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An unauthorized biography of RMS

Book review: 'Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software'

(LinuxWorld) -- Sam Williams filled in a few missing tiles on the mosaic of the history of Richard Stallman and the free software movement with his unauthorized biography of Richard Stallman with his book entitled Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software.

Given the pyroglyphics that always seem to accompany discussions of Stallman, true believers being set upon by the forces of evil and all that, Williams could hardly have chosen a more perilous task. There are two dangers involved: failing to give Stallman the credit he deserves, or giving him too much. Williams negotiates the path wisely.

If you are geek like me, you will appreciate the behind the scenes looks at Stallman as he was growing up. I've never been to MIT or Harvard. Stories about Stallman during his college days are interesting, but I've never really been able to relate to them.

Williams gives us a peek at Stallman as a boy. The boy who at age eight explained to his mother how to solve a puzzle in Scientific American which had frustrated her. The boy who was so conservative his step-sister asked their mother "What is he going to be when he grows up, a fascist?" The boy who didn't fit in at school: partly because he was too far ahead of his classmates and partly due to his inability to compromise.

Stallman was also the boy who refused to write papers in school between the one he wrote in the fourth grade (on the history of numbering systems in the West) and those he wrote during his senior year in high school. It took counseling by a therapist to convince him he would have to do so if he wanted to get into Harvard.

Williams describes how Stallman's inability to successfully participate in sports, the divorce of his parents, the scathing temper of his father, all contributed to his turning inward in classic geek fashion. His entire life's work -- at least to this point -- can be summarized as that of someone who found the rest of the world not to his liking and instead of accepting it, doing his level best to change it.

Williams begins the book with a full chapter on the infamous Xerox laser printer. The one in the Artificial Intelligence lab at MIT that ultimately led to Stallman's decision to create a free software system. A decision that spawned the revolution that has turned the software world upside down and stood it on its head.

He carefully traces the revolution from that point to the present day, inserting remembrances from Stallman's peers and teachers to flesh out a story many of us have known only in skeletal form from the bits and pieces Stallman has shared in interviews or in speeches.

Williams neither avoids nor apologizes for Stallman's rough edges, the most noticeable of which is his inflexibility. Those edges lead to observations included in the book like these by Bob Young, former president of Red Hat: "I admire and respect Richard for all the work he's done. My only critique is that sometimes Richard treats his friends worse than his enemies."

Bruce Perens explains his decision to distance the Debian project from the Free Software Foundation as being made because "I decided we did not want Richard's style of micro-management." Eric Raymond echoes that sentiment about Stallman's management style in describing why he left the Emacs project in 1992: "It frustrated me so much that I decided I didn't want to work with him any more."

Linus Torvalds, whose decision to license Linux under the GPL early on has become a watershed event in the history of software, describes the influence of a speech Stallman gave in Helsinki in 1991: "I may not have seen the light. But I guess something from his speech sank in."

'I can't support evil. Good-bye'

Williams also describes what it was like dealing with Stallman before and during actually writing the book. At one point, while Williams was trying to negotiate an e-book arrangement, Stallman said, "I don't care. What they're doing is evil. I can't support evil. Good-bye."

The e-book deal fell through, but a deal with O'Reilly took its place. O'Reilly gave Williams the choice of selecting either the OPL (Open Publication License) or the GFDL (GNU Free Documentation License). Using that choice as a bargaining chip, Williams approached Stallman about additional interviews for the book. Stallman agreed to the interviews but declined to agree to "publicity-related events" until he had seen the book.

In summing up the book-writing process, Williams notes, "Since July, 2000, I have learned to appreciate both the seductive and the repellent sides of the Richard Stallman persona."

I think that appreciation shows. If it wasn't clear in my mind before, it certainly became clear to me as a result of reading this book that both the revolution the GNU/FSF movement represents and the split between free software/open source hackers are the direct result of the strength -- and intransigence -- of Stallman's character.

Williams has created a Web site (See the resources below for the link) to host a "no frills" version of the book and to accumulate and integrate corrections and additions to the original version of the text.

As I read the book I kept my eye open for little errors I could submit to the site. I noted two items I thought I would submit Unfortunately, my prize catch turned out to be correct after all. I had assumed while reading that references to the Pastel compiler were the result of a spell-checker or non-technical copy editor confused with Pascal. Whoops. It really was the Pastel compiler, which supported multiple platforms and was written in extended Pascal at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

I understand from speaking with Williams recently that during the O'Reilly OSCON a couple of weeks ago, Stallman was actually autographing copies of the book for those who donated to the FSF. Although it is not an authorized biography, it's safe to surmise Stallman no longer thinks it is an "evil" work.

I asked Williams if he were a geek. He said no, at least not a computer geek. He added his father was a programmer and in writing the book he came to understand his father a little bit better. I have to admit the book gave me some insights into myself. At least so far as my geek side is concerned. Never mind those who say that's the only side I have.

Williams created a good and important work. I recommend it.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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