Re: Free Lunches (was: OUTREACH 101)

Peter C. McCluskey (
Thu, 25 Dec 1997 12:40:26 -0800 (Wayne Hayes) writes:
>because they enjoy it. Their driving force is coming from an inner
>need to produce something beautiful (yes, computer programs can be
>beautiful). In a way, the Linux kernel is a work of art, produced by
>some of the best programming artists that Earth has to offer, all in
>their spare time, all directly out of their hearts. When a bug
>appears, it gets fixed quickly precisely *because* the artists suddenly
>feel a pang of ugliness, and are compelled to fix it in order to
>restore beauty.

If beauty were the main motivation, rather than a desire to use the
software or to acquire a reputation as a good programmer, then we would
see Linux hackers giving low priority to dealing with bugs that result
from commercial hardware vendors' mistakes. I don't think that's what's
From what I have seen of the Linux kernal and gcc source code, I'd say
they are no more beautiful than the median for commercial software. gcc
in particular had (last time I checked) a number of ugly lines that were
accompanied by comments of the form "needed to handle a bug in the FooBar
compiler v. 3.5".
Curiously, I seem to recall a much larger variation in beauty of commercial
source code than in freeware. I wonder if this is due to a selection
effect in what code I see (determined in part by who gets hired at the
companies I work for), or in what code actually gets written?

>Compare this to a software company with hundreds of programmers. There
>is *always* "dead wood" in a commercial product of this size. That is,
>people who are there solely because they need the money, not because
>they *want* to be there. These people can be non-productive, or worse,
>can hinder the project as they produce code that is incomplete, buggy,
>or interacts badly with other sections of the code. They simply are
>not capable of going at it with their entire heart and soul like
>freeware programmers do. The result is shoddy software.

My experience has been that money can be as effective a motivator as
anything else under the right circumstances.

>I know it sounds wishy-washy, but "having your heart in it" is
>something that is too often neglected today. Imagine, for example,
>what this e-mail list would be like if instead of being *us*, it was a
>bunch of people who were *paid* to argue the points we debate here, who
>stopped arguing at lunch time and at 5pm, went home and watched TV all
>night without ever thinking about the issues again until 9am the next
>morning. Do you think the debate would be as interesting?

That would depend a lot on exactly how their superiors decided whether
to continue paying them. If their pay was contingent upon how many hours
they spent writing arguments, the results would be worthless. If their
pay was a function of the number of hits the mailing list archives got,
the debate would probably be a bit more interesting than it is now.

Peter McCluskey          | caffeine   O   CH3            |            ||  | |      H3C   C   N
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