August 22, 2000

The Brit and the Big Boy

Author: JT Smith

There is an author in my family. Yes, Tom Yates the eminent co-author (with Wes
Sonnenreich) of Building
Linux and OpenBSD Firewalls
fame is my brother's wife's sister's husband. "So you
see," I tell my mother as she signs the bill for yet another dinner, "I was
powerless against my destiny. Writing is clearly in my blood."
Inspired, I went to a Borders to find the book. There were at least nine shelves of
books on Linux. There were other Linux related books scattered throughout function
specific sections but these nine shelves held books that simply boasted "LINUX" straight
up their spine. This was the Linux section. And the three columns next to it were
occupied by Apache and Perl and... clearly someone's making money off Open Source.

When I found it I was encouraged. It is more than just a manual on how to build
firewalls but, rather, as eloquently stated by the authors themselves, this text is
indeed "a sequel to the greatest book of all time: Hamlet."

Had Shakespeare been born today, he would have been Open Source savvy. Maybe not a
hacker per se, after all, his plays were commercially successful mass media, he was a
pretty mainstream guy, but he would be employing it to develop a venue for his craft.
He would be a believer.

Just like Wes and Tom, who dedicated months of sleepless nights to bringing the world
a book on building firewalls with cost-effective software.

I can't help but imagine, had I originally encountered them in some unrelated chat
room, I might have assumed their book was about arson. Okay, maybe more so Wes than Tom,
whose British tendency toward loquacity soon reveals his earnest nature, but Wes, who
asked me if I wanted to see the scars he incurred during his inaugural computer science
class, is skilled at adolescence.

After he taught me the term "derelicious" he shared the painful roots of his writing
career.

"In high school I used to write long love letters that took hours to write and were
subsequently torn and burned. Those that survived invariably led to abject humiliation
and crushing despair, and were eventually torn and burned by the recipients. I didn't
know it then, but I was already in training to become an author."

Perhaps more could be attributed to these heartbreaking beginnings than his books.
Perhaps too, it is the source to the apparent precariousness of his sanity which seems to
be a running theme in dialogue surrounding him -- what Tom says about him, what Wes says
about himself. Lunacy is even cited as the inspiration for it.

He has written not one book for Wiley but two. For the book on search engines
there was a different co-author who Wes says "was more effective at avoiding the
publishers" by disconnecting his phone, changing his name and moving to Haiti. Wes was
more up front and told the people at Wiley Computer Publishing that he was not "ready to
go through the months of torment and self-mutilation again." To which they responded
sympathetically, "we understand, all authors feel that way".

But after a year of pursuant phone calls, Wes acquiesced and tagged Tom, for his
networking expertise, as co-author. Tom, judging by his official dedication, was unable
to pass the task off to his wife, Caroline, and agreed to saddle up. And their long
journey into night began.

Save the few thousand lines of Fortran he wrote for his Ph.D., shopping lists were the
only writing Tom had any experience at. But after sharing a few "rude trumpet player
jokes" any trepidation was assuaged and the two grew confident about the collaboration.

Save some severe sleep deprivation no one was actually hurt in the making of this book
but the book, could potentially save a lot of people from enduring a lot of pain. Wiley
had approached Wes with the subject but Tom was the perfect addition. He is almost as
adamant about the importance of firewalls as he is about that of Open Source.

"I wouldn't dream of exposing a machine to the Internet without firewalling it first,
no matter what OS it was running. More and more people are getting broadband, permanently on' Internet connections, more and more people will be coming home to a
machine possessed if they don't put something between themselves and the Big Bad World."

Is this not the pinnacle of responsibility? In addition, not only does he provide
free Linux support for home users but he's got his mother up and running on Linux as
well. This is how he gives back instead of contributing code.

Linux was also Wiley's idea though it was not an issue especially after Wes tacked on
the OpenBSD part. Wes gives back by participating (some of his favorite projects are
Mindbright's Mindterm Java SSH implementation (www.mindbright.se), ICE.com's JCVS Java CVS client,
VNC, and IPFilter) but he is notably grown up about the realities of the open source
paradigm.

"The biggest problem with open-sourcing software," I can practically hear him stepping
out of his banter, "is that you need to gather momentum before it actually becomes a
major project. People assume that there's thousands of programmers who will immediately
start working the minute you open-source it. This might be the case for a major
initiative that helps everyone (like Apache) but for the vast majority of Open Source
projects, the initial programmer is the only programmer."

What happened to the lunacy?

"I'd love the free software concept to get as strong as possible but I also like the
idea of open-yet-not-free software. There are still a number of applications where the
major commercial players significantly outshine the free software alternatives ... If I
need to acquire the not-free software for my business, then I'm much happier if there's
some way I can see the code."

Of course he recognizes, and condemns, the open-but-not-free licenses that don't
actually let you tinker with the code but it is an interesting option that allows for the
commerce while not sacrificing the quality.

Perhaps Wes and Shakespeare have more in common than a literary relationship with
Hamlet.

Wes and Tom are an appropriate team to bring Open Source into the future. Smart,
spirited, natural yet pragmatic and industrious, I hope to notice their well timed nudie
jokes amid plenty of guides in the future.

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