Getting into open source programming

Ever since I wrote my first line of Java for Intro to Programming 232 in 2010, I’ve asked the question, how can I get better at this? I google it, ask people, read proggit, read hackernews, read books. The answers are, in order, 1) study on your own 2) contribute to open source 3) learn from smarter friends and 4) go to school.

So I’ve done 1 and 4, and these days I’m soaking up as much #3 as I can from my boss here at Radar Hill. However, #2 has always eluded me. I want to contribute to open source not only to become a better coder, but to strengthen my resume and put my career in a better position, and also for the satisfaction of contributing to software that everyone uses, such as VLC, Subfix, Transmission or Firefox (open source projects that I use routinely).

So from time to time I get a head full of steam about it and start reading docs, forking repositories, skimming the ticket queues and trying to understand the code. So far, I have not gotten very far. I have yet to achieve a single pull request, and all the projects that I’ve looked at are still batter-proof fortresses to me.

I know it’s possible to get past this obstacle. Hundreds of other people have done it. I myself have battered my way past hundreds of similar obstacles. But even so, this one is frustrating me. Other people must be in the same position. Can we attack the problem together? Suppose we hire someone more advanced in their career than any of us, and get them to show us how to crack into an open source project, say in a two-week seminar? Laptops in a wi-fi enabled room, 2 nights a week? Yeah? How much would you pay? How mch would the teacher need to be paid? Can I make this happen?

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I had a conversation that upset me a little today. I said “You can’t be an anarchist and have a cell phone.” The person I was talking to disagreed, and asked me why not.

Because the cell phone networks are publicly funded and built by the government, I said, it doesn’t make sense to take advantage of that if you’re an anarchist.

My friend still disagreed, and said that she knew people who were on welfare who were anarchists.

I thought that was hypocritical. She said, I guess it depends on your definition of anarchy. I steered away from the topic. I don’t actually want to alienate a friend over political differences.

But here’s the definition of anarchist, from the dictionary: “A person who believes in or tries to bring about anarchy.”

And the definition of anarchy, also from the dictionary: “A state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority.”

I respect the philosophy. I can understand why a person would adopt it, and can imagine circumstances when that person would be me. However, when you collect welfare or use a cell phone, or even walk on the public roads or use the public healthcare or live in a  house built according to government building codes, you are not being an anarchist.

You are recognizing authority by doing the things they require you to do to enjoy these benefits: You fill out the forms and obey the rules for welfare, you pay for your cell phone contract, you choose to pay the rent instead of living in a home that you built yourself in defiance of building codes, you obey the rules of the road enough to not get tickets.

That’s not anarchy.

I have some strong feelings of disrespect toward people who collect welfare while claiming to be in favour of dissolving the government or refusing to submit to authority, but those are just feelings. The principle that I act on is that there is enough wealth in the world for everyone to eat and be sheltered, so everyone should eat and be sheltered. I’ll work towards that even if I have to do more than what I perceive is my fair share.

I prefer to work for a living than be idle, and I prefer to contribute to the economy than drain it. But if I could spend my days building motorcycles and throwing parties without having to worry about earning a living, I would, and I think that’s the kind of life a lot of anarchists are after as well.

It’s just that anarchy doesn’t scale very well, with 7 billion people in the world. There’s room and food for everyone if we work together, but if everyone’s living in little hippy communes of a few hundred people or less, it’s hard to achieve a level of organization and efficiency to make that possible.

So I’m not going to talk shit about anarchy or anarchists in general. But collecting welfare isn’t anarchy, and neither is owning a cellphone.

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