...In which 3 Noisebridge hackers score a privileged talk with a Jargon-certified demigod.
The following interview with Richard Stallman was printed by our good friends over at ZiP (Zine in Progress). It is currently in its second publication and the third is slated to be published in July, 2012. The introduction is by Tony Longshanks LeTigre. Interview by Tony, Wladyslaw Z. and Josh Juran.
Have a read and buy their rag. It's worth more than the $7 they charge.
ON SUNDAY, MARCH 18th, 2012 - which happened to be my 24th birthday (in hexadecimal!) - one of the greatest living hackers, Richard M. Stallman (hereafter identified as RMS), came to Noisebridge to give a talk on Free Software. That’s Free as in freedom (not price), and as opposed to Open-Source, which is one of Stallman’s least favorite phrases and the object of his crusade.
Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF), of which he is president, in 1985, one year after launching the GNU Project. (GNU is a recursive acronym; it stands for “GNU’s Not Linux,” and is pronounced with a hard G.) GNU and the FSF remain vital today, thanks in large part to Stallman’s tireless campaigning. Beginning in the 1990s he has traveled the globe more or less continuously, disseminating his Free Software message with religious fervor, at hackerspaces and other spaces in practically every country where software is a relevant issue. His philosophy is “holistic” in that the freedom mantra permeates everything in RMS’ line of vision, not just software: a visit to stallman.org reveals the depth and scope of his commitment to progressive causes of every sort. Among the myriad links are “Quantum Theory and Abortion Rights,” “A proposal for gender neutrality in Spanish,” “Boycott Harry Potter” and “Get even for 9/11: Support Gay Marriage!” (Read the explanation.)
In the expectant days before RMS arrived at Noisebridge, the grapevine placed him somewhere between eccentric and stark raving mad. Rumors and reports of crazy and repellant behavior on his part proliferated. Johannes of Austrian hacker Zine Monochrom told me that during their interview with RMS he “picked a big booger out of his nose and ate it.” The infamous “rider for public appearances” was referenced and (mis)quoted as proof that RMS was a few memes short of a complex. This 9000+ word document provides background info on his speeches for prospective hosts, covering every conceivable contingency. It is by turns demanding, particular, illuminating, quite funny, and most peculiar. Here is a sampling:
A supply of tea with milk and sugar would be nice....If I am quite sleepy, I would like two cans or small bottles of non-diet Pepsi....When you need to tell me about a problem in a plan, please do not start with a long apology; that is unbearably boring....I absolutely refuse to have a break in the middle of my speech....If you are paying for the airline tickets, I must insist that you cover the costs if I have to replace a lost ticket....Please call the hotel and ask whether they will demand to see my passport, and whether they report all their guests to the police....Above 72 Fahrenheit I find sleeping quite difficult...If I am typing on my computer and it is time to do something else, please tell me. Don’t wait for me to “finish working,” because you would wait forever.....Dogs that bark angrily and/or jump frighten me, unless they are small and cannot reach much above my knees....I like cats if they are friendly, but they are not good for me; I am somewhat allergic to them....If you can find a host for me that has a friendly parrot, I will be very, very glad....be very very glad....If you don’t know how to treat the parrot, it could be emotionally scarred and spend many decades feeling frightened and unhappy.....
(Stallman has a thing for parrots, like my thing for hippos, or Timothy Treadwell’s thing for grizzly bears.)
When he appeared for his talk, we were shocked to find his presentation cogent, well-organized, and extremely punctual. Captain Lou Albano hippie-hacker hair notwithstanding, this was not a man whose sanity was in jeopardy. He emerged without fanfare from the sizable crowd that had gathered in his honor, and 10 minutes later was addressing us from the center of the Hackitorium, without a microphone. Over the course of his hour-and-a-half talk, followed by an additional 40 minutes of questions from the audience, I developed a sense of respect tinged with affection for RMS: the purity of his motives, the truth of his words, his absolute dedication to getting the message across. I regretted the gossipy nonsense I’d been privy to beforehand. It was a reminder not to believe everything you hear.
But the Noisetalk wasn’t all. RMS had agreed in advance to a follow-up interview for ZiP the next morning. We had one hour to pelt him with our questions and skedaddle. Luckily, I was assisted by two ZiP colleagues who are real hackers (not just zinesters): the Ginsbergian, bourbon-swilling anomaly known as Wladyslaw, and Josh Juran, author of the 68k emulator (turn to Zx0057), who counts RMS among his personal heroes.
The interview took place at 10 a.m. the morning of Monday, March 19th, in a Mission-District apartment not far from Noisebridge. (RMS prefers a friend’s couch to a hotel room when traveling - as he so often is.) The living room of the small apartment was dominated by a vintage arcade game: Die Hard, by Sega. RMS had only just woken up, but wasted no time engaging us. His manner is direct, almost brusque. If he doesn’t like or understand your question, he will refuse to answer; if you get something wrong, he will interrupt; if you take too long getting to the point, he will escort you. But he gave us a good hour (plus a little extra), talking to us as equals. Not once did I see him pick his nose. Josh made a recording, which we hope to post on the ZiP site (in RMS-approved format) soon.
“That was surreal,” said Wladyslaw, who had done the lion’s share of the questioning.
“I don’t know RMS that well,” Noisebridge alumnus Chris Murphy remarked after the visit, “but he seems idealistic beyond the point of practicality. Then again, I also recognize that the vision of idealists pulls us forward.”
The following is a collection of interview highlights. The full interview transcript will be made available in early May on the ZiP web site.
PROFIT / ZINES
TONY: I was thinking about how to apply the principles of Free Software to zine-making and self-publishing. I think some of what I’ve done with ZiP so far fits that mold. For instance, I posted a list of ideas for ZiP02, early in the conceptualizing stage, on the Noisebridge wiki and invited everyone to contribute and help shape the vision. And I invited all contributors to design their own pages for the layout, which is something most authors can only dream of for magazine submissions. I wish I could give ZiP away free, but the reality is we had to charge $5 or $6 per copy with the first batch just to make back our print costs.
RMS: You deserve to make money from your work. Don’t you think you do? We sell our books [FSF and Gnu Press] for many times cost, and people still buy them. I’m not opposed to profit. Remember, I’m talking Free as in Freedom.
FREE VS. OPEN SOURCE (AND TORVALDS)
WLADYSLAW: Given that Linus Torvalds contributed a kernel that is of great use to the Free Software community—and it doesn’t seem that he embraces the Free Software ideals—
RMS: That’s right, he doesn’t.
W: —could we say that it’s really more important what a person contributes and less important what their motives are?
RMS: You can’t separate it like that.What he contributes is influenced by what he thinks. If you look at the case of Linux—he distributes Linux under GPLv2* only, and the reason is: so it can be Tivo-ized.** There are things that wouldn’t fly under GPLv3 that are acceptable under v2. And Linux is not entirely free software—there are binary blobs which are not free. They’re in there because Torvalds doesn’t consider non-free software to be an evil against which we must fight. Open Source means that the source code is free, but it doesn’t touch on the executable files. This results in what we call Tyrant Devices. It’s an example of the way corporations control people through their software. We failed to defend the frontier at a crucial place, and as a result, we now have a tremendous problem.
*Tivoized: Stallmans term for systems that marginally abide by the GPL,while at the same time restricting users from running modified software
The basic difference [between Torvalds/Open Source and Free Software] is we say ‘You must respect the freedom of the users of your software.’ That’s the point he disagrees with us on. Although he has some idea of the proper, ethical way to develop software—even though those blobs don’t follow his ethical ideas, he doesn’t say that makes them unacceptable. He didn’t fight against non-free drivers, either.
W: That was ambiguous, but it was a long time ago.
RMS: Well, it’s not ambiguous. He could’ve said they violate the GPL, but he didn’t. You could argue they were derivative; he chose not to. When, in a similar case, I told NeXT that the Objective-C front end had to be free, and they made it free.
W: So a person who doesn’t believe in free software ideals....
RMS: ...may release free programs for other reasons, but is likely to do a half-assed job of it. Another example is Firefox, whose source code is free, but which offers non-free extensions from its webpage. We wouldn’t do that; in fact, we’ve developed a different list of extensions so as not to offer the non-free ones.
ON THE GOOD OLD DAYS & HACKER SPIRIT
RMS: The most interesting hacker was Gosper [see Zx0042], who to a large extent hacked mathematics, but for a while he worked on the Game of Life and made amazing discoveries, including how to implement a universal computer in the Life world.
W: Do you think the hacker spirit, of exploration and playfulness perhaps, can serve as a model for new social modes of interaction?
RMS: I don’t think so. I can’t say it’s relevant to everything we do in life. For instance, I don’t know how much room there is for hacking in running a restaurant.
W: So we shouldn’t necessarily preach ‘Be a Hacker’ to everyone on the planet.
RMS: Hacking is something people do because they enjoy it—some do and some don’t. But it’s useful to inform people that they can apply playful cleverness to designing things with technology, because some people may think technology is a domain of serious engineering by people who are focusing only on a business goal and nothing else.
W: As opposed to finding beauty in the project itself....
RMS: Or just having fun. There is no incompatibility between hacking and doing a serious job. A lot of people think there’s a rigid separation between work and play. I’m not saying in life you shouldn’t do serious jobs. The GNU Project is a very serious project: we’re informing people about freedom. That’s much more serious than making money.
OCCUPY WALL STREET / ANARCHISM
RMS: I support Occupy Wall Street. We have to overthrow the corporatocracy if we want to have democracy.
TONY: Last night during your speech you made a point to inform us that you are not an anarchist. I can’t remember why it came up—
RMS: It would have been in response to something that someone said. The reason I’m not an anarchist is because A) I believe in a welfare state, and B) we need democracy to restrain the power of the rich. Democracy is a structure that allows the non-rich to band together and be stronger than the rich. If democracy doesn’t do that, then it’s broken. Our democracy is broken. It’s sick. But I don’t think that giving up on it is a solution. That’s just admitting permanent defeat. There are other people who assume I’m a communist, which I’m not either.
TONY: So what you oppose, if I’m following, is the monetization of information, not...
RMS: I will not use that word [monetization]. It leads people to think in a twisted way. It focuses so totally on converting it into money that there’s nothing left afterwards. How could you do that with information? Say “make money from” instead.
TONY: That was on your list of words not to use—I forgot.
WLADYSLAW: There’s a story floating around that in the early days pre-GPL, the idea of Copyleft or free software could be achieved through patent licensing....
RMS: No, you’re mistaken. I was against software patents from the moment I realized that they were real. You can’t do anything good with them.
W: I may have gotten my information wrong. There’s also the idea of forming a patent pool....
RMS: You can try to set up a collective security with patents, and in fact there is one: the Open Innovation Network. It’s a patent pool, designed to defend some free software—although they won’t use the term free software—and it does some good, but it’s impossible for such a thing to be totally effective. The reason is it can’t defend itself against patent [troubles/trolls?]; it can only defend itself against patents held by companies that actually make something.
W: That eat other peoples’ patents.
JOSH: If I come up with a novel implementation of something which I’m publishing as free software anyway, is there value in pursuing a patent on that, or is the publication of it sufficient?
RMS: It depends—if the goal is to prevent other subsequent patents from being valid, then publishing it is sufficient. However, it’s conceivable that if you applied for a patent first, you could then contribute that patent to the patent pool, and basically use it for defense of the community. However, effective defense requires lots of patents—hundreds, if not thousands—the amount you could contribute that way is probably not very much, and it costs so much that you probably couldn’t afford to do it. But in theory, you could contribute.
JOBS, BOSS & FLOSS
W: I hate to cite this character, but the recently deceased Mr. Steve Jobs was able to inspire a lot of people to follow his software choices based on certain factors. His willingness to “knife the baby” in some cases....
RMS: The point is, nobody in the free software world has that kind of power over what others do, because we’re free. No one could have that power—although there are various distros that programmers might want their programs to be in, there’s no distro that you need your program to be in or it’s dead. Because we don’t let anyone have that kind of power.
W: There’s been an idea circulating recently that distros take on too much. And on a related note, I wanted to bring up the terms FOSS and FLOSS.
RMS: Let me tell you where those terms come from. Someone in the early 2000s did a study. They didn’t want to have to choose between Free and Open Source, so they came up with the terms FOSS and FLOSS as a way to give equal weight to both camps. FLOSS stands for free/libre/open-source software. Others change that to FOSS, which gives the advantage to Open Source. So if you’re going to do that, please use FLOSS. But I don’t use those terms because it’s not my goal to mention both political camps equally. I am the leader of one of them, and when I talk about what we’re doing I call it Free Software. If a program is open source but not free, I don’t think it’s ethical.
NO TIME FOR CODE
RMS: I don’t write software—not any more. No time.
W: Do you still maintain an active dot-EMACS file?
RMS: Well, I don’t know about active. [We laugh.] I write something in my dot-EMACS file when I see something I’m doing that I could make more efficient. That only happens once in a while. I couldn’t write software now as well as I did. I’m 59 years old. I don’t have the memory I used to have. To write a large program, you need to be able to remember lots of things about why you did things this way, and what problem there was when you didn’t. Anything I could do today would be a shadow of what it used to be. And with so many people writing free software nowadays, it wouldn’t be crucial. What I am doing is much more scarce than that, so it’s important for me to do this.
JOSH: You said that the best way to take part in the free software movement is to give speeches like yours. What are the qualifications for giving speeches?
RMS: If you want to be on the GNU Speakers List, basically show you understand the philosophy and can give good speeches about it.
NOISEBRIDGE / SAN FRANCISCO
TONY: You’ve been to Noisebridge twice this month, correct? And this is your first time visiting the space? [RMS confirms.] Do you have any opinion that you would share with us?
RMS: Well, it’s a nice big space, people were there, obviously something exciting is going on. I noticed there was a certain amount of disruption, and there were people in the back who were talking and carrying on during my speech. I figured they must not know I had booked the space for the night...
(Comments all around about the “creative chaos” of Noisebridge, for better and worse.)
W: Would you consider moving here, Stallman? San Francisco would love to have you.
RMS: I’m not moving to the West Coast. The FSF is based in Boston, I need to be there. And anyway, I travel so much—I’m always traveling—if I moved here, what would that mean? I also won’t live in California because your fingerprints are required out here for a driver’s license [or any state ID card].
W: A famous science fiction author wrote—this is a paraphrase rather than a quote—that when a place gets crowded enough to require ID’s, social collapse is not far away; it’s time to go elsewhere.
* * *
When two photographer friends of Wladyslaw’s showed up a little after 11 a.m., RMS changed into a nicer shirt for our benefit. By that point the Lilliputian apartment had gone from lively to crowded, and our time was up anyway. Exeunt the three hackers. On the way out, Tony promised to send RMS his quotes for approval before press time, along with a copy of Mark Bittner’s book The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, which had impressed him greatly, and which he thought RMS would enjoy.