January 2, 2001

Linux, it's not just for bad boys anymore

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -

Open Source people
Author of the significantly praised Mason Firewall Building Package,
William Stearns is currently senior research engineer for the Institute
for
Security Technology Studies (ISTS) at Dartmouth College in
Hanover, N.H.

Though he dedicates many of his waking hours to the
benefit of
Linux, he is determinedly not a preacher. This he states clearly,
explaining in the same way I often justify my dedication to pro-choice,
that
though his preference is clear he does not wish to force his opinion on
anybody. It's a compelling clarification given the past proselytizing
largely responsible for Linux's current popularity.

I got my first taste of Linux evangelism a little less than a year
ago.
Doc Searls was introducing and moderating a panel discussion. It was an
organized attempt to bring Linux to the mainstream business world. The
room
was relatively empty. Afterward, I spoke with a pair of programmers,
one
tall and wiry with red hair, the other stout, balding, jubilant. They
both
wore glasses and spoke with the kind of enthusiasm adults don't usually
get
to enjoy. The impact of their disposition was compounded by the
substance
it modified. It was a cartoonish pair, equal parts proud and surprised
by
the idea that Linux was used in some pretty high level government work.
I
was impressed. Nine months later I meet Stearns, not only a real life
incarnation of their claims but comfortable enough with the status of
Linux
that his admiration for it is free of the kind of desperation with
which
previous converts came.

Dartmouth may handle the logistics of Stearns's job, but basically he
works
for the government. Explicitly assigned the task of anticipating the
moves
of licentious hackers he is implicitly charged, both personally and
professionally, to participate in the Linux community. Conscientious
and
sincere, one day Stearns went away from a talk given by Linus Torvalds struggling to think of a way he could contribute.

People in the audience asked about what they should contribute, and
Torvalds
suggested they choose something that interested them. That way he
wouldn't
have to pick up the slack when they walked away bored. That was the
seed
for Stearn's firewall building package which he named Mason after his
nephew.

It doesn't take long into our conversation for me to realize that if it had
been
a talk on world hunger instead of Linux that Stearns had walked away from, he
would have joined the Peace Corps.

It is clear that, as the saying goes, his mother raised him well. He
uses
words his contemporaries don't. He says "pleasure to meet you" before
he
says "it was nice" and even that he dresses up with my name. "Julie,"
he
writes, "it was nice to meet you." They are pleasantries expediency
has
stripped from most of our vocabularies. Every reason an observer might
venture to guess to be the source of such propriety is pretty much
accurate.
He is a New Englander. Save a few in the very beginning and a couple
in the
middle, Stearns has spent his years in the land of little towns, a place
that
elicits images of the Norman Rockwell kind. He now splits his time
between
Lebanon, N.H., near Dartmouth where he works, and Colchester,
Vt., where he and his wife share a home.

His father is a retired minister. Both of Stearns' parents taught
piano
at home. His mother added voice lessons to the menu. Though going to
church was an accepted ritual in the Stearns household, it was not God
that
made Stearns' trips there so divine. It was the choir. He loved the
music.
He remembers dismaying many of his mother's pupils with how high he
could go
during the years before his voice changed. While at The University of
Vermont, he sang with the resident a cappella group, the Top Cats, and
joined
a barber shop quartet after graduation.

Like a true New England boy, his first job was delivering newspapers.
He
spent the money at the local arcade. If being the offspring of a
minister
inspired rebellion, he hides it well. A trader couldn't manufacture a
better history while attempting to gain the trust of a government
agency.
It's funny that he loves Tom Clancy books so much because he is the
perfect
target for intrigue, the unsuspecting victim of a frame job out of
which his
sheer earnestness would drive him to clear his name.

Upon request, he sends me some old pictures of himself. One with his
wife
and one in which he is water skiing. The picture is taken by someone on the back of the boat
watching him ski. It's pretty far away but you can see him smiling.
In the
pictures he is thin and has a full head of brown hair and a mustache.
With
the addition of the picture he makes me think of Flanders, the
character
that lives next door to TV's the Simpsons, only in this world we are made of
flesh and nuclear waste isn't really a laughing matter.

He started programming in junior high school on an "old TRS-80 that
must
literally be a museum piece by now." There was only one, and it wasn't
necessarily for students, but he spotted it and approached a teacher
about
using it. As long as Stearns kept his grades up he would be granted
access
after school. Subsequently, his grades went up. He was hooked. His
parents later bought him a Commodore 64 for Christmas.

Not naturally drawn to the peripheral like many hackers are, Stearns
was a
devout Windows user. Before he was introduced to Linux he was actually
afraid of Unix, afraid that someone might come into the retail store he
was
then working and want a machine programmed for Unix and he would be at
a
loss to help them. Later, he was setting up a Web server when a
coworker
suggested opting for Linux over Windows. Until Windows crashed so
frequently as to exasperate a temperament even as temperate as Stearns',
he
had resisted the switch. But once expediency dictated investigating
the
alternative, there was no turning back.

He's more than just a well planted Linux-lover. Mason is simply the
most
visible of his
contributions
.
But even more valuable than his programming ability, Stearns is living
proof
that you no longer have to be a rebel to believe in Linux, you can be -- and I
mean this with the utmost respect -- you can be a mama's boy.

Things William Stearn loves most:

Half Life
Water skiing
Singing
Tom Clancy novels
His job
The Matrix

Longest he remembers coding in one sitting:

He was working on Mason, sat
down after dinner at around 8 p.m., didn't look up until 4:30 a.m., doesn't
recall moving that whole time.

Wisdom gathered along the way:

"There is no such thing as a script that
takes 'just a few hours'
to write!"

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