Fellowship Interviews

Fellowship interview with Alexander Kahl

Alexander Kahl

Alexander Kahl

Alexander Kahl is currently working for Nokia in Berlin as a front-end developer. He is a long-term and active member of FSFE, not to mention a Fedora packager, and a Lisp, JavaScript and Perl programmer. We conversed over Jabber, in our respectively cold houses, about developments at Nokia, the transformative power of Free Software, and the potential dangers posed by the use of Free Software by large organisations.

Chris Woolfrey: Tell me about working for Nokia, and your involvement with FSFE’s website.

Alexander Kahl: I’ve just recently started working for Nokia. Mostly it’s to do with research and development, and Qt. A particular technology that we’ve been eagerly anticipating is QML, which is provided as Free Software in the latest Qt versions. It speeds up front-end development by leveraging an optimized declarative approach to programming GUI logic. Nokia’s well-known credo is “connecting people”, and QML is enabling us do this.

The FSFE website is still in the works, and in competition for my spare time with all the other interesting Free Software projects on my list.

CW: And what are the other projects on your list?

AK: I’m trying to write a next-generation software build system, and in the process of writing it split its components up into multiple side-projects in order to have everything as re-usable as possible, in case I resign from the idea someday. Aside from that, I’m playing around with different non-browser based JavaScript implementations, and trying to integrate TAP (Test Anything Protocol) in a way that means as many implementations as possible can use it at the same time. Most probably this is just one of life’s many distractions from what really matters, though.

CW: What do you mean by ‘what really matters?’ It seems to me like you’re working on several interesting and worthwhile applications.

“My work with Nokia feels right to me”

AK: What matters is that my work with Nokia feels right to me, which is often the case when passion and self-commitment can be felt during development. Right now I’m having to question the outcome of some of my side projects however, because despite my motivation, everyone else who originally shared my ideas for the build system now seem to be disinterested. Furthermore, this project involves completely rewriting GNU M4 (a compiler front-end and macro processor). This is something that most people would consider rather insane.

CW: So for you,’what matters’ is that a community can get behind a project, and if everybody thinks working on something like that is insane, then the project must be flawed?

AK: Yes, the desired net effect is that a community is going to emerge around the created software. This could happen indirectly, but what’s important from my perspective is the inception of a development process that will evolve naturally, instead of one which is artificially designed.

I love to assemble complex things from very basic units, instead of combining mature giants of software. The latter may promise quick feelings of success, but the former has greater potential to create something that will live on after its creator is forgotten.

There is a danger however that a gap could arise between my own ideas (in which I’ve invested passion and energy), and the needs of potential users (with whom I’ve been working since the earliest phase of the project). One could also see this as the contention of ‘ego versus altruism’.

CW: Much of Nokia’s work with Free Software has not yet been published. It would be good for both Nokia and Free Software if the company released more Free Software; why don’t they?

AK: One must not forget that Nokia is just a name for something that is many places, products, people, ideas. The Free Software community is incredibly lucky that Nokia employees have been compelling enough to convince the company to invest in FS by buying Trolltech, taking over the Qt team, continuing to fund Qt’s development as Free Software, and using it as a fundament for new technologies.

Don’t expect Nokia to become the next Red Hat soon, but rest assured that if Nokia’s Free Software development teams deliver successfully, Free Software will get a real boost and people will benefit world-wide.

CW: Do you feel that there is a danger that the result of Nokia buying important FS companies like Trolltech will be that people fail to separate the concept of Free Software from the company?

“The dangers I see lie in the dilution of ideas”

AK: Yes, there is such a danger. This has happened with other groups several times before, is still happening right now, and won’t stop any time soon. Remember who got the credit for the stack that makes up the GNU operating system, and who’s getting it now. Nowadays, the majority of gratitude gets thrown at names on the surface of things, at names that are far from the original makers and ideas. This has happened to inventions and ideas throughout the history of mankind.

But in the end, what really matters is not where people go, but how. Free Software is a concept which is basic and fertile enough to spawn more complex individual and collective ideas. Through these ideas people transform and become something that is more valuable to society. The dangers I see rather lie in dilution of the original ideas; this has brought us things like “open core” concepts, “open source” development models, non-copyleft licenses and the like. Hence, it’s less about the people receiving credit, and more about whether people are guided by the progressive ideas behind Free Software.

CW: Free Software is certainly a fertile concept, but sometimes its very fertility can make it vulnerable to manipulation. Is there a danger that large companies will take Free Software and use it for selfish, rather than collective, benefit?

AK: You mean that there are people basically ripping off FS. It’s more like this: communities, peer review, etc., are all just resulting ideas, sometimes conclusions, drawn by the interpolation of Free Software and reality. Let’s recall what makes up Free Software; it’s just the name of a category of software which we’ve labelled as such; software that grants all of its users four elementary freedoms in a non-discriminatory manner. Thus, what’s behind FS is not a matter of technology but a political, philosophical concept that – at least in part – reveals both its advocates’ and opponents’ views on humanity or even life itself.

Now, there are people who try to argue against Free Software by condemning it as something extremist, radical, business unfriendly, even communist etc., and this is where the actual dilution takes place: some people have created minced versions of FS that look like essentially equivalent, more business-friendly or less “boring” (ostensibly non-political) versions, but really mean something completely different. And this is what the aforementioned “large companies” and many other people feed on. I’ve talked to so many people about FS, both developers and users, and discovered that their most prominent blocker is either fear of the unknown or the result of successful FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt).

I’d even go so far as to say that the business concept of a company like Nokia does not play much of a role for the future of Free Software. What matters is the individual embodiment, or manifestation, of what makes up FS through people like you and me: “Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are”. What really matters about using Free Software at work is what people perceive as the symbiosis between you and the “FS essence” and this will change them. The only thing special about Nokia is the exuberant momentum that amplifies every one of your actions as an employee there.

“Free Software is founded upon insight into the inevitability of human error”

Being a cheerful and helpful human being through living the ideas of and behind Free Software is more convincing than every single argument I could possibly give during this interview. General suffering is the one collective, personal crisis. General suffering is the one collective, nevertheless individually perceived human crisis that needs to be solved and if Free Software is able to make you smile just a few times per day, it adds to our lives something that is substantial. It is able to do so because it is founded on the ideas of love, sharing and the insight into the inevitability of human error that can only be solved in freedom with – as opposed to from – all of the others.

CW: So Free Software isn’t just a political tool, it’s a tool for personal enhancement. Perhaps computers too?

AK: One thing that is important for me is the transformation of mind and character through use of natural and computer languages. It may seem like language was a mere tool for data serialization, but there is a lot more to it: we use language and figures to evaluate emotional and cognitive processes, or in short, to think. Due to the complexity of languages in general, and and the effect of interaction with language, its structure has an immediate effect on us. It is not only culture that brings forth language, it is language that forms character, and thus, culture.

For instance, I start cheering up when I switch to speaking English as opposed to German, my native language; the effect gets stronger when I also switch to thinking in English. It seems to me like the same applied for use of programming languages as well, hence there must be an impact on the programs created and on the programmers mind and feelings.

One specific family of programming languages that deserves appreciation and attention for its effect on one’s mind, is Lisp. It has an astonishingly simple grammar, making it symmetric enough to treat all data as code and vice versa, yet it does allow for solutions to problems so complex that other languages have failed to provide proper techniques for. For example, the ability to implement a new language on top of the existing one that is in turn used to solve the actual problem; this technique is know as Domain Specific Language programming and could be viewed as a means of self-transformation.

Apply this to its user and you might observe her improve herself through gaining reflective abilities. Symmetry is beautiful because it keeps your mind clear and free of twists, in effect making you happier. This is why I use Lisp languages almost exclusively for my Free Software projects: any effort that does not make me a happier human being on its course is most literally insane.

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