June 13, 2001

James Baughn: A humorous view to a kill-er OS

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -
Open Source people -
James Owen Stanley Baughn
imagines that the inspiration with which he'd start his perfect day
would come to him while on the toilet and in the form of a great story idea
for his Linux news parody site, Humorix. That's
where he often finds that hidden door behind which all great ideas are stored
-- either "on the toilet, or at 4 a.m. after waking up for no reason, or
while driving and not paying enough attention to the road, or in the middle
of class ..."

Humorix itself, however, did not come to him suddenly. It evolved
when the remnants of a number of different efforts at Web pages mixed with a
little extra time he had after high school graduation and before
starting his first semester at Southeast Missouri
State University
. July 25, 1998, was its official launch date, but
the idea had been percolating for some time. He had seen the idea for a
Linux humor site sink after being floated on Slashdot but he started one
anyway. BeOS had one in those days (BeDope) but
Linux had nothing. Besides, he was bored and the Humorix title was staring him
in the face.

"At the time I had a site called The Support Group
for People Used by Microsoft
, which speaks for itself. I had been
writing silly pieces bashing Microsoft for some time. One of these was 'What If
Bill Gates Was A Stand-Up Comedian?' (a reaction to the 'What If Microsoft
Made Cars?' type jokes floating around). The idea was that Bill Gates'
comic performance was called 'ActiveHumor,' and audience members were
required to agree to an EULA in which they were forbidden from attending the rival
stand-up performance by Linus Torvalds called Humorix."

Though he'd like to see more traffic, from its very beginning
Humorix attracted more visitors than any of his previous endeavors did. He gets
about 300 to 400 unique visitors per week day (that number goes down on
weekends) and his mailing list practically doubles that number.

"I've published exactly 350 articles; 233 of those have been
published
under my name ... maybe a dozen were written by me but
published under a different name (i.e.
Noah Morals, the evil staff lawyer), and a few were written in collaboration
with someone else. That leaves about 100 written contributions. In fact, the
last seven out of nine have been submitted articles -- which is just fine by me,
because I've been really pressed for free time the last month or so because of
finals and then a four-week summer class."

An only child and an Air Force brat, Baughn lived in California,
Washington, Texas, England, and Germany for extended stints before the
age of 12, when his father retired and settled the family in a rural area
near
Cape Girardeau, Mo.
Contrary to his decision to live at his parents' house and attend a
local state school, Baughn is still a big fan of traveling.

"In Europe, I've been as far north as Denmark, as far west as Spain,
as far south as Italy, and as far east as Hungary. We've traveled a lot
while stateside as well, including Canada and Mexico, Hawaii, and all kinds
of road trips through the western U.S."

Recently, his parents bought a second home near Lake
Wappapello
, Mo.,
and now spend most of their time there, so Baughn has the Cape Girardeau
house
to himself. Apparently he's got most of the town to himself as well.

"This is not the type of rural location in which most geeks would be
comfortable living. But, such advantages as 80 acres of land to romp
on, a nearby state park, the Mississippi River just a few miles away, and a
lack of traffic jams tend to balance out the severely limited Internet
access, shortage of cultural activities, lack of local Linux User Groups, and
fairly high rates of computer illiteracy and disinterest among natives."

All of which probably explains why it took Baughn a while to discover
Linux in the first place. In The Evolution of a Linux
User
he explains the basic route he took to get to Linux. It
is a forthcoming and perhaps brave confession in which he charts a course
from Stage 0, "Microserf," to Stage 9, "Enlightened Linux User" (and Stage
10 where the proverbial convert sells an Open Source related site for vast
sums and retires into a life of forgotten normalcy.)

It all started when his father bought Baughn his first computer.

"I was in fourth or fifth grade. It was a Tandy model with a
whopping 640K RAM, no hard drive, CGA monitor (16 colors!), and a speedy 286
8MHz CPU. All things considered, it wasn't that great, but it did have an
interesting GUI system called DeskMate that had many features that
Windows lacked until 95 or 98. (And it didn't crash very often!)"

Originally deterred by a mean teacher and extremely outdated
computers, Baughn's learning curve accelerated once he had the resources to teach
himself. He started by reading the manuals.

"I hate to admit this, but I started with GW-BASIC and then moved to
QBasic/QuickBasic, the only Microsoft program that I like. Well, OK,
Solitaire has its high points."

It wasn't always that way. In the evolution piece he talks about
not just being a Microsoft user but an outspoken advocate as well as being
skeptical of Linux and its Open Source brethren.

"I don't remember exactly what happened, but suffice it to say I
learned about Linux and the GNU Project from the Jargon File, of all places (I
probably had just gotten Internet access then).

"Meanwhile, my third computer and Windows 95 didn't get along very
well, almost to the point of making it unusable at times. (Glacial slowness
combined with frequent crashes). Linux worked perfectly. In hindsight,
I learned the problem was hardware-related because GCC would give a
Signal 11 when compiling the kernel, a sign of memory problems. But, except for
GCC glitches, Linux worked perfectly even on faulty, low-budget hardware,
while Windows 95 couldn't handle it at all.

"Linux's ability to run well on hardware which Windows feared to
tread sealed it for me. I haven't gone back, but unfortunately it's
necessary to keep DOS and Windows around so I can still play all of those DOS games
I've accumulated over the years. My current hard drive has 2 GB devoted to
Windows, most of which is actually old DOS stuff, and the other 28 GB
for Linux, which shows how I feel about Windows."

He says he's not a humorist in real life, no witty comebacks or
clownish behavior, that he has to sit down and think this stuff out, but like any
comedian he can find humor in surprising places.

"Perl is good to know because there's an endless amount of humor
that can be written about it, both WITH it and AT it."

How's that?

"Obfuscated code. Perl, even when well-written, still contains
enough symbols and syntax oddities to make it look
like line noise. Perl's free-wheeling nature allows a lot of jokes to
be made about all of the truly outrageous things
that can be done with it (witness the popularity of Obfuscated Code
Contests). It's biggest competitor, Python, enforces neatness and just
isn't as easy to poke fun at. And then there's the whole culture that
surrounds Perl -- from camel jokes to Larry Wall's speeches about Postmodernism."

Like the near namesake
that he swears wasn't, Baughn is calm about his cleverness.

More about James Baughn

First Linux Distribution: "Slackware, which I downloaded over the
course of several weeks via a dial-up link."

Mail reader: "None in particular. I use the mail client with Netscape,
but that's only out of sheer laziness."

Editor: NEdit. This is a GUI editor for X that has the exact features
I need for writing articles, hacking Perl, and mangling HTML, without
anything extraneous. It's hard to concentrate on writing when using VI because I
can't keep track of insert mode, command mode, etc. and the various keyboard
commands without wasting precious brain cycles. (You can't spell evil without
vi). And I don't need an editor that's a whole operating system, which
eliminates Emacs as an option."

Movies: "Unlike 99% of the geek population, I'm NOT infatuated with
Star Wars. During last year's Episode 1 Hypefest and George Lucas
Worship-O-Thon, Humorix only published one article about Star Wars, and
that one wasn't written by me."

Books: "Robert A. Heinlein mostly, but also Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton,
and a few other authors."

Snack food: "Anything with chocolate in it!"

Video game: "That's easy, Transport Tycoon. I even have a Web site about
that, the first I created [http://i-want-a-website.com/about-tt/]."

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