One man said it was getting towards the long days and the short nights now. T'other one said THIS warn't one of the short ones, he reckoned. And then they laughed, and he said it over again, and they laughed again... -- Mark Twain
GNUisance: Pigdog Journal Interviews 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
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
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
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
MB: ...cause we're too stupid to write
RS: I think I'll be able to free myself
from the box, don't worry.
MB: [testing mic] bip bip bip bip. OK?
NM: ...You know they'll keep your soul in the
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
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
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...
RS: ...I know what it really is.
RS: What's really important is what you
say to _other_ people.
RS: So I'm trying, so when you're
talking to me, that's a chance to practice...
RS: ...and I can point out to you when
you say it wrong and that way you can help learn a new habit,
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
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.]