September 27, 2019
Follow me on Twitter


John Gruber apologizes for getting Richard Stallman wrong. To be honest, I don’t think Gruber has much to regret here: Stallman has always been such a bizarre figure that it’s hard to know how to react. His paper on “EMACS the extensible, customizable self-documenting display editor” is a classic; few papers so deeply influenced my thinking. The system it described was even more brilliant — and that’s speaking as someone who has never liked EMACS. Stallman’s whole free software polemic always left me cold — a half-baked idea inexplicably beloved by some brilliant people — but it certainly moved the world.

I think I’ve met Stallman, briefly, twice. He’s someone everyone talks about, and remembers. From the beginning, Stallman was a legend: uncouth, unclean, unmannered. He didn’t care if he bothered other people: that was their problem. He didn’t care if he made you uncomfortable. He didn’t care if he inconvenienced you; inconvenience was part of the price for his time and attention. He didn’t care about rules if he didn’t understand those rules.

Even when he was being a jerk, he sure could write; here’s a small excerpt from a famously-hilarious list of requirements he demanded of his hosts when asked to give lectures.

Dogs that bark angrily and/or jump up on me frighten me, unless they are small and cannot reach much above my knees.  But if they only bark or jump when we enter the house, I can cope, as long as you hold the dog away from me at that time.  Aside from that issue, I'm ok with dogs.

If you can find a host for me that has a friendly parrot, I will be very very glad.  If you can find someone who has a friendly parrot I can visit with, that will be nice too.

DON'T buy a parrot figuring that it will be a fun surprise for me.

In the end, there's always the work — and the work is very, very good. The work isn’t all that matters, but it does matter, and it lasts.

No one, I think, really knows how to think about Stallman. No one has ever known. When you see someone doing something familiar but bad, you know what you ought to do. If you don’t do what you ought, you should apologize later. I’ve never met anyone else who was remotely like Stallman, and I’ve never heard of anyone like Stallman. Reaching for a historical analogy, I draw a complete blank.

When I saw he had resigned from MIT, I was surprised that he still had even a nominal affiliation with the university. He has never been collegial. He didn’t teach. That classic paper stands lonely in the ACM digital library among a modest pile of speeches and manuals. It is good for Software to find a place for Stallman, but odd that the place was a school.

Open-source/free software has attracted or cultivated a surprisingly large number of very successful people whom you wouldn’t bring home to your mother.