The Origins of Linux
by Linus Torvalds

On September 19, 2001, John Toole, Executive Director and CEO of the Computer History Museum, hosted a lecture featuring Linux founder Linux Torvalds. He dubbed the gathering as a part of their ‘how do you make history so fast’ lecture series. He introduced him as a former 1991 2nd year student of computer science at the University of Helsinki who was inspired by Richard Stalman’s free software movement.

According to the talk, it was in August 25, 1991 when the Minix user group got an email message from Linus: “Hello everybody out there using Minix. I am doing a free operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and professional like GNU) for three, six, 46, 80 clones. That has been brewing since April and starting to get ready.” During that time, designing for a monolithic kernel at the time was unthinkably obsolete or dumb by computing standards. This was the beginning of the large open source movement in operating systems that is now popularly known as Linux.

In his talk, Linus Torvalds said that the origin of Linux stems from the fact that “I’ve got nothing else to do and I’m a stupid git. The rest are just details.” At the time, he does not even see Linux as a server. He developed it originally as a desktop item. The most salient part of his talk was when he said his motivation was simply his sheer enjoyment of the craft: “People don’t realize that I do it because it’s fun.”

It eludes me how someone so smart can think so little of himself. But I think that’s perhaps the secret of his success: he does not have the crippling hubris that make people more focused on their accomplishments than on what they can actually do for people. He also did not plan too rigidly with his track on developing Linux; he allowed himself to be “surprised” by the community. “In the end, I am really a simple guy and what I’m interested in is the technology… I have my theory of life and it’s not very deep and I am not that interested in getting any deeper, either.”
This was from a talk he had ten years since he began Linux, which is now a wide community with hundreds or even thousands of flavors or distros. He also capitalized on the impacts of a strong vision and thousands of coordinated goals, which is also in line with what I previously observed from Mark Shuttleworth’s Ubuntu talk in 2006.

“The commercial company just puts limits on who can evolve in certain areas in things like that… Those kinds of limits are self-limiting. They imply that they know what they are doing…”

This is not to diminish the strengths of proprietary software or products. Things built out of extremely comfortable resources can be brilliant. Development is accelerated within some commercial products in another aspect.

I personally would want to have three types of machines on my web development arsenal for exploration: the Linux machine, the Windows machine, and the Mac machine. It won’t hurt to have all three. So far, I have done a dual boot setup but I am not sure if triple booting is still possible with my capacity and resources.

He also proceeded with his talk by highlighting the strengths of a solid organization but how an organic and dynamic community can help make it more sustainable: “It helps a lot when your company has a clear vision and that’s very efficient. But at some point, the goal will be the wrong goal. Or at some point, the goal will lose its focus.”

The members of the open source community are often very generous people by nature. I gravitate towards them for this reason. I find so much comfort attending hackathons and talking to flexible people who have intel in operating both open source and proprietary software. Because the very essence of using and advocating the use of open source is SHARING what you have and combining it with what others have and building something beautiful and usable out of it. Forget the sexism for female web developers for a moment; the intellectual stimulation that is generated from conventions and seminars that join community members is massive and full of potential.

This struck me most during his talk which lasted for 1 hour and 25 minutes: “People will always be greedy. And you will always have companies doing it for their own reasons and cutting everyone else out.”

Based on my experiences, the bottom line of preferring a piece of product or software lies in the use case at any given moment in a project. For example, when I need to make quick thematic maps or some serious geoprocessing and I do not have the luxury of time to develop the code to generate the function, I’d go for the proprietary options. However, for expanding on a feature set and being given some time to do it or considering sustainability with an open framework that other people can help improve over the long-term, I think the open source alternatives are viable. This is really a good age to explore because all these things are readily made available for use. And with visionaries like Linus Torvalds who continue to inspire people to dream big and live long enough to achieve them, anything is really possible.
Here are some more of my other favorite Linus Torvalds quotes from this talk:

1. Q: So how do you have time for a real job? “I don’t know… It does not matter how many hours you give into a project. It just matters how much quality you give to a project. That’s also my excuse for sleeping 10 hours per day.”
2. “Most of my role models are not computer people. We are not a very beautiful bunch, and I am not talking about the physical beauty of is. My role models are scientists and physicists, people who try to figure out how to world works.”
3. “If the first prototype does not work, do the second.”
4. “The design is not so complex that you can’t keep track of the basic rules in your head.”
5. “You have to have a mindset for how things work.”

If you have an hour to spare, here is the link to the full video by the Computer History Museum.

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