Wednesday January 4, 2017

Richard Stallman is a well-known figure probably for each GNU/Linux enthusiast. Years before I learned about him, I thought that it was Linus Torvalds who created the OS. Later on I gained a broader picture, including the main surprise regarding the true role of Richard Stallman, GNU/Linux-wise, but not only. It had turned out that he is much more than a computer geek: a person with the important message to spread.

Some people find it surprising, some even controversial. What is interesting is that You might consider his message as a completely new perception of things to which we’re used to for a long time now, and which we’re often used to treat without a second-thought really. He calls status quo of the technology interwoven with our lives into serious question.

Although for some people his outlook may be radical and idealistic, it definitely makes to think. His consequence, coherence and determination may draw attention, as well as simplicity of his message, which he has managed to convey in an easy-to-comprehend way (in spite of his deep engagement into the computer world he is pretty good in reaching non-technical audience).

Another interesting thing is that the topics he addresses aren’t confined only to the information technology - they reaches far beyond that, thanks to which at some point You may gain a completely different understanding of the motivation behind creating GNU/Linux - or its true significance/underlying message. In this respect it is not only an operating system, but the worldview itself, carrying particular values of ethics and freedom.

The following interview I’d like to present more as a curiosity for those who know well who Richard Stallman is. At some point, being fascinated by his message, I wanted to learn more about him: not only about a geek or a hacker - but about a person. Uncover a handful of curiosities about his taste - or his view on several matters which have especially interested me.

Below You’ll find the interview I conducted with Richard in this mold, during the second half of 2016. For those who are more into the subject, I would recommend also:

Have a nice reading! :)

Thomas: Basing on Your worldwide experience (speeches, lectures...) do You think that an average user cares about issues You’ve addressed - or is more towards practical usage of the device by all costs (including the cost of freedom)?

Richard: It is an indisputable fact that most users today do not care about the software freedom issue. Indeed, most users today have never heard of it: they simply haven’t thought of how nonfree software puts them under the power and dominion of the software developer.

After all, where would they ever come across that idea? Not among their friends. Not in the mainstream media or technology press -- those persistently encourage readers to judge software solely on practical values such as features and price. (I presume this has something to do with all the advertising for proprietary software and systems in those media.)

Thus, the free software movement’s tasks start with teaching people to ask the deeper question: does the software you run respect your freedom? For explanation of that issue, see

The fact that nowadays nonfree software is likely to be malware gives us an additional argument to use. See

But our work is hampered by the success of the open source non-movement, which typically got to people before us and taught them to think of our free software as “open source” and consider the issue in purely practical terms. That’s why the free software movement’s leaders avoid the terms “open” and “closed”. We want people to realize that our ideas are very different from the open source ideas they know.

T: Speaking of GNU/Linux distros which are truly free (as in “freedom”): for whom they would be most approachable (in terms of ‘know-how’, first steps)? Or in other words: what personality traits would be most helpful for the GNU/Linux beginners?

R: I don’t think the question makes sense. GNU/Linux is not hard to use if you use the graphical interfaces.

T: Why do You like parrots? You said they are “most intelligent animals” - would You please elaborate on that?

R: I like domesticated parrots when they like me -- when they enjoy my company. This is due partly to their intelligence and partly to their being sociable. However, it depends on the species and also on the individual parrot.

T: What did it take for You to speak fluently in Spanish and French? Which learning techniques You could recommend? What worked especially for You?

R: My way of learning a language is first to study with a textbook and learn to read it. Then I read books for children (perhaps age 7), then for somewhat older children, then for teenagers, and then for adults. Of course, that takes a few years, during which I have to look up many words in a dictionary.

When I know enough words and grammar, I start writing emails to people who I can tell probably speak that language. This gives me practice in written conversation. In parallel with that, I say sentences to myself in my head, for practice.

Eventually I feel ready to try actually talking with people, so I arrange to visit the country in question.

T: Why are You interested in learning Indonesian?

R: I played Balinese gamelan music for 3 years at MIT; I stopped because I was travelling too much. The next year, a visit to New Zealand gave me a chance to visit Bali. I took some suling lessons because, in my last year of playing gamelan music, the suling (a kind of bamboo whistle) was my instrument. But I did not get far, partly because the guru and I had no language in common. So it occurred to me to study Indonesian.

Because it is learned by Indonesians as a second language, it is comparatively easy to learn, as languages go. And since it is not in the Indo-European language group, it held a linguistic interest for me also.

T: Does spreading free software over Windows/MacOS matter in terms of “the big picture” (final goal You would like to see in the world)?

R: Installing free programs on top of proprietary software gives people a way to take a step towards freedom without having to change everything in one jump. For instance, if you install LibreOffice on Windows or MacOS and use it instead of Microsoft Office, a substantial part of your computing will be freed, and you will get used to migration.

Thus, we recommend that organizations migrate from Windows to GNU/Linux by first replace their main applications with free ones, installing those on Windows. Once they have got used to the free applications, it won’t be a big change to switch to running them on GNU/Linux instead of Windows.

Keep in mind that nonfree user-subjugating software covers more than op Windows and MacOS. All the major mobile operating systems are either wholly or partly proprietary, and very few of their apps are entirely libre either.

T: For some people switching to free software/movement may be challenging (in terms of possible technical limitations - like, for example, lack of particular drivers) - let alone more strict lifestyle (freedom-wise - like “how to connect to the WiFi in a Mcdonalds without running its nonfree Javascript code”). How You would encourage the beginners (who are willing to switch to free software or even follow You in a broader way) - regarding various obstacles they will be probably facing?

R: I suggest that you remove pieces of nonfree software from your life, step by step. Each piece of nonfree software that you stop using will be a step towards freedom in the computing part of your life.

T: In terms of switching to free software: please tell us several examples of tools You personally find most appealing - including pieces needed in everyday life of an average user.

R: You’re asking the wrong person. I am not like an average user, and the things I do on a computer are mostly different from what they do.

T: How do You perceive the sense (or the need) of a currency concept existence (or its equivalents) - in the context of ethics? Do You think that it is necessary for spiritually mature civilization?

Especially if you would envision the future society - what to do with the money/currency? Do you think it is all right - or maybe it would be possible to live without money (in a completely redesigned mentality... - I mean as a whole planet)?

R: I can imagine two kinds of a society without money: a regimented hell, and a laid-back hippy paradise where machines do all the work. Sad to say, the former appears more likely.

T: What are Your thoughts on the “unconditional income” idea? (for example, like this initiative of Daniel Straub and others in Switzerland:

“We are not proposing a minimum income - we are proposing an unconditional income. (...) It is time to partly disconnect human labor and income. We are living in a time where machines do a lot of the manual labor - that is great - we should be celebrating”. source » )

R: I think the general idea is promising, perhaps absolutely necessary. I have not studied the issues of how to arrange the details.

T: Do You consider “software-bloat” and “feature creep” as usually absent in the free software?

Software bloat is a process whereby successive versions of a computer program become perceptibly slower, use more memory, disk space or processing power, or have higher hardware requirements than the previous version - whilst making only dubious user-perceptible improvements or suffering from feature creep”. Wikipedia

R: I think that is a side issue - hardly worth mentioning, compared with the question of whether the program gives someone unjust power over its users.

If the answer to that is “no” - if the program is free (freedom-respecting) software - then I become interested in secondary questions such as what is convenient or inconvenient about the program. If I think it has too many features, I could delete them if I want to take the trouble. But it is usually less trouble to ignore them.

T: In the Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays (...) we read:

“(...) after you’ve taken a step, other people will take more steps and, together, it will get the job done eventually".

How do You perceive the scale of this progress today? Do You think it has already “the snowball effect” - as a result of which You could trust in the better future? Or maybe not yet?

R: Yes, to a tremendous degree. Look at all the free (libre) software that makes up the GNU/Linux operating system. There are tens of thousands of useful free applications you can run on GNU/Linux.

However, this advance is spotty: on some fronts it goes very slowly. I think this is because our community lacks the drive to liberate all computer users by replacing non-free software across the board. That is the idea of the GNU Project, and the free software movement, and even most GNU users have not really seen a presentation of the idea.

If you mean, can we relax now and take for granted that our computing future will be free, I don’t think so. What we have seen, in the past 10 years, the spread of mobile computers that are really only platforms for proprietary applications. And most of those apps exist only to tie the user to some dis-service that also mistreats users.

T: Would You recall and share Your experience from the day when You’ve been told that You receive the “MacArthur Fellowship”?

R: I answered the phone and heard a stranger say, “I’m ABC from the XYZ, and I’m calling to inform you that you have been awarded...” I instantly filled that in mentally with, “a gold ring if you come to visit our condos.” But instead of that, he said I had received a M... prize fellowship.

I had no idea whether that was for real, so I went down the hall to Professor Abelson’s office and told him about the call. He said, “I knew you were about to get that.” At that point, I knew it was for real.

T: Here You presented a wide range of Your literary taste. Would You share with us examples of s.f. and other novels which especially pleased You?

R: I am currently reading Ancillary Justice and I find it a very interesting society (though hardly admirable). Other books I recommend are A Fire upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, Diaspora by Greg Egan, and Blindsight by Peter Watts.

I buy every book by Peter Watts that I come across, because of the disgusting way he was treated by the US government. See “Win/lose for Peter Watts”.

T: What is Your take on the ancient astronauts theory (extraterrestrial influences on early human culture - or the existence of an extraterrestrials as such)? Have You read Forbidden Archeology: The Hidden History of the Human Race (Michael A. Cremo and Richard L. Thompson)?

R: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs, and I have never seen evidence of the sort it would take to demonstrate that aliens had visited Earth. The claims tend to be naive misunderstandings. If you are curious about Nazca, I recommend Nazca, La Clé du mystère, by Henri Stierlin. If you are curious about King Pakal’s tomb, I recommend Reading Maya Art, by Andrea Stone and Marc Zender, and Maya Cosmos, by Freidel, Schele, and Parker.

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