Free the night life!

Former Netscape programmer Jamie Zawinski has spent his life making software free. Now he wants to liberate San Francisco's fading club scene.

Topics: San Francisco,

Free the night life!

Jamie Zawinski has a face the camera can only love. Framed
beneath lush, long dark hair, his intelligent, expressive eyes
and ready, ironic smile draw attention like a magnet. For
reporters, his habit of dispensing painfully articulate, often
outrageous soundbites is equally attractive — one reason why the
former Netscape programmer steals most of the scenes in “Code
Rush,” an upcoming PBS documentary that focuses on the hectic
lives of a team of Netscape coders during the spring of 1998.

On the first Wednesday in February, an advance viewing of “Code
Rush” debuted at a Mountain View, Calif., studio, about a
45-minute drive south of San Francisco. The hour-long documentary
is worth watching. The specific time period captured on film
covers a crucial moment in the history of the “free-software
movement” — that frantic couple of months during which Netscape
programmers scrambled to clean up the hitherto proprietary source
code to the Navigator Web browser so that it could be released
as publicly accessible open-source software.

But Zawinski couldn’t make the screening — he had another
commitment, an appearance that same night before the Board of
Appeals of the San Francisco Planning Commission. Zawinski may
have quit Netscape in a disgusted huff a little
less than a year ago, angry at the constant delays plaguing the
development of a new version of Navigator, but that doesn’t mean
the 30-year-old stock-option millionaire has stopped agitating.
For the better part of the last year, in the face of concerted
resistance from the San Francisco Police Department and to the
delight of a picturesque collection of San Francisco’s late night
entertainment habitues, Zawinski has been struggling to achieve a
new dream — the purchase of the DNA Lounge, a nightclub.

In a scene that simply reeked of wacky San Francisco-ness,
Zawinski packed the Board of Appeals hearing with at least 150
fans sporting “Save SF Late Night Culture” stickers — most of
whom were pale-skinned and punk/gothic fashionable enough to
qualify for parts as undead extras on “Buffy the Vampire
Slayer.”



The Zawinski contingent far outnumbered the handful of residents
who came to speak in support of the SFPD’s attempt to use the
DNA’s change of ownership to revoke the DNA’s extensive
after-hours operating permits.

For the past several years, the South of Market region of San
Francisco has been witness to steadily increasing tension
between clubs, some residents and the police. As far as club
owners and patrons are concerned, the police, acting on behalf of
flush and easily annoyed new residents, are engaged in an
organized crackdown on the clubs. The dispute over the DNA’s
after-hours permits is just the latest skirmish.

“San Francisco’s clubs are under pressure,” says Zawinski, over a
sushi lunch in downtown San Francisco’s spanking new and
ultra-high-tech Sony Metreon building. “And I thought, well,
maybe I could try and do something about that. I knew it wasn’t
going to be easy, but I was doing it because it was something
that mattered to me, and not something that could make money,
because it’s not.”

Zawinski’s motivation, he says, is akin to one of the key forces
that pushes the free-software movement forward. He’s “scratching
his itch,” he says, quoting Eric Raymond,
one of the chief evangelists for free software. Programmers appreciate free
software — software in which the underlying source code is
freely accessible and modifiable — in part because oftentimes
they simply want to solve a particular problem they face in
their daily coding life, or satisfy an urge to add some new,
special feature to their software. Enjoying access to the source
code allows them to satisfy those needs — to scratch those
itches.

For Zawinski, the current irritation that needs assuaging is what
he sees as a marked decline in the number of late-night venues
for dancing and live concerts in San Francisco. So Zawinski has
set his sights on fixing what he sees as a bug in the city’s
operating system. This time around, however, he isn’t taking
advantage of publicly available source code, but instead is
capitalizing on the millions of dollars that became the
birthright of all early employees of Netscape.

Zawinski’s post-Netscape adventures offer an intriguing glimpse
as to what the future millionaires of the free software world –
the programmers currently getting fat off of the inflated
stock prices of companies like Red Hat and VA Linux — could
decide to do with their riches. If his example is any guide,
they may well translate their hacker obsessions into more
worldly pursuits. But that’s not the only reason to pay attention
to Zawinski’s late-night crusade.

Part of the backstory to the struggle over the DNA is the
increasing gentrification of the South of Market region. The
Northern California economy is awash with money — much of it
made from the same dot-com industry that bestowed its largesse on
Zawinski. Though not the only factor putting pressure on the
nightclubs, the arrival of well-heeled new residents snapping up
half-million-dollar condominiums is one reason why the police are
cracking down.

To some observers, the showdown is just one more example of how
the dot-com economy is reshaping San Francisco, or, to put it
more stridently, how the Internet is ruining
San Francisco. But the story isn’t quite that simple. Jamie
Zawinski, as a key Netscape programmer, is as responsible as any
single person for delivering the code that made the Internet
economy possible. But is he ruining San Francisco? Hardly –
he’s attempting to make his own changes, to fight against the
tide. And it’s not all that quixotic a mission. Zawinski’s
appearance at the board of appeals was a huge success — the
commissioners unanimously agreed to deny the police their
attempt to change the DNA’s permits.

The dot-com economy may take away … but it also giveth.

Among the journalists and hackers who pay attention to the world
of free software, Jamie
Zawinski
is notorious for a whole laundry list of reasons.
At Netscape, where for a time he lived inside a camouflage tent
spread over his cubicle, and shaved one side of his head while
letting hair on the other grow long, Zawinski became an obvious
focal point for the hordes of Netscape observers frantic to get
a close look at the new world of the Net. Zawinski’s legend only
grew when, on April 1, exactly one year to the day after
helping to organize a huge party to celebrate the public release
of the Navigator source code, he quit Netscape, denouncing the
entire project, known as “Mozilla,” as hopelessly flawed. Ever
since, the trade press has labeled Mozilla a free-software
failure.

Mention Zawinski’s name around Mozilla folks these days and you
are likely to get a deep sigh. Zawinski’s penchant for telling it
like it is, or at least like he thinks it is (a characteristic he
shares with many hackers), was a public relations disaster. When
I told one consultant who works with Netscape that I’d been
having a hard time getting Zawinski to make any further comments
about Mozilla, the consultant shrugged his shoulders.

“Hasn’t he said enough already?” wondered the consultant.

Some of the South of Market residents who supported the SFPD’s
attempt to cut back on the DNA’s operating hours are also wont to
grumble. At the board of appeals hearing, Jim Meko, president of
the South of Market Resident’s Association (SOMARA), called
Zawinski “arrogant” and attacked him for having hired “paid
political consultants” to manipulate the local press. At the
hearing, other SOMARA members could be seen visibly grimacing in
annoyance when Zawinski pointedly made reference to his former
Netscape employment while addressing the board — apparently, it
wasn’t the first time Zawinski had touted his Netscape lineage.

But in the insular world of free software programmers Zawinski’s
reputation dates back to long before he ever wrote a single line
of code for Netscape. In the early ’90s, Zawinski worked at
Lucid, a Bay Area start-up that sold high-end programming tools.
Zawinski’s main contribution to Lucid was the creation of Lucid
Emacs, a new version of one of the most popular free software
tools then in existence — the Emacs text editor, originally
written by a programmer named Richard
Stallman.

Stallman is the founding father of the organized wing of the free
software movement. Long before Linux began spreading throughout
the computing universe, programmers all over the world used Emacs
as their all-purpose workhorse. But there was a problem,
according to Lucid. In the early ’90s, says Zawinski, the pace of
Emacs development had slowed to a near standstill. Lucid
management desired a version of Emacs that included a set of
features that didn’t yet exist. Since the program was free
software, that presented no great difficulty — eventually,
Zawinski added most of the necessary features himself.

“Emacs [version number] 19 wasn’t done yet,” says Zawinski, “so I
solved the problem by writing my own version of Emacs 19. One
thing led to another, and that didn’t work out, so we released
our own ‘fork’ of Emacs 19 — ‘Lucid emacs’ which has now been
renamed Xemacs. And it’s still alive today, because it has
features and a design that a lot of people find more compelling
than the other Emacs.”

One thing led to another … Buried in that throw-away
phrase is an instructive bit of early free software history.
Stallman and the Lucid developers did not see eye-to-eye on a
series of questions, including who to blame for the delay in
Emacs 19, what feature set to include in new versions of Emacs,
and, perhaps most importantly, the proposed inclusion of Lucid
Emacs in the otherwise proprietary tool kit of programs that
Lucid was attempting to sell. The result was the last thing
that anybody in the free software community wants to happen to a
given project — a dreaded “fork”: the creation of two separate
development trees for a single software program.

“Back then we were Satan [to Stallman],” recalls Zawinski. “We
were the enemy as far as I can tell. Hopefully he has
recalibrated at this point.”

Moral of the Emacs story? Programmers can be very stubborn –
Stallman, to be sure, is legendary for his intransigence. But
Zawinski is equally difficult to deter — indeed, it requires a
special degree of chutzpah to write an entirely new version of
one of the most famous programs in the free software arsenal.

But hardheadedness can be a virtue, even if it does lead to the
occasional debilitating fork. The success of the free-software
movement owes a lot to arrogant programmers who are dead certain
that they are absolutely, unshakably right. Zawinski’s
willingness to grapple with Stallman was a sign that he would not
give up easily when thwarted. And going head to head with
Stallman, no doubt, is an experience not all that different from
attempting to fight city hall.

The difference, of course, between Zawinski, version 2000, and
Zawinski, version 1993, is his access to cash. Hacking code
doesn’t cost much money, but buying a night club in the
over-heated real estate market of San Francisco doesn’t come
cheap. Just how much he is paying, Zawinski declines to say,
other than a shamefaced “probably too much.” But money is not the
problem.

“I don’t remember who it was that I was talking to,” recalls
Zawinski, “but I was just whining about it [the decline of the
late night scene] as usual, and they were like, ‘well why don’t
you buy a club.’”

As we sit together in the Metreon — a building that is itself a
testament to the vast economic and technological changes
storming through San Francisco, a building surrounded on almost
every side by companies that have built their business models on
providing some kind of service via the Internet — it seems all
too fitting to hear Zawinski recall that moment when he realized
that he didn’t have to just accept the changes in his
neighborhood, but could actually do something about them. Even
though his actions could be seen as easy target for
contradiction, Zawinski is attempting to roll back changes that
are in part caused by the same economic upheaval that has given
him the wherewithal to fight those changes.

But Zawinski isn’t too interested in following down that
narrative path. “Change happens,” he notes. And unlike some other
club owners, Zawinski doesn’t want to get drawn into a debate
about whether the pressure on the clubs is a result of dot-com
yuppies invading the neighborhood. He’d also rather not fixate on
how great things used to be.

“Nothing stands still,” says Zawinski. “The real question is can
you change it? You can always affect things — so can you change
it in a way that will make you as happy with it in the future as
you were in the past? Maybe it won’t be the same, but it might
be something else you also like.”

Perhaps it’s the malleability of code that makes some
programmers, especially free software programmers, so optimistic
that they can fix things, that problems are solvable, that a
solution is always waiting to be found. Software can be
fixed. Programmers live in a world where reality can be shaped
according to their will — all they have to do is write another
line of code.

Zawinski’s triumphant appearance before the board of appeals
might suggest that he is finding San Francisco politics as
amenable to his manipulation as digital ones and zeroes. It does
help, of course, to have the cash to buy know-how — Zawinski
concedes that he has hired “many people to advise me on many
subjects.” It also helps to be on a politically popular side of
an issue. The board of appeals commissioners clearly did not want
to be accused of killing fun in San Francisco, and several of
them grandstanded before the assembled crowd as if they
themselves were running for office.

Whether or not the future will be as friendly is, of course,
anyone’s guess. Zawinski hasn’t completed his purchase yet,
although it is in escrow and he’s confident that “unless
something unexpected” happens, he should have no serious
roadblocks ahead. There’s also no telling if his plans to make
the DNA Lounge a “total nerd-space” — complete with interactive
video and live Webcasts for bands — will be a success. If the
police, stung by their defeat at the board of appeals, decide to
make Zawinski’s life miserable they have the power to do so, no
matter how many stock options Zawinski has exercised.

But it’s the effort that inspires, not necessarily the outcome.
Many free-software programmers believe they can change the world
for the better. So far, most have done it by writing software.
But there really are no limits to where their passion can be put
to work.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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