Free as in Freedom

March 27, 2014
Sam Williams

For most in the software community who know about him, RMS is either regarded as a brilliant, principled hacker-activist, or as a frightening, fanatical lunatic. Sam Williams' RMS biography Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software tries to tell his story, tracing his life from unhappy withdrawn child prodigy through teenage social outcast, to top-performing academic, computer hacker and finally political leader.

Unfortunately, despite the interesting subject matter (apart from RMS' personal history, the book describes the MIT AI Lab hackerdom, the concept of free software itself, the FSF vs. OSI schism, the early years of GNU/Linux), the book falls rather flat. I realize that it is difficult to write a biography about a person who has already committed so many of his personal thoughts to the public record, but … the writing itself is mediocre, at best.

On the positive side: RMS is viewed from a sympathetic angle, without descending into idol worship of him, his results or his abilities. The stories from the AI Lab are fascinating, and makes me wish I had had the opportunity to live in a similar environment. However, the description of RMS' devastating emotional pain when that environment - his home - was eventually destroyed, however, is a stark reminder that I should probably be careful what I wish for. He seems to have always been an intense person; intense in his passions, intense in his intellectual pursuits, intense in his pain and his challenges. Most of the material about his youth I found eerily relatable. I too had a painful childhood. I think most autistic nerds do.

RMS might, in fact, be autistic. The book devotes some text to discussing this (and Williams has interviewed RMS himself, his mother and several of his friends and colleagues on the subject). RMS himself believes that he might have been given a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome or high-functioning autism if he was born 40 years later. His developmental history was weird, and traits such as his very rigid thinking style (and extremely strong principles), his odd gaze, his inability to relate to his peers in his youth, his intensely logical approach and his ability to hyper-focus and block out the outside world - all are classic indicators of a person on the autism spectrum. I enjoyed that this discussion was made without pathologizing RMS (or autistic people in general) - in fact, Eben Moglen (RMS' long-time associate) points out that many people over the years have viewed some of his eccentric traits as obstacles in getting to know "the real RMS", when in fact those traits are the real RMS.

The epilogue - in which RMS relates that he has finally found a little happiness in his life after his long string of bitter personal and political defeats - was a poignant end to the story. His girlfriend's realization that one of his primary personal, intellectual and political motivators was crushing loneliness was downright tear-inducing.

The pacing of the book is weird, though. An entire chapter is devoted to a description of RMS suffering a mild case of road rage during a poorly-planned driving trip in Hawaii - but the entire span of time between the announcement of the GNU project to the launch of the Linux kernel is over in just a few brief pages.

There are outright factual errors, such as when Linux is referred to as a "bored-out, supercharged version of Minix" - it is a matter of public record (and an infamous Usenet flamewar between Linus Torvalds and Andy Tanenbaum) that the Linux kernel architecture is nothing like that of Minix; Williams might as well be saying that a Porsche is a souped-up version of a Spanish galleon.

Spelling errors, distractingly bad hyphenation and shoddy typography add a poor surface to a mediocre reading experience. A pity; I have admired RMS ever since I became aware of him and his work.

Appropriately, though, the book is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. You can get the entire text from O'Reilly if you want. There's also a 2010 version updated by RMS himself - I haven't read that one, though.

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