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The Emacs Commune

created Oct 22nd 2014, 06:45 by


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The Emacs Commune
 
The AI Lab of the 1970s was by all accounts a special place. Cutting-edge projects and top-flight researchers gave it an esteemed position in the world of computer science. The internal hacker culture and its anarchic policies lent a rebellious mystique as well. Only later, when many of the lab's scientists and software superstars had departed, would hackers fully realize the unique and ephemeral world they had once inhabited.
"It was a bit like the Garden of Eden," says Stallman, summing up the lab and its software-sharing ethos in a 1998 Forbes article. "It hadn't occurred to us not to cooperate."1
 
Such mythological descriptions, while extreme, underline an important fact. The ninth floor of 545 Tech Square was more than a workplace for many. For hackers such as Stallman, it was home.
 
The word "home" is a weighted term in the Stallman lexicon. In a pointed swipe at his parents, Stallman, to this day, refuses to acknowledge any home before Currier House, the dorm he lived in during his days at Harvard. He has also been known to describe leaving that home in tragicomic terms. Once, while describing his years at Harvard, Stallman said his only regret was getting kicked out. It wasn't until I asked Stallman what precipitated his ouster, that I realized I had walked into a classic Stallman setup line.
 
"At Harvard they have this policy where if you pass too many classes they ask you to leave," Stallman says.
 
With no dorm and no desire to return to New York, Stallman followed a path blazed by Greenblatt, Gosper, Sussman, and the many other hackers before him. Enrolling at MIT as a grad student, Stallman rented an apartment in nearby Cambridge but soon viewed the AI Lab itself as his de facto home. In a 1986 speech, Stallman recalled his memories of the AI Lab during this period:
 
I may have done a little bit more living at the lab than most people, because every year or two for some reason or other I'd have no apartment and I would spend a few months living at the lab. And I've always found it very comfortable, as well as nice and cool in the summer. But it was not at all uncommon to find people falling asleep at the lab, again because of their enthusiasm; you stay up as long as you possibly can hacking, because you just don't want to stop. And then when you're completely exhausted, you climb over to the nearest soft horizontal surface. A very informal atmosphere.2
The lab's home-like atmosphere could be a problem at times. What some saw as a dorm, others viewed as an electronic opium den. In the 1976 book Computer Power and Human Reason, MIT researcher Joseph Weizenbaum offered a withering critique of the " computer bum," Weizenbaum's term for the hackers who populated computer rooms such as the AI Lab. "Their rumpled clothes, their unwashed hair and unshaved faces, and their uncombed hair all testify that they are oblivious to their bodies and to the world in which they move," Weizenbaum wrote. "[Computer bums] exist, at least when so engaged, only through and for the computers."3
Almost a quarter century after its publication, Stallman still bristles when hearing Weizenbaum's "computer bum" description, discussing it in the present tense as if Weizenbaum himself was still in the room. "He wants people to be just professionals, doing it for the money and wanting to get away from it and forget about it as soon as possible," Stallman says. "What he sees as a normal state of affairs, I see as a tragedy."
 
Hacker life, however, was not without tragedy. Stallman characterizes his transition from weekend hacker to full-time AI Lab denizen as a series of painful misfortunes that could only be eased through the euphoria of hacking. As Stallman himself has said, the first misfortune was his graduation from Harvard. Eager to continue his studies in physics, Stallman enrolled as a graduate student at MIT. The choice of schools was a natural one. Not only did it give Stallman the chance to follow the footsteps of great MIT alumni: William Shockley ('36), Richard P. Feynman ('39), and Murray Gell-Mann ('51), it also put him two miles closer to the AI Lab and its new PDP-10 computer. "My attention was going toward programming, but I still thought, well, maybe I can do both," Stallman says.
 
Toiling in the fields of graduate-level science by day and programming in the monastic confines of the AI Lab by night, Stallman tried to achieve a perfect balance. The fulcrum of this geek teeter-totter was his weekly outing with the folk-dance troupe, his one social outlet that guaranteed at least a modicum of interaction with the opposite sex. Near the end of that first year at MIT, however, disaster struck. A knee injury forced Stallman to drop out of the troupe. At first, Stallman viewed the injury as a temporary problem, devoting the spare time he would have spent dancing to working at the AI Lab even more. By the end of the summer, when the knee still ached and classes reconvened, Stallman began to worry. "My knee wasn't getting any better," Stallman recalls, "which meant I had to stop dancing completely. I was heartbroken."
 
With no dorm and no dancing, Stallman's social universe imploded. Like an astronaut experiencing the aftereffects of zero-gravity, Stallman found that his ability to interact with nonhackers, especially female nonhackers, had atrophied significantly. After 16 weeks in the AI Lab, the self confidence he'd been quietly accumulating during his 4 years at Harvard was virtually gone.
 
"I felt basically that I'd lost all my energy," Stallman recalls. "I'd lost my energy to do anything but what was most immediately tempting. The energy to do something else was gone. I was in total despair."
 
Stallman retreated from the world even further, focusing entirely on his work at the AI Lab. By October, 1975, he dropped out of MIT, never to go back. Software hacking, once a hobby, had become his calling.
 
Looking back on that period, Stallman sees the transition from full-time student to full-time hacker as inevitable. Sooner or later, he believes, the siren's call of computer hacking would have overpowered his interest in other professional pursuits. "With physics and math, I could never figure out a way to contribute," says Stallman, recalling his struggles prior to the knee injury. "I would have been proud to advance either one of those fields, but I could never see a way to do that. I didn't know where to start. With software, I saw right away how to write things that would run and be useful. The pleasure of that knowledge led me to want to do it more."
 
Stallman wasn't the first to equate hacking with pleasure. Many of the hackers who staffed the AI Lab boasted similar, incomplete academic r�sum�s. Most had come in pursuing degrees in math or electrical engineering only to surrender their academic careers and professional ambitions to the sheer exhilaration that came with solving problems never before addressed. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic known for working so long on his theological summae that he sometimes achieved spiritual visions, hackers reached transcendent internal states through sheer mental focus and physical exhaustion. Although Stallman shunned drugs, like most hackers, he enjoyed the "high" that came near the end of a 20-hour coding bender.
 
Perhaps the most enjoyable emotion, however, was the sense of personal fulfillment. When it came to hacking, Stallman was a natural. A childhood's worth of late-night study sessions gave him the ability to work long hours with little sleep. As a social outcast since age 10, he had little difficulty working alone. And as a mathematician with built-in gift for logic and foresight, Stallman possessed the ability to circumvent design barriers that left most hackers spinning their wheels.
 
"He was special," recalls Gerald Sussman, an MIT faculty member and former AI Lab researcher. Describing Stallman as a "clear thinker and a clear designer," Sussman employed Stallman as a research-project assistant beginning in 1975. The project was complex, involving the creation of an AI program that could analyze circuit diagrams. Not only did it involve an expert's command of Lisp, a programming language built specifically for AI applications, but it also required an understanding of how a human might approach the same task.
 
When he wasn't working on official projects such as Sussman's automated circuit-analysis program, Stallman devoted his time to pet projects. It was in a hacker's best interest to improve the lab's software infrastructure, and one of Stallman's biggest pet projects during this period was the lab's editor program TECO.
 
The story of Stallman's work on TECO during the 1970s is inextricably linked with Stallman's later leadership of the free software movement. It is also a significant stage in the history of computer evolution, so much so that a brief recapitulation of that evolution is necessary. During the 1950s and 1960s, when computers were first appearing at universities, computer programming was an incredibly abstract pursuit. To communicate with the machine, programmers created a series of punch cards, with each card representing an individual software command. Programmers would then hand the cards over to a central system administrator who would then insert them, one by one, into the machine, waiting for the machine to spit out a new set of punch cards, which the programmer would then decipher as output. This process, known as " batch processing," was cumbersome and time consuming. It was also prone to abuses of authority. One of the motivating factors behind hackers' inbred aversion to centralization was the power held by early system operators in dictating which jobs held top priority.
 

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