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Talking freely with Freenet coder Brandon Wiley

By JT Smith on May 29, 2001 (8:00:00 AM)

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- By Julie Bresnick -
Open Source people -
Brandon Wiley, avid programmer and original coder of peer-to-peer service Freenet may talk like a valley girl, but all those "likes" and "umms" seem more like the hiccup that occurs when you try to pour water out of a bottle too fast than the diction of a diaphanous character.
Indeed, he has blonde hair and round dew-drop eyes, but he also has so many projects going on it takes a few days for them all to come to mind. In an email a few days after we spoke via telephone for nearly an hour he wrote, "I should have mentioned being a playwright when you asked about hobbies. I've had one short, one medium, and one full-length piece produced. I also starred in a college production of Waiting For Godot. I also make experimental films (and soon music videos). And I play 3 instruments (badly)."

He's been in the talented and gifted program since third grade. He took college courses for his last two years of high school. Familiar with the small class size and deliberate challenge of advanced courses, he applied and enrolled in an honors program at the University of Texas, Austin.

He says people take the Plan II Liberal Arts Honors Program either because they want to do everything or because they don't know yet what they want to do.

"I was in the 'want to do everything' school so, like, I couldn't stand, like, not being able to take some philosophy classes. So I was a computer science major but I had to take some philosophy classes, y'know, and the English classes to be happy, so I took this kind of side honors major thing and then I switched [from computer science] to convergent media because the computer science at UT was too much about math and proof and stuff where as the convergent media was all about using technology," and here his cell phone dips out, "making things ... software, digital things.

"I always wanted to be an artist except that I didn't have any artistic talent. When I found computers, like, I was all, like, this is kind of like math and science except it's kind of artistic at the same time, so I can vent my artistic expression using the more math and science-oriented side of my brain which was better 'cause like I can't draw or anything, but I can do math and so that's how I got into computers. It was a perfect match, exactly what I was looking for."

About three years ago he had a few favorite Web sites (which he won't disclose for fear of judgment) that kept getting threatened with lawsuits. The sites, too small to endure official persecution, had to shut down. He says this made him "sad," so he started researching a "technical solution to Internet censorship."

Usually, even when offered an existing program, Wiley likes to start from scratch. But when he discovered Ian Clarke's bachelor's thesis paper [in PDF format] for an architecture called Freenet, he decided it was close enough.

"I thought it sounded pretty good, so I was all like, 'hey can I download this Freenet thing,' and he's all like, 'actually I just wrote the paper. There's not actually any code yet.' So I was, like, 'OK, I guess I'll go ahead and write it' because I was going to write something else but I might as well just write this. At least there's another guy I could work on it with."

Wiley says the Freenet development was just him for the first six months. Then another programmer came on, and then after another six months, another guy showed up, and so on. Now he's slowly stepping down from the project because there are too many cooks for his kitchen.

"It's too hard to do it my way and I don't want to argue all the time and I can't not argue if I don't think it's the right way to do it. So I've kind of pulled back and I'm writing applications that work on top of Freenet."

Having just graduated from UT about a week ago, he plans on working at a camp for disabled kids and writing code. If he can't find a good job programming he'll go back to school, which really, he says, is "just like getting the government to fund my big project."

"I have so much work that I have to do on making the world a better place that I don't have time to get a job at the moment. That's my big dilemma."

It's a heck of a dilemma for 22-year-old on the speaker circuit. At an upcoming O'Reilly conference in Washington, D.C., he'll be on a panel, giving a talk, and running a tutorial. He loves attending the conferences, where he gets to hang with his out-of-state peers and talk about hard technical problems that interest him, and also enjoys getting up in front of rooms full of people.

"I think I come off as kind of eccentric because a lot of people at conferences are there to sell their product, you know, they're all like, 'here's why we're the best company,' but I don't really have a company and I don't really, like, have any funding or any press. I just kind of write software in my bedroom. I just go there to tell people about this cool stuff that I did, and maybe it's totally useless but it was fun."

Ironically, don't ever look for him at a conference according to a picture you've seen. Demonstrative of the peer-to-peer sharing that achieves the anonymity that makes Freenet so effective, Wiley likes to play with his identity by offering photographs of his friends when one of Wiley himself is requested.

Freenet, which is touted along with Gnutella and Napster as pioneering the peer-to-peer file exchange market, is the "most famous" project he's working on, but he's got at least four other projects to which he's currently dedicating his time.

Everything Over Freenet is going to make things such as news, chat and email available over Freenet. He's working on some video editing software to make a video for a song his friend Steve wrote and an architecture for distributed sound processing but it's Momoko that he's most excited about.

He started Momoko for his senior thesis. It's an architecture for building distributed applications.

"I try really hard not to do so much work. I try really hard to use other people's stuff, but then I always find that it's not quite right, and I end up having to re-implement it, but then if I re-implement it my way I have to do it nice ,so I can release it to the public and people can use it. A lot of the time, y'know, people re-implement stuff and they don't completely finish it, they just make it work for them and that's just depressing."

He even has a hard time playing video games, because when "I play video games I feel like I have to write a video game."

He makes it sound like he starts projects on a whim. He says he did not anticipate the popularity of Freenet, that "it's just funny because, it's just this like little side project that just kind of got everyone all excited."

I guess it was hard to believe that Buffy was going to save the world, too, but I certainly tuned in on Tuesday's for the last three years to watch her kick evil's butt.

About Brandon Wiley

Favorite mail reader: pine

Favorite editor: nano (Open Source version of pico)

Favorite OS: Debian unstable/testing

Poet: e.e. cummings

Movie: Johnny Suede

Beverage: Tea

Alcoholic beverage: Margarita (frozen, with salt)

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