Hacker goodies take on the dastardly Gates

Rebel Code
May 25, 2001

Suffering from too many sleepless nights, I tried everything - counting sheep, hot milk - but nothing seemed to work. Then along came Glyn Moody's Rebel Code , and 15 pages later I was completely cured.

The subject of the book - which is a modern-day David-and-Goliath story of computer folk - concerns the open-source movement and the battle between Linux and Microsoft. It is an exciting one, and the author's aims are in principle admirable. But although Moody does map out the possible reasons for Linux's success through interviews with the key personalities involved, his story fails to shine.

Linux first appeared in 1991 and was originated by a 21-year-old Finnish student, Linus Torvalds, as a hobby. Within a decade, and with input from hundreds of others, it has risen to be Microsoft's Windows 2000's biggest competitor. Its big selling point, if that is the right phrase, is that it is free.

The book unleashes an unmistakable message that borders on the religious: source code - the underlying language used to create webpages - should be made freely available. In this respect Moody succeeds beyond all doubt, stating that "open source projects are not about software code only... they are about freedom, sharing and community: they are about creation, beauty and... joy". All nice and fluffy.

Let us get to some of the book's definitions right away. The good guys are referred to as "hackers", and everything they do is wonderful. The bad guys meanwhile are "businessmen", and everything they do is dastardly. On a heavenly cloud above all other hackers is our super-hero Torvalds. Every appearance of his name is haloed in a plethora of pink-glass adjectives. One can easily picture the author interviewing his hero, looking up, mouth agape, salivating at every syllable. We are told, in an extensive discussion, that the name Linus comes half from a Nobel prize-winning chemist (Linus Pauling) and half from the blanket-carrying cartoon character in Peanuts. There follows an even more extensive explanation of his second name Torvalds. Shall I go on?

The fact that our hero spent time as a computer-science student in Helsinki lets the capital of Finland in for treatment. In true tour-guide fashion we are informed that "Helsinki is compact: its low buildings and broad streets are mostly laid out on two grid systems that abut at a slight angle". Also, did you know that "Russia invaded and annexed Finland as part of its empire in 1809"? The saving grace is that Torvalds does not appear to have travelled much, thereby freeing us from further geographical rigours.

Any mention of the name Microsoft is accompanied by words with satanic undertones hinting at devious business practice. If a hacker states something to be true then obviously it is true, but when Microsoft makes a statement this is called a claim and is obviously suspect. Arch-enemy of the good and just is Satan himself, aka Bill Gates: throughout Rebel Code he is pilloried and chastised. The impression is clearly given that he has never had a nice thought or done a good deed in his life.

If you are yourself a hacker, and therefore a good guy, or if Torvalds is your hero too, then this book will be of interest. Anyone who is deeply involved, on one side or the other, with the open-source revolution, will find this book a must. It has been extensively researched and the complex material is well put together in an appropriate chronological order. The subject is rife with jargon, yet Moody has dealt with this expertly, by including jargon only where really necessary.

However, if you are neither a hacker nor a Linus worshipper, just someone with a general interest in computing looking for a straightforward readable tale, this book may not be a good choice. There are seldom clear black-and-white divisions in life; furthermore, Moody follows numerous meandering back streets where perhaps an occasional autobahn could have been taken.

But for those wishing for a trouble-free route to the land of Nod, Rebel Code can be highly recommended.

Kevin Warwick is professor of cybernetics, University of Reading.

Rebel Code

Author - Glyn Moody
ISBN - 0 713 99520 3
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - 336
Pages - £12.99

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