Double Vision

Yesterday I discovered that Donald Knuth at least occasionally reads my blog. I only half-jokingly reported a vague feeling that I ought to be falling to my knees and crying “I’m not worthy!” In response, a “v. m. smith” popped up in my comments to say this:

Dude, you have written at least two books (that I have read) and possibly more. I have never read any of Knuth’s books, so I am forced to consider this hypothesis:

You might be worthy.

Of course, it’s only a hypothesis.

At this I laughed so hard that my eyes watered. That last line! I’m going to be giggling about it for weeks. But, you know, once I calmed down, I realized that “v. m. smith” had an actual point. Which led me to some interesting thoughts about fame, double vision and personal identity – how we choose to become what we are.

So, imagine you’re me for a moment. As an adolescent and a young man you were an eager hacker who dreamed of doing great things. You idolized, to the extent of your relatively limited capacity for idolizing, the great uber-hackers of yore: people like Ken Thompson and Bill Gosper (yes, I know you young’uns have mostly forgotten Bill Gosper) and, indeed, Donald Knuth. People who changed the world around them by the sheer beauty and force of their code and their ideas.

Years – decades, actually – pass. You code and you think and you struggle and you have inspirations and you write and you code some more. Lots of hard work and some talent and a bit of luck come together; you find your moments and you seize them. Fame follows, but that’s the least interesting consequence; what matters is that you really do change the world. Your code is everywhere, running on hundreds of millions of servers and PCs and cellphones and gaming consoles and router boxes. There’s a piece of the Internet architecture that you can point at and say “That was me.” You’ve engineered far-reaching changes both obvious and subtle in the hacker culture, with ripple effects on everything it touches. You’ve written a bestseller – about software engineering, of all the non-bestselling topics. Your ideas have spawned reform movements in at least three scientific fields that you know of and rewritten the business strategies of companies in the Fortune 50; there are so many consequences that it gets hard to keep track after a while.

You’re not that kid any more. You made it. You really did. And when Donald Knuth sends you email, you might be worthy. Heck, you might actually be more influential than Knuth at this point; you’ve probably sold more books, anyway, and Knuth’s code (brilliant though it is) doesn’t run on the router boxes in everyone’s basement.

But you recoil from such thoughts. They feel…blasphemous, somehow. It seems the natural order of the universe that when Knuth speaks it is the voice of thunder. When his secretary forwards email from him, you still feel like that kid inside. Do we never grow up, really?

I think we do, actually. But, on reflection, I’m not sorry that I still feel a childlike awe of Donald Knuth – because without being the kind of person who feels that awe, I would never have become who I am or have done what I have. After my initial shock, I see him now with a kind of double vision – both as a near-peer and as one of the archetypal geeks after whom I patterned myself in decades past. Both perspectives are valid. Both are part of my identity. Both are me.

I think I laughed as hard as I did at “v. m. smith” because he more or less forced me to pay attention to both of those perspectives at the same time. This was, in a small way, an enlightenment experience; I know myself better for it. Thank you, oh rascal guru.

And it causes me to ask the next question. I’ve been a famous geek for, oh, about 15 years now. Is that a long enough time for someone to be on the other end of this kind of double vision, with me in Knuth’s spot? I’m thinking probably not yet; there are plenty of people who relate to me as both “the famous ESR” and a development peer, but there hasn’t been enough time for them to become stratospheric ubergeeks yet, so the shift between childlike awe and the mature perspective is not yet as large or as funny as it was for me yesterday. Maybe in a decade or so, someone will find themselves in that spot.

So this post is partly a message to that future, about what I learned by thinking on my history with Donald Knuth. It’s OK to still have heroes when you’re all growed up, really it is. Your feelings of awe aren’t really about me at all, any more than mine were ever really about Knuth himself – which is good, because really being worshiped is a heavy burden that I don’t want and Knuth probably never did either. They’re really about what virtues you honor and seek, and how you’ve chosen to construct yourself.

And if you, oh future-equivalent-of-me, ever find that you are a model for some still later generation…well, I hope you’ll understand that it isn’t really about you, either, and I predict that you’ll find it humbling. And I’m pretty certain Donald Knuth would agree.

93 thoughts on “Double Vision

  1. It’s really a ‘shoulders of giants’ kind of thing, isn’t it? Disregarding for a moment the supposed snarkiness the original speaker of that phrase had, of course. So, it’s not surprising to be more influential than past idols but still feel somehow diminished in relation.

    For my part, your writings have been massively influential on my thinking in the last two years I have been reading them as a way to goof off from work. I see your name on code in all sorts of places, but far more important to my world-view namespace is that your written works (your edit of the Jargon file, TAoUP, this blog) have gotten me to think differently, and about different things, even when I don’t agree with the things you say. I was never that serious about programming (though competent enough, just not passionate) until after reading your words.

  2. I would add that you never know WHO you will influence or HOW. So be the best you can be all the time, lest you miss the opportunity to create the next ESR (or Donald Knuth).

    Well put, Eric.

  3. Having people approach me and ask me to give appraisals of their game/product/presentation of same is bogglesome in the extreme.

    I keep thinking “Look, l’m just a technical writer with some clever hacks…”. And then Iook at their games, and I start asking them questions. And it becomes clear that I am asking them questions that they have never, themselves, considered about their design.

  4. >So be the best you can be all the time, lest you miss the opportunity to create the next ESR (or Donald Knuth).

    Yeesh. I know you meant well, but…this is exactly why being worshiped sucks. You know you have a responsibility, and the weight of it is an enormous pressure on you. I don’t know how much Knuth feels it; he’s notoriously a recluse, and maybe that’s why. I sure do. And it makes me a lot more sympathetic than I used to be to actors and rock stars who screw themselves up with drugs and crazy behavior. Under the psychological stress of “be the best you can be all the time, lest you miss the opportunity” people can crack like eggs.

  5. I’m sorry, I just can’t help remembering,

    “Rather must you Become, and Become, and Become, until Hackers respect thy Power, and other Wizards hail thee as a Brother or Sister in Wisdom, and you wake up and realize that the Mantle hath lain unknown upon thy Shoulders since you knew not when,”

    a line that always makes me choke up a bit when I read it.

  6. Do whatever you fucking well feel like.

    That’s what you’ve been doing to date, and anyone who idolizes you does it on those grounds.

    I could lay claim to a little of what you’re looking for, though my hacking profile is much lower — I’ve been doing analysis and design (and some clever coding occasionally) for almost 20 years, but most of it is EDP type stuff; on FOSS I mainly kibitz… Open source projects are famously hostile to designers who can’t code, regardless how good their design skills are.

    But I was pretty chuffed when you picked me out of thin air on IRC a couple months ago. :-)

  7. Eric,

    All I’m saying is, don’t get caught being chased down the road by your wife holding a golf club (or Model M Keyboard) in her hand :^).

  8. Speaking of us young’uns forgetting, who’s Donald Knuth? Gosper’s name still lives on in the Glider gun, but I haven’t heard of Donald Knuth before.

  9. @Daniel Weber

    Speaking of us young’uns forgetting, who’s Donald Knuth? Gosper’s name still lives on in the Glider gun, but I haven’t heard of Donald Knuth before.

    He’s the computer scientist who wrote TeX and METAFONT and The Art of Computer Programming and some other important books relating to mathematics and computer science. He’s also famous for offering a reward of $2.56 (1 “binary buck”) for finding an error in one of his books.

  10. Yeesh. I know you meant well, but…this is exactly why being worshiped sucks. You know you have a responsibility, and the weight of it is an enormous pressure on you.

    I’ve always wondered why so many people fail to realize that famous people, while famous, are still people, with everything that goes along with that. I guess it’s one thing to know that on an intellectual level, but it’s another thing to truly grok that. But maybe that’s why Linus posts about embroidery machines and his trips to Costco — it makes him seem more human.

  11. @esr – Sorry, but your quip about “be the best you can be all the time, lest you miss the opportunity” being hard is laughable to the extreme – that’s exactly the pressure on ANY responsible parent. The main difference from rock star is that parents have the added pressures of worrying about feeding/clothing/educating their kids without rockstar salary, have to actually raise the kids in addition to being 24×7 role models, and don’t get rock star sex due to at the very least having no time for such.

  12. @Morgan Greywolf – sorry, I must disagree in general. While what you say might be true as far as limited-audience specialist celebrities (such as ESR or Knuth or Larry Wall), first of all, none of THEIR celebrity-knowing target audience usually suffers from pop culture idolarity towards them too much, and most of that audience has enough brains to realize they are “still people”. And famous people as far as popular culture, at least in modern “celebrity culture”, are at the very least not like other normal “still people” in that they never need to worry about earning money (the fact that the likes of Lindsey Lohan are deep down in debt is the same problem that US government has – it’s not that they can’t generate revenue, but they can’t keep their fairly unreasonable expenses to below that).

  13. >that’s exactly the pressure on ANY responsible parent.

    You have a point there. Still, famous role models have to deal with the possibility of screwing up on a much larger scale. It makes a difference of degree, if not of kind.

  14. > Still, famous role models have to deal with the possibility of screwing up on a much larger scale.

    though far less deeply. ESR or Knuth isn’t going to screw anyone up badly. Knuth, at least, is doing science, and if he fails, will be quickly corrected.

    Your parents, however, have absolute influence for a number of years, and a slowly decaying influence after that.

    DVK has it right. The fact that you’re not a parent means you just don’t understand, and probably can’t.

  15. >most of that audience [for ESR or Knuth or Larry Wall] has enough brains to realize they are “still people”.

    Generally true, but with one troubling exception: “specialist celebrities” in cultures with high average IQs attract a variety of hater/stalker that is much more corrosive than the garden-slug variety found around (say) show-biz celebrities. Our hater/stalkers enable their creepy obsessiveness with an intelligence that exceeds the norm – but which, somehow, never informs them that the target of their obsession is “still people” and should be treated with ordinary human decency.

  16. @Morgan> He’s also famous for offering a reward of $2.56 (1 “binary buck”) for finding an error in one of his books.

    Its not a ‘binary buck’, its a hexadecimal dollar.

    http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~uno/faq.html

    And its not so much that Knuth reads your blog. Its that he’s discovered a bug in INTERCAL.
    http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~uno/news.html

    which makes his tpk.i program (http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~uno/programs/tpk.i), not run.

    Here is the patch: http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~uno/ick-diffs

    I think the “I know from your blog that you’re doing lots of real important stuff these days.” was his way of saying, “Get off your ass and do some work, or at least patch INTERCAL.”

    You didn’t post the whole letter, so I’m betting that he actually pointed out the bug and patch. Why you didn’t clue the rest of us in is left for the readership to decide.

    One possible explanation: Grandstanding. Its happened before.

  17. Show-biz celebrity stackers kill, rape and maim. In one famous case, someone attempted to assassinate Reagan in an attempt to get attention from Jodi Foster.

    The contents of your inbox pale in comparison.

  18. >You didn’t post the whole letter, so I’m betting that he actually pointed out the bug and patch.

    *blink*

    Well, of *course* it was a bug report. Why…um…why would anyone expect otherwise, or expect me to expect anyone to expect otherwise? Wipe the foam off your lips, dude, and try to lose the snarl. It is certainly possible that Knuth was exhorting me to get off my ass, but at least he was polite about it.

    The bug reported in email seems to be due to some kind of flex version-skew problem. I don’t have it fully characterized yet.

  19. >Show-biz celebrity stackers kill, rape and maim.

    Deviants at the end of any bell curve kill, rape, and maim. Don’t you know how David Gelernter’s fingers got blown off? It’s not all about me, you know.

  20. I got on the internets!

    Made my day.

    And really, even though you might be worthy, I am definitely not.

    As to Knuth, you are now about where he was when he made his name. After years of hard work and diligent application, and a couple of lucky breaks and the initiative to grab some opportunities, you might even be more than worthy.

    (Of course, its still only a hypothesis)
    – best wishes
    smith

  21. > Don’t you know how David Gelernter’s fingers got blown off?

    I do.

    Gelernter’s fingers got blown off by Ted Kaczynski’s bomb. I doubt ol’ Ted was “stalking” Gelernter, as his victims included secretaries in CS departments, owners of computer stores, as well as a timber company lobbyist and an advertising executive. http:

    //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Kaczynski#List_of_bombings

    (And Linda is cool.)

  22. >DVK has it right. The fact that you’re not a parent means you just don’t understand, and probably can’t.

    It appears to me that parents crack up under their version of that pressure less often than public figures do. Therefore, it seems likely that the stress on public figures is greater.

  23. >I doubt ol’ Ted was “stalking” Gelernter

    Kaczynski was exactly like the stalkers I and other famous geeks have had to deal with. Crazy. Wrapping his craziness in an elaborate cloud of intellectualizations. Developing an obsession with particular targets for reasons which the stalker can make look superficially plausible, but which are merely a mask for something creepy and weirdly random.

    Why David Gelernter, rather than any other computer scientist on the planet? If you asked Kaczynski, he’d probably tell you something plausible-sounding, and even believe it himself. But his rationale would have no relation to the causal truth: the craziness comes first, the explanations are post-hoc.

    I know what this kind of weirdo is like because I’ve had to deal with them myself. It took me a long time to learn that the rationality is a mask – that once you’ve detected the particular obsessive wavelength that these creatures give off, more interaction with them is futile. Because that’s just talking to the mask, not the thing underneath.

  24. Deviants at the end of any bell curve kill, rape, and maim.

    Yep. That’s why they’re called “deviants.” You don’t even need to be famous to attract the attention of a lunatic like that; a friend of mine can attest to that — she just caught the attention of the wrong individual. Fortunately, the police took care of him.

    Don’t you know how David Gelernter’s fingers got blown off?

    Unabomber. I remember when that happened.

  25. > Kaczynski was exactly like the stalkers

    No, Ted was an anarchist, and liked to talk shit about the left.

    But maybe that hits too close.

  26. >No, Ted was an anarchist, and liked to talk shit about the left.

    Yeah, which is why he bombed the fingers off a conservative.

    Give it up. Kaczynski was no more an “anarchist” than he was a “right-winger” or a “left-winger”. He was a nutcase. His “ideology” was wordy froth over a vacuum. You are only partly excused for being fooled into thinking it meant anything by the fact that he probably fooled himself.

  27. Wikipedia says he was an anarchist.

    It also says:

    He was born in Chicago, Illinois, where, as an intellectual child prodigy, he excelled academically from an early age. Kaczynski was accepted into Harvard University at the age of 16, where he earned an undergraduate degree, and later earned a PhD in mathematics from the University of Michigan.

    Was he insane? Likely, yes. Does that mean that he didn’t disparage the left, wasn’t a high-powered intellectual, and wasn’t an anarchist?

    No.

  28. @esr – “It appears to me that parents crack up under their version of that pressure less often than public figures do. Therefore, it seems likely that the stress on public figures is greater.”.

    If you hit a piece of glass with a rock, it breaks. If you hit a piece of wood, it likely won’t though some rotten ones can). I’m sure you see from that example where I think you made a wrong assumption (to be more explicit, the public figures who crack up usually do it due to character flaws self-selected-for in assorted celebrities, which is why attention whores like entertainment celebrities self destruct fairly often while accidental celebrities do so much rarer (the best and most obvious recent example of the latter was the pilot from Miracle On The Hudson, Chesley Sullenberger)

  29. DVK: I can say that I bent, but did not break, under the force of my accidental celebrity. I think that’s largely because I chose to embrace it, rather than reject it, and yet it’s not all of who I am. (Eric, your thoughts would be interesting, as someone who knew me before and after.)

    I just read Knuth’s INTERCAL code. Merciful $DEITY, readable INTERCAL… It’s probably poetic justice that the program broke: the compiler rejected it for being too good.

  30. >(Eric, your thoughts would be interesting, as someone who knew me before and after.)

    I thought you were rather more willing to be made the butt of a joke to get stage time than I would have been if I’d become famous for cosplay, but I never had the feeling that fame was making you crazy; it seemed more like you were executing on a strategy calculation with weights different than mine.

    I can’t say I noticed any before-or-after difference. But then, I wasn’t expecting any. You don’t suffer from the kind of flakiness/neediness that fame tends to amplify.

  31. @J. Jay – “Wikipedia says he was an anarchist. ”

    That piece is somewhat inaccurate (What!!! Wiki is not 100% accurate?!?! Blasphemy!). The same article also hints at the truth – he was instead “Anarcho-primitivist”. As Wiki clearly (and in this case correctly) states, “many traditional anarchists reject the critique of civilization, many even denying that anarcho-primitivism has anything to do with anarchism”.

  32. @J. Jay – also, unabomber, while critiquing “leftists”, did so on the grounds pretty much distinct from what any people normally associated with “right wing” would critique – either fiscal or social conservatives.

    His critiques are a lot more common with left-leaning libertarians’ ones, which from my limited knowledge of esr’s political views, don’t exactly represent him and thus can’t really “hit close to home” as you try to state.

  33. @Jay Maynard – with all due respect, while you do apparently have some notoriety, I don’t think you’re quite on the level of famousness which makes one influential/idolized enough to apply the sort of stress esr was alluding to (e.g. “need to avoid becoming bad influence”).

  34. >the public figures who crack up usually do it due to character flaws self-selected-for in assorted celebrities

    Well, sure. If you assume any premise you like, you can prove any conclusion you like. You don’t know that celebrities self-select in that way, and I don’t either.

  35. > As Wiki clearly (and in this case correctly) states, “many traditional anarchists reject the critique of civilization, many even denying that anarcho-primitivism has anything to do with anarchism”.

    This smacks of Potter Stewart’s “I know it when I see it” definition of porn.

  36. @esr – I don’t know, but I see enough examples confirming my theory and can’t off the bad think of many (or rather any) disproving it. I’ll concede you’re right if you supply examples of celebrities who had fame/celebrity come to them accidentally self-destructing often enough to approach the rate of celebrities who seek fame (e.g. pop culture/entertainment/politics)

  37. @esr – as a fairly stupid example, when was the last time you heard of a genuinely famous CEO being involved in a sex scandal? I can recall only one example (IIRC it was one of the big defence contractors, Boeing may be) in the last 5-10 years – and the guy wasn’t really a celebrity before the scandal hit (in teh same vein, Kozlowsky and other associated corporate uber-fraudsters aren’t good examples of this either – I am talking of the people like Gates/Steve Jobs/Jack Welch/Warren Buffet/etc…).

  38. I wonder if you can extend the chain of influences far enough to play a “Kevin Bacon”-like game and see who’s probably responsible for modern western civilization?

  39. Was he insane? Likely, yes. Does that mean that he didn’t disparage the left, wasn’t a high-powered intellectual, and wasn’t an anarchist?

    As soon as you say Ted Kaczynski was insane, it no longer matters what his ideology is. If he had been right-wing whacko, he might’ve blown up, say, Unitarian churches demanding that all liberals give up their power, or whatever. If he had been a left liberal, perhaps he would have sent mail bombs to CEOs, oil tycoons, or beef magnates. Whatever.

    No matter how you look at it, these are all equally bad. Murder is wrong no matter who the victim is.

  40. @Dallas, ok, sounds Good.
    I’ll start with myself.
    My largest contemporary political influence was probably David D. Friedman.
    Ok, someone chain off of David, and see who

  41. when was the last time you heard of a genuinely famous CEO being involved in a sex scandal?

    Well, what about the Carly Fiorina spy scandal?

  42. esr>It appears to me that parents crack up under their version of that pressure less often than public figures do. Therefore, it seems likely that the stress on public figures is greater.

    I would disagree here. I don’t think the pressure is less on parents, I think the stakes are higher and pressure builds a bit more slowly so we get time to internalize it. I had almost 9 months to get used to the idea that somebody was going to depend on me for EVERYTHING in EVERY WAY for a long time, then I had about half a year were all I had to do was NOT KILL the kid to learn how to deal which that pressure. Where most parents crack up is when their kids are about 3 or 4 and they become VERY demand, very exhausting, and into EVERYTHING. If you make it through that, you’ll likely do ok.

    I suspect that your fame is more like the parental type, as it built over a period of years before it fully flowered. You’d already accepted your role as a leader in the tribe before you became the rock-star kind of nerd we all know and love today. Same for most of the the uber geeks. You don’t become an alpha geek over night, and the journey prepares you for what follows more than many Hollywood celebs, particularly child stars.

  43. You don’t know that celebrities self-select in that way, and I don’t either.

    But we do know that people who try to be celebreties by definition are self-selecting. Whatever cluster of personality traits makes people more likely to seek celebrity will almost certainly reduce inhibitions against risky behavior. After all, fighting with the alpha male for dominance in the pack can get you killed.

  44. > David D. Friedman

    This one’s pretty obvious: Milton Friedman
    Milton’s got a lot, and I’m not necessarily qualified to answer that.

  45. I think we’ve run into something akin to a reverse No True Scotsman fallacy here. There is a natural tendency to want to assume that if $NUTJOB holding $VIEW does something $CRAZY that it must have been $VIEW which made them $CRAZY, thus tarnishing all of those who hold $VIEW, even if it is unrelated.

    In response, people who hold $VIEW assert that $NUTJOB didn’t hold their $VIEW because, well, they didn’t eat their oatmeal correctly.

    Holding that $CRAZY as a result of $VIEW either requires that $NUTJOB be a leader of the $VIEW camp (think Hitler, the Pope, Gandhi as an example of thought-based leaders), or that $CRAZY is an inherent element of $VIEW (strong nationalism, etc). Ted Kaczynski may have been an anarchist (or not), but blowing up people for no sane reason is an element of $CRAZY, not $VIEW.

  46. After reading this I had this flash of the end of Heinlein’s “Citizen of the Galaxy”. Thorby is working himself to death in a attempt to honor his father Baslim’s dream of a slavery free galaxy even though Thorby himself is certainly going to do far more than Baslim ever did.

    God I loved that book!

  47. @Morgan Greywolf

    >> when was the last time you heard of a genuinely famous CEO being involved in a sex scandal?

    > Well, what about the Carly Fiorina spy scandal?

    Sorry, but you just proved my point. The person implicated in the spy scandal had absolutely nothing to do with Fiorina (who might be remotely considered famous) and was instead HP chairwoman Patricia Dunn, who to the best of my knowledge was about as famous (pre-scandal) as an assistant member of the California state curling team. And based on brief details available on Wiki, the scandal had nothing to do with her innate character in the first place – she asked that something bad was to be investigated, and her underlings hired someone who did something unethical/illegal to achieve that aim.

  48. @Garrett:
    > Ted Kaczynski may have been an anarchist (or not), but blowing up people for no sane reason is an element of $CRAZY, not $VIEW.

    I agree 100% with the idea you put forth in your post…

    BUT… using anarchism was a singularly incredibly bad example to illustrate said idea.

    Anarchists are specifically known throughout history for “blowing up people for no sane reason” and general acts of violence as a legitimate – in their eyes – method of doing things. Starting with Tzarist Russia and continuing on to early 20th century America and Italian anarchists there as the two most famous examples.

  49. Eric,

    Most entertainment celebrities are under unbelievable pressure because sometime, possibly this afternoon, it can come to a crashing final end. They must stay in the limelight, but must constantly be on guard, even in a chemical induced haze at 3:30 am, to never say a political incorrection. They must be glamorous, so they can’t hide from the reporters. Hours are devoted to makeup, and small fortunes to wardrobe accessories, hours daily in the gym.

    If they’re young, they know they are making truckloads of cash, and are spending it just as fast. And they know the ride will end sooner or later, probably sooner. Possibly tomorrow. When it’s gone, it’s almost impossible to get back.

    And there is a profession, called tabloids, using spy tricks and tools following you everywhere, doing their best to bring you down.

    For ESR? If you say something politically incorrect… well, that happens pretty much any time you use english. You could be disgraced tomorrow…. some reporter might actually read this blog’s archive… …..

    The ESR brand is valuable because of what it produces, not because of how it looks under bright lights in skimpy outfits. Even if it were discovered tomorrow that you make Eric Cartman look like a kind humanitarian, your code would still rule the planet.

    It is a safe bet that 10 years from today, Britney Spears, Tara Reid and Lindsey Lohan won’t pull in the bucks for being sex goddesses. I will wager my entire savings that 10 years from today, your code vanishing would cripple the world. Alive or dead, your code, and therefore fame, will live on.

    So that’s why you are entitled to your fat head and swollen ego. “It ain’t bragging if you done it”

    However, remember that the ESR that is being worshipped today hasn’t been aware of worship his entire career. If you start becoming conscious and factoring hero-worship into your actions, you’ll be significantly different. You’ve mentioned it yourself. You’re under pressure to perform.

    Screw ‘em. Screw ‘em all. Be Eric Fucking S Raymond, and ignore your ‘responsibilities’ to your worshippers. Reject the pressure. If people want to deal with you as a god, that’s their problem. You’ve done just fine so far without the god ball and chain, and these tiny nobodies have no right to make you change.

    If you do change, you may very well find that you are no longer worthy of the worship.

    Good luck and stay hydrated.

  50. @Hanzie – while I agree with your post as far as it relates to ESR, as far as celebrities, I disagree. To pick just one point:

    “If they’re young, they know they are making truckloads of cash, and are spending it just as fast.”.

    The latter is just because they have character flaws, more likely than not self-selected. NOBODY forces them to spend that money – look at lady GaGa or Gene Simmons or Paul Friggin Moneybags “but I don’t like capitalism” McCartney as examples of celebs who don’t. It is VERY VERY VERY hard to spend truckloads of cash if you have even a couple of neurons still firing. And if, as you say, one of the pressures is “what happens when I stop being bankable star”, then that should be an uber motivator to not spend like US congress.

  51. >Be Eric Fucking S Raymond, and ignore your ‘responsibilities’ to your worshippers.

    I can ignore the worship, and I try to discourage it. But I have responsibilities to the hacker community that I can’t ignore. And I have a responsibility to the future. Partly by design and partly by accident, I’ve become a player in some debates that will shape the long-term future of civilization. Will control of technology and information flow be in the hands of the individuals that use and rely on it, or in the hands of self-selected managerial-political elites? What the hacker community does may be critical in deciding that question…and, because I’m one of the thought leaders of the hacker community, my choices matter.

    To put it another way: It’s not my responsibility to the worshippers that worries and stresses me. It’s my responsibility to all humanity. I can say “Screw ‘em!” to my fanboys and haters. I can’t say “Screw ‘em!” to the bigger thing. I’m just not able.

  52. @esr: “I can’t say “Screw ‘em!” to the bigger thing. I’m just not able.” – but then you’re veering off track of the original argument about neeiding to be perfect due to having some influence. That “bigger thing” you feel responsible for has significantly more to do with your “on-topic” words/thoughts/deeds than with your full time life off-topic. As an illustration, Pushkin and Dostoyevsky weer both fairly despicable human beings, and that had nothing to do with their influence as far as culture and literature. Or for a bit more of a contemporary – and more related – example, think Chomsky and computer science.

  53. hanzie (and Eric): I wasn’t talking about worshipers (fanboys) with my original post. As a leader of the tribe, Eric is a mentor to those who come after him, who will do as much or even more than he’s doing now. He’s one of the “giants” on who’s shoulders some future ESR will stand. THAT is the responsibility I was talking about.

    And I hadn’t thought about the long-term effects of your efforts on a global scale, but you’re probably right there too Eric (though put that way, it sounds sorta… Dr. Evil-ish :^).

    You don’t have to be some wind up toy, but just don’t be the biggest fuckup in the world on a personal level and don’t be careless with the fame you’ve got.

    Being human, that’s not only expected, it’s required, otherwise the next ESR may decide he can never live up to your image, and won’t try.

    Eric: This blog is a good way to convey your humanity, and I thank you for taking the time to do it, regardless of your personal reasons. In 50 years, this may be as big a part of your legacy as all the the other stuff. It may be bigger, because it’s a pretty thorough record of your MIND, which is something that not many people have had a chance to leave to future generations, especially in such detail. It’s far more revealing than a memoir because people don’t just get to hear your thoughts du jour, but they get to see your interactions, your reasoning, and your emotional responses to direct stimuli (like my admonition of care that started this mess). Like it or not, dude, you’re living in a fish bowl of your own making and writing your auto biography on a daily basis, and you’ve been at it for a decade now (longer, if usenet and mailing lists is through in, but that’s not as easy to read as the blog is). Not many have the stamina to do something like that. Let’s hear it for the HFA :^).

  54. DVK> …you’re veering off track of the original argument about neeiding to be perfect due to having some influence.

    I never said perfect. Only the admonition to be careful with the responsibility he was given, and accepted. As others have pointed out, it’s a lot like being a parent. As a leader of the tribe, Eric has accepted the responsibility of leadership. Abusing it, or disregarding it, will discourage others from following in his footsteps, and that will be disastrous for the tribe, because he MUST BE REPLACED eventually, and I for one don’t want somebody getting that position by default because nobody else wants to be like ESR.

    Anybody in a leadership position assumes this responsibility. Just not everybody lives up to it.

    It’s not a product of fame (although our society has erroneously linked “fame” with “leadership”), but Eric is famous for his leadership and stewardship.

    Yeah, he’s a good hacker, but quite frankly, I don’t read his words because he codes. I read his words because he THINKS better than 99.9% of the people out in the world, and THAT’S what interests me. And that’s what I don’t want him, or anybody else, discouraging within our community. I suspect that hackerdom is a target rich environment for strong, clear thinkers like Eric for reasons that have been frequently discussed in these parts. And I sincerely hope that many more will pop their heads out of the their holes and take up the mantel of not only hacking computers, but our society in general.

    Sorry if this went a little far afield, but it’s a meme that’s been in the back of my mind since I read this article.

  55. Sir ESR, you are my “Donald Knuth”. I’m an undergraduate student from Mongolia (surprised?). I proudly acknowledge your name (and some other hackers too) in every little project I do. You giants made me who I am today. What an empowerment. What a great contribution you all have done for the new generations to come.

  56. >>DVK has it right. The fact that you’re not a parent means you just don’t understand, and probably can’t.

    >It appears to me that parents crack up under their version of that pressure less often than public figures do. Therefore, it seems likely that
    >the stress on public figures is greater.

    The stress on public figures is less escapable than the stress on parents. Plenty of parents quietly abdicate actual parenting, while keeping up appearances, and perhaps even convincing themselves that they are still great parents. It’s easy to escape parenting stress if you (like most people) care about your *identity* as a good parent more than you care about your actual effectiveness as a parent.

    Celebrities, on the other hand, have the paparazzi chasing them, even to other continents, documenting and publicizing their every defect and foible (or, in the absence of actual defects and foibles, picking on any normal humanity the person might have left).

    That’s not to say that parenting isn’t stressful, but it’s an ordinary sort of stress we were built to handle. We’ve been doing it for ages. The 24/7 hungry media is a modern invention. Millions of people supporting dozens of paparazzi have way more free time to bug you than your offspring (even if you have 7 or 8), and can’t all be dropped off at Grandma and Grandpa’s for the weekend.

  57. “this is exactly why being worshiped sucks (…) Under the psychological stress of “be the best you can be all the time, lest you miss the opportunity” people can crack like eggs.”

    I figure this is why you tolerate commenters like me. I mean – in this sort of a situation it is beneficial for you to have some people around you treat you as just an intelligent and interesting blogger and nothing more. Helps keeping things in balance and proportion, I suppose.

    Which I do because although I write code for a living I have little passion for it, I see it as a way into business consultancy, and therefore I don’t treat you like legend not because I’m unaware of your accomplishments but because these sort of things I personally don’t find very interesting. What I find interesting and what the real reason is for me reading your blog is your social science / anthropology / philosophy stuff because that is what I have a passion for – at the deepest level I care little for computers and inanimate nature, my passion for understanding us, human beings, at every possible levels.

    So I read your blog mostly for the social science / anthropology / philosophy parts and in these fields you are not a legend, just a good, intelligent, well-educated, creative blogger. Good enough to be in my top 10 reading list but nothing like the “worshipped” heavyweights of the field like Mircea Eliade.

    For me this is topic is something unusual – I wasn’t even aware there are some folks around who worship you as a legend. For me this blog was always a good, interesting, intelligent anthropology blog and hardly much else and I was almost completely aware of this dimensions. I mean – of course I was aware of the technical dimensions but I had no idea others value these technical dimensions so highly.

    Have I already told you how I got here? Around 1993 The Jargon File had somehow made its way to a Hungarian CD-Discmag mostly consisting of games. Later on when I got my first Internet connection I looked up that funny catb-and-tilde URL I found there. The point is, TJF is of course an achievement not in hacking but in the anthropology, linguistics, sociology etc. of hackers. So there are people around who know basically as an anthropologist and not as a hacker and therefore do not have the unhealthy hero-worship attitude.

  58. > I figure this is why you tolerate commenters like me.

    Occam’s Razor.

    Go for the simpler reason. You write good comments.

    Yours,
    Tom

  59. >I figure this is why you tolerate commenters like me.

    Huh? Why would an exercise of toleration be required? You’re intelligent, you’re civilized, you present an unusual perspective because your cultural background is different from most of my regulars, and you show up. Trust me, the question “Can I tolerate having Shenpen around?” has never entered my mind even once. :-)

    >For me this is topic is something unusual – I wasn’t even aware there are some folks around who worship you as a legend.

    The reasons I don’t talk about this much should be obvious. :-)

    >The point is, TJF is of course an achievement not in hacking but in the anthropology, linguistics, sociology etc. of hackers. So there are people around who know basically as an anthropologist and not as a hacker and therefore do not have the unhealthy hero-worship attitude.

    Alas, your second statement does not actually follow from your first. I had a hero-worshiping fanbase due to that project years before my open-source papers blew up the world. Nowadays these old-timers seem to enjoy feeling superior to those who worship me only for my latter-day fame. Rather like people who act superior to fans of $RANDOM-BAND because “Oh, I was a fan back when $RANDOM-BAND was playing tiny clubs….” Me, I just shake my head in bemusement.

  60. You mean I get to feel superior about emailing you about reading the Jargon File on a 3270 talking to a mainframe running TSO back in the early 90s? (There’s a concept that will break some brains.) Whee!

  61. Alas, your second statement does not actually follow from your first. I had a hero-worshiping fanbase due to that project years before my open-source papers blew up the world. Nowadays these old-timers seem to enjoy feeling superior to those who worship me only for my latter-day fame.

    Hey, just because I was a fan back then doesn’t preclude me for being a fan of your latter-day fame. ;) (My first reading of TJF was as a download from a Fidonet’s filebone. Ha!)

    Speaking of which, are you ever going to get around to releasing a new version?

  62. >Speaking of which, are you ever going to get around to releasing a new version?

    Yes. Would have done so sooner, but the rate of new jargon formation has dropped off since about ’99. I think it’s because our technological base has stabilized in significant ways.

  63. >EXPN?

    The technology that supports the hacker community has been stable for the last five years or so – no discontinuities comparable to the emergence of Unix-capable PCs after 1987 or the mainstreaming of the Web around 1996. When the biggest software innovations you can think of are Ajax and Ruby, it’s quiet out there.

    Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. The sorts of technological changes that used to produce freshets of new jargon inside the hacker culture are now being felt mainly outside it. The rise of smartphones is perhaps the most obvious example.

  64. The technology that supports the hacker community has been stable for the last five years or so – no discontinuities comparable to the emergence of Unix-capable PCs after 1987 or the mainstreaming of the Web around 1996. When the biggest software innovations you can think of are Ajax and Ruby, it’s quiet out there.

    There are big changes, but Unix (Linux, etc.) and its toolsets and APIs are already so universally pluggable that very little needs to change to accomodate them. Some of the biggest work recently has been in the areas concurrent, distributed and parallel computing. Stuff like Go, llvm, etc, We’ll eventually see so much network integration, that we won’t even think of independent “computer” as anything but a component in the overall system. And we’ll all be driving these from our smartphones, I suppose. :)

  65. > Some of the biggest work recently has been in the areas concurrent, distributed and parallel computing. Stuff like Go, llvm, etc, We’ll eventually see so much network integration, that we won’t even think of independent “computer” as anything but a component in the overall system. And we’ll all be driving these from our smartphones, I suppose. :)

    Don’t forget the trasition to 64-bit!

  66. Would have done so sooner, but the rate of new jargon formation has dropped off since about ‘99.

    I don’t think this is exactly true. I think that what is happening, which you perceive as a dropoff in jargon formulation, is that the line between hacker jargon and the wider lexicon of internet slang is blurring.

    Consider, for example, the coining of “fail”. It’s nearly synonymous with the traditional hackerish “lose”, and has nearly supplanted it. The choice of an unusual superlative, “epic fail”, is also hackerlike: cf. “die horribly”, “grok in fullness”, “obscure in the extreme”. Nonetheless, it is not hacker jargon, but mainstream internet slang of the sort which is commonly attributed to 4chan.

    I find it plausible that the fact that “the sorts of technological changes that used to produce freshets of new jargon inside the hacker culture are now being felt mainly outside it” is closely related to this blurring of etymology.

  67. >I find it plausible that the fact that “the sorts of technological changes that used to produce freshets of new jargon inside the hacker culture are now being felt mainly outside it” is closely related to this blurring of etymology.

    I think your analysis of that specific case and your general conjecture are both very sound.

  68. Don’t forget the trasition to 64-bit!

    Huh? What transition to 64-bit?

    I don’t think this is exactly true. I think that what is happening, which you perceive as a dropoff in jargon formulation, is that the line between hacker jargon and the wider lexicon of internet slang is blurring.

    Right. That’s what I was eventually driving at with my general objection to “it’s quiet out there.” It’s not that quiet, it’s just the Internet got a whole lot bigger and hacker culture has both at least partially assimilated it and assimilated into it. IOW, it’s a victim of its own success.

  69. The 64-bit transition didn’t matter, just as Windows Vista and Windows 7 didn’t matter. What I mean by that is what I keep hammering about in smartphones — it’s the applications. Vista and Windows 7 sales weren’t strong in the beginning mostly because you didn’t need them to run applications. People largely upgraded when they got new PCs; they didn’t go out and buy retail copies to install on their existing PCs.

    That’s because people don’t upgrade — or switch — to anything unless given sufficient motivation. What’s held Linux back from dominating on the desktop is that there is nothing new or revolutionary in terms of the applications. People would be more than happy to switch if there was a good solid reason to do so.

    I’ve spoken to many non-expert people who did make the switch from Windows to Linux, and the reason they switched was a killer app of sorts: they wanted a machine that was free from viruses and spyware. Most were in the category of “Power User”– they know enough to get around, but don’t code and don’t necessarily understand that much about computers in general, but they have the will and determination to figure out anything from a user perspective. They looked at Macs, but didn’t like the price tag.

    Others I’ve talked to did so because they had a specialty reason of some sort or another. For example, there a lot of people who make and record music who do find that a music studio Linux setup — stuff like Ubuntu Studio, with JACK and real time kernel patches, plus applications like Rosegarden, Ardour, etc. — makes a pretty reasonable sound workstation. And some of the applications in that space are pretty unique.

    But the stuff that most people use every day? Well, there’s no compelling reason to switch from the Microsoft applications that came “free” with their PC. Firefox gained usage — especially on Windows — because IE6 stagnated for so long and they wanted a browser better browser. Mostly, they wanted a browser that wasn’t subject to viruses, spyware, drive-by downloads, etc. and Firefox was seen as the solution to that.

    Linux could have won in the 64-bit transition, but it would have taken a LOT more vendors to offer Linux PCs and a compelling reason for people to drop the applications they were already using and familiar with.

    A switch to smartphones for daily computing use does represent a bit of an opportunity for Linux-based cell platforms like Android because people already have to switch platforms to leave a PC for a smartphone. The platform they choose will be influenced by a lot of factors: carrier choice, applications, form factors, price, styling, branding and so forth.

  70. Morgan Greywolf Says:

    > I’ve spoken to many non-expert people who did make the switch from Windows to
    > Linux, and the reason they switched was a killer app of sorts: they wanted a machine
    > that was free from viruses and spyware.

    That was my killer app in a post I made almost simultaneously with yours:
    http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=2136#comment-261464

  71. > That’s because people don’t upgrade — or switch — to anything unless given sufficient motivation. What’s held Linux back from dominating on the desktop is that there is nothing new or revolutionary in terms of the applications. People would be more than happy to switch if there was a good solid reason to do so.

    Switching is expensive in terms of time and learning curve. People don’t even want a new VCR with a new remote, or a new microwave with new controls, why would they want to go through the much greater pain of a switch from Windows to Linux.

    Yours,
    Tom

  72. > Switching is expensive in terms of time and learning curve.

    This is painfully true. A good friend of mine is very sorely aware that he is locked into the Windows programming and application ecosystem. He would love to migrate but can’t justify the high, (relatively) short-term cost due to the demands of his contracting business. In addition, he is a security paranoid and Linux-land is missing a few features he considers absolutely mandatory (one or two of which I agree with; the rest are just the results of a MS-addled mind)

    I’ve been trying to gently push him away from his lock-in situation, but he’s just unwilling to make the change.

  73. In addition, he is a security paranoid and Linux-land is missing a few features he considers absolutely mandatory (one or two of which I agree with; the rest are just the results of a MS-addled mind)

    Hmmm? What could Linux possibly be missing in terms of security that Windows has?

    I’ll point out that Linux does have ACL support, it’s just that most distros don’t enable it by default for some reason or another. It’s not very easy to setup, but it’s there for those who really want it.

  74. @Morgan: back in Uni, my systems administration teacher told us that the groups setup Unix and Linux had wasn’t very flexible, in particular, you couldn’t make groups of groups. I understand that you can have much more complex scenarios with Windows, but am not sure if it really was a problem.

    It seems ridiculous to posit that you’re not moving from windows to linux because of security shortcomings of the latter and not the former, but maybe the guy made his investment in windows programming before becoming paranoid, so it’s a case of ‘well, I endure this because I can’t afford otherwise’.

  75. > It seems ridiculous to posit that you’re not moving from windows to linux because of security shortcomings of the latter and not the former, but maybe the guy made his investment in windows programming before becoming paranoid, so it’s a case of ‘well, I endure this because I can’t afford otherwise’.

    Provided you don’t “login as root” Vista is very secure. Of course most people “login as root”, but I would hope that a security paranoid professional would not.

    Yours,
    Tom

  76. Linux isn’t going to make any inroads on the desktop while Microsoft is willing to drop its trousers to preserve marketshare (witness what happened on netbooks once Microsoft was willing to do what it needed to in order to get XP pre-loaded.)

    As others have pointed out, the switching costs are too high for the perceived benefit.

    MacOS, OTOH, has iTunes, and the general (non-hacker) population perceives that iTunes works better on a Mac.

    Now Apple has a successful iPad product, which can displace netbook sales (and apparently is, with some 3 million sold thusfar).

    And Apple’s iPhone is an unqualified success. Android is interesting, but would be more interesting if Google could find a way to discipline both the carriers and app makers.

    The carriers are acting with a short-term focus (how much revenue can they rake into this quarter?). This drives things like the lack of 2.2 with it’s simplified tethering, and the pre-loaded crap-ware in rom, where it can’t be deleted.

    The issues with google’s mis-handling of its (app) market are well documented elsewhere. Even ‘DVD’ Jon Lech Johansen thinks there is a problem (http://nanocr.eu/).

    These are problems that Open Source can’t solve, but which market power can.

    This is one reason why Android will never be world-dominant unless Google acts to change the way things are.

  77. @Tom “Provided you don’t “login as root” Vista is very secure.”
    So is Linux (depending on the distro and setup, it will let you do more or less, though) in the same situation. The points were ‘security features Windows has and Linux doesn’t’ or ‘Security fails Linux has and Windows doesn’t’.

  78. Morgan:
    > Hmmm? What could Linux possibly be missing in terms of security that Windows has?

    Per-process firewalls is the main one. The Windows API allows for the creation of firewalls (e.g. Kasperski) that block ports on a program-by-program basis. I’ve hunted and haven’t found anything similar in Linux (maybe something has shown up in the last six months?), though I have futzed through the kernel source and it would be fairly trivial to implement. It’s been on my project list for a little while.

    Optimally, having the source to programs negates this concern since you should be able to peruse for any unexpected outbound connections. But not everyone has the time, and not everyone has the luxury of never running proprietary code.

    Adriano:
    > but maybe the guy made his investment in windows programming before becoming paranoid,
    > so it’s a case of ‘well, I endure this because I can’t afford otherwise’.

    That is exactly correct. He has been doing what he can to migrate away from MS dependence; he’s switched to gcc from VC6, runs cygwin for most things, and so forth. But he has a developed workflow that is highly-dependent on either the MS methods or programs only available on MS. The cost of both finding and learning adequate replacements for his workflow on another system is just too high in his estimation.

    Of course, he’s also found himself in a dead-end with several out-of-support proprietary apps, and is really feeling the crunch. I regularly drop little ‘it’s too bad you’re locked in to that’ suggestions. And it’s not like he doesn’t agree. But he is already a stubborn, set-in-his-ways old man at the ripe age of 26 and refuses to take the short term cost for the long-term gain.

    He’s the type who bitches at Start menu changes that cause him to be 4 or 5 keystrokes from a program instead of 3, and acts like that will completely destroy his productivity. He’s a little OCD, so mentally that may be true. *shrug*

    Tom DeGisi:
    > Provided you don’t “login as root” Vista is very secure. Of course most people “login as root”,
    > but I would hope that a security paranoid professional would not.

    Yeah, I wish that were the case with my friend. He _always_ runs as admin, and _always_ runs as root on the unix boxen he admins. He’s a good programmer, and is plenty knowledgeable about the innards of things, but he is extremely mentally-locked into the paradigm he’s functioned under for the last 15 years. He only just the other day finally upgraded from XP SP2 to Win7.

    He’s one of those types who is completely incredulous about any system not running anti-virus. Like I said, MS-addled brain.

  79. @Morgan: back in Uni, my systems administration teacher told us that the groups setup Unix and Linux had wasn’t very flexible, in particular, you couldn’t make groups of groups. I understand that you can have much more complex scenarios with Windows, but am not sure if it really was a problem.

    @Adriano: Yep. That’s called ACLs. Linux does have ACLs, but most distros don’t enable them by default.

    @jsk:

    Per-process firewalls is the main one. The Windows API allows for the creation of firewalls (e.g. Kasperski) that block ports on a program-by-program basis. I’ve hunted and haven’t found anything similar in Linux (maybe something has shown up in the last six months?), though I have futzed through the kernel source and it would be fairly trivial to implement. It’s been on my project list for a little while.

    That already exists. SELinux can do that, and I think AppArmor can as well.

  80. Morgan:
    > That already exists. SELinux can do that, and I think AppArmor can as well.

    Ya? I remember doing research into them while looking for a solution, since those are the obvious places to look, and not finding an exact match for his requirements (which include usability). I’ll look them over again.

  81. What’s meant by ‘usability’? If an application opens a port in violation of SELinux simply generates AVC messages saying what was blocked. There is a utility called ‘setroubleshoot’ that sits in your system tray will popup when the AVC messages are generated. informing the user of what happened. There’s no “Allow” or “Cancel”. It’s still up the user to modify SELinux policy if he/she wants to allow the process to do that.

  82. @jsk “He _always_ runs as admin, and _always_ runs as root on the unix boxen he admins.”
    Ok, he’s sounding more and more not as ‘security paranoid’ but as ‘security circus moron’. Especially if he’s so young.

  83. Morgan:
    > There is a utility called ’setroubleshoot’ that sits in your system tray will popup when the AVC messages are generated.

    I’m installing Fedora 13 in a VM now to play around with the latest SELinux stuff. It’s been a while since I worked with it directly in any capacity, though I did see it in Fedora 12 and was fairly impressed with the interfaces. As a fairly dedicated Slackware user, I admit to not being as familiar with the recent LSM stuff as I probably ought.

    Adriano:
    > Ok, he’s sounding more and more not as ’security paranoid’ but as ’security circus moron’. Especially if he’s so young.

    I wouldn’t necessarily argue that (especially the moron bit, on occasion), though obviously I’m not speaking for him directly and so my views are going to be skewed a bit. He is definitely suffering from a systemic problem in any case, whether he is aware of it or not. Whatever his personality disorders are (OCD, some kind of autism, who knows), he is a creature of mindless habit and is extremely resistant to changing his methods, and so relies on other programs to watch his back rather than change his own behavior.

    No amount of reason will get him to change.

    Sad thing is he really is an amazingly talented programmer.

  84. “[Your feelings of awe for heroes] are really about what virtues you honor and seek, and how you’ve chosen to construct yourself.”

    I really enjoyed this formulation. Thanks.

  85. Eric,

    Your responsibility isn’t to us so much as yourself. When you take that step across to being who we want you to be, you’re not going to be all that happy with yourself. Ironically, we’re probably not going to be that happy with you. I’m not sure why, but I’ve seen it enough times.

  86. :Andrew Kirch: We won’t be happy because when Eric stops following his path for “ours” he won’t be as good as we excpect. You’re never as good at doing something as when you’re following your own desires.

  87. Off-topic (by now):

    > Yes. Would have done so sooner, but the rate of new jargon formation has dropped off since about ‘99. I think it’s because our technological base has
    > stabilized in significant ways.

    Expect that to change – rapidly – in the next few years, as distributed systems get larger and more buggy. Jargon is not invented for cleanly designed systems that are easily to mentally model.

    In fact, I suspect there’s already a good bit of jargon already out there in the supercomputer community.

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