Just for Fun: More Interesting than Expected
Dave Aiello wrote, "I finished the audio version of Just for Fun : The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary by Linus Torvalds and David Diamond. I did not have great expectations for this book when I ordered it from Amazon.com. It has the earmarks of a hastily thrown-together biography designed to cash in on a celebrity at the zenith of his popularity. But, I was glad to find that the book provided some useful insights into:
- Linus' life before Linux,
- the development of Linux prior to 1.0,
- his personal life, and
- the techniques he uses to manage his jobs at Transmeta and as the lead developer of Linux."
Read on for more details....
Dave Aiello continued:
Many of the lesser cult-of-personality biographies that I have read in the past have paid little attention to the subject's childhood and young adulthood. A good portion of this book, however, is devoted to Linus' life up until the time he left The University of Helsinki in the mid-1990s. This section is particularly helpful because it clearly describes the development of his personality and identifies the traits that made him capable of developing the core functionality of an operating system.
Similarly, the book gives a concise explanation of the reason that Linux was initially developed. I had read about the fact that Linus had been intrigued by Minix, but the impression I had gotten was that he had developed a greater distaste for Minix than this book claims he did.
Just for Fun suggests that his initial focus had been on writing a terminal emulator that was better than that found in Minix. In accordance with his previous practice, he wrote his terminal emulator in assembly language. As he began wanting to save files to his computer's existing file systems, he found himself adding many of the key functions of an operating system to his self-booting terminal emulator. Over time, the terminal emulator evolved into the initial Linux kernel.
The book does not spend as much time on his present-day personal life as it does on his childhood or his time at The University. However, it is clear that his life has improved since he married his wife, Tove, whom he met when she was an undergraduate and he was a teaching assistant for one of her classes.
Mrs. Torvalds was already an accomplished practitioner of karate when Linus met her. The book leads you to believe that his continued exposure to her athleticism has made him more inclined to get involved in athletic activities during his recreation time. Considering his appearance in the mid-90s (he could have been the illustration next to the term "geek" in the dictionary), he has developed a more balanced lifestyle.
I knew more of the details of his job with Transmeta than I did about the other aspects of his life that I have mentioned so far. The book went into some detail regarding why he chose to work for this company, and why he does not feel it is wise for him to take a job with any company that is primarily known for its involvement in the Linux movement. He feels that doing so would compromise his position as final arbiter of Linux kernel patches.
I was interested in the portions of the book that attempted to illustrate his evolution as spokesman for the Linux Movement. He was reticent in this regard, in part because he is naturally uncomfortable speaking in public.
One particularly interesting passage was the description of the LinuxExpo '98 keynote in Raleigh, NC where he opened his speech with the controversial statement: "Yes, I am Linus Torvalds and, yes, I am your god." I was actually present at this speech, and it was clear to me that he was speaking with tongue in cheek. This is probably the single most controversial thing Linus has ever said.
Until I read this book, I did not know the extent of the controversy surrounding this speech. When I realized that this event was not only discussed in this book, but also in the book called Under the Radar (about the development of RedHat), I realized that I was present at one of the most well-known moments in the history of the Linux Movement.
Of course, there were some problems with this book. The first problem I noticed was the unannounced changes from first person to third person. From time to time, I found myself asking whether David Diamond or Linus Torvalds was speaking. This problem partially stems from the fact that the book tells Linus' life story and his personal philosophy. But, it also is the story of the process of creating the book, told from David Diamond's perspective. I can live with this, but I think it is an indication of less than top-quality editing.
I also feel that his reflections on the meaning of life and the association of the Linux Movement with man's fundimental goals on Earth are quite interesting. However, the manner in which they are presented runs the risk of embarassing people on two counts:
- Some people may consider this presentation an indication of Linus' hubris. This would not be correct, but it is a possible outcome if individual sentences in these sections are taken out of their context.
- Some would consider this a cheap attempt to appeal to his cult. It's fairly clear that Linus is not obsessed with fame or power, but there are millions who idolize him. When fans of a celebrity are so zealous, their behavior itself becomes a PR problem. No matter how interesting objective observers consider his insights on life, they could have been expressed in a more low-key way.
Notwithstanding these critcisms, I recommend this book. It is valuable solely for its historical insights into the Linux and OpenSource movements. I found the book informative and entertaining enough to make me look past its shortcomings. Also, I have to give Harper Audio credit for producing this book in audiobook form as well as hardcover.