Dunc-Tank, Debian, and crises in general

For those who've been hiding under a rock for the last few months: dunc-tank is the (controversion) project that was founded by the current DPL, Anthony 'aj' Towns. Controversial, because a lot of people feel that this goes against the spirit of Debian; and that by paying some Debian people and not paying others, we're creating a two-class system that we'd best avoid. And probably a bunch of other arguments, too, but that's not what this blog post is about.

Me, I've been staying rather quiet in the whole debate. It's not that I don't have an opinion; rather, I haven't been voicing it, mostly because my thoughts on the matter are rather convoluted, and I'm not sure I can put them in words pretty well. But since the debate seems to be going in circles, and since I think that I might be able to help it out, I'll try anyway. If that doesn't bring the debate any further, well—can't blame me for trying.

Do I think that paying people to do work on Debian is necessarily a bad idea? No, not at all. Quite to the contrary; by paying people to work full-time on Debian for a while, we will increase the amount of work that's being put into Debian, which can only be a good thing; and I can only applaud aj for trying to get this done, since it should be obvious to anyone involved that by proposing this, he only had Debian's best interests (i.e., improve our distribution) in mind. The obvious question, however, is who we'll be paying. After all, while I don't think it's necessarily bad to pay people, I do think that with money, you introduce the possibility for corruption; so at the very least, it should be strictly checked what exactly happens with the money that's being spent. Accordingly, the way in which you pay people—your whole set-up and procedures—should have a number of safeguards. Which brings me to my next point.

Do I think that dunc-tank, as a project, is a good idea? No, not at all. Quite to the contrary; and I have a number of reasons for that. First, I don't think that deciding by committee who can get paid and who can't is the way to go forward. A committee will always be biased, no matter how diverse its membership. Even if you could find a committee that would not be biased—an impossibility by definition—then there will still be people who will not agree with the committee's decision. Are they right not to agree? Not necessarily. Is it bad to create such controversy if it could be avoided? Sure as hell.

Moreover, by creating a project which populated by Debian people and which has the sole purpose of paying Debian people, it's fairly possible to create the impression as if all other ways to get paid to do Debian work would be unsound; that if a developer accepts money for Debian work without going through the committee, he's somehow doing something morally wrong. This would be very bad indeed; I know for a fact that there are cases of people paying Debian Developers to work a few days on a certain package so that a certain bug which impedes their business is fixed, or so that a certain version of a random package which this company is using, is uploaded into the archive. I've done this myself in the past (although I can't disclose more, since the person who paid me requested to remain anonymous); I know of at least two other Debian Developers who've done so as well.

So what's the alternative? Not paying people is one, but it would not necessarily be the best. One alternative, which the FreeBSD people have been doing, is just "no organization at all". People who want to get paid just put up a web page with the amount of money they would like to have, and it's up to the community to decide whether their request is valuable enough for it to actually be paid. To some extent, this is also what the Dunc-Tank committee is doing, except that as FreeBSD does it, there is no committee in between. The problem with this approach, however, is that if we all go ahead and ask for money at the same time, it'll not only make us look like a bunch of beggars; it's also very likely that nobody will actually be getting any money, because there's so many "good causes" to choose from that there might not be enough donations to fund them all.

Another proposal was one made by Manoj Srivastava, before word got out that dunc-tank would be started (or about at that time). As it was made on the debian-private mailinglist, I can't say much about that; suffice to say that I feel his proposal was overly bureaucratic, and had problems that were similar in nature to the problems I feel exist with dunc-tank.

So do I have any answers which might get us a way out of the current status quo? Nope, afraid not. But allow me to make this final observation:

In early 2005, a bunch of people decided that Vancouver was a nice place, and travelled there. As it happened, they were all Debian people. What a coincidence. Since they were all there anyway, they decided to talk a bit about Debian, and as a result, came up with some plan for its future. This plan, too, was rather controversial. When I initially read the first few paragraphs, I suddenly fell upon this paragraph which seemed to say that "we suspect we won't be releasing with anything but i386, amd64, and powerpc for etch". Things suddenly turned kinda red from then on. And it wasn't the wine that I hadn't been drinking.

I could imagine that what I felt back then is somewhat similar to what some other people felt when they first heard about the suggestion to pay people for Debian work; and this realization is the reason why I haven't been dismissing their arguments or thoughts, much like I've seen other people do. However, I cannot say that I feel the current crisis to have many parallels with the Vancouver one; this is mostly because in the current case, people on both side of the argument seem to be building up walls around themselves, to help them ignore whatever the other side was saying. In contrast, when someone suggested something which had the potential effect of throwing most of the hard work I'd been putting in for Debian during the last five years now down the drain, I went to talk with them—after the heat had cooled down, anyway. Unfortunately for me, the result is exactly the same; for all my effort, I haven't been able to prevent m68k to be kicked out of the release; and to say I'm not happy about this would be an understatement. But at least this way the port has been given a fair chance; if I hadn't been talking to the people on the other side of the argument, I would still be talking about Steve Langasek as if he were the devil himself, and m68k would probably have been kicked out of Debian—along with a bunch of other architectures. At least I got that bit fixed.

I guess what I'm saying is that people, rather than farting in eachother's general direction, should be working together in finding a compromise. Sure, that means making concessions, and agreeing to something you'd rather not agree to. But at least this way, the thing you have to agree to isn't as bad as what it could be. And trust me, people will do the stuff you don't want them to do, with or without your agreement. Hell, they've already started.

Whoa, long post. I'll stop preaching now.