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Nikolai Bezroukov. Portraits of Open Source Pioneers

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  He was a perfectionist who was "a lousy loser and an even worse winner, refusing to play cards sometimes if he was dealt a bad hand and writing down which properties he owned and how much I owed him when he once won quite spectacularly at Monopoly.''

Sara Torvalds

For those not familiar with its genesis, Linux was brought to life 10 years ago by a Finnish college student named Linus Torvalds, who wanted to use his home PC to write programs that would also run on the university's Unix workstations. Who is this Linux Torvalds ?

Linus Torvalds was born Dec 28, 1969 in Helsinki, Finland. It is not a big city-- only  half a million people. Finland's population is just 5.2 million. Finland was a part of Russia from 1808 until 1917 and when Bolsheviks took power. Bolsheviks grated Finland independence Dec. I8, 1917. A lot of talented people from Russia, especially university elite from Saint Petersburg, escaped to it. That might at least partially explains the high quality of the University education in Finland and how it became a modern country: it's probably the same phenomenon that affected Taiwan, South Korea and West Germany. In such cases "Capitalist part" often serves as a major high-tech supplier of the "communist part": despite being on the opposite sides during World War II, Finland was one of the most important trading partners of the Soviet Union and filled huge state orders from across the border. Bilateral trade arrangements with the Soviet Union were very beneficial to Finnish economy, which made possible the emergence of Finland as a rich welfare state. When USSR was dissolved Finns had to go through a painful period of adjustment. During the recession of the 90's the unemployment rate peaked up to 15 - 20 % (0,5 million people). Finland economy recovered in 1995 and became a leading producer of mobile phones and member of the European Union.

The boy was named after physicist Linus Pauling and the philosophical "Peanuts'' character. In his book Rebel Code Glyn Moody wrote:  

Torvalds is a rare surname: "There are probably something like twenty five people in the world with that last name," Linus says. "Torvald" is "a rather old-fashioned Nordic name," Linus explains. "You'll find it in Sweden and Norway. The genitive 's' is unusual, an old way of turning a regular name into the name of a farmstead--and from there into a surname." Linus explains that it was his paternal grandfather "who took the name for personal reasons, namely, that he didn't like his family." As a result, he says, "to my knowledge, all Torvalds in the whole world are [his] descendants." In other words, one of the most famous names in computing is "completely made up, and not more than two generations ago."

The Torvalds clan is notable not just for its unusually small size: A surprising number of them are journalists. Linus runs down the list: "My dad, Nils Torvalds: reporter for Finnish radio. His brother, my uncle, Jan Torvalds: Finnish TV. My paternal grandfather--the founder of the Torvalds clan, deceased--used to be a newspaper reporter, writer, and poet. My mom: Mikke (Anna) Torvalds: working at the Finnish News Agency too, but is moving more towards books and films."

The Torvalds family formed part of the Swedish-speaking community in Finland, about 300,000 strong in a total population of 5 million. That their mother tongue has nothing in common linguistically with the Finnish language that surrounds them has doubtless helped them become a very close-knit group. Reflecting this, Swedish speakers themselves call this society within society "Ankdammen"--the Duck Pond. One of Linus's friends from Helsinki, future fellow hacker Lars Wirzenius, says, "Almost all Swedish-speaking people know lots of other Swedish-speaking people, and the end result is that everyone either knows everyone, or knows someone who knows someone."

Both of his parents were campus radicals at the University of Helsinki in the 1960s, his father Nils a Communist who in the mid-1970s spent a year studying in Moscow.

His mother, Mikke Torvalds, was a sportswomen and a translator. It looks like she is a journalist by education, like his father.  I found the following quote  about Linus pretty interesting:

Linus was (and is) one of those. A single-minded knowledge-and-mastery fanatic, to use an even stronger word than his sister's "perfectionist" (which does sum it up nicely).

I still don't think Linus has any "special" talent, certainly not "for computers". If it weren't computers, it would be something else. In another day and age he might focus on some different challenge, and I think someday he will. (What I mean is, I hope he won't be stuck in Linux maintenance forever). I think he's motivated not by "computers", and certainly not by fame or riches, but by honest curiosity and a wish to conquer difficulties as they arise. He's driven to do things the right way, because that's the way they should be done.

I suppose I have already answered the question of what Linus was like as a Son: easy to raise. As Sara and I used to say, just give Linus a spare closet with a good computer in it, feed him some dry pasta, and he will be perfectly happy.

I must admit that there was a period during his youth where I was worried about him: how on earth was he going to meet any nice girls that way? I had to resort to the tried and true parenting measure of keeping my fingers crossed on that matter. And lo and behold: it worked! He met Tove while teaching at the university. When she made him forget both his cat and his computer for several days, it was immediately obvious that Nature had triumphed, as is her wont.

Of course I'm very proud of him. He is, after all, partly responsible for the existence of the two loveliest little girls on this planet, Patricia and Daniela. And I'm happy that he is now experiencing their curiosity and growth, sibling rivalry and all. I only hope the Ghouls of Fame won't distract him too much. He seems unaffected by his fame, although he has mellowed. These days he tends to talk to people when they approach him. He even seems to have difficulty saying no. But I suspect it has more to do with his having become a husband and father than with all the media hullabaloo.

-- Mikke Torvalds

Not much is known about his father Nils Torvalds (the parents divorced when he was very young) other then he was also a journalist (TV & radio journalist) with some taste for adventurism. Known to most as Nikke Torvalds, he is the son of the poet Ole Torvalds (1916-1995). According to  Encyclopedia article about Nikke Torvalds. Free Online Encyclopedia  "Torvalds was active in the Communist Party  since he was a college student during the 1960s  His political beliefs developed after learning of the atrocities committed against communist sympathizers in Finland. He later charged that his enthusiasm for the Party and its beliefs were the result of naiveté. He met his wife Anna at their university. As the family story is told, he had a rival for Anna's attention on an outing for a club of Swedish-speaking students. As they were preparing to make the trip back to Helsinki he had the rival oversee the loading of the club's bus. He then used the occasion to sit down next to Anna. They married years later."

He spent a decade in Moscow including covering the first Chechen war from the Chechen territory for Finnish radio & TV. From 2001 he was Finnish correspondent in the USA based in Washington, DC.  I hope he regretted his Islamic fundamentalists coverage later. Here is his rare quote about Linus:

Torvalds' intellectual acumen became apparent when he was 8 years old, says his father, Nils. "On Christmas, I gave him a fairly complicated model ship and thought that we in a father-and-son-together-way should build it. The following morning, he had already made it all by himself," the elder Torvalds says.

But it was his grandfather Leo Toerngvist, a statistics professor at the University of Helsinki, who had the biggest influence on Torvalds. In the mid-1970s, Toerngvist bought one of the first personal computers, a Commodore Vic 20. Torvalds learned to write computer games at age 12.

"I started programming because you had to make it work," he says. Soon, he was buying books on computer languages and learning more about his grandfather's "fascinating machine."

Before long, the computer and math became Torvalds' passion. He rejected his father's efforts to get him interested in basketball or other activities. "I was never very good," Torvalds says.

His father says Torvalds always has been very focused. "In school, some of the girls showed up to 'get some extra lessons in math,' but Linus was very cold," he says. And if anyone tried telling him what to do, he'd rebel.

"He once said that he won't eat sweets. I promised him 100 Finnish marks if he kept that for a year," Nils Torvalds says. "He did, but the following day (after the bet), he took the money and bought sweets for the whole sum."

Linus lived in  the central parts of Helsinki until moving to California. He has one sister who is sixteen months younger than he. In his own words he had a happy, fairly normal childhood. He lived with my mother and also with his grandparents. His mother was working, so he spend a lot of time in his grandparents apartment. His grandfather on the father line was Ole Torvalds (1916-1995) was a well known Finland-Swedish journalist and poet.

In his own words Linus had been using computers since age 10. His another grandfather, Leo Tornqvist, a professor of statistics at University of Helsinki, bought an early Commodore VIC-20 computer in 1980 and encouraged him to help. The main achivement of Leo Tornqvist was the introduction of an alternative to the Fisher ideal index (employed by the Bureau of Economic Analysis in compiling data on the U.S. national income and product accounts). In 1936 he proposed to use a weighted average of the growth rates in prices with relative weights equal to the average of the weights in the two periods. This is called the "Tornqvist" index. He was also one of the first to t to advance the ”log-mean” concept.  For more information see Collected scientific papers of Leo Törnqvist (Research Institute of the Finnish Economy. Series A).  It is used to calculation of cost of living, labour productivity, etc. 

Here are some additional facts about his first computer from SiliconValley.com News Special Report Linus Torvalds.:

For more than a decade, Linus' father, Nils Torvalds, has covered Moscow for Finnish TV. His mother, Anna, is divorced from Nils and works as a translator and graphic artist at the Finnish News Agency. Younger sister Sara is also a translator at the agency. Linus' paternal grandfather was a journalist, too. But it was the influence of his maternal grandfather, Leo Tornqvist, a professor of statistics at University of Helsinki, that led Linus into computers.

In 1980, Grandpa bought a VIC 20, the predecessor of the Commodore 64. For Linus, it was the perfect grandfather-grandson activity. The 10-year-old started out helping his grandfather with the computer. When his grandfather died, he took the computer home. Soon he was writing programs in Basic. To demonstrate to his sister that computers could do marvelous things, he wrote a program to fill the tiny screen with the words "Sara is the Best.'' It might have been one of the few moments of truce. Though brother and sister are close, Sara Torvalds had e-mailed me that they fought constantly when they were younger. "He always knew best, at least better than his kid sister.''

He was a perfectionist who was "a lousy loser and an even worse winner, refusing to play cards sometimes if he was dealt a bad hand and writing down which properties he owned and how much I owed him when he once won quite spectacularly at Monopoly.''

Computing became Linus' total passion. He says his only other hobby was--and still is--reading science fiction and horror books. "I just have the right mentality for programming,'' says Linus, as we cross the windy summit of the Santa Cruz mountains. "The right mentality for sitting in front of a screen and just thinking things through.''

"It takes a special kind of person,'' I interject.

"Yeah, the dweeby, nerdy kind of person.''

But Linus' skill with computers wasn't making much of an impression on his family. At one point, Linus' father thought his son should play basketball and signed him up for a league. He lasted two seasons. "It was horrible. I was the runt of the team,'' he explains. "Even by the time he was actually working on Linux I wasn't really impressed,'' writes Sara Torvalds. "For me, it meant mainly that the phone lines were constantly busy and nobody could call us. . . . At some point, postcards began arriving from different corners of the globe. I suppose that's when I realized people in the real world were actually using what he had created.''

It's interesting to note that Linus programming path looks like "Basic -> assembler language -> C" which is probably one of the most optimal programming language education path (another one is "Turbo Pascal -> assembler -> C"). I doubt that he would write a kernel if he started programming in C++ ;-). His second computer was Sinclair QL the most popular computer among European computer hobbyists in time when PCs were too expensive. But I think that he bluffed in the quote below about his dislike of Intel CPU architecture:

His next machine, and the reasons for that choice, are also highly characteristic of the later Linus. "I was looking at different machines--I didn't want a PC because I really disliked the Z80 [chip] architecture and in the PC, the chip was essentially the same," he says. That is, he decided not to buy a PC because he disliked the design of the Intel chip family that lay at its heart--an unusual way of looking at things.

"Back then I was doing just assembly language, and I didn't want to have anything to do with that [particular processor]." Because Linus was writing "low-level" code, which interacted directly with the chip, he was more conscious of the merits and demerits of the various chip families. Most programmers write in "high-level" languages like Basic, which effectively shield them from the details of the hardware.

As Linus himself says, he has always been a "low-level" person. There are probably two reasons for his early interest in this aspect. One was his emerging love of programming at the most fundamental level. The other is more pragmatic: "I had been a performance junkie since forever. When you had to be kind of crazy and tweak cycles." "Tweaking cycles"--getting every last drop of performance out of code--would later mean that Linux was far faster and leaner than comparable programs.

In the end, Linus chose an unusual micro for his next machine, the Sinclair QL ("Quantum Leap"). This was a typically quirky product from the British inventor Sir Clive Sinclair.

Linus had been content to put up with Sinclaire's QL--although it had some fairly obvious shortcomings--for a simple reason. The main thing he wanted, he explained, was "a machine at home that does multitasking." Even though the Sinclair QL was in many ways a toy, it had one very powerful feature, thanks to its choice of chip: it could run several programs simultaneously, just like commercial minicomputers.

This area of computing--multitasking--led him to start coding the simple program that would eventually turn into Linux. But this was still some years off from the time when Linus was hacking on his Sinclair QL. First, in the fall of 1988, he entered Helsinki University to study computer science, which by now already looked likely to turn from a passion into a profession.

Linus Torvalds exposure to PC started approximately in late eighties. As many students he played a lot of games with Prince of Persia as a special favorite.  In 1991 he finally managed to buy his own 386sx computer. As  Lars Wirzenius recollected in his very interesting essay:

Let's go back to the spring of 1991. In January, Linus bought a PC. He'd been using a Sinclair QL before that, which, like much British computer stuff, was ingenious and almost unusably different from everything else. Like every self-respecting hacker, Linus had written some software development tools of his own; an editor and an assembler, I think. He'd also modified the QL hardware a bit, to replace a broken keyboard, and to add a PC-compatible floppy drive. When he bought the PC, he wrote a device driver for the QL so he could move stuff from the QL to the PC.

When he got up to speed with the PC, after having played enough Prince of Persia, he started learning about programming the PC. Especially assembly language programming, since only wimps use high level languages. I remember one day when he was quite proud for having written a strlen function in assembly. Gee, I was impressed.

Linus attended the University of Helsinki from 1988 to 1996, graduating with a master's degree in computer science. He wrote his M.Sc. thesis about Linux; it is entitled Linux: A Portable Operating System. Later, already in the USA he accessed his university years in the following way:

But the place is not heaven. For one thing, as Linus points out, the weather sucks. And it's dark half of the year. "Programming. Sex. Drinking. There's not much else to do,'' he moans, sipping iced tea through a straw. As a college student, Linus spent far more time on the first activity than on the others. And programming remains his No. 1 sport. "Although now at least I have a life,'' he says.

"Here, if you're successful, people tend to respect you. In Europe, if you're successful, people tend to envy you. In Europe, if someone's really good you pay him more, say 20 percent more. Here you pay him 10 times more. Here it's easier to be rich and successful and that motivates more people. I'm completely converted to the U.S. belief that you encourage people to do things by rewarding them, as opposed to trying to be fair by even rewarding the bad people.''

But it was the chance to work on advanced technology--more than the opportunity to get rich--that motivated Linus to follow up on a Swedish friend's suggestion to interview at Transmeta two and a half years ago. "I grew up in a household where money was not the most important thing in the world,'' he says, pointing out that his father was "very left-wing by U.S. standards.'' He comes by his views honestly: His parents met at a protest rally. Despite his non-materialist upbringing and non-capitalist bent, Linus in California shares a trait that's common among newcomers to these shores: He's like a kid in a candy store. We pass a sports car and Linus stops to admire it. "I'm having a mid-life crisis. I'm looking at all these things,'' he says, almost embarrassed, then quickly adds: "I don't even think it's a mid-life crisis. It's just, I'm paid too well.''

University years a little bit polished Linus character, but still in the core he remained the same arrogant, "able to cheat in poker" extremely bright guy who valued winning above everything else. As Lars Wirzenius recalled:

“One of these weeks, Linus-for some reason, I don’t remember- hadn’t done all his homework. So he just claimed that he had done one of the exercises that he hadn’t done – and the teacher asked him to demonstrate his solution. [Linus] walked up to the blackboard… and faced the problem that he claimed he had solved. Linus decides this is a simple problem, draws a couple of diagrams, and waves his hand a lot. It takes a long time for the teacher to understand that yes, this is actually a correct solution.”

According to Wirzenius, this incident was atypical in one respect: “[Linus] didn’t usually try to cheat, because he didn’t have to. He knew math well from high school, and had a sort of mathematical brain, so he didn’t have to spend much time on homework to get it done.” Wirzenius believes there is something characteristic of his friend in the way Linus handled the situation - “the attitude, the arrogance that he displayed - most people would just have acknowledged that they didn’t actually have a solution,” but Linus hates having to admit that he doesn’t know the answer.

Wirzenius says that “the arrogance he showed then is still visible” in how Linus handles challenges within the Linux community. “These days, he might claim that a certain kind of approach to a problem is the correct problem, even though he hasn’t necessarily thought about all the other approaches or solutions, and then the rest of the Internet either agrees with him or tries to convince him otherwise.”

This approach works because Linus is “careful enough to not do it all the time. Most of the time when he says something, he has been thinking about it, “Wirzenius notes, and concludes: “I wouldn’t like to play poker against him. He can bluff. “Just as important, if after all the bluffing Linus is caught out and shown to be wrong, Wirzenius says, he will accept corrections with good grace, a trait that would prove crucial in managing the community of equally opinionated and able hackers that would later coalesce around him.

After the first year’s introductory course, there followed a major hiatus in their university studies. “all Finnish men are requires to do either military or civil service, “Wirzenius says. Civil service is sort of you get an ordinary job but you don’t get paid for it.” In 1989, when he and Linus were required to choose, “the shortest time to do military service was eight months [and] all civil service was sixteen months. So I figured that’s eight months too much, so let’s do the shortest possible. Actually the totally shortest possible way would be to refuse to do either kind of service, and then it would be six months in jail.”

Like Wirzenius, Linus too, decided that he’d rather not spend half a year in prison. But instead of choosing the next shortest option – eight months as a simple army private – he opted for one that lasted eleven months, which was training to become a noncommissioned officer.

Of this training, Wirzenius says, “It’s sort of useful as an exercise in leadership, but a certain kind of leadership… what the army needs is group leaders who can teach their group to act almost on reflex, which was sort of scary. It’s the same kind of stuff that all armies teach.” He adds, “It’s not just a way to learn how to make reflexes, but also a way to keep a group together as a working unit even if they don’t like each other, and stuff like that.” It is hard to imagine a better description of what would be involved in coordinating the global movement of volunteers that develop Linux.

Wirzenius recalls that eh and Linus didn’t see much of each other during that time even though they were both stationed in the same area of East Finland towards the end of their service; however, they made up for lost time when they were back at university and had resumed their exploration of the computer world.

In the fall of 1990, the university acquired MicroVAX system and Linus started to learn Digital Unix. That's an interesting fact that influenced his future Linux work. Not much is known about his political view. It looks like he has pretty common European distaste for the US foreign policy. Here is a quote from the SiliconValley.com News Special Report Linus Torvalds:

Linus is extremely knowledgeable about U.S. business history, and he is critical of American politics, which he finds too divisive, compared with Europe's more conciliatory approach. "The best way to follow American politics is by watching Jay Leno,'' he says.

As for economic views they look pretty fuzzy. A quote below is from the same report:

"People think that I'm against making money. I think making money is an admirable goal in life, but you shouldn't be making money by screwing everybody else over, which is what IBM used to do. All the computer manufacturers used to do this. They used to make money by getting a captive audience and making sure nobody else got its foothold. And that is what Microsoft does now.''

"When IBM did that they were very successful, but for the industry as a whole the PC became much more of a winner when it really opened up, and you didn't have just the IBM PC, you had the Compaq PC, you had the clone PCs.

"Whatever happens, life isn't fair. You're going to have a winner, and you're going to have a lot of losers. The only thing you can do is to make sure that the winner is as fair as you can make him. It's like in politics. You want to keep the incumbent honest.''

As for software development he thinks that the game is over and commoditization is the only future:

"Regardless of open source, programs will become really cheap,'' he answers. "Any industry goes through three phases. First, there's the development of features people need. Then there's the frills-and-upgrade phase, when people buy it because it looks cool. Then there's the everybody-takes-it-for-granted phase. This is when it becomes a commodity. Well, we're still in the look-cool-and-upgrade stage. In 10 or 15 years you'll be happy with software that's five years old. Open source is one sign that we're moving in that direction.''


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