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Open Source / Software Development / Tech Culture

This Week in Programming: Free Software Can’t Exist without Richard Stallman?

A couple thousand people have signed on to a letter calling for the removal of RMS, as well as the entire FSF board.
Mar 26th, 2021 10:52am by
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For an industry that one might suspect to be forward-looking — ya know, technology and innovation and all — here we are at the end of yet another week where we’ve watched the tech world heartily debate doing just that: moving forward, rather than back.

In case you somehow missed the news, free software pioneer Richard M. Stallman (AKA RMS) announced this week that he was returning to the Free Software Foundation (FSF) board of directors after having resigned in 2019 over some controversial remarks regarding age of consent, rape, and Jeffrey Epstein.

For my money, there’s something rather Donald Trumpian about the construction of Stallman’s announcement of his return — “some of you will be happy at this, and some might be disappointed. In any case, that’s how it is.” It’s as if he is bending reality to his will with his wording. The emphasis is my own, but note how the “happy” response is assured, while the “disappointed” response is just potential, with the last bit offering a finality, an unquestionability, of the situation. RMS closes by saying that he is “not planning to resign a second time.”

The announcement, as you might imagine, has been met with a bit of a clamor. As for those who might be disappointed, there are a couple thousand (including former FSF board members, open source advocates, and organizations such as Mozilla, SUSE, GNOME and Creative Commons, among others) who have signed on to a letter calling for the removal of RMS, as well as the entire FSF board, again listing out a number of his perceived transgressions. The letter goes on to “urge those in a position to do so to stop supporting the Free Software Foundation” by refusing to contribute to related projects, speaking at or attending “events that welcome RMS and his brand of intolerance,” and for “contributors to free software projects to take a stand against bigotry and hate within their projects.”

Similarly, the Open Source Initiative released its own statement, saying that it will not work with the FSF until RMS is no longer a part of the leadership there, noting that “free and open source software will not be accessible to all until it is safe for everyone to participate.” Coraline Ada Ehmke, on behalf of the Organization for Ethical Source, further extrapolates this idea in a statement that looks at how “Stallman’s ‘that’s how it is’ isn’t how it has to be.”

“The libertarian philosophy espoused by many of the founders and leaders of the FLOSS movement centers the primacy of the rights and benefits of individuals, demonstrated by granting them complete freedom. This philosophy is reflected in the amoral stance that software should be free to use for any purpose whatsoever, regardless of its impact on others. The actions of the FSF board only make sense if you believe in this primacy of the individual over the needs of the broader community,” writes Ehmke.

Meanwhile, much of the defense of RMS comes in the form of opposition to “cancel culture,” and focusing on RMS as an “icon” and “driving force,” as he is referred to in this letter of support, which has also garnered a couple of thousand signatures, although without the same immediate name recognition and organizational backing. As you might imagine, the ideals of “freedom of speech” are invoked, wherein anything can be said without any consequence, regardless of the fact that “freedom of speech” as we know it in the U.S. details government sanction, and not social consequence. Further evidence of RMS’s support can be found among Hacker News threads, where similar arguments are made, nitpicking over the acceptability of each of RMS’s stances and his right to publicly espouse them, rather than the net effect of his words and actions on the members of the community.

YouTuber Brodie Roberston offers his take on the return of RMS, saying “Like it or not, Richard Stallman is the face of free software. When you think about the free software movement, he is the one person that comes to mind.” He then goes on to argue that the FSF is essentially the “ideological arm” of Stallman himself and that he is essentially irreplaceable not only because of his thoughts around free software but his passion for it, before going on to list the things that are “part of his charm.”

You got that? That’s right, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! After all, “there’s no way you can change the past, so we might as well move onward from that,” as Robertson puts it.

Of course, much of this current debate generally ignores the woolly mammoth in the room, which is the generally open secret of RMS’s lecherous behavior that have made many feel unwelcome in the community. After preaching about diversity and inclusion and whatnot, the IT community is now spending all this energy on dissecting whether RMS should be redeemed, when it’s been made abundantly clear that his redemption is at the sole expense and exclusion of large swaths of the community.

Meanwhile, the FSF itself has released both a preliminary board statement on FSF governance and an update on work to improve governance, with FSF president Geoffrey Knauth announcing his resignation “as an FSF officer, director, and voting member as soon as there is a clear path for new leadership assuring continuity of the FSF’s mission and compliance with fiduciary requirements.”

So far, as you can see evidenced above, there is little faith that the FSF board — the group of people responsible for enabling and bring RMS back in the first place — will reverse course, but time will tell.

This Week in Programming

  • Docker Hub Lets You See The Junk In Your Trunk: Docker has launched Advanced Image Management, a new feature for Docker Pro and Team users that gives them a way to see all the old image versions stored, and potentially still used, in their image repos. The feature provides a GUI dashboard that shows not just the latest manifest, but everything previously pushed to the repo. That’s right, it may have seemed that those old bits were gone, but they were in fact just hanging around and, it’s possible they were being pulled by hash. And now there’s a way for you to see all those old manifests, and which ones are still active, which is defined as being pulled in the last month. Previously, the only way to delete these old manifests was to delete the entire repo and start fresh.

  • Julia Making Grounds in Pharma, Finance, HPC: While the language has been around for more than a decade, and open source for nearly as long, it wasn’t until 2018 when the Julia programming language reached 1.0 and really caught everyone’s attention. Now, if you feel like all the interest has disappeared, it’s likely that you’re just looking in the wrong places, and The Next Platform has the story of why Julia is turning heads in 2021. In recent years, they explain, founding members of the Julia team joined together to form Julia Computing, with the goal of putting Julia “to the test, not just as a language but as a more streamlined way to code for pharmaceutical, financial, HPC, energy, and other segments.” And apparently, the effort has been successful, with Julia Computing having “aided Pfizer in simulating new pharmaceuticals, AstraZeneca with AI-based toxicity prediction, European insurance giant Aviva with its compliance issues, energy provider Fugro Roames with an AI-based grid network failure prediction system, the FAA with its airborne collision prevent program, Cisco with ML-based network security, and a number of national labs and academic institutions with various research programs.
  • Ruby-esque Crystal Reaches 1.0: Speaking of newer languages, Crystal 1.0 is out, guaranteeing backwards compatibility for future releases as the primary feature to boast of. “We received numerous comments from people willing to use the language in production during all these years, but only after we could make a promise of not breaking it from one day to the next,” they write. “After this release, everyone can expect that, at least for any future 1.x version, your code can still compile and work without any significant incompatibility.” As far as that Ruby comparison, InfoWorld explains that “Crystal syntax was inspired by Ruby, making the language easy to read and write while lowering the learning curve for experienced Ruby developers.”

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