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Riders of the Bearded Sage

Is that a dead parrot in your pocket, or are you just trying to please me?

Stob Ever since Richard Stallman hit the news ...

Whoa there, Verity! Not so fast. Let me check I have this straight. We are talking about the gun-toter who wrote that definitive episode of Frost that everybody is supposed to have seen. Murder in the Cathedral I think it is called. Right?

No. You are probably thinking of Eric Raymond, firearms rights activist and author of the famous essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

Good point. So I am. Now I have got it.  He's the bloke who pioneered free software, Emacs, GPL viral licensing. That him?


Spent years failing to complete a free operating system, then got mardy when Linus made it work first, using his stuff.

One can never be sure of the outcome of radical actions. Think of those tented Occupy London people at St Paul's: set out to disrupt the City fat cats, instead they cause chaos in the C of E Accidental counterantidisestablishmentarianism.

Oh, do stop Scrabbling about. It's not funny or clever.


Gloomy cove, this Stallman, ain't he? All those 'Software wants to be free' logos on hair T-shirts.


I think he needs taking out of himself. You know what I'd do if I met him? I'd get a load of us together and we'd take him into a pub, make him shut down his old laptop and stop fiddling with Outlook, buy him a steak-and-kidney pud and a pint of non-free-as-in-beer beer, and we could all have a good old natter about the new Ubuntu. That would soon get the ivory glinting through his facial hair.

There are more errors in that than I can safely enumerate.

Doesn't like S&K pud? Not to worry. They do an excellent plate of liver and bacon down the Aspect and Crosscutting Concern. Gravy thick enough to write C# in. Or are you saying he's a veggie? Sandra says their avocado and grapefruit salad with Stilton dressing is to die for.

Dr Stallman cannot abide liver 'even in trace quantities', other 'organ' meats (as he vividly puts it), avocado, sour fruits such as grapefruit, and strong cheeses, especially 'those with green fungus'. Also cooked tuna, olives, desserts that contain fruit or liqueur flavours, and coffee. Nor, in fact, does he like beer.

Bit of a winer, then?

Wine, like Slartibartfast, is not important.

Bloody hell. He has the palate of an eight-year-old. But I didn't realise I was in the presence of his personal chef.

I have no special knowledge. My information is gleaned from this document which, if not quite in the public domain, has been released under GPL (General Pillorying Licence).

I am a busy and important person, Verity. I haven't time to read all that. Summarise it for me, including all the juiciest bits.

It is a standard email from Dr Stallman, stating his specific requirements as a guest speaker. These vary from the predictable – eg, if you want him to pitch up, you had probably better refer to 'GNU/Linux' not 'Linux' in your publicity – to the very startling and unexpected – eg, he would appreciate it if there were a friendly parrot at his accommodation, but NOT if that parrot has been bought specially to amuse him by someone who doesn't know how to treat a parrot.

It's funny you should say that. It so happens I have in fact myself recently purchased a second-hand parrot off of eBay, in the hope of attracting the GNU genius to my humble abode. It's true that I wasn't overwhelmed with psittacine knowledge when I started, but I've certainly learned plenty now. Thanks to Pretty Polly, the kids play 'talk like a pirate' all day long – ie, using foul language that would make a Brummie brickie blush. Do you think this will affect my chances?

Look, if you're just going to muck about, I can stop this quicker than you can say 'Norwegian Blue'.

Whatever . What else does this 'riders' document say?

It says his hosts should provide him either with a supply of tea that he really likes sans milk and sugar, or a supply of tea that he likes less with milk and sugar, presumably to mask the taste.

No clue is vouchsafed as to how to distinguish between these two tea categories in advance of RMS's arrival, although I don't see how you could fail with a couple of gallons of lukewarm, milky, sugary Lemon Rooibos. (Since he always carries a supply of teabags that he likes, one wonders why he doesn't simply ask for hot water, but there.)

That's drink covered. Next.

Not quite. If he is sleepy, however, he wants two small bottles or cans of Fat Pepsi-not-Coke.

Aha, he has fallen victim to that urban myth about it dissolving teeth?

Nope: he points out that there is an international boycott of the Coca Cola company for allegedly killing union organisers in Colombia and Guatemala.

Besides which, he doesn't like it.

Gotcha, no Coke. Anything else?

Heaps. Dr Stallman does not eat breakfast, and you should not even mention it to him. If you do mention it to him, or, much worse, plan for him to have breakfast, do not under any circumstances make the mistake of apologising at length to him. That is, the good doctor says, unbearably boring and unnecessary. 

If he is typing when you approach him in order not to apologise, you should interrupt him at once. You should not wait for him to finish or you could be waiting forever. If you wish not to apologise during dinner, you should indeed expect to find him typing, as he tends to pull out his computer at dinner and handle his email, rather than feel bored. Managing Dr S's boredom is, I think, the key to a successful visit; or at least that plus an internet connection (nb: a wireless connection that requires a non-free driver is NOT a solution).

If you are booking Dr S into a hotel, and you live in a country where hotels must by law report all their guests to the police, you should ring up the hotel and ask it if it reports all its guests to the police. If it says it does – as seems likely, in the circumstances – then you should try to find somewhere else for Dr Stallman to stay, joining him in striking a blow against Big Brother. Preferably do this before the local rozzers turn up to pick you up for attempting to corrupt local hoteliers under the Unrecorded Accommodation of Bearded Men Act of 2004.

And so on. But at all times – and in some sense this supersedes and replaces all other rules – remember that Dr Stallman doesn't like it when his hosts cater to his every whim. It makes him feel like a tyrant.

Phooee. What a palaver. I could imagine Richard Stallman being given some stick for this.

It has been attempted.

It would be less hassle to have Her Majesty pop round for a cuppa, or put up a rock group for the weekend. Sure there'd be all the noise, and the 108" plasma Trinitron 3D dumped in the goldfish pond, but at least I would know where I was.

Well, that's where you are quite wrong. Veteran and esteemed computer journo Jack Schofield, late of The Guardian, actually has put up Dr Stallman in his own house, and reports that he – Stallman – isn't precious at all. This despite Schofield's blatant provocation of Dr Stallman with a copy of Microsoft Word.

Fair enough. Is there any other evidence you wish to put into the court of El Reg readership?

Well, Stallman's recent remarks about Steve Jobs have drawn unfavourable attention. And of course, RMS is undeniably guilty of gross Dennis Watermanship.


Write the theme tune, sing the theme tune.

Um. So where does that leave us?

Richard Stallman is the Tam Dayell of the free software movement,  its unsilenceable conscience. As such he must be a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad. That is why we love him.

So it is ridiculous and unfair to complain when he lives up to his reputation. Think how disappointing it would have been if his 'info packet' just said 'point me at the nearest Berni Inn, I'll be fine'.

The only change I personally would have RMS make is to abandon the whole GNU/Linux thing. He should trust his own and the FSF's reputation more, and worry less about Linus's.

Gosh, you are in a peacemaking mood, Verity. For an encore, will you try and mend the rift between Stallman and the late Mr Jobs?

Well, I can tell you one thing they have in common.

What's that?

Neither would touch your steak-and-kidney pud with a bargepole. ®

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