Red Hats off to a low-maintenance son

Just for Fun The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary
February 7, 2003

Just for Fun summarises Linus Torvalds' philosophy of life - or that is what the originator of the ever-popular Linux operating system would have us believe.

Torvalds likes to portray himself as the archetypal computer geek. He started work on what became Linux as a 21-year-old student at the University of Helsinki little more than a decade ago. He confesses that he never imagined that it would become as popular as it is now, not only with geeks such as himself, but also with major players such as IBM, Sun Microsystems and Oracle. When Linux-related companies such as Red Hat went public in the late 1990s, Torvalds became rich on his stock options.

It was not always like that, as he explains in this unusual ghost-written memoir. As a student, he struggled to pay for his computer, a nameless IBM PC clone, using all his savings and having to stretch the payments over three years. In the event, after he had distributed the first open-source version of Linux via the internet, the community of early enthusiasts arranged a collection to pay for his computer.

Torvalds' description of the origin of Linux makes interesting reading. He and co-writer David Diamond manage to do this without making it very technical, despite humorous dire warnings to the contrary. His reason for choosing a PC clone in the first place was that he wanted to be able to run Minix, a cut-down version of Unix, developed and distributed as a teaching aid by Andrew Tanenbaum to go with his operating systems textbook.

Torvalds had just enrolled for an operating systems course and says this textbook changed his life, not a claim that can be made for many computing tomes. The first program he wrote for Minix was a better terminal emulator, to enable him to dial up the university Unix machine from home. Linux grew from there. Torvalds abandoned Minix when he accidentally deleted it from his machine.

Unfortunately, Torvalds' relationship with Tanenbaum disintegrated when the latter slated Linux publicly. Disagreement over the design of their systems boils down to a question of performance.

The PC was not Torvalds' first computer. He had learnt to program at his grandfather's knee, by typing in Basic programs for him on a VIC-20 to solve statistical problems. Later on, he bought himself a Sinclair QL and spent all his time programming it, keeping the daylight out of his bedroom with black curtains. His mother describes him as a low-maintenance son.

Although the Sinclair had an interesting processor, there were problems with disk-drive reliability and Torvalds disliked the fact that its operating system was read-only. He abandoned it when upgrades became expensive and parts continued to be hard to get from the UK.

There are many gems in the book, including dismissive accounts of meetings with Steve Jobs of Apple and Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems when Torvalds finally migrated to Silicon Valley, that Mecca of geeks. There is a good explanation of the paradoxes of the open-source movement and its evolution from Richard Stallman's Free Software Foundation. Torvalds admits that open source is not the answer to all development projects, and his honesty is welcome. We also get some insights into his family and what really makes him tick.

Although this paperback is well produced and has a useful index, it has some irritating features. Typos include a redundant grocer's apostrophe in one of the few operating system commands in the book, giving rise to doubts that Torvalds himself ever read the manuscript. Several things are repeated in the book, which may be intentional but one gets tired of Newton's "shoulders of giants" quotation, however noble the sentiment.

The structure of the book is unusual in that it is occasionally interspersed with Diamond's comments on Torvalds and their relationship.

Diamond is a journalist, and he should be given credit for having extracted so much interesting detail on someone who must be a difficult subject to interview. Interestingly, both Torvalds' parents are journalists and he obviously understands the breed's weaknesses.

The strangest claim comes at the end when Diamond discerns changes in Torvalds' behaviour. He starts remembering events from his childhood, as well as things such as telephone numbers, which he apparently used to rely on his wife to do for him. Maybe Torvalds is finally growing up, but he still does things for fun, and probably always will.

Tony Valsamidis is senior lecturer in information systems, University of Greenwich.

Just for Fun The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary

Author - Linus Torvalds with David Diamond
ISBN - 1 58799 151 9
Publisher - Texere
Price - £9.99
Pages - 262

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