Hans Reiser, 20/20, and his talk at Google

I got a call from one of the researchers from ABC news this evening. Apparently they are planning on doing a segment on Hans Reiser on their 20/20 show, and the researcher knew enough that there were some serious technical inaccuracies with the script (at the level of “so when Hans was creating reiser4, was that software; was he writing a program?” and “does the program run on the hard drive?”), and so they were looking for help on some technical issues on a background basis. She didn’t take any quotes from me; what she needed was help understanding the technical issues around filesystems and Linux. I tried to help explain what a filesystem was that would make sense to a lay person in 15 seconds; I have no idea whether the researcher got it, and whether she’ll be able to make changes in the script that will be vaguely coherent. We’ll see. I spent a lot of time working with Joshua Davis, providing background material for his Wired article, and he still got a bunch of the technical details wrong. The 20/20 researcher did ask me some silly questions such as “whether we were surprised when murder charges were filed against Hans?” Well, yes. What did she expect me to say? “Oh, yes, were always worried someone would get hurt…” Not! Sigh…. I might not agree with Hans’s filesystem design principles or his tactics in trying to get reiser4 accepted, but I always respected him as a fellow open source programmer.

The researcher mentioned to me that Hans had done a talk at Google that was available at the Google Video site. Out of curiosity, I took a look at it. It was interesting; the last time I had seen Hans was in 1999, at the Linux Storage Management Workshop in Darmstadt, Germany that was organized by Matthew O’Keefe at Sistina Software. Compared to how he looked back then, and the picture of him in the Wired article, taken a 10-12 months after his talk at Google in February, 2006, I was struck by how much heavier (and older at least compared to my memory of him, which was much closer to this picture from his resume) in the Google Video. I also remember him as being a much more dynamic and energetic speaker, and I was struck by how slowly he spoke, with lots of long pauses and “umms” and “ahhs”. He seemed to be a much better public speaker in Darmstadt, but in the Google talk he seemed very tired as he gave the talk.

One of the questions that the researcher asked me was whether I thought he was a genius or not. I told her that I thought he was quite bright in terms of raw intelligence, but that his Social IQ wasn’t as high as you might want for someone to be successful in gathering volunteers to work on an Open Source project, and in working with others in an Open Source development community. Looking at the video, I think that is very much true. He was a terrible public speaker, but some of the points he made about optimizing B-tree algorithms made sense. I might disagree with his philosophy over filesystem design and benchmarking, and I might not be terribly impressed by his social skills, but in terms of being a talented computer scientist, he was and is that.

Is he guilty of the crime that he has been accused of? I have no idea. But from looking at his talk and knowing what I know of him, I have the sense of a greek tragedy. He’s been working on some of his ideas since his undergraduate days in UC Berkely in the early eighties — which he entered after finishing his 8th grade. And as research ideas, I think he might have gotten some very interesting results out of trying some of the things that he wants to do around operating system namespaces. (I think they are doomed in a production system descended from Unix, since application programmers are unlikely to rewrite their programs to take advantage of reiserfs’s performance characteristics — which would mean instead of using a Unix-like configuration file, treating a directory hierarchy containing the configuration information like a Windows registry. Still, as an academic, Plan 9-like system, I could have seen it has being a potentially very interesting Systems Research effort.) Unfortunately, his skills at public speaking and his ability to work with other people have handicapped him, and I know that has frustrated him deeply. So I have a lot of sympathy for him, and I hope that he is innocent, and will be found innocent. But only time will tell….

Anyway, according to the researcher, they are currently scheduling their segment about Hans on 20/20 on October 19th. I’m sure that schedule is subject to change, but it’ll be interesting to see how they treat Hans in their coverage. Hopefully it will be fair, and not overly sensationalistic, but unfortunately my faith in today’s TV edutainment-focused news program isn’t terribly high. My impression was that the research wanted to do a good job, but she was burdened by a very tight deadline, and in the end, the decision of what goes on the air and what doesn’t won’t be up to her. So we’ll see.