Eric Raymond, NT personality - live!

Lloyd Wood (
Fri, 22 Jan 1999 22:35:27 +0000 (GMT)

London Unix User Group (LUUG) meeting, Commonwealth House
main auditorium, 7:15pm Wednesday 20 January 1999.

I have seen Eric Raymond, 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 subsequent sound-bite
answers, always followed by 'Is that a responsive answer to your
question?' - a closed question 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 empty 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 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 carefully-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
were 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,
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 having to rely on the failed 'bottom up'
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. What's in it for him? 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 the
'beating Microsoft three times' statement was hardly accurate. No
matter; linux growth rates were trotted out and quickly lauded 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 to
signal the end of the football match 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 -

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
MBA-textbook-borne 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 and engrossing awareness of the
use of body language, presumably as a result of working to offset 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 some considerable vigour.)

In telling us how to evangelise open-source software effectively to
the people he constantly derided as clueless, he attempts a good job
of marketing himself as One of Us, the downtrodden yet technically
superior and knowing. The parallels with Scott Adam's 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 and knowledgeable Jeremy Paxman would be
priceless; a political campaign is conceivable. The unfolding public
story of Eric Raymond will run and run.

Just like Dilbert.

(c) 1999 Lloyd Wood. This open-source stuff only goes so far, you know.


Oh, commercial products can extend, embrace, and kill open source. The
first example? The New Hacker's Dictionary, which extended, embraced,
and killed off all work on The Jargon File (Hacker's Dictionary).
Its author? Eric Raymond.