Interview: Richard M. Stallman, Inventer of Open Source, Free Software Crusader

"Did you see the crazy person handing out anti-ebook flyers?" someone said to me while I was at ReaderCon. Indeed, the man with the giant hair and beard handing out flyers looked a bit like a vagrant. I went up to see what it was about, saw his face and did a double take. I checked his name-badge just to be sure.

"You're Richard Stallman," I said in disbelief.

"Yes," he said, and handed me a flyer. "If you care about books you should read this."

A copy of the anti-ebook flyer can be found here.

For those of you who don't know, Richard M. Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation in 1984 with the mission of creating software that could be freely distributed and wasn't tied down by nasty licensing restrictions (software that had been 'freed'). Eventually, this transformed into the "Open Source" movement, that term popularized by Eric S. Raymond as way to ease corporate adoption of free software. Stallman also wrote key components of what would become the Linux operating system (or "GNU/Linux" as he refers to it, a reference to his own GNU operating system project which Linux draws from), as well as the Emacs text editor which I use in my programming job every day, the Gcc C compiler which is now a cornerstone of Unix-based software development, and many other important applications.

So what was one of the greatest software engineers of our time, a recipient of the MacArthur "genius" grant, doing handing out flyers at a science fiction convention? I asked him.

Stallman insisted, however, that I not put the video of our interview on YouTube, because you have to use non-free software in order to view it. So, I uploaded the interview in the free Ogg Theora format. Does this make things less convenient for everyone? Yes. But Stallman is more concerned with freedom than convenience, as he makes clear in the interview. For him the use of free over non-free software is a moral proposition.

So here is the video, embedded using HTML5. Enjoy.

I apologize for the background noise. I made the mistake of conducting the video in a hallway, which seemed like a good idea at the time. I'll try to noise reduce the video later and see if I can improve it.

The Eggshell Skull Problem

So I'm not going to go into the whole detail of the Daniel Tosh Rape Joke Crisis on the internet because I think Lindy West has already said everything worth saying about that particular topic at Jezebel. But the whole dust up has made me revisit an issue in American discourse in general that I've come to think of as the Eggshell Skull Problem. It's named after an old principle in common law torts that basically says you take your victim as you find him when you do wrong. The paradigm case is hitting someone on the head in a way that would be harmless for most people, but which for a person with an eggshell thin skull would be life threatening. If that's the case and you do more harm than you thought you would in battering the guy with the eggshell skull, more tough luck to you because you're still on the hook for all the damages.

Where it comes to a physical harm, I think that makes sense. Physical harms of the sort tort law deals with can be expensive and the whole point of the rule is to make sure that the person who is in the wrong bears the cost rather than the injured party. So far so good. The Eggshell Skull Problem, however, is analogous but occurs in a place where we specifically don't hold people legally accountable for their harms, and that's in the realm of speech-acts. For those unfamiliar with the term, a speech-act is any activity whereby one accomplishes some end merely by speaking. The particular speech act in question in this latest controversy is the rape joke speech act. The rape joke is a difficult problem for an open society, and frankly I think our society deals with it particularly badly. That it does so is a result of The Eggshell Skull problem, and my aim here is to explain why I think that is.

Off to ReaderCon

Off to ReaderCon once again to hold a Wold Newton Reading Extravaganza. The convention, held in Burlington MA, is dedicated to speculative fiction books, and is full of amazing writers. The Wold Newton event will have music by Brian Francis Slattery and co, and featured Jeff VanderMeer, Veronica Shanoes, Jaym Gates, Daniel Jose Older, Matt Kressel and Jo Walton!

I'll post video of the event here when it's all over.

My Prediction

I just want to get it on record that this is how I think it comes out tomorrow:

1. A majority of the Justices decide that the Anti-Injunction Act doesn't prevent a ruling on the Affordable Care Act.

2. A majority of the Justices reject the medicaid challenge.

3. A plurality of the justices find the law to be severable

4. A 5-4 majority opinion authored by the Chief throws out the individual mandate on fairly narrow grounds but still manages to upset Commerce Clause jurisprudence seriously (see below), and makes a hash out of the Tax and Spend power.

5. Clarence Thomas writes a special concurrence saying the court doesn't go far enough in restraining Commerce Clause powers.

For the record, I can't for the life of me figure out how they are going to throw out the mandate. They can't do it without changing Commerce clause jurisprudence, and the dissents by in particular Breyer and Sotomayor will point that out. After this, it won't be clear exactly how things work with the regulation of interstate commerce for a good long while, and this will invite lots of new litigation on things that we had thought were long settled. As a result, in the next couple of years, unless we get an unexpected change on the court, we may see regulatory programs being struck down as exceeding the scope of the commerce power that have been in existence for decades.

But after tomorrow they're going to have to change the con law text books. There's no doubt about that in my mind.

EDIT: I was wrong. Thank god.

Everything Old is New Again


If an author has among his writings a musical composition, the only possible way of “securing” to him the “exclusive right” thereto is by giving him the monopoly of this musical composition, no matter in what form it may be represented; otherwise, he gets only a partial exclusive right thereto. No composer can be truly said to have “the exclusive right” to his musical composition writings secured to him so long as others have the right to publish, and sell them without his consent . . .

Leave off of that quote right there and it could be about digital file-sharing and made last week. However, the last six words are in fact "in the form of perforated music" and the statement was made in 1908 in a landmark Supreme Court case determining that player piano rolls did not fall withing the definition of a "copyrighted work" that was on the books at the time. In 1908, in the case White-Smith Music Publishing Company v. Apollo Company, the Supreme Court determined that technology had overtaken the existing law of copyright and the law as written did not cover the new technology.

Digital Cerebus

One of the guiding lights of my young adulthood was the unrelentingly bizarre self-published comic book Cerebus, a 6,000 page epic chronicling the rise and fall of an anthropomorphic Aardark barbarian in a human fantasy world, with notable supporting characters Groucho Marx, Oscar Wilde, Mick Jaggar and Keith Richards and many, many others. By the end of the 30-year effort, the comic's creator, Dave Sim, had quite literally lost his mind, alienated most of his friends and holed up in his house in Ontario writing misogynist religious screeds.

I never thought we would get a digital version of Cerebus, because Sim has stated repeatedly that he doesn't like digital comics, or technology in general-- the man's a hard-core luddite who refuses to use email and writes on a type writer. And yet here he is with a kickstarter project. Digitize Cerebus, get it on comiXology and other venues (full discloser: comiXology is my employer), with all the backup features and letters pages, covers and back covers (much of which has never been reprinted) and some kind of audio-component as well with Sim himself reading dialog from the comic.

He set the funding goal at $6,000. A day later it's already raised $12,000 and counting. Even his estranged ex-wife contributed to the thing!

I find this all terribly exciting. Not necessarily because I need to read the Cerebus books again once they're made digital (though I probably will). But because an audience who might never have seen it will have a chance to discover it, and be swept away by its odd charm and the complete unwillingness to compromise that allowed Sim to take his book in a direction that a no mainstream publisher would have understood.

And yes, he's crazy now. But even his misogyny and homophobia and Bible-thumping aren't anything like anyone else's versions of the same. Dave Sim believes that the Bible secretly depicts a war between two gods, one male and one female, for control of the human race, and he spent several issues of the comic doing an exegesis on the Torah to explain his theories (helped by a cartoon Woody Allen). Which is to say that his own descent into madness, depicted in vivid detail in the pages of his comic, is one of the most fascinating things I've ever read.

And if we really get all the back matter, we'll get a digital version of his long diatribe criticizing Scott McCloud for being into digital comics back in the day. And won't that be nicely ironic?

Liberal Cowardice

So, if you haven't seen this, watch it now:

I've been arguing with some lefties this morning on a friend's facebook page who think that Dan Savage made a mistake here. Their central argument is that "this is not how you open young minds and educate them."

For what it's worth Savage has issued an apology of sorts for the insult he directed at the kids walking out on his speech. "My use of "pansy-assed" was insulting, it was name-calling, and it was wrong. And I apologize for saying it." He said.

So, you think, that should be the end of the critique that the "anti-bullying activist bullied Xtian Teens claim" right?

A Taxonomy of Recently Published Speculative Fiction Short Stories

Reading through some online short fiction, I found myself naturally placing the stories in certain categories, regardless of genre. When I was done I came up with 7 different story types that pretty much all the stories I read could fit into. I present them here, not as a perfect an inarguable ordering, but as an observation open to discussion.

Most of these stories are from the latest or next to latest edition of these periodicals, with a couple recent Hugo nominees thrown in to get a hint of what the field thinks is the best. I tried to get a good selection of different sources whose stories are available free on the Internet for anyone to read.

There were a number of stories I read that I didn't like, though they fit into these types. I'm not going to talk about those stories. All the fiction presented below I recommend reading.

Something else to consider: change "novum" to any disruption in a person's life, and change "fight the monster" to "fight the villain", and this taxonomy could, I think, work for pretty much any short story. Novels, on the other hand, are more likely to mix the types together since they have the room to do it, thus the monster is also the disruption that brings about character growth, or a modern fable might have elements of monster fighting, character growth, socio-political lens, etc. Indeed, in many ways these types could be seen as patterns that can be mixed and matched.

To Hack or Not to Hack

So, this is not a new idea. It's been around forever and has given us perfectly useful terms like "jury rig," "kludge," and "quick and dirty." It's called "poverty" and "diminished standards of living" and yes, Virginia, they really do exist and they're more than likely coming to your house within the next couple of generations. But no, that's not a good thing.

Fucking nerds.