A boy and his computer

Linus Torvalds' autobiography reveals a geek's geek who is changing the world, just for the heck of it.

By Andrew Leonard

Published April 24, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Reading an autobiography by a person whom you have stalked is an unsettling experience. After years of lurking in the shadows wherever I could reasonably expect to see Linus Torvalds in public; after spying on his workplace, the college from which he graduated and the Helsinki apartment where he first created Linux; after combing through countless e-mails preserved on the Web and interviewing his friends, his father and his employer; after all that, I found reading his own (coauthored) account of his life to be strangely anticlimactic. He is, it seems, exactly what he appears to be, a pretty nice guy who is devoted to his three daughters and has spent an awful lot of time hacking on computers. His treatment of his own story isn't exactly what I would do with the same material, but heck, it's his life, isn't it? He gets to do what he wants.

"Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary" is the latest installment in what is now becoming a decent shelf-ful of Linux- and free-software-related books. In addition to the collections of essays in Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" and "Open Sources: Voices From the Open Source Revolution," we now also have Red Hat founder Bob Young's "Under the Radar: How Red Hat Changed the Software Business and Took Microsoft by Surprise," and two accounts by journalists, Peter Wayner's "Free for All: How Linux and the Free Software Movement Undercut the High-Tech Titans" and Glyn Moody's "Rebel Code: Linux and the Open Source Revolution." [Disclaimer: I am also the author of an unfinished history of free software.]

With varying levels of success, all these books attempt to explain just how it is that the practice of giving away source code -- the underlying blueprints, or recipe, for a software program -- is changing the world. But in an intriguing display of how the publishing industry lags the real world of high tech, the most recent offerings are arriving just as the buzz and clamor that accompanied all things open source a year or two ago have finally subsided into a dull murmur.

To anyone who has read all or most of the previously published books, especially Moody's detailed and well-organized history, Linus' autobiography, co-written with longtime technology journalist and editor David Diamond, isn't packed with breathtaking revelations. Obsessed Linus watchers like myself already knew about the month he spent playing the computer game Prince of Persia in the winter of 1991 or the time he walked out of a meeting with Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems or the tidbit that his wife, Tove, is a six-time Finnish karate champ. We have already read -- many times! -- the seminal e-mail posted to comp.os.minix, also in 1991, in which he solicited help for his nascent operating system, and we have voyeuristically salivated over the nasty flame war between Linus and Minix creator Andrew Tanenbaum that is one of the few easily available online pieces of evidence showing the angry side of the generally amiable Swedish-speaking Finn.

The bio is likely to disappoint hardcore geeks looking for discussions of what new features are likely to be included in the next kernel version. I once saw Linus (no one calls him "Torvalds") speak at a Bay Area Linux Users Group meeting in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. For hours he engaged in a highly technical question-and-answer period that focused on the design of Linux. It was the most relaxed I'd ever seen him in public, and there was little question that his jargon-laden disquisitions on such topics as symmetric multiprocessing were precisely the kind of red meat his fans craved. But in "Just for Fun," Torvalds keeps the truly geeky side of himself in check, explaining the basics of what an operating system is in language clear enough to be aggravatingly simple-minded to any serious hacker.

But what if you're not a Linux stalker or a dedicated hacker? What if your idea of fun isn't reading seven different accounts of why Linux should really be called GNU/Linux to take into account the contributions of Richard Stallman and other Free Software Foundation hackers? In that case, "Just for Fun" is perfect fodder -- an eminently readable account of Linus Torvalds' short life that gives a clear picture of the man. Diamond and Torvalds have done a good job of making both the person and the program comprehensible to a general audience.

If I wanted more from "Just for Fun," perhaps it's because my standards are too high, after four years of covering free software and pondering the significance of Linus Torvalds in a world packed with greedy corporations and fierce wars over intellectual property. Or maybe there's a less respectable explanation. It could be that I'm just jealous of coauthor Diamond. He got to spend a year drinking beer and sitting in hot tubs with Linus. He went camping with him and played with his kids. A couple of years ago, I sent an e-mail to Linus suggesting that we get our kids together and talk about the history of Linux. He never responded. I still bear the scars.

In 1981, when Linus Torvalds was only 11 years old, he used to sit on his grandfather's lap, typing in BASIC programs on a Commodore VIC-20. I read that passage with bemusement. Just a year or two previously, I myself had been typing in BASIC programs on my grandfather's TRS-80 (which he had soon replaced with a VIC-20). If only I had stayed with it! Then I could have enjoyed the pleasures of having hundreds of technology journalists stalk me, instead of the other way around.

But unlike Linus, I did not move swiftly from BASIC to programming in actual ones and zeros. I never came close to the point where, by coding in machine language, "you are able to push what the computer can do. You control every single small detail. You start to think about how you can do things slightly faster in a smaller space. Since there's no abstraction layer between you and the computer, you get fairly close. This is what it's like to be intimate with a machine."

Did you ever wonder what kind of person starts a programming project that goes on to shake the world? Here's one clue: someone who spends a great many hours staring into a computer monitor, figuring out how to get the most out of a microprocessor. "Intimate with a machine" indeed. No wonder Linus is most comfortable talking about code. That's his life; that's what the 31-year-old has been doing since his preteen years.

In terms of hours spent programming, Linus' hacker street cred is unassailable. But such commitment has its price: The fact that Linus wrote his own disk driver is impressive, but describing the process of writing a disk driver is deadly dull. Linus has spent most of his life coding obsessively -- there hasn't been room for much else, including the essential task of pondering what it all means.

One example is instructive. The birth of what came to be Linux can be traced to Linus' disappointment in the absence of a "terminal emulation" feature in the experimental Minix operating system. This was crucial, notes Linus, because he needed a terminal emulator to connect to the university computer from his home computer. And he needed to connect to the university computer if he wanted to go online -- to send and receive e-mail and read Usenet newsgroups.

In "Rebel Code," Glyn Moody notes the intriguing irony of this creation story. Linux could never have become Linux without the Internet -- without the collaboration between thousands of far-flung programmers made possible by online communication. But Linux would never have come about in the first place if Linus hadn't wanted to connect to the Net. The organic inseparability of Linux and the Net is one of the things that make it different from Microsoft Windows or Unix or any other operating system. Linux was made possible by the Net, and increasingly, in conjunction with other free software, makes the Net's own growth possible.

Linus devotes an unfortunately large part of his autobiography to discussing his opinions about intellectual property and a half-baked theory of the "meaning of life." But he doesn't spend much effort probing how the Internet and free software are symbiotically entwined, or what the spread of free software will mean for society in general.

To give him credit, that's not his job. His job is to code or, even more importantly, to coordinate the efforts of a community of coders. We should celebrate our luck that he was able to produce a book so clearly and engagingly written at all, and let the journalists and academics point out the ironies and deeper significances.

Linus, ultimately, is a geek's geek -- not a philosopher or a pundit. I'm not even sure if I want to interview him anymore. Maybe he should just be left to his code. One can only imagine how much more work he could have gotten done, or how much more time he could have spent with his family, if he wasn't constantly besieged by snooping journalists asking him whether Linux will bring down Microsoft or survive being commercialized or end poverty. Let the cry go out -- stop the stalking!

I'll be the first to comply. Even though it feels like there are parts of the story that Linus has chosen not to tell -- such as the maneuvering involving him and the coterie of companies attempting to profit off Linux, or the nitty-gritty politics involved in coordinating the efforts of high-strung programmers -- I'm tempted to say, at this point, who cares? After reading "Just for Fun," I'm satisfied that I know who the real Linus is. Should any autobiography reader ask for more?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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