Tuesday, October 24, 2006


When Richard Stallman gave Bill Gates the finger in front of Stanford's computer science building, I got nervous. No, it wasn't the real Bill Gates -- it was just his name, engraved in giant letters over the main entrance to the 2-year-old, Gates-funded building. But it didn't seem like a Stanford thing to do. The campus is immaculately manicured, dotted with picture-postcard palm trees and squeaky-clean students. It's just not a flipping-the-bird kind of place.

It didn't strike me as a Richard Stallman kind of place, either. Stallman is a legendary hacker, the founder of the free software movement, a MacArthur "genius grant" recipient and a programmer capable of prodigious exploits. But on this day in Palo Alto he looked unkempt and off-kilter. I had already spent a good part of the afternoon watching in bemused silence as he painstakingly examined his long, stringy brown hair for split ends. I was also mesmerized by his piercing green eyes, radiating the power of an Old Testament prophet. I feared his wrath.

We had come to Stanford in search of a place where Stallman could download his e-mail. Two hours away from catching a long flight to New Zealand -- partly for vacation, partly to continue proselytizing his free software "mission" -- Stallman was jonesing for one last connection to the Net. Being Richard Stallman, he figured he could just drop in on the computer science department at Stanford. He hadn't visited for several years, but he was good friends with equally legendary Stanford professor John McCarthy -- the man who invented the Lisp programming language and coined the term "artificial intelligence." Stallman himself programmed the multipurpose Emacs editing tool, a kind of nuclear-powered Swiss Army knife favored by top-notch programmers and computer scientists. Surely some Emacs acolyte would be delighted to help the one and only Richard Stallman grab his e-mail.

First we tried to sneak in through a side door of the Gates building. Over a lunch of ribs, duck, trout and popcorn shrimp at Palo Alto's MacArthur Park restaurant, Stallman had told me that he didn't despise Bill Gates as much as other free software guerrilla fighters do. But he clearly wasn't eager to legitimize Gates' stature by walking submissively through his totemic gate. Free software and Microsoft don't mix. There had to be a better way.

Except there wasn't. The path to McCarthy's office from the side door entrance was obscure. We sucked in our guts and headed for the main gate.

"Hey," Stallman called out to a graduate student opening the door in front of us, "is it the tradition here to give Bill the finger whenever you go through these doors?"

The student looked over his shoulder, twitched a nervous smile and disappeared inside. Stallman shrugged -- and right there on the spot decided to start his own protest movement. As we entered the building, out came what the ancient Romans used to call the "digit impudicus." Stallman flashed me a sly grin. I glanced around, looking for security.

Over the course of about half an hour in the building, Stallman encouraged three other people to join his campaign. No one signed on unreservedly, but two recognized him right away -- one from a conference some six years earlier and another from his picture in a recent Forbes magazine article celebrating the surprising commercial success of the free software (or, as it is now more commonly called, "open source") movement.

Would the movement to deride Gates have as much success? Stallman didn't know and didn't care. As he pointed out to me repeatedly through the course of our afternoon together, he doesn't do things because they are socially acceptable or strategically appropriate. Success is not his measure for accomplishment. He does what he does because he thinks it is the morally correct, or simply fun, thing to do. And he brooks no compromise.