Tue 6 May 2008
So I went to the rms talk last Thursday and throughly enjoyed it. This was the second time I’d seen him speak, and can certainly recommend it to others. As others have remarked, he is quite entertaining to listen to and the way he upholds and adheres to his values is worthy of admiration. The last time I saw him speak (maybe three or four years ago in Sheffield), it was on the subject of software patents. This time round, I was treated to a more general FOSS talk, which touched on well-known topics such as the history of GNU, the whole GNU/Linux debacle and truly Free distros along with DRM. rms also made specific mention of commercial Free Software (a common point of confusion for many) and of Free Software in education.
The latter I feel is very important and, as I currently work in a University, it’s a topic close to my heart. Access to source code is an invaluable learning aid. The few pieces of source code our students see, that they haven’t developed with their own hands, are throughly mothballed pieces of code which barely hang together by a string, having being developed by one academic long ago and then passed on like some hand-me-down. They certainly aren’t examples of good coding, but you won’t always find this in Free Software either. What you will find is code that has been used by hundreds if not thousands of users. Code which has been built on numerous platforms and maintained by GNU/Linux distributions. Code which has stood the test of time and experience, even if it still comes out dirty at the end. By contrast, the examples most students see are reused year after year with little to no change to the code. One of our lecturers is currently only distributing the code the students need as binary simply because the code itself is so ugly and hairy he doesn’t want them to use it as an example. The advent of the OpenJDK project will help, because it should mean that the software on the desktops of Free Software users more and more utilises Java. Why is this important? Because the majority of students are taught Java first and foremost. Most of our students never use C throughout their undergraduate life. So examples of big bodies of Java code are what’s needed and the OpenJDK is a great contribution in this respect, as is GNU Classpath — they both provide samples of the good, the bad and the ugly.
The other important point about Free Software in Education is the ‘get them while they’re young’ theory, which rms likened to addicting children to drugs. He seems to like harsh metaphors, but this one I feel is not too overboard. Certainly, proprietary software vendors provide school and university students with cut-down or gratis copies of their wares. The students get used to this software and start to use it. In many cases, they are effectively forced to, as part of their studies. When they then step out into the big wide world, this is all they know. And our teachers and lecturers, far from promoting sharing and education as they should, are helping this addiction process, even if it’s simply by distributing a Word document to students or using that as the format for a handin. I’ve had to repeatedly mail back our university admin staff of late to obtain the minutes to meetings in a format other than the Word document they keep dropping in my inbox. One would hope they would start to take the hint…
For the finale of the talk, we were lucky enough to be visited by St. IGNUcius of the Church of Emacs. rms then took questions from the audience for well over an hour. He has a very admirable way of doing this; he clearly takes in every word being said, and you can hear the response before it comes when someone mentions ‘open source’ rather than ‘free software’ or some other faux pax, which they really should have known better than to utter, given the preceding two hours talk. I’m really surprised rms didn’t get more exsasperated than he did at some of them. I guess he must be used to it by now. He certainly seems to have a clear well-thought out answer for everything.
For those who couldn’t make the talk, I recorded it in full (with questions) and, with the help of Tim Dobson from the Manchester Free Software group, have made this available on-line. Where possible, we’d prefer you obtain the video from the torrent to reduce bandwidth load on those kind enough to host this. You can find the appropriate links on my website. If anyone would like to provide a further HTTP mirror of this, please get in touch. You can also help the Free Software community by helping to seed this via BitTorrent — this will help others get a copy