Issue #22 August 2006

Ask Shadowman

Shadowman believes the children are our future.

No, really. Seriously. That whole One Laptop thing? Red Hat High? Why do you think Shadowman gets mixed up in these things? These little people are the ones who are going to be building the whole world, and it's up to all of us to make sure they build it the right way.

The great thing about kids is that they are naturally curious. Given the chance, they will ask all kinds of questions. Questions like... well, like Stanley's questions this month. Stanley's a friend of a friend, and he's very young, and he had some pointed questions for Shadowman.

Hi, Stanley. I'm Shadowman. This month's column is for you.

Got a question that you'd like Shadowman to answer? Ask him.

Stanley asked:

Is Shadowman a secret agent?

To which Shadowman replies:

Wow. Good question. I totally look like a secret agent, don't I?

But you know what else I look like? I look like an old-fashioned detective. That's really more how I see myself. My friends and I all do a lot of detective work. It's not the "tracking down bad guys" kind of detective work, though. I don't solve murders or anything like that.

I guess I'm really more of a code sleuth. Except instead of a magnifying glass, I use computer programs like strace and systemtap to find clues.

So imagine a pretty lady coming into my office, clutching a hanky. "Oh, Shadowman," she might say, "I'm having terrible problems with data corruption in this new computer program I've installed." And then I might say, in a kind but firm voice, "well, Ma'am, do you mind if I ask you a few questions? Like, can you run a stack trace and show me the output?" And then, after exchanging a few emails with the pretty lady, I might tell her, "I've found the problem, Ma'am, and I've fixed it so it will never hurt you or anyone else again." And then she might say, "Oh Shadowman, you're my hero!"

Except it might not be a pretty lady -- it might be a boring old IT executive. But hey, that boring old IT executive will probably pay me a lot of money, which is a definite bonus.

Stanley asked:

Does Shadowman carry a gun?

To which Shadowman replies:

Absolutely not. I'm more like MacGyver.

Ever watch MacGyver on TV? No? Never heard of it? Hmmm. Well, ask your father about it. Or maybe your grandfather.

Stanley asked:

Does Shadowman kill the bad guys?

To which Shadowman replies:

Uh, no. That's really not what I do. I prefer to leave talk about killing to the other guys.

Stanley asked:

Does Shadowman carry lots of gadgets?

To which Shadowman replies:

You're gonna love this part. Not only do I carry my own gadgets -- I help people build their own gadgets!

There are new Linux-based gadgets all the time. There are wrist watches and phones and robots and GPS devices and pens and all kinds of other stuff.

Of course, I can't take credit for all of this neat stuff. Really, I can't take credit for much of it at all. But small pieces of my work, and the work of lots of people like me, can be found in each and every one of these gadgets. That's why sharing what you know is so important.

I'm also in the movie business, by the way. Not to brag or anything. (Okay, maybe I'm bragging a little.)

Stanley asked:

Is Shadowman a good guy?

To which Shadowman replies:

This may be the best question of all. I seem a little scary, don't I? I mean, can you really trust a guy who hides his face under a hat, and who constantly talks about himself in the third person? Let's face it: if you walked up to me in the mall, your Dad wouldn't be exactly thrilled about it.

Still, I like to think that I'm one of the good guys. There are lots of us good guys out there, too. More every day. Some of them look even scarier than I do! But we all work hard (really hard) to make the world a better place. We do that by writing computer programs that anyone, anywhere, can use for free.

A lot of people don't think that's very important.

I do. My friends do, too.

We think that computers are great tools that can make big differences in people's lives -- because computers make it easy to share. It's easier to share things with people than it's ever been, and that's because of computers. With computers, we can share our pictures, our music, our knowledge, even our thoughts and feelings, in ways that weren't possible before. We're also learning that the more people share, the more they want to share. It's really cool.

Here's the thing, though, Stanley. You can't tell if someone is good or bad by looking at their picture on a web site. You can't tell if someone is good or bad by listening to what they say. You definitely can't tell if someone is good or bad by reading their press releases. (Ask your Dad what a press release is.)

The way to tell whether someone is good or bad is by watching what they do.

I'm glad people watch what we do. I hope that people think we're the good guys. Because, really, that's why we work so hard at what we do.