“If you didn’t run code written by assholes, your machine wouldn’t boot”

This was passed on to me by Ben Elliston, ex-gcc hacker and good guy.  Amusing in context, but the corollary is that working on free software means you’ll encounter such people.  You may have to work with them.  You may have to argue with them (and they may be right).

Quite some time ago I was horrified by the private behaviour of a hacker I deeply respected: malicious, hypocritical stuff.  And it caused an internal crisis for me: I thought we were all striving together to make the world a better place.  Here are the results I finally derived:

  1. Being a great hacker does not imbue moral or ethical characteristics.
  2. Being a great coder doesn’t mean you’re not a crackpot.
  3. Working on a great project doesn’t mean you share my motivations about it.

This wasn’t obvious to me, and it seems it’s not obvious to others.  A-list actors endorsing Scientology doesn’t make it a good idea.  Great FOSS political work was done by a certain obnoxious LWN-haunting nutball.  Julian Assange may or may not be guilty of crimes in Sweden. Many of my kernel coworkers believed that GPLv3 was somehow a radical change from GPLv2.  Some sweet code has been written by gun nuts, lechers, holocaust deniers and (in at least once case) someone who believes that fasting will cure cancer.

In any walk of life you have to work with all kinds; having to do so in my dream job as FOSS hacker was a hard lesson for me.  It’s great to work with people whose skills you respect, but don’t expect to like them all.

47 replies on ““If you didn’t run code written by assholes, your machine wouldn’t boot””

  1. Don’t lump us gun nuts in with holocaust deniers. We only hate tin cans, not Jews.

  2. Re: gun nuts:
    I was alluding to the fact that nuttiness is relative, and from some perspective we are all flawed. Too subtle?

    Re: Reiser
    I’m sure we can all think of someone, but I tried to avoid specific names. Otherwise the post would have been too long :)

  3. So so true. There is no such thing as “good guys” and “bad guys” despite what Hollywood tries to tell us. There are just “people”. And they all do “good” stuff and “bad” stuff (for any given definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’).

  4. Rusty, it wasn’t too subtle. It was pretty obvious to me you were just listing things.

    And yes, some gun nuts really are very screwed up. Just enjoying guns doesn’t make you a nut.

  5. “And it caused an internal crisis for me: I thought we were all striving together to make the world a better place.”

    Very well said! Certainly gives some perspective.

    The thing that gets me though is when somehow the nuts/deniers/etc. somehow try to align their beliefs with open source.

    but yeah, no one thing has the monopoly of assholes

  6. As my uncle says, you should be a Man in the first place, and only after – a `put your favorite profession here`.

  7. Nice observations Rusty. IMHO, Hackers have problems with society, and society has problems with hackers. Genius walks a fine line just this side of insanity. That’s just the way it is. Free radicals will always collide with established systems. But we NEED people like this. They’re the ones that bring fresh stuff to the table, whether you like what they bring, or not.

    I think Neil hit the nail on the head. People are just people, capable of anything, but generally following some basic common standards of decency.

  8. It is obvious. Blindingly so. The real story here is that software developers have such limited life experience and they couple that a definite world view. Astonishing naivety.

  9. “someone who believes that fasting will cure cancer.” I guess you might mean me? in which case I guess you’re obliquely calling me an asshole. Not an altogether angelic thing to do, really!

    But I’m flattered that a celebrated Aussie hacker like you 1. knows I exist, and 2. might think I wrote some ‘sweet code’ – please tell me what code you were thinking of, and I’ll forgive you for calling me an asshole!

    I hope I’m not the ‘private behaviour’ hacker who personally horrified you! eek.

    I have a feeling we’re most all one bit variety pack of assholes together here, although the personal perspective tends to flatter oneself and diss others.

    ((I showed and talked about a quickly-censored version of my ‘nude rescue game’ at MXUG last night, it was pretty well received, and I reckon I could have gotten away with using the proper sprites.))

  10. If people with excellent logical thinking skills (good coders) are holocaust deniers or gun nuts, perhaps they have a point?

  11. Writers, artists, family business owners *cough cough – everyone racks up major life baggage. Some are able to carry it better than others who prefer to spread the love. ;-)

  12. Okay, so no specific names, but if you’re going to list gun nuts, lechers and holocaust deniers, I’d say “and convicted murderers” would be a fine addition.

  13. It is possible that fasting could slow the growth of cancer, perhaps not a cure but possible.

    Nothing wrong with gun nuts.

    Coders are crack-pots because the real world is obviously not the same as the one advertised in the media. So we tend to be skeptical of everything. Questioning everything does not make you an asshole.

  14. Fasting does cure cancer, in the sense that a “cure” just means suppressing one condition long enough to be killed by another. If you stop eating you will very likely not die of cancer.

  15. I’m a little reminded of the quote “Well, you didn’t want software written by a calm and happy individual to be answering port 25 anyway”, which makes an even stronger statement about the desirability of software written by assholes.

  16. While I do agree that being a great hacker doesn’t preclude varying degrees of insanity, I personally think that hackers tend to have a lot less insanity than the general population. (And some forms of insanity we don’t tend to have at all.) However, when you *do* run across an insane hacker, they’ll tend to really have gone off the deep end; we don’t do anything halfway. :)

  17. As someone who formerly worked with a staunch member of the Westboro Baptist Church, I can fully attest to this. Once I found out he was involved with the WBC, I couldn’t respect him as a man, but his work spoke for itself.

  18. They say that 25% of prisoners are psychopathic, while less than 1% of the general population fall into this category.

    4% of CEOs are supposedly afflicted. I would venture to guess that the software population approaches 8%.

  19. A good friend of mine runs the windows bootloader team and he happens to be a really nice guy… so I’d argue some machines would still boot :)

  20. Note: I branched out from “assholes” to “nutcases” and “people who you disagree with so fundamentally you have trouble accepting their sanity”, but the title stained through. I also alluded to the relative nature of character judgement: I’ve been an asshole on more occasions than I care to remember.

    Also, thanks everyone for the polite comments, even if you thought I was calling you an asshole :)

    @steven: “obvious”
    Yes, it seemed obvious as I typed it. Yet it was still profoundly disturbing to discover one of my idols had feet of clay. I’m probably just lacking life experience, as you say.

    @sam: “me?”
    Err, checked browser history, yep, it was you. I was unable to find any serious academic corroboration of that exact bold claim (one Letter To The Editor does not cut it, nor does the related evidence on diet and cancer prevention). It has truthiness, but to explain the lack of studies you get into conspiracy theories, and, well, I like your code :)

    @Frank: “perhaps they have a point?”
    Nice! That’s exactly the kind of problematic conflation I’m referring to.

    @Michael: “Bobby Fischer”
    Indeed. Reading that NYT book review via ycombinator sparked this post.

    @zaitcev: “liberals or worse”
    I was thinking of you when I inserted the gun nut reference. I’ve always thought you totally rational, however, which is why you’re my token Republican FB friend :)

    @Anonymous: “Westboro Baptist Church”
    Ouch, that really makes you reassess your assumptions about what it takes to be a good coder. We do tend to idolize our profession.

    @Tom: “some machines would still boot”
    I think he was referring to my machine. I wrote the module loader for Linux, and my machine won’t boot without out. QED :)

    @norillsa: “I’m out of gun nuts.”
    One of the better responses. Thanks!


  21. [ There is no such thing as “good guys” and “bad guys” despite what Hollywood tries to tell us. There are just “people”. And they all do “good” stuff and “bad” stuff (for any given definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’). ]

    When people lose their integrity and their drive to be consistent, the individual degrades to being a “bad guy”.

    A “bad guy” who repents and returns to a consistent life of integrity returns to being a “good guy”.

    What is lost in modern day interpretation of the human condition is the value of repentance.

    There are “good guy” and “bad guys” – we all make our choices EVERY MINUTE of EVERY DAY.

    Now… off to the shooting range… gotta be ready for another’s possible bad choice (for both of us!) ;-)

  22. I think there is a line to be drawn between people who’s behavior towards others is repugnant and people who hold beliefs that you consider bizarre or don’t agree with.

    I do not think the poor behavior needs to be tolerated.

    I think odd or disagreeable beliefs do.

    The Westboro Bapist Church example is interesting. They fall into the repugnant behavior category because of their protest tactics and other things. But it sounds like the guy didn’t bring that to work with him. So I think there there is a fine moral line to be drawn and I think different people will validly draw it in different places.

    But people who are jerks to other people they work with… they shouldn’t be tolerated by anybody.

  23. In May 1983 I was standing in Tiananmen Square, where an elderly Chinese gentleman had been regaling us with stories of his sufferings during the Cultural Revolution. One of my colleagues eventually asked him why, given that Chairman Mao had caused him so much trouble, he was standing in line to visit Chairman Mao’s tomb. The gentleman replied “Chairman Mao did many good things and many bad things. We choose to remember him for the good things.”

    Although Postel’s Law (“be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.”) does have wide applicability, I doubt that my liberality in accepting from others would extend anywhere near as far as that Chinese gentleman’s did.

    So this is the usual tradeoff. Everyone has good and bad points. Although we should be willing to accept some bad behavior from someone who is an excellent hacker, there always must be limits.

  24. Maybe I’m misinterpreting, but it sounds like you’re concluding that we must put up with assholes in order to have great code. If that’s the case, I can’t possibly agree. Even if assholes are writing great code, that doesn’t mean you can’t confront them and refuse to put up with their behaviour. To do so is counterproductive, because the other great coders will leave the project, or never join it in the first place. Even if they don’t leave, they are definitely not working at optimal productivity in that kind of environment.

    If this attitude is widespread enough, great coders will leave the industry altogether. Then channel all their love of coding into private projects they never share with anyone while they take a day job as an accountant or something.

    If it’s really widespread, potential great coders won’t even enter the industry in the first place. If I had seen this kind of talk when I was a teenager, I would have thought twice about picking up coding. That would certainly be a shame, since once I picked it up, I found I loved it.

  25. You can also look at it positively (as you did in your article at one point) as follows. The great thing about FOSS (and other scientific activity) is that you need not “follow the leader” on everything. There are few other choices of career/vocation/avocation that allow one to be one’s own master on what to believe (and use) or not. So a certain great mathematician was a Nazi — we can still read his proofs and work out whether we want to use them. A great programmer advocates that we only write code in “name your favourite language”, but we can choose from a babbling brook of diverse ones. And so on …

  26. Just to say my MSc (Rusty said all he had was a letter to the editor) concluded that fasting is good for you. And the direct implication from that is that it prevents cancer. The mechanism for that may also cure cancer (with the emphasis on the word *may*).

    A quick scientific explanation. Eating drives your blood sugar up. Sugar is a horrific bio-weapon in the body, damaging everything it touches. So we’re designed to withstand the assault of a meal, and then clean up later when the sugar levels drop.

    Problem is, the modern habit of snacking doesn’t let the blood sugar level drop, so the repair mechanisms (in particular DNA repair) never get a chance to cut in. And damaged DNA leads to cancer.

    Fasting say once a week gives your body the chance to sort itself out, and of course if you do have cancer it *MAY* enable the repair mechanisms to disarm those cells.

    And it’s sex-dependent too – fertile women are better able to withstand high blood sugar – old women suffer more like men.


  27. Perhaps you’ve seen these videos of a lady doing 3 consecutive 40 day fasts on youtube (spaced by 1 week with food). If she lost that much weight, I think any tumors she might have had would have lost a lot of weight also.

    Sure she’s religious, and you might think a bit crazy, but she certainly did lose a lot of weight, including I guess most of the protein in her body, and I don’t see why any cancers would be excluded from the weight loss; in fact I contend that they would be more vulnerable, and would most likely be entirely consumed during the fasting.

    day 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgNh9mGb2K4

    day 40: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqAs74gQa2c

    day 80: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-09Z_9ZpZyk

    day 120: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdqKS-JQ1i0

    1 month later: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ixZICyJJck

    She’s looking fine, “I have stabalized at about a normal 120 pounds and have suffered no ill effect due to the fasting. Everything checks out medically, and I am healthier now than when I began the fasts.”

    6 months later: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFbvOAbhcT8

    “I am pregnant now, in good health, and my weight fluctuates between 115 – 125 lbs.”

    From a comment on the last video:

    “There is one thing I would like to point out to everyone. Look at how healthy and rejuvinated Aaron is. She looks like she is 22 and does not look like she has had any children. Before the fasts she looked like she was pushing 50. You look like one of the Robert Palmer girls in “Addicted to Love”. I could only hope to find a girl someday with that brand of sheer will.”

  28. “Quite some time ago I was horrified by the private behaviour of a hacker I deeply respected: malicious, hypocritical stuff.”

    It was ESR, wasn’t it? Everybody always goes NNNNNG when they actually find out what kind of person he is.

  29. It’s true, thanks for the great article Rusty. The ability to cope with people’s bizarre and wonderful complexities is only really worn out by their inability to reciprocate that understanding.

    Of course I tend to cope with very disagreeable people by winding them up until they sprong and people who I disagree with by getting very interested in their point of view. We all have ways of dealing with other people.

    A person above said geeks would be more likely to be psychopathic. I’m not so sure, the geeks I’ve met tend to misunderstand society, which isn’t the same as disregarding it. More research?

  30. Rusty, next time you mistakenly start getting all starry eyed about the human race again I suggest you pop on TISM’s song “You’re Only 5 Yards From A Fuckwit” to bring you back to earth. I know Ben can furnish you with a FLAC copy if you need it.

  31. The world can do without “assholes” just fine. Cause guess what. If Dick Dawkins had never been born, someone else *better* would be in his place doing all the right shit and none of Dick’s wrongs.

    The mediocre rise to the top and they are the ones we see. There are hackers that hAA4dxxorzzZ don’t even know exist. Mind blowing I know.

  32. I saw another article which suggests that a restricted diet can help to cure cancer. One jounalist, one “emeritus professor” and no assholes were involved in making the article. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathy-freston/a-cure-for-cancer-eating_b_298282.html

    I feel that mentioning me as an example of “assholes who code” is a whole lot more ass-holish than thinking and writing about an unusual idea in an attempt to help find a cure for cancer.

    I don’t think I linked to my post about fasting to cure cancer: http://sam.nipl.net/cancer.html

    1. Hi Sam! I should have resisted the linkbait title, but the quote was too good not to include, and I didn’t distance my content enough from it :( I apologise unreservedly for the implication that you were an asshole.

      My point was entirely that there will be people in the community of F/OSS coders with whom you will mismatch outside the narrow domain of coding, sometimes jarringly so.

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