Lloyd Wood's Jaundiced Eye: #3

In the third of his irregular profiles, Lloyd Wood takes a long-overdue look at Richard Stallman's presentation last year to the London Unix User Group meeting.

Jaundiced Eye: #3

This is what I was thinking. This is what I thought was worth recording. This feature is irregular. The future is unknown. Feedback is welcome.

Stallman Impressions


Dr Richard Stallman, founder of Free Software Foundation and GNU
London Unix User Group meeting [1]
Commonwealth House main auditorium
1999-03-23, 7:15 pm

Two months earlier I saw Eric Raymond in this very venue [2]. Now I'm seeing Richard Stallman under almost identical conditions. Same time, same place, same day of the week, and somewhat similar Americans with superficially similar hobbyhorses telling us how to think -- but even though the conditions are identical, I just can't decide which philosophy-espousing hairy Yank is the control, and which is the experiment.

A weak-sounding Richard Stallman eventually wandered into the packed auditorium and to the podium, appropriately placed at stage left. He turned away at the applause, mumbling about having just flown in from Asia; he'd been speaking in Singapore.

He asked for '1 or 2 or 3 or 4 cups of tea' -- this is a man who clearly thinks as he codes: in the general procedural case, and without going in for the use of appropriate container objects. I could only think of 'I'm a little teapot, short and stout', but that's not what the short and stout Stallman is most renowned for singing. A tray and teapot would accompany him on the podium for much of his talk on The Story of Free Software.

In a similar vein to Raymond, much of the talk was a personal history of how Stallman came to be where and who he is, providing a familiar history of the halcyon days of hacking all night in the MIT AI lab before hitting Chinatown and seeing in the dawn, followed by his anguish over a printer driver whose source he couldn't get to modify, the move to earning a living from selling copies of free software, and the gradual development of the GNU licence and software.

However, the amount of time spent talking about emacs -- an infinitely customizable kitchen-sink editor and travesty of lisp that you no longer want to customise after you've invested semi-infinite time learning it to the point where you can actually customise it to the way you'd have expected an editor to function before you'd succumbed to the meme of emacs and how RMS believes an editor should work despite years of human-interface work to the contrary -- was disproportionately large compared to the time spent talking about the gcc compiler, which has become a fundamental part of the development of more software than I can imagine.

I know which one was most important to the development of GNU/Linux, and it wasn't the network packet hog with the patronisingly precise 'Please answer yes or no' that wouldn't handle single keypresses. (You might have gathered that I'm a vi guy -- and my copy of vi was compiled using gcc.)

Although giving a less polished, much less scripted, jetlagged performance and obviously far less comfortable with the same stage that Raymond occupied two months earlier, Stallman was to me far more credible in person -- even if I will never forgive him for his do-not-use-Tcl outburst of a few years back [3]. Mind you, it appeared that half the audience always seemed to be laughing with Stallman, while the other half laughed at him -- but the halves regularly moved around, and the laughter was generally goodnatured.

On the other hand, Stallman is fussily literal-minded in the extreme, to the extent of pronouncing the 'slash' in GNU/Linux (always GNU/Linux, never just 'Linux'), not referring to Linus Torvalds by name but as 'the author of Linux,' and objecting to someone referring to a recording of his 'share the software' song [4], saying he'd never recorded it in that proprietary format, that such formats were bad, that... the questioner promptly tried to forestall this line of reasoning by declaring that he must have heard a dance remix instead.

This led into a discussion of music distribution. Stallman's comments when asked about MP3's, sampling, music copyright and payment systems wavered between naive, idealistic and just plain silly; he should think about these more and carefully before speaking on them, and the contrast between this part of the discussion and the more solid, developed, and almost rhetorical philosophical ground of GNU was vivid.

It certainly seemed at times as if Stallman was propounding a religion; the eventual donning of the St. Ignatius costume with the bizarre disk-platter hat [5] and the 'blessing' may have been intended as a humorous way of dispelling this and putting the audience at its ease, but I gained the impression that, as with everything else, Stallman truly believed everything he was saying, and would tell you about it for as long as possible as a matter of duty.

The self-parodying St. Ignatius humour? A duty; humour is merely another weapon in the arsenal of the Cause of Free Software, to be used when conditions deem it appropriate.

Unlike Raymond, who stumped confidently around the stage to wherever he was best-placed to address the audience, Stallman was to remain at the podium and stage left throughout. Stallman does not appear a confident speaker; none of that eye contact and engaging-the-audience stuff of the self-aggrandizing showman, no fancy material, organisation, dramatic pauses or hooks -- and he needs props, too. Don't put your doctor on the stage, Massachusetts; he's just not cut out for it, even playing the Mad Hatter.

But if Eric Raymond gives a good performance and could do credit to a suitable character role in a film, Stallman would be the man who wrote the book the film was based on -- and that book would be something like Eco's 'Name of the Rose.' Would you prefer to converse with a shallow and vain actor, or to someone who can expound his own consistent and rigorous philosophy of life to you in a reasonably compelling and convincing, if slightly longwinded and overly detailed, way?

If Raymond is Pepsi, with fashionable marketing, Stallman is the original Coke, and the choice of a gnu generation to boot -- and Stallman doesn't score points by explicitly lambasting Microsoft or others in the way that Raymond increasingly feels he needs to. Not taking such cheap shots engenders a level of respect I have trouble according Raymond.

You may choose (a word that Stallman had trouble conjugating, presumably because he has never had much use for it) to regard Richard Stallman as nuts, but you'd have to regard him as sincerely nuts, and as someone who sincerely believes everything he preaches as he struggles to enlighten you and reveal the error of your ways.

Which is why, if given the choice, I think I'd rather spend my transcontinental flight ignoring Raymond in the next seat. I'd feel far less guilty about it afterwards, and just about as jetlagged.

[1] http://www.ukuug.org/lugs/RS.shtml
[2] http://tbtf.com/jaundiced/jaundiced-1.html
[3] http://www.people.virginia.edu/%7Esdm7g/LangCrit/Tcl/
[4] http://www.jwz.org/hacks/
[5] http://www.stallman.org/saint.html

Copyright © 1999 by Lloyd Wood <L.Wood@surrey.ac.uk>. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint, please contact Lloyd.