A letter to Gene Kan

I met Gene Kan only once, but he was part of the tight-knit community of peer-to-peer programmers; he was “one of us”. Hence, this entry. Since I consider this a human story more than a technical story, it appears here rather than in my tech blog, “The Happiest Geek on Earth”.

Photo: Gene Kan

Dear Gene,

You don’t know me very well. We met only once, at that debutante cotillion of peer-to-peer developers that they called the O’Reilly Peer-To-Peer Conference in San Fran back in February 2001. I was the guy from OpenCola with the accordion. You know, the annoying one.

I don’t know you very well either — I just know of your involvement with Gnutella, then gonesilent, and then Sun, where you got brought onto the JXTA project. Part of my job at OpenCola, being the Developer Relations guy, was to schmooze other developers. It was my job to keep in touch with guys like you and find areas in which our companies could collaborate. To that end, I kept records of not only what projects you were working on, but also those little niggly personal touches — your likes, dislikes, and so on. The kind of thing that Malcolm Gladwell said that “connectors” do. For instance, for this gentleman, I have “Likes heavier, darker, gothier music. Martial arts. Allergic to chicken.”

(All that shows up in my notes for you is “Likes cars. Dresses up for conferences. Sardonic.” I don’t know if you’d like that summary or not, but I can imagine you going “ha!” in response.)

Yes, we were professional rivals — you were the technical spokesperson for Gnutella, I was roughly the same for OpenCola. In the end, you had us beat; there are lots of Gnutella clients out there trading files right now, while OpenCola’s software remains in perpetual not-quite-finished limbo in a crappy office park north of Toronto. But like the restaurant business, rivalries in the P2P world were largely for show; it was competition at the front door and camaraderie at the back. We exchanged ideas, jokes, “war stories”, and even autographs. Well, I got your autograph — I didn’t write anything for the P2P book, but you did:

Photo: Table of contents of 'Peer-To-Peer: Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies'.

There you are, among the brightest lights of the P2P world, in a book by one of the most repected computer book publishers. No small feat, that.

(Note to Adam Langley: Yes, I did get your autograph, but you signed it for chapter 9, which unfortunately was on the following page.)

You did a lot by the age of 23 (which you were in 2000, when peer-to-peer technolgies were coming onto the general public’s radar). My big accomplishment at 23 was getting kicked out of school. I tip my hat to you for your hard work, your tenacity, and your drive to keep putting more software out there. I could learn a thing or two from you.

Come to think of it, I did. I owe you a debt of gratitude for your work on Gnutella, on which I based my first open source project. When OpenCola’s CEO, Grad Conn, was shown Gnutella by our CTO, John Henson, he was blown away. “This,” he declared, “is what I want our software to be like.” I found myself coordinating a project called Gnutelevision (which later became COLAvision), a Gnutella client married to a streaming server. It essentially trawled the ad-hoc network made up of Gnutella clients, hoovered up MP3s and video files and then broadcast them as a live stream — kind of like having a preview channel for the Internet. Based on the source of your Gnutella client and notes, I distilled a spec (shown here and here) from which we were able to build up that first version of COLAvision, which was well received at Def Con that year. My first foray into the world of open source was a success, and you’re one of the people whom I must thank.

You might find this hard to believe, but you and I might’ve gotten along pretty well, maybe even worked well together. I don’t know why, but I tend to seek out curmudgeons in my partnerships. Like this guy and this guy, with whom I’ve shared some nice little successes and colossal failures and this guy, with whom I’ve worked at three companies that imploded and our own little software consulting firm, which did rather nicely for itself. Perhaps it’s a yin-yang thing. Or maybe I just want to live in a “buddy” film. Or maybe driving people with opposite temperaments crazy is my idea of fun. Anyhow, I’d have been the zen goofball countering your insatiable drive, zigging where you zagged, the Flava Flav to your Chuck D. It’s a shame we didn’t get much of a chance to hang out.

Another reason I think we would’ve gotten along well is that I’ve read what you’ve written. You love analogies and you love being a smartass. Me too! In the P2P book, you compared the client-server model of computing to a cocktail party, and in this biting funny entry in your blog, you likened air travel to a brutal prison. I like the way you think.

The best evidence that we would’ve gotten along comes from your friend Yaro, who wrote these heartfelt words:

I knew Gene not through articles or interviews. I knew him as the guy I could call when I was having trouble changing a flat tire – and as someone who would say “stay right there, I’ll be there in ten minutes.” He was the guy I could ask if my tie was correctly knotted or what his thoughts on the Israeli Prime Minister were. He was someone that would check his character judgements with me and someone who would start whispering to me a hilarious idea in the middle of a boring meeting. In this land of minute friendships started at “events” and held up by lunch meetings, I’ve experienced two emotions that are equally impossible to describe: happiness to have called him my friend and the overwhelming, all-devouring sense of loss.

Of all your accomplishments, out of everything you’ve done, being a friend of this calibre trumps them all. It is your greatest achievement and your greatest example.

This weekend, may I suggest that you look Earthward for just a moment? If you look carefully, you’ll see a goofy guy with an accordion slung on his back, raising a glass of Guinness skyward in your honour.

So long, and thanks for all the packets,


Recommended Reading

The news reports:

The personal entries:

Some interviews:

Gene’s blog, This Place Sucks

Memorial Fund

A memorial fund is being set up in Kan’s name at UC Berkeley. Donations can be sent to the following address: In memory of Gene Kan; Manager, Gift Stewardship; College of Engineering; University of California, Berkeley; 201 McLaughlin Hall; Berkeley, Calif., 94720-1722. Checks should be made out to “UC Regents” but clearly marked for the Gene Kan fund.

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