25 Jan 2006 crhodes   » (Master)

John Wiseman wants a workaround installed in SBCL for a buggy, closed OS[*]. If that summary were all that there was to the issue, it certainly wouldn't merit a diary entry, even given the prominence of John's weblog among a section of the Lisp-using public; I don't think it hurts to discuss merits and faults of software out in the open, and of course no publicity is bad publicity.

However, John appears to misunderstand how people work. In particular, he wants to spur SBCL developers to fix the problem he observes for him[**]. Of course, this is a reasonable want, but as children are told, I want doesn't get, and this holds in the adult world too. Those who take out a support contract or similar arrangement have exchanged a quid or 500 for the quo that they then have a right to expect; those who don't must depend on the interests of those who do being aligned with their wants.

Now, here is where it gets interesting. There are all sorts of reasons why depending on the interests of others can work well in the world; after all, there's reasonable agreement over what is undesireable versus what is desireable; what is good vs what is bad. It's not Universal agreement, but it is there, and the more select the community the more likely it is that the agreement within that community is strong. So, for instance, it's clear that reporting a straightforward bug in a Free Software system, without providing a fix, is nevertheless likely to lead to the bug being fixed, as other individuals will weigh up the chance of being hit by the bug in the future against the effort required to fix it now.

What is different in this specific case, then? Why isn't this just a bug report? Well, as a cursory read of the relevant thread on the development mailing list would show, this issue was reported nine months ago, and no real attempt was made then to provide a workaround for the buggy OS vendor's tool. So this weblog posting isn't a bug report, it's an attempt to get other people to reprioritize what they are doing.

However, empirically, this has not bothered other people overmuch over the last nine months: no-one else has voiced a complaint, and no workaround has been written (obviously, since otherwise John would have nothing to complain about). So this might well be one of those cases where one's interests are not aligned closely enough with others; what to do, what to do? Well, one thing that John could do is to attempt to develop and install his own workaround for his situation.

John claims that he "... looked at trying to fix it [him]self, but as a first SBCL hacking project it was a little beyond [him]." This is certainly to be expected if he is deprived of all human contact, but here's where the interests of others can be put back in alignment: it is most certainly in the interests of developers of SBCL to have more people with enough understanding to be able to make non-trivial modifications to the source code. So while John may find that his attempt to spur developers to do his bidding is unsuccessful, he may also find that they are receptive, even without other consideration, to assisting him in solving his own issue.

The general point to make here is that, in at least this little corner of Free Software, where all the labour is volunteer, any user and developer community is an emergent property of individual and small-scale interactions; in this context, it is far from clear that making a loud complaint is productive for any party, whereas attempts to take personal responsibility, even if they ultimately need assistance, are more likely to bear fruit.

[*] All OSes are buggy. Not all of them prevent bug fixes.

[**] To his credit, he also claims to want to document the issue. Why he thinks a weblog post is better than the top hit that Google returns for "SBCL crash reporter", pointing to the mailing list discussion of nine months ago, I don't know.

[ Edited to fix a broken link ]

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