December 19, 2000

Meta-HTML's Fox: The coolest cat in geekville

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -

Open Source people
Musician, programmer, father, though not necessarily in that order,
Brian J. Fox's
most
recent programming venture is
Meta-HTML.

If you're not careful with how you listen to him talk, you might make
the
same mistake I did and think that he doesn't want to talk with you.
But
what I might have hastily interpreted as thinly cloaked impatience is
simply
the maverick in him, so averse to the constraints of convention as to
teeter
on disregard.

Perhaps too, the impatience resulted from the fact that we were
talking
about him. He seemed a bit confounded by the fact that the focus of my
column is nothing more particular than him. And there is nothing about
his
history that would suggest the presence of any patience for being led.

Fox is a lot of things, but most of all he is independent and
has
been since he dropped out of high school three months shy of
graduation.
When he attempted college several years later, it took all of three
months
for the powers that be to find his disregard for procedure
unacceptable. He
simply moves too fast to follow protocol. If he knows a better way,
and
chances are he does, then he's going to implement it simply because it
makes
sense not because someone says he can.

That's why, while a student at Santa Barbara Community College, he
dismissed the system administrator's pleas to stop debugging the text
editor
they were using. A few weeks into his first semester, Fox was helping
out
some of the teaching staff by writing tests for them but the way the
line
editor kept crashing made it a lot harder, so he fixed it. The system
administrator thought this was in violation of copyright, but Fox
couldn't
see the sense in not fixing it. So he persisted, and his matriculation
was subsequently desisted.

It's in the same spirit that he made the programming language Meta-HTML and then built a company
around it. After six or so years alternating between being a programmer
and
being a musician and traveling all over the world, a friend invited
him up to San Francisco to work on the Wells Fargo Web-banking project.
Looking forward to using the spoils of his last overseas programming
project
to concentrate on making music for a solid six months, he resisted. It
was
1994. He didn't know what the Web was, but he figured he'd take the
free
trip north to visit.

By the time they finished the first rendition in 1995, he knew enough
about the Web to conclude "how wrong it was to build Web projects with
the
available tools."

"I'm basically a tool maker, that's what I'd been doing all along.
When
I saw that there was this big gap I realized there's a better way."

Complexity is not something he approaches consciously, it's not an
issue
for him, not a barrier.

His father earned a dual degree in acoustical physics and music.
His
mother was in the middle of earning a Ph.D. in philosophy when she
decided
to focus solely on raising her four children. (She later earned an
advanced
degree and now works as a speech pathologist.) Both his parents, says
Fox,
are brilliant analytical thinkers.

Though the Fox household was always filled with music, it was
acoustical
physics that his father went into professionally. Brian's comfort with
computing was fostered in no small part by the fact that he grew up
surrounded by it. The Marvin Minskys and
the
Foxes were family friends. Brian was 6 or 7 when he first
encountered
one of his father's computing devices, a teletype machine illegally hooked up
to a phone line in their basement.

His eldest brother Donal,
who
among his many achievements recently finished two seasons as
composer-in-residence with the St. Louis Symphony, responded most
intensely
to the music. Brian, on the other hand, finds himself as driven in his
bass
playing with the same sense of discovery that yields his programming
prowess.

He says he played a lot of different instruments before falling, in
seventh grade, for the stand up bass, which he loved enough to lug to
and
from school everyday. That was no small feat for his then 5-foot 2-inch
frame.

He says that he thinks his dedication to the bass persists because
"in
music the bass helps to define the harmonic content and lock down the
rhythmic content of the music. I think that I was attracted to that
kind of
fundamental role in the process of making this big thing called
music."

"I'm really interested in the core fundamental reasons, the why and
how
things are put together, how things work and why things work. If
someone
asks me to describe myself, I say I'm an implementing architect. I'm
much
more of an architect, but if you want to get it right you might as well
do it
yourself so I go ahead and implement it myself, it's no problem."

It is an apt title. He left high school at 17 to
play music. When he found the drummer poking him with a drumstick to
keep
him from snoring, Fox knew he needed something else. He headed back
East
in search of some programming work, wandered over to "this computer
thing"
he knew Marvin Minsky was working on, and talked his way into the
artificial
intelligence lab at MIT. Soon he was working with Richard M. Stallman as
one of the Free Software Foundation's
inaugural
employees. He worked fast, spending little time actually writing the
code.

"I can see the whole framework in my head when I sit down to write
my
first line of code. It's kind of like I just type code in.

"The reline part of BASH I wrote in a
weekend in Boston. I wrote it on Friday and Saturday, roughly 10 to
12
hours at a stretch. I just sat down and typed the thing in. I had
been
thinking about it for three months before that."

His mind is always working. When he needs a break he doesn't stop
thinking, instead, he focuses it on someone else, maybe visits someone
else's mind. When he wants to relax he likes to engage in some
one-on-one
time with a friend.

I listen to him talk about his music, the traveling, about how he
quit
smoking before his twins arrived. He puts his wife on the phone to tell
me
about her bath beads business. He's boisterous and vigorous. He mentions his need for human contact, and I am compelled to ask if he considers himself geeky.
He
says not really, that the music has kept him sort of extroverted. But
then
he tells me a story, punctuated with more of his characteristic
chortle,
which escapes his body in a wheezy haste, than any of his previous
ones.

He says when he was working on the Unix shell and working on
implementing
globbing, he created a file called *.c. When he was done implementing
globbing he wanted to delete that file so he typed rm"*.c", which
would, if
he had already implemented quoting, remove that one file. But, when he
noticed that it was taking a while to perform the command, he realized
he
had not yet implemented quoting so was, in effect globbing, and
removing all
the files that ended in *.c.

I apologize if I am a bit off base on that story for to find such a
story
comprehensible, let alone knee-slapping, requires a degree of geekiness
above and beyond that which I can currently claim. Given how hip Fox
makes
geeky look, it is regretful. Roaming from job to job with his bass in
the
back seat, this motorcycle riding, world traveling, jazz playing
hedonist
rebel, is like a garrulous James Dean. If he's serious about wanting
his kids
to avoid following his example and go to school, he's going to have to
work
a little harder to make the alternative look less cool.

NewsForge editors read and respond to comments posted on our discussion page.

Category:

  • Linux
Click Here!