had met who had done projects in free software and how I admired them for what they had done.

The family was very much into technology, and both the father and mother had their own computers, using the systems as tools for their jobs. I left a copy of a Linux book with them, probably an early copy of "Running Linux" by Matt Welsh, along with a distribution of Linux in case they would like to try it out on their systems.

A short time later I found out that the son had asked for his own computer, but was using Linux on it instead of Microsoft Windows.

A month of so after that, the father complained that between the three of them the phone was in constant use with dial-up networking. I suggested that they create a network inside their home. While this was beyond the expertise of the father and mother, when they carried my suggestion home to the son, he suggested taking one of their older "retired" computers and making a firewall/router/server/gateway out of it.....and to use Linux to do that. This surprised even me, since this was fairly sophisticated for someone who had only been showing interest in computers for a very short time, and who I considered to still be "new" to Linux. Nevertheless, with some trial and error, he managed to set up a wired network inside their home, and a relatively short time later his father was told he could take the laptop computer out by the family pool and use it wirelessly.

Another dinner invitation solicited the question of which high-level computer language would be good to know? I mentioned "C", and before I knew it the son had started studying how to program in "C", using the GNU compilers and build tools that came with the distributions. Today he knows several computer languages, and tries to use the best one in every situation.

After two years the young man entered high school. His high school did not have a computer club, so he helped to start one, and helped lead the computer club during the time he was there. His grades, which had been "o.k." before meeting Free Software, had continued to improve during this time, and he was often on the honor roll at his school. His outlook had changed, and he had become more sure of himself, and more outgoing. He joined the football team, and although his physical size did not allow him to become a star linebacker, he participated and enjoyed being on the team.

By this time he was developing an interest in computer security, and with his grades being top-notch and due to the experience he had in programming, systems administration and networking with Free Software he obtained advanced placement at a good university. In his sophomore year he started working with a professor doing graduate level work in security. Today, still an undergraduate, he works for a computer security firm while completing his studies.

Now a lot of this narrative is based on someone who admittedly is very intelligent, and he might have learned this knowledge some other way, or have taken some other path to get to where he was going. I would like to believe, however, that one of the basic tenets of Free Software, the ability to inspect and change the source code was the spark that allowed this young man to move forward and to make his own destiny. Certainly the "instant gratification" that I had experienced in my early years of coding had also infected him, bolstered his self-esteem and allowed him to move forward.

As I sit in front of my fireplace with my favorite libation in hand, I may hope that I had some small influence on his chosen path, and I may hope that I made his future life a little better and that his work will make other people's futures better but I know that Free Software had a positive affect.

Happy New Year, everyone.