Lunch with Richard Stallman

Published May 15, 2018 · 1255 words · 6 minute read

“Happy Hacking”, he said with a smile. Written here is a short account of the meal I shared with the venerable Richard Stallman (rms ), father of the Free Software movement, a community whose ethos has evolved into the better half of the modern computing world (where people and quality come first!) I have no photos, autographs or records of the event (I wanted to respect rms’s privacy,) but have come away with a medley of interesting contacts and experiences.

A summary of the talk hosted by Joseph Potvin and rms is available here . A summary of rms’s current work can be read here .

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After hearing about rms’s upcoming presentation in Ottawa , I immediately noted the date, but very early; It was a good thing I excitedly spoke to some of my friends about this weeks later, as I mixed up the month as the date approached. While my friends were planning on attending the talk with me, it began quite early in the day; none of the night owls were able to wake up in time.

Upon arrival, I began conversing with someone who I would come to know as Joseph Potvin, the Executive Director of the Xalgorithms Alliance . He was co-presenting with rms about the Phoenix Pay problem, to which the Canadian Government had not only failed to resolve, but seemed to be stalling from looking for a viable solution to the problem. Notably, I met a Member of Parliament and members of The Gosling Group at the talk.

The talk was good; Joseph Potvin gave a summary of the systems he was developing, and the potential application of the Xalgo systems to solve the Phoenix Pay problem by thouroughly understanding and storing the Canadian Government’s pay rules, and procedurally applying them (with clear output for the calculation for each step,) to produce a final number which could be compared with a paystop. Currently the working title for the project is MyPayChecker.

The MyPayChecker Working Group will enable the world’s first digitally automated collective labor agreement. This means every clause, deduction and entitlement, and every priority notification, would be expressed in a transparent computable form in a free/libre schedule (i.e. annex) to the agreement, in addition to its conventional expression in natural language text. And each computable clause would be automatically and accurately discoverable on the Internet, to be efficiently retrieved without restriction for use in applicable transactions by at least three independent payroll platforms.

We’re going to throw down the gauntlet and issue a clear challenge to the companies behind the Phoenix project. We claim that a free software community can independently finance, create and operate within a year, a more respectful, more accurate, and more economical self-service portal for pay validation to support employees and payroll officers, than those companies can provide within a year. (Joseph Potvin )

Stallman then spoke about the importance of transparency and accountability in government, and how libre software helps to accomplish these goals. To the taxpayer, the following benefits over proprietary solutions were presented:

  • Up to 90% reduction in implementation cost due to simplicity, good documentation and lack of licensing fees.
  • Can be maintained easily, and by any party, so if original implementers are garbage, new maintainers can be hired. If the original maintainers did a good job and have a good relationship, there is no reason for that contract to be terminated.
  • Public knows what’s happening with their data, how secure it really is, rather than relying on security via obscurity.

Government exists for the people, and does its computing—all of it—for the people. So every public agency’s responsibility to the people includes maintaining control of that computing. Any time government uses a non-free computer program, then logically, its owner controls that part of government’s computing. We the people must insist that our government maintain full control of its computing, and must not let any other party take control of it. ((rms)[])

At the end of the talk, I posed a question to rms: “When a company is contracted to develop a system or tool, their interest is typically in profit, both immediately and by fostering dependence in the long term. By implementing a proprietary system, future changes become dependent on the company that implemented the solution. How do you convince your superiors to consider a free system, which could potentially be maintained or improved by others? This seems to go against the long-term interests of the company.”

  • rms: You can’t, really; Your focus needs to be on the client and the benefits it provides to them. You can’t foster the same dependence with libre software, meaning you can’t rely on being able to suck money out of your client for a long duration. However, the lack of licensing fees does mean the entirety of your fee will go to your company, the management and hopefully the developers.

At the end of this short exchange, a few more questions were asked, but I ended up speaking essentially 1:1 with rms about the profound need for transparent and free software. I stayed, talking, long past the end of the talk, and ended up being invited for lunch.

Joseph and rms had decided on the Yang Sheng restaurant at 622 Somerset St W. The drive there was interesting; rms played us some very interesting songs, all of which included him with some live band. I’ve searched his site, and have not been able to find the recordings. (And I don’t recall the country where the music was recorded.) At one point during the drive, I laughed and noted “This is surreal. My friends will never believe that I went for a drive with Richard Stallman of all people, and that he played a recording of him, live with a mariachi band!”

Richard Stallman was constantly working; in the car, while music was playing, between conversation, he plinked away at some C code in GNU Screen as we drove. At the restaurant, he had his laptop on the table and programmed between courses and while speaking. For somebody with an anti-corporate stance, this man was industrious.

For lunch, most of us asked Richard to order for us; we ended up getting a whole sweet and sour Pickerel, some egg-drop soups, vegetable dishes with garlic and rich sauces, and tea. Everything was delicious. A summary of the conversations:

  • When asked about advice he would give his twenty-year-old self: Read and don’t have children. His rationale is explained here .
  • Though I didn’t know it before I met him in person, Stallman is the literal king of puns. I really did underestimate this. The legends are true.
  • rms heartily recommends charging for software, explicitly without DRM and anonymous trade preferable.
  • Much time was spent discussing a private rail system to connect Quebec and Ontario. Details here.

After leaving the restaurant, I directed Stallman and Potvin to the used book store on Rideau street, then proceeded home from there.

His parting words, after I thanked him for letting me tag along to lunch:

“It was good to have you along, we got to try more dishes!”

As a result of attending this talk, then going to lunch with Joseph and Richard, I’ve made friends in the libre-software world. Best of all, I’m a contributing member within the nascent Xalgorithms project, which has been a fantastic experience. Hopefully I can make an impact in the community that has created the vast majority of the tools and technologies that I enjoy using today.

Happy Hacking,