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
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
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
We know relatively little about history, about tradition, because,
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
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
I was put at ease by the calm responses of Vesik, an Estonian-born
engineer. Even as gatekeeper for the software that may bring, at last,
"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
immersion in the momentum of change, "beyond the fact that the source
available for free and if you make a useful change it might get into

Killjoy or poised in the practice of progress? He did, after all,
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
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
set his disclosure in motion. But again I am met with calm, like a
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
prowess. "It was a process - not an event - and it started before that
lasted for some time after the (quite arbitrary point really) 10 years
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
Estonia, on the Emajogi
When I ask for details about Tartu he points me to the Web and when I
what the word is over there about our election, he says he doesn't
know much about it. And that's when I realize, Vesik comes from a
that has seen a long line of kings and tsars. Heck, some countries
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.
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
have interviewed quite a few, and the personalities I have enjoyed the
have all been the ones that considered their own imagination to be as
a source for vocabulary as any dictionary.

"Lots of people," relays Vesik, "think that if something is Open
then it is automagically better than anything existing and non-Open
He noted that "automagically" was not a typo.
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
pixie dust of 'Open Source' and expect everything magically to work

It's not that Vesik doesn't prefer the process, he's just relatively
sober about all the cries concerning "community" and staunch
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
lived in a house with six other women. They discussed things so much
their talk created a whole new dimension of reality which resembled
legitimacy depending on the passions of the speakers. I keep waiting
Vesik to offer some staid tidbit about how actions speak louder than

It's a sobriety that persists throughout our conversation. It
necessarily cut ideas off at the pass; it simply tames them and this
restraint sets him apart from his American counterparts, most of whom
it difficult to resist a vacant podium.

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

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

"This sig definitely was my ... kind of id ... I used it like that
posting from the different mail accounts and I had to trace that it's
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
really believe in that?' Problem is - that question cannot be answered,
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' -
future being an illusion - you have to first apply a meaning to

"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
predestination or indeed 'future' beyond what we (as in humans) make it

But he didn't get this idea directly from a philosophy, rather from
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
before he even graduated from high school.

No wonder his answers are succinct. Even the questions about the
like - When you were little what did you want to be when you grew up? -
asking about the then future. No wonder he lives so much, as he says,
the here and now." I'd be practical too if I couldn't fast talk my
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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