I have had the pleasure of reading nearly all of Carl Sagan’s books, and while I have walked away from each with new insights and a more refined perspective of own my place in the universe, the one in particular that made the most profound difference in my life was Billions and Billions. In the penultimate chapter of the book, and indeed the last one that he himself would pen before tragically succumbing to pneumonia after a relentless fight against a bone marrow disease, Sagan does something completely uncharacteristic: he discusses his personal life.
“For years, near my shaving mirror- so I see it every morning,” he writes, “I have kept a framed postcard. On the back is a penciled message to a Mr. James Day in Swansea Valley, Wales.” The message reads:
Just a line to show that I am alive & kicking and going grand. It’s a treat.
On the front of the postcard is a color photograph of the RMS Titanic. It was postmarked a single day before the ship collided with that fateful iceberg, ending over 1,500 lives, including that of the aforementioned WJR. For Sagan and his wife, Ann Druyan, the postcard was a reminder that “going grand” can be “the most temporary and illusory state.” This passage left a great mark on me in a number of ways, but in particular it implanted the idea of placing a visual reminder for myself somewhere I would see it daily.
The first time I tried Ubuntu, back when I was just a 14 year old kid, I felt that my life had magically changed forever. It was the start of the next big chapter. It introduced me to the concept of free software, lead to me sharpening my technical skills, helped me decide on a future career path, and allowed me to meet so many incredible people in the various open source and free culture communities. Without hyperbole, discovering Linux in no small way shaped my life and sent me down the path that brings me to today.
Shortly after discovering Ubuntu, I became aware of a small company somewhere on the other side of the U.S. that actually sold computers with Ubuntu already installed. What a novel idea! Being a young teenager, I of course didn’t have any money to buy a new computer, but I learned that they also offered another service: apparently, if you sent them a self-addressed envelope, they would send you a set of stickers that you could use to replace the Windows logos on your keyboard and computer case. How cool! I couldn’t wait to test it out. I scribbled my name and address on an envelope (my handwriting sadly never improved over the years), licked the adhesive strip, and sent it on its merry way. A month later, after I had completely forgotten about the whole ordeal, my parents delivered an envelope to me with my name on it. Sure enough, the kind folks at System76 had delivered on their promise. It wasn’t long before I took Sagan’s wisdom to heart and placed a sticker somewhere I would see it each day: my bathroom mirror.
Since my early high school years, the System76 sticker, as well as an old-school generic Ubuntu sticker that I ordered from Canonical, has served as a daily reminder for me. They remind me why I want to be a software developer. They inspire me to do what I can to chip in, make something cool, and share it with others. They help me remember why it is so important to use software that values your rights and freedoms. They help remind me of why the free software community is so unique, and filled with such talented, friendly, and all-around incredible people.
System76, in my mind, is the embodiment of that philosophy. They make truly outstanding hardware, do all that they can to share free software with the world, and go above and beyond to make their users remarkably happy. Last summer I was finally able to purchase one of their machines, and it is absolutely lovely. Not only that, but the entire buying experience was incredible. They called me the day I placed the order just to thank me and welcome me as a customer. When a stick of RAM suddenly died, the tech support was unlike any other I have experienced. They listened to my problem and shipped replacement memory to me immediately. Instead of talking down to me, or insisting that a service rep perform the memory swap, they trusted me to do it myself. Their respect for their users is evident in every interaction, and I will forever be a fan.
I don’t want to suck up too much, so I’ll end this essay here. In the past seven years or so, System76 has meant a great deal to me. There aren’t many companies I can say that about. Every day, whether I’m brushing my teeth or writing code on my Sable complete, System76 helps remind me of what is important. And although I’m not an Ubuntu user any more, their dedication to helping everyday users enjoy free software is admirable. Now, if only I could help convince them to start shipping computers with elementary OS.