ἁγιολογία for r0ml

Sunday June 19, 2011
I have the rare distinction of being a second-generation software developer.  Most recently, I mentioned this in an interview when asked who my programming heroes are.  It might sound kind of corny, but I'm serious when I say that my father is my programming hero.
Robert "r0ml" Lefkowitz
My dad had a cool hacker alias in the seventies.  He's been known as "r0ml" around the web since before there was a web. If you are in a particularly typographically hip part of the internet, it might even be "RØML".  How many of your parents have a nom de plume with a digit, or a non-ASCII character in it?  Or, for that matter, any kind of hacker pseudonym?
I had the good fortune to work with one of r0ml's colleagues, Amir Bakhtiar.  Amir paid me one of the highest compliments I've ever received: he said that the code for systems I've worked on is similar to r0ml's in its style and exposition.  My dad taught me how to program in x86 assembler, and in that process, I learned a lot about the way he thought about solving problems and building systems.  I regard thinking that well, or even comparably well, as a real achievement.
That's not to say that I would do everything exactly the way that he does.  For example, he writes a lot of networking code in Java.  He doesn't use Twisted, for the most part.  If you know me and you know my dad, you know that we disagree on plenty of stuff.
Unlike the stereotypical, often-satirized filial argument, these discussions are something I look forward to.  Disagreeing with my dad is still one of the most intellectually challenging activities I've ever engaged in.  Whenever I have a conversation with him about a topic where he has a different view, I come away enlightened – if not necessarily convinced.
Conversations among my friends occasionally turn to the topic of our respective upbringings, as they do in any close group.  One of the recurring themes of my childhood is that, while my siblings and I were sometimes told to be quiet, we were never told to be quiet because our opinions weren't valuable.  Sometimes we were told in unequivocal terms that we were wrong, of course.  However, my dad always encouraged us to present our thoughts.  Then, he wouldn't pull any punches in relentlessly refuting our arguments, using a combination of facts, estimates, calculations, and rhetorical flourishes.  I learned more about influencing people and thinking clearly around the dinner table than in my entire formal education.
r0ml always questions glib answers, challenges the official version of events, distrusts things that are "intuitively obvious" or "common sense".  The skepticism I've developed as a result of his consistent example has rarely led me astray.  Glib answers, official versions, and common sense are frequently, if not always, wrong.  He taught me to search for the non-intuitive answer, the surprising inflection point in the data.
In a roundabout way, he also taught my siblings and I how to perform some delightful rhetorical flourishes of our own, but also not to trust them.  Pretty phrases can be deployed equally effectively in the service of illustration or deception.  Although I can appreciate that parents often come to a point where they've had enough and a little deception can be a useful thing.
One cannot be a practiced rhetorician without a heaping helping of eclectic life experience; r0ml has that too.  He's a fencer.  And a juggler.  He still has the highest score on Space Harrier of anyone I've ever met.  (I can remember a crowd gathering in an arcade to see him start level 18.)  He's an avid scholar of medieval thought and custom.  For that matter, he's an avid scholar of a couple dozen other things, but listing them all would take a whole day.
He has the common occupational affliction of being a science fiction fan.  However, fandom was never an identity for him. Again, by consistent example, he taught me to focus on my own creativity, and do something cool, never to just passively consume others' ideas.  He treats entertainment as an inspiration, rather than an escape.  For instance, one of the earliest memories I have about my father talking about software is a reference to the movie "Terminator".  (Please keep in mind that this memory is ~20 years old at this point, so it might not be terribly accurate.)  I remember him saying something like "All software should be relentless.  If you remove its legs, it should use its arms.  Whatever errors it encounters, it should deal with them, and keep going if it can."
Nevertheless, seeing "Tron: Legacy" with my dad, the hacker, in IMAX 3D, 20 years after we saw the original together... I didn't need to take a life lesson from that to think it was pretty rad[1].
Unlike many quiet geniuses who labor in obscurity, dispensing wisdom only to a fortunate few, r0ml is a somewhat notorious public speaker.  You can see him this year at OSCON.  If you hunt around the web, you can find some video examples of his previous talks, like this great 30-second interview[2] about the nature of open source process, from a talk he gave in 2008 (audio of the full talk here).
([1]: Although, jeez, what was the point of that whole open-source subplot at the beginning?  It seemed like a great idea, but then it went absolutely nowhere!)
([2]: Speaking of not doing things exactly the way he does - where he uses a metaphor to "single-threading" and "multi-threading", I would have said "blocking" and "event-driven" - but more on that in a future post.)
Happy Father's Day, r0ml.