Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Follow-up: Linux vs. GNU/Linux

with 6 comments

In light of a lengthy reply by a user codeinfig to an earlier post on the issue of “Linux” vs. “GNU/Linux”, I revisit this topic.

This in two parts: An extension of the original discussion (partially driven by the reply, but mostly held abstract) and a more specific rebuttal of said reply (formulated in terms of a direct answer).

General discussion:

  1. At the time of my original post, I actually was not aware of the amount of controversy that surrounded this issue, mostly seeing Stallman’s position as an example of flawed thinking, and my intention was (like in much of my previous writings) to point to such flaws. (Possibly, because commercial Unixes dominated my experiences of the Unix-like OSes until the early new millennium.)

    With hindsight, it was highly naive of me to not expect the topic to be “hotter”: This is the Internet, and more or less any question that could cause controversy will be discussed/argued/flame-warred at length—even be it something so trivial seeming as a name. To boot, this issue appears to be almost as old as Linux, giving it plenty of time to have been discussed.

  2. I stress again that I do not claim that “Linux” is an appropriate name when we do not speak of the kernel (cf. previous statements). However, “GNU/Linux” does not solve the involved problem. On the contrary, it compounds it further, because arguments against using “Linux” are the stronger against “GNU/Linux”. (However, this might very well have been different in the 1990s.)
  3. “GNU”, on its own, has at least three different meanings: The OS envisioned by Stallman, the GNU project, and the GNU set of tools/programs. Of these, I would consider the first the least relevant today, because this OS has simply not materialized in its full intended form, even after several decades, and I honestly cannot recall when I last heard that meaning used prior to this discussion. Even as early as 1994, when I started college and made my first contacts with Unix (specifically SunOS), the tools were arguably more important than the OS: The default setup after login consisted of one instance of Bash (running in an Xterm) and one instance of GNU Emacs; the main computer work for the first semester consisted of writing and executing LISP programs using Emacs—even under a commercial Unix version, with its own set of pre-existing editors, shells, whatnots, GNU tools had been preferred. An alternate editor and semi-imitation of Emacs, MG, was typically referred to as “Micro-GNU”*, showing the relative importance of Emacs within the GNU sphere at the time.

    *The actual name was “Micro-GNU-Emacs”, with the intended focus on “Emacs”, with “GNU” only serving to avoid confusion with other (less popular) variations of Emacs. (A distinction that hardly anyone bothers with today, “Emacs” being used quasi-synonymously with “GNU Emacs”, just like “Windows” usually contains an unspoken “Microsoft”.) However, so dominant was Emacs in the perception of GNU that most people shortened the wrong component of the name…

    But, by all means, let us go with the OS-meaning*: We say “GNU” and mean an OS. Even now, however, the use by codeinfig does not make sense. He appears to use “GNU” (resp. “gnu”) as an all-encompassing term for the OS in a very wide sense** or even the whole system, effectively saying that not only is e.g. a Debian system “GNU/Linux”—it is actually “GNU”… This goes towards the absurd, because even when we speak of “GNU” as an OS, the possible interpretations are 1) the whole original vision by Stallman, i.e. “GNU/HURD” and 2) just the “GNU” part of “GNU/HURD” (resp. “GNU/kernel-of-your-choice”). If we take the first, Debian is only even a GNU candidate when the HURD kernel is used (which will not be the case when we have a Linux-version of Debian) and speaking of just “GNU” in the manner of codeinfig is clearly wrong; even speaking of “GNU/Linux” would be clearly wrong a priori. If we take the second, “GNU/Linux” would still be conceivable (before looking at other aspects of the issue), but the equation GNU = GNU/Linux would be obviously incorrect.

    *For simplicity of discussion I will try to stick to this meaning in the rest of the text, where the difference between the three matter and where the right choice is not clear from context. Note that earlier references do not necessarily do so.

    **An annoying problem in this situation is that it is very hard to define the border between OS and application in such a manner that everyone is happy and all circumstances are covered. A more fine-grained terminology would be beneficial, just like dividing the year into winter and summer would be simplistic. (However, this is secondary to the current discussion.)

  4. If we do use the OS meaning, then, yes, I would consider GNU mostly irrelevant today. It is of historical importance and it might very well grow important again, but today it is dwarfed by Linux, various BSD variants (arguably including MacOS), and possibly even the likes of OpenSolaris and its derivatives. And, no, this OS is not what e.g. I have running right now.

    On the other hand, the GNU tools/programs and the GNU project are highly relevant and immensely valuable to the world of non-commercial/-proprietary computing.

  5. GNU/Linux systems are certainly conceivable: Take GNU (in the sense of an OS without the kernel) and add Linux as a kernel. Such systems might even be present today. A typical Linux-kerneled* distribution, however, is simply not an example of this.

    *See what I did there!

  6. Some seem to think that “because system A uses GNU components it is GNU” or “[…] it should use GNU in its name”. This line of reasoning does not hold up: It is simply not practical to mention every aspect of a system (be it in IT, Formula One racing, or house building), and GNU does not today play so large a part that it warrants special treatment over all other aspects, including e.g the X server and associated tools or the desktop. Again, this might have been different in the 1990s, but today is today. Cf. my first post.

    Notably, any even semi-typical Linux-kerneled system of today runs a great variety of software from a number of sources, and limitations in naming like “Linux”, “GNU/Linux”, whatnot, simply make little sense. Let a user name his five or ten most used “regular” applications and his desktop or window manager (depending on what is central to him), and we know something about his system, his needs, and his user experience. For most users, the rest is just an invisible implementation detail. Hell, many only use even the command line as a last resort… (To their own major loss.)

    That GNU possibly was the first major attempt at a free or open-source OS is not relevant either. Consider by analogy Project Gutenberg: Its founder claims* to be the first to think of the concept of eBooks: Should any party dealing with eBooks be forced to include “Gutenberg” in its name, resulting e.g. in the “Gutenberg/Tinder” reader? Or should ordinary book publishers be forced to refer to the original Gutenberg, for using printing presses? No—both notions are absurd. They might deserve to be honored for early accomplishments and, certainly, someone might chose to voluntarily name something in honor (as Project Gutenberg did with the original Gutenberg)—but no obligation can conceivably be present.

    *I very much doubt that this is true. Yes, his idea goes back to, IIRC, the early 1970s or late 1960s, but even back then it cannot have been something entirely unthought of, be it as a vision for the (real) future or as sci-fi. Vannevar Bush published ideas several decades earlier that at least go somewhat in the same direction.

  7. Some arguments appear to go back to a variation of moral superiority, as with Stallman’s arguments (also linked to in my original post) or codeinfig’s below. Notably: Linux is not free (in the sense of free software etc.) enough/does not prioritize freeness enough; ergo, GNU is morally superior and should be given precedence. This too is a complete non sequitur that would lead to absurd consequences, especially because the different parties have different priorities for deliberate reasons.

    Someone who does share GNU’s priorities might, for all I care, chose to voluntarily include GNU as a part of the name of this-or-that. However, no obligations can exist and those who do not share said priorities have absolutely no reason to follow suit. More: It would be hare-brained if they did…

As for the more specific reply*, I start by noting that there are clear signs that you** have not understood (or misrepresent) what I am actually saying, and that it is hard to find a consistent line of reasoning in your text (your language does not help either). If you want another iteration of the discussion, I ask you to pay more attention to these areas.

*I have left some minor parts of the original reply out. There can be some changes in typography and formatting, for technical reasons. I have tried to keep the text otherwise identical, but it is conceivable that I have slipped somewhere during editing or spell-checking—always a danger when quoting extensively. The full original text is present under the link above, barring any later changes by codeinfig.

**I address codeinfig directly from here on.

“whether the emphasis is on GNU alone or GNU and HURD in combination matters little for the overall argument.”

it covers more of the argument than you realise, and it is the flaw in your argument.

you are making gnu out to be a tiny subset of what it is, and making it less significant (details aside, you are greatly diminishing what it is) so that it pales next to “linux.”

this is unfair for several reasons— first, you do not understand what gnu is. you think gnu is just some software that isnt useful to the (everyday) user. its a misrepresentation that would lend at least some weight to your argument, if it werent a misrepresentation.

The “GNU” vs “GNU/HURD” distinction only makes sense if we abuse “GNU” in the manner I have dealt with above. The rest is largely a distortion of what I say. In particular, I have never claimed that GNU would pale to Linux (in the kernel sense)—I claim that it pales in comparison to the overall systems. (Which really should be indisputable.) If you re-read my original post, you will find that I clearly point to uses of GNU tools that are not obvious to the end user; however, the simple truth remains that for someone who does not live on the command line or in Emacs, the overall importance of GNU is not so large that it deserves special treatment over some other parties.

You do not seem to understand how many different components of various types and from different sources go into building e.g. a Debian system (be it as a whole or as the OS), with many of them present or not present depending on the exact setup. We simply do not have anything even remotely close to an almost-just-GNU system with Linux dropped in in lieu of HURD, which seems to be your premise.

gnu was “the whole thing” before linux was a kernel. the web browser is not “linux” either, it is a browser. but we call it “linux.” xwindows predates “linux” by nearly a decade, but we call it “linux.”

when we call these things “gnu” you fail to understand that *that is what it was called already* and “linux” is no more a web browser than gnu was at the time, but somehow its ok for linux to presume itself to be all those things, but its “riding coattails” if gnu helps itself by being included.

Here we have several misrepresentations, e.g. the claim that the browser would be called “Linux”—this simply is not the case. Neither were those things already called “gnu” in the past. Notably, in the time before Linux-kerneled systems broke through, the clear majority of users were running commercial Unixes, e.g. SunOS, with GNU either absent or represented through a few highly specific tools, e.g. Emacs. While it is true that GNU was conceived as “the whole thing” (by the standards at its conception), this does not imply that it actually is “the whole thing” when it is included in a greater context and at a much later date. By analogy, if someone launches his own car company A, and another car company B, thirty years later, uses parts delivered from A, other parts from other companies, and parts that it has produced on its own, should B’s products then be referred to as “A” or as “B”? Obviously: “B”. In addition, due to the absence of HURD there is no point of time prior to Linux where GNU actually, even temporarily, was “the whole thing”, making the claims of precedence the weaker.

Note the item on historical influence above.

Note that my original formulation concerning coat-tails, a) referred explicitly to “better-known-among-the-broad-masses”, which is indisputably true and makes no implication concerning e.g. practical importance, b) was used to demarcate the outer end of the spectrum of interpretations of the situation—I never say that Stallman’s intent is to ride the coat-tails of Linux, only that this is the worst case interpretation.

the whole idea that linux is entitled to do this but gnu is not is special pleading *all over the place.*

its special pleading that strawmans the heck out of what gnu is in the first place— with a generous “side” of ad hom for why stallman thinks we should call it that. oh, its his quasireligious views…

No such special pleading takes place. I clearly say that “Linux” is a misnomer—but that “GNU/Linux” is a worse misnomer through compounding the error.

Watch your own strawmanning!

no, his arguments are not quasireligious. they are philosophical and even practical. thats an ad hom attack, and the only thing religion has to do with it is in parody (and other related ad hom from critics.)

If you actually read what he says, you will find that he is quite often religious/ideological and lacking in pragmaticism: He has an idea, this idea is the divine truth, and thou shalt have no other truth. Watch his writing on free this-and-that in particular.

i suspect that at some point (to be fair, you havent yet) you will accuse me of being some kind of stallman devotee. i was an open source advocate first, but i switched to free software after years of comparing the arguments between them. open source is a corporate cult, partly denounced by one of its own founders.

i switched to free software because it lacks the same penchant for rewriting history, for splitting off and then accusing those who didnt follow of “not being a team player,” and basically is more intellectually honest than open source and “linux.”

but its like an open source rite of passage to nitpick about “gnu/linux,” and it tends to follow a formula. you left out the part about how “free” is a confusing word with multiple meanings— sort of like “apple computer.”

I have not yet, and I will not here either—and it would not matter if I did: Your arguments remain the same irrespective of whether you are a devotee or not.

As for your motivations to prefer free over open: They have no relevance to the naming issue.

“To the best of my knowledge, no-one, Stallman included, has suggested that we refer to GNU (!) as GNU/Linux.”

in most instances he does. your definition of gnu is in fact, partial and subset, so he has never suggested we refer to that subset by anything. i dont believe he has ever referenced the subset you call “gnu” at all.

See the general discussion above and why this does not make sense. (But I do not rule out that Stallman too can have said something that does not make sense.)

” `The question is rather whether a Linux (sensu lato) system should be referred to as GNU/Linux.’ “

no, thats a loaded question, and a fine ingredient for a circular argument. “its already called linux.” well, it was already called gnu. but again, *somehow* linux is entitled to do that and gnu isnt, even though gnu was already calling it that.

for stallman and many others who have not been swayed by over a decade of these “dont bother calling it gnu” articles, the question is whether gnu should be referred to as only “linux.”

It was never called GNU and even if it were, you cannot demand that others, building new products, where GNU is a subset, propagate the name ad eternam. Cf. above.

the answer to that question is cultural, and already explained— *if you care about software freedom* then gnu is a signifier. to a programmer this makes sense— its self-documenting.

from a marketing perspective, this is ridiculous. to a “linux” fan (to torvalds himself) this is riduculous. to me, its a *lot* more honest. however, what stallman has done is establish a brand that shows something living up to a promise.

“gnu” is quality control (a brand) for user rights. and linux really isnt. it really really isnt, but why it isnt is a separate debate. im not trying to write you an oreilly book here.

so again— if you want to signify user freedom, call it gnu/linux. (if it were up to me, the /linux would be dropped, stallman was trying to be fair.) if you want to signify whatever the heck “linux” stands for, call it whatever you want. i call fig os “fig os,” but fig os is a gnu/linux distro.

This is the flawed moral argument discussed above. In addition, why should e.g. Torvalds include “GNU” to stress free software when free software is not his priority? If he does not include it, how can I (you, Stallman, …) presume to alter the name based on having another priority?

As an aside, if the reasoning went in the other direction, i.e. “You are not free enough to use our name, so stop using it”, this would make a lot more sense. (Assuming that someone sufficiently non-free did use “GNU”.)

“Not at all: A world-view in which GNU is so important that it would warrant top-billing in the context of a Linux system is outdated—not GNU it self.”

thank you for clarifying, but you have not explained why gnu is not important enough to warrant top-billing, except to say that applications are more important to users who dont know why gnu is important.

Again: There are many components from different sources that make up a system. GNU is just one of them. (If you feel that GNU truly outweighs all others to such a degree that it warrants top-billing, it is up to you to prove this.) Further: What is important to the user is what matters in the end. If, by analogy, Bash or Emacs behaves the same, but is now implemented in Java or C#, it remains Bash resp. Emacs. The developers might be in understandable tears, but the world goes on. Implementations are fungible to the users—the result of the implementation is not. Hell, when I use Vim, Bash, and Tmux* under Cygwin, I have almost the same experience as when working under Debian, even when actually on a Windows machine… Even speaking of “Windows user” and “Linux [or whatnot] user” makes a lot less sense today than it did in the past, and it is often more sensible to speak of e.g. “Bash user” and “Vim user”.

*Note that of the three, only one is a GNU program.

your article is mostly assertions, and you do start to explain some of them though i still think it rests mostly on ad hom and assertion. its a very common set of assertions too— made year after year after year, i even made them myself once long ago.

Ad hominem and assertions pretty much match what I see in your writing…

“I am saying that building e.g. a Debian system without GNU is conceivable.”

thats hardly fair. gnu has been vital to all this for a quarter of a century (bsd can make a similar argument, considering that the only reason gnu was necessary was they were tied up in gaining the rights to their own work.)

I doubt that GNU has been that important for a whole quarter of a century, but even if it has been, that is irrelevant: It is not that important now. This is not a matter of fairness. Light-bulbs were great; today, they have been replaced by LEDs and other newer technologies. (Be it for technical reasons or through legislation.) I do not look up at my ceiling lamp and say a quick prayer to Edison (or one of the other inventors involved in the development of light-bulbs).

you make gnu less essential by creating a strawman version of what it is, so that you can say “but this isnt a good enough reason to warrant top-billing.”

we cant agree on the validity of your argument if you insist on misrepresenting what you weigh the importance of.

in fact, your argument suggests to me that the name is more important than the thing itself. i mean— gnu wouldnt be essential if this mostly-hypothetical thing like gnu were created instead! but thats no reason to call my entire operating system:

gnu! linux!

stallman has said lots of times that the name really isnt important. seems to really go against this whole thing, eh? people miss his asterisk where he says its important that everything gnu exists to accomplish is not forgotten for a side movement that reframes years of work to deliver freedom to the user as “just a practical way to develop software.”

Most of the above is more of you misrepresenting (or misunderstanding) what I am actually saying. As for the name vs. the thing: The topic of my post is the name and flawed reasoning around the name; ergo, I deal with the name and the flawed reasoning.

open source creates the need for this, stallman says “well if youre going to misrepresent everything we do, at least give us three letters of credit for this enormous amount of software youre relying on.” and people say more or less: “wow, the nerve of THIS GUY!”

its so funny because all he wants is for people to not forget that the entire point of all this was free software.

His entire point was free software. Torwalds’ (and many others’) is not. And again: If GNU was given credit in the name, then there are other parties with a similar right.

your argument is whether it should be called gnu/linux or not. but it never addresses the years-old argument of why it should be called gnu— it makes up its own reason, and then steps on it.

it really is a giant strawman. and i appreciate that you are almost certainly sincere and wouldnt create a strawman just to be a jerk. but its still a strawman.

Your claims make no sense, unless you truly are under the misapprehension that a typical systems consists of the kernel, various GNU components, and few trivial other bits. This is very, very far from the truth.

“GNU GPL, however, is irrelevant for the functioning, it would be easy to replicate something similar,”

haha— it isnt irrelevant at all, ask torvalds if it is. it isnt easy to replicate something similar either, and its less easy to get people to use such a thing. pulling off copyleft (when a billion dollar corporation was heavily dedicated to defeating it) was a serious coup. youre making it out to be a bunch of words in a file.

go make a gnu gpl— go ahead. show me. have anybody you can find to help in on it, too. have someone show me how easy it is.

“there are other available licenses. Notably, such other licenses, e.g. something in the Apache or BSD families, are often preferred by people outside GNU, because these parties have other priorities than free software.”

and thats the thing. they dont do what the gpl does, they dont achieve what the gpl does, but you consider them replacements. its apples and oranges.

Firstly, you assume (again) that copy-left, free this-and-that, whatnot is the priority of everyone. It might be your and Stallman’s priority, but it simply is not a global priority—and it is not needed to build e.g. an open-source computer system. Linux, Debian, …, does not need the GPL to exist.

Now, if someone does want a copy-left license? Firstly, there are other copy-left licenses around, if possibly with a somewhat different coverage. Secondly, combining another existing license with aspects of the GPL and/or with a few days research by a lawyer should yield something quite passable. (True, there might be few issue to sort out over time, e.g. due to ambiguities or complications with different jurisdictions, but not something that would require several decades to build.)

“GCC is mostly important for building the system, not for using it.”

special pleading, all over the place.

Not in the least: How would you justify include the compiler used to build the system as a component of the system? (Except for those proportionally rare cases when it is actually used to compile other programs when later using the system.) See also below.

“In fact, even now, many build setups contain explicit checks for the presence of GCC and automatically fallback to CC, should GCC be absent.”

and this is a bit of trivia, because all this stuff we have now would not exist (and would not be maintained) if everyone had to use cc. its like you know the significance of gcc but choose to ignore it when its convenient to your argument.

open source would not exist without gcc. linux might, but not the linux we have today. some little usenet gem that wasnt developed by half as many people— because they needed gcc to do it.

That is a very far-going claim. Can you back it up? I doubt it. In the case of open source in general, it is definitely incorrect, as can be seen by the many projects that use e.g. Java instead of C… Also keep in mind that in the absence of GCC, someone is likely to have started to improve CC or to build a more suitable compiler as need arose. Consider e.g. how GIT came into being; note that GCC as it is today is a very different beast from what it was when Torvalds started his work; note that GCC contains much that is not needed for Linux in the first place (e.g. unused languages) or is not essential for the existence of Linux (e.g. compilation for architectures outside the of the main-stream PC processors).

why even mention cc when you could have talked about clang instead? because i already addressed that when i talked about bsd, and because the part about cc is hypothetical (and at best, unlikely.)

One of several claims that make poor sense even on the sentence level. Besides: When did you address CC? Why would what I say about CC be unlikely?

As for Clang, I was not aware of it until now (but did consider mentioning LLVM in addition to CC, or the possibility of having started the original development with even a non-Unix compiler). However, its existence proves my point: Even if CC would not be a realistic replacement for GCC today, another tool definitely is. And: Other tools tools capable of filling the role of GCC have been possible at any point.

“glibc is possibly the most deeply ingrained dependency (and a better example than my original GRUB); however, this is still just one library.”

and linux is just one kernel. so what? its a monolithic kernel, and glibc is a monolithic library. theyre both enormous. you cant make them smaller by counting units, thats absurd.

glibc is far smaller and the kernel, by its very character, is the core of an OS. (glibc is not even the largest individual library—quite far from it, actually.) What you mean by “counting units” is not clear to me. The relevance of whether they are monolithic or not is lost on me.

“Here too we have the situation that glibc is not used because it is the only alternative, just the best.”

so once again, we shouldnt call it “gnu/linux” because gnu is just a bunch of vital components that arent vital because you could easily replace them with a bunch of drastically inferior alternatives that no one actually wants.

hmpf. yes, im taking some liberties with my version of your argument, but only to try to get its author to appreciate how much of a stretch it is.

“As with GCC, its absense would simply have led to something else being used.”

so *hypothetically*, gnu doesnt deserve top billing. because it could be less important than it is, if it werent.

You miss my point: That if we look at the situation as it is and say “part X is important today; ergo, if part X had never existed, the whole would not exist”, we ignore both the possibility of a replacement that would still have made the whole viable and the considerably likelihood that something else would have evolved over time to fill the same role or that the role would have been covered in a different manner. If we look at the situation today and see that just removing e.g. glibc would cause a given system to fail catastrophically, we cannot conclude that the system would not have existed had glibc not been present in (hypothetically) 1990—and therefore we cannot conclude that the existence of the system is contingent on glibc and, by implication, GNU. As a consequence, when you say “i said without gnu. no gnu gpl, no gcc, no glibc. you go right ahead, since gnu is irrelevant now. remove it, and find out what you get”, the answer is “without GPL, GCC, and glibc, we would see something that is recognizably approximately what we have today”. We might have ended up with an king penguin instead of an emperor penguin, but we are still talking penguins. Now, a scenario that removes GNU entirely from the early Linux development, that could have been a very major problem—but that does not imply that Linux and/or Linux-kerneled systems cannot exist without GNU today or that e.g. glibc is so central that they would never have come into existence without it.

“Even now, keeping the interface intact and replacing the implementation with a non-GNU variation would be technically feasible.”

but then, why should we rewrite glibc just to deny gnu the billing it allegedly doesnt deserve now?

That is not what I suggest: The point is that if glibc was no longer an option, hypothetically because a GPL violation necessitates its removal, a work-around is available. Yes, this might be tantamount to a team of surgeons operating around the clock to put in an artificial heart that buys the patient time until a real heart transplant is possible; no, it does not equal a dead patient.

“arguments that speak against referring to a system by the name of its kernel also speak against using the names of individual libraries, build-tools, and whatnots.”

except that you are oversimplifying the “linux is just a kernel” argument, failing to understand what people actually want with the name “gnu/linux,” not aware of why they want it, and making the name out to be more important than what the name refers to.

Not at all: The only way I can see to make your statement make sense is to posit that “GNU/Linux” would actually be enough to cover the entire OS (at a minimum) or the OS + a considerable portion of the rest of the system. This, however, is not even close to being the case. It is conceivable that a working “GNU/Linux” (only) system is buildable today, but it would not be the equivalent of e.g Debian, Fedora, Suse, …

As to name vs. thing, cf. above.

“I grant that Linux would conceivably not exist today without the presence of GNU in the past”

nor the present.

Prove your assertion. Remove GNU today, where do you see the insurmountable obstacle? (As opposed to the far more likely transitional period of blood, sweat, and tears.)

“if we speak of the system as a whole (the sensu lato), I refer to my post for a discussion why GNU is no longer important enough to define the system.”

now it is a discussion. it was an assertion, which leaned a bit on misunderstanding and special pleading and ad hom.

I strongly disagree.

“I do. Cf. above and your apparent confusion of what GNU is.”

i am not “confused” about what gnu is. gnu was from the beginning, a fancy-pants latin phrase (“the whole thing.”)

since the 1990s, a bunch of people have suggested that it is just a bunch of applications that everyday people dont really use.

your argument is built around the suggestion being a fact.

See the general discussion for various meanings and your incorrect interpretation.

given that the conclusion of your argument is that we should agree with them, i would call your entire argument circular.

Your claim makes no sense, shows that you have not understood me, and raises doubts as to whether you understand what a circular argument is.

we dont have to rewrite history. however, i would say you argue (quite unintentionally, beacuse i think you really do misunderstand the nature and premise of your own argument) that history doesnt deserve to not be rewritten.

it is not necessary to rewrite history to refer to gnu and “linux” instead of gnu/linux.

Again, you make no sense.

it is necessary to rewrite glibc, the gpl, and reestablish so much of gnu that you generously refer to as “linux,” in order to make most of the PREMISES of your argument into facts.

If you believe that, you definitely have not understood what I am actually saying.

if the premises are false, the argument isnt sound. in your reply, you spend a lot of time defending the logic of your argument based on a more hypothetical premise.

the premise of your argument was just false. the logic is heavily just assertion.

You have not shown that my premise is false; yet seem to rely on faulty premises or faulty understandings, yourself.

there isnt any need for ad hom, its simply wrong. but thats not important.

Where have I used ad hominem? Do you understand what this actually implies?

what matters is that in ten years, people will still be trying to get “gnu” removed from “gnu/linux.” and we can have this debate all the way there. i do hope we get breaks for the restroom though.

I do not see that as something that really matters and the opinion that “GNU” does not belong in the name is likely to grow stronger for reasons that include a further lessening of GNUs practical relevance, a smaller proportion of people who at all know of GNU, and a growing importance of both the distribution aspect and the desktop aspect.

“I do consider free software highly beneficial, but free software is not a core priority of Linux”

and that is exactly why stallman says it shouldnt be called just linux. because free software is not a core priority of it.

thats his entire argument. if you care about free software, call it gnu.

it has nothing to do with percentages of code, it has nothing to do with riding coattails.

it has everything to do with why gnu was created in the first place. not to write glibc, not to give you a web browser.

gnu was created to give the user freedom. and if you care about that, calling it “linux” ignores the original purpose, paints something relevant in modern times into enough obscurity that people think its just about user applications— and lets “linux” come along and assert boldly that freedom doesnt matter.

its not about ego, religion, or percentage of code. its about whether you care about freedom or not.

See the general discussion for why this is a faulty argument when it comes to the name.

funny thing, its always implied that stallman is just nitpicking, but year after year (after year after year) open source nitpicks that “gnu” isnt important enough to be in the name.

I, personally, have implied no such thing. That “GNU” does not belong is not nit-picking.

free software never convinces everyone to add “gnu” and open source never convinces everyone to drop it, but both sides continue to nitpick this for decades.

The division into free and open software should not play a role when discussing the name issue. If it does, something is fundamentally wrong with the approach.

your argument is most likely honest, if lacking context and history. the argument itself has its own history, though open source doesnt learn from the failure of the argument youre making, it just keeps reasserting it.

the history of your argument is that it is constantly made— 20+ years running now.

i made it myself, over a decade ago— i abandoned it because it was silly.

From what I have seen so far, the lack of historical and contextual understanding seems to be more on your side, with the one reservation that I was actually not aware of the extensive history of the argument. The reasoning you apply today, e.g. that what I refer to as moral superiority above should affect the name, is the silly part.

Written by michaeleriksson

April 25, 2018 at 6:25 am

6 Responses

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  1. i certainly owe it to you to read your entire post under the circumstances, and i have every intention of doing so. but before i do, let me grab onto the part where you say that gnu has at least 3 meanings:

    1. the os as stallman intended it
    2. the gnu project
    3. the tools that people consider the percentage of vs a browser or xorg or whatever.

    1 and 2 are very similar things– “gnu” in the sense of 2. is a project primarily to accomplish 1. — although it never required the os to work out “as stallman” (originally) “intended.” indeed i doubt that any of the following: windows, os/2 warp, mac os, or the linux kernel– worked out exactly as originally intended. so why it matters that 1. is different than stallman intended, i dont know– for one, 1. has turned out far better than stallman ever intended– this is according to him. hurd is a disappointment, but the attitude about that from pretty much everyone in the world (including stallman) is: who cares? hurd is *just* a kernel. really. no joke. it doesnt matter whether hurd ever works or not.

    in fact bsd would have worked just fine, but at the time gnu started, bsd was not viable license-wise, it was tied up in disputes. so hurd is really really unimportant. any suitable kernel will do, in other words.

    the reason that people want gnu to be called gnu is not the small number of command line utilities, not even the os itself, but the gnu project: 2.

    thats the important part. its for 2. that the entire thing exists. and certainly a huge part of 2. was to produce 1. and it also involved producing 3.

    gnu was started to give the user freedom that “open source” and “linux” care about a lot less, if at all. and this is not just dogma– one of the co-founders of the open source initiative agrees that open source did not take the path it claimed to start on.

    so if you dont call it gnu, then a lot of the whole concept that people took more than 20 years to get to this point for– is silenced a bit more than is probably fair. but this is fairness according to the people who care about gnu. you may have your own idea of whats fair.

    if you thing gnu is 1. or 3. — and especially if you think it is 3. then this is how people misunderstand why it matters whether its called gnu or not. and im not disputing (no one is) whether it matters to people who dont care. we know it doesnt matter to them.

    however, for people that do care– gnu is a very simple and effective shibboleth as to whether people care about your freedom (in the terms that gnu exists to offer.)

    when people say gnu/linux it is nearly a guarantee that that matters to them. and when they dont, chances are– they care at least a bit less. if we didnt have years of experience to compare– no one is saying theres a causal relationship between the word “gnu” and freedom. its just a name.

    but as a brand, you know a “ford pinto” is not a great way to get from a to b, and you know that if someone just calls it “linux” that they are likely to sell you out (per the terms of the gnu project) than someone who actually uses “gnu” in the name.

    its just an indicator, a signifier. a brand. and it would be better if people used it, because it strengthens that brand and because it delivered on what it really set out to do.

    but if you lack the historical context of all this (which youre more likely to learn if people call it gnu, i might add) then it wont make sense. without context– a lot of things dont.

    i will read your entire post– but this is my last attempt to make my point to you. you seem very dedicated to not understanding what im saying. perhaps thats unfair of me, but its my call to make. ive noticed that no matter how well an argument is (or is not) made, that sometimes the only way to win is to wait and give the opponent time (often years) to come to the “right” conclusion on their own.

    im not saying that will happen. it has, in my experience. it might. good luck. and im aware that i could always be wrong. that possibility always exists. im not wrong, as it happens… though its still a possibility, however unlikely that is.


    April 25, 2018 at 7:10 am

    • Your comment is highly confusing: I basically went over to the OS-meaning,
      which I considered almost irrelevant myself, in order to give your argument a
      fair chance, to play the discussion from you point of view—and now you seem
      to entirely disregard that meaning for the project-meaning, which is
      more-or-less where I started my original argumentation. (Say, two-thirds
      project-meaning, one-third tool-meaning.)

      If your previous claims about even “GNU” being a better name than “Linux”
      do not refer to the OS-meaning of “GNU”, they make no sense whatsoever: Under
      no stretch of imagination can you expect a certain project to impose its name
      onto other projects and products in that manner. In contrast, if you could have
      shown that e.g a Debian system typically consisted of the GNU OS together with
      a Linux kernel, then you might have had a legitimate case. (But you could not
      have, because that is simple not the case.)

      > its just an indicator, a signifier. a brand. and it would be better if people
      > used it, because it strengthens that brand and because it delivered on what
      > it really set out to do.

      Here you are effectively saying “we should call it GNU to signal our
      dedication to free software [quality, user respect, whatnot]”. This is not a
      good argument for the overall issue: It says nothing about which name is the
      proper; it gives no reason for anyone not dedicated to free software to use
      it. For that matter, not everyone with a certain set of values will necessarily
      identify with or support the GNU project, just like two people with very
      similar political values do not necessarily vote for the same party. What you
      might legitimately say is e.g. that “it would be good if open source
      incorporated more free values”*, but that is a different story altogether.

      *And I agree that many open-source projects, e.g. Firefox, show the same
      disregard for their users as do most commercial projects. That too is a
      different topic, however.

      > you seem very dedicated to not understanding what im saying.

      I am sorry, but that borders on the offensive. I have spent a lot of time
      trying to decipher your very poor language and extremely confused lines of
      reasoning. If I have failed, I wash my hands. I have really tried. As a
      counter-point, you have clearly, again and again, failed to understand what I

      (What you say in the rest of the comment appears to be things that I have
      already covered.)


      April 26, 2018 at 10:32 pm

  2. i would add however– that you dont seem to be aware of your ad hom about stallman being religions (a hint: its still ad hom if the premise is true– but i dispute the premise based on being a lot more familiar with stallman… i certainly am aware of what he superficially appears to be, and in humour he plays to that misconception, which is a real shot in his own foot if you dont get that hes joking)

    yet even though you say “what ad hom” you reassert it in the same post. this is not so important, but it leads to a great deal of misunderstanding if you actually believe that stallmans parodies of religion represent him taking all this religiously.

    this misunderstanding continues when you think im making an argument from morality– if you value freedom per the terms of the gnu project, then there is practical benefit to calling it that. i never said you should call it that because its the moral high ground, that is your interpretation of what i said and im pretty sure thats a false interpretation. considering i know what i meant. all in all, i really dont think you understand what stallman wants or why– i dont think you understand what im saying (not because its hard to understand, but because i guess its easy to take what im saying some other way…) and when you call an atheist religious or even pseudo-religious as his motivation for his views, and its not obvious how thats ad hom– we just arent on the same page.

    intellectually honest and meaningful debate requires a sufficient understanding of what each person is saying and what they mean. i do not think the odds of that are worth pursuing. it proves nothing that im utterly confident you dont understand my argument or my position. but if you dont– theres really no point in saying more about it. as long as im not reaching you, i can talk to myself on a schedule thats more convenient for me.

    we have put more effort into this than i think is worthwhile. at least for me. thanks. i can honestly say i tried, i think you must have as well.


    April 25, 2018 at 7:46 am

    • A few brief points:

      > that you dont seem to be aware of your ad hom about stallman being religions

      Ad hominem is taking a real or perceived characteristic of someone (e.g. “is a
      racist”, “is a catholic”, “has money invested in the issue”) and using that
      in an attempt to undermine his arguments, instead of discussing the arguments
      themselves. This is not what I do: I look at his arguments and his approach and
      say that his own arguments paints him as this-or-that. (People not
      understanding this difference is, sadly, a common problem on the Internet.)

      > actually believe that stallmans parodies of religion represent him taking all
      > this religiously.

      I am not aware of any parodies from him, and I do speak of his own actual
      behaviour and statements in what appears to be entirely serious writings.

      > this misunderstanding continues when you think im making an argument from
      > morality– if you value freedom per the terms of the gnu project, then there is
      > practical benefit to calling it that. i never said you should call it that
      > because its the moral high ground,

      You miss the point: Whether we actually speak of a moral high ground, intended
      it, or intended something merely similar is not that important. The important
      part is that you and Stallman both appear to use some form of superiority
      argument, variations of e.g. “GNU is more free than Linux” and “Free
      software is better than open-source software”. These claims, however, are
      entirely irrelevant for the _naming_ issue. (As already discussed.)


      April 26, 2018 at 10:32 pm

      • Here you are effectively saying “we should call it GNU to signal our
        dedication to free software [quality, user respect, whatnot]”. This is not a
        good argument for the overall issue: It says nothing about which name is the
        proper; it gives no reason for anyone not dedicated to free software to use

        maybe this is where all the misunderstanding between us exists. i believe youre overcomplicating the issue.

        about me: i spent years interested in open source and (technically) free software. i have a personal dislike of people (not you, this predates our discussion) rewriting history to advance their standing. i started on the open source side of things. and the argument “whatever, just call it linux” (not necessarily your argument, but very common) is what open source says. linus torvalds says it while wearing a shirt that says “open source” in a documentary about free software and open source.

        there is a rivalry which open source created, and it blames free software. im just telling you this for background and context, its not something i wish to debate.

        this all comes down to historical context– includes efforts to undermine it, rewrite it, and downplay it. all of these things were done deliberately, and even apologised for for certain disillusioned parties. so theres years and years of drama. anybody thinks think is just about a name– thats like saying “northern ireland” is just a name. no, its *really not!* (but im very glad that all got worked out. it went on for too long.)

        since theres no real violence (unless you file “minor fraud” under “violence”) this could drag on much longer. gnu/linux was one example (others were offered) as a way to unite two parties. its symbolic. we could debate why the usa should have three colours in its flag, it doesnt really matter. branding is a creative process more than a logical one.

        open source and the linux kernel created a split that affected history.

        now– over the years i pored over history trying to understand the claims from both sides. none of this proves im right– it makes it very unfair of you to say i dont know what im talking about when youre just (apparently) becoming familiar. just based on what you said, thats what im getting from you.

        so what i honestly think youre doing is– understanding one side of a DECADES-long debate, assuming/accusing me of not understanding the history when im so familiar that it makes me a very tiny minority of people… over all, you assume way too much about the people behind the arguments you disagree with.

        you can promise me and try to prove that your argument isnt based on ad hom and false premises. my goodness, from what youve said it seems like you could carry this on for a decade by yourself.

        and thats fantastic. i dont have the patience for that. simply put, *you get too much of it wrong.* so now its my turn to make an unsupported assertion, and there it is: youre (probably) just- wrong.

        you and i are both very aware that when an argument reaches the “youre just wrong” stage, that the person saying that is probably the party thats wrong.

        like i said– this is about a simple solution to a complex problem with lots of history– and its a simple way to resolve all that.

        what do i think people who DONT care about free software should call gnu/linux?

        honestly: i dont care what THEY call it.

        do i think people who care about free software should use the name gnu? yes, for reasons i cant seem to explain to you. i can explain them to several people, but not to every single living person. not you. thats life.

        do i think people who DONT care about free software should call it gnu? well, im not sure.

        but i do think it would be better for people to care. im willing to call that a separate issue. for people that dont care, part of me hopes they wont call it that. as things are, its a pretty useful (if ARBITRARY!) way to tell one side from other. its reliability is below 100%.

        someone who doesnt say gnu is like someone who doesnt wear a arsenal shirt to an arsenal f.c. game. they could be on either “side” of it, they might not care about the sides. maybe they just wanted to date one of the fans. but i suppose that analogy falls apart the minute you talk about a shirt that says arsenal/chelsea, i guess.

        above all, the reason i dont want to continue this debate, is ive been around long enough to tell when someone wants *me* to understand their side of the argument, but they arent willing or able to get what im saying. not too unfair if you count the times you literally said you didnt understand what i saying.

        i was speaking (hypothetically speaking) to someone who was familiar with the same aspects of the issue that i am. like i said– this is about history.

        should anything retain its name from earlier on? i mean amerigo vespucci probably only discovered a tiny percentage of north and south america. so calling it america probably isnt worth it. most of our stuff is actually made by china, so perhaps it would be more reasonable to call this country zhongguo. but i dont think it will make most of the people that live here very happy. they are probably content to call it america. people arent very reasonable, i guess.

        im fickle, i hope you understand. a debate consisting entirely of logic is a lot of work, i *dont* care if you think im capable of one or not– and im really only interested in going to the trouble for someone whos really going to reciprocate.

        several times youve attacked my understanding of you, history, and youve attacked stallman as well. you may not think that youre doing that as part of your point– i would have lots more patience for talking to you if you left that stuff out.

        as it happens, mine is used up. you might be able to troll me into further discussion, but i hope at some point youll come to enough of an understanding to relent. then you can go on with this argument of yours without me. have a good day.


        April 27, 2018 at 8:07 am

      • But now (apart from some re-iteration of arguments I have already shown to be
        faulty) it appears that you have moved on to questions that are simply not
        relevant to my original post, points, and arguments…

        To boot, these are questions where I do not necessarily have a strong
        pre-formed opinion and would not necessarily disagree with you. I LIKE free
        software and the GNU project, and I consider Stallman a far greater contributor
        to the world than e.g. Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg.

        Just an excursion on:

        > there is a rivalry which open source created, and it blames free software

        My impression is rather the opposite. Yes, open source (as a movement) might
        have come later than free software, but it never really has had any objections
        to free software. (Notwithstanding a small minority of individuals and
        individual companies, especially those who have tried to (ab-)use open source
        for their own purposes.) The objections come from the other direction: Free
        software is not a threat to open source, but open source can at least be a
        threat to what Stallman attempted to achieve with free software, at least in
        the copy-left and “viral license” area. Conversely, if this-and-that project
        had become free software, used the GPL, whatnot, Stallman’s visions for free
        software would have been that much closer to fulfillment—but these projects
        went down another road. This is something that appears to upset quite a few
        people in the free-software movement.

        Also note that open source is a much, much wider field than just Linux et co.


        April 30, 2018 at 5:44 am

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