Apr. 14th, 2016

The first time I was paid to do software development came as something of a surprise to me. I was working as a sysadmin in a computational physics research group when a friend asked me if I'd be willing to talk to her PhD supervisor. I had nothing better to do, so said yes. And that was how I started the evening having dinner with David MacKay, and ended the evening better fed, a little drunker and having agreed in principle to be paid to write free software.

I'd been hired to work on Dasher, an information-efficient text entry system. It had been developed by one of David's students as a practical demonstration of arithmetic encoding after David had realised that presenting a visualisation of an effective compression algorithm allowed you to compose text without having to enter as much information into the system. At first this was merely a neat toy, but it soon became clear that the benefits of Dasher had a great deal of overlap with good accessibility software. It required much less precision of input, it made it easy to correct mistakes (you merely had to reverse direction in order to start zooming back out of the text you had entered) and it worked with a variety of input technologies from mice to eye tracking to breathing. My job was to take this codebase and turn it into a project that would be interesting to external developers.

In the year I worked with David, we turned Dasher from a research project into a well-integrated component of Gnome, improved its support for Windows, accepted code from an external contributor who ported it to OS X (using an OpenGL canvas!) and wrote ports for a range of handheld devices. We added code that allowed Dasher to directly control the UI of other applications, making it possible for people to drive word processors without having to leave Dasher. We taught Dasher to speak. We strove to avoid the mistakes present in so many other pieces of accessibility software, such as configuration that could only be managed by an (expensive!) external consultant. And we visited Dasher users and learned how they used it and what more they needed, then went back home and did what we could to provide that.

Working on Dasher was an incredible opportunity. I was involved in the development of exciting code. I spoke on it at multiple conferences. I became part of the Gnome community. I visited the USA for the first time. I entered people's homes and taught them how to use Dasher and experienced their joy as they realised that they could now communicate up to an order of magnitude more quickly. I wrote software that had a meaningful impact on the lives of other people.

Working with David was certainly not easy. Our weekly design meetings were, charitably, intense. He had an astonishing number of ideas, and my job was to figure out how to implement them while (a) not making the application overly complicated and (b) convincing David that it still did everything he wanted. One memorable meeting involved me gradually arguing him down from wanting five new checkboxes to agreeing that there were only two combinations that actually made sense (and hence a single checkbox) - and then admitting that this was broadly equivalent to an existing UI element, so we could just change the behaviour of that slightly without adding anything. I took the opportunity to delete an additional menu item in the process.

I was already aware of the importance of free software in terms of developers, but working with David made it clear to me how important it was to users as well. A community formed around Dasher, helping us improve it and allowing us to develop support for new use cases that made the difference between someone being able to type at two words per minute and being able to manage twenty. David saw that this collaborative development would be vital to creating something bigger than his original ideas, and it succeeded in ways he couldn't have hoped for.

I spent a year in the group and then went back to biology. David went on to channel his strong feelings about social responsibility into issues such as sustainable energy, writing a freely available book on the topic. He served as chief adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change for five years. And earlier this year he was awarded a knighthood for his services to scientific outreach.

David died yesterday. It's unlikely that I'll ever come close to what he accomplished, but he provided me with much of the inspiration to try to do so anyway. The world is already a less fascinating place without him.

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Matthew Garrett

About Matthew

Power management, mobile and firmware developer on Linux. Security developer at Google. Member of the Free Software Foundation board of directors. Ex-biologist. @mjg59 on Twitter. Content here should not be interpreted as the opinion of my employer.

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