Rusty wrote an insightful post titled “What Can I Do To Help?” about reactions to new ideas . He suggests that people make an effort to have a positive approach when someone talks about a new idea, it’s quite common for people to point out reasons why the new idea might not work out which is discouraging for the person who had the idea. I think that is a really good point. I probably haven’t done too well in that regard in the past and will try to do better in future.
Code Written by Assholes
Rusty previously wrote a post titled “If you didn’t run code written by assholes, your machine wouldn’t boot” which implies that we should just let assholes be assholes . That doesn’t go well with his “What Can I Do To Help?” post. Note that I’m not accusing Rusty of hypocrisy here, giving advice to help people who want to get along well with others is not in contradiction with refraining from giving unsolicited advice and encouragement to difficult people who have expressed no interest in improving their behavior. A comment on the latter post by “Doctor Whom” says “If I had seen this kind of talk when I was a teenager, I would have thought twice about picking up coding“, presumably given the number of people who read Rusty’s blog there are some teenagers who experienced some discouragement towards a career in computers (or a hobby in FOSS) from Rusty’s post.
I’ve already written a response to the “If you didn’t run code written by assholes” post, among other things I suggested that people who are minor assholes should be assisted to be less difficult and major assholes should be excluded . In that post I was working on the assumption that for every significant task that needs to be completed (such as making a popular OS bootable) someone will do it, if the person working on it disappears then someone else will take over – there is a community of programmers who will work on whatever needs to be done.
The Importance of Individuals
But in terms of new ideas it really comes down to individuals. Most projects which are significant and important now probably started out as one person or a small group who had an idea that seemed unlikely to succeed at the time. So while any big and successful project can have people replaced (which is among other things a requirement of long-term success) there are situations in which individuals with ideas matter.
Another important factor is that even ideas which turn out to be impractical are still useful. Someone who has an impractical idea about a technical issue and investigates it fully will learn a lot and may end up working on the less radical ways of solving similar problems – this is good for the individual and the community.
Another Way of Promoting Enthusiasm
In terms of promoting enthusiasm it seems that one thing that can be done by high profile people is to avoid writing posts like “If you didn’t run code written by assholes, your machine wouldn’t boot”. When people in positions of power and influence appear to have no interest in promoting good behavior it really discourages people who are vulnerable to the assholes – which among other things means most members of minority groups. Obviously Rusty could’t stamp out all asshole behavior, but if he announced a plan to try and make things better in that regard then it would help. It’s difficult to be enthusiastic when faced with discrimination from a minority and disinterest from the majority.
Of course with the way the Internet works I’m sure someone will say “what about the assholes who have great ideas, shouldn’t we nurture their enthusiasm by letting them keep doing asshole things?”. I think that for the major assholes this won’t be a problem, for example anyone who’s racist will be well aware that many people disagree strongly with them and thus won’t be particularly discouraged when they meet more people who disagree. For the minor assholes (people who don’t want to be assholes) it will be somewhat discouraging to be corrected, but that could be a learning experience for them that’s worth more than support in implementing their latest technical idea.
Update: Why Rusty is Important
In response to a comment by private mail I’ve added this section after publication.
Firstly I think that the opinions of all members of the community matter as they all affect the social environment which determines what types of behavior are encouraged and discouraged. But Rusty is more important than most people.
Firstly Rusty has a Wikipedia page , that alone is an objective criteria indicating his importance.
But in terms of influencing people in the FOSS community the most important things are that he’s a high profile Linux kernel programmer (which alone gives significant status and influence) and that he’s the founder of the first Linux conference in Australia (which is now known as Linux.conf.au AKA LCA). When issues such as the anti-harassment policy for LCA are being discussed any opinion that Rusty offered would be taken very seriously. But so far he doesn’t seem to be involved in any of the public discussions.
-  http://rusty.ozlabs.org/?p=282
-  http://rusty.ozlabs.org/?p=196
-  http://etbe.coker.com.au/2011/05/25/are-assholes-essential/
-  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rusty_Russell
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