Behind the Scenes: Elijah Newren

Continuing with his series about people who contribute to GNOME, Lucas Rocha interviews Elijah Newren, the GNOME release manager. Elijah talks about computational biofluid dynamics, Metacity and other GNOME topics.

Short Intro

Interview

In what ways do you contribute to GNOME?

First of all, I intentionally write it as Gnome, and will continue to do so. Five letters of all caps just sucks. Concerning your question: I contribute to Gnome in a few different areas. I’ve triaged a huge number of bugs, though I’m still a far second to Gerardo and have concentrated more on other things recently; I assisted with the last Bugzilla upgrade and continue to work on random odds and ends to improve Gnome bugzilla (though I successfully avoid the hard work like the stuff that Andrew did for 2.16 and Olav did for 2.20); I wrote a tutorial on developing with Gnome covering just some very basics of getting started that someday I hope to get back to and improve; I’m a member of the release team (the least clueful one); and I’m co-maintainer for metacity and libwnck. You can find slightly more details at http://www.gnome.org/~newren, which isn’t horribly out of date.

How and when did you get involved in GNOME?

David Richardson, a friend of mine, introduced me to Linux in 2000/2001 after I complained about how Windows was useless for getting work done and how I’d like to have something Unix-like at home. (I had heard of Linux before that but only in passing; I’m not sure how I missed it so thoroughly though…what world was I living in?) Over time, I got addicted to learning more about the system and then moved on to wanting to contribute back. The kernel seemed like it already did everything I wanted, so I figured I’d help one of the desktop environments. Choosing between KDE and Gnome was a tough call for me at that point (and I mulled it over for a few weeks and read up a little about both), but I eventually showed up to a few of Luis’ bug days in 2002 and the rest is history.

What motivates/keeps you motivated to work on GNOME?

An awesome community with many cool friends, the knowledge that my improvements are benefiting huge numbers of people’s daily lives, and lots of itches to scratch. 😉

How much time do you usually spend on GNOME?

Pretty much all my free time that I don’t spend with my family. 🙂

What do you think is still badly missing in GNOME?

Market share. 😉 I’m appalled that Microsoft still has such a large installed base.

In your opinion, what should be the next GNOME big steps?

Personally, I’d prefer taking small steps; I really like the “evolutionary, not revolutionary” mantra. We have too many long standing bugs that deserved a much shorter lifespan than what they received.

What is the relation between computational biofluid dynamics (your doctoral research) and GNOME? Which one is more challenging?

There really isn’t any relationship. I’d definitely have to go with computational biofluid dynamics being more challenging. I’m really excited about the paper that we just submitted on “Unconditionally Stable Discretizations of the Immersed Boundary Equations”. That’s one outstanding problem solved in the community, and I think it’s going to lead directly to one or two others too.

Since this is a Gnome-ish interview, though, let me point out some of the strong advantages it has: (1) working with lots of cool people (my doctoral research has been predominantly an individual effort, which has not been to my liking; though luckily it is changing now), and (2) the fact that Gnome affects millions of people’s lives for the better. (My current research results will mean nothing to anyone outside a small group of researchers in the short term; and it’s hard to predict the long term effects; however, since I am more interested in the tools than the particular scientific application, this is something that can change—but it still won’t be on the scale of Gnome).

You’ve taken on a huge responsibility with metacity – how do you keep things interesting for potential contributors, while sticking to the “should be like Cheerios” design goal?

Back when I was just getting into Linux & Gnome, I remember going to try to change something and seeing what turned out to be the Sawfish configuration dialog. I had this huge awful feeling that it’d take forever just to master even this part of the desktop, and wondered how I could ever even become proficient as a user of the system if that were the case. That may sound stupid (especially considering my Unix background) because I really didn’t need to look through many of the configuration abilities of sawfish or understand what they were. But I didn’t know that and it made me feel both overwhelmed and not in control.

That said, I don’t think Metacity is really quite like Cheerios. I think Honey-Nut Cheerios is a more apt analogy. If Metacity really were like Cheerios, sloppy and mouse focus would not be part of it as they open up a tremendous can of worms that take an awful lot of maintainer time. Of course, without sloppy and mouse focus, I wouldn’t use Metacity and I am quite certain that all major distros would patch or fork it. So there’s a tough balance.

The balance is made tougher because, as Havoc points out, Gnome (1) doesn’t have an official target audience, and (2) has no real direct distribution channel of its own. Because of the second point, and the fact that all the linux distributions (and BSD variants and Solaris and others) are currently tech-user-oriented, any decisions we make can easily be vetoed. My personal opinion is to try to draw a tough line, and relent in the cases where our decision is almost unanimously overriden (see bug 326156 for an example of that happening). Of course, allowing our decisions to be overridden actually matches the rationale behind features in Metacity (see the tail end of http://ometer.com/features.html) So, I’m probably not doing a perfect job, but that’s where I’m aiming right now.

Which distribution do you use? Why?

Fedora. It’s better than all the others. 😉

What is GNOME’s killer app? Why?

Well… gnome-terminal seems to be the one most appreciated by other students in the math department here when I’ve helped them get Linux installed. “It’s the best of both worlds—a really easy to use interface like Windows and you still have the command line like Unix for getting work done. And it’s so cool that the terminal has multiple tabs.”

But, for the non-niche userbase out there, I think part of the comments of even these specialized users is revealing—it’s the easy to use, non-overwhelming interface that makes Gnome rock so much.

Who are your favorite GNOME hackers? Why?

There are way too many to list, even if I were to try to limit it to people who work on areas closely related to what I do in Gnome. It’d be really difficult to pick out favorites. Just listing ones off the top of my mind there’s bkor, kmaraas, ssp, mclasen, markmc, seb128, federico, jrb, owen, vuntz, clarkbw, fatalerror, crispin, luis, aes, murrayc, halfline, davyd, fer, smitten, ninja, calum, and I’m sure I could go on and on. I’m in awe of the many people who kick butt working on Gnome, often times with very little recognition compared to all the heavy lifting they do.

What does your desktop look like?

It still looks pretty much like this:

It’s a screenshot I posted on my blog about a year ago when everyone else was also posting screenshots.

Well, okay, so I really don’t see that background all that much with dozens of (Gnome-)terminals, a few evince windows, a few emacs windows, a couple mozilla windows (yes, with lots of tabs just like all the terminal windows), evolution, and maybe xchat or another app spread among 4—8 workspaces.

Who or what in your life would you say influenced you most?

I totally lucked out in getting the most awesome parents in the world. Probably like most kids, I wanted to be just like my dad when I was little; but I still felt that same way through most of my teenage years. Becoming a parent myself has made me appreciate them even more. It’s too bad they got the short end of the stick. 😉

How would you describe yourself?

I probably wouldn’t, except in answer to others’ questions. So, uh, take a look at the answers to the other questions in this interview. 😉

What do you get passionate about?

My family, solving cool problems, the restored gospel, GNOME, FLOSS in general.

What sites do you visit daily?

Planet Gnome, Linux Weekly News, Google, Gmail, Gnome Bugzilla. Footnotes used to be one, but they’ve allowed trolls to mostly overrun the place to the point that the only reason for core contributors to visit is to provide some counterbalance to what hapless newbies might run into; its continued existence and comfort with the status-quo does more harm than good in my opinion. I’ve seen that KDE.News seems to occasionally suffer the same thing though it thankfully doesn’t look as bad for them yet. It’s the dark side of the FLOSS community, I guess.

What do you do in your free time?

Doing things with my wife and two cute and funny little daughters, or working on Gnome.

Married, partner or up for adoption?

Married to Deborah (sorry, it doesn’t look like I have any pics online), the most loving, patient, understanding, and fun person I know. I don’t know why I was so lucky to end up with her but I am very happy about it. 🙂

If you have a partner or children, how do they cope with a GNOME addict?

I have no idea how they are able to manage, but they do so amazingly well. Luckily, they all love Gnome too. (Of course, the 1 and 3 year old haven’t seen anything else…)

If someone visits your country, which spot is a must-see?

I’m probably the wrong person to ask; I hate travelling. Vacations are times to relax, not to wear yourself out going somewhere to see something. When I went to D.C. for a conference last year, I went and saw some of the “big sites”—the National Museum of Natural History, the National Gallery of Art, the National Air and Space Museum, the Wasington Monument, and maybe others. Mind you, I “saw” them (from the sidewalk or across the street); I didn’t go inside them. I walked by them at a brisk pace, not because I had any interest in any of them, but merely because I knew lots of people would be asking me the following week what I saw while I was there, and was tired of thinking up excuses in previous years for why I didn’t waste my time doing so.

Quickies

A phrase?

I saw this one added as a quip to some bugzilla and we’ve often used it as the topic in #bugs since: Quality Assurance—My value is based on finding fault in others.

A movie?

“What about Bob?”, simply the best movie of all time. 🙂

A book?

I’m not really an avid reader. Outside of technical stuff (things like scientific and mathematical books/manuals, programming guides/manuals, etc.), the only thing I read regularly is the scriptures.

A food?

Cereal. Mmmm…

A place?

Home, sweet home.

A text editor?

emacs, despite having horrendously ugly widgets and fonts and also lacking UTF8 support. I suggest gedit to others, though.

A band?

My CD collection might be in the double digits, but if so, just barely. If I had money to splurge on music, I’d probably buy some Manheim Steamroller CDs. But I don’t. When I listen to music, it tends to be classical, or perhaps what others put on (but then I won’t know the name of the band or the song or likely be able to decipher the lyrics).

A song?

Weird Al Yankovic’s “Spam”. As one of my friends once said, “Spam is just inherently funny” (no, not the kind that now affects our inboxes, this was said long before that was a problem)

Discuss this story with other readers on the GNOME forums.

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Posted on April 21, 2006, in April 2006. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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