Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
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Linus Torvalds – Just for Fun
A book review by Alan German

The book 'Just for Fun – The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary', by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond, provides a biography of the individual who created Linux and then spearheaded its further development.

While there are nominally two authors, most of the book is structured as having been written by Torvalds himself as a first-person account, with supplementary notes on the project’s progress, and details from meetings with Torvalds’ friends and relatives, by Diamond. The text suffers slightly from the inclusion of some rather adolescent verbiage, seemingly there solely for its shock-value, and to enhance the image of the computer nerd. In contrast, there are many passages where Torvalds eloquently expresses his strong beliefs in the virtues of the open-source movement to develop high-quality products, while in no way wanting to limit the uses of such technology, and acknowledging the creation of wealth through its commercial application.

Perhaps the most interesting portion of the book is the description of the “Birth of an Operating System”, i.e. the development of Linux. Torvalds indicates that he progressed from programming a Commodore VIC-20 in 1981, around the age of eleven, through a Sinclair QL (Timex computers in North America), to a 386 PC-clone in 1991. As a student at the University of Helsinki in 1990, Torvalds had used a version of Unix on the university’s VAX computer, and subsequently wanted to run Minix, a Unix variant, on his brand-new PC. However, he wasn’t satisfied with a number of aspects of Minix and its applications, especially the terminal emulator which he used to connect to the university’s computer. So, he sat down to write his own terminal emulator in assembler.

Then, in order to be able to transfer files, he needed to write a disk driver. Having added this and other functions to his program, it became clear to Torvalds that he had the makings of a full-blown operating system, albeit at a somewhat elementary level. To move ahead, he needed to write his code to comply with the POSIX standards used for Unix function calls. His E-mail message of July, 1991 on the Minix discussion group, asking for information on these standards, raised the initial interest in his work to develop a new operating system.

By August he had a working shell program and a number of the system calls written, and put out a call for features of Minix that other users did and did not like so that he could make his operating system more user-desirable. Little feedback was forthcoming but a number of individuals interested in testing the software were identified. So, when Version 0.01 of the new operating system was ready on September 17, 1991, it was posted to an FTP site. At that time the software was still very rudimentary and needed specialized knowledge to get it working. Torvalds’ favourite comment from one of the few to initially try the package was from the individual who indicated that “…he really liked my operating system… Then, he explained that it had just eaten his hard disk…”

Do you pine for the days when men were men and wrote their own device drivers? – Announcement of Linux Version 0.02

Updated versions with new features (and bug fixes!) came thick and fast in late 1991, including the first implementation of a user-requested feature – virtual memory through paging to disk – by the end of December. According to Torvalds this feature was the breakthrough that made Linux take off. People started switching from Minix to Linux, and the General Public Licence (GPL) was adopted, opening the way for the multi-developer model that became the path to rapid software development.

The other major milestone discussed in the book is the porting of X-Windows to Linux and the consequent development of external networking. An interesting note is that, by March 1992, because of these latter developments, Torvalds felt that the operating system was 95% complete and, rather than releasing Version 0.13 as planned, he jumped to Version 0.95. However, this turned out to be premature optimism, as it took a further two years to reach Version 1.0.

If you want to read more of the story, get hold of the book. You will find that the young Torvalds was the stereotypical geek, often not moving from in front of the computer screen for days, and only going out to weekly computer users’ group meetings (!) But, who can’t admire a guy who likes physics – and mathematics – and the challenges of computer programming?

You will also read about the flame war with the author of Minix, how Internet users took up a collection to help pay for Torvalds’ first PC, how he found his wife by E-mail, his thoughts on root beer, his impressions from meetings with Steve Job (Apple) and Bill Joy (Sun), how he came to work for Transmeta Corporation (and a little of what they do!), that Red Hat gave him some stock options prior to the tech-bubble, and that he now drives a BMW Z3. All this, and you can also find out what bash and grub actually stand for - and that Linux could have been named Freax!

Bottom Line

Just for Fun – The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary

Linus Torvalds and David Diamond
HarperCollins; 2001
ISBN 0-06-662072-4
(Ottawa Public Library Call No. 005.1092 TOR)

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