Lloyd Wood's Jaundiced Eye: #1

Lloyd Wood's name may not be familiar to most TBTF readers, save that segment who follow the development of space-based communications satellites; Lloyd's satellite pages are justly celebrated. His writing is precise and his viewpoint is acerbic. TBTF is pleased to host Lloyd's essays on the people and trends of the digital age.

In the first of his irregular profiles, Lloyd chronicles a close encounter with Eric Raymond.

Jaundiced Eye: #1

This is what I was thinking. This is what I thought was worth recording. This feature is irregular. The future is unknown. Feedback is welcome.

An evening with Eric Raymond, NT personality


Eric Raymond
London Unix User Group meeting [1]
Commonwealth House main auditorium
1999-01-20, 7:15 pm

I have seen Eric Raymond [2], promulgator of the "open source" concept, live. He's as colourful as his choice of Halloween text colours, and he's... feisty.

Although the material (to wit: Eric Raymond and how open source came about, primarily due to Eric Raymond) is familiar ground to anyone who has ever looked "noosphere" up in a dictionary, and the jokes, though well-timed and delivered, are predictably geeky and expected, he can hold an audience. Yes, even an audience as initially wildly sycophantic as this scattering of administrators, pseudo-unix-geeks and fashionable camp-followers. They were a vocal "Linux good, Tcl bad, Exchange dire, Netscape's source that we've probably never even looked at completely awful" crowd, of which only around 10% admitted to being employed as programmers in an early show of hands.

This performance flowed smoothly in a well-rehearsed routine undiverted by interruptions from the floor and sound-bite answers, always followed by "Is that a responsive answer to your question?" -- closed questions consistently creating the illusion of customer service, compelling the English to utter a polite and quiet "yes" even when they weren't satisfied. After all, it was an answer, of sorts, and it was certainly a response -- you couldn't complain, and the English are renowned for not doing so.

As he stumped round and round the stage for one and three quarter hours firing off what must be uniquely American bon mots ("Richard Stallman is widely regarded as a whackjob," "if I was a Brit I'd be called a snotty anorak," a large number of jokes that would not be lost on the disenfranchised market that has taken Dilbert to its heart, and an unfortunate digression into psychology and Myers-Brigg personality testing [3] that led to the revelation that we're all "NT personalities" -- with intelligence inside, no doubt) I couldn't help admiring his obvious style while deploring his material's visible lack of substance. Well, his visible lack of substance; the material is, by and large, a marketed Eric Raymond.

Unlike his style, his story of how Open Source came to be is not compelling, especially if you know the history and literature. There are weak spots, quickly glossed over: that embarrassing business with the Open Source trademark that Eric now owns, for example. How the trademark almost forked, why he thinks he deserves to own it, and -- most importantly -- what he's planning to do with it in future. Why the Debian licence is a good model. Why, of all people, Guy Kawasaki [4], venture capitalist, Mac Evangelist, and world jetsetter during Apple's worst years thus far and someone the audience would not admit to having heard of, was an example worth following by anyone other than Eric Raymond, zeitgeist capitaliser, Open Source Evangelist, and world jetsetter during Netscape's worst years thus far. Why we would want to evangelise open source to other people's CEOs, and how we'd get the opportunity, instead of doing the failed "bottom up" percolate-up-the-hierarchy approach to convincing companies that was so continually derided. The Hacker's Dictionary, and how it demised. Who Eric Raymond really is, and why he is doing this. And finally and most tellingly, how Eric "went up against Microsoft Marketing three times and won" with the notoriously overblown Halloween documents.

The latter was intended as a climax to the show's buildup to the here and now; it was rather spoiled by the compere immediately pointing out that there was a difference between marketing and news, and that that statement was hardly accurate. No matter; linux growth rates were trotted out and quickly cited as a marketing success, and Raymond recovered admirably to unfortunately and tragically run out of available time at nine o'clock as the lecture theatre was closed. It was if the whistle had been blown just as Our Eric was facing a penalty, having only just pushed a swift volley over the crossbar. Not bad work for someone who'd just wandered in from the sidelines midplay; no extra time in which to lose the game for his chosen team -- himself.

By this point, the audience, which had increasingly begun to show signs of being able to think for itself, had been asking increasingly intelligent questions related to how open source applied to custom niche software and single vendors -- the SAP package beloved of UK universities' administration departments was mentioned several times as an example that the open source mantra couldn't drown, and the Raymond apologists in the audience finally sensed that they were out of their depth and shut up. Another half hour and Mr. Raymond would have been done for; "You can't expect to win every battle" can only be used as a Get-Out-of-Answer-Free yellow card so many times, and probably wouldn't go down well with target CEOs more familiar with the adages of Sun Tzu.

Exceedingly difficult questioners unsatisfied by immediate soundbite answers as solutions were sent off with the handy Do-Not-Pass-Clue red card featuring the catchphrase "Life is hard." If you were looking to figure out the tricky details of applying open source to your situation, this wasn't for you. After all, it's not your battle that's at stake here. It's not even the Open Source War. It's Eric's career marketing campaign, dammit.

Raymond shows an unusually expressive awareness of the use of body language, presumably an effect of his visible but mild cerebral palsy. He has almost as much charisma in front of a crowd as he obviously has ego, and he's certainly another in that long line of short people able to hold a disenfranchised audience from a podium with the aid of an agenda and a goal. ("I want to live in a world where software doesn't suck!", his moustache frequently bristled with vigour.)

In telling us how to evangelise open-source software effectively to the people he derides as clueless, he attempts a good job of marketing himself as One of Us, the downtrodden yet technically superior and knowing. The parallels with Dogbert and his New Ruling Class are uncanny; the underlying marketing goals are never far away.

Despite heartfelt protestations that he really misses coding, Eric Raymond practising his vocation -- telling you about and selling you Eric Raymond -- is worth listening to and recording. The eventual remaindered autobiography will be invaluable while cheap; an interview with a suitably well-briefed Jeremy Paxman [5] would be priceless; a political campaign is conceivable. The unfolding story of Eric Raymond will run and run.

Rather like Dilbert, and with much the same commercial goals.


[1] http://www.ukuug.org/lugs/luug.shtml
[2] http://www.tuxedo.org/~esr/
[3] http://typelogic.com/
[4] http://www.umsl.edu/~sbmeade/macway/indexpic.htm
[5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/info/policy/j_policy.shtml Copyright © 1999 by Lloyd Wood <L.Wood@surrey.ac.uk>. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint, please contact Lloyd.


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