Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce FOSS misfits: Rusty Russell's take

FOSS misfits: Rusty Russell's take

It is not often that people from within the free and open source software community speak frankly about the problems within.

It is even less often that a person who has the integrity of Rusty Russell does so. His comments about social misfits in the community - whom he refers to as arseholes (he used the American spelling, assholes) - has not received much attention, understandably, given the insular nature of most commentary about FOSS.

Russell is a senior kernel programmer, a good guy, very funny and a genuinely impulsive person. He is well-known as a prankster; one of the pranks he pulled in 2010 resulted in the well-known Debian developer Bdale Garbee having to sacrifice his beard at the hands of Linux creator Linus Torvalds.

Without Russell, there would be no national Australian Linux conference. He bankrolled the first conference in 1999 with his own energy and funds after having visited a conference abroad and felt that Australia was well suited to have its own shindig. The conference is now a massive event, attracting the cream of FOSS talent to Australia every year.

In other words, Russell has cred, lots of it. And when he made a statement (borrowed, he admits) like "If you didn't run code written by assholes, your machine wouldn't boot", perhaps it merited a little more attention.

The starting point for his writing about this topic was his observation of the private behaviour of a software hacker he knows - it was hypocritical and malicious. It caused an internal crisis for Russell who, until then, says he had been under the impression that all FOSS people were striving to make the world a better place.

In his listing of the types of people who go against this grain, Russell theorised that moral or ethical characteristics did not come naturally to a good developer; a great coder could also be a crackpot and people who worked on the same project could have different motivations.

When Russell got down to specifics, he identified at least one person by being too narrow in his use of words - Sam Watkins of the Linux Users of Victoria, a pleasant person by my reckoning, was outed as someone who has written good code but one who believes that fasting can cure cancer. Russell also noted that if A-list actors endorsed  Scientology that did not make it a good idea and that great FOSS political work could be done by nutballs.

Russell is a master of understatement; if he had made these comments in person in front of an audience, they would have been treated a whole lot more seriously. The problem with the written word is that minus the body language it often tells much less than it should.

His comments come after a couple of years when the FOSS community has seen an explosion of incidents directed against women, one aspect that is vastly underplayed and one that needs more attention than it gets. Indeed, the extent of anti-women acts is far in excess of the norm in society.

This is just one type of behaviour which should fall under the category that Russell commented on. There are others - and they are not limited to those that he listed. There are plenty of anti-social traits within the FOSS community that need attention.

And senior FOSS people need to speak out more often about the problems within. Drawing a ring around things will not make problems disappear - when they do see the light of day, they will be akin to Murray Cummings' blast in 2007.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.