Biographies

Just for Fun by Linus Torvalds.

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Revolutionaries aren’t born. Revolutions can’t be planned. Revolutions can’t be managed. Revolutions happen…… And sometimes, revolutionaries just get stuck with it.

In Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, the creator of Linux Kernel, Linus Torvalds chronicles his journey of creating Linux and distributing it on the internet for free. On August 25, 1991, as a Finnish computer science student, Linus announced his hobby project on an internet messaging platform:

Hello everybody out there using minix – I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones.  This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready.  I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).

During the euphoria of the final years of the twentieth century, a revolution was happening among all the other revolutions. Seemingly overnight, the Linux operating system caught the world’s attention. It had exploded from the small bedroom of its creator, Linus Torvalds, to attract a cultish following of near-militant geeks. Suddenly it was infiltrating the corporate powerhouses controlling the planet. From a party of one it now counted millions of users on every continent, including Antarctica, and even outer space, if you count NASA outposts. Not only was it the most common operating system running server computers dishing out all the content on the World Wide Web, but its very development model—an intricate web of its own, encompassing hundreds of thousands of volunteer computer programmers—had grown to become the largest collaborative project in the history of the world.

Linux is obviously the most successful example. What started out in my messy Helsinki bedroom has grown to become the largest collaborative project in the history of the world. It began as an ideology shared by software developers who believed that computer source code should be shared freely, with the General Public License—the anticopyright—as the movement’s powerful tool. It evolved to become a method for the continuous development of the best technology. And it evolved further to gain widespread market acceptance, as seen in the snowballing adoption of Linux as an operating system for Web servers, and in its unexpectedly generous IPOs.

Introduction to Computers

Linus recalls that his grandfather “bought the Vic-20 for his own needs to do math,” but soon asked his young grandson to help. “I think my grandfather wanted me to learn, so he made me help him,” he explains. “So I started off helping him with the computer, and then I did my own stuff on the side.

“Linus recalls, “I had the Vic for five years because I couldn’t afford to upgrade. I programmed in Basic, maybe the first two years.” But Linus soon moved on from this popular beginner’s programming language to something more demanding: assembly language.

On the Meaning of Life

Basically it is short and sweet. It won’t give your life any meaning, but it tells you what’s going to happen. There are three things that have meaning for life. They are the motivational factors for everything in your life––for anything that you do or any living thing does: The first is survival, the second is social order, and the third is entertainment. Everything in life progresses in that order. And there is nothing after entertainment. So, in a sense, the implication is that the meaning of life is to reach that third stage. And once you’ve reached the third stage, you’re done. But you have to go through the other stages first.

There are three things that have meaning for life. They are the motivational factors for everything in your life––for anything that you do or any living thing does: The first is survival, the second is social order, and the third is entertainment.

Entropy

Now all this is on a bigger scale. It’s not just about people, it’s about life. It’s like the Law of Entropy. In this Entropy Law of Life, everything moves from survival to entertainment, but that doesn’t mean that on a local scale it can’t go backward, and obviously, it essentially does. Things just disintegrate sometimes.

Civilization starts as survival. You get together to survive better and you build up your social structure. Then eventually civilization exists purely for entertainment.

The Army

When the Finnish Army calls every male. Many guys do their army duty immediately following high school. For me, instead, it seemed to make more sense to wait until after completing a year at the university. In Finland you have a choice: You either do the army for eight months or social services for a year. If you show strong religious reasons or some other significant excuse, you could get around both. For me, there wasn’t such an out. And the option of social services didn’t feel right. It wasn’t because I had anything against helping humanity. It probably had more to do with a fear that social services duty ran the risk of actually being more boring than army duty.

It occurred to me that it might be slightly more interesting to be an officer, despite the additional 129,600 minutes. It would also be a way of getting something more out of it.

Come to think of it, I really hated it while I was there. But it was one of those things: After it was over it immediately became a wonderful experience. It also gave me something to discuss with virtually any Finnish male for the rest of my life. In fact, some people suggest that the major reason for the required army duty is to give Finnish men something to talk about over beer for as long as they live. They all have something miserable in common. They hated the Army, but they’re happy to talk about it afterward.

The Book that started the revolution

Now everybody has a book that has changed his or her life. The Holy Bible. Das Kapital. Tuesdays With Maury. Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The book that launched me to new heights was Operating Systems: Design and Implementation, by Andrew S. Tanenbaum.

I had already signed up for my fall courses, and the one that was most looking forward to was in the C programming language and the Unix operating system. In anticipation of the course, I bought the aforementioned textbook during the summer in the hope of getting a head start.

I was eager to work with Unix by experimenting with what I was learning in Andrew Tanenbaum’s book, excited about all the things I could explore if I had a 386 PC.

In the book, Andrew Tanenbaum, a university professor in Amsterdam, discusses Minix, which is a teaching aid he wrote for Unix. Minix is also a small Unix clone. Soon after reading the introduction, and learning the philosophy behind Unix and what the powerful, clean, beautiful operating system would be capable of doing, I decided to get a machine to run Unix on. I would run Minix, which was the only version I could find that was fairly useful. As I read and started to understand Unix, I got a big enthusiastic jolt. Frankly, it’s never subsided. (I hope you can say the same about something.)

 So there were two things I did that summer. Nothing. And read the 719 pages of Operating Systems: Design and Implementation. The red soft-cover textbook sort of lived on my bed.

The simplicity of Unix did not just happen on its own. Unix, with its notion of simple building blocks, was painstakingly designed and written by Dennis Richie and Ken Thompson at AT&T’s Bell Labs, And you should absolutely not dismiss simplicity for something easy. It takes design and good taste to be simple.

The simplicity of Unix did not just happen on its own. And you should absolutely not dismiss simplicity for something easy. It takes design and good taste to be simple.

Honest Curiosity – Mother on Linus Persistence

On Raising Linus from a Very Small Nerd. In it, she recounted her early observations that her toddler son showed the same signs of scientific determination she saw in her father and older brother:

As Sara and I used to say, just give Linus a spare closet with a good computer in it and feed him some dry pasta and he will be perfectly happy.

“When you see a person whose eyes glaze over when a problem presents itself or continues to bug him or her, who then does not hear you talking, who fails to answer any simple question, who becomes totally engrossed in the activity at hand, who is ready to forego food and sleep in the process of working out a solution, and who does not give up. Ever. He—or she, of course—may be interrupted, and in the course of daily life often is, but blithely carries on later, I only hope the Ghouls single-mindedly.”

For he is, I think, motivated not by ‘computers,’ and certainly not by fame or riches, but by honest curiosity and a wish to conquer difficulties as they arise, and to do it the right way because that’s the way it IS and he won’t give up.

Computer Science vs Physics

I’m personally convinced that computer science has a lot in common with physics. Both are about how the world works at a rather fundamental level. The difference, of course, is that while in physics you’re supposed to figure out how the world is made up, in computer science you create the world. Within the confines of the computer, you’re the creator. You get to ultimately control everything that happens. If you’re good enough, you can be God. On a small scale.

You get to create your own world, and the only thing that limits what you can do are the capabilities of the machine—and, more and more often these days, your own abilities.

Treehouse

Think of a treehouse. You can build a treehouse that is functional and has a trapdoor and is stable. But everybody knows the difference between a treehouse that is simply solidly built and one that is beautiful, that takes creative advantage of the tree. It’s a matter of combining art and engineering. This is one of the reasons programming can be so captivating and rewarding. The functionality often is second to being interesting, being pretty, or being shocking. It is an exercise in creativity.

Programming and Mathematics

The thing that drew me into programming in the first place was the process of just figuring out how the computer worked. One of the biggest joys was learning that computers are like mathematics: You get to make up your own world with its own rules. In physics, you’re constrained by existing rules. But in math, as in programming, anything goes as long as it’s self-consistent. Mathematics doesn’t have to be constrained by any external logic, but it must be logical in and of itself.

As any mathematician knows, you literally can have a set of mathematical equations in which three plus three equals two. You can do anything you want to do, in fact, but as you add complexity, you have to be careful not to create something that is inconsistent within the world you’ve created. For that world to be beautiful, it can’t contain any flaws. That’s how programming works.

In math, as in programming, anything goes as long as it’s self-consistent.

The Operating System

The operating system is the basis for everything else that will happen in the machine. And creating one is the ultimate challenge. When you create an operating system, you’re creating the world in which all the programs running the computer live—basically, you’re making up the rules of what’s acceptable and can be done and what can’t be done. Every program does that, but the operating system is the most basic. It’s like creating the constitution of the land that you’re creating, and all the other programs running on the computer are just common laws. Sometimes the laws don’t make sense. But sense is what you strive for. You want to be able to look at the solution and realize that you came to the right answer in the right way.

Creating Linux

My original goal was to create an operating system that I could eventually use as a replacement for Minix. It didn’t have to do more than Minix, but it had to do the things in Minix that I cared about, and some other things I cared about, too. For example, not only was the Minix terminal emulation bad, but there was no way of performing the job-control function—putting a program in the background while you’re not using it. And memory management was done very simplistically, as it still is in the Mac OS, incidentally.

Something to prove

One of the main reasons I distributed the operating system was to prove that it wasn’t all just hot air, that I had actually done something. On the Internet, talk is cheap. Regardless of what you do, whether it be operating systems or sex, too many people are just faking it in cyberspace. So it’s nice, after talking to a lot of people about building an operating system, to be able to say, “See, I actually got something done. I wasn’t stringing you along. Here’s what I’ve been doing….

Just for Fun

Actually, I didn’t want the money for a variety of reasons. When I originally posted Linux, I felt I was following in the footsteps of centuries of scientists and other academics who built their work on the foundations of others—on the shoulders of giants, in the words of Sir Isaac Newton. Not only was I sharing my work so that others could find it useful, I also wanted feedback (okay, and praise).

 It didn’t make sense to charge people who could potentially help me improve my work. I suppose I would have approached it all differently if I hadn’t been raised in Finland, where anyone exhibiting the slightest sign of greediness is viewed with suspicion, if not envy. (This has changed a bit since the days when Nokia phones started making their way into pockets the world over, boosting the bank accounts of numerous Finns.) And, yes, I undoubtedly would have approached the whole no-money thing a lot differently if I had not been brought up under the influence of a diehard academic grandfather and a diehard communist father.

On Sleep

A Lot of people believe in working long days and doing double, triple, or even quadruple shifts. I’m not one of them. Neither Transmeta nor Linux has ever gotten in the way of a good night’s sleep. In fact, if you want to know the honest truth, I’m a firm believer in sleep. Some people think that’s just being lazy, but I want to throw my pillow at them. I have a perfectly good excuse, and I’m standing by it: You may lose a few hours of your productive daytime if you sleep, oh, say, ten hours a day, but those few hours when you are awake you’re alert, and your brain functions on all six cylinders. Or four, or whatever.

 Some folks can’t be content to just take things too seriously on their own. They’re not happy unless they convince others to go along with their obsession. This has become one of my major pet peeves in life.

Perception

What really sells, of course, is perception, not reality. Cruise liners sell the perception of freedom, of the salty seas, of good food, and romance of Love Boat proportions. Who cares if the cabin is cramped if you feel like you’re free as a bird! What sells is not the reality of being on vacation, but the perception of freedom. Size does matter after all, if only to make all of the technological wonders seem trivial and nonthreatening.

All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.

Lifelong Learner | Entrepreneur | Digital Strategist at Reputiva LLC | Marathoner | Bibliophile -info@lanredahunsi.com

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