Raising top-quality rabble
By Sam Varghese
December 26 2002

If one were to tell anyone acquainted with Rick Moen that the word self-effacing can actually be used in conjunction with him, it is very likely that one would be met with a disbelieving stare.

However, that's a fact: Rick was initially hesitant to admit that he would qualify as a subject for an interview, as (in his own words), he was "just an unemployed sysadmin in the Silicon Valley area" wondering from where his next job would come. He hemmed and hawed a bit before being convinced that the exposure could be justified.

Rick calls himself "a software generalist" in the Linux community, who answers technical questions on-line, concerning all aspects of Linux. He does this on the mailing lists of various Linux user groups (without respect to geographical boundaries — he is very active on the Linux Users of Victoria list), on Usenet newsgroups, and as a member of the answer gang of the monthly e-magazine Linux Gazette.

But these apart, he has been a moving force behind many events that have propelled Linux into the limelight — he helped plan the LINC Expo (which evolved into the first LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, in San Jose), the first Windows Refund Day, and many other Linux community events in the San Francisco Bay Area. All of which have earned him the reputation of being something of a rabble-rouser.

A native of California who spent a considerable part of his formative years in Hong Kong, he completed a bachelor's degree in mathematics after first registering for a computer science programme at Princeton University and finding that he disliked it.

He moved into IT by accident. Late in college, he took some courses in finance and law, found he was good at them, and then took the national examination for the CPA credential (the American term for chartered accountancy), passed it, and started working for CPA firms.

He kept finding that he hated the work and his employers found him a fish out of water: in desperation, he took an IT job at a software firm south of San Francisco, and has been in the field ever since.

"Nobody in my family has had, to my knowledge, any history in computing: I come from a long and proud heritage of starving Norwegian peasants," he said. "However, I personally had my fingers in computing from early on. In grammar school, I was one of a group of children occasionally taken down to play with Stanford University's mainframes — Hollerith punched-cards and JCL — and my high school had a time-shared HP3000 system with TeleType ASR33 terminals and 110bps modems, which eventually were upgraded to ADM3 glass-tty dumb terminals (a whole 300 bps!), and I discovered and was entranced by HP programmable calculators.

"My last two years of high school (1975-76) were also when something seemingly little better than HP calculators emerged: microcomputers. I had friends with IMSAI 8080s that had to be bootstrap-loaded from front-panel binary switches and cassette tape drives, and bicycled up regularly to every meeting of the pioneering Homebrew Computer Club at Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre's auditorium. But all those early machines with their fuzzy 40-column displays and 2-4kB of RAM seemed pretty feeble compared to the school minicomputer — and so they were. Their potential was a bit difficult to see, at the time."

Rick spoke at length about various aspects of his involvement in the Linux community. The story in his own words:

Why Linux? Any regrets about going down this path?

When Linux started being available, Unix for the PC-using masses had been brewing for several years. The biggest attraction was — believe it or not — that it was something interesting for a change, For reasons still unclear, several proprietary Unixes for the 386 suddenly became available cheaply: I found AT&T System V Release 3.22 with the then-customary shelf full of manuals for US $50, and the quite advanced Novell Unixware for US $200.

AT&T Unix was dreadfully primitive but intriguing; the manuals alone were worth the purchase price, because of the way they helped me learn the Unix way of thinking — relatively small tools used in combination. Novell Unixware was much more polished and useful, but a dead-end because all the tools were hermetically sealed — proprietary code — and compilers and similar development tools were not included.

At exactly this time, around 1988, BSD (Berkeley Unix) escaped from University of California at Berkeley, across San Francisco Bay from me, courtesy of Lynne and Bill Jolitz's 386BSD Project, the first truly open-source Unix. Not only was this the first time, to borrow Red Hat executive Bob Young's metaphor, that the car bonnet wasn't welded shut, but also it was a really high quality operating system — much better tools than anyone was used to.

But why Unix at all, you might ask? 386BSD (and, a few years later, Linux) had depth: That is, as you became interested in finer details of how things worked, you kept finding behind-the-scenes mechanisms to automate tasks, to make networks function more smoothly, to provide new, highly reliable services, and in myriad ways to do things you hadn't even realised you could do. Further, systems you built using Unix stayed built: They didn't degrade or collapse. The only thing with a similar quality of depth was IBM's OS/2 2.0 and up, but not to the same degree. The other options were just dull — dull and stable (NetWare, VMS) or dull and fragile (Microsoft OSes and MacOS).

The 386BSD Project stalled because of internal problems and was entangled in the AT&T lawsuit against UC Berkeley, so Linux took the limelight starting in 1991-92, but its direct descendents (especially FreeBSD) remain excellent options.

What's most important about Linux (and its BSD cousins) is being the standard-bearer for the idea of Unix: anything can be fixed, or used to make something new or better. You're given control of all the tools (including everything that was used to make those tools). You're given an industrial-strength platform with rock-solid stability and very high levels of performance. Further: no more Microsoft-style forced upgrades and strategic incompatibilities to rob your wallet. IT departments are only now starting to remember what it's like to control their infrastructure, and Linux is what's reminding them.

No regrets, for me: the skills you learn while learning Linux are vital for practically all other areas of computing (and all of the interesting parts). Also, you get the distinct craftsman's pleasure of working with quality tools. Linux rocks my world.

How would you characterise your role in the Linux community?

I'm something of a software generalist, and am best known for answering technical questions on-line, concerning practically all aspects of Linux. I do this on the mailing lists of various Linux user groups, on Usenet newsgroups, and as a member of the "Answer Gang" team of the monthly e-magazine Linux Gazette.

Locally in my part of California, I run public events called "installfests", where we Linux greybeards will help you either Linux-ise your PC or help you solve any and all Linux-related problems. I keep a couple of dozen Linux variants ("distributions") on hand and duplicate the CD-ROMs for people (which is perfectly lawful), as part of the Linux user group that meets at my wife's and my house, twice a month. I write technical and analysis articles for commercial publication, occasionally. Last, I maintain a collection of FAQs and information files on my Web site. So, I'm known in the community for all of those things.

How did you first get involved in the community?

Originally, via the Usenet technical newsgroups (worldwide on-line discussion forums). Long before local Linux user groups started, Linux already had a huge on-line following (certainly by 1992, when I started using it). Most common questions already had well-documented answers in FAQ (frequently-asked questions) documents, and the rest you could pick up by participating in the on-line community.

You've been described as a rabble rouser. True? False?

The rumours are true, but I raise only top-quality rabble. We have a saying in the Linux community: "If you don't like the news, make some of your own." Here in the San Francisco/Silicon Valley area, a number of us found to our surprise that we're pretty good at Linux publicity events, and have done a number of them. We had a huge summer picnic in celebration of Linux's 10th birthday in 2001, and had such a good time that we repeated it this past summer, too. In 1998, we had several PR events where we good-naturedly capitalised on Microsoft marketing efforts to show up in public and on-camera, such as during the product launch of Windows 98, where we gave out hundreds of Linux CD-ROMs to people interested in installing them (and pointing out where the stores were also selling Linux boxed sets).

One of the surprises of those years was that we seemed to be significantly more effective at marketing than Microsoft Corporation was, and with no funding at all.

How many people have you converted to Linux? Take the case of any one individual you've converted to Linux. Let's have a rundown of the process.

This is my golden opportunity to embarrass my friend Bill Schoolcraft, so I'm going to run with it. Bill was a professional industrial welder with no particular computer expertise, when he noticed Linux gatherings and started attending them to see what it was about. I was one of the old-timers he learned from, and I successfully badgered him to take extensive notes. I think it was when I kept using the metaphor of software as tools, and stressing the difference good tools and mastery of them can make, that he really "got" the point of the Unix way of thinking. Now, six years later, he's a senior Linux and (Sun Microsystems) Solaris administrator, and earns a good living at it.

But I don't seek to "convert" people in the sense of trying to interest those who prefer something else. Why would I? (More about that, below).

Do you think you could achieve more if your advocacy was a little less strident?

I'm reminded of a story about the 19th century US public speaker and political figure Robert G. Ingersoll, who was wildly popular with the public but inspired influential "establishment" detractors by being publicly non-religious: Some reporters came to visit, and asked him about the rumours that his son had gotten drunk during a wild party and fell unconscious under the table. Ingersoll paused for effect, then started: "Well, first of all, he didn't fall under the table. And he wasn't actually unconscious. For that matter, he didn't fall. And there wasn't any party, and he didn't have anything to drink.... And, by the way, I don't have a son."

So it's not what I'd call strident, and I don't do advocacy. At least, not in the usual sense of the term.

The usual sort of OS advocacy is what the "Team OS/2" crowd used to do: They knew that their favourite software would live or die by the level of corporate acceptance and release/maintenance of proprietary shrink-wrapped OS/2 applications. They lobbied, they lost, IBM lost interest, and now their favourite OS is effectively dead.

But Linux is fundamentally different because it and all key applications are open source: the programmer community that maintains it is self-supporting, and would keep it advancing and and healthy regardless of whether the business world and general public uses it with wild abandon, only a little, or not at all. Because of its open-source licence terms, its raw source code is permanently available. Linux cannot be "withdrawn from the market" at the whim of some company — as is slowly happening to OS/2. (Ed: IBM finally pulled the plug on OS/2 on December 10.)

Therefore, Linux users are not in a zero-sum competition for popularity with proponents of other operating systems (unlike, say, OS/2, MS-Windows, and Mac OS users). I can honestly wish Apple Computer well with their eye-pleasing and well-made (if a bit slow and inflexible) Mac OS X operating system: wishing them well doesn't mean wishing Linux ill.

Note that all of the identifiable "Linux companies" could blow away in the breeze like just so much Enron stock, and the advance of Linux would not be materially impaired, because what matters is source code and the licensing thereof, which has rather little to do with any of those firms' fortunes.

Further, and getting back to your original point, I honestly don't care if you or anyone else gets "converted" to Linux. I don't have to. I'm no better off if you do; I'm no worse off if you don't.

What I do care about is giving making useful information and help available to people using Linux or interested in it. Why? Partly to redeem the trust shown by others when they helped me. Partly because it's interesting. Partly because researching and then teaching things I usually start knowing little about is the best way I know to learn. And partly out of pure, unadulterated self-interest: people knowing your name is at least a foot in the door, in the IT business.

As to stridency, there is a well-known problem of all on-line discussion media. Some people become emotionally invested in positions they've taken in technical arguments, and gratuituously turn technical disagreements into verbal brawls. And unfortunately they tend to be drawn to people like me who attempt to state their views clearly and forcefully. It's as if you were to say "I like herring" and thereby summon every dedicated herring-hater within a hundred-mile radius. The problem comes with the territory.

But that causes occasional unpleasantness and back-biting among some on-line Linux users, not an aspect of "advocacy", which isn't something we have much use for, generally — especially where the term refers to convincing the unwilling.

What do you hope to achieve by this advocacy?

I hope to have fun, to learn, to help those willing to "help themselves" by learning about their systems, to become qualified to work professionally with better and more-interesting technology, to spend more of my time around people I enjoy, and to improve my quality of life by improving the grade of tools I work with.

Please note that "converting users to Linux" is nowhere on that list.

With many people there's obviously a lot more to this than just the matter of pushing free/better software. Your comments?

The first thing that draws you in is that it gets things done. For example, when I needed a DNS nameserver at my workplace 10 years ago, and had no budget to buy anything, there Linux was. Bang it onto the disused 486SX in the corner, and boom! you have a nameserver. Suddenly need a departmental NT file and print-server? No problem: Just enable Samba on the Linux box. Intranet server? Switch on Apache. Print server, AppleShare server, fax server, mail server? No problem.

That entire laundry-list of functions might be a single Pentium 133 with 128 MB of RAM, performing all of them at once — and also being a decent graphical workstation on the side — without breaking out a sweat. By comparison, with Windows NT it's safest to devote a machine to each of those roles — or three machines in the case of Microsoft Exchange Server (a mail machine and two NT domain servers).

So, it's no wonder that underfunded IT departments have frequently adopted Linux machines everywhere the technical employees can slide the machines in without unduly alarming management.

You will most often come to Linux to get things done. People often stay because they start realising further possibilities: Want to filter e-mail for Windows viruses? Report to management on network traffic? Monitor all of your network's devices for trouble spots? Run a central backup server? Create a good-quality corporate firewall without breaking the bank? Linux is perfect for all of those projects.

Let's come to the Windows refund day in February 1999. Whose idea was it?

A young webmaster named Matt Jensen in Seattle announced his idea out of the blue, having been inspired by the success of Australian Geoff Bennett in extracting a refund from Toshiba Australia for the unwanted Microsoft OS included with his laptop computer. Geoff carefully read the OS's licence statement, and noted that he was actually specifically required to return the software for a refund (and forbidden to use it), if he didn't consent to the licence terms, which he did not. After a six-month epic display of mulishness, Toshiba Australia finally gave him a $A110 refund.

Hearing about this after the fact (and eventually about an American named Donna having done likewise with Canon Computer a year earlier), Matt put up a Web page urging that people bang on the desks of their respective hardware manufacturers (OEMs or Original Equipment Manufacturers) on February 15, 1999. (Someone named Chris Schoedel managed the refund feat a third time, about that time. We know of no other genuine cases.) This cause was then taken up on the Slashdot.org discussion site, which is where a number of other Linux activists (Linux Journ