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|Biographies can be interesting books to read. Not only does
the book have to be about someone who has accomplished something of interest
but the author must be able to portray that information in a format that is
both informative and entertaining. As the founder of the GNU Project, the
original president of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), and winner of
various software-related awards, Richard Stallman's life is definitely
interesting to every self-proclaimed hacker and practically anyone with at
least a passing interest with software. That just leaves Williams to do his
In Free as in Freedom, Sam Williams presentation on the life and times of Richard Stallman takes a look at both his pre and current public life. With Stallman's current private life practically an open book at http://www.stallman.org/ and many magazine articles, that leaves Williams to both analyze the public persona and explore how he got to be the way he is.
Including interviews with Stallman's mother and old classmates, Williams examines the foundation of Stallman's personal crusade and political activism. With little tidbits like a copy of Stallman's senior-year transcript from high school (1969), views on Vietnam, and chess, you get a feel for the depth of research Williams performed to understand the origin of the book's subject. For those who follow Stallman, the majority of the material presented will be both new and interesting.
Moving from private life to public persona around chapter five (of thirteen chapters), the book starts to include references to third-party articles and first-hand recollections in Williams' analysis of Stallman. While the author being chastised by Stallman for calling Linux "Linux" when it was still known as GNU/Linux can be considered amusing, I found the later life material to be less appealing than the early-life review. While interesting, the book seemed more a synopsis of other people's viewpoints and background information on the technology than the author drawing conclusions from such material.
In typical Stallman fashion, not only is this book available in the typical printed and bound form, but the book's contents are made available under the GNU Free Documentation License. You can either visit http://www.oreilly.com/openbook/freedom/ and read the contents from the publisher or visit http://www.faifzilla.org/ and read the contents from the author. "Why the difference," you might ask? Well, the author promises to update material and add additional content as events warrant. You'll also find "patches" (errata) and links to translations.
One annoying feature of the book I have to mention. Periodically, within the book's contents are numbers in superscript to reference footnotes for additional information about a particular topic. Unfortunately, the footnotes are endnotes, meaning the additional information will not be found on the bottom of the page with the superscripted number. Instead, you'll find the information at the end of the chapter. While this format is more convenient from a layout perspective, it is very awkward from a reader perspective, as it constantly requires thumbing through the book to find where a chapter ends, before going back to the current page. With an average of about eight per chapter (101 in all), the constant flipping can be annoying if you are interested in the details. This is one case for reading the online version of the book, as there are hyperlinks to the end notes and these end notes include hyperlinks to referenced articles.
Most readers, besides Bill Gates and anyone at Microsoft, will find Free as in Freedom enjoyable. If you have a passing interest in free software, or even the open source initiative, the subject will definitely hold your interest as you come to understand just what makes Stallman tick.
John Zukowski, provides strategic Java consulting with JZ Ventures, Inc. through objective commentary on Java-related technologies, mentoring, training and curriculum development, technical editing, and software architecture and development. He received a B.S. in computer science and mathematics from Northeastern University and an M.S. in computer science from Johns Hopkins University.