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Friday, October 05, 2007

The Free Software Foundation and Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman gave a talk at University of Maryland at College Park. He is the head of the free software foundation. The terminology `free software' does not mean that software should be given out for free. It means that once you buy software you should have the right to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute it as much as you like. EMACS, which he wrote, has this kind of license. So does GNU which is an FSF project. The talk was pretty good. He made some valid points about the evils of the current system. I think he has some good points to make.
  1. He talked for 1 hour 45 minutes. This is probably 45 minutes too long.
  2. When I say he talked for 1 hour 45 minutes I am being literal- no slides, no blackboard presentation, just talking. This may be because to use technology he would have had to use Software from a company that he does not approve of.
  3. He speaks of free software as a human right. He speaks of it as the worst evil in the world. There are worse evils in the world; however, all good causes need true believers, and he is one.
I've heard all this before and further ago than most people. In 1982 he was my housemate in Graduate School. He had some of these ideas then, but they are better develped now. I sortof wish I had gotten involved with Free-Software early on since its a good cause and it would be nice to be able to contribute to society in this way.

P.S. Richard Stallman is not the most famous computer scientist who knows me. Serge Brin, co-founder of Google, had two courses from me as an Undergraduate. I definitly wish I had gotten involved with Google early early on since its a good product and it would be nice to be able to contribute to my bank account in this way.

17 comments:

  1. About Point 2: Actually there are some fine free software alternatives that would have allowed him to present his talk with spiffy slides (OpenOffice, Mozilla Firefox with S5, etc). It is just that Stallman himself is an old-school Unix guy, command line and all (and Emacs...).

    About Point 3: Stallman actually got it right on one thing - he who controls the software controls everything (Stallman actually thought about it a decade before it became obvious, which makes him quite a visionary). Proprietary software can be used as a vehicle for a much greater evil than its own unfreeness. Just think about the recent issues with spyware (both from malicious parties and from "legitimate" businesses like Sony), viruses (it was not Microsoft's intention that they exist but a proprietary climate is generally more conductive to them), and the eventual use of locked down software to enforce taking away of otherwise available rights (starting small, such as the right to make a personal copy of your legally license movies).

    Also - many readers sympathize with third world countries breaking patent law to get affordable medication for the sick. Why not sympathize with them being able to get software tools (without breaking laws thanks to Free Software) for the benefit of the healthy?

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  2. I think there's a conflict of interest here.

    Academics of course would like to see more free software, particularly software that is helpful to their research.

    But such a world may hurt their students, limiting the quality of jobs that they can get upon graduation.

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  3. In response to Anonymous:

    The arguments for why free software is not a threat to job security abound on the internet (though I am having trouble finding citations at the moment), but I will summarize:

    > 95% of software is not made by software companies, and thus not sold, but only used internally. If there is a demand for a piece of software, people will be paid to make it, even if the sponsoring organization never sells the software.
    > Since free software solves old problems once and for all, the quality of jobs available is raised, because programmers need only work on new problems.

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  4. 95% of software is not made by software companies, and thus not sold, but only used internally. If there is a demand for a piece of software, people will be paid to make it, even if the sponsoring organization never sells the software.

    Job satisfaction depends in part on the number of people using your software. If most development work is done only for internal users, then that would be bad news for CS majors.


    Since free software solves old problems once and for all, the quality of jobs available is raised, because programmers need only work on new problems.

    That's bad news for the free software movement! Who would want to contribute to boring software?

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  5. The terminology `free software' does not mean that software should be given out for free.

    If that were true he would have long ago renamed his organization Software Freedom Foundation and once and for all remove the controversy.

    He thrives in the equivocation of free, freedom and gratis.

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  6. When I had a chance to sit through his lecture and ask him questions later, he came across as having an abrasive, almost obnoxious personality. Many, many others have said the same. Do you think this is true or is he just misunderstood? If the former, was he like this when you two hung out or is it a trait he developed later? Thanks.

    //genuinely curious

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  7. Just like computer science, economics is also a man made science.

    There is a reason both these sciences are created. They serve the society well. I do not think computer science is any more important than economics. The dependency of computer science on economics is evidently more than the dependency of economics on computer science.

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  8. Just like computer science, economics is also a man made science.

    I disagree. Computer science is the science of compuation, and computation exists in the natural world, with or without human artifacts such as computers.

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  9. I thought to respond to the previous comment but then recalled a rule I made. Do not argue with anonymous.

    If the previous commentator likes to see my response then please identify yourself. Or else wait until somebody with a real name post the same comment.

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  10. I disagree. Computer science is the science of compuation, and computation exists in the natural world, with or without human artifacts such as computers.

    Sorry, the position of chief crackpot for that theory is already filled by Stephen Wolfram.

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  11. Stallman a famous "computer scientist" ... well at least you didn't call Bill Gates a computer scientist.

    With all due respect, RMS is a great computer activist and programmer (although the xemacs group might disagree with a good program manager).

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  12. Kamal Jain and anonymous#10 evidently think that computation doesn't happen in nature. So either nature never has to solve an optimization problem (demonstrably false), or optimization problems can be solved by means other than computation. I have to say, I think the latter idea is much closer to crackpot territory than the idea that computation happens in nature.

    Note that "computation" does not require a digital computer.

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  13. Now that Ben has commented, maybe Kamal will respond...

    Anyone who is trying to say that computer science and economics are so radically different ought to look at what huge numbers of people in algorithms, Kamal among them, are actually working on these days. Algorithmic game theory and mechanism design based on problems in economics is probably the hottest area in all of CS theory right now.

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  14. for anonymous #11, Gates is an ex-computer scientist. some of us just dont know it!

    Gates, William; Papadimitriou Christos (1979). "Bounds for sorting by prefix reversal". Discrete Math 27: 47-57.

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  15. In response to Arvind:

    http://www.stallman.org/articles/texas.html

    I'm from Texas, but I like stallman's style. =)

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  16. Ben is not an identity for me. Just click the link and see it is a recently created profile with not much identifying information.

    The topic has become interesting enough for me test out my own knowledge.

    Many laws of nature are understood by us as optimization problems, such as “path of least resistance”. If you call it computer science, I can call it economics too. Let me explain how.

    First we need to define computation. If you call any optimization in nature as computation then computer science is *not* a science of computation. Here is an example.

    An apple falling from a tree is following a quadratic equation as we understand it. If you call it computation then in that case computer science is *not* the science of computation instead it is the “science of creating instructions to do computations on a desirable set of parameters.” The instructions can be in software or hardware. So it is not the falling of apple which is computer science. But it is *when* to stop it and measure the distance if you are computing a square OR where to stop it and measure the time if you are computing a square root.

    Another way of defining computation is “creating instruction both in hardware/software to determine the value of a function on a desirable set of parameters”. In that case, it is hard to believe that there is any computation done by nature.

    Of course if you insist that nature had computer science irrespective of whether human existed or not. In that case nature did have economics too. Instead of money the currency was energy and other physical quantities. Every action has equal and opposite reaction.

    My personal take is that economics did not exist in nature and neither did computer science. Both are man made sciences for the benefit of societies.

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  17. Point 3 is unfair - if you look at Stallman's webpage http://www.stallman.org/ you'd see that he cares deeply about many issues beyond software copyright.

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