Language Selection

English French German Italian Portuguese Spanish

The genius behind Linux cherishes his anonymity

Filed under
Linux

He goes unrecognized in Portland's coffee shops. He rarely shows up at his suburban Beaverton office. And while Linus Torvalds is a cult figure among computer enthusiasts worldwide, he's essentially invisible in his new home state.

Torvalds invented Linux, a populist computer operating system that's become the underdog alternative to Microsoft Windows. At age 35, the Finnish programmer is the superstar of the global open-source movement — an informal collective dedicated to sharing, rather than selling, software.

Once confined to the fringes of computing, the movement Torvalds ignited has sparked a multibillion-dollar challenge to technology's old guard.

That movement has made Torvalds an inspiration to legions of anti-establishment hackers, but he resists being cast as a crusader. Intensely private, Torvalds moved to Oregon a year ago, having mastered the trick of balancing his insular lifestyle with a career that made him famous.

Basement hub

So while battles rage over the future of computing, Torvalds spends his days playing with his young daughters in a secluded home south of Portland and quietly managing Linux's development from a computer in his basement.

"Well, it's a nice basement," he said. "Don't get me wrong."

Oregon, with its Wi-Fi-in-the-park work ethic and low-key vibe, might be the natural place for someone of Torvalds' disposition. A sort of anti-celebrity, he is ambivalent about fame and content to stay nestled at home in a tony cluster of million-dollar houses atop densely forested hills.

He said he goes out so infrequently that he rarely puts the top up on his convertible Mercedes — even in Oregon's rainy winters. Most days are spent at home e-mailing programmers on aspects of Linux's evolution and pausing on sunny days for bike rides into Lake Oswego for coffee.

The only place people recognize him, Torvalds said, is when he's shopping at Fry's Electronics, a geek hangout.

"I haven't seen a lot of Oregon," Torvalds said, "and Oregon hasn't seen a lot of me."

Not a computer nerd

Cyber-celebrities such as Microsoft's Bill Gates and Apple Computer's Steve Jobs surround themselves with people who manage their image and time. Getting in touch with Torvalds is no more difficult than sending an e-mail, because his address is readily available on the World Wide Web.

Getting a response to that e-mail, however, can be next to impossible.

"It's easy to ignore. That's one of the reasons I like e-mail," Torvalds said. "You can really choose what you want to concentrate on."

Torvalds usually concentrates on technical matters. He works for Open Source Development Labs, a Beaverton-based industry consortium that promotes Linux, but he's been to the office only a half-dozen times.

"As far as I'm concerned, the main reason for going to the office is you end up going out to lunch," he said.

During lunch recently in Portland, Torvalds, in a white polo shirt with neatly combed hair, didn't look like the "asocial" computer nerd he claimed to be. He shed his glasses a few years ago after laser eye surgery and speaks with just a trace of an accent — pronouncing California, for example, roughly the way Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger does.

For someone grounded almost entirely in e-mail, Torvalds turns out to be an easy conversationalist with a puckish, self-deprecating sense of humor. He explains his success as the fortuitous product of dueling personality quirks.

"I'm lazy, but I get easily bored. That's a good combination," he said. "I don't want to do something I don't have to do, but on the other hand, just sitting around and flipping channels is really, really, really boring. So that's where I think most of my motivation comes from, is finding something really interesting to be involved in."

Torvalds found computers at age 11 and was hooked. Ten years later, while studying at the University of Helsinki, he posted a note on a computer message board seeking to collaborate on a new operating system, called Linux after its creator.

Linux quickly grew into a group project for software developers around the world. By giving it away and letting anyone peek at the computer code that makes it run, Torvalds created a flexible alternative to rigid systems such as Windows, which is protected from changes by anyone outside Microsoft.

Developed initially by a ragtag collection of loosely organized software developers, Linux is now backed by major corporations such as IBM and Intel. Roughly one in 10 high-end computer servers — used to network computers — comes loaded with Linux, and sales of Linux servers are growing three times faster than those of Windows in the $50 billion market.

To some, open source represents an almost spiritual cause, bringing free software to the masses and sticking a finger in the eye of multinational corporations. While Torvalds thinks Linux will eventually replace proprietary systems such as Windows, he sees the battle in practical, not ideological, terms.

"A lot of people kind of expect me to care about all these humanitarian problems, and I don't," he said, laughing. Open source is just "a wonderful way of doing things, and I think it's a lot more fun to do it this way than to be at a company and do programming the old-fashioned way."

The Linux revolution has nonetheless grown into a computing empire to rival Microsoft, and Torvalds is sometimes called its benevolent dictator, holding together the coalition of companies and software developers that maintain and develop the system.

Torvalds' mild temperament serves him well in that role, said Randy Kalmeta, a program director at IBM's Beaverton office, home base for its Linux efforts.

Revolution's anchor

"He's kind of the guy who's always steady in the storm," Kalmeta said. "He keeps people focused, and he keeps himself focused."

Torvalds eventually moved to the United States to work for a Silicon Valley startup during the Internet boom. Two years ago, when Torvalds came to Portland for the wedding of a close friend, bridegroom Dirk Hohndel took him on a tour of the city.

"He'd heard a lot about the fact that life in Oregon is at a more human pace, that people are more interested in neighbors and friends and not everything is about how much you're going to make on your next" stock offering, Hohndel said.

Torvalds said his family tired of Silicon Valley's suburban anonymity and uniform technology culture. He and his wife, Tove, a former Finnish karate champion, decided to move to Oregon to find a more vibrant community for their daughters, ages 4, 7 and 8.

In the first year, Torvalds said they've found what they were looking for: neighbors they know well and friends within walking distance for the kids.

"I actually like having stuff nearby, even though I never go to it," he said. "I like having a small downtown, and I like knowing that I could, if I wanted to, do things. That makes me happy."

"And then," Torvalds continued, "I can ignore it and do my own thing anyway."

By MIKE ROGOWAY
Newhouse News Service

More in Tux Machines

today's leftovers

  • Black screen of death after Win10 update? Microsoft blames HP
    Microsoft is pointing the finger of blame at HP's factory image for black screens of death appearing after a Windows Update. Scores of PC owners took to the HP forums last week to report that Windows 10 updates released September 12 were slowing down the login process. Users stated that once they downloaded the updates and entered their username and password, they only saw black screens for about five to 10 minutes. The forum members said that clean installs or disabling a service called "app readiness", which "gets apps ready for use the first time a user signs in to this PC and when adding new apps" seemed to fix the delay. Today, a Microsoft spokesperson told The Register: "We're working to resolve this as soon as possible" and referred affected customers to a new support post.
  • GNOME 3.26 Released! Check Out the New Features
    GNOME 3.26 is the latest version of GNOME 3 released six months after the last stable release GNOME 3.24. The release, code-named “Manchester”, is the 33rd stable release of the free, open-source desktop.
  • Arch Arch and away! What's with the Arch warriors?
    If you choose to begin your Linux adventures with Arch Linux after trying Ubuntu for a month, you're probably doing it wrong. If there's a solid reason why you think Arch is for you; awesome! Do it. You will learn new things. A lot of new things. But hey, what's the point in learning what arch-chroot does if you can't figure out what sudo is or what wpa_supplicant does?
  • Setting a primary monitor for launching games in a dual monitor rig
  • AMD Zen Temperature Monitoring On Linux Is Working With Hwmon-Next
    If you want CPU temperature monitoring to work under Linux for your Ryzen / Threadripper / EPYC processor(s), it's working on hwmon-next. The temperature monitoring support didn't make it for Linux 4.14 but being published earlier this month were finally patches for Zen temperature monitoring by extending the k10temp Linux driver.
  • Fanless Skylake computer offers four PCI and PCIe slots
    Adlink’s MVP-6010 and MVP-6020 embedded computers run Linux or Windows on Intel 6th Gen CPUs, and offer 4x PCI/PCIe slots, 6x USB ports, and 4x COM ports. If Adlink’s new MVP-6010/6020 Series looks familiar, that’s because it’s a modified version of the recent MVP-5000 and last year’s MVP-6000 industrial PCs. The top half appears to be identical, with the same ports, layout, and Intel 6th Gen Core “Skylake” TE series processors. Like the MVP-6000, it adds a PCI and PCIe expansion unit on the bottom, but whereas the MVP-6000 had two slots, the MVP-6010 and MVP-6020 have four.
  • How Qi wireless charging works, and why it hasn’t taken over yet
    Qi has been an Android staple for a while, and now it’s coming to iPhones, too.
  • W3C DRM appeal fails, votes kept secret
    Earlier this summer, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) — the organization responsible for defining the standards that make up the Web — decided to embrace DRM (aka "EME") as a web standard. I wasn’t happy about this. I don’t know many who were. Shortly after that, the W3C agreed to talk with me about the issue. During that discussion, I encouraged the W3C to increase their level of transparency going forward — and if there is an appeal of their DRM decision, to make that process completely open and visible to the public (including how individual members of the W3C vote on the issue). The appeal happened and has officially ended. I immediately reached out to the W3C to gather some details. What I found out was highly concerning. I’ll include the most interesting bits below, as un-edited as possible.

Red Hat News

OSS: Blockchain, Innersource, SQL and Clang

  • Banks are turning to open source for blockchain, says Google engineer
    Banks have historically developed all software in-house and maintained a fierce secrecy around their code, but more recently they’ve embraced open-source. They’re likely to use open source for one of the most hotly tipped technologies out there – blockchain.
  • Innersource: How to leverage open source in the enterprise
    Companies of varying sizes across many industries are implementing innersource programs to drive greater levels of development collaboration and reuse. They ultimately seek to increase innovation; reduce time to market; grow, retain, and attract talent; and of course, delight their customers. In this article, I'll introduce innersource and some of its key facets and examine some of the problems that it can help solve. I'll also discuss some components of an innersource program, including metrics.
  • Reflection on trip to Kiel
    On Sunday, I flew home from my trip to Kiel, Germany. I was there for the Kieler Open Source und LinuxTage, September 15 and 16. It was a great conference! I wanted to share a few details while they are still fresh in my mind: I gave a plenary keynote presentation about FreeDOS! I'll admit I was a little concerned that people wouldn't find "DOS" an interesting topic in 2017, but everyone was really engaged. I got a lot of questions—so many that we had to wrap up before I could answer all the questions.
  • A quick tour of MySQL 8.0 roles
    This year at the Percona Live Open Source Database Conference in Dublin, I'll be discussing a new feature introduced in MySQL 8.0: roles. This is a new security and administrative feature that allows database administrators to simplify user management and increases the security of multi-user environments. In database administration, users are granted privileges to access schemas, tables, or columns, depending on the business needs. When many different users require authorization for different sets of privileges, administrators have to repeat the process of granting privileges several times. This is both tedious and error-prone. Using roles, administrators can define sets of privileges for a user category, and then the user authorization becomes a single statement operation. Roles have been on the MySQL community's wish list for a long time. I remember several third-party solutions that tried to implement roles as a hack on top of the existing privileges granting system. I created my own solution many years ago when I had to administer a large set of users with different levels of access. Since then, anytime a new project promised to ease the roles problem, I gave it a try. None of them truly delivered a secure solution, until now.
  • MyDiamo Expands Open Source Database Encryption Offerings to Include PostgreSQL
  • Clang-Refactor Tool Lands In Clang Codebase
    The clang-refactor tool is now living within the LLVM Clang SVN/Git codebase.

Games: Ostriv, Back to Bed, EVERSPACE, Hiveswap: Act 1