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.comment: The Wit and Wisdom of Linus Torvalds

Glimpses of a Guy You'd Like to Know

  • January 31, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

The chances are that you've seen an interview or two, in print or on television, with the fellow who a decade ago had the sheer audacity to sit down and start writing his own version of Unix. If you have, you've probably been impressed with a polite and self-assured young man who was probably giving rote answers to the same questions that are asked in every interview.

Perhaps you've heard the stories, the tales of the early Linux conference in the U.S. where that fellow began his talk, "I am Linus Torvalds and yes, I am your god."

To a distant observer, operating systems are dead things, little magnetic marks on some spinning gadget that somehow do something that lets you do something, or something like that. To typical computer users, operating systems are the malevolent force inside the computer that causes things to go wrong. But in no wise would they seem to be fertile soil whence grow cults of personality.

Yet to people who spend vast time with their machines, those who have become imbued with the zen of it all, operating systems have distinct personalities. No operating system has a more distinct personality than does Linux. That has a great deal to do with the vast number of truly original personalities who built it. They're all over the place. Their mark is made in the comments they place in the code and in the way the code itself works. Their code is an extension of themselves as surely as a painting is an extension of its painter. And of these unique personalities, none is more interesting than the guy who started it all.

The interviews don't really capture him. To do that, you need to watch him at work, which for most of us is limited to reading the kernel development mailing list -- which for most of us would be a heavy burden, in that the kernel list some days spews 200 messages. The vast majority of those messages are understandable only to serious kernel hackers or, at least, those who are heavily into operating system theory (yes, there is such a thing).

If one were to read the kernel list (which I do, and I believe some of it will have soaked in by the turn of the century), one would be amazed by the competence of the huge number of people involved in creating the kernel. But more than that, one would be amazed by Linus himself. The guy is tremendously bright. He also knows an enormous amount. ("You really know your kernel," someone wrote to him not long ago. "That's why I'm paid the big bucks," was his reply.)

Some of his posts are technical delights, prose interspersed with illustrative bits of code, the way a reporter uses quotes. Some of his posts are delights for other reasons, and those are the ones that are the subject of this column.

This week in New York City there is a huge trade show, the sole subject of which is Linux. Stop for a minute and let that sink in: The piece of code that Linus Torvalds set loose in the world a decade ago has grown to such an extent that great corporations are coming to the convention cathedral to pay homage to it. (And like goldfish fighting over a flake of food, they'll all be seeking to pull it in the direction of their choosing, to take it off for their own use. They won't succeed, but the attempt is worth noting, because it shows just how important Linux has become.)

In observance, then, of LinuxWorld Expo, I've gone mining in the recent archives of the kernel list, the work leading up to the release of Linux-2.4.1, and have turned up what I think are some real gems from the keyboard of Linus. Though it's not been possible to divorce them entirely from the discussions of code, my goal has been to get a sense of the fellow himself, what he thinks, how he does things.

A word of warning: Though I'm making every attempt to keep the meaning intact, the quotations are of necessity out of context. They are in nearly every case part of a larger discussion, and are merely places where Linus has emerged briefly from the technical to say something amusing or philosophical, or to address a broader issue that is of interest, or are a place where it seems to me that we're given a glimpse of how the guy works. To the extent that this excerptation is awkward, the fault is mine. Also note that some of Linus's posts have been widely circulated -- his discussion of RedHat's decision to ship gcc-2.9.6, for instance, or his famous announcement of Linux-2.4.0. Because they are already well known, they're not included here.

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