March 11, 2002

GNOME board member Telsa Gwynne leaves "ecstasy over algorithms" to others

Author: JT Smith

- by Tina Gasperson -
Gwynne's self-effacing manner hasn't kept her from the spotlight. It'd be hard
to stay hidden anyway, being the wife of Linux kernel's second-in-command, Alan
Cox. But she's made a name for herself in the world of Linux and free software
on her own merits as a document writer and bug catcher, even landing a position
on the GNOME board of directors. Not bad for someone who doesn't do programming.
Oh, and it's Telsa, T-e-l-s-a, no relation to the Master of Lightning, thank you very

"I am sooo going to regret this.

"I do docs, bugs, and hassling developers. I don't code.

"I also make last minute decisions,


That's it. The full text of Gwynne's GNOME board candidacy statement,
given on the final day it could be accepted. It was enough to get her elected
with more votes than 15 other candidates, including the Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman.

After much pleading and groveling on our part, NewsForge was able to coerce
Gwynne into talking about herself and some of her philosophies and experiences. Take heed, all who would contribute to Open Source development:
You don't have to be a kernel hacker to make a big difference.

Gwynne grew up in northeast England, in a magical sounding place called
Newcastle upon Tyne. She studied to become a psychiatric nurse, but hasn't put
that certification into practice yet, not officially
. Here's what she has to say
about computers, dealing with developers, and not being a geek, all
steeped in the dry wit you'd expect from a smart UK-born Free Software advocate.
We'll let you decide where to put the emoticons.

NewsForge: Tell me about your early experiences with computers. How did you
get hooked?

Telsa Gwynne: "Early experiences ... hmm. I think the earliest was the BBC
A that my mum, a science teacher, would bring home from her school for
in the school holidays. The School Computer. All one of it. With 32kb.
Later, I had a ZX Spectrum with 16kb. Both of these were considered
at the time (early '80s) The Spectrum cost £125. I was terrified
breaking it. The BBC cost more and -- worse -- was not ours to break.
I remember my sister and I found the *FX codes in the back of the
manual and somehow set autorepeat on the BBC's keys to be such a tiny
fraction of a second that we couldn't undo it. We had nightmares
trying to correct that before my mum found out.

Telsa Gwynne
There was also a computer at the school I attended (not where my mum
I think it arrived when I was 11. Groups of two or three people would
get called from math class to have ten minutes on it in turn; and
walked through a program which replicated trying to uncover relics
from the wreck of the Mary Rose ship (a recently-raised mediaeval
using a grid system. I expect that was supposed to teach us about

None of this exactly inspired an interest in computers, though.
They were boring, and expensive, and broke. And I already knew
how co-ordinates on a graph were supposed to be written.

I avoided computers after that, until friends at Aberystwyth, where
I was at university, mentioned MUDs (Multi User Dungeons). Lots of people using
computers at once, talking to each other across Britain, and adventures with
swords and monsters and puzzles. With real people at the other end.
This sounded much better. And then I found that as well as this MUD
thing, I could get a UNIX account and use "write" and "talk" and
(Internally. For external email, I had to get a VMS account.) And
were new people at the other end -- along with the occasional
who responded, to my utter confusion. Using them in this setting was
much, much more fun. You did have to learn things to use them: "This one is
a vt52,
this one is a dumb terminal, and that other there is -- gosh -- a
vt100" -- the height of modern computing, that; and you set your terminal type
appropriately so that talk (sometimes) and write (always) results were
displayed legibly. But with a result of communication, the methods
far more interesting, and it became important to know as many terminal
types as possible, because most people could only use the vt52s and
up. If you knew about the tvis and dumb terminals, you got more time,
so it was worth knowing about them and how to make them work.

Discovering that my sister was also at a university where she had
email access if she knew whom to ask was also a big plus. So I think
I got hooked when I could see a use that was fun for the things.

NF: Do you consider yourself a geek?

TG: No. I just don't like the word, so I avoid the label. Perhaps it's
changing now, but the words "geek" and "nerd" were never flattering
when I was little, and I was called a lot of names anyway. If other
people want to use 'em, that's fine. But I don't see computers as an
in themselves: They're just the means to an end. Tools. Fun tools,
yes, but I leave the ecstasy over beautiful algorithms to others.

NF: How does one go about being a "bug squasher" for Free Software?

TG: Oh dear. The bugs. Well, I would say the squashing is generally for
the people who can fix things and code; but they have to know the
bug exists before they can fix it. I have lost count of the number
of "This new release still breaks for me ... I didn't know it could
do that. Did you file a bug?
... No." exchanges [between programmers
and users] I have seen.

Anyone can file a bug on anything: The difficult part is
knowing how to write the report and where to send it. For some reason, people
are wary about entering trivial bugs or typos in things users can see (dialogue
boxes and docs for example) if they know there are worse bugs to
fix. But they are easy to fix: People just have to know they exist.

Bug-reporting is a learning curve, and it does take time at first,
but then it gets faster and faster until it's routine. You get to pick
things up about what might be relevant, and how to search different
bug-trackers effectively, and where developers think an obvious
place to put FAQs and bug report hints are.

I think the biggest thing is to stop every time you notice
something odd and look at it there and then. If I meet a bug
in a new program and think "I'll just finish this and then
go back to that bug," I tend not to be able to find it again.

Take notes: whether on paper, on the computer, or into a
tape-recorder. Don't do it on the computer if it's an X or kernel
hang or crash: unless you have auto-save on in your editor you'll
lose your notes. A separate machine is okay though. If there's
an error message, copy it precisely. If it's horrendously long
and you have a digital camera, take a photo and stick the pic on
the Web. (I've seen kernel oopses treated like this.)

If your screensaver or apm is going to kick in before you can copy half
a screen of X crash errors, read the numbers into a tape recorder
slowly and then play it back and type it in at your leisure. If it's
something at the console and isn't a crash, use "script" to
capture exactly what you typed and what spewed out. Script is
brilliant for saving stack traces from gdb if you don't have
cut and paste handy, too.

Particularly, write down exactly what you did. "How to reproduce" is
often the most important bit, especially if some kind maintainer makes
a patch and you apply it and try to test the fix and think, "Now, how
did I get it to do that again?"

Then, figuring out what exactly broke is the next big one, and that
can be a pig. Because UNIX is so full of lots of little programs
calling different ones to do different bits, what you start is not
always what's actually breaking: Sometimes it's a library the
program is using and sometimes it's even more arcane. A really
good (or bad, depending on your point of view) example was the
time I wrote a quick rot13 script using the "tr" command. The
script broke in peculiar ways. The culprit was not exactly obvious.
Earlier, I had changed my locale to en_GB. Changing your locale that
way changes the sort order (LC_COLLATE). And the way I had used tr
relied on the sort order being "C" rather than "en_GB". Uurgh. I was
fairly proud that I figured that out before Alan did.

It's worth checking the FAQ, /usr/(share/)doc/packagename/README, and
already-open bugs against the package. I wrote a very long screed
"docs wrong" for one app a while back, checked bugzilla before
it, and someone else had already done it for me. So I just added
some extra to that one.

And file the bug. Add something about "what more information do you
need?" because it's very possible there is more: I have become
used to attaching XF86Configs, the output of lspci -vv, my .gtkrc
and so on. Developers differ here: RH's bugzilla tends to be full
of "Please run this command and attach the results," but some other
people give responses of, "Do you have the foo module and was
poo compiled with -- plop?" which is not always something I can answer.

The other thing to remember is that developers are human, too.
Slagging off the package and the character of the person who wrote
it with copious ad hominem attacks is not going to get your bug
looked at first. Sadly, there are the occasional folk who treat
bug-trackers as a way to flame people. This isn't fun and it's
not fair on the people going through the bugs, who are not necessarily
going to be the person who wrote it in the first place. Saying "I am
going to use this any more" isn't a good idea either: Why fix it if
the reporter is not going to test the fix?

Of course, it works both ways. Developer responses of, "Don't do
that, then," "This is not a bug," or just silence are not at
all encouraging. And blaming users for, "You used the wrong
compiler," when the user just shoved a CD in is not fair. There
are some apps I won't file bugs on these days because I'm scared
of the response I'll get from certain people.

Wow, I bet I put everyone off now. If you're not sure where
bugs go, I have a partial
list of bug-trackers
I use on my Web site: I'm thinking of turning it into
something more complete. If I didn't put people off, I suppose the advice is to
find a package you like -- or that you want to learn about, because
it's often people who haven't subconsciously learned workarounds
who find the real howlers. And then just read the man page, try
it with different versions of options, feed it obvious stuff by
extrapolation of, "Well, if this works, then this should ... oops."

NF: Why did you agree to be a part of the Gnome board?

TG: They elected me and I found I couldn't get out of it.

I had no thought of standing initially because it sounded interminably
boring, to be frank; and dealing with Big Companies is not something I
have much experience of. But people kept asking me why I wasn't
standing. And there weren't many candidates, and lots of candidates is
generally a good thing. So at the eleventh hour, I sent in my
because I thought we needed more, and responded to the questions with
off-putting responses as I could, and got the shock of my life when I
voted on. So since so many people trusted me, I have to be useful now.

NF: What do you hope to contribute?

TG: The things I hope to contribute are really those mentioned in
my candidacy statement, which are mostly about communication and
documentation. And networks. I tend to regard X more as a networking
application which happens to draw pictures, and I like being able
to do things on other machines in the same X session. And when GNOME
gets confused about that, it's annoying. Unfortunately, my
here is probably limited to annoying developers about it.

NF: What are the meetings like?

TG: So far, I haven't met up with any of the others in person: It's
done via mailing list and telephone conference calls, with the
West Coast U.S. folks rubbing their eyes at the early hour and poor
James in Australia waiting up until late, with those of us in
Europe affecting surprise that anyone should not be on our timezones.
Different companies take it in turns to pay for the conference
calls. We call in, ask who is sitting next to the noisy fan or
on a mobile phone (which are usually full of static) and whinge
about that; and then plough through the agenda from the mailing
list, which generally are the result of email saying, "I wondered
about this.." Daniel takes the minutes and then posts them to
foundation-list. In the interim, we get on with the actions we
promised to do, most of which are generally putting the right
people in contact with the right other people. I would imagine
that we'll substitute an in-person meeting for the conference call

NF: Do you ever communicate with Richard Stallman?

TG: I haven't communicated with RMS as a result of foundation stuff,
but he pops up on the GNOME lists or other lists from time to time.
Particularly the documentation list, as we use the GNU Free Docs
Licence and switched to it as soon as the first draft came out,
so we had to figure out the right way to word things. I have
corresponded with him in the past, and met him a few times in
person. I like him. He's interesting to talk to. The first time
I met him, he asked me such penetrating questions about how parts
of British institutions worked that I realised how much I didn't
know about the country I live in.

NF: You've shared so much about your day-to-day life with your online
diary. You don't mention a job outside the home. Are you employed?

TG: This is in the FAQ, really. I don't mention a job outside the home
because I don't have one. I trained as a psychiatric nurse, then failed to find
a job. In Britain, you must maintain a record of relevant work and educational
updates to remain on the nursing register. This is, of course, a good
thing, but with no job, that was hard, so I am no longer on the
nursing register. I used to do a fair amount of voluntary stuff,
but I don't at the moment. I probably should get back into that.

NF: Will you tell me your views on Free Software vs. what is known as
Open Source? Do you have a philosophical opposition to software that is
not GPLed, and why or why not?

TG: The reason I fell into all this volunteer software stuff was the
spirit and aethos of Free Software. Open Source wasn't a term in
currency then. Open Source seems to be a way to make it more
palatable to businesses. I know nothing practical about business,
so I'm on dodgy ground commenting there. I'm learning more through
the Gnome Foundation stuff, of course. The Free Software ideals
of co-operation and sharing, though, are far more appealing to me
anyway. Sharing is good. Being able to help and add little pieces
of documentation or bug mortar to the bricks of code is something I
can understand.

I try to avoid non-Free Software on my computers. Partly that's
because I just know I'll break it, and I have no clue how I'd
go about getting that fixed. Partly it's a determination to
say, "See, it can be done." Prating about Free Software isn't
too useful if you then have tons of non-Free Software on your
computer and your friends start to ask questions. I don't think
anything on my computers would fail Debian's "vrms" (Virtual
Richard Stallman) program. The real killer for me is that I don't
install RealPlayer and thus miss out on the BBC's streamed output,
which is something I really want to hear. I was delighted when the
BBC started streaming oggs. I just have to get Mozilla to play the
things now.

Now, whether all that is consistent with buying CDs and DVDs whilst
the manufacturers are doing their best to lock up documentation and
information about formats, I am not sure.

NF: What's your opinion about women being involved in Open

TG: I think it's abundantly clear that there are far fewer women
visible in software in general, in Free Software (whether coding
or doing other things), and IT -- with a few anecdotal exceptions.
In Western society, at least. I don't know whether this is actually
so true elsewhere.

And I think that if there is a reason involving women being put
off that accounts for it, something has to change. I don't think
all women should be told, "You will learn to program." I do think
all women should grow up with the idea that if they want to learn,
nothing is stopping them. (Yes, ditto for men.)

Some people seem to think that women are just wired differently
(the assumption being that masculine wiring is the norm there)
and that it's all down to brain chemistry. Personally, when it comes
to nature/nurture debates, I'm firmly in the nurture camp. This
is largely because I can see that happening around me. I know
men who are nurses and who get funny reactions from people. I know
women who work on computer helplines who are asked, "Can I speak to
a man, please?" I do not find it unlikely that the same people who
react like that also give kids growing up the idea that there
are Male Things and Female Things, and to choose the "other" one
is to be unusual.

Kirrily Robert
attributed it
in part to the lack of social acceptance of girls (compared
with boys) sitting in their bedrooms for weeks staring at a computer in one of
her articles. I disagree with parts of that article, but I think she's onto
something there: Certainly most of the hackers I know went
through this stage of obsession with the things as kids; and
I recall huge pressure to conform to some kind of stereotype
as a teenager.

NF: Why are you a part of LinuxChix? What are you hoping to gain from
being in association with other "Linux women?"

TG: Linuxchix is two or three different things to me. I joined because
I thought it would be cool not to meet, "Oh, you're female? And you
use Linux? Are you single?" all the time. I was right about that, at
least. It's -very- good to see other women there. I feel less like a
freak that way. And the variety is wonderful. Some are working in the
industry and have been for 30 years or more; others got into Linux
because their partners decided to put Linux on the (one) computer at
home and perforce had to learn it; others don't particularly care
inside the machine but do want to be able to get work done with it.
nice to see that we are not all the same. Diversity is good.

The lists on linuxchix are also some of the most civilised I have
ever encountered. Whether that is really due to a lot of women there
or whether it's simply that they're small lists whose subscribers
are so fed up of vitriol elsewhere that they consciously make an
effort to keep the linuxchix lists friendly, I don't know. We have
had quite a lot of meta-discussion about this over the months (gosh,
years now) and I don't think we ever came up with a solid conclusion
on why: We just know it's true. The lists are generally courteous,
and they're an environment where people are a little more ready
to say "I don't understand this. Can someone explain?" And to get
explanations which explain without condescending.

NF: I found your random config files page to be interesting; I
especially liked the section on cut and paste and the "googlizer

TG: Well, really, the random config files are just my favourite
bits and pieces and shortcuts which I think may be useful to
people. I still haven't quite got over the coolness of being
able to contribute stuff, so I put all the trivia there, really.
I know the muttrc and procmailrc help people, despite showing
their age now: I get almost as much email about those as I do
about the diary. They started because I just wanted a very simple
rc file I could understand; and many Web examples, particularly
with procmailrcs, were firmly in the "showing off what I can do"
category, with lots of optimisation, lots of convoluted syntax
and absolutely no explanation. All I wanted procmail to do was
to remove duplicates and sort mails into mailing lists. I didn't
want this super-clever rewriting of headers, removal of attachments
or passing through spam-filters. So when, after a week of reading,
I got a working set-up, I put it up as an alternative for people who
just wanted results without reading five man pages, two FAQs, two
websites and half a dozen examples from friends.

The googlizer page went up after I ended up explaining it to someone yet again
(I used to use it as an example of X selection in GNOME because there weren't
many others) and I thought I should just write it up and then I could say, "Read
this," instead of typing the same stuff again and again. And I stuck the cut and
paste stuff in because I thought the left-click/right-click thing was neat and
that other people might find it cool, too. I have mentioned it on
lists before and got a lot of, "Wow, I never knew you could do that ..."
responses off-list. So in that went.

NF: You seem to be into good HTML. What do you use to do HTML and why?
Do you recommend any specific program? What do you think about WYSIWYG?

TG: Oh dear. The longer I talk about this, the more chance someone will
find horrible errors in my pages. But here goes.

Part of the "into good HTML" is because I used Lynx when I had no
X, and I still use it in conjunction with Mozilla because it's fast
and I find the lack of graphics less distracting. And I am so so
so fed up of pages that won't render because people presume that
everyone is using Netscape or IE. If you use Lynx for a while, you
become very used to oh-so-witty comments meaning, "Upgrade your
in noframes tags. Some people get really creative with those. They
obviously think no one will ever see them.

I ended up learning about standards because I wanted to be able to
say, "If only you did this, then I could read it," in webmaster email.
And I discovered it's really easy. It is, honestly! I can do it, so
anyone can. And there's all these neat tags like abbr and acronym
and attributes like longdesc which are just fun to play with and
which Mozilla (and doubtless others) will do something interesting
with. I am waiting in vain for anyone to actually visit my longdescs,
but they are there.

I use a plain text editor for HTML: joe. Mostly because it's
what Alan uses and so I picked it up off him. I use a plain editor
just because when I first met UNIX, text editors were what people
used. WYSIWYG wasn't too useful on a vt52 or dumb terminal. So
I learned to use text editors because that's all there was. I came
to WYSIWYG very late, and can't get my head around it now: It does
things I don't expect and confuses me. If other people prefer it,
fair enough.

As to recommendations, my typical reply to any, "Which of these
alternatives?" question is, "Whatever your friend who's going to
help understands the best."

NF: GUI or command line?

TG: Both. Mice slow me down compared with keystrokes. I haven't met
a good GUI alternative to a lot of the games I play with fileutils
and sh-utils and redirection and * signs at the command line.
But oh, I loathe trying to remember how to set the time with "date,"
and cut and paste in X is so handy. So lots of terminals in X
is my typical environment. And various launchers and a googlizer
in the GNOME panel.

NF: What distribution do you use?

TG: Any distro where I know I can burn the lot to a CD and give it to a
friend without discovering silly licences will get in the way, really.
I use Red Hat on most machines largely because I'm used to it and
because Alan can't get away with, "I don't know how that distro does
it," when I break something and demand explanations. I have one machine
in a state of disrepair which triple-boots between RH, Debian and, um,
well, it would have been Mandrake, but I broke the installer. That's
testing whether bugs are generic Gnome bugs or packaging bugs, and
for learning Debian, so that I have an idea of what is generic
and what is distro-specific.

NF: Favorite beverage for consumption during bug catching?

TG: Water, coffee, and vast quantities of grapefruit juice. Can't
do without my grapefruit juice.

NF: Tell me something interesting or unusual about yourself that not
very many people know.

TG: This is a bit rubbish, but it's all I can think of.

I can't sing, but I really enjoy trying to. Unhappily, because I am
partially deaf in one ear, my idea of the lyrics does not always
with reality. This can lead to unfortunate results... particularly
other people hear me and ask, "What was that?" and I discover I was
singing complete rubbish. I still curse the loss of
over this: it saved me so many problems. Now I am back to thinking
"well, it can't be a telescopic sword" in "The Generals are Born
by the Oysterband, and checking in hope that someone else
misheard it, too.


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