November 14, 2000

Here and now with the sober-minded Sander Vesik

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -

Open Source people

While corresponding recently with Sander Vesik, OpenOffice release engineer based
in
Dublin, it occurred to me that here in the United States we like to
spice up
our scenarios with a handful of hype. Leave our land and look back or
speak
candidly with a foreigner and see the truth is that America is
like the
young alien CEO, brought in to give the age-old enterprise a boost, an
edge.
We know relatively little about history, about tradition, because,
compared
with the rest of the world, we have none. Our youth fosters
excitement, and
enthusiasm carries us up the ladder. In turn we endure relative
banalities
with the intensity of adolescence.

In one window I was reading about Americans scurrying to make their
wishes known in this most bizarre of presidential elections and in the
other
I was put at ease by the calm responses of Vesik, an Estonian-born
software
engineer. Even as gatekeeper for the software that may bring, at last,
the
"Open Source revolution" to the masses, he is not agitated. In fact,
like a
weathered leader presiding over a hard-fought victory in what is
expected to
be a lengthy war, he is not all agog about Open Source at all.

"What is the Open Source development paradigm about," he responds,
deflating the aura around my standard queries meant to measure a
subject's
immersion in the momentum of change, "beyond the fact that the source
is
available for free and if you make a useful change it might get into
the
codebase?"

Killjoy or poised in the practice of progress? He did, after all,
come
of age as his country was released from the strong arm of what was the
Soviet Empire. Clearly a detail I am not going to overlook during my
own
self-absorbed sense of a country in the throws of the passing of power.
So I asked him, thinking I was so astute, what it was like during that
transition. I wait for a response, sure I've posed the question that
will
set his disclosure in motion. But again I am met with calm, like a
cartoon
bullet run into a rubber wall.

"Everybody asks that," his answers are evanescent, sparse, minimal
and in
this case painful, at least to anybody who prides herself on her
probing
prowess. "It was a process - not an event - and it started before that
and
lasted for some time after the (quite arbitrary point really) 10 years
ago."
He's not condescending just sort of wet blanket which he has every
right to
be, considering it is his country's history, not mine.

Though disappointed he wouldn't indulge my sensationalist
perspective, it
meant that in order to connect, I would have to visit his solidity.

He grew up in Tartu, a city in
East
Estonia, on the Emajogi
River
.
When I ask for details about Tartu he points me to the Web and when I
ask
what the word is over there about our election, he says he doesn't
really
know much about it. And that's when I realize, Vesik comes from a
country
that has seen a long line of kings and tsars. Heck, some countries
don't
even have elections let alone ones that go smoothly.

His layers of identity may diverge significantly from mine; he's not
American and he didn't grow up with MTV and surrounded by neon lights.
He
may not even boast about his support of Open Source. But he definitely
knows the geek "handshake." I am not a geek (though I may strive) but
I
have interviewed quite a few, and the personalities I have enjoyed the
most
have all been the ones that considered their own imagination to be as
viable
a source for vocabulary as any dictionary.

"Lots of people," relays Vesik, "think that if something is Open
Source
then it is automagically better than anything existing and non-Open
Source."
He noted that "automagically" was not a typo.
I
approve of the word whole-heartedly, but have to admit it is ironic
that he
administers maturity via such a fantastical term.

"To quote the words of Jamie Zawinsky," Vesik cites the developer
credited with naming Mozilla, "'you can't take a project, sprinkle it
with
pixie dust of 'Open Source' and expect everything magically to work
out.'"

It's not that Vesik doesn't prefer the process, he's just relatively
sober about all the cries concerning "community" and staunch
preferences
about it being the only option. He's wary of the hype eclipsing the
expediency of it all. Open is not the issue, good software is.

It reminds me of the six months during my third year of college that
I
lived in a house with six other women. They discussed things so much
that
their talk created a whole new dimension of reality which resembled
legitimacy depending on the passions of the speakers. I keep waiting
for
Vesik to offer some staid tidbit about how actions speak louder than
words.

It's a sobriety that persists throughout our conversation. It
doesn't
necessarily cut ideas off at the pass; it simply tames them and this
restraint sets him apart from his American counterparts, most of whom
find
it difficult to resist a vacant podium.

He dreams of space colonization but tagged this testament with a nod
to
the unlikeliness of it happening in his lifetime. The more we talked,
the
more I was surprised at the detail that led me to him in the first
place.
At the bottom of most of his emails or posts at OpenOffice and included
in
many of his messages while working on FreeBSD, reads the sig: "There is
no
love, no good, no happiness and no future - all these are just
illusions."
How alluringly morbid, how dramatic.

"Oh my gods," he responded when I asked him to explain it, "I
thought
this would come up."

"This sig definitely was my ... kind of id ... I used it like that
when
posting from the different mail accounts and I had to trace that it's
me.
It's a bit complicated ..."

He tried to make it sound like a practical measure, a literal
tagging for
identification purposes, but his reluctance to expand was telling. A
23-year-old programmer who likes to play advanced Dungeon and
Dragons in what little free time he has? There's no way he can totally
resist rollicking in at least a little hedonistic philosophy.

"I received quite a lot of mails over the time I used it asking, 'Do
you
really believe in that?' Problem is - that question cannot be answered,
as
the signature is a bit of trickery and not (entirely) a statement of
what I
believe (or believed at some point) in.

"See, for example, before you can attach a meaning to 'no future' -
or
future being an illusion - you have to first apply a meaning to
'future.'

"Whatever the thing that is being spoken about is in the present or
future is established by the context. Future is what we make it to be,
it is
not set in stone. So in a way it is a way of saying that there is no
fate,
predestination or indeed 'future' beyond what we (as in humans) make it
to
be."

But he didn't get this idea directly from a philosophy, rather from
the
Estonian language which, he told me, has no future tense. It's an
appropriate source considering he started working as a Unix system
administrator and database programmer at the Estonian Language
Institute
before he even graduated from high school.

No wonder his answers are succinct. Even the questions about the
past
like - When you were little what did you want to be when you grew up? -
are
asking about the then future. No wonder he lives so much, as he says,
"in
the here and now." I'd be practical too if I couldn't fast talk my
friends
with thoughts on the future. Come to think of it, I'd be a lot further
along too, if I could only speak in the present tense. Heck, forget
Spanish, I'm starting Estonian lessons tomorrow.

Hubastijatt and hea tervis!

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