Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary, by Linus Torvalds & David Diamond

Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary by Linus Torvalds

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

»And I have a wife to make the decisions that complete my wardrobe, to pick out things like sandals and socks. So I never have to worry about it again.«

Those who know me a little better know that I fell in love with Linux some 27 years ago. In March 1995 IBM OS/2 Warp was replaced by (I think) DLD – the Deutsche Linux-Distribution – and I was… free.

»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.)«

How could I not admire the person who started it all – Linus Torvalds. Torvalds is just a few years older than me and I was delighted and highly amused to find him very relatable in the first half of the book. Be it then…

»It probably won’t surprise anyone that some of my earliest and happiest memories involve playing with my grandfather’s old electronic calculator.«

(In my case, it was a programmable calculator which I got from Josef who was never shy to help with my computer needs!)

… or be it now…

»When I’m sitting in front of the computer, I get really upset and irritable if somebody disturbs me. Tove could elaborate on this point.«

… my wife also would have a lot to tell you about disturbing me while at my computer.

The entire first half in which Linus remembers his childhood and youth is amusing, engagingly written (despite Linus clearly not being an author) and – to me – highly enjoyable.
I had some issues with David Diamond’s parts: Diamond is a journalist who increasingly writes from the perspective of a friend. He gets too close to his subject and his parts are weak. They emphasise Diamond’s lack of distance to Torvalds and show that closeness doesn’t necessarily lead to better results.

Nevertheless, Torvald’s parts were so good I thought I had a five-star read in front of me after a string of ok’ish books.

Sadly, the brilliant first half was followed by a woefully outdated (the book was first published in 2001, my edition is from 2002) and slightly preachy second half: While Linus Torvalds is undoubtedly brilliant at what he does, he’s neither a great writer nor a great philosopher. (At least not in my book.)

Nokia is still the biggest thing in cell phones, the Palm Pilot is the next big thing and Linus talks about the meaning of life (“Survive, socialise, have fun!”). Quite a few times entire sentences get repeated (“shoulders of giants”, anyone?) and Linus drones on and on about the merits and demerits of people in open source and intellectual property (an entire chapter…).

At times, Linus becomes preachy and acknowledges it (»Okay. You’re right, I should stop preaching.«) instead of fixing it.

On the other hand, years before Android (2008) Linus had the right idea:

»And where is Linux itself, and open source generally, in all this? You won’t even know. It will be inside those Sony machines. You’ll never see it, you’ll never know it, but it’s there, making it all run. It will be in that cell phone, which is at the same time acting as your very own personal communications hub for the rest of your electronic widgets when you’re away from your wireless local area network.
You’ll see. It’s only a matter of time. And money.

So when Torvalds talks about his profession, he’s just as one might imagine him to be. It’s massively felt that this book has remained in relative obscurity for the last 20 years and has never been updated to the developments of the last two decades – an age or two in information technology.

And yet: If you read this without expectation and “Just for Fun”, you might at least enjoy part of this amazing ride.

I’m looking forward to one day reading Walter Isaacson’s take on Linus Torvalds.

Till then I’ll leave with three star out of five and this final piece of wisdom by Linus:

»Linux has instead brought people both the entertainment of an intellectual challenge and the social motivations associated with being part of creating it all. We may not have seen each other face-to-face very much, but email was much more than just a dry exchange of information. Bonds of friendship and other social ties can form over email.
This probably also means that if and when we ever meet another intelligent life form in this universe, their first words are not likely to be “Take me to our leader.” They’re more likely to say “Party on, dude!”
Of course, I might be wrong.

Ceterum censeo Putin esse delendam

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