The world is a very big place. However, every sub-world, no matter how big it looks, is itself really quite tiny once you’re in it—and always made up by the same few “famous” people.
I was at the MOCA meeting in Italy last year. It was a fantastic experience, full of people who were really interested in computer security and were way beyond the script kiddie phase of their lives. I couldn’t walk very far without being stopped, and asked “Are you ‘the’ Merc? Like, the one in the book ‘Spaghetti Hacker?’”
I wanted to say “No, actually, that’s just a story and it’s about 5 lifetimes ago for me, when I lived in Europe and I could actually speak Italian”. But well, I couldn’t. It would have been mean. I said instead “Yeah, that was me, about 5 lifetimes ago!”. They got me to sign their books, shake their hands, take pictures.
I felt famous. It felt good to start with—you know, a much needed ego-booster. But, after a while it became normal, and after a little while longer it became just the way it was—and in fact, for whatever reason, the excitement about me being “famous” subsided. I was probably overshadowed by the presence of the truly legendary “Raul”? I must say, drinking with him was really quite an experience. People around us still talk about that night, apparently—Merc and Raul apologising to each other, setting the records straight!
It was a nice just jump back into a world I once belonged to. Now, things are different. Some thirteen years after my wild adventures, I am now in the publishing world. And my goodness, is this a small world? The current Editor In Chief of Linux User And Developer, Daniel James, is my ex partner’s brother (!). I lived for several weeks as a guest of Linux Journal’s owner Phil Hughes. Oh yes, I grew up with Jaromil Denis Rojo, one of the founders of Dyne:bolic (just a freak accident, that we are stuck in the same small world?).
Then, there are all the “virtual” relationships, which we all know can be just as important. Ken Coar revised my book on Apache and wrote a nice foreword for it. While dealing with the publishers in order to get them to sponsor Free Software Magazine (which they did), I created a mailing list with all of them, and got a response like “You can just do cc:’s—we all know each other, Tony”. Martin Streicher is the man I talked to when I published “Hardening Apache” with Apress. I had one of the saddest email exchanges with Miguel De Icaza when Ettore Perazzoli, a friend of mine and a very important GNOME developer, died in the most absurd way. I am fairly often honoured by emails from one of my personal heroes, Pamela Jones of Groklaw. The list goes on and on. The message is always the same: it’s a small, small world.
In a way, a lot of us are “famous”, in our own sub-world. In the computer world, I am definitely less famous than Miguel De Icaza. And Miguel is definitely less famous than Linus Torvalds. (And, breaking the boundaries of the computer world, Linus Torvalds is definitely less famous than Paris Hilton!) There is one common feature, in each single person I’ve mentioned here (apart from Paris Hilton).
Without Linus, there would be no Linux. Without Miguel, there would be no GNOME and we would be still trying to convince (see: begging) TrollTech to release their libraries under a freer license. Without Stallman, there would be no GPL, no GNU utilities, no GCC, and no real free software “movement”—or, it wouldn’t me as neatly defined, legally and ethically. Without Phil Hughes, there would be no Linux Journal, which, in my opinion, fast-forwarded GNU/Linux’s adoption by at least one and half years. Without Pamela Jones, IBM’s lawyers wouldn’t have been able to count on thousands of people mining vitally important information that surely changed the course of the case. Again, the list goes on and on. I take some (admittedly minor) merit for the existence of Free Software Magazine, not without mentioning Dave Guard and Gianluca Pignalberi who yes, are famous in their sub-worlds as well!
In the free software world, notoriety comes from merit and achievement. This notoriety cannot be abused—if anything, it can be used to boost other people’s drive to contribute more to free software, and to inspire. It’s a like a self-feeding organism, that makes everything—Linux, GNU/Linux, GNOME, KDE, Ubuntu, the GPL and the FSF, Groklaw, and all the most important projects—work.
All I can say, is that I can only be proud to be part of it and will never stop looking up to those people who did so much for us—and for our small, free software world.