Richard Stallman at OSU – Happy Hacking

Photo Apr 15, 5 51 33 PMIt was one of those “Oh, really?” moments when I saw the message on the Central Ohio Linux Users Group mailing list that Richard Stallman (RMS), founder of the Free Software Foundation, was going to speak at OSU on April 15, 2013.  One of the advantages to being in a large University town is the ability to attend such lectures.  I pinned a note next to my monitor and made it a tech date.

In case you’ve never heard of this guy, he’s the man behind the GPL (General Public License) and the founder of the free software movement.  Although he does not like the title “Father of Open Source”, its hard to imagine the Eclipse Foundation, or the Apache Foundation, or any Linux distribution, or any other number of open source projects without the initial revolution lead by the FSF .  I’m not sure Java, it’s Open API’s, and Community Process would exist without the foundation laid down by RMS.

It was a beautiful day Monday and I hit campus a couple hours before the presentation.  I found the Journalism building and Room 300 where he’d be speaking.  Ohio State is a big campus, or more like a small town of a hundred thousand, so navigation and access can be difficult.  There was a class in session, so I strolled campus with a slice of Catfish Biff’s pizza and killed an hour while encouraging a few associates to make the trip to campus.

A few students started to gather outside Rm 300 about an hour before the presentation.  We all knew this would be SRO (Standing Room Only).  I engaged  a fellow COLUG’er, jep, and about a dozen students in geek small talk.  We discussed the availability of the C and C++ language compilers before the onset of the free software movement.  I was in college before the revolution and never really had the language components made available to me, as commercial compilers ran a few thousand dollars.  Most everyone stated their primary language was either python (65%), or ruby(25%), with a couple C/C++ hold outs.  Take note corporate america, todays computer science students “Get IT!” and are working in the leading dynamic languages, not the older statically typed  languages Java andC# !

Dr. Zhang, the faculty sponsor, introduced Mr. Stallman, by identifying Adam Smith (Supply and Demand Capitalism), Karl Marx (Labor Input and Valuation), and the Free Software Movement (Open Source Software), as three large economic disruptors of the last few centuries.  Pretty nice company for Mr. Stallman to be included with and probably an appropriate spectrum of love and hate.

The crowd numbered a few hundred with more people standing/sitting in the aisles than in the hundred seats available in the lecture hall.  The SRO patrons were ninety-five percent students, indicating a robust awareness of the subjects importance among the youth.  Foreign students appeared to form a large contingent, perhaps demonstrating greater international prominence for the free software movement.

Photo Apr 15, 5 40 25 PMMr Stallman spoke on the formation of the FSF, its guiding principals, and the four freedoms of software.  We’ll get back to those four freedoms.  He also told of how most of the GNU components existed before Linus Torvalds developed the initial Linux kernel and that the FSF had been working on a prototype kernel when Mr. Torvalds open sourced his kernel code, creating what we all know as GNU/Linux today.

Back to those Four Freedoms of Software:

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Many of these might sound quite heretical in a corporate IT environment, especially if one makes their living selling code (robber baron).  However, if your a corporate IT manager (gatekeeper), free software might just ring of freedom from vendor lock in.  Regardless of your personal position on it, one should recognize its impact, and the economic disruptor it has become over the last thirty years.

Todays corporate IT world consists of interwoven in house developed proprietary applications, commercial license restricted applications, free and open source licensed applications (their is a difference between free and open), and now cloud hosted applications.  The three former have been discussed a great deal over the last decade.  This latter might need some special attention in light of completely outsourced control of code and data.  Mr. Stallman spoke cautiously of the SaaS/PaaS movement.  Apparently viewing it for the peril it could become without access to data, data schema, or application code.  Be wary of outsourcing control and freedom in favor of convenience.  Freedoms are always worth fighting for!

Mr Stallman closed with a bit of geek humor in costume as the “Saint IGNUcious”.  Remember, he is one of the original authors of EMACS and reminded us that vivivi is the number of the beast.:)  He entertained a number of questions, and then sold and signed FSF swag.  I was quite elated to purchase a new copy of “DEBUGGING with GDB”  and promptly have it signed – Happy Hacking Richard Stallman.  Of course it was paid for in the preferred commodity of cash!

Post presentation, Jep invited me to dinner with a pair of budding entrepreneurs from Malaysia.  I’ve been convinced to play with Python for a while and now I know a few folks to ask for help at the Python DOJO’s.

It was a nice presentaton and  Dr. Xiaodong Zhang is due a big thank you for sponsoring such a great community event.

A wonderful afternoon and evening, only to be shattered by the news of the Boston Marathon bombings upon arriving home.  Let’s keep working on Free and Open for Software and Society!

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