Review: Linus Torvalds, ‘Just for Fun’
I recently finished reading Just for Fun, by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond. “The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary.”
I enjoyed the book. I like computer “history” books; finding out about the people behind the technology and how they went about doing their thing, and there was a good dose of that with this book. Linus comes across affably in the book as you might expect from his public image.
Let’s Make This About Me, Too
Reading the book brings up some regrets for me, as he describes the first computer he worked on, a Commodore VIC-20. This was my first computer also, and I had a lot of fun with it. But I didn’t get into it as deeply as Linus, and I used the follow-up Commodore 64 mostly for games and writing school papers.
I don’t regret how my life has turned out—I’m generally very happy—but I often wish I had misspent my youth in different ways. That I might have created an important piece of software like the Linux kernel or a super cool game. Now I’m more of a lightweight tinkerer. Comfortable with writing VB and Java programs and poking around WordPress and getting things to work, but lost when it comes to compiling my own kernel, much less trying to dig into any C code.
Although maybe it’s not too late to do something big. It’s a marathon, Neil writes: “You can do a lot, in a lifetime / if you don’t burn out too fast… First you need endurance / first you’ve got to last…”
Back to the Book
And now back to our irregularly scheduled review. Again, I enjoyed reading about how Linus came to write Linux and about how it has grown along with the whole free and open source movement, and his views on all of this.
There were also some things that were not so great for me, and some things that I would have loved to have read but didn’t find.
David Diamond is the coauthor of the book. I automatically assumed he would be doing standard ghost-writing duties, but he takes an active role in the narrative. Italicized present day accounts by David of their collaboration are sprinkled along with past narratives in Linus’s voice. While these give you extra information about Linus, I didn’t care for them that much. Every time I turned the page and found one of these sections, I wanted to put the book down. Furthering the incongruity were some awkward changes in tense in early chapters. There were stretches written in the “you” form, as in “you work on your program and you go out in the cold of winter…,” alternating with first person perspective. It was jarring, and strange that it only seemed to go on that way for a chapter or two.
I think one explanation for the approach may have been to pad the book out. It was written when Linus was only about 30 years old. He did some interesting and great things by that age, but maybe not enough to carry a whole book with a standard autobiographical approach.
Pragmatism, Idealism, and Revolution
Finally, some thoughts on Linus’s famous pragmatism. His approach has been effective for creating some great software, nurturing it, and helping it to grow and spread all over the place. So I hesitate to argue with success. But I also see from the book that he has a lot of idealism. He has some positive and energetic things to say about freedom in the book and in accounts I’ve read, but he seems to want to keep that in the closet. Maybe for concern about offending people or out of the desire to not be like people who have annoyed him with their zealotry in the past.
But if you really believe in something, I think you should act on it. Speak up. I understand that there are many ways to do this, and the more vocal and uncompromising you are, the more you may alienate other people. A pragmatic approach can work better in many situations, but I think we also need to take a stand on some things, and the ideal of free software is a good one to stand up for. I think Linus believes in it: he released Linux under the GNU General Public License.
There are contradictions in what he writes. He says he didn’t release Linux under the GPL for lofty reasons, but that he just wanted some feedback. And then he talks about the enormous benefits of opening up technology and how the GPL (and open source) allows for the creation of the best technology, prevents hoarding, and ensures that no one will be excluded from its development. That sounds dangerously idealistic.
He says that he is irritated by Richard Stallman because RMS tells people how they should license their software. He also says:
I admire Richard from afar for a bunch of reasons. And I guess I tend to respect people, like Richard, who have very strong moral opinions. But why can’t they keep these opinions to themselves? The thing I dislike the most is when people tell me what I should do or should not do. I absolutely despise people who think they have any say over my personal decisions.
I can understand and respect that about not wanting to be told what to do. But it just seems like an odd dichotomy to respect people with strong moral opinions while at the same time wishing they would keep them to themselves.
I think about the founding fathers of the United States. They could have pragmatically went along with the situation they found themselves in, but they chose to speak up and fight for what they believed in. They made judgments about what people should do. Even if an accidental revolutionary, it would please me very much to see Linus stand up for the free software revolution and help spread the message and the philosophy along with the code, even if that meant suggesting that some ways are better than others for more than just pragmatic reasons.