I stare into the flat and yet cavernous abyss of my laptop screen. I have two months of free time ahead of me. I should be joyful. Elated. Instead I am weighed down by fear … of boredom. That’s right. I’m afraid of having nothing to do. Don’t get me wrong, lazing around all day really is my thing. It’s all I did for a quarter of a year. It’s creeping into my routine this past week or so as well. But I feel like I have so much more to me. I’m probably wrong, but I’m going to take a shot at doing something useful. So I write.
I guess what I feel is a fear of uselessness much more than a fear of boredom. In this day, how bored can you really get? Thank God for the Internet. Without it I guess I would be screwed. More to the point though, how useful is spending the day watching videos of Russians collapsing impromptu in front of good law-abiding cars to me anyway?
Perhaps the greatest inspiration of this new phobia of mine is the Free Software Foundation and its GNU Project, which, on the surface, seem like the electronic world’s great new adventure. (I’m a bit of a nerd, so you’ll be seeing posts like this quite frequently) A quick glance through the GNU website reveals the grand and noble aims of the project. They are to create a completely free and yet functional operating system (like Windows or Mac OS X) which any and all can distribute and modify, perks that appeal mostly to the legion of unseen amateur programmers who thrive on such things. It seems like a really great idea – and that’s probably because it is. Democratising software – what could be bad about that? It’s what Kevin Flynn fought for in the original TRON movie of 1982, though his role in the recent sequel is more that of a a yoga guru than freedom fighter. Nevertheless, as the GNU website repeatedly points out, their software is “free” as in “free speech” and not “free beer.”
To me, though, GNU looks like it has much more in common with free beer than with free speech. For one thing, GNU’s software and free beer would cost just the same (nothing). Another, less welcome similarity: like free beer, GNU’s operating system doesn’t exist.
It seems some things in this world really are too good to be true. The licenses for GNU software are everywhere, embedded in installation dialogues you never bothered to read. The bits and pieces of GNU power everything from smartphones to in-car systems and TV recorders. But GNU, the operating system itself, does not exist. Maybe it’s on its way, you say. Give them time. After all, they’re doing it for free. Forgive them if they take a little longer than usual.
All this rings true until you realise when the men and women of the Free Software Foundation set out on their great project. Take a wild guess. Your guess is wrong. They started the GNU project in 1984.
Yes, after three decades, the people behind the GNU project can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are nowhere near finishing what they started. To put things in perspective, in 1984, the world regularly came to the edge of nuclear war, blacks could not vote in South Africa, Madonna still had clothes, Christopher Reeves was still Superman and the Titanic was still crossing the Atlantic. In the twenty-nine years since, computers shrank from room-sized mainframes to seven-inch miniatures, grew to desk-sized fixtures, then shrank again so small that they now fit in our pockets. All the while, GNU chugged on, holding her head high, undaunted by a lack of progress equalled only by North Korea’s attempts to get rockets to fly in a straight line.
Let’s make it extra clear how slow they are. In 1985, a year later, Microsoft released the first version of Windows. In the time that it has taken GNU to get nowhere, Microsoft has released another seven versions of Windows to the public. Apple put out so many releases of Mac OS that they ran out of cats to name them after. Let’s briefly explore what’s taking them so long.
For one, ironically, for a foundation that prides itself on freedom and democracy in cyberspace, the leader of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) as well as GNU has reigned over both for a little longer than Mao Zedong ruled China. Richard Stallman, who appears to be Simba’s stunt double, has been at the helm since 1984, the year the project commenced. This is quite fascinating, considering what a good job he’s doing.
In the 90s, while GNU’s engineers slogged to produce the components of a working operating system, an unknown Finnish programmer quietly wrote one all by himself. That man’s name was Linus Torvalds, and his operating system was Linux – today the most popular operating system in the world by number of devices. Fed up with their failures, the GNU programmers decided to latch whatever they had completed onto Linux. Finally, they had a way to showcase their work to the world. Today the GNU/Linux combination powers everything from Facebook’s servers to your Android smartphone. Piggybacking on Linux, though, was and is pretty embarassing. Even today, half the words on the GNU website seem to be spent convincing the broader public that the Linux everyone’s using is really GNU instead, including one page which is beautifully titled “What’s in a name?” (Look here, here, and here) As Stallman explains, calling Linux, umm, “Linux” is as mistaken as calling a rose a pen. And then trying to write with it. Mmhmm.
That’s not to say they gave up altogether on the original operating system project – they just take things at their own pace. In 1990, the core, or kernel, of the operating system – called Hurd – was written. It started to work (now and then) in the late 90s. Basking in their success, the GNU engineers seem to have taken a well-deserved break and failed to sober up yet – fifteen years later. Otherwise, it would seem GNU has spent the past decade and a half putting the finishing touches on the turd called Hurd for, as the website admits, it doesn’t work yet.
Today, Stallman’s Foundation spends more of its donations on legal fights over free software than actually writing any. Perhaps there is a brilliant logic to this. After all, lawyers could probably finish the project faster than they can.