S-tall-man the tall man

SPACE – Society for the Promotion of Alternative Computing Environments celebrated their 10 years of existence today here at Trivandrum and they invited none other than Richard Stallman to do the talking. I was 13 or 14 years old when my father first told me about Richard Stallman and about the ‘big things’ he were doing with computers. The only impression I got from his photo was that he was a particularly huge man with huge beard and loooong hair. Today, I saw this guy ‘for real’. Mr.Stallman has had a rather warm relationship with the government of Kerala and he had visited the state several times before. After all, this guy had convinced our government to get rid of the windows PCs and move to free software. Thanks to Stallman – I’m not using that retarded Turbo c++ compiler to compile my c++ programs.

Not so huge from where I am sitting!
Not so huge from where I am sitting!
Shake hands for freedom
Shake hands for freedom.

The talk was semi-boring. The people on the dias dozed off while Stallman was buzy giving us a lecture on digital freedom. Neverthless, he did come up with a few new things to say. There was the usual tandrum about security and privacy on the internet and unjust surveillance. He explained that he has never owned a portable (mobile) phone and never will. Said he would rather not use that piece of technology than let someone spy on him. A friend brought to my attention the rather unusual similarity between Stallman’s way of talking and the flavorless, emotionless voice used by Microsoft windows to read things aloud. If I were blind, I would have (could have, to be more precise) mistaken Stallman’s lecture for a windows machine reading text aloud!

Then he moved on to his forte – free software. As usual, he specifically portrayed Microsoft and the ‘ithings’ as evil and what you and me call open source as a lesser evil. Open source was not enough for him, he wanted things to be ‘free’. This raised a few eyebrows, and I think it raised my eyebrows the farthest. But I already knew this from the wikipedia entry on him so I was more or less feigning surprise. Also, as he had been doing for years, he emphasized the necessity and the importance of referring to linux as GNU/linux (pronounced GNU slash linux or GNU plus linux) instead of just linux. He gave a convoluted philosophical explanation to it but it was bull shit. It seems the man has a problem with Linus Torvalds.

Then he said something really meaningful. He said that people have the right to use proprietery software and it is actually OK to do so. “Even though they are hurting themselves”, said Stallman, “they are not doing harm to the society”. But, governments and states are established for the purpose of serving man. Institutions and frameworks with public benefit in mind should never ever use proprietary software. Doing so puts the “national security at risk”. This makes sense. Now that he has said it, I feel victimized when I remember that the only operating system available on our school computers were Microsoft Windows. I feel that me, along with a bunch of other kids, were forced to use commercial software that was just popular but not universal. Since we were learning to program and not to ‘use’ computers it would have been better if we were trained on a *nix machine – at least it is free and can be modified at will. Using only Microsoft windows at school is like having to eat only one flavour of ice cream while you are at school. States should not have the option of using proprietery software. The source code should be able to be examined to make sure that there are no backdoors or security threats than can be engineered to be used for malicious purposes. Good thinking Mr.Stallman 🙂

There was another revelation in there for me – Stallman claimed that Facebook monitors a lot of people – people who don’t even have a Facebook account. The logic was this. When your browser loads a website that contains the ‘Share via Facebook button’, your browser requests the Facebook server to provide it with the blue and white ‘F’ image. Your browser tells the Facebook server that it is for your computer (your ip) and for using at this website. Hurray, Zuckerberg knows which site you are surfing!

As for me, I would go with the open source guys. Stallman and software that is ‘truly liberated’ is an extreme, and I don’t like extremes. Not because extremes are difficult to live with, but because such extremes almost always have little practical value and their advocates are often fanatics who refuse to be convinced otherwise. Neverthless, people like you and me are indebted to Richard Stallman for things like GNU, and drum rolls please – gcc (GNU C Compiler).

P.S – Mr.Stallman held an auction at the hall and sold a ‘gnu’ doll – and I came to know that there is an animal called gnu and it lives in africa. The doll was sold for rs.2500.

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