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The Back Page

By Ben Okopnik

Dear Readers...

Ever since I took over running the Linux Gazette, I've found it to be a fascinating experience: it's presented me with a variety of surprises, required a lot of hard thinking about the larger issues as well as dealing with problems that pop up out of nowhere and demand immediate action - and much of it has been just plain hard work. It's also been a blast - and I'm so grateful to my fellow contributors, staff and authors both, that words fail me in trying to express it adequately (and that's quite the statement for someone who considers himself a crafter of words and a lover of language!) To all of you who have made LG what it is, I'm truly grateful - both as a Linux user and as the Editor-in-Chief. Doubly so as the latter, since your contributions have built LG into a fun, useful, informative vehicle for sharing Linux info and thereby gave me a chance to explore my own abilities and experience my own limitations (as a friend of mine was fond of saying when speaking of painful experiences, "...and much learning occured therefrom.") If you hold learning in the same regard and respect as I do - and having been a teacher during most of my professional life, as well as always believing that education is one of the keystones to a better future for the entire world, I hold it in high esteem indeed - that is one of the best gifts one could ever receive.

This does not, however, mean that there are no problems or difficulties here. If anything, it means that there are more of them than ever - and that they mutate in shape, size, charm, spin, and flavor. Daily. :)

As you probably already know, good system design requires feedback; without it, control input means little or nothing, and such systems either spend most of their time idle or shift into destructive run-away conditions and fail, sometimes spectacularly and with much attendant fallout. For any publication, that feedback is very important; For a web-based, volunteer effort like ours, it's critical. And yet...

I'm not a marketing guru; far from it. In fact, I know next to nothing when it comes to promoting LG or getting its name out there, beyond doing the best job I can of putting out a quality publication. I am, however, very aware that this is not all there is to running a publication like LG... and I feel that lack quite strongly and am rather troubled by my inability to figure out a strong, direct method of addressing it.

In short, it boils down to the question of "can a volunteer-run publication survive and prosper in a world of glitzy commercial ones, and can it continue to provide quality content without sponsorship?" I feel sure that it can - but despite having put a lot of thought into it, I don't (yet) know what that means in terms of direction, planning, or action. If any of you, dear readers, have relevant ability or expertise, your advice and help would be much appreciated.

The month in review

Last month, in this very space, I asked for you, our readers, to write in; to let us know that you were reading LG, that it mattered to you - in short, to tell us whether LG's continued existence was a value to the Linux community, as I believe it is. The response has been nothing short of phenomenal and tremendously heartening: for the last month, I've been buried under a huge pile of supportive email from all over the world, with a number of offers of help and ideas for improvement. It was amazing to see, and again, all of you have my thanks.

One thing stands out most clearly, though: it seems that we are "pricing ourselves out of the market" by producing content with great quality. It's funny when you think about it - and not a little aggravating when seen from another perspective.

You see, at the end of every month, our editors and proofreaders put in a lot of work to polish all those articles - and after they're done, I and my wife go over them with a fine-tooth comb to make sure that they're as readable and as clear as possible. At times, that last edit can be like sweating blood, and can involve anything from basic spelling correction to rewriting entire paragraphs to make them clearer, more comprehensible. Many of the comments that we've received contain high praise for the clarity and readability of our articles; I don't find this at all surprising, since we all put in a very large amount of work to make it so.

However, the *bad* effect here is that it makes us look so professional that many of our readers think "Wow, I could never write like that. My stuff would look really amateurish next to all these professionals. I shouldn't even bother trying! I saw a whole lot of that in the responses; lots and lots of people who would be happy to write, but... only... there's this REALLY HIGH BAR to jump over...


This is just... wrong, in many different ways and for a variety of reasons. For one, you only get to be a good writer by writing - and I like to think that, over the years, we've helped quite a number of people become good, or at least much better writers (I would like nothing better than for LG to be known, among other things, as a resource for people who want to learn to write well.) For another, your writing - yes, even yours! - can look pretty darn polished if you 1) can take criticism and 2) have a good proofreading/editing team - and we have one here, all shiny and capable and ready for your use, free of charge. Trust me, folks - that's a great offer, and if you have any aspirations as a writer and want to write about Open source topics, this is the place to do it.

Most of all - writing from the just-started, not-sure-what-I'm-doing new Linux users is what we want most desperately. Please, remember this always: LG is all about looking at the world with a fresh set of eyes. It's about exploration; it's about making mistakes and learning from them. Most of all, it's about growing by learning. Just like Linux itself, and the community around it. It's about all of us, and the force that we bring into the world to oppose the stodgy, inbred, stale world created by proprietary computing and closed-source practices. It's about the willingness to stay open, alert, and sensitive in the face of challenges, and dealing with Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt - the weapons of the proprietary world - with courage, creativity, and laughter. It is, as I'm reminded by my 2-year-old son's outraged squeal of "mySE'F!!!" ("I'll do it myself!") when I try to do something for him that he knows how to do, about doing things your own way, in your own time - because "I'll do it instead of you" is at most a temporary good, is of limited utility, and is proper only to small children and incompetents. To have a valid claim to being an adult and a responsible human being, you have to sweat and struggle and bleed and do it all wrong, again and again - because a thousand instances of having it done for you, no matter how quickly or well, still leave you an ignorant slave, but doing it on our own even once, even in some barely-functioning fashion, grants you not only the learning experience, which you'll own for the rest of your life, but your independence and freedom.

And this is the best reason to write, contribute, and participate: we're designing, building, and maintaining freedom.

Please join us.

Ben Okopnik

Talkback: Discuss this article with The Answer Gang


Ben is the Editor-in-Chief for Linux Gazette and a member of The Answer Gang.

Ben was born in Moscow, Russia in 1962. He became interested in electricity at the tender age of six, promptly demonstrated it by sticking a fork into a socket and starting a fire, and has been falling down technological mineshafts ever since. He has been working with computers since the Elder Days, when they had to be built by soldering parts onto printed circuit boards and programs had to fit into 4k of memory (the recurring nightmares have almost faded, actually.)

His subsequent experiences include creating software in more than two dozen languages, network and database maintenance during the approach of a hurricane, writing articles for publications ranging from sailing magazines to technological journals, and teaching on a variety of topics ranging from Soviet weaponry and IBM hardware repair to Solaris and Linux administration, engineering, and programming. He also has the distinction of setting up the first Linux-based public access network in St. Georges, Bermuda as well as one of the first large-scale Linux-based mail servers in St. Thomas, USVI.

After a seven-year Atlantic/Caribbean cruise under sail and passages up and down the East coast of the US, he is currently anchored in northern Florida. His consulting business presents him with a variety of challenges such as teaching professional advancement courses for Sun Microsystems and providing Open Source solutions for local companies.

His current set of hobbies includes flying, yoga, martial arts, motorcycles, writing, Roman history, and mangling playing with his Ubuntu-based home network, in which he is ably assisted by his wife and son; his Palm Pilot is crammed full of alarms, many of which contain exclamation points.

He has been working with Linux since 1997, and credits it with his complete loss of interest in waging nuclear warfare on parts of the Pacific Northwest.

Copyright © 2010, Ben Okopnik. Released under the Open Publication License unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 170 of Linux Gazette, January 2010