Havana 2007 (4): RMS Rocks Havana, 2.5hr Gig

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Conference Day 3 (Wednesday). Wow… the joint is jumping (again). Another tough call between “Web2.0 in Health Informatics” that I really wanted to see and GNU-Meister Richard M Stallman keynoting in the big hall. But actually it was no contest. You’ve gotta go see RMS perform in the last bastion of communism, right? The hall is huge, and packed solid – standing room only. RMS strolls to the podium mic and, to my surprise and delight, starts speaking in pretty damn good Spanish!

This is great, not only for the obvious benefit to the home crowd, but also because he speaks with a nice clear Yanqui enunciation that, combined with the overall familiar context, makes it easy for me to follow 90% of his presentation even with my much poorer level of Spanish. And he keeps it up, with no notes, for a full 2 and 1/2 hours (including a lengthy Q&A session at the end).

Let’s face it, RMS is not someone you warm to at the best of times… or so I had thought! This gig changed my opinion…

…RMS was warm, clear, personable, approachable, very funny, very direct, and had the crowd in the palm of his hands. Whoops, except for question time. Then out came the old MIT-military-academy extremely rude refusal to let most people even finish their questions before cutting them down to size. Yet his answers were invariably (ignoring the clumsy interrupt style) extremely informative.

“Are you a communist?” (paraphrasing the question)

“No soy communista! (verbatim) … Free software vs private software is orthogonal to the communism-capitalism dimension, and I’ve always tried to incorporate elements of the best of both communism and capitalism” (paraphrase)

And so on. You can Google for Stallman’s view of the world, but in a nutshell he spelled out the four principles of Free Software, emphasised the dangers inherent in proprietary, buggy and malevolent software from Microsoft and other big vendors; explained why Digital Rights Management and the Digital Millennium Copyrights Act were so dangerous, relived the history of GNU, including the origin of the name, provided a rationale critique of the common ms-labelling of “GNU with Linux” as simply “Linux”, described why he could not endorse products like Debian Linux that (regrettably) included elements of proprietary code that undermined the entire philosophy of Software Libre, and talked about the virtues of Software Libre for government agencies and particularly for education, not least of all because of the moral benefits of helping to instill the virtues of cooperation.

It was a great performance… he ended by putting on an old disk platter that he now uses as a halo, and a robe, revealing his other identity as St. Richard of the Church of EMACS. The crowd loved it. A didactical hour of highly informative Q/A ensued, including clarifications of why the word ‘migrate’ (as in migrating legacy code to GNU/Linux was not ‘diabolical’, as one of the questioners mistakenly asserted.

[update next day] I chatted with him for a few minutes at breakfast this morning, and in our few minutes he indeed cut short my questions to correct me on my incorrect use of both ‘free’ and ‘open’ – he’s on a big mission all right. He suggested we drop ‘Open’ entirely from our open content initiative, as it’s misleading in his view, but the ‘Open’ in Open University is not misleading at all, and pre-dates this entire discussion by over 30 years, with no confusion whatsoever, so I can’t see that changing!

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One Response to “Havana 2007 (4): RMS Rocks Havana, 2.5hr Gig”

  1. Juha Mäkeläinen Says:

    I was in Cuba this week on my holiday. I must say I was astonished when seeing Mr. Stallman in Cuban TV news. It was a report from Informatica 2007 with a lengthy extract of his speech. I don’t know what he was saying about Software Libre as I can’t Spanish.

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