Torment and Coding

Unless someone gives Open Source developers a grant, they do their work for the love of it.

The sadomasochistic nature of programming, in my opinion, means that open-source software will always be better than commercial software. This is a whopper of a concept, but something has to account for the excellent code coming from the open-source movement. It may seem like an exaggeration, but hear me out on this one.

Recently I started to experiment with the mail client that comes with the latest version of Mozilla, an open-source Internet suite. Im looking for an alternative to Outlook Express for those of us concerned about the viruses that invariably propagate through the security flaws in that program. My main e-mail client has been Eudora, but lately the spam mess with Eudora has become dreadful. My rules-based filtering mechanism, Spamnix, does not stop enough of it. To make matters worse, the spam comes in with bogus dates, so residual spam is scattered throughout my in-box. I decided to try the Mozilla client, which has a built-in hybrid Bayesian-analysis mechanism that is phenomenal—but hardly perfect.

So far, every 100 e-mail messages I get include 10 real messages and 90 spams—fairly typical. Mozilla catches 80 of the 90 spams. I end up with 20 messages, half of which are spam. Going through 20 e-mails, 10 of which are spam, is a lot faster than plowing through 100 e-mails with 90 of them being spam. Theoretically, the Mozilla mail client will slowly move closer to eliminating spam from users in-boxes. I should note that I have not looked at every spam elimination system, and there are plenty. But the best ones are expensive server-side solutions that simply dont interest me.

While expressing my concerns about various aspects of the Mozilla e-mail client to its coders, I noticed how different the exchange was from a discussion I had recently with a commercial software vendor. My Mozilla contact felt that my suggestions would help the product and that no matter how critical I was, the end result would be money in his pocket. How does an open-source developer reach that kind of thinking and not just mumble, "Why is this guy dogging me? Cant he just shut up and use the product already?" Or, worse, he could just come out and say, "What do you want for free?"

Unless open-source developers receive grants, they do their work for the love of it. Im sure they relish praise for their good work, but how much criticism can they handle? At least, how much can they handle before they walk off the project and tell users to get stuffed? You have to wonder. That said, critics like myself are also horned by this dilemma: Can I really lambaste them for something dumb? No way. These guys have to be encouraged, not discouraged. But am I supposed to be disingenuously nice? Moi? Im sure Im not the only person concerned about this.

Underlying such concerns is exploitation. Do the open-source folks ever think they are being exploited? When open-source coders say that it is not about the money, I believe them. Money is one thing, raw exploitation is another. Is that ever a consideration?

No offense, but Ive always sensed that programmers are masochists by nature. The better the coder the more masochistic. Think about it: Writing good code is a tormenting, thankless chore. Many CEOs know how to berate coders to get them to work harder. Somehow the best coders come under some delusion that they are in control and free-spirited because they can work whatever hours they want. And this looks true when seen from afar. In fact, most smart organizations quickly learn that the "freedom" usually means programmers working 12 to 16 hours a day, sleeping under their desks, and staying alert with caffeine-laced soft drinks and starches.

Im starting to think, therefore, that open-source has to be the ultimate freedom trip for these folks—voluntary servitude. If programmers by nature are psychologically into the scene, then the thankless badge of honor—the open-source creations—must be the ultimate thrill for them. Masochism and sadism are two sides of the same coin, and programmers can be downright scary when the coin is flipped. It turns out that open-source coders have some of the meanest critics and bosses imaginable: each other.

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