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

Security Leftovers

  • Thousands of FedEx customers' private info exposed in legacy server data breach

    Uncovered by Kromtech Security Center, the parent company of MacKeeper Security, the breach exposed data such as passport information, driver's licenses and other high profile security IDs, all of which were hosted on a password-less Amazon S3 storage server.

  • Correlated Cryptojacking

    they include The City University of New York (cuny.edu), Uncle Sam's court information portal (uscourts.gov), Lund University (lu.se), the UK's Student Loans Company (slc.co.uk), privacy watchdog The Information Commissioner's Office (ico.org.uk) and the Financial Ombudsman Service (financial-ombudsman.org.uk), plus a shedload of other .gov.uk and .gov.au sites, UK NHS services, and other organizations across the globe.

    Manchester.gov.uk, NHSinform.scot, agriculture.gov.ie, Croydon.gov.uk, ouh.nhs.uk, legislation.qld.gov.au, the list goes on.

  • Facebook using 2FA cell numbers for spam, replies get posted to the platform

    Replies ending up as comments appears to be a bizarre bug, but the spamming seems intentional.

  • Swedish Police website hacked [sic] to mine cryptocurrency

    Remember now, it is a Police Force that allowed their website to be hijacked by this simple attack vector. The authority assigned to serve and protect. More specifically, the authority that argues that wiretapping is totally safe because the Police is competent in IT security matters, so there’s no risk whatsoever your data will leak or be mishandled.

    This is one of the websites that were trivially hacked [sic].

    It gives pause for thought.

    It also tells you what you already knew: authorities can’t even keep their own dirtiest laundry under wraps, so the notion that they’re capable or even willing to protect your sensitive data is hogwash of the highest order.

  • New EU Privacy Law May Weaken Security

    In a bid to help domain registrars comply with the GDPR regulations, ICANN has floated several proposals, all of which would redact some of the registrant data from WHOIS records. Its mildest proposal would remove the registrant’s name, email, and phone number, while allowing self-certified 3rd parties to request access to said data at the approval of a higher authority — such as the registrar used to register the domain name.

    The most restrictive proposal would remove all registrant data from public WHOIS records, and would require legal due process (such as a subpoena or court order) to reveal any information supplied by the domain registrant.

  • Intel hit with 32 lawsuits over security flaws

    Intel Corp said on Friday shareholders and customers had filed 32 class action lawsuits against the company in connection with recently-disclosed security flaws in its microchips.

  • The Risks of "Responsible Encryption"

    Federal law enforcement officials in the United States have recently renewed their periodic demands for legislation to regulate encryption. While they offer few technical specifics, their general proposal—that vendors must retain the ability to decrypt for law enforcement the devices they manufacture or communications their services transmit—presents intractable problems that would-be regulators must not ignore.

  • Reviewing SSH Mastery 2nd Ed

    It’s finally out ! Michael W Lucas is one of the best authors of technical books out there. I was curious about this new edition. It is not a reference book, but covers the practical aspects of SSH that I wish everybody knew. Rather than aggregating different articles/blogs on SSH, this book covers 90% of the common use cases for SSH that you will ever encounter.

Android Leftovers

Amazon Linux 2 - Who nicked my cheese?

So far, it's a relatively benign, easy introduction to a new operating system that blends the familiar and new in a timid package. Perhaps that's the goal, because a radical offering would right away scare everyone. Amazon Linux 2 is an appealing concept, as it gives users what Red Hat never quite did (yet) - A Fedora-like bleeding-edge tech with the stability and long-term support of the mainstay enterprise offering. But then, it also pulls a Debian/Ubuntu stunt by breaking ABI, so it will be cubicle to those who enjoying living la vida loco (in their cubicle or open-space prison). Having lived and breathed the large-scale HPC world for many years, I am quite piqued to see how this will evolve. Performance, stability and ease of use will be my primary concerns. Then, is it possible to hook up a remote virtual machine into the EC2 hive? That's another experiment, and I'd like to see if scaling and deployment works well over distributed networks. Either way, even if nothing comes out of it, Amazon Linux 2 is a nice start to a possibly great adventure. Or yet another offspring in the fragmented family we call Linux. Time will tell. Off you go. Cloud away. Read more

Updates From OpenIndiana and LibreOffice (Projects That Oracle Discarded)

  • Migration to GCC 6.4 as userland compiler
    Modulo some minor details, the transition of our userland to GCC 6 is complete.
  • OpenIndiana Has Upgraded To The GCC 6 Compiler
    The OpenSolaris/Illumos-based OpenIndiana operating system has finally moved past GCC 4.9 as its base user-land compiler and is now using GCC 6.4. This comes while GCC 8.1 should be officially released in the next few weeks and they are already targeting GCC 7.3.0 as their next illumos-gate compiler.
  • LibreOffice 6.0 Open-Source Office Suite Passes 1 Million Downloads Mark
    The Document Foundation announced recently that its LibreOffice 6.0 open-source and cross-platform office suite reached almost 1 million downloads since its release last month on January 31, 2018. That's terrific news for the Open Source and Free Software community and a major milestone for the acclaimed LibreOffice office suite, which tries to be a free alternative to proprietary solutions like Microsoft Office. The 1 million downloads mark was reached just two weeks after the release of LibreOffice 6.0, which is the biggest update ever of the open-source office suite adding numerous new features and enhancements over previous versions.