Matcher Interview - Mark Galassi

by Daniel Takamori on December 27, 2021

This fundraising season we were incredibly fortunate to be supported by so many individuals. In addition to our large anonymous donors, we had a few people contribute to bump up the number. One of donors was a board member, Mark Galassi, who runs The Institute for Computing in Research. We asked him a few questions about free software and his passion and motivations for interdisciplinary research.

Software Freedom Conservancy: “Why do you care about software freedom?”

Mark Galassi: “I started working on developing software for others to use in 1984. At that time my brother and some friends of ours worked to develop a public access UNIX system so that people who were not in a university or big company could have the joy of doing advanced computing.

Soon after a fellow student at Reed College pointed me to the birth of the free software movement, and its goal and principle perfectly matched what I thought was important for the world.

A robust idea can last a long time, and more than 35 years later I feel that just as strongly.”

SFC: “What is it that you see Software Freedom Conservancy does that other groups are not?”

MG: “Conservancy is firmly focused on the importance of software freedom, while at the same time carrying out practical steps to allow it to flourish. It also expands and adapts its role as new areas become relevant to software freedom, as the embracing of Outreachy and the Institute for Computing in Research have shown.

I'm not sure if I would say that other organizations are not doing important things: we benefit from other orgs in various ways. But combining stewardship and principle and adaptation is hard work, and I think that only Conservancy takes it on in full.”

SFC: “How do you see our role amongst the various FOSS organizations?”

MG: “I think that Conservancy should lead other FOSS organizations in a few ways. At least:

  1. Being the steward of principles and legal ideas behind software freedom.
  2. Being the umbrella for many of the key projects in the FOSS world.
  3. Being the organization that is flexible and intelligent and far/wide-seeing enough to adapt to the shifts in the landscape, while still being firm on important principles.

SFC: “Do you think we do a good job standing up to the organizations with more corporate funding?”

MG: “Yes. The current action against Vizio's violations renews that clarity.”

SFC: “What's got you most excited from the past year of our work?”

MG: “I am particularly excited by Conservancy's picking up of the Institute for Computing in Research (2021 was our first full year as part of Conservancy). This addition of a focus on free software in the academic world will be important: the free software movement was born in the research and university world, and I believe that academic research should be the steady keel of the free software movement.”

SFC: “Have you been involved with any of our member projects in the past?”

MG: “Yes: I have used many of Conservancy's member projects over the years, and I am co-founder of the Institute for Computing in Research.”

SFC: “What other (non-tech) organizations are you supporting this year?”

MG: “I donate a bit to my college, and I donate to Planned Parenthood, but Conservancy and the Institute are where I donated the most this year.”

SFC: “Why did you start the Institute for Computing in Research? How did you wind up teaching kids these important skills?”

MG: “I have loved my career so much that it seems impossible.

Here is how that happened:

I entered the world of physics just at the time when computing was becoming a key part of research (since then this has extended to all other academic areas). The free software movement was born at the same time. Being a free software developer, I was in a position to promote the use of FOSS in research, and to really love the research work because I did not have to use proprietary software.

When you love something so much, you want to pass on the recipe that makes it work so well -- in my case that has been the use of advanced software development based on free software, applied to academic research.”

SFC: “As the chair of Software Freedom Conservancy's board, what unique place do you think we have in the field of FLOSS organizations?”

MG: “I enjoy serving on the board, and my fellow board members are a cross-section of all that is amazing in the world of research and development.

But more than us, I think that our staff has the real angle on what's important: in many ways they teach us what is happening and what should happen in the world. So maybe one of the coordinates of our "unique place" is that Karen and Bradley have created a staff of world class thought leaders who also do detailed practical work.”

SFC: “You are a strong proponent of interdisciplinary research, what avenues do you think free software has to help promote both academic and civil freedom?”

MG: “Ahhh, the academic side is an easy one: research software can only be free software, for all the reasons that makes science honest. This is already mostly true, but we need to go the rest of the way.

You also ask about civil freedom. What is also quite clear to me is that corporate control and vendor lock-in are real problems in any society. They are the cause of a good amount of economic and cultural alienation. Most of this lock-in is in software, and software freedom is our strongest tool against that.”

SFC: “Given your academic background, what are your thoughts on projects like Reproducible Builds and the effects it might have on reproducibility in the academic community?”

MG: “Reproducible builds is one of the coolest projects we have in Conservancy - both its fundamental idea, and the impressive intelligence of the people working on it. Much of its motivation comes from the security angle, but a sign of a deep project is that other important angles naturally come up. In my case, for example, I talk to members of the project regularly to get advice on how to improve reproducibility in research software. They also help me think about how to frame those issues.”

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