September 26, 2000

I think, therefore I am James

Author: JT Smith

By Julie Bresnick
NewsForge Columnist
Open Source people

James L. Pine's favorite place to be is in the middle of nowhere. But unlike
his twin sister, who put her love of the outdoors first and works as a
mountaineering guide, James chose to write code and is currently a programmer
at VA Linux.He has more swag from Boy Scouts though than from free software and
considering that he has and continues to program part time for Copyleft, that means he has a lot of Scout
stuff. Despite its majority status though, the Scout shirts stay in the
closet while the cap with the big red C gets the most wear. That hat is old
school Copyleft. He alternates it with the second version of the geek hat
and the first sample of the PHP one.

It's a habit that demonstrates more than the fact that he's placed the woods
second, albeit a close one, to coding. Those hats aren't just emblems from
the Open Source/Free Software movement, he favors them because they are
"original" merchandise, they are from the beginning, "from before there was
even a real product line."

He refers to the "old days" and uses words like "alas" and "yep" as if he had
gray hair, smoked a pipe and wiled away the hours in a rocking chair on the
porch of a log cabin in the woods.

But in reality he doesn't look a day older than his 22 years. He is
almost six feet tall with reddish hair and the fair skin that goes with it.
In photographs from a trip he took with some friends to Tahoe, his arms hang
consistently by his side and his smile is slight, close-mouthed. He looks
calm if not irreverent, like he knows better but he'll play along.

His statements, too, are infused with a reluctant acceptance. He respects the
spirit of the 'Net's beginnings when it was "a smaller, happier place" and
longs for the days "before all this technical stuff came into effect, when
non-virtual communities were actually both common and of substance." When
he's not subtly revealing his playful side with words like "darkification"
and by making references to his father's obsession with computer games, he
can tend toward the curmudgeon.

If it were up to him he'd replace email with face-to-face conversations and
chat rooms with block parties. It's not the technology he disapproves of,
it's the lack of substance. James is the kind of guy who, if he likes you, it
reflects well upon you. His thoughts are heavy and his speech sophisticated.
His favorite book is James Joyce's Ulysses. He battles boredom with quiet,
potentially solitary occupations like cooking, reading, writing, hiking,

He chose to attend Cornell because of its remote location but was
disheartened and bored after two years of chemical engineering. Attempts to
battle this ennui by taking humanities courses led to more frustration. He
says that "most of the time, disagreeing with the professor caused shock and
amazement all around, and I didn't much relish the idea of being a parrot."
So he left Cornell and went to work for Pangolin Web Services. He is not
forthcoming with the details but says he dabbles in creative writing and that
if he were to go back to school that would be the degree he'd pursue.

He can be pointed and intense. Like with scouting. His first job as
campcraft counselor led to department head in just two summers. Now, he
confesses, he is capable of going weeks, maybe a month or two of doing
nothing but sitting in front of a computer, eating, sleeping, and commuting
to and from work. He is easily distracted until something catches hold of
him, at which point nothing is a distraction, including food and sleep.

Though positive in the end, James does not start with his own opinions. His
appreciation for Open Source makes sense because he says he's always taken
things apart to see how they work, and then studied the results of changes.
He likes to be in control, to understand and consider the entire landscape.

"Most of the time the doomsayers and the idealists are both right. Just that
the idealists focus on the good while the doomsayers focus on the bad. I
wouldn't say that I'm cynical, just that I'm definitely capable of looking at
things from a cynical point of view.

"For some people, yes -- the loose collection of people among whom ideas flow
readily and who work together to further one project or another will help
some people by filling in as a community, providing goals and security. For
others, [the Net] is just an audience to which to play. I've seen more and
more people in recent days arguing for the sake of winning the argument, not
for the sake of determining the best course of action (which is what we'd
assume the sake of any argument should be).

"I don't think that the Net will suddenly create a utopian society, world
peace, end hunger, or stop global warming. These are the same people on the
Net that I pass on the street every day. Yes, I do think that they are
capable of wonderful things, and this is definitely an important time in
history but there will be trade offs, minuses to the pluses. Pluses and
minuses; we feel it out as we go along. I think it'll be more good than bad
in the end but at this stage there's certainly no going back."

He is a thinking man and it's this internal dialogue that adds legitimacy to
his dedication. It means he is driven by consciousness, cognizance. It
means that he has made his own decision. He alludes to the idea that we are
all, figuratively, programmers. If this is true, he studies his surroundings
like code, asserts himself as the variable and then awaits the effects of his
changes. The central component to this conduct, professionally and
spiritually, is inclusion.

"Programmers on a closed source project do collaborate but they do so with
each other and not the rest of the world. They're drawing artificial lines
solely for the purpose of not diluting profit. The real key to it all is
inclusive collaboration.

"I'm one of those people who think that the community is far more important
than any of the software that's resulted from the community effort. If all
of the code disappeared tomorrow, we'd have something better than that next

Programmer-philosopher; I'll be looking for his name on the bookshelves.

(Disclosure: VA Linux owns NewsForge.)


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