Articles / Editorial Comments by Jakob…

Editorial Comments by Jakob 'sparky' Kaivo

Jakob 'sparky' Kaivo is a Linux advocate, and recently became the webmaster for the LSB Project. He works at/with NoDomainName Networks, and AtDot E-mail Services, and has written the mailing list client Minordomo under the GNU licence.

He has written an interesting piece on why Linux users should give something back to the Linux community, and presented some ideas on how just about anyone can contribute. Hit the details link.

Giving Back

So, you've got your GNU/Linux system up and running, your friends acknowledge you as a master of the command line, and you're feeling pretty good about yourself. Now what? Perhaps you hear a little voice in the back of your head telling you that there's no such thing as a free lunch. "Quiet!" you yell at the voice. "This Linux thing is free, I don't have to do anything in return." True enough. You are never forced to do anything in return for free software. That would be contrary to the ideals of free software. But, you really should consider giving back to the community that has so generously given to you.


Why give back? Why slave and labor over a program only to give it away for free. Good question. There is generally little or no monetary compensation for writing free software, so what is the point? If that's your view of things, there is no point to it. I don't know about you, though, but I sure am glad that people like Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, and Larry Wall (to name a few) have different opinions about that. Sure, their exact reasons for writing free software are different, but they all have reasons to. It could probably said (and I will) that there are as many reasons for writing free software as there are free software authors. For some, it is a social issue, a means of making sure that all people have access to quality software with freedom. For others, it's an ego thing. Sure, Bill Gates is respected as the richest man in the world, but he is regarded as little more than a greedy jerk by the techies and geeks of the world. But Linus Torvalds is a man who, though not rich, has been on the cover of Forbes magazine and his little kernel is all the talk of the day. Your program may not get as popular as his, but there is something to be said for the feeling you get when your program's mailing list hits 100 subscribers.

That said, if you can, please write free software. If nothing else, do it out of appreciation for all the hard work of all the other free software developers out there. If you don't think you can take on a large task alone, don't. Help out in a larger group. join in the bazaar of some big project that needs the help. Or, write something that is small but useful. Where would we be if someone hadn't taken the time to write a free version of `ls`? In a world of hurt, that's where. Big, small, complex, simple, single person, cast of thousands, all free software is useful to someone.

But I don't know how to program!

Don't think that I would forget about the non- programmers out there. I know that there are a lot of you. A lot of people just use their computer to get their work done and either don't know or don't care about programming. That's perfectly great. But, you can still give back to free software. How? Any number of ways. First is to test development versions of software you find interesting and/or useful and report bugs to the authors to help make that free software the best it can be. You can also tell other people about free software, and its advantages over proprietary software. Tell them how free software is so often much better than the proprietary equivalent technically, how much money they can save, and the freedom that you have when you have the right to modify and redistribute the program in source code form. And, perhaps most important of all: Write documentation.

Hackers often get caught up in development and let documentation fall by the wayside. Perhaps you've been a victim of this - you wanted to use a program but had to go through a lot of hoops to get it working right. Well, if you did get it working, write down the steps you took and release it as free documentation. Or, if you really know a piece of software inside and out, write a free manual for it. If you notice, I've called these "free" documentation and a "free" manual. I don't mean free in terms of price, I mean free in the same way that free software is free. It wouldn't be that useful if you write a manual for a piece of software, then a new version comes along that changes the way particular feature works. If your manual isn't free like the software is free, the author of the software wouldn't be able to make whatever minor changes might be necessary to bring the manual up to date, and you've got an incorrect manual. So, if you do release documentation for free software, please try to release it under the same distribution terms as the software itself.

Recent comments

05 Feb 2002 14:30 Avatar triolus

Re: Giving Back
I know what you mean. I used to run a website back in the day and I was flamed daily because I didn't have enough content, reviews, or just because I used a link button that they didn't particuarly like. These kids do need to grow up, but you as a person needs to learn how to ignore these people and not let them get to you.

Try adding a mail filter that filters out email that is in all caps. 0r m4yb3 7ry 70 bl0ck 1337 sp34k! =)
Then you shouldn't have as many on your back.

05 Feb 2002 14:26 Avatar triolus

Why should I code?
I am currently writing a simple Perl script to keep track of bank accounts and to help balance checkbooks. I will be my first ever Perl program, and my first program to ever be released to the public.

Why am I doing it? I have downloaded tons of programs from this site, that's why. I'm a newbie at code, but I figure I can write sometime decent enough to help someone, and gets tons of comments on my code, which will help me learn more about it. That knowledge is my payment. Knowledge is worth all the money in the world.

05 Feb 2002 14:21 Avatar triolus

Re: Newbies get dumped on
I must say that as a linux newbie, I have had my share of getting dumped on or ignored when I ask questions. I have come to read this FAQs and follow them step by step and have things still not work out. However, it has taught me MUCH more about the OS than if someone did help me.

The thing is, most newbie linux users are damn good windows gurus, but it's like going from living on Mars to living on the Moon. Two totally different places.

I will admit that it has scared me away once and I went running back to windows where I could be the smart guy once more.. but I came back. Why? Newbie windows users get on my nerves. =)

I do not object when linux wizards refuse to answer my question, but at least point me in the direction of a good FAQ. In my opinion, linux is for the nerds, and should stay that way. If you can't figure things out, then don't use it.

02 Sep 1999 14:27 Avatar robins19

Reinventing the wheel, redux
Jim's complaint about wanting to write a program only to discover there's already a better one out there is quite valid. However...

I won't be saying anything anyone doesn't already know when I say that software usually starts because a programmer has a problem he or she wants to solve. "How can I keep track of my collection of left-handed crescent wrenches?"

So my suggestion is a simple one: don't sit down with the intention of writing a fancy do-everything-in-one-package program. Rather, sit down and write a program to solve a problem our fill a niche that you personally need solved/filled. If you have the problem, I'll bet somebody else does, too, and will be more than happy to use your solution, no matter how many bells and whistles you've left out.

A specific example: My old copy of WordStar (CP/M version 3.0, ca. 1979) didn't do endnotes, bibliographies, indices or any other tasks required by academic writing. A weekend of sitting in front of my Kaypro 2X (4Mhz, 64K) and banging away in Turbo Pascal resulted in 3 programs that enabled WordStar to handle the missing functions I needed. An hour later, the programs, source and documentation were posted on Bitnet, Ednet and Arpanet, with a note stating I was specifically releasing the whole shootin' match into the public domain.

I don't know if anyone actually used it, but hey! it solved my problem, and that's what I wanted.

23 May 1999 18:41 Avatar anle

Nobody has the right....
There are always rude people around. Of course they'll take their sweet time out to flame newbies, or act snobbish. But they seem to be mostly outweighed by the people who are nice, helpful, and patient. One rude email does not a group attitude make. But they are the most vociferous, and the ones we tend to remember with bile. But it's unfair to generalize.

I think though that just saying that no one has the right to criticize your software is a dangerous path. Criticism can be constructive -- that is, administered with the minimum amount of flame (i.e., none). And you won't learn as quickly if you can't take criticism.

The other kind of criticism -- flaming -- you can just ignore. But even some rude emails have valid, if stretched, points.

As for newbies getting flamed... I believe it happens. But then, such things always happen. There are always jerks in any community, but I don't think it's as prevalent for Linux as some of us believe through rotten experience. If you don't believe me, join a LUG. :-)


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