Build Date: Tue Apr 16 22:50:09 2024 UTC

Seeing your baby's face each morning would only be a cruel reminder of the nice person you used to be.
-- Mr. Bad

GNUisance: Pigdog Journal Interviews Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman has been called the last of the old-style hackers. So it's surprising in a way that a lot of the ideas that he's been trumpeting about in the wilderness for years are finally entering the mainstream. Everything old is new again, apparently.

For those very few of you who don't know who Richard Stallman is: Stallman is the heart and soul of Free Software. The creator of Emacs and one of the first Lisp machines, in 1985 he announced with his GNU Manifesto the making of a new operating system, GNU (pronounced "g'NU"). The key to GNU was that the OS and all the software that comes with it would be free -- a revolutionary idea at the time.

The group he founded, the Free Software Foundation, has developed a number of important parts of the GNU system, and although it has not yet been put together in its final form, it has been the basis for a number of other OSes, notably the runaway smash hit of Free Software, Linux (or as Stallman calls it, the "GNU/Linux system").

He's pretty much universally recognized as one of the most influential and talented hackers in all of computer history. But his most remarkable achievement has been his unswerving principle that software must be free, and that sharing and community are more important than market share and IPOs.

Stallman recently came on a visit to the Bay Area to talk to the Free Software faithful at Linux user groups and other venues. Pigdog was pretty excited at a chance to see him speak. Then, it turned out that our underworld connections in the Linux Mafia had good news for us -- Stallman was staying with some of the group in San Francisco, and if we played our cards right, we might be able to get an interview.

After a lot of messages and phone calls along the lines of, "Stallman just left" or "You just missed RMS", we managed to corner him at one of the Bay Area's Free Software hotbeds: CoffeeNet, a SoMa cafe where hackers and Linux Bunnies meet to drink atomic-grade espresso and use the crazy Linux machines lined up against the walls.

When we arrived, we found Nick Moffit, our man in the Underground, pounding away on one of the big CoffeeNet Linux boxen. Like a true mafioso, he told us to be cool, buy some coffee and act natural, and he would see what he could do. He disappeared into the back room of CoffeeNet, and came back about 10 minutes later to say, yes, Stallman would see us.

Wendy, a Linux Bunny.

Snatcher and I filed back into the sanctum sanctorum of Bay Area Geek Masters, the backroom at CoffeeNet, which is also the office of Electric Lichen (a Linux consultancy) -- there were about 8 machines humming away in the background -- and an informal meeting room, with couches and whiteboards all around.

This is where we met RMS for the first time. In person, Stallman's a fidgety guy. He's not easy to interview. He's always moving, scratching, gesticulating. Several times during the interview he snapped at us pretty angrily. He interrupts. He corrects. He teaches. But, for me, the payoff was worth it: hearing Free Software philosophy from the man who started it all.

Nick and our other great contact, the ubiquitous Rick Moen, stuck around for the interview, partly to hear what went on, but also -- I felt -- partly to keep an eye on us. They'd pulled some strings to get us an interview, and they didn't want to be embarassed or humiliated by typical Pigdog antics. Mike, the co-owner of CoffeeNet, sat in too, and Nick's little brother, George. Don Marti, Electric Lichen man-about-town, was in and out.

We sat on the floor and on couches. I brought along a tape recorder and started it:

MB: ...cause we're too stupid to write everything down.

RS: I think I'll be able to free myself from the box, don't worry.

MB: [testing mic] bip bip bip bip. OK? Yeah.

NM: ...You know they'll keep your soul in the black box.

MB: Yeah, it's true, it's true. We'll have you forever.

RS: Which one, this one? [pointing at the bottom of his shoe]

NM: Uh, actually the right sole. Or, the left sole.

MB: Oh, sole of the shoe. Ha ha.

RS: I had a girlfriend once who got some of those, uh, those airpump snea- running shoes, and she, and there were little tubes on the side, and she pointed at them and said, "These are the windows to my sole."

MB: Heh heh. [Long pause] I got that. [Long pause. RMS starts slapping his thighs in this weirdo crazy bongo pattern.] OK, Cool. Actually, we were just talking about GNU/Linux, and, uh, actually, when we came in, Nick's like, "Whatever you do, don't ask him, don't say 'Linux', say 'GNU/Linux'..."

RS: But the point is, OK...

MB: "...don't say 'Open Source', say 'Free Software'."

RS: But the point is, it's not just, when you're talking, actually, when you're talking to me, it doesn't make that much difference...

MB: Yeah.

RS: ...I know what it really is.

MB: Yes.

RS: What's really important is what you say to _other_ people.

MB: Right.

RS: So I'm trying, so when you're talking to me, that's a chance to practice...

MB: Right.

RS: ...and I can point out to you when you say it wrong and that way you can help learn a new habit, which...

MB: A _GNU_ habit. [I thought this was kind of clever, but nobody laughs. Damn.] Ha ha. [Long pause.]

NM: Uh, he's got it [the pronunciation of "GNU"] right. [Obviously changing the subject] Caffeinated peppermint, anyone, before we start?

MB: [Grateful] Are they really caffeinated?

NM: Yes, they're caffeinated. Three of them, three of them equals a cola drink, five of them equals about a good cup of CoffeeNet coffee. Yeah, have a couple.

MB: Thank you.

NM: You're more than welcome to them. I have 24 boxes of these things back at, back at the office.

[RS is still pounding his thighs in that rat-a-tat rhythm. It's starting to get under my skin.]

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