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Linux Books Media Software Book Reviews

Just For Fun 92

Linus Torvalds (and David Diamond) wrote this book; chromatic wrote the review below. It may be hard to say much new about Linus and the results of his 1991 inspiration to loose his kernel on the world, but this book is historically informative, with copyrighted Torvalds humor to boot (I snorted in parts) and fun facts about growing up in Finland. And for a multimedia extravaganza, you can even listen to some conversation between Linus and co-author David Diamond.

Just For Fun
author Linus Torvalds and David Diamond
pages 249
publisher Harper Business
rating 8
reviewer chromatic
ISBN 0-06-662072-4
summary A matter of fact autobiography of Linus, long on his philosophy but somewhat short on technical detail.


The Scoop

When Linux finally showed up on media radar screens, journalists scrambled to put a friendly face on the "burgeoning Open Source movement." The humble and affable Linus Torvalds became a posterboy. Curiously enough, at least to media types, he eschewed their attention in favor of fun things -- spending time with his family, drinking beer, and hacking.

Torvalds' coauthor, David Diamond of Red Herring, had to bribe him with fun activities like surfing and camping to produce this autobiography. They've produced an entertaining portrait of the man behind the kernel. It's an easy read aimed at the average non-geek type -- with plenty of apologetic philosophy mixed in for good measure.

What's to Like?

The Torvalds story is engaging, and it's wittily told. The narrative has a genial, almost self-deprecating tone. From humble beginnings in Finland, the kind of drive and dedication and singlemindedness that makes so many hackers lock themselves away in dark rooms chasing obscure and interesting knowledge paid off. At least, it paid off eventually.

The central part of the book revolves around Linux's also-humble beginnings. This, again, involves a unique sort of focus requiring long, dark winters and unsocial (not anti-social) people. Torvalds is at his best in this section, capturing his excitement at technical achievement and surprise that other people are along for the ride. It ends with the release of Linux 1.0 and a surprising first date with Tove. (Yes, that sounds like a bad soap opera. No, it's not bad.)

From there, the book veers into the heady world of Success. Linus describes the increased media attention and the circumstances surrounding his move to the US and Transmeta. Corporate acceptance and the inevitable black-and-white Linux versus Microsoft debates come up, and the overall reaction is, "Who cares? I'm doing this for fun!" One might compare his thoughts on stock options to those of other hackers -- Torvalds even calls himself "the luckiest bastard alive." The success of his little project has changed him, but life is about that change.

A few chapters of philosophy round out the book. His vaunted neutrality is exposed as a case of not wanting to tell other people what to think. He takes on intellectual property abuses, citing cases near and dear to the hearts of Slashdot readers. Readers get a few short thoughts on the history of technology and an essay on why open source makes sense. Finally, Torvalds expounds again on his simple philosophy of life. People do things first for survival purposes, then for social purposes, and finally for recreation. (Hence the title.) For Linus, at least, Linux continues to meet the latter two needs nicely.

What's to Consider?

Interwoven with the standard biography chapters are short vignettes about the writing of the book. Told from Diamond's point of view, these are intended to give a current portrait of the man. They give a sort of clinical observation feeling, like looking through a window on a test subject. On the other hand, they're consistent with Torvalds' presentation of himself. The different styles can be jarring -- Diamond has a snappy, clever new-media style of prose that occasionally obscures his point.

Technically-minded readers curious about the sort of geeky details only a kernel hacker could provide will be disappointed. A "jargon ahead" disclaimer forewarns readers before launching into brief descriptions of the fabled Sinclair computer. The book walks a narrow path between avoiding these details and requiring some knowledge -- readers unfamiliar with RMS, ESR, and even the Tanenbaum debates might have trouble catching up in spots. On the other hand, you know a book that explains what EEPROM is can't be too hard.

The Summary

Written mostly in a conversational style, this is an entertaining little book. It's suitable for nearly all audiences, without too much in the way of jargon. Additionally, it's an interesting portrait of Linus himself, cutting through some of the myths. This is a book that might explain to parents and significant others the world over why we do what we do.

Table of Contents

  • Birth of a Nerd
  • Birth of an Operating System
  • King of the Ball
    • Intellectual Property
    • An End to Control
    • The Amusement Ride Ahead
    • Why Open Source Makes Sense
    • Fame and Fortune
    • The Meaning of Life II

You can purchase this book at ThinkGeek.

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Just For Fun

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