Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Richard Stallman in Cambridge

Oops, this remained unpublished for a while...
Richard Stallman, notable of the Free Software Foundation, was in Cambridge in April speaking at the Computer Lab's Wednesday Seminar. Stallman is one of computing's true eccentrics.  I bumped into him, only very briefly, a couple of times when visiting MIT as a PhD student, but even those short meetings gave me no doubt that he is a quite an unusual character – the last time I'd seen him, he was ever so pleased that by passing some wire over his neck and tying it to the sides of his laptop, he'd been able to arrange it so he could type standing up, a bit like a cinema ice cream salesman – the only tiny hitch being that the plastic coated wire he'd used kept unknotting itself, and the laptop kept nearly crashing to the floor!
But I have to say he's a very witty speaker, and someone it's well worth hearing speak if you get the chance – even if you disagree with everything he says, you will probably enjoy the talk.  In this talk, he had grand plans to change the world of copyright by categorising every book in the world as being a personal account, a work of art, or having practical value as a work of instruction (eg, a recipe book), and then giving everything but the artistic books away free.  There was a slight lack of realism to his vision – Gordon Ramsay agreeing his recipes are artless? Harold Pinter agreeing his "purely artistic" work has no instructive value?  And anyone agreeing to this regime in the first place?  But Stallman's humour worked in a way that seemed somehow reminiscent of Jimmy Carr, and the audience was entertained both by the content and his manner.
There were a few odd moments of course.  He was particularly irked by the projectionist wanting to dim the house lights for the talk ("do you want me to go to sleep?", he objected).  And at the end of the talk he insisted people should queue for the microphone rather than waiting for it to be passed to them, because it's so much more efficient.  Normally this might work, but with the very long benches and tight seats of the Computer Lab lecture theatre it meant audience members were having to climb over each other or ask half a dozen other people to stand up so they could squeeze past each other to reach the aisle.  Half the room was shuffling itself around and uttering "excuse me" like a regular chant, and Stallman was blissfully oblivious to it and happy with his efficient solution.  But, as I say, these turn out to be very humorous moments to watch rather than awkward.

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