Some of us like to think that systems and data and processes are the bones, brains and blood of any venture. And for the most part that’s true. But what body can thrive without a heart?
This isn’t just rhetorical. The question came up for me a few days ago when I received the devastating news that a very good friend had passed away.
Gary Birkett was no ordinary acquaintance for me. I first encountered him online in the maemo.org community, when Maemo was still pulsing with fresh interest and (despite occasional lapses) Nokia seemed strongly behind the mobile Linux effort. Gary showed up as “lcuk” in early 2008 and began peppering the discussion forum with unusual questions and wild ideas. He exhibited an amazingly deep and broad understanding of graphics software and hardware, so deep that even with my own background in the fields he lost me easily. I think that was true for many in the community. His useful knowledge and friendly manner made him an instant hit in Maemo circles.
He wasn’t a prolific forum poster, but made up for that lack with a persistent presence on IRC. It didn’t seem to matter what time or day, or that I am in Texas and he was in Manchester, England– whenever I signed on, there he was. Always greeting new arrivals and sometimes pulling me into impromptu private conversations about nothing and everything.
I mention all of this because even though he joined in a little later than some of us, Gary quickly became part of Maemo’s core. That was easily apparent at the second Maemo Conference, held in Amsterdam. Gary’s mindblowing demos of liqflow were so popular that neither his new Nokia N900 nor his fingers got a rest… and as I noted in one story in his tribute thread:
In Amsterdam one night we all went to a club at Nokia’s treat, but the music was so loud several of us went outside. It started raining lightly and I was the only one with an umbrella, so we huddled underneath, heads bumping occasionally, as Gary shared his liqbase touch-responsive particle swarming demo. We were all charged up by it and kept throwing ideas at him, until finally he couldn’t take it anymore and had to run back to his hotel room to code.
That was Gary.
Gary was the sort of person to whom people gravitated. They were pulled in by his talent, his cheer, his never-say-die attitude. I guess the irony of that is what hit me so hard when his passing was announced on Twitter.
lcuk… dead??? It couldn’t be! I’m still struggling to come to grip with the thought…
He leaves the open mobile world at a time when MeeGo battles abandonment rumors and maemo.org tries to imagine life in a post-Nokia time. He also leaves behind a family that includes a baby I know he was so proud of fathering.
Some have remarked that his passing is symbolic, at least for Maemo, but I would rather focus on Gary’s life and contributions. His seemed a life worth celebrating. Interest in his interactive graphics work led to a celebrity stint at Nokia’s onedotzero 2009, where he displayed a spectacular N900 app projected outdoors and earned the praise of many ranging from Maemo newcomers to Nokia executives.
But praise alone only goes so far. A community isn’t just about its projects and prospects– it’s about the people that make them happen, often in surprisingly brilliant fashion. People of all types, backgrounds, modes of contribution. A successful community embraces them all and supports that diversity not passively, but with passion. With a heartfelt recognition that anything less leads nowhere.
Every community needs heart, and Maemo and MeeGo just lost a good one. It will be up to the rest of us keep the lifeblood flowing. Let’s do “lcuk” proud.
Gary, thanks for the friendship and inspiration. We’re all missing you, mate. Our thoughts are with your family and other friends.