Thursday, July 11, 2013

In memoriam

In early 2001 I was looking for a new job. My prospects weren’t stellar -- I was a foreign worker with a funny name looking for an IT position during the worst dregs of the dot-com crash, and my resume only had one Programming-Slash-Admin job on it. It’s the kind of resume that hiring managers quickly file in the “if_absolutely_desperate” folder.

So it wasn’t with any particular hope that I responded to a posting for a sysadmin position at Duke University Physics. I mean, it sounded awesome, but I felt it was a very long shot. To my surprise, I received an email back that same evening. The guy’s name was Seth Vidal, and he said he wanted to chat.

“You do realize I’m an H1B, right?” I said. “Getting me hired will be pain.”
“Duke’s pain, not mine,” he emailed back. “I searched your name and I liked that you’re active on open-source mailing lists.”

This was Seth's most common expression, honest.
So I drove to Durham for an interview. Seth cringed a bit at my then-preference for Slackware and the fact that I liked to build software from source. He did agree that RPM dependencies were hell, though, and fully shared my view that telnet was evil (ssh was still making inroads at the time). He showed me the server room, which was really a converted mens’ shower, containing a few old desks with assorted beige towers on them. There was a utility rack at the back of the room, the kind you buy at a hardware store for your garage, with more beige towers. Many had their sides off for better cooling. It was hot in there, even though the thermostat was cranked to the lowest setting.

“I’m working to replace many of these with some more respectable hardware,” he said. “But I have to stretch the budget right now, and you’ll be amazed at how well Linux runs on this commodity stuff. Heck, we may even get a server room one day that has real racks and doesn’t have water valves right above the file servers.”

I struggled a lot during my first 6 months. Seth was a brilliant sysadmin with a mind-boggling ability to quickly figure out the root cause of this or that problem. Most of the time, I just felt like I was apprenticed to an irascible wizard -- who was nevertheless amazingly tolerant of his pupil’s blunders. Oh, he got grumpy with me -- a lot, actually, and often for very good reasons, in retrospect. I did do stupid things sometimes. Still do. But his scolding was always followed by coaching, and for that I will remain forever grateful. I’ve learned so much from him in the 4 years when we worked closely together -- and it went beyond mere tech skills.

Everyone knows of Seth’s contribution to solving the famed “RPM dependency hell” -- he took some core ideas from YUP, the package manager used by Yellowdog Linux, and rewrote it from scratch, giving us YUM -- a tool sysadmins use on a daily basis. Fewer know that Seth was also instrumental in getting CentOS and Fedora Extras off the ground. I remember when it was all hosted in his office -- a half-rack on wheels that had a 64-bit Dell that was used to build the entirety of FC1 extras, plus an old G4 lying on its side that built PPC packages (those that would build). Another ex-workstation sitting on a shelf behind the half-rack hosted the fedoraproject.org website. All the exhaust fans made Seth’s office a really loud place to work from, and I knew it gave him headaches, but he left the rack there anyway -- our server room was over its cooling capacity and he really wanted Fedora to grow and succeed. Little wonder that Red Hat eventually snatched him up to make it his full-time job.

If I were to think of Seth’s one core principle -- which was both his fault and the damned best thing about him -- that would be his genuineness. Anyone who’s ever participated in a mailing list discussion with him knows his famously curt manner and his complete lack of desire to entertain (what he deemed were) foolish ideas. He spoke his heart and his mind, and he was widely known for it. But Seth also cared -- passionately, genuinely cared. He cared about his friends and about his family. He cared about his dog and about his co-workers (pretty sure it went in that order, but Cori is a very cute dog). He cared about his projects and about his ideals. When he asked you “hey, you doing okay?” that wasn’t because of some feeling of social obligation. He really wanted to know if you were okay.

His friends, in return, genuinely cared about him -- even if they secretly told each other that they needed a “Seth break” every now and again.

I left Duke in 2005, exchanging the stars-and-stripes for the maple leaf. While we remained in close touch, sharing IRC channels just wasn’t the same as working together under one roof. There were times when we didn’t have an occasion to chat for months. There were times when we did it every day. I last saw him when I was in Raleigh in November last year, to participate in Red Hat-sponsored Fedora Activity Day. He looked older, but he was the same old Seth. We chatted, we laughed at old memories, and we worked side-by-side well into the night.

“You know,” he said, looking up from his laptop. It was past 11 PM and the cleaning crew was wondering what we were all still doing there. “You really suck at C.”
“Yeah, well, so do you.”
“I know, right?”

Seth’s life tragically ended on a summer night when a car slammed into his bike and then drove off. It shouldn't take a tragedy to remind you that life can end abruptly, but somehow it always does, and it makes us very angry. “What a meaningless death” we say.

What a meaningful life, say I. Seth was only 36, but look how much he managed to accomplish, how much loyalty and respect he commanded, how much merit his opinion had among his peers. For his having been here, this world is richer, and for his passing it is now poorer.

We can all add meaning to our lives if we stop treating life as some kind of mundane and exasperating filler between weekends, holidays, and those fleeting breaks every now and again when we get a minute to do things we enjoy. We call it “the human condition,” and we avoid looking at each-other when we say that. But I truly believe that if we are just a bit more genuine, and a bit more passionate, and a bit more caring, then perhaps we will no longer have to use apologetic cliches when talking about our own lives.

We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to our friend.

I miss you terribly, Seth. Rest in Peace.

4 comments:

andy said...

http://www.clementsfuneralservice.com/memsol.cgi?user_id=1032792 for full obituary.

victorhckinthefreeworld said...

will be missed...
hugs for family and friends...

Melissa J. Mills said...

Dear Icon, so well said! so well said.

I miss Seth deeply though I haven't hung out with him since 2005! Yet, it is Eunice and the rest of us that I'm sad for. Seth brought us together, and so we remain at least that much richer. Hugs to your family, Melissa

Christopher Meng said...

RIP.

安息。