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Illiad Talks with LWM

UserFriendly, the world of IT, and artificial stimulants

One of the perks (and believe me, there aren't many) of being senior editor of a magazine is that sometimes you can share a personal addiction with the rest of the world. For me, UserFriendly is that addiction.

UserFriendly is drawn by J.D. Frazer, better known by his nom de plume of "Illiad." Born in Hong Kong, he is now a naturalized Canadian citizen living in Vancouver. If you're not one of the million and a half people already reading this online cartoon strip, here's a quick synopsis. Columbia Internet is just your average ISP, populated by a pair of techies, an overwhelmed phone support guy, an ubergeek with dreams of world domination, and another one who cut his teeth on punch cards. Add in a comptroller who never stops smiling, a befuddled CEO, an artificial intelligence living in what looks like a classic Mac, and a creature that spontaneously evolved from dust inside a server, and you have your typical day at the office. Oh yes, and there's also the world's most clueless marketeer.

Every month, you'll find a reprint of a UserFriendly strip in LinuxWorld Magazine (selected by me, another rare perk). But every day, you can find a fresh strip at www.userfriendly.org, along with a very active discussion board that, on a good day, might actually be discussing the comic strip. Recently, I got to chat with Illiad about the strip, the world of IT, and artificial stimulants.

LWM: What would you say are the demographics of your typical reader?
Illiad:
Well, three quarters of that person are an IT worker. There's one-quarter that is anything but. There's anything from military personnel, scientists, and engineers to people who are just retired, students – students tend to come from one of the computer sciences, or they're working in engineering. And then there's that sliver in the demographics that's fairly odd; you wouldn't expect them to read a geek comic strip. They're salespeople, marketeers, some doctors, and – I'm trying to remember what the oddest one was – I remember an actress....Oh yeah! An orchard grower. He grows orchards.

LWM: The FAQ on your site alludes to you being an IT worker, but it's a bit vague on the details. Can you give us a quick synopsis of your history?
Illiad:
Sure. It's mostly been in multimedia. I really kicked off my recent IT career in Web dev and Web design. The job that really got me into it was when the Web was just beginning to take off; it was when Netscape had just gone to version 1.1, I remember that very specifically. I was messing around with Mosaic for a while, and Navigator, they decided to bump Navigator from 1.0 to 1.1, and that was kind of a pivotal point for me. I was hired by western Canada's largest ISP to start up their Web services division. So that was what I did, and I shared a lot of the pain that tech support people do, because I also did Web support for people. So here I am, desperately try to get this business unit going, and I managed to succeed, but in the meantime, I'm also trying to support people over the phone. There's nothing more painful than trying to explain HTML to someone who's in their late fifties and is convinced that they're far more intelligent and educated than I am, and they probably are more educated, but they insist that the solution that I'm giving them is incorrect, and they're using things like blink tags...there was a lot of pain. That was kind of the real kick-off in the last little while. Prior to that, I've been messing around with computer technology probably from day one, I mean when I was 11 or 12 years old.

LWM: Looking at the strip, the characters seem to generally support the open source movement, with the exception perhaps of Stef (the marketeer). Do you tend to use open source systems and tools?
Illiad:
Yeah I do, I really do. I use them where I can. I'm not a zealot, it doesn't matter what dictionary you open up, I don't fall under that definition of zealot. And that means a zealot for either end of the bell curve. I appreciate open source for quite a few reasons, and a few of them are ethical reasons. One of them is that I much prefer having a choice, you know? Okay, Apple has produced some pretty cool stuff, and Microsoft has produced maybe one or two really interesting apps in their lifetime that don't fall apart when I need them most, but I like having the ability to pick and choose where I want to, not having to be forced into the mold that either Mr. Gates or Mr. Jobs feels I should. That's, I suppose, where the majority of my emphasis is. It gives people a choice.

LWM: To what extent do you try to use open source tools like GIMP when you're doing the strip? Or are we going to find a copy of Photoshop hiding on your machine?
Illiad:
You will find a copy of Photoshop. However, you will also find a copy of GIMP. I have a dual-boot system. I'm learning SuSE Linux as well as XP. And the only reason I don't use GIMP entirely – I've already spoken to the GIMP developers when I was in Germany, and they're really cool – but what I need is for GIMP to be completely pre-press ready, it needs all of the bits and pieces that Photoshop does really well. And when GIMP does that, I can punt Windows and I can punt Photoshop forever and I'll be really happy with that. Up until that point, I use GIMP from time to time. I don't necessarily use it in day-today production, but I do keep up with it, to see where those guys are headed with it, 'cause I'm pretty pleased with it.

Now as for the rest of it, I use OpenOffice for my documents, so as I said, where I can I use open source.

LWM: We've seen the BSD demon in the strip a lot, usually to dis' Linux in some way. Is this your opinion, or are you just playing off the tension between BSD and Linux?
Illiad:
I think I'm playing off the natural tension. I mean, I've messed around with BSD a bit, and I think it's pretty neat. I like the fact that NetBSD is sweet right out of the box. But what I try to do in the cartoon strip is make some kind of comment, some kind of social commentary about what's really going on right now. And I have seen groups of BSDers together with groups of Linux advocates, and it's like a really hot caldron – all you're doing is pouring oil on top of a really hot fire. Just hearing the heated debates and discussion going on between those two groups is eye opening. It can be entertaining, and it's great fodder for the cartoon strip.

LWM: Kind of in a "watching a train wreck" sort of way.
Illiad:
Yeah, exactly. A train comes off the rails, and it's sad, you know people are dying, but you just can't tear your eyes away.

LWM: I've been waiting for you to address the whole "GNU Linux" controversy.
Illiad:
That is going to happen. I've sort of been reserving that for a much longer story arc because I've met Richard Stallman and he's really bright, and there's no question in my mind that the open source movement, or free software movement, needs someone with completely inflexible ethics and morals and philosophy. But oh my God, some of the things Richard does just blow me away. I've watched people walk up to him with glowing admiration in their eyes, and five minutes later they walk away in near tears because…

LWM: Because he's told them they're scum, they're working for money.
Illiad:
(laughing) Yeah, right.

LWM: So are we ever going to see Tux and the BSD demon duke it out?
Illiad:
Yeah, I have. I'm trying to recall if it was at PC Expo, or it might have been at LinuxWorld in San Jose. I actually saw someone in a mascot costume take on a couple of BSD girls, and it was kind of surreal. I suppose if you had taken certain drugs before, it would have been really exciting. But it's certainly given me some food for thought.

LWM: To some extent, your strip is kind of an open source project itself in that the readers influence the concept of your strip. Has that been a benefit to you?
Illiad:
I think so, and I think it's been key to the success of the cartoon strip. Simply because it goes to the whole Web cartoon versus print cartoon thing. UserFriendly was actually syndicated for a while, and I was quite pleased when it stopped, because that's a completely different ball game. But one of the things about being a Web cartoonist is that you have this conduit between yourself as the creator/ writer/whatever and the audience, and that conduit is just made out of pure gold. You're not in an ivory tower, even if you want to be in one, and there are some print cartoonists, unfortunately, that do that. Having an audience whose entire ethic is the heart and soul of the cartoon strip, when things change, or their opinion about certain politics regarding technology rise to the forefront, you as the creator really need to be on top of it, really need to keep your finger on it. And having that connection with the audience allows me to do that, I can respond very quickly.

LWM: You obviously have strong opinions about some of the stereotypical characters of the IT world these days.What would you say are the real strengths and weaknesses of the IT workforce?
Illiad:
I think the strengths are very clear. They've been obvious to geeks and the rest of the world from day one. Very intelligent people, very dedicated if they love what they do. Incredibly stubborn, but not in a bad way – stubborn in the sense that if there's a problem in front of them, they'll solve it. If they need X to do it, they'll do it. They'll come up with X.

I think the weaknesses are the things that the rest of the world see clearly but a lot of geeks don't. That in itself is a failing. Probably the greatest weakness most geeks have, if they have a weakness, is their inability to look at the world from the point of view of, what should I use for a term? A normal person? A mundane? I hate using that. A nongeek, there you go!

And because of that, you run into all sorts of communication problems. So this traditional chasm, this rift between the geek and the nongeek, the technologist and the marketeer, exists mostly because of this disconnect between the two sides. I'm probably going to get tarred and feathered for this, but I believe a lot of problems that arise in a technology office arise because the geeks don't have patience and don't take the time to improve their communication skills with the other people.

Don't get me wrong, it's obvious that on the other side of the rift there's some work that needs to be going on. I mean, you really do have two cultures there because they both come from different backgrounds, and they both have different sets of values, and the sets of values are where you get all the headbutting. I mean, most geeks I know are either highly ethical or close to it. Most marketeers I know, they'd like to be ethical, and some take it very personally if they're asked to do something unethical. But on the same note I think where they get their juice is from financial success, whereas most geeks I know get all of their excitement, thrill, and self-fulfillment from technological success, being able to solve a problem in a meaningful way.

LWM: A frequent butt of humor in your strip is the clueless tech support call. Isn't a lot of it an issue with software that's simply poorly written or supported?
Illiad:
I agree. I've actually done a few strips where it was clearly Greg who was being the jackass, not the caller. I do see that side of it. What's unfortunate is that I don't think a lot of geeks see that, that there's a significant percentage of the geek audience that believes that they're [the callers] the only ones who could ever possibly be wrong in a help desk situation. I suppose the cartoon strip reflects that.

LWM: I'm thinking specifically about a prevalent industry attitude that if it works 95% of the time, who cares about the graphics board that we don't support? What's the tech support guy going to do? It's not his fault! "I'm sorry, you're up the creek, have fun...."
Illiad:
Yeah, he's the sacrificial lamb of the day. I think that's got to be in the job description, that you're quite willing to be the scapegoat. I do agree with you, if it works 95% of the time, I've been involved with projects where the lead comes back and says, "Look, we're in like early beta or late alpha," and the producer says, "Fine, ship it," and off the software goes!

LWM: If you had to compare your life as an IT person with your life as a cartoonist, what would you say are the big similarities and differences?
Illiad:
Day-to-day grief is probably the one that comes to mind right away. When you work in IT, there's almost always a problem that comes up, almost on a daily basis, that causes you some kind of grief or headache, or you just need to stop and say, "I need some caffeine badly." When it comes to cartooning, it can be very hit or miss in the sense that when your well runs dry, it's dry. There's nothing you can do to recover. You just need to give it time to refill. So you live with that almost every day; on really good days you can pump out the writing for 6 or 10 or 11 cartoon strips and you're laughing all the way to the bank. Some days you don't even do one. So you just do it when you have it, and you don't do it when you don't. So in some ways, this is like IT work. On some days, the solutions to problems come to you like they were being handed to you on a silver platter. On other days you could be sitting there staring at a blank wall and wondering what the hell you're doing in this industry and hamburgers don't sound so bad, just frying and flipping them over on the grill, put it on a bun and there you go, you collect your eight bucks an hour.

LWM: By the way, what is your caffeine of choice, since the subject is featured in a lot of strips?
Illiad:
Oh, it really varies. Right now though, it's chai. I am a huge fan of chai latte. I drink them like they're going out of style. Prior to that it was Red Fusion, I love Dr. Pepper.

More Stories By James Turner

James Turner is president of Black Bear Software. James was formerly senior editor of Linux.SYS-CON.com and has also written for Wired, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. He is currently working on his third book on open source development.

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Most Recent Comments
Ken 12/12/03 10:08:13 PM EST

But Erwin has been stuffed into an iMac on a couple of occasions.

Original iMac: http://ars.userfriendly.org/cartoons/?id=19980919

New iMac:
http://ars.userfriendly.org/cartoons/?id=20020201

Jon Williams 11/30/03 11:47:41 PM EST

On addictions, I thought Chai Latte was exclusively mine! I've been able to satisfy my cravings for latte at www.chaiforless.com

Andy Denner 11/10/03 08:32:22 AM EST

I remember him being stuck into an xbox and a calculator but not a classic mac.

Rick Carlson 11/05/03 12:02:22 PM EST

Erwin has taken on (or been stuffed into) many different containers. Classical Mac must have been one of them at some point (whether or not it was noted in the strip).

Moosehead 10/28/03 05:17:38 AM EST

Erwin is living in an SGI O2. That thing is not similar to a classical Mac and it certainly doesn't look like it.