Chapter 12
Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software

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Table of Contents



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Project Gutenburg

Richard Stallman stares, unblinking, through the
windshield of a rental car, waiting for the light to
change as we make our way through downtown Kihei.

The two of us are headed to the nearby town of Pa'ia,
where we are scheduled to meet up with some software
programmers and their wives for dinner in about an hour
or so.

It's about two hours after Stallman's speech at the
Maui High Performance Center, and Kihei, a town that
seemed so inviting before the speech, now seems
profoundly uncooperative. Like most beach cities, Kihei
is a one-dimensional exercise in suburban sprawl.
Driving down its main drag, with its endless succession
of burger stands, realty agencies, and bikini shops,
it's hard not to feel like a steel-coated morsel
passing through the alimentary canal of a giant
commercial tapeworm. The feeling is exacerbated by the
lack of side roads. With nowhere to go but forward,
traffic moves in spring-like lurches. 200 yards ahead,
a light turns green. By the time we are moving, the
light is yellow again.

For Stallman, a lifetime resident of the east coast,
the prospect of spending the better part of a sunny
Hawaiian afternoon trapped in slow traffic is enough to
trigger an embolism. Even worse is the knowledge that,
with just a few quick right turns a quarter mile back,
this whole situation easily could have been avoided.
Unfortunately, we are at the mercy of the driver ahead
of us, a programmer from the lab who knows the way and
who has decided to take us to Pa'ia via the scenic
route instead of via the nearby Pilani Highway.

"This is terrible," says Stallman between frustrated
sighs. "Why didn't we take the other route?"

Again, the light a quarter mile ahead of us turns
green. Again, we creep forward a few more car lengths.
This process continues for another 10 minutes, until we
finally reach a major crossroad promising access to the
adjacent highway.

The driver ahead of us ignores it and continues through
the intersection.

"Why isn't he turning?" moans Stallman, throwing up his
hands in frustration. "Can you believe this?"

I decide not to answer either. I find the fact that I
am sitting in a car with Stallman in the driver seat,
in Maui no less, unbelievable enough. Until two hours
ago, I didn't even know Stallman knew how to drive.
Now, listening to Yo-Yo Ma's cello playing the mournful
bass notes of "Appalachian Journey" on the car stereo
and watching the sunset pass by on our left, I do my
best to fade into the upholstery.

When the next opportunity to turn finally comes up,
Stallman hits his right turn signal in an attempt to
cue the driver ahead of us. No such luck. Once again,
we creep slowly through the intersection, coming to a
stop a good 200 yards before the next light. By now,
Stallman is livid.

"It's like he's deliberately ignoring us," he says,
gesturing and pantomiming like an air craft carrier
landing-signals officer in a futile attempt to catch
our guide's eye. The guide appears unfazed, and for the
next five minutes all we see is a small portion of his
head in the rearview mirror.

I look out Stallman's window. Nearby Kahoolawe and
Lanai Islands provide an ideal frame for the setting
sun. It's a breathtaking view, the kind that makes
moments like this a bit more bearable if you're a
Hawaiian native, I suppose. I try to direct Stallman's
attention to it, but Stallman, by now obsessed by the
inattentiveness of the driver ahead of us, blows me off.

When the driver passes through another green light,
completely ignoring a "Pilani Highway Next Right," I
grit my teeth. I remember an early warning relayed to
me by BSD programmer Keith Bostic. "Stallman does not
suffer fools gladly," Bostic warned me. "If somebody
says or does something stupid, he'll look them in the
eye and say, `That's stupid.'"

Looking at the oblivious driver ahead of us, I realize
that it's the stupidity, not the inconvenience, that's
killing Stallman right now.

"It's as if he picked this route with absolutely no
thought on how to get there efficiently," Stallman says.

The word "efficiently" hangs in the air like a bad
odor. Few things irritate the hacker mind more than
inefficiency. It was the inefficiency of checking the
Xerox laser printer two or three times a day that
triggered Stallman's initial inquiry into the printer
source code. It was the inefficiency of rewriting
software tools hijacked by commercial software vendors
that led Stallman to battle Symbolics and to launch the
GNU Project. If, as Jean Paul Sartre once opined, hell
is other people, hacker hell is duplicating other
people's stupid mistakes, and it's no exaggeration to
say that Stallman's entire life has been an attempt to
save mankind from these fiery depths.

This hell metaphor becomes all the more apparent as we
take in the slowly passing scenery. With its multitude
of shops, parking lots, and poorly timed street lights,
Kihei seems less like a city and more like a poorly
designed software program writ large. Instead of
rerouting traffic and distributing vehicles through
side streets and expressways, city planners have
elected to run everything through a single main drag.
From a hacker perspective, sitting in a car amidst all
this mess is like listening to a CD rendition of nails
on a chalkboard at full volume.

"Imperfect systems infuriate hackers," observes Steven
Levy, another warning I should have listened to before
climbing into the car with Stallman. "This is one
reason why hackers generally hate driving cars-the
system of randomly programmed red lights and oddly laid
out one-way streets causes delays which are so goddamn
unnecessary [Levy's emphasis] that the impulse is to
rearrange signs, open up traffic-light control boxes .
. . redesign the entire system."See Steven Levy, Hackers (Penguin USA
1984): 40.

More frustrating, however, is the duplicity of our
trusted guide. Instead of searching out a clever
shortcut-as any true hacker would do on instinct-the
driver ahead of us has instead chosen to play along
with the city planners' game. Like Virgil in Dante's
Inferno, our guide is determined to give us the full
guided tour of this hacker hell whether we want it or not.

Before I can make this observation to Stallman, the
driver finally hits his right turn signal. Stallman's
hunched shoulders relax slightly, and for a moment the
air of tension within the car dissipates. The tension
comes back, however, as the driver in front of us slows
down. "Construction Ahead" signs line both sides of the
street, and even though the Pilani Highway lies less
than a quarter mile off in the distance, the two-lane
road between us and the highway is blocked by a dormant
bulldozer and two large mounds of dirt.

It takes Stallman a few seconds to register what's
going on as our guide begins executing a clumsy
five-point U-turn in front of us. When he catches a
glimpse of the bulldozer and the "No Through Access"
signs just beyond, Stallman finally boils over.

"Why, why, why?" he whines, throwing his head back.
"You should have known the road was blocked. You should
have known this way wouldn't work. You did this deliberately."

The driver finishes the turn and passes us on the way
back toward the main drag. As he does so, he shakes his
head and gives us an apologetic shrug. Coupled with a
toothy grin, the driver's gesture reveals a touch of
mainlander frustration but is tempered with a
protective dose of islander fatalism. Coming through
the sealed windows of our rental car, it spells out a
succinct message: "Hey, it's Maui; what are you gonna do?"

Stallman can take it no longer.

"Don't you fucking smile!" he shouts, fogging up the
glass as he does so. "It's your fucking fault. This all
could have been so much easier if we had just done it
my way."

Stallman accents the words "my way" by gripping the
steering wheel and pulling himself towards it twice.
The image of Stallman's lurching frame is like that of
a child throwing a temper tantrum in a car seat, an
image further underlined by the tone of Stallman's
voice. Halfway between anger and anguish, Stallman
seems to be on the verge of tears.

Fortunately, the tears do not arrive. Like a summer
cloudburst, the tantrum ends almost as soon as it
begins. After a few whiny gasps, Stallman shifts the
car into reverse and begins executing his own U-turn.
By the time we are back on the main drag, his face is
as impassive as it was when we left the hotel 30
minutes earlier.

It takes less than five minutes to reach the next
cross-street. This one offers easy highway access, and
within seconds, we are soon speeding off toward Pa'ia
at a relaxing rate of speed. The sun that once loomed
bright and yellow over Stallman's left shoulder is now
burning a cool orange-red in our rearview mirror. It
lends its color to the gauntlet wili wili trees flying
past us on both sides of the highway.

For the next 20 minutes, the only sound in our vehicle,
aside from the ambient hum of the car's engine and
tires, is the sound of a cello and a violin trio
playing the mournful strains of an Appalachian folk
tune. Endnote