Benjamin Eskola

Cambridge Trip

personaltravel, free software

I said I’d write about it, so I suppose I’d better. A few weeks ago I heard that Richard Stallman was to give a lecture at Manchester University; looking into it, though, it seemed to be prohibitively expensive, mostly because it would require staying somewhere overnight. A little later, though, I discovered he was also giving one at Cambridge University — and earlier in the afternoon, so it would be perfectly possible to get there and back in one day. Tickets were booked.

The morning of the 30th comes; I get up at 0600 (okay, okay, 0630), get ready, and leave the house. It’s not until I’m halfway across the park that I realise I’ve left behind the maps of Cambridge I’d printed off. Jog back across the park, down the hill, up the stairs, into the office. One page printed, out of paper error. No paper around. Stick that one back in to print on the other side. It prints on the same side instead, but luckily both parts are mostly readable. Back out of the house, to the station, onto the train just in time. I find Gem already on board and playing with her EeePC, and spend the next few hours alternating between sleep and The Selfish Gene.

Skippy joins us at Reading, and spends the last stage of the journey to London arguing about the economics of cars versus public transport with a random stranger. We arrive at Paddington, I get something to eat, then we head across London to King’s Cross, then onwards north to Cambridge.

We arrive at Cambridge with no further mishaps, and get the bus into the centre of town. As we get off, we ask the driver where to get the bus to Madingley Road Park & Ride, and he tells us it’s just around the corner. After a few minutes waiting, we realise that although the bus that stops here is the right number, it’s going the wrong way. We hunt around for the real bus stop, only to see our bus go right past us — although this does mean we know where it stops now, and Cambridge has public transport that doesn’t suck, so we only have to wait a few minutes for the next one.

Madingley Road is quite long; it’s several kilometres from the city centre to the Computer Science lab. We spot what we think might be the road before it, and sure enough, the next road has a sign for the Cavendish Laboratory, which we know is on the same road. Skippy presses the bell. The bus goes right past the bus stop. Skippy presses the bell some more. Eventually, the bus pulls into the Park & Ride, about five minutes walk up the road, in the rain. Yay. We find our way to the William Gates Building (oh, the irony), and I get a picture of Hector by the sign before we go in.

The lecture itself is pretty interesting; rms explains that it’s not about free software, but rather an answer to a question people often ask when he talks about free software — can the same rules be applied to things that aren’t software? He starts off by explaining a little of the history of free software, and then the history of copyright — why it came about in the first place, how it has evolved, and how, although the laws we have now were perfectly reasonable a century ago, or even half a century, they’re not so useful now. After that, he proposes some possible changes to copyright law, to make it fairer both to authors/artists/musicians and to end-users. He recommends that functional works — software, recipes, textbooks, reference books, technical manuals, and so on — be required to be Free-with-a-big-F; “testimonal works” (i.e. works which explain an author’s opinions, beliefs, experiences, etc.) should be free to share and copy, but not free to modify, since that just leads to misrepresenting an author’s views. Finally, artistic works need not be free to copy, either. He also advocates reducing the length of copyright; ten years, he says, might be more reasonable. He goes on to talk about ways that musicians, specifically, could earn money without the overbearing presence of the record labels, like having a “Donate” button on music players that would automatically pay the musician a small amount of money.

The talk ends, and rms answers questions from people who, it seems, don’t quite get where he’s coming from. After that, Gem and I purchase some stickers and whatnot to support the FSF, and rms signs my copy of Free Software, Free Society — but refuses to sign the O’Reilly Emacs book that Gem had brought, because it’s not free. Hmm. We head out to the bus stop, and debate the hackability of networked bus stop signs that tell you when the next bus is due — though this one, for all it’s right next to the computer science department of one of the top universities in the world, insists that there’s no bus due when, in fact, there is. Oh well. Back to the train, grabbing a cup of coffee on the way. On the train, Skippy and I debate the value of free software for reading data from the onboard computer in modern cars. Back in London, Skippy takes us to CCK (very nice coffee and cake, even if the artwork is, um, “interesting”), and Gem discusses the website with the manager. This is followed by a mad dash across London as we try to get back to Paddington on time for the last train before the sleeper service — we make it, but barely.

Skippy abandons us again at Reading, and we’re left to sit around while the train waits for engineering works. We finally get back to Plymouth just before 0100.