Richard Stallman Takes a Holiday

Adapted from a short non-fiction book.Scene: Richard Stallman, dressed in corduroys, a long-sleeved shirt, and a hat, reclines on a lounge on a beach somewhere in the Caribbean. Waiter: Sir, may I get you a drink? Stallman: Many people assume that because I am traveling, I am having a vacation. Waiter: Sir, this is a resort. You are on vacation. Stallman: The fact is, I have no vacations. Waiter: As you wish. Sir, would you like— Stallman: It is very important for me to be able to transfer email between my laptop and the net, so I can do my ordinary work. Waiter: There is complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi service that is included in the cost of your stay. Stallman: If the network requires a proxy for SSH, I probably can't use it at all. Waiter: Sir, I am not a technical expert, but I could get the front desk— Stallman: If it involves loading a nonfree driver, I will refuse. Waiter: I believe, sir, that the built-in adapter on most computers will work just fine. But I could ask— Stallman: Until you have tested it, don't believe it! Waiter: As you say, sir. Now, about the matter of a drink. Some beer? A cocktail? Stallman: I dislike the taste of alcohol, so I don't drink anything stronger than wine. Waiter: Ah, yes, sir, we have a wide variety of international— Stallman: Wine is not very important to me—not like food. I like some wines, depending on the taste, and dislike others, but I don't remember the names of wines I have liked, so it is useless to ask me. Waiter: Perhaps the house white? Stallman: If you get a bottle of wine, I will taste it, and if I like the taste, I will drink a little, perhaps a glass. Waiter: Yes, sir. Would you like some food to go with that, sir? Some guacamole? Stallman: No. Waiter: Olives? Stallman: No. Waiter: An orange or grapefruit? Stallman: No. Waiter: An entire hardboiled egg? Stallman: No. Waiter: Babaganoush? Stallman: No. Waiter (to himself): Perhaps some peanuts. [Waiter is gone for a few moments while Stallman lies inert. Waiter returns.] Waiter: If sir would just write his room number and sign. Stallman: I cannot find my room key. Waiter: Sir, are you even a guest at this establishment? Stallman: The frustration I feel when I suffer such a loss is excruciating.

Glenn's Rider

A work in progress.I am regularly asked to speak at events as far away as Hong Kong and Spokane. Because I live on only the money given to me by strangers in subways, I ask that you read the following before arranging for me to give a talk.

  • My ideas are highly unpopular. So unpopular that I am asked to speak thousands of times a year. A security force of no fewer than ten (10) off-duty police or paramilitary officers is required at all times from when I arrive until you kick me out of your home.
  • Hotels sometimes have many floors. This is contrary to the egalitarianism and flatness I have built my life around. I would like to stay in someone's home, preferably on the lower portion of a bunk bed. I sleep from midnight to noon and may not be interrupted in my sleep.
  • On rising, I ask only that you do not look at me or speak to me, but have brought in a Denny's Grand Slam Breakfast. Two of them. Every hour. Until the talk.
  • Cellular phones allow individuals to be easily tracked by corporations and governments. I do not carry a cell phone, and am unable to work pay phones as every quarter contains a minute tracking device, and my fingers are too big. If I need to make a call, I will yank the phone from your hand, call the FBI hotline and make a bomb threat, after which I will hand the phone back to you and run.
  • Please purchase a set of lovebirds for each visit, which I will consume right before leaving.
  • I do not give talks.

The True Story of the Amazon Door-Desk

Several years ago, I said I would no longer publicly comment about my time in 1996–1997 as Amazon.com's catalog manager. Why? Because my knowledge and memory were so out of date, and I did not keep a journal during that period. It would be silly for me to provide commentary about a company that I had only been with during a period of explosive growth—now no more recently than 14 years ago.

However, an essay in today's Wall Street Journal called "Jeff Bezos of Amazon: Birth of a Salesman," compels me to comment on one aspect of the pervading myth of Amazon's creation and early years. You can read elsewhere about the truth behind other parts of the creation myth, especially in Robert Spector's fine and exhaustive look at Amazon's early years, Get Big Fast.

The part that got me was the door-as-desk myth, which has been cited since Amazon's founding as a way in which the company confounded standard business practice and was frugal during its very early startup days. This is a complete crock, and I would suspect that no one associated with the company, including Jeff, ever necessarily put forth a cost savings for these ersatz desks.

The door-desks were full-sized solid-core doors with four-by-four posts cut for each corner, and attached using metal brackets. You'll find accounts across the Internet that these were four-by-sixes, two-by-fours, or hollow-core doors. At least back in the day, I saw many of these desks made, and I can testify to their composition. (The hollow-core doors wouldn't have supported the weight—they would have cracked in places under the strain.)

In the very early days of the company, I'm sure the doors made more sense. They had very little room or time, and were trying to husband cash. Doors have a large surface area relative to most desks, and Amazon was in a garage and then a couple of industrial/warehouse spaces before they split the warehouse (down south of the viaduct) and the offices (in the heroin district of Seattle near Pike Place Market) before I joined.

I had met Jeff Bezos through mutual friends in 1995, when I was already running a Web development firm, hosting several companies, in downtown Seattle. He and I got along quite well, and I was always encouraging. My business was already profitable and growing, but I knew from the early days I didn't have the kind of entrepreneurial drive to embrace the risk—and sell myself—to turn the firm into something huge. I was looking for successful-boutique scale, and more or less achieved that.

I had lunch with Jeff in October 1996 when I was a bit in the doldrums about what I was going to do next with the business. He invited me to join Amazon, which I did. But what I remember most was, after lunch, walking into his office in the Columbia Building, and seeing a rack of blue colored shirts, his trademark at the time, and the door-as-desk. I laughed. I looked at the threadbare carpet and spartan furnishings, and said, "Investors must love this." He gave me his patented laugh.

When I joined the company, I saw the door-desks being built all the time. They hired people to build them. Back in 1998, a year after I left, Jeff told the Seattle Times:

"These desks serve as a symbol of frugality and a way of thinking. It's very important at Amazon.com to make sure that we're spending money on things that matter to customers," said Bezos, 34. "There is a culture of self-reliance. (With the low-tech desks) . . . we can save a lot of money."

The doors were expensive, built to an arbitrary height, heavy, difficult to move, and horrible for body health because of the bad ergonomics. That's when I started having to see an acupuncturist for carpal tunnel and related problems. And also note that these were exterior doors: moving a exterior door through an interior door frame with legs permanently attached is a tricky task. At the time, a slightly smaller desk (or even a sturdy banquet table) would have cost 1/3 to 1/2 the amount and worked far better.

The myth was in place: the door-desk was part of the story about Amazon's creation, and it was part of what every visitor to the company's headquarters saw. It spoke of a particular ethos about spending and intent. And I will note that Jeff and company were extremely, but not unreasonably, tight with spending. Money wasn't spent on stupid things, either by executives or staff.  (Later, the company probably wasted billions on setting up and closing down warehouses that weren't right for them until they figured out the formula for where they should be located and run.)

Jeff was and is a brilliant marketer. The marketing and perception of the door-desks was much more important than their actual savings to the company.

Meditating on the Effects of Meditation

I'm four weeks into a six-week beginning meditation class taught by an experienced local hand, Rodney Smith, under the auspices of the Seattle Insight Meditation Society. He's a white guy who spent several years decades ago in Burma and Thailand as a monk. He worked for a long stretch in hospice care. He's an intriguing fellow, especially in that he openly says he never planned to teach, but his teachers insisted that it was part of the tradition in which he was practicing. He lays no claim to be a guru, and has only some big questions, no big answers.I like the class quite a bit. He talks about dharma in a non-religious context, and largely helps us explore the notion of why we cannot be present and how to overcome that through meditation and thoughtful self-awareness. There's definitely a bit of psychoanalysis thrown in there, but given that he is having us focus entirely on the present as expressed in the body (which has neither a past nor a future, but only its current existence), he doesn't ask us to find antecedents for emotions nor plan how to deal with them. What I find most remarkable about the course, and which I didn't entirely expect, is how rapidly my brain and temperament has changed without me feeling as though I've gotten very far yet (of course) into understanding how to meditate in a thorough and engrossing manner. Rodney asks us to commit to 30 minutes a day in a particular fashion (essentially still, but comfortable, with a few postural suggestions) through the class. We also meditate about an hour or more within the two-hour class, sometimes with him giving dharma or metta talks. I've meditated perhaps on 30 days since starting the class. I've only missed a night or two along the way. Lynn says she notices a difference. I have certainly softened in some respects, and I can summon the ability to center and present myself in the now much more than I could before. Before I was a parent, I thought I had an infinite reserve of patience. It lasted quite a while into parenthood. But at some point, I lost that. I lose my patience. I get tired of endless wheedling and questioning and resistance by the boys, who are astonishingly great the vast majority of the time. There are time when I just want to say, "no, no, no, no, we're not doing that, the car is turning around, we're going home, that toy is going away…" All the poor tools in the parents' arsenal that don't solve more than a very short-term set of problems. Long term, they are no help at all. This lack of patience is entirely my issue; the boys are normal kids. They are not difficult by any stretch of the definition for kids their age. They are supremely easy in so many ways, notably going to bed without a fuss. (Seriously. They do that. Every night.) The meditation has clearly helped me reach beyond those, sometimes to an amazing extent. I am much more peaceful inside my head and body, which is a great relief. As a damned intellectual and someone who makes his living sitting at a computer and writing or programming, I spent much of my time in my head, disconnected from the now. Rodney makes some lovely evolutionary points about how symbolic thinking is what led humans out of the savannah and into huts and skyscrapers. But that symbolic thinking doesn't have to rule us all the time. He seems to view his job as allowing us to choose to unlink our abstract selves, which are too aware of the past and future, and at will focus on the present and the real existence in which we find ourselves, but which is too often hidden. It's obviously taking hold. I do find it is sometimes difficult to concentrate on my abstract tasks, however! The class leaves my head buzzing on Monday nights, and Tuesday morning I had what could only be described as a meditation hangover. This is a positive thing, in that I retained that sense of mental and psychic growth. But it was hard to look at a screen. To top it off, I saw my chiropractor Tuesday morning, and after such sessions, I often find emotions released and my mentality dulled. Tuesday night, I was a bit of a wreck, but, with Lynn's marvelous and constant support, emerged feeling better than I had in weeks about myself, my life, my choices. Wednesday and Thursday were engines of productivity, and some long-running projects are coming to fruition. I love my work, but I also love developing a way to have non-work. (Play? Fun? Or just a space in which my brain isn't full of thoughts all the time.) I am curious what another two weeks of class will bring, and then how I sustain this practice thereafter. I have long thought about meditation, and now I am in the now and doing it.

Good Bye, Steve

I never met Steve Jobs. I was in auditoriums and rooms with him several times, often not far away. But I never met the man. Nonetheless, I'm very sad this evening, like one of the colors of the rainbow has been removed, and I'm diminished permanently by that fact. It's a funny thing.Steve made it possible for the technology that has allowed me to express my creativity for the last 25 years to exist. Nearly every stage of my life has been shaped by the existence of the Mac, and the software that ran so well on it. I first used a Mac in 1985, when my journalism teacher, with great foresight, managed to get the budget to buy them to replace our ancient typesetting gear. I was the newspaper's (paid!) typesetter, and so she sent me home over Christmas break with a Mac to learn PageMaker 1.0. A remarkable thing on her part, and I thank Sue Barr forever for that. I had already been going down the path to graphic design. When I arrived at college, I was quickly sucked into the waiting arms of a newly started weekly publication that grew over the next few years to challenge the daily paper, the Yale Daily News, which was the oldest continuously published college newspaper. They were using older gear for typesetting. We used PageMaker and Macs, initially in the college computer labs. (Apple had heavily courted colleges in those days, and sold Yale piles upon piles of Macs cheaply.) In my senior year, I got a job at the university's in-house printing service, designing and typesetting, and took a full-time job after graduation running the imaging center there. I installed System 7 and troubleshot a million problems with getting output from QuarkXPress and PageMaker to a Linotype 300 imagesetter. I remember excitedly finding out that Apple had an FTP site (ftp.apple.com, probably) and slowly, slowly downloading the System 7 installation disk images over the very very slow Internet of 1991. From Yale I went to Maine, to take a job at the Center for Creative Imaging, which had 100 IIfx Macs, and which was a paean to everything creative in photography, illustration, and design one could do. Which meant, all Mac. A million great teachers and students passed through. Russell Brown. Jay Maisel. Matthew Carter. Paul Davis. John Sculley, who lived nearby, was there regularly. Many of my dearest friends came from a short time there. I left Maine when the center started to falter (a long, long story) and moved to Seattle to take a job as managing editor at a book firm, which produced computer books about using PageMaker, Quark, and other products. Books about Macs and created on Macs. While there, I started one of the first Web hosting companies (hosted on Suns, however) using Macs to design Web pages in 1994, with Peachpit Press as one of my first clients. I sold that firm to join Amazon briefly, but left and went into conference planning with my old book company boss, and then into full-time journalism. Writing largely about Apple and how to use its products. I have been surrounded by Macs in the best and worst times, and thus have had Steve's indirect hand in my working and creative life nearly from start to finish. Good bye, Steve. And thank you.

Night Music

Last night, I'm sure I went to bed too late. I'd meditated earlier, as part of the discipline for the six-week course I'm taking, but in this second week of nightly meditation, I find I'm also engaged in micro-sleep. Working on overcoming that. But the micro-sleep surely kept me awake longer. Around midnight, Lynn and I turned out the lights to go to sleep.I thought I was asleep fairly fast—within a few minutes. Lynn was asleep immediately. It is a marvelous trait, and one that runs in her father's side of the family, and intolerable to those of us who sometimes toss and turn. As I was dousing the fires of consciousness, I was startled awake by a sound. I couldn't immediately place it, as I thought it had happened outside. But I heard no further noise, and decided it must have been Lynn shuffling in her sleep in the sheets, even though as I looked at her she was in the same position. I got up, and looked out through windows to make sure no one was nosing about the house. Back to bed. Then I hear Rex cough. Rex has a minor cold, and is on antibiotics for a secondary infection from about 10 days ago. But he hasn't been kept up with a cough, so that seemed strange. Back to sleep. Then I hear what I think is Rex crying. I get up, seemingly without disturbing Lynn. I quietly go into the boys' room. Ben is sleeping in a plank position in which apparently less than 50% of his body is on his bed, perpendicular to it, and his legs are straight out. His pants legs are also rolled up. I rotate him back onto the bed and under the covers. I check out Rex who seems asleep and quiet. I rouse him a little, and he says he's fine. He doesn't remember crying. Assure them both. They're back to sleep. By now, I notice flashing police lights painting the kitchen. As I think about it, I recall that while I was trying to get back to sleep at some earlier point, I had felt a deep bass rumbling. I go into the kitchen and can see the car parked in the lane in our two-lane arterial that runs on a T to the street our house is on, and I see a fire engine lumber off. I go to the front of the house, and see someone running down the street, but towards where the police are. A concerned neighbor? Not sure. It all seems under control, in any case. Back to bed. I'm just drifting off when I hear Lynn breathing in an unusual fashion. In 14 years of sharing a bed, I can't recall her ever breathing in this way before. It doesn't sound dangerous, just odd. I leave her to her dreams. A moment later, she calls out for me, shakes me gently. She's had a nightmare. (I won't share it. That's too much insight into someone's private mind.) I clutch her, reassure her, she calms down, and I tell her what's been happening over the previous 45 minutes. We wind up shaking with laughter, which dispels the demons of the night. Finally, we lay back to sleep. Uninterrupted. The boys even let us sleep until a miraculous 8 am.