Free as in Freedom

[Free as in Freedom (cover)]I started reading the book Free as in Freedom (2002), by Sam Williams last night, based on a tip from schwuk.com. The book’s subtitle reads, “Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software”, and the book is a biography of Stallman’s Life.

Stallman is a software-genius-turned-political-activist, responsible for the creation of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation. His main tenet is that software should be free: free for the users of the software to use it, understand it, improve it, and share it. The “free” adjective does not refer to the monetary value of the software. It refers to liberty.

In this document, Stallman describes how he arrived at his philosophy:

When I started working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971, I became part of a software-sharing community that had existed for many years. Sharing of software was not limited to our particular community; it is as old as computers, just as sharing of recipes is as old as cooking. But we did it more than most.

The AI Lab used a timesharing operating system called ITS (the Incompatible Timesharing System) that the lab’s staff hackers had designed and written in assembler language for the Digital PDP-10, one of the large computers of the era. As a member of this community, an AI lab staff system hacker, my job was to improve this system.

We did not call our software “free software”, because that term did not yet exist; but that is what it was. Whenever people from another university or a company wanted to port and use a program, we gladly let them. If you saw someone using an unfamiliar and interesting program, you could always ask to see the source code, so that you could read it, change it, or cannibalize parts of it to make a new program.

But outside of his lab, a dark practice of Non Disclosure Agreements and proprietary code was beginning. Stallman made the choice to re-create this community of resource sharing by creating the concept of free software, and he has worked towards building a computing environment of free software tools. These are known as the GNU Tools and have culminated in the GNU/Linux Operating System.

The thing that has struck me most about this history of free computing is the following passage from Chapter 4 of the biography:

Members of the tight-knit group called themselves “hackers”. Over time, they extended the “hacker” description to Stallman as well. In the process of doing so, they inculcated Stallman in the ethical traditions of the “hacker ethic”. To be a hacker meant more than just writing programs, Stallman learned. It meant writing the best possible programs. It meant sitting at a terminal for 36 hours straight if that’s what it took to write the best possible programs. Most importantly, it meant having access to the best possible machines and the most useful information at all times. Hackers spoke openly about changing the world through software, and Stallman learned the instinctual hacker disdain for any obstacle that prevented a hacker from fulfilling this noble cause. Chief among these obstacles were poor software, academic bureaucracy, and selfish behavior. [Emphasis mine.]

Changing the world through software. That idea really speaks to me. I guess I never considered it before, but Stallman and his supporters have certainly done that. I’m discovering my heroes, and they’re turning out to be the great hackers.

William James

I’ve been studying the American philosopher William James (1842-1910) for some time now. I discovered him through the philosophy of Alan Watts (1915-1973), who helped guide the world during the Psychedelic Movement. [Watts decided to publish his cautionary The Joyous Cosmology on his clinical experiments with LSD-25 after Aldous Huxley had “let the cat out of the bag” by publishing his own tales in The Doors of Perception.]

Last month, I read James’ work Varieties of Religious Experience, a practical look at the phenomenon of religious belief and mysticism. It deepened my appreciation for pluralism and it strengthened my role as a religious philosopher. Then last night, I came across this article entitled “The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher” by Dmitri Tymoczko, which gave me some background into James’ life and the origin and evolution of his philosophy. I found some comfort in learning that he too faced a severe depression at the age of 28. The experience contributed to the formation of his philosophy and helped him find a way out of the depression. For James, it was an overwhelming belief in the lack of free will that grew from the determinism of his materialist contemporaries. At a crisis point, he came to see that he could “generate” free will (whether it truly exist or not) by believing he had free will: “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”

In shifting to modern-day research relating to James’ views, the article had this to say:

Some remarkable work by psychologists has recently illuminated James’s position. Lyn Abramson, of the University of Wisconsin, and Lauren Alloy, of Temple University, have uncovered a number of “cognitive illusions” to which normal, healthy people are subject. Emotional health, they suggest, involves mildly overoptimistic presumptions and a corresponding insensitivity to failure, which result in a propensity to make straightforwardly false judgments. Perversely, the clinically depressed are often free of these cognitive illusions–they are, to use the subtitle of one of Abramson and Alloy’s best-known papers, “Sadder But Wiser.” Likewise, Shelley Taylor, a social psychologist, has studied the use of illusions by victims of trauma and illness. She found that like James’s mountaineer, those who are unjustifiably optimistic tend to live better-adjusted and happier lives than people faced with similar situations who are thoroughly realistic about their prospects. [Emphasis mine.]

So in this article about James’ story, I have found some clues that point toward my own healing. I am perpetually the “Sadder But Wiser” soul, the mad philosopher, but this need not be so. I will learn that I can control this by my own thinking.

In fact, this insight reminds me of the chapter in James’ Varieties that appealed to me the most—the chapter on Christian Science mind-cures and the phenomenon of the “once-borns” . These are people that James describes as being in no need of repentance or redemption, for from birth they remain deeply “at peace with God”. This is in contrast to the “twice-borns” who require some experience of conversion to feel this same peace with God. Before reading Varieties, I had no idea that the first kind of person could even exist. I was thus attracted to this revolutionary idea.

For now, at least, I need to contemplate my new-found knowledge, absorb it, learn more, and finally put it to good use. Here goes everything!

Jane Doe

A very ordinary—but usually unseen—thing happened this morning. A woman died today. I mean, statistically, it happens every minute on this vast planet of ours, but this was a violent death and it happened just outside my bedroom window. Today was a day of rest for me. I woke up to no alarm at 09h30 and immediately continued reading a new book that I had started last night. I only put the book down so I could go to bed. So with the morning, I read for a long time, saw the Jian Bing lady leave my neighbourhood, and made some food for brunch. At some point, I noticed a gathering in the courtyard below—I live on the 3rd floor of a 5-storey building, facing west. I had seen the likes of this before. The Chinese are quite fond of rubber-necking. If anything out of the ordinary happens on the street, a crowd will gather immediately and persist for a long time. Disputes happen on the street a lot, especially when the weather gets hot and people get edgy. And when they happen, everyone wants to look, and many get involved. Several months ago, a similar scene had developed outside my window. There was a man or two, and a dispute, pushing and shoving, and four guards from my campus ultimately taking control. And so a crowd.

Hence, this morning, I didn’t give much thought to this new crowd that had formed and so caught my attention. Things were quiet and there wasn’t much movement. I scanned the crowd and the parked cars and the men standing nearby, but I didn’t see anything. I opened the screen of my window and took a picture of the courtyard and the curious shape of the gathered crowd. Anytime I see anything peculiar about China, that seems like it would be a good story for my friends back in Canada, I like to record it somehow. So I too became a rubber-neck. It was after I took the picture that I noticed a lone uniformed police officer among the standing men and the campus guards. Then I saw that a squatting man in the crowd had noticed me and was watching me watch him. He had seen me with the camera. So I was a little disturbed because it’s best not to take pictures of police and such in a place like P.R. China. I played it cool and broke my gaze with the man, stepped back from the window and closed the screen, and put the whole affair out of my mind.

Only later did something more happen which caused me to begin to watch the crowd again, wondering why it was still there. I was doing dishes at my sink and saw that a patrol car had arrived and that a very large police van was arriving. It had search lights, a portable tower, and a ladder on the roof. I saw four un-uniformed men get out of the van, and I thought, “fuck”, plain clothes policemen. I don’t like seeing police at the best of times, but un-uniformed police is a bad sign, especially in a country I don’t know. And I knew I would soon lose the four men in the crowd and I didn’t want to be seen again watching the crowd.

But then something about the geometry of the situation caught my attention, and I began to find the focal point of the crowd, a feature which was actually quite far away from the people. I saw the far-off rectangular tarp on the ground. I saw the police begin to gather and move toward the colourful sheet. I saw the two thin, black canvas shoes on the ground, like they had been thrown there, several feet back from the tarp. And then the recognition came—a body. There must be a body under that tarp. As I was realizing this, the police pulled the tarp aside. I saw the body of a young woman in her thirties, lying barefoot and facedown in the courtyard, outside the window of my home. I ran from the window as far back as I could go into my apartment, yelling “fuck! fuck! fuck!” I had seen something I didn’t want to see, and I knew something that I didn’t want to know.

But very quickly the reality of the situation came to me and the emotional outburst lost its control over me. I returned calmly to the window to see this miracle of my day. The woman on the ground had just left our planet, our home. It was physical act that resulted in an obvious spiritual outcome. Although her body didn’t appear broken from my vantage point, it was plain that she had fallen from the roof of the building adjacent to mine. She had chosen to leave today—maybe not consciously, but her soul knew, and her soul had chosen.

This way out…