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I Met Richard Stallman

Saturday, July 04, 2009 at 11:07 AM EDT

Yes, I seriously did have the opportunity to meet him personally, and listen to his speech on the Free Software Movement. Let me attempt to explain the experience, and how it came to be.

About three weeks ago, I was reading my email. I got one from the tclug (Twin Cities Linux Users Group) mailing list claiming that Stallman was going to be in town for a speech at the University of Minnesota. I was a little skeptical at first, but after checking the UMN website and confirming that he was really going to be in Minneapolis, I was overwhelmed with excitement.

Somebody from the tclug list emailed Stallman and asked if some people from the list could have dinner with him. His response was, “I will have dinner with you if you change the name to the Twin Cities GNU/Linux Users Group.” A flame was ensued. I started getting an average of 30 emails a day on the subject, with the spike being (I believe) 60 messages in 8 hours. The flaming continued, when some people decided to start sending in email ballots to vote. This infuriated some people, and caused even more of a flame war!

The emails died down a few days before he started speaking. This was a bummer. I would have liked both to eat with Stallman, and to change the name to “Twin Cities GNU/Linux Users Group”. At least I would probably get to kind-of talk to him at his speech.

I got a phone call during Calculus class last Monday, the day before his speech, about an hour before school got out. It was my mom. Somehow, she worked her magic and got us both seats to a dinner with Richard Stallman. Some other people from the tclug list would be there, she said. I ran home and checked the emails she had forwarded to me. It was true. I had a personal invitation to dinner from Richard Stallman.

When my mom got home, we left right away to get to Minneapolis on time. We arrived early. I had a conversation with one of the other tclug members for a while, when rms walked into the restaurant. There he was. Standing in front of me. He was a little shorter than I expected. His hair was jet black and his beard was a shade of gray, in contradiction to the picture on Wikipedia.

He wanted to make sure this restaurant was “just right”. I read that he was very particular about his food, and this was confirmed almost instantly after he walked in the door. He ended up deciding that he did indeed want to eat there. Even though it was louder than he wanted, their menu looked very good. We all sat down and started discussing Free Software.

He was very opinionated. For the most part, he had a strong opinion and could defend himself on everything that was brought up in the conversation. Looking back on it, it shouldn’t have been that interesting considering the strong opinions he has on Free Software, but there was still something unnatural about it. For example, after someone from our table ordered a Coke, he informed us (and the waitress) about a Coke boycott due to the murder of several Columbian employees, and directed us all to Whenever someone asked him a question, he didn’t hesitate at all, or try to think of an answer. It was almost as if he had premeditated the questions. Even when he heard about my “seafood-phobia” for the first time, he talked to me for a surprisingly long time, giving me arguments as to why I should try my hardest to grow to love seafood.

Towards the end of the meal, he passed around his “Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book” for us to look at, and pointed out some of his favorites. After some pictures with him, he declared that he was tired, and wanted to go home. After a friendly “Happy Hacking” to us all, he left with his driver to go back to his hotel room. It was an eventful night, and I think all of us there were excited for his speech the next night.

My mother, brother, and I all arrived on the University of Minnesota campus the next afternoon to hear his speech. I had invited some of my district’s tech people, but none of them were able to make it. We made sure to get there extra-early to get a good seat. As people started to pile in, it began to be a geek-haven. 40% of the people all had laptops. Most of them I saw seemed to run proprietary software except one: an OLPC XO. Almost all of those without laptops had some other device, like an iPhone, a Treo, or a Blackberry. I didn’t see any Freerunners, but I’m sure there were some, probably even a couple Debian ones. This would be a very educational opportunity for most of the crowd.

His speech began with an introduction of the 4 freedoms, and the explanation of why each one is important. “Leaving so soon?” he asked someone as he walked out of the room. “I hope it wasn’t something I said…” “No, I’m selling FSF merchandise.” “Oh, then go right ahead!” he responded. He went on to talk about how proprietary software is unethical, and how it is our job to bring Free Software to the world. Then, of course, he became St. IGNUtious, a saint in the Church of Emacs. Both my mom and my brother were surprised at how informative his speech was, and had all kinds of questions for me about why Free Software wasn’t more widespread. Both of them were surprised at the amount of humor he used as well.

After the speech, he auctioned off a large GNU, and then had a QA session. Someone (who obviously wasn’t a big fan of his) tried to outsmart him about his opinions on copyright. Earlier in the speech he talked about the moral dilemma with proprietary software. He explained that if your friend asks you for a copy of a piece of proprietary software, you have a choice to make. You can hurt your friend by saying, “No, I can’t do that, this is a secret that you can’t know about,” or you can give your friend a copy and hurt the proprietary software company by reducing their profit. He claimed that hurting the proprietary software company was the lesser of the two evils. This man wanted to know if, since he advocated for people to break the copyright of proprietary software licenses, he also advocated for people to break the GPL license. The man asking the question had a smile on his face that said, “I got you!” Stallman, obviously frustrated by this questions, told the man that it was not about breaking licenses, it was about doing what is morally right and just. The man didn’t seem satisfied, but there wasn’t much time left and there were several more questions, so he continued on. After the QA session, he started packing up. People mobbed him asking “Can I take your picture?” He responded, “You can do anything you want, just don’t take up a lot of my time doing it.” I went down there to get my gnu signed, as well as take another picture before we all left.

Now that it has had some time to set in, both my mom and brother are “doing their part” to spread software freedom. My brother explained the concept of Free Software to a bunch of his Mac-fanatic friends. My mom explained it to one of her friends as well. Overall, the speech had a very positive impact on my family. I am sure each person that listened to the speech walked out with a different attitude on software. Anyone from Chile, Paraguay, or Uruguay should make sure to attend Stallman’s upcoming speeches there. For everyone else, watch/listen to a recorded speech of his, or watch Stephen Fry’s “Happy Birthday to GNU” video.

It’s a GNU day. What will you do to spread the word?