Author: JT Smith
Open Source people –
I approached Paul
Cubbage at the Simi Valley LUG
Fest because he looks and sits just like a compressed
Donald Sutherland with attitude, like age gave him arrogance instead of
humility, like he has a lot of wisdom he’s willing to impart to
youngsters who’ll listen. He wore a tan felt fedora and manned his booth with his
butt resting on the edge of his chair, one arm hooked over the back, the
other free with which to gesture.It is a confidence that Cubbage first cultivated as an undersized kid
who learned early that “you could be just as much a bully with a big mouth
as you could with a big body” and later confirmed over years of rolling
stone through the computer innovation and cultural experimentation of the
1960s and ’70s.
Open Country is a
culmination of his experience in business, development and personal philosophy. In
founding this community publishing site he addresses a nagging question: How
can developers make money developing software? Though Cubbage himself did not learn to use computers until age 30, he was immediately taken with them and because he does not know moderation, launched an intense career in programming
followed by a burnout that freed him to learn the business side of
things. He continued to work closely with developers while, among other jobs,
running The Wollongong
Group, a group of engineers porting Unix when nobody else was, and as director
of product development for the renowned Atari Program
Exchange (APX) during its heyday from 1981 to1983.
As with Open Source, end users at Open Country develop the software but Cubbage’s site will do the documentation, manage the upgrades, test the quality and package the product as a browser-based, one-click download available to users for a
few dollars, a percentage of which will go back to the developer in the
form of royalties.
Born in Dayton, Ohio, six years after his sister and 10 before his
closest brother, Cubbage was raised in a small farming community north of Dayton.
His high school had an enrollment of 200. He was tiny. Most adults
weren’t sure how well he’d do. You could count his ribs. When he
finally stopped spending all his time wishing he was bigger, he excelled
mentally instead of physically. Today, though you definitely can’t count his
ribs because like many people in their mid-60s, he’s developing a bit of a belly, he
is still very brainy, spouting maxims and punctuating stories with a
lesson-like air, as if to lean back, raise an eyebrow and say “how
He says he’s terrible at studying and memorizing, but random
facts stick to him. Given all I learned just listening to him, I am skeptical
of the former, but the latter he continued to exhibit throughout our hour -long
chat. From obscure etymology to the overall history of Unix, he is
indeed a wealth of trivia. But like a true child of a more spiritual time,
there is always a greater order, and he sees Open Source as a structureless
strategy employed successfully throughout history.
“If you really look at when what we call technology began, and I
personally think it started with the printing press, and if you look at
the printing press there are some interesting things about it. What was
the enabling technology? What did they use as the press? Wine presses.
And the moveable type was the innovation and the software was free — it was
the Bible and the great books and, oh by the way, not too long before that,
the Danes had discovered flax from which one makes linen, and for the first
time there was cheap cloth, which makes paper very nicely. And the
interesting part, of course, was that Gutenberg didn’t really make any money from the
printing press. What can we learn from this?”
His thoughts are as intertwined with each other as the trends upon
which they are projected.
“But what did the printing press do? When you take information and
you push it down and out to people then the world changes from the bottom
up. The world changed then with the reformation. So in many ways the
printing press and the things that they printed initially had an Open Source
quality. You could argue that some of the canonical works — the Bible and the
Torah — were done in kind of an open discussion way and some people made the
point that science at its best is like open source, the interchange of ideas.
“I remember reading some auditors discovering that
these programmers at this company had gotten code from another company and
they raised all kinds of red flags about that.” I asked him what he thought
then. “Back then I thought, yeah ,you exchange the ideas. It’s too tough
of a job, to tough to solve without ideas going around. Besides,
programmers moved around so much it was kind of absurd to believe it was closed.
See, I think Open Source is part of a much deeper movement.”
“[De Chardin] wrote about a network of information
developing the world. Sounds a little bit like the Internet doesn’t
it? Except he believed it was a super consciousness.”
Though Cubbage’s formal study started with chemistry at the University of
Florida and ended with political science at the University of Illinois
(split by a few years in the Air Force) studying the nature of truth and
consciousness has always been a hobby for him. At first his research
was aided by his extracurricular “weekend hippie” pursuits. But even after
spontaneously deciding to leave that behavior behind for good on April
14, 1980, his pursuit of the higher mind persisted.
But after graduation, it was tough to give up those summers waiting
tables at hotels and get a full time job with an insurance company. Which he
did reluctantly until they sat him in front of an IBM 1401.
“In those days you learned it by — you got a manual on the computer
and a job to do and you learned the computer and did the job. I programmed
everything from weird little stuff to giant computers. The 1401
was the size of a small refrigerator and had 16k memory. Yeah, I loved
doing it. I once said that if I had done that much research and
reading and studying in college as I did in computing I’d have at least three
No doubt it often sounds like he does have three PhDs.
Nobody has yet discovered the winning formula for incorporating Open
Source into their business model. Perhaps Cubbage and his carefully
selected team of risk takers are just the right cowboys to settle this rapidly
About Paul Cubbage
Heroes: Architect, engineer, inventor and philosopher extraordinaire
kminster Fuller and friend, Milos Dryack.
Favorite jobs: “Besides now, I had one job at Atari where I was paid
to play games and another, at Dataquest, where I was paid to read the
Entertainment: “I like things which fool with reality — What Dreams
Come, the underlying ideas of The Matrix. I always like it when
moviemakers tend to picture inner reality or what the after life is like. It’s a
real test of the imagination.”
Free time: “A lot of do-it-yourself stuff. I can fix almost anything.”
Notes: In business, “the higher you go up the nuttier it gets, the
more irrational it gets. It’s very strange.”
Things he learned from his father: “He could spot bullshit from a mile
Things he wants to impart as a father: “Enjoy. Do something,
participate. Pass it on.”
NewsForge editors read and respond to comments posted on our discussion page.
- Open Source