Visit of Richard Stallman (RMS) to Cambridge

Richard Stallman (RMS) from MIT stayed with us for 2 days last week. Since RMS has a 9000-word rider on what he needs and doesn’t need when visiting, I hope I will help future hosts by adding some comments. TL;DR It’s hard work.
[RMS (St IGNUsias) selling PMR a GNU; (C) Murray-Rust, CC-BY]
I have a great regard for what RMS has done – Emacs, GNU, the 4 Freedoms. I heard him talk some years ago on Software Patents in Europe and it was great – he knew far more about the European system of government than I did; he had a clear political plan of action (who to write to, and when).  We’d corresponded but only met very briefly in a noisy room.
I posted on the dangers of publishers taking over our data, and he wrote and said he was coming to Cambridge (to talk at OWASP) and would like to talk. He mailed subsequently and said he was looking for somewhere to stay, so we offered him a bed. We’d read the rider – food requirements, temperature, music, dinner gurest, etc. We were prepared for a somewhat eclectic visitor.
In retrospect we should have prepared for an Old Testament prophet or mediaeval itinerant monk. (The dressing up as St IGNUsias – above – is actually quite a close parallel and a valuable addition to the rider.) Be prepared to arrange/fund taxi rides, random food browsing, and a flexible timetable.  In fact RMS didn’t require an internet cable – he used our wireless.
But the strange thing was that we had nothing to say to each other. RMS no longer writes software and does not seem engaged in practical politics or action other than raising money for FSF through sale of swag. His message – at least for these two days – was “everyone is snooping on us” (PMR agrees and is equally concerned) and “We must only run Free software” (Free as in speech, epitomised by GPL). For me GPL has the virtue of forestalling SW patents but when I raised it he seemed to downplay it. If he has a current agenda it’s not clear to me. The “Open” word is verboten in discourse – I wished to explore whether there was any difference between Free Data and Open Data (a term I promoted 9 years ago) but we didn’t.  So there was neither a practical agenda nor a dialectic.
The visit probably had the same impact on the household as most itinerant Prophets have.
And the animals are very happy to have a new addition (Connochaetes gnou). If you believe in the GNU-slash-Linux bintarian theology here it is:

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One Response to Visit of Richard Stallman (RMS) to Cambridge

  1. Johnny says:

    Here’s my own comparable experience from when Stallman came to Ars Digita in 2001… I kept a diary at the time…
    One of the guest speakers who came to Ars Digita during the year was Richard Stallman, self-proclaimed high priest of geekery. Stallman is one of those people who will always remain undercredited for his phenomenal achievements because of his spiky personality. But whatever else he is, Stallman is the arch-geek. He has frequently proclaimed himself as “the last true hacker”. It’s a status he could plausibly lay claim to for a number of years, but has now been overtaken by events. There are now, again, thousands of true hackers. Stallman is important because he was for a time almost the sole chain of tranmission between the old hackers who formed the early history of computing, and the world changing force it has become today.
    Stallman in history: what he did almost single-handedly was to create the basis of so-called free software, which later evolved into Linux and the open source software movement. Linux is now the main alternative operating system to Microsoft, installed on over 50 million machines around the world. Many geeks consider Linux to be better than the various incarnations of Windows, more robust and stable. They suspect it’s better written too, although they mostly don’t know because they can’t see the source code – the fundamental difference between Linux and Microsoft, which is proprietary. Many more geeks support Linux from quasi-religious reasons, because they feel the open source model is the way to go. Stallman himself, whose decade of largely unpaid and lonely work in the 80s and 90s made Linux possible, would already be hopping mad if he had got down as far as this description, denying any connection between the software that he wrote and what Linux has now become. He would spend many hours giving you an almost Biblical exegesis of which pieces of software begat which others – Gnu begat Emacs – and how and where the true Line was sullied and Emacs was banished to the land of Nod. It was, in fact, why he had come to speak to us.
    Stallman in the flesh: he arrived in trademark baggy trousers, a loud Hawaian-style shirt, and sandals which he later dispensed with to go barefoot. The first thing he did was to rubbish our professor Shai Simonson, who had, with the best of intentions, attached the label ‘open source’ software to him, something he dislikes intensely. Shai, who attaches great value to etiquette, never forgave him, referring for months afterwards to Stallman’s warped personality and unpleasant personal habits. I came to think of Shai as a kind of walking proof of the reaction Dick Stallman inspired in others. Quite simply, he pissed off smart, well disposed people in all kinds of positions to help his mission by gratuitous rudeness.
    Stallman talked for nearly three hours about the history of software and the various ructions within it, which mainly revolve around sharply divergent views of intellectual copyright. To geeks, who have strong streaks of both creativity and anarchy within them, these are innately fascinating topics. But it was also interesting from the anthrological point of view. We were getting a three hour stump speech which you had to suspect Stallman was ready to travel anywhere to give to virtually anyone who would listen.
    At one stage he put a cardboard halo on it and said he was ready to exorcise computers which had had the wrong kind of software – Microsoft, Linux, almost any kind in fact which was not sanctioned by the Free Software Foundation he had set up.
    Anyone who asked a question which showed open scepticism was trashed as quickly and mercilessly as Shai. He was like some Byzantine janissary, with his trusty dagger ‘Thirsty’, routinely allotted the job of cutting prisoners’ throats in the cells because he did it better and with less fuss than anyone else. My own contribution was to question his assertion that it was now quite possible to make a living out of writing ideologically pure ‘free’ software, balancing his own estimate of ‘several hundred’ programmers doing that against possibly five million who worked with commercialised products.
    “You are deliberately misunderstanding what I said,” he charged in, with his high pitched squeak, and I had this Matrix-like vision of a creature, shaped like a star fish with a texture like Slime, which had flown across the room like a bat and spreadeagled over my face and was going to suck the life out of me.
    But the most unusual thing of all was the Fart. I give it a capital F because Stallman did too. About an hour into his Biblical narration, he was standing in his bare feet with his arms wide open, in open preacher posture to the 40 of us in the room. Then he stopped, closed his eyes and put his hands by his side. He remained like that for what seemed like a long time, although maybe it was only 10 seconds. Then we heard a long, low rumbling fart noise. Stallman kept his eyes shut for another few seconds, then opened them and blessed us with a beatific smile. Silent for another few seconds more, and now, in the second row, I could smell something, and had more evidence of what I had seen but found hard to believe. Stallman carried on with the exegesis, which by now had reached a pitch of intonation. He made no reference to the Fart.

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