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Lessons in living from a quadrapalegic friend

Posted by robogeek on October 9, 2006 at 2:35 PM PDT

Recently my friend Ed Bennett died. I'd lost track of him, and it was interesting that I learned about his death because of a comment left for me on this blog. He and I had in the 1980's led an open source project which I've written about before. Over the weekend a memorial service was held for him, and I learned something which is intriguing me.

Ed was quadrapalegic due to a skiing accident during his senior year in high school. I only knew him in a wheel chair, but in his life (I learned in the memorial service) he didn't let a little thing like paralysis stop him. His skiing accident happened in December of his senior year (1978?), he went into rehabilitation, learned how to manage living from a wheel chair, and graduated with his class from high school. That fall he entered college at the U of Kentucky in the Electrical Engineering department.

He eventually earned a masters in Electrical Engineering. During his college years he and I worked on several projects related to Usenet and Internet e-mail. We both were network admins for Unix systems on campus so we both had to work on system config and software installation and reliability etc for the Usenet and e-mail services of our users. One project we took on together was to co-lead the MMDF project, for a few years. And it was that which brought both of us to work in Silicon Valley, and we worked together at The Wollongong Group designing and building a commercial X.400 email server.

Ed lived for 27 years as a quadralapegic and didn't let his condition slow him down. He enjoyed life, he traveled, he went to concerts, he had a full career in Silicon Valley, etc. To work as a software engineer he typed using a mouth stick and several interesting techniques. One side effect of this, to minimize the amount of typing he did, he always thought out his code very carefully and wrote very compact code. His major project the last few years was to automate his house so he could control "everything" through computerized control systems.

The last month or so as I thought back to my friend Ed, I realized something.

There were several times I had an opportunity to learn to ski, but I didn't. In my mind I could only see Ed in a wheelchair because of a skiing accident, and I didn't want that to happen to me. And it wasn't just skiing there are many ways where I let fear keep me from partaking in more of life. There were directions I could have chosen, trips I could have made, etc, which I didn't do because I was afraid.

But that's not what Ed was demonstrating, was he? His life was about getting out and living. His life was about enjoying life, not holding back from living fully. His life was about doing what he wanted regardless of the challenges he had. The lesson I took from his life was different than the lesson he was demonstrating.

Hmmm... Thank you Ed for finally making this clear to me.

Since this is java.net and I'm posting to the JDK Community, let me offer a small and tenuous link between this story and Java.

For years we in the Java SE team have been saying it didn't make sense to Open Source Java SE. We had a pretty decent reason, didn't we? The fear of hostile forking, right?

The value of Java is enhanced when everybody's implementation is compatible. Right?

This fear of incompatible forks is what's kept us for years from having Java be an open source project. It's interesting to ponder the question .. did this keep Java from living more fully? Or did it protect Java? It's rather hard to look at our decisions and know whether it was the right thing to do. We did what we did, and we are where we are.

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