Book Review: Just For Fun

Well if you thought this post is “Just For Fun”, I wouldn’t fault you for that.
“Just For Fun” is a book written by Linus Torvalds and co-authored by David Diamond.
True to its name the book was a fun read. This book is an autobiography of the man who created Linux as we know it today.

The initial part of the book talks about Linus Torvald’s childhood and upbringing. It might seem like a drag but it makes you appreciate why he is the way he is.

As a student of computer science I had heard of Andrew Tanenbaum and had one of his books, Operating Systems Design and Implementation, as prescribed material for my coursework. What is more interesting is that even Linus had the same book for his prescribed coursework back then. It speaks volumes to how well written that book is. To be honest, I had not appreciated it then.

Minix was an operating system that was created by Tanenbaum for educational purposes and to teach the principles of Operating Systems. Since the source code of Minix was available, Linus started tinkering with it to make a few improvements. There apparently was a Minix mail-group where Linus shared his changes. Over a period of time when Linus keeps on making changes to Minix he realizes that he might actually want to write a new version of it. That is how Linux a new operating system got created.

Now Linus wanted some initial feedback on what others thought about his new OS. This made him share the source code within the Minix user groups. So overall even though we tout about the open sourceness of Linux, in the book Linus admits that if he had to get feedback on his new OS, the only way was to share the source code.
Linux becoming Open Source was more a natural act rather than a concious decision. It aptly sums up the tagline of the book, “The Store of an accidental revolutionary”.

The fact that Linux was back then then only open source OS was revolutionary and till date is.

Interesting things to note are that later there is an ugly exchange between Tanenbaum and Linus over the advantages of Linux. Tanenbaum apparently was for micro kernels in OS design where as Linus was more for a monolithic kernel which is what Linux is today. I do not pretend to understand the nature of that discussion, but my takeaway was that Linus was ready to challenge the authority of Tanenbaum, whose work had inspired him in the first place.

Linux was just a hobby project started by Linus in his bedroom. He loved programming and was constantly on the look out for new projects to do. Many a times it would be writing a new computer game or something of that sort. Linux also started out similarly but turned out to be a new revolution. Linus admits in the book that if he had known of all the “obstacles” that needed to be surmounted to get Linux where it is today, he probably would have been intimidated and would not have embarked on this journey. But that is the beauty and romance of this story. There was no concious plan or decision on Linux and where it needed to be. It was just a natural evolution that lead it to be where it is now. So moral of the story, do not curb natural evolution. And most importantly keep doing your hobby projects “Just for fun”.

There are two chapters in the book, the first one and the last one where Linus explains the meaning of life as he sees it. It is an interesting take. His view is that any idea / field will go through 3 stages. The survival phase, the phase where tries to survive and establish itself. The second phase is socialization, where we seek to socialize an idea. The final phase is, the idea is so mature now that its value is now entertainment and just for fun.

Fun facts:

  • A Penguin was chosen as a logo for Linux because once when Linux was petting a penguin in a petting zoo, he got bitten by it.
  • Linus was called for a meeting with Steve Jobs who asked Linus to get the entire Linux community behind the macOS project. Linus downright refused.