Our Friend Seth
I first became aware of Seth Vidal years ago. I didn’t know him at all; I knew him only from his work, and from that work I surmised that he was Not My Friend.
I was working for Red Hat, you see — and Seth, at the time, was not.
People think of Red Hat now as this hugely successful software behemoth, but I can assure you that it wasn’t always that way. There was a time, not so long ago, when Red Hat could only dream of making the kind of money they’re making now. Not that there weren’t huge expectations: after the initial IPO in August 1999, the stock price went up to a ridiculous 132 dollars per share. When I joined in February of 2001, the share price was at a more realistic 6.44. Not long after that, it dropped to 3.12. I couldn’t help but feel a little bit responsible.
I was part of the Red Hat Network team. The idea, in a nutshell, was that we would encourage users to download Red Hat Linux for free, all they liked — but if they wanted timely software updates, we would force them to pay. Muwahahaha! RHN was the mechanism to deliver those updates, and the RHN server would be proprietary software. For me, this was an uncomfortable compromise; I had hoped to come to Red Hat to work on open source software, so it was painful to be a part of the only team in the company that was writing proprietary software. Matthew Szulik, the CEO, would meet with us every quarter to remind us how critical our work was. We were the business engine that would fuel the company, he told us. For a time, it was almost true.
Meanwhile, Seth was busily working on a rewrite of a little tool called Yup. Yup was the update tool for Yellow Dog Linux, and Seth decided to rewrite it to work with Red Hat Linux. He called this new tool Yum (Yellow Dog Updater, Modified). He made it primarily because he himself needed it. And because it was such a useful little tool, other people started using it. A lot of other people. Wow, just a whole lot of people started using Yum. It was far simpler than RHN, and for most users, it was better — or at least good enough. And it was, of course, Free Software.
Today, bits of Yum-related source code can be found in nearly all of the software packaging that Red Hat does — and that includes Spacewalk, the open source descendent of RHN. Open source is especially powerful when it’s commoditizing away the value proposition of proprietary software, and boy, did Yum ever do that. Yum is great software, sure — but to me, Seth’s truly lasting professional legacy is that he taught mighty Red Hat a humbling lesson about open source. And having well learned that lesson, Red Hat proceeds now to teach it to everyone else.
I myself was on the pointy end of that lesson, and it was one of the reasons that I left the RHN team to focus on the nascent Fedora community in 2004. One of my new duties was to write for the late, great Red Hat Magazine; one of my first assignments was to write an article about the resounding successes of the Fedora Project. Resounding Successes, don’t you know! Exciting! So I sent some emails to some of my new friends in Fedora-land, asking for their ideas for this article.
I often wish I still had my old Red Hat emails lying around, because I’m sure Seth’s response to this particular email would have made for great reading. I do remember the gist, which was this: “dude, you do *not* want me talking about my opinions of the Fedora Project in public.” (He did reference Icon Ryabitsev’s excellent mock IRC chat, which is required historical reading for anyone curious about the early days of the Fedora project.)
So anyway, I asked Seth if he’d be willing to talk to me, in private, off the record, about how we might be able to improve Fedora to a point at which he *would* be happy to talk about it in public. He agreed.
That was when I really started getting to know Seth Vidal. Some of my fondest personal and professional memories come from the time that followed. Now that all seems like — sadly, is — a lifetime ago.
* * * * *
I saw Seth two nights before he died.
The American Dance Festival is a centerpiece of summer life in Durham. Performances happen just about every night at various venues across Durham, for a couple of months. ADF is a Durham institution, and we’re very proud of it here. My wife bought us front-row tickets to see an Argentinian aerial dance troupe at the Durham Performing Arts Center last Saturday night. When we arrived, four seats down from us sat Seth and his companion Eunice.
It was how I usually saw Seth, after I left Red Hat: just hanging around Durham, while we were both doing Durham Things. Seth was not only a linchpin of the global open source community; he was a linchpin of of the local, real world community that he and I shared. Seeing him at an ADF performance, or the Durham farmer’s market, or at a local restaurant like Toast, or Parker and Otis, was always a treat, but never a surprise: “oh, yeah,” I would think, “sure Seth is here.” Or if I didn’t see him, I would hear about him from mutual friends: “hey, Seth was here the other day.” He was a presence in Durham. It seemed like everyone knew him, or at least knew of him — people who knew little or nothing about his open source life.
So we chatted that night, crowded against the stage. He asked me how I was doing. For those of us who knew Seth well, he had a very particular way of asking that question, that you can hear in your head even now. He asked the question with concern and purpose. For him, that question was never a throwaway.
I told him I was doing well. We talked about the great seats. He told me that he and Eunice had bought ADF season tickets, because of course they had; there’s not a more Durham thing you can do. I wanted to chat more, because I hadn’t seen him in a couple of months — but I was in people’s way. We agreed that we’d definitely catch up at the upcoming Flock conference, if not sooner. I hurried to take my seat.
The performance was great, but the house was crowded and hot, so when the show ended, my wife and I hurried out without saying our goodbyes. Not even a look or a wave back — because hey, I knew that I’d be seeing him soon enough anyway, right? Right?
* * * * *
My personality flaws have always been magnified in the presence of cyclists.
At my worst, I am impatient, easily annoyed, and impulsive. When I’m in a bad mood, I’m exactly the kind of guy who will sulk behind a pack of cyclists and then speed around them at the first available opportunity. I know a lot of cyclists, and have nothing but respect for them in the abstract — but in the real world, whenever cyclists take up space in my precious roadway, especially when I’m in a hurry, I often find myself fighting the urge to act like an asshole.
I wish I could say that I have nothing at all in common with the guy who ran Seth into the ditch on Monday night. I wish I could say, honestly, that I couldn’t possibly imagine myself in his position. How I would love to be able to say that.
I drove around Durham on Tuesday for much of the day, just thinking. Mostly I drove around Watts-Hillandale, the neighborhood where Seth lived. In particular, I must have driven up and down the length of Hillandale Road a dozen times. It’s a neighborhood street, but it’s also a thoroughfare, which means that people speed along it all the time. People who are in a hurry to get to someplace else. People like me.
It’s funny, how invisible bike lanes and “Share the Road” signs are, until you have reason to notice them — and then you notice them everywhere. For instance: the big yellow “Share the Road” sign on the 1900 block of Hillandale Road. That sign is big. All those signs are big. You can’t miss them. How can you miss them?
I fantasized briefly about altering that sign, and every other sign in Durham, to read “Share the Fucking Road”, so that for a few days, everyone might actually take a good look at them, and be Enlightened. Except the responsible side of my brain pointed out that it would be an angry and ultimately futile gesture, and that I would probably do well to stop brooding, and get back to my life, and just fix my own self.
So that last thing — fix my own self, slow down, be patient — that’s a thing I can work on. But stop brooding? Get back to my life? Not quite sure how to do those things just yet.
Bye Seth. I’ll save a chair at Toast for you.