My (email-) interview with Ian Murdock, from 2006

After reading the news about Ian Murdock’s death and the follow-up mournings of the greater Debian community I remembered that I actually met him, talked to him, and even email-interviewed him in 2006. I haven’t searched my old blog databases for that because there was a time we didn’t backup and lost bits of it. But I still have the original email with his answers to my questions. Remember that this is 10 years ago, so it’s not about the current stable version 8.x (“Jessie”) of Debian, but about older stuff.

Anyway, here’s his answer mail with the original headers:

##### Original email from Ian Murdock starts here #####

From – Sat Sep 23 19:22:35 2006
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by (Postfix) with ESMTP id A05E094C06
for ; Sat, 23 Sep 2006 12:06:49 +0000 (UTC)
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Received: by with HTTP; Sat, 23 Sep 2006 05:06:49 -0700 (PDT)
Date: Sat, 23 Sep 2006 08:06:49 -0400
From: “Ian Murdock”
To: “Wolfgang Lonien”
Subject: Re: Interview?
In-Reply-To: <>
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Ok, here are my answers–sorry again for the delays in getting this to
you. Hope it was worth the wait.

On 8/5/06, Wolfgang Lonien wrote:
> *Questions:*
> *A. The Past*
> A1. Ian, as the links above show, pretty much everything about your
> invention of Debian GUN/Linux can be read somewhere else already, and we
> won’t bother you with questions being answered there. So let’s get a bit
> “between these lines”. Very much like with Linus, it all started with
> the posting of a message to a newsgroup. How was that time, and what
> were the reactions?

I had been using Linux for a few months, and I was totally swept up by
the community atmosphere. It was really electric back then. Naturally,
one of your first reactions in a situation like that is to give back. I
wanted to contribute something. One of the most glaring shortcomings in
those days was the lack of a nicely packaged way to get Linux onto a
computer. In those days, a lot of skill and patience was required to do
that. I figured for every person that had the time and inclination to
shoehorn Linux onto a computer there would be hundreds who might find
Linux interesting if it were a bit less daunting to install it. So, I
decided to create a nicely packaged Linux system. I called it the
“Debian Linux Release” for a while, which you can see if you go back and
read the old stuff. By the way, this was before they were called
“distributions”. And it was also about a year before
Red Hat, SUSE, Caldera, and the other commercial distros started.

The reaction was extremely positive. I got a huge number of responses
to that first post. I still have hardcopy that I printed on a Citoh
printer the size of a Volkswagen in the basement of the Math building at
Purdue. One of those early responses was from Richard Stallman, who
said, “We’re starting to get interested in Linux and are thinking of
distributing it, and we like your approach,” which absolutely stunned
me–one minute, I’m this random guy, the next minute I’m trading email
with Richard Stallman. It was almost surreal. It’s a good thing
I printed it all off, because when you’re developing operating systems,
and you can’t afford a separate test system, you tend to lose your data
from time to time, and I did that several times over. So a
lot of that early correspondence is gone now, except for what I printed.

Here’s a bit of history I’ve never talked about before in an interview:
In August 1994 or so, we got an email from Marc Ewing, who said, “I’m a
big Debian fan, and I’m starting a company called Red Hat to make a
commercial Linux product, and I’d like to base it on Debian, not really a
company yet, just me…” Of course, it didn’t happen that way, but
wouldn’t that have been interesting? (Especially for my bank account.)
Pat Volkerding and I also toyed around with the idea of merging
Debian and Slackware too, but that never happened, mostly because
Pat thought the distributed development model would never work.

> A2. You describe yourself there as a 20-year-old college kid, so you’re
> only 33 now? Would you like to tell us something about life at Purdue
> [the university]? And maybe about the “Deb” part of Debian? She was your
> girlfriend at that time, right?

Yes, I’m 33. I loved my time at Purdue. It was still in that magical
time when computers (or powerful ones anyway) weren’t available to
just anybody. As an undergraduate, the only system we had access to
was a Sequent Symmetry running Dynix, Sequent’s long dead Unix
variant. There were a variety of terminal rooms around campus that
we could use to connect to it, mostly on old Z29s. I spent a lot of
time in those labs with friends of mine, Jason Balicki and Mike
Dickey, learning every nook and cranny of Unix. We used to prowl
around campus looking for labs with laser printers or X terminals.
We used to drool over the Sun workstations. We used to go to the
Math building and stare at the Sequents through plate glass, enviously
watching the lucky bastards who got to log in at the system console as
root. Deb was my girlfriend at the time, and is now my wife. We’ve
been married for almost 12 years and have three beautiful children.
Deb’s a wonderful woman and has always tolerated me and the fact
that I’ve always got a project of some sort that’s preoccupying me.

> A3. The first versions of Debian were available from Sunsite, UNC, while
> most of the mailing lists were set up by Bruce at Pixar. How difficult
> (or easy) was it to get all that support? And was it just Bruce, for
> example, or the whole Pixar company who were supporting Debian?

It wasn’t that hard. Even back then, the community was large, and there
was always someone willing to help out. The Debian mailing lists were run
from Bruce’s workstation at Pixar. Pixar as a company certainly wasn’t
supporting Debian, though they had to know about the mailing
lists (they were widely publicized) and never did anything about them.

> A4. You spoke of a couple of dozen developers and some hundreds of users
> in the beginning? And later some 60 developers? Sounds like an
> exponential growth until today…

The growth has been in fits and starts. The project hovered around
200 developers for a long time in the mid-1990s. There was talk that
Debian had hit a ceiling, that it couldn’t grow any more. Of course,
that proved to be false. Debian’s gone through growing pains, just like
it’s going through growing pains now with the release process. It’ll
get through, just like it always has. Some people forget that it’s
hard to run a large organization, and that’s essentially what Debian
is. A 1,200 person organization is large for a *company*, and things
get even harder when you’re not writing paychecks to motivate people.

> A5. What was actually more difficult: the first steps from the idea to
> the making, and the coding of the first dpkg, or managing it all (and
> coding less) until Bruce took over?

Statistically, getting a project off the ground is the hard part. Most
new endeavors never get beyond the initial idea. With Debian, I was
lucky–I was in the right place at the right time with the right ideas.
I learned with later projects, like Progeny, how hard it truly is to get
something to catch fire like that. For Debian, the hardest part by far
was the growth and managing it. How do you go from one person to 60
people and not fly apart at the seams doing so? It’s hard enough to do
that in a company, but we were doing something absolutely
unprecedented. Distributed development may be commonplace now, but
it certainly wasn’t commonplace back then. The conventional
wisdom was that it wouldn’t work, and that Linux was an aberration.

> *B. The Present*
> B1. Are you still following the development of Debian?


> B2. Debian and the FSG? Debian is a member, but not fully compliant
> (according to the Wikipedia page about the FSG)? And so it is not one of
> the “LSB certified products”?

I’m happy to say that that’s changing, and that Etch will be fully
compliant and certified when it’s released later this year.

> B3. Debian and Ubuntu? Some developers have mixed feelings about such
> relationships, describing Debian as a “supermarket”, where others can go
> shopping for free… others because they say there isn’t much coming back…

So, I guess I’m seen as something of an Ubuntu opponent, but that’s not
true. In one sense, there was some “vendor sports” going on there, as
Doc Searls would say, because Progeny and Canonical were competitors. But
the big part of it was genuine concern about compatibility. The idea of
.deb packages that wouldn’t install on Debian really worried me. I
remember seeing the first RPMs in the early 1990s that wouldn’t work on
Red Hat, and we all know where that went. Fortunately, the problem has
been averted–Canonical and Ubuntu are fully committed to the LSB, which
by definition will preserve compatibility not just between Ubuntu and
Debian, but between Ubuntu and all the other distros as well. So, all
of my concerns, and everything that led to the DCC, have been addressed
(which, by the way, is why you don’t hear much from the DCC anymore).

> B4. Debian in the “Enterprise”? It’s clearly one of the best server
> operating systems – at least *we* use it solely. Where can it be
> improved, or where does it have to be improved?

Debian is everywhere, and there is enormous interest in it in the
“enterprise”, I can attest to that. The problems aren’t with the
technology, they have more to do with the fact that most enterprises
aren’t quite sure what to make of a community project without support
guarantees and such. My key bits of advice would be to adopt a
predictable 18-24 month release cycle (we seem to be well on our way
there now with etch); to support the LSB, so that Debian gets into
the same cadence as the enterprise distros and so that ISVs have some
way of targeting the Debian platform without having to deviate from
their other ports too much (again, we’re in good shape here on the
present course); to commit to long term support (Red Hat and Novell are
both providing seven years of support now, which Debian can and should do
in the form of backporting security updates and critical bug fixes); and
to generally be responsive to the needs of commercial users (I’ve often
run into people who have contacted Debian, only to be met with
a deafening silence or a “we don’t care about commercial guff” response).

> B5. Why is the FSG prefering RPM over APT? Even Red Hat has its Yum now,
> and both Fedora and OpenSuse are offering apt.

The LSB doesn’t prefer RPM, though that’s a common misconception. We’re
planning to add alien to the LSB SDK, so ISVs can easily make .debs of
their LSB RPMs, as well as scripts to easily generate APT repositories
containing those converted .debs. The bottom line is that we want to make
it easy to install LSB applications using the distro’s “best
practice” method, and on Debian, that means APT. Furthermore, in LSB 4.0,
we’ll be revisiting the entire packaging question. We’re holding a
Packaging Summit in Berlin later this year to get the discussion started.

> *C. The Future*
> C1. You wrote 3 years ago, Debian shouldn’t focus on the commercial
> sector, but preserve the fragile Linux ecosystem. Could you precise that?

In many ways, Debian captures the essence of what Linux was in 1993. It’s
that essence that makes it special. It’s where we all came from. I’m a
big believer in the importance of commercialization (that’s how you have
maximum impact on the world), but I’m also a big believer in never
forgetting where you came from. If that gets left behind, then Linux just
becomes yet another Unix clone, and what’s interesting about that?

> C2. The future of that ecosystem, and of FOSS in general?

Looks bright to me, as long as we proceed on the present course.
To my previous point, the big commercial players understand that
Linux is different, and understand the importance of community. They
don’t want a repeat of UNIX. My one concern about the community is that
it’s sometimes fixated on the wrong things–software licensing, for one,
is less and less relevant today, as Tim O’Reilly has pointed out for
years. The future of software is on the web, not in tarballs. The
interesting software isn’t “distributed” anymore. There’s a real risk
that the community will get left behind unless it updates its thinking in
some of those key areas. And the mob mentality of the community is a real
concern too. Progress often means going against the conventional wisdom,
and it takes a steely kind of person to go against the grain in this
community, given how easy it is to tear people down by email at a
distance and at massive scale. I often wonder how much more we could
accomplish if there were lower barriers to sticking your neck out.

> C3. Debian on everything from small embedded to 512-way SMB systems?

Debian’s a great fit here because it’s so easy to customize to these
vastly different configurations. And it’s also easy for the vendors of
those hardware systems to support it. You don’t have to wait for some
third party OS vendor to decide your platform is at an interesting enough
scale to support it. And you don’t have to do all that work yourself.

> C4. You seem to be a man who thinks and has stategies for the long term.
> What about today’s 18-year-old high school kid? Would you still
> recommend IT/development as a strategy, or do we have other, more
> important problems right now, like for instance energy or environmental,
> or the like? What would you say to your own kids?

I hear a lot of people say that computer science isn’t an interesting
area anymore, but I thoroughly disagree with that. There’s still an
enormous number of problems to be solved. I’m not sure how many of
those problems are in the operating system anymore, at least the operating
system in the traditional sense, but the web in particular is still in its
infancy in terms of what can be done with it. Of course, there are plenty
of interesting problems in other disciplines, particularly around energy,
but I’m a computer guy. What I’ll tell my kids is to find something you
love to do. That way, it isn’t work, and you get paid to play all day.
What I tell open source developers is to think big, audacious thoughts.
Particularly if you’re young, not married, don’t have kids, etc.,
you have nothing to lose–enjoy it while it lasts, because it doesn’t..

> C5. This new community site is open for comments or questions from
> readers. Would you answer to some of them for a short time, in case they
> still have questions (or found mine too silly)?

Sure, though my turnaround time may be slow.


Ian Murdock

“Don’t look back–something might be gaining on you.” –Satchel Paige

##### Original email from Ian Murdock ends here #####

Thanks again Ian. It was an honour and a pleasure to meet you, and I’m still using Debian both at home (where I write this) and on my server (from which people can read this).

To all our readers, as always, thanks for reading.

How cool…

The discussion about Thunderbird doesn’t stop (no comments about that because I can’t come up with some positive stuff about it). For the “what if?” scenario (in case we would lose Thunderbird and also Icedove), I was reading about Claws – some friends are using that one since years.

Loved this part from its manual:

“What Claws Mail is not

Claws Mail is not a full-featured Personal Information Manager like Evolution or Outlook, although external plugins provide these functionalities. Claws Mail will not let you write and send HTML emails or other kind of annoyances, hence it may not be the software you need in some business environments.”

Hahaha. Sounds like a perfect tool for the job. Or does your favourite wrench also try to make coffee? 😉 is 15. Or was it 16?

Today I was working on our server a bit, updating and checking things, and everything runs smoothly. I was wondering about the past a bit while I did all this, and so I checked.

Netcraft first “saw” us in the year 2000, which means that I used Netcraft’s services to check on us. The Internet Archive, and its Wayback Machine still have some stuff starting from 2001, and our site looked like this, or like that. I also had my own hosting company during 2001, called “”, but nothing much of it is left, and that was later taken by domain grabbers. From 2005 Netcraft’s site saw us hosted by other companies.

So while the oldest history might be from early 2000, I think I actually registered the domain in 1999 – would have to check with Denic to find out. And, as I wrote on one of these early pages, the internet as we know it now was barely 10 years old (that means the mouse-clickable web, some other stuff like internet news is older).

Fifteen years only, and even less since people started to stare at small screens while walking the cities. Feels much longer tho – but imagine how life was before that (hint: it wasn’t worse).

Thanks for reading.

Thunderbird, also known as Icedove

Fully agree with Cory Doctorow on his article on Mozilla Thunderbird. It’s important to have a good email client, and this is definitely one of the best so far.

It’s not really new that the Mozilla Foundation thinks they have more important things to do than to keep working on Thunderbird, but Cory got new information from here, and they got it from there (in fact this comes from the usenet newsgroups, but who in the world (except me and some other outliers) is reading these?).

I’m using Debian, which uses a rebranded version of Mozilla’s Thunderbird which they call Icedove. And Debian have their own Wiki page about its future, and as you can see, it’s still maintained, until now “upstream” is mostly Mozilla. And while this might change in the future, well, it’s still an open source project, and the Wikipedia page linked to above calls Icedove a “fork” of Thunderbird already, tho this mostly had to be done because of Mozilla’s restrictive branding (and update) policies.

I’m not much of a developer (not enough time to care for everything in life), but I still hope that I – and Cory – are not the only ones who care for a good and solid email client. There are others of course, but I always liked Icedove (and also Enigmail). I’ll follow this on the Debian maintainers’ newsgroups and mailing lists, and probably come back to it when there’s more information from Mozilla. Just that some tool might not look promising in an economic way doesn’t mean that it’s not a good and solid product which many people love to have, and looking for shareholder value isn’t always the right path into the future, in fact it’s rather short-sighted in most cases. Working where I am (a former IT giant which today is a mere shadow of what it once was, and could have been), I know what I’m writing about…

Thanks for reading.

Recent activities

We went for a short walk again last Sunday, tho the area we decided upon wasn’t that good for walking – not enough shadow, too many bicyclists, things like that. Anyway, here’s a photo from our walk:


And while the cat was gone for almost 24 hours, she also returned short after that.

Then it started to rain again, and the plants and trees really needed it. Mitchie had brought the latest c’t special about photography, which is quite good and interesting this time. So I read a lot and tried darktable, which can do a lot more than both my Olympus Viewer 3 (on Windows) and RawTherapee (on Linux) combined. It has a bit of a learning curve tho, so it’s too early for judgements. Here’s a first result of just playing around with it for a few minutes:


What’s also really interesting in that c’t special magazine is an article about using telescopes, so I read a lot about that as well. Even Stephen Hawking has one now, years after he wrote his brief history of time. A report about his telescope, by the proud Chinese makers, is here if you’re interested.

And in case you’re interested is star photography, you can come up to speed and learn most of what you’d have to know if you look at three episodes from Forrest Tanaka, on youtube:

Part 1 (about which scope you’d like to have),
Part 2 (about the mount, which is even more important), and
Part 3 (about how to help your telescope with tracking those stars)

This is all explained so that you can even understand it, so it’s really recommended stuff for star gazers (and probably for people who are waiting for Patrick Stewart to turn up, and to talk about having the first contact soon). 😉 Oh, and by the way: Forrest Tanaka has a nice Flickr stream as well. He seems to be good in everything he does, not only when lecturing about how to choose and use telescopes.

He’s at least certainly better than me. I just took a photo of Arcturus, using my 40-150mm lens at the longest setting. The photo and the explanation in Stellarium look like this:



Anyway, Arcturus is a red giant, about 36 light years away, and roughly 25 times the diameter of our sun (and much brighter than it as well). And it’s even older than our complete solar system. Interesting to read, at least for trekkies like me.

Update, from 3:23am: another, darker picture of a star:


And its description in Stellarium:


Thanks for reading.

Done with rebuilding the computer

I finished rebuilding my machine on Saturday, and completed the software setup yesterday. What took me so long was to actually read and understand how UEFI works, and how to make a bootable USB stick with a GPT (UEFI partition table) instead of the old style MBR (master boot record). You need this since otherwise the OS would be installed in “legacy” mode, with not using the newer and much better UEFI firmware. If you want to read about the basics on how to set this up with Debian – like I did – you can do so here and here. Once I had made that UEFI USB stick and put the Debian netinstall image onto it, booting from it greets you with this:


Note the second line where it says “UEFI Installer menu”. And once the installation is finished (you’ll need internet for a Debian netinstall), you’ll have a dual boot Grub menu like this:


I got a Crucial BX100 250GB SSD as the system drive, like recommended by the German c’t magazine. Which means that from the boot menu which you see above to the login screen takes about 4-5 seconds, and lots of things like picture viewing are also sped up quite a bit. Easy to recommend one of these drives, which by now are also more reliable than spinning platter drives (I still have the 2TB rotating one for my data, these are still somewhat expensive when done in chips).

And running the Olympus Viewer 3 natively on Windows 10 is much faster than doing so within a virtualized Windows 7, which I did before, even when rebooting the machine to switch between operating systems. I reserved a small FAT32 partition on the SSD to share images between Windows and Linux, which also works perfectly.

Thanks for reading.

Win10, and hardware

Let me tell you this first: I’m a Linux user. Since years. And happy with it.

So yesterday the latest and greatest (and probably last ever) Windows was released. A colleague of mine immediately tried the “Enterprise 2015 LTS” branch in a virtual machine at work, and I tried the “Pro” version yesterday evening at home, also in a virtual machine:

Screenshot from 2015-07-29 22:45:46

Screenshot from 2015-07-29 22:45:46

Windows 10 in an Oracle VirtualBox on 64 Bit Debian GNU/Linux 8 “Jessie”

Looks pretty cool, especially the new “Edge” browser. But at the moment it cannot replace my also virtualized and small Win7 since VirtualBox on Debian is probably a bit too old to run the Guest Additions, which you’d need to share drives, or to use the full screen (1920×1200 pixel in my case) with a proper driver. For dual booting, sure, I’d probably give it a try, but since I don’t use the typical Adobe heavyweights, I don’t need it to access all 8GB of RAM, and to spread itself all over my boot disk.

Which brings me to hardware. Nasim Mansurov has a very nice and interesting article about building the optimal PC for photographers’ needs, and his recommendations even top the ones I read in a c’t special issue about the optimal machine for using Photoshop (a guy from Adobe themselves said that 16GB of RAM is just fine at the moment).

What makes Nasim’s article interesting is that it mentions stuff I didn’t know about, like his point 4 about M.2 SSDs. But both his recommendations are a bit overkill in my opinion, or to use his own car analogy, that feels like driving a Ferrari through the rush hour, when a Toyota Corolla would do fine as well.

If I were to build a PC these days (and yes, I have also done this since at least 15 years or so), I’d probably go with something like the Quad Core PC mentioned by c’t in January this year, updating it with the newer components from issue 16 sans the series 5 processor which would produce BIOS/UEFI problems with most boards.

So my choice would look like: 16GB of RAM, Core i5 or i7 processor, SSD as boot and OS drive plus that 4TB spinning disk data drive they mention. All in all, without OS, that would still be under 1k€ (or $) – cheaper than even the “small” machine recommendation from Nasim. And more than capable for the rest of us who don’t even have 36MP cameras.

Yes, I’d probably dual boot a machine like that, and have a look at Lightroom or Capture One Pro on Windows. Of course, the best part of it would and will always be Debian, or any other free (as in beer and as in speech) operating system. I’d rather trust my open source buddies than any corporation (whose best friends will always be the shareholders instead of the customers).

About cameras? Even my old 10MP E-520 DSLR can still take a nice enough picture, even if it has only about a quarter of the sensor of a D810 (both area and pixel count, so pixel density is about equal or even higher than with that top Nikon camera):



Update: Please note, I’m not anti-Microsoft, or anti-anything. Tools are tools, you have to search the ones which are right for you and your needs. In fact, some of the guys working at that corporation are pretty cool, like this nice tip shows. Maybe my wife can use that to upgrade her new Dell notebook from Win8.1 to Win10, without affecting her Ubuntu bootloader. It also makes me think about upgrading my hardware, see above. Found via this and this page, during a quick scan of interesting daily news.

Thanks for reading.

Since yesterday

Yesterday I installed Debian 8 “Jessie” into a free partition of my primary hard drive. Jessie isn’t ready yet, and the installer still is RC1, but it works and looks great:

Screenshot from 2015-01-30 19:52:45

Screenshot from 2015-01-30 19:53:12

Screenshot from 2015-01-30 20:00:45

Screenshot from 2015-01-30 22:30:48

Get these screenshots in their full resolution (1920×1200) from Flickr if you click on any of them. This will be a great release.

Oh, and as a photographer, you’ll get RawTherapee 4.2 with it, to which you can add film simulations. One-click Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5 look anyone? It can also now open the raw X-Trans files from my colleague’s Fuji XT-1 camera, which is quite amazing as well. I have an ISO 3200 picture from that camera which was a bit over 1 stop underexposed, so it’s more like ISO 6400. Still practically noise-free, and the out of camera jpg is great as well. A good one definitely.

But that said, look at Kirk’s out of camera black & white photos from his Olympus E-M5… and our E-PL5 cameras have that very same sensor, plus tilting viewfinders, so I looked at these XT-1 files more out of curiosity.

Anyway – that new Debian version is highly recommended.

Update, from short before midnight:

As beautiful as that new ‘lines’ theme of Debian is, I decided to tweak it and use my own wallpaper again. So this is how my desktop looks right now:

7de_a055656 Screenshot from 2015-01-30 23:47:27

Desktop wallpaper art for my new Debian “Jessie” installation

Thanks for viewing. Good night.

Video editing on Linux

I haven’t done or tried it since a while, but “Today’s Big Story” on LXer with its headline “The current state of video editing on Linux” grabbed my attention. And the article on gives some nice links to learn Blender – I should watch a couple of these, since I was a bit overwhelmed by that program in the past.

The best thing about Linux, again and again? That this is all just an ‘apt-get install‘ away, at least on Debian (and/or on Ubuntu)… 🙂