Winning the Gnu

by Joey deVilla on January 26, 2009

The CUSEC convention’s last keynote speech was Richard Stallman’s presentation titled Copyright vs. Community in the Age of Computer Networks. It’s similar to the one he gave at the University of Toronto in the summer of 2007; you can see my detailed notes on that presentation here.

At the end of his keynote, he declared an auction, the proceeds of which would go to the Free Software Foundation (I heard a couple of people say “Yeah, right” behind me). The first item up for auction was a hardcover copy of his book Free Software, Free Society. I already own an autographed edition, so I wasn’t interested in bidding.

He started the bidding at CAD$40; someone from the audience yelled out “we’re students!”. Oblivious to the remark, the bidding continued and the book sold for somewhere close to a hundred dollars. 

With the book sold, he then showed the audience the next item for auction: a plush gnu, the mascot of the Free Software Foundation:

stallman_showing_gnu
Stallman shows off the plush gnu for auction.
Photo by Matthew Gallant.

“You should totally bid for that!” someone behind me said. I’d been thinking the same thing.

As with the book, the bidding started at student-unfriendly 40 dollars. When the price hit $60, I threw my hat in the ring.

“Sixty-five!”

The room burst out in laughter. They’d seen my presentation yesterday and knew I worked for Microsoft, long a major figure in the Free Software Foundation’s demonology.

“You should know that he’s with Microsoft!” someone in the audience said to Stallman.

“There are anti-animal cruelty laws,” said Stallman, facing in my direction.

“You have The Empire’s assurance that no harm will come to him,” I replied.

The bids continued. For every bid that came in, I immediately countered with one that was $5 higher.

“Seventy!”

“Seventy-five!”

“Eighty!”

“Eighty-five!”

By this point, the room was really getting into the bidding war. Would the Microsoftie actually win the auction for the symbol of the organization that views it as The Great Satan?

And up the bids went until I said “One hundred.” Just to underscore my intent on getting that gnu, I bid again. “One hundred five.”

“Going once…” said Stallman, “…twice…SOLD! For one hundred and five dollars.”

I walked up to the stage to loud applause.

Richard Stallman, Joey deVilla and the plush gnu at CUSEC 2009
I go onstage to claim my prize.
Photo by Andrew Louis.

Stallman seemed a tiny bit confused as to why someone from Microsoft would even want a gnu, never mind pay that much money for one.

“You do promise to obey anti-animal cruelty laws?” he asked again, as if it were a real flesh-and-blood gnu.

“I won’t harm a hair on its head. I do come from the Free Software world,” I replied, being careful not to call it the “Open Source” world. I didn’t want to give him any reason to cancel the sale.

Richard Stallman and Joey deVilla onstage at CUSEC 2009
I give Stallman my word that no harm will come to the GNU.
Photo by Andrew Louis.

I pulled out my Microsoft corporate credit card. I held it up and asked the audience: “D’you think I should pay with this?”

Joey deVilla showing his Microsoft corporate credit card to Richard Stallman
“Can I pay for it with my Microsoft corporate credit card?”

Joey deVilla showing the Microsoft credit card to the CUSEC 2009 audience
Asking the audience if I should pay with my Microsoft corporate credit card.
Photo by Andrew Louis.

That got a good laugh from the audience.

(In the end, since I was buying the gnu for myself and not Microsoft, I paid for it in cash. But as long as I was up there, why not milk the event for all it was worth?)

Joey deVilla and the Microsoft credit card
“The Microsoft corporate card. Don’t culture-jam the FSF without it.”
Photo by Andrew Louis.

Using my best Darth Vader impression, I extended my hand out to Stallman and said “Join me, Stallman, and together we shall bring order to the galaxy!”, which got a good laugh.

Me inviting Stallman to join the Dark Side
"Join the Dark Side, Stallman, and together we shall bring order to the galaxy!"

At the end of the conference, I walked up to Stallman, who was selling Free Software Foundation paraphernalia at the registration table. I asked him for his autograph, which he gladly provided on the plush gnu’s tag. “Happy hacking! Richard Stallman,” it read.

Joey deVilla gets Richard Stallman to autograph the gnu's tag
Getting Stallman’s autograph after the keynote.
Photo by Andrew Louis.

I did it all in the name of fun and also to show that Microsoft people have a sense of humour. I was also more than happy to hand over some money to the Free Software Foundation as a way of saying thanks for all the things they’ve done for developers – myself included – over the years.

As for the gnu, I plan to take it out from time to time, posing it for photographs just as the travelling garden gnome is.

I’ll close with a couple of close-up shots of the gnu:

Plush gnu on top of my travelling accordion

Plush gnu on top of my accordion

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John January 26, 2009 at 7:30 am

That’s hilarious! Glad to see folks demonstrate a sense of humor in the source wars.

2 Anthony Cunningham January 26, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Nice one. Good to see that RMS has a sense of humour.

3 A Salim January 26, 2009 at 2:36 pm

I should have gotten into a bidding war with you but I think you would have trumped me. Anywho, it was great fun to watch and I think RMS enjoyed it as well. Also great photos by Andrew (http://hyfen.net).

4 Rob Britton January 26, 2009 at 3:47 pm

That was hilarious! I love the look on RMS’s face in the “I go onstage to claim my prize” photo.

5 Jürgen Fenn January 26, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Very nice. FYI: Your story is just circulating at identi.ca.

6 John Sullivan January 26, 2009 at 4:02 pm

Thank you for buying the GNU — as a result we have been enjoying listening in to your Microsoft dealings from the FSF office :).

7 Joey deVilla January 26, 2009 at 4:18 pm

John Sullivan: LOL! I hope it didn’t overhear us talking about the construction progress of the Death Star!

I’m more than happy to throw some monetary support to the FSF, and although I’m with “The Empire”, I continue to use and enjoy software released under the GNU Public License.

8 Andrew Louis January 26, 2009 at 9:33 pm

Seems like it was a good PR move:

“Wow, I feel enlightened. Until I read this article, I’d been under the impression that the only people who would work at Microsoft were people who ate babies and killed kittens for ink, and former Best Buy employees!”

From buu700 (http://www.reddit.com/r/linux/comments/7sl3a/microsoft_buys_gnu/c07af7g)

9 Rachel Keslensky - Last Res0rt January 26, 2009 at 10:27 pm

You had me worried for a moment there.

Grats!

10 Supermike January 27, 2009 at 12:50 am

He looks like a Microsoft plant. They are trying the embrace, extend, and extinguish technique, yet again. I almost fell for this one, thinking, sure, he might actually want to thank the FSF. But I’m not buying it one bit.

11 Joey deVilla January 27, 2009 at 12:58 am

Supermike: I think my Free/Open Source credentials speak for themselves. Go through this blog’s archives or my resume in my LinkedIn profile.

12 Stephane Daury January 27, 2009 at 11:01 am

Now, all you need is a ElePHPant and get them to mate in their wild travels. ;)
http://www.flickr.com/groups/elephpants/pool/

13 Alain Chesnais January 27, 2009 at 11:29 am

Way too funny! Wondering how the plush gnu is getting along with your squishy cow?

14 Gadgetman! January 27, 2009 at 5:06 pm

B-but…

This can’t be true!

Isn’t your sense of humour removed surgically when you start working at MS?
(Because anyone with a sense of humour still intact will collapse in a fit of giggles if they ever run into BillG… )

15 Mark Stahler January 27, 2009 at 6:31 pm

That’s awesome. I am glad you didn’t get hit by a flying keyboard when you pulled out the Microsoft credit card haha

16 Richard January 28, 2009 at 1:31 am

Seriously the highlight of the event. The Vadar impression was gold!

17 David February 2, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Another gnu was sold tonight at the University of Toronto to another microsoft employee =D

18 Fabian Rodriguez March 4, 2009 at 9:55 am

Sad I missed that! Thanks for blogging about it :)

Looking forward to crossing paths :D

19 Michael June 3, 2009 at 11:02 am

Its good one MS employee showed a sense of humor. However, I cant help but point out how trivial it is. In the end, MS wont be anyone’s friend. They’ll use and abuse free software while proverbially slapping developers who have a higher calling. I must say I don’t really see this as that funny. Its just temporarily funny until MS shows their business ethics yet again and pisses everyone off who stands for something by their truly evil deeds. What awful act do they need to do so that we wont look the other way?

20 Franklyn June 4, 2009 at 11:02 am

You know i was actually thinking of throwing in a few dummy bets in there just to up the price . because you were hell bent on getting that gnu :P.

21 Andrew June 18, 2009 at 5:46 pm

This article has angered me. As Michael said “What awful act do they need to do so that we wont look the other way?” M$ and their tactics disgust me. I wouldn’t be caught dead being outbid by you on this.

22 Joey deVilla June 18, 2009 at 11:16 pm

Andrew: Yesssss! Release your anger. It feeds me!

23 Steve Syfuhs June 18, 2009 at 11:30 pm

“At the end of the conference, I walked up to Stallman, who was selling Free Software Foundation paraphernalia at the registration table”.

I admit, Stallman’s no idiot. He’s a genius. He’s also insane.

24 FSF Drone #666 June 18, 2009 at 11:45 pm

Good for you joey, to the haters, stallman is very consistent wrt software, other domains are different and the FSF usually doesn’t deal with them. It is perfectly ok to sell free software and free software merchandise. I’d recommend people go read http://fsf.org and figure out what the FSF is and what free software is before we get dumb comments like highlighting words like “selling”.

Free market maintenance.

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