"Free as in Freedom" is the new biography of Richard M. Stallman (rms) the hero of the Free Software Foundation and creator of the GNU Public Licence. It is published by O'Reilly and the author is Sam Williams. This book has, as you might expect, been released under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) and is available at http://www.oreilly.com/openbook/freedom/index.html. There is a lot of new information in this book even for those who have read Hackers by Stephen Levy and Rebel Code by Glyn Moody. This book, as opposed to the others, concentrates solely on rms, his life and his views.

This book is by no means a literary masterpiece; in fact it is a complete mishmash of ideas. There is little or no organistaion and the various threads such as the rise of the FSF or the GPL require you to pick appart several chapters to get at the meat of the story. That said there is a lot of interesting, if highly subjective, information in the book so I really do have to recommend it because of this fact (and because it is free). I will buy this book when and if it hits the shelves not because it is a great read but because it is interesting and I want to help prove rms' point.

The contents of the book are:

  • Preface: This explains the situation of the book in terms of the licence, distribution and the fact that anyone can alter it as per the GPL. It also gives a basic introduction to who rms is and how the book came about, a story that is expanded in Chapter 14.

  • Chapter 1: For Want of a Printer: This chapter relates the, now famous, story of how rms "fixed" a printer that jammed by alerting users to the fact that it had jammed. He did this by changing the printer driver source. When a later model arrived and had a similar problem rms found the drivers were non-free. The story goes on because rms was specifically singled out as someone not to give the drivers to. The perpetrator of this 'crime' against freedom, of course, has no recollection of the incident. The chapter then turns to a more general discussion of the changes taking place in the software world at the time.

  • Chapter 2: 2001: A Hacker's Odyssey: Relates the circumstances of a speech that Stallman gave at New York University a week after Microsoft senior vice president Craig Mundie had given a speech there slamming the General Public Licence (GPL). The description of this speech is intertwined with a history of the rise of the GPL and its increasing recognition by companies like AOL, Sun and IBM. GNU/Linux is also introduced at this stage but the Linux vs GNU/Linux debate is reserved for Chapter 10.

  • Chapter 3: A Portrait of the Hacker as a Young Man: Interviews with Stallman's Mum make up the bulk of this chapter which describes rms's early life at home and school. It tells of his gravitation towards advanced maths and science at high school and his frustrations at the simplicity of the courses resulting in his refusal to do any essays from the fourth grade onwards. It also relates his mother's concerns over Asperger's Syndrome (like a mild Autism) but keeps them at the level of speculation. There is also a picture of rms' senior transcript which is unfortunately too small for my eyes.

  • Chapter 4: Impeach God: This chapter tells more of rms' family especially his father and rms' fears of Vietnam but quickly moves on to his college education and the story of the legendary Math 55 "boot camp" at Harvard. Then the story of the MIT A.I. lab and Stallman's involvement in the shenanagens that went on there is told. This includes another view of Stallman's growing hatred of secrets and the " I suggest that you switch to the password 'carriage return.'" story.

  • Chapter 5: Small Puddle of Freedom: This chapter is told from the point of view of the author as he goes with Stallman to a lunch-time meeting. They discuss HURD, sex, dancing, GNOME, Napster and patent and copyright law. It also includes many comments about rms' personal habits.

  • Chapter 6: The Emacs Commune: The story of the development of Emacs from the TECO macros all the way to the Turing complete environment we all know (and love?). This includes a discussion of the problems of forks and standards both of which Emacs has had problems with. There's more about Emacs in Chapter 8 which is much more amusing and considerably less dry.

  • Chapter 7: A Stark Moral Choice: This is about the birth of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) including the creation of the the GPL and the genesis of the "Free as in Speech" idea. It tells the familiar story of the destruction of the MIT A.I. lab that Stallman had grown to call home, including his dynamite related fantasies about the Symbolics LISP machine company. It also mentions Bill Gates and his "Open letter to Hobbyists" which happened about the same time Stallman started asking for GNU developers.

  • Chapter 8: St. Ignucius: A conference at University of Hawaii is where most of this chapter takes place. There is a little about the conference, a quick run through of a few issues such as software patents and look "look and feel". He then relates a service from the Church of Emacs where Stallman wears a disk on his head and blesses his congregation. When asked about Vi he says that using a free version of Vi isn't a sin; it is a penance.

  • Chapter 9: The GNU General Public License: The genesis of the GPL is the subject of this chapter. Right from the very beginning where rms conceived of the need of an official protection after The 1976 Copyright Act in the U.S. was extended to include software explicitly. It all started with the GNU Emacs licence which was used by a number of people and eventually became the General Public Licence. It cites this licence as the primary thing that rms will be remembered for in a hundred years. It charts the rise of the GPL and its gravitational effect on software projects. Then it moves on to discuss the beginnings of the GNU project as a whole including HURD, GCC and the Linux kernel.

  • Chapter 10: GNU/Linux: Take note this chapter is called GNU/Linux not just Linux; this is important. It tells of the lack of a GNU kernel, the rise of Linux and the attitude of rms to the whole Linux phenomenon which has changed from highly skeptical, through jealousy to acceptance on his terms. It also informs us again of the reasons we should call it GNU/Linux not just Linux.

  • Chapter 11: Open Source: Stallman has never been one to compromise and this chapter shows that very clearly. Rms dislikes the term "open source" despite the fact that its widespread acceptance has given him a great deal of fame and visibility. It contains a description of the circumstances surrounding the "the Freeware Summit" where the term had its coming out party from both the point of view of the organisers and Stallman himself.

  • Chapter 12: A Brief Journey Through Hacker Hell: This entire chapter is the description of a car journey the author shared with Stallman at the Hawaii conference. Stallman gets very angry at the traffic and his guide because of inefficiency, which Stallman (and apparently all hackers) find a repulsive and crying fit worthy subject.

  • Chapter 13: Continuing the Fight: This brings the discussion of the various issues already mentioned by talking about Qt and TrollTech along with DeCSS. There then follows a strange passage where they try to figure out how rms will be remembered and what historical figure he most resembles. I would recommend a greater knowledge of U.S. history than I posses for reading this chapter.

  • Chapter 14: Epilogue: Crushing Loneliness: This is a surprisingly upbeat chapter for the title. The first is about the author's battle to get the book a publisher willing to accept Stallman's terms and the second concerns Stallman's attitude to women his personal habits which the author seems to find a little objectionable to say the least.

  • Appendix A: Terminology: To sum up: GNU/Linux vs Linux (again) and "open source" vs "free software" (again).

  • Appendix B: Hack, Hackers, and Hacking: Hackers vs Crackers etc.

  • Appendix C: GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL): Needs no introduction (especially at this stage.)
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