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When the two main desktop projects catering to free and open source software - KDE and GNOME - held their annual desktop summit at the same place for the first time, they probably expected nothing but messages of peace and harmony to emanate.

Instead, the keynote speaker, Richard Matthew Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project, has become the focal point of any news about the summit.

Stallman is under attack for remarks he made, which are purported to be sexist. He has used the same or similar text many times before this but there have been no such allegations.

Suddenly, in the eyes of some, Stallman has become a sexist. But the timing, when it comes to attacking the  man, leads one to theorise that there may be other motivations behind the attacks.

I have heard Stallman speak - he visited Melbourne in October 2004 and I attended his talk which was organised by the Victorian branch of the Australian Computer Society.

He is a good speaker when it comes to taking an audience through the history of free software and serious matters - but he doesn't know how to carry a joke. He is poor at getting his humour across and even that night in Melbourne his St Ignucius routine fell flat. Nobody knew what on earth he was going on about - and there were plenty of older people present.

Stallman, who is of Jewish background, is an avowed atheist. The offending remarks he made at the summit, according to what claims to be a transcript of the same, are: "Then if you become a hacker you can celebrate that by having a foobar mitzvah, a ceremony in which the new hacker stands in front of the assembled congregation of hackers and chants through the lines of the system source code. And we also have the cult of the virgin of emacs. The virgin of emacs is any female who has not yet learned how to use emacs. And in the church of emacs we believe that taking her emacs virginity away is a blessed act."

Many people have taken him up on these words and claimed that he was being sexist. GNOME official David Schlesinger has been the loudest, while Matt Zimmerman, (corrected) chief technology officer of Canonical, has been close behind. GNOME and Canonical have close connections and this may not be exactly unrelated to these attacks.

And then there have been others who have accused him of various things - of even sanctioning rape.

I don't think Stallman's remarks are particularly tasteful, especially in an era of political correctness such as the one we live in. However, to accuse him of sexism, when he has clearly explained what he meant to convey, is a bit of a stretch.



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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.