A Visit From AbovePublished in the Finnish Magazine MG, September 2001. Published in Swedish in the weekly Ny Tid, # 39, 2001.
The messiah of the computer world and Finland’s own son ’Linux’ Torvalds sacrificed three days of his life. We accepted his offer.
He’s been called the IT Robin Hood and a revolutionary and genius. But at this moment Linus Torvalds has come up with a more apt designation:
’This week I’m a lapdog. Strictly speaking the publisher’s lapdog.’
Outside the M3 auditorium in Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia House a hive of journalists as well as the royalty of commerce buzz around Linus. For that’s what they call him, Linus, plain and simple. The Americans have never really got the hang of his surname so now he is known as Linus the world over. The machinery is in full operative mode. This will be three days packed with an endless stream of meet and greets, protracted book signings, power lunches, importunate journalists, admiring gazes, blushing autograph hunters, and sycophantic IT cognoscenti.
During his visit to Finland I will be shadowing Linus to the best of my ability. But don’t for a minute think this is what Linus’ everyday routine looks like as it most often unfolds in front of his computer in Silicon Valley. The lapdog going by the name of Linus is in Finland to promote his new book Just for Fun: The Story of An Accidental Revolutionary, but he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with the bustle that surrounds him. At regular intervals he mumbles something along the lines of: ’Why the Hell did I sign up for this?’
A telecommunications CEO commences proceedings by initially welcoming ’IT icon and double honorary doctorate Linus Torvalds’ but soon notices that Communications Minister Olli-Pekka Heinonen has also arrived. Hmm, maybe he should have introduced the representative of the government first. Somewhat confused he tries to make amends for his faux pas. ’Erm, excuse me Minister, I didn’t notice…’ he mumbles.
But what’s the use in even trying. It’s just the way things are. In Finland an IT icon is an IT icon. A minister on the other hand is just a minister.
The journalists carry out interviews in the Finlandia House. Linus furrows his brow, squints, looking both philosophical and intelligent. The years in Silicon Valley have taught him one of the best tricks in the PR handbook, the gift of making journalists seem smart. Or is it simply as Torvalds writes in Just for Fun: ’Treat a fellow human being as you would like to be treated yourself.’But when a journalist starts fielding questions about stock prices and markets Linus groans resignedly: ’I’ve always felt that business school types are the most insufferable bores. ’
Shame on you. You just don’t say things like that in stock market fixated Finland. However, Linus has always followed his own path.
He attended a school in one of the more well off areas of southern Helsinki, a school in which children from noble families mixed with regular people or in Linus’ case the children of lefty intellectuals. Linus is the son of two journalists, Nils and Anna Torvalds.
During his schooldays Linus was a shy and reserved computer geek. Or as he himself puts it ’I was a geek before it became sexy to be a geek’. I remember him from school as the guy who walked around the corridors with his sizeable snout, large spectacles and a wry grin on his face. But it would never have occurred to anyone to even try to harass him. Okay, he wasn’t exactly a member of the ’in crowd’, but everyone knew that he was smart, extremely smart. He had a twinkle in his eye and above all an integrity that rendered him above reproach. He was the only one in class who refused when a good friend tried to get him to sign a petition against a teacher in school. Anyone else and they would been singled out as a ’coward’. But when Linus said no, it only earned him more respect.
All these damn journalists
In the Finlandia House there’s a lot of talk about the giddy technological future in store for humanity. Talk of super computers that will be more complex than their creators. But Linus, who is evidently the only one not wearing a suit among the 400-strong crowd, issues a swift rebuttal: ’Humanity is and always will be more complex than the technology we come up with,’ he proclaims.
Steady on, Linus, you simply can’t say things like that.
However, when the journalists later flock around him there is no one who wants to talk about the integrity of the individual, especially as we’re in Finland and there are more important issues at hand. The questions fly thick and fast. Can Elisa (a Finnish telecom firm) make it as a global player? Is Sonera (yet another telecom company) about to go bankrupt? Did you lose any money during the nosedive on the stock market? What will happen when IT investment dries up?
The green folding stuff is all that counts.
In the same instant as a flashlight from a camera is extinguished another is turned on, an occasional glass of water is consumed as the publishing people interrupt the journalists and try to uphold the tight programme, which only allows five minutes for each journalist. Linus looks painfully awkward and waves his hands exhaustedly and says that he’d rather ’skip lunch than do it like this’.
But when telecommunications firm Elisa organises a VIP lunch nothing is allowed to supersede that.
Afterwards he tells me how surprised he is over that which he dubs as ’the new mass psychosis’ in Finland. When he visited the country a year ago it was in the deep throes of an IT induced ecstasy. High-tech will be the saviour of humanity! Finland was the leading light in the high-tech realm! We were going to save the world! But now things have taken on a new note as we have once again turned into the self-tormented nation with an inferiority complex. Now everyone is blindly repeating the same mantra or at least they did in the Finlandia House; something along the lines that we are no longer the leading force in high technology, in actual fact we never were, and now that we’re on the brink of recession everything is going to hell in a basket.
’What is this nonsense? Finland actually still has a really good reputation as a high-tech nation. That kind of thing is neither created nor erased over night,’ he explains.
The years in the States and success have transformed Linus into a self-confident young man who can handle social situations brilliantly. When he hits the stage with a cordless microphone nothing can faze him. Especially when he’s allowed to speak in his working language, American English, he takes like a fish to water. He jokes, gesticulates and is ironic at his own expense.
And people love him.
Yup. A geek can become a cultural hero.
But he wasn’t born a hero, and besides it took a certain amount of time for the hero within him to blossom. I leaf through the school magazine from the mid-eighties and notice the high standard of journalism, which invariably revolved around the issue of who was petting whom.
Linus was therefore never a given topic in the publication. He himself bears witness to his utter indifference towards girls during his school years, but there’s also a quote from Linus in the first issue from December 1985, a quote that could probably be attributed to him here and now: ’I’m pretty boring, my only interest is my computer’.
But it is precisely this interest that has made him into one of the leading actors in the IT and computer world. Everything began in the 1980s in his messy room. He had his grandfather’s Vic 20 and like millions of others wrote his first lines of BASIC programming code directly from the manual. Computers had consumed him.
The ultimate challenge
Today he works for the Transmeta Company in Silicon Valley. The company produces a power saving processor which has made the company huge globally despite the IT downturn and Japanese recession hitting the company heavily. But it is of course the Linux operating system, which turned Linus into the icon he is considered to be. On September 17 1991 he released the 0.01 version of his new operating system, which wasn’t exactly a small undertaking. What made a twenty-one-year old embark upon such a project? The answer is in the book Just for fun : ’The operating system is the basis for everything that happens inside the machine…It’s akin to drawing up the constitution for an invented country’.
So there you have it. How many of us have tried to grapple with our own personal ’ultimate challenge ‘?
’One should never attempt to do everything, but only that which one is good at. And one should try to have fun while doing it. That’s the kind of thing that drives me on, not money, which I think is fairly dull,’ says Linus.
Today Linux consists of approximately ten million lines of code- the figure varies on how and what one is calculating- although Linus naturally has written far from all of it. But Linux also represents, as nearly everyone knows, a philosophy, the principle of open source code. This means that everyone has access to the source code and can therefore suggest improvements as long as they accept that the improvements are for the common good. In this way the programme becomes constantly better and better as an army of geeks from around the world creates it. Linus maintains the same thing himself in a subclause in the book as he says that Linux is ’the single greatest collaborative project in the history of the world’. These are the kind of statements that can startle one.
’Do you actually mean that it’s the greatest collaborative project in the history of mankind?’ I ask incredulously.
’Um, let’s see, I’ll have to check what I wrote in my original manuscript… I mean the pyramids were of course a colossal project… but most enormous projects throughout history have been imposed on people by coercion. This is not the case with Linux, ’says Linus.
This is true as no one actually ’owns’ Linux or can cash in on it as intellectual property, but Linus is the generalissimo and as such has unlimited powers, he is the one who controls the process. The programme can still be downloaded free of charge from the net, although it is also available in commercial editions.
The whole open source thing has made Linus into a celebrated and even idolised rebel within the IT community. He’s the guy who has openly defied the previous rules of high technology where companies usually sit on their patents and copyrighted property in order to make money and substantial amounts of it. Linus has for a long time been a hot name to drop in America and in many ways a person who has become Bill Gates’ worst nightmare. This is what’s so uncanny. That the reserved maths whizz, who was more or less broke most of the time during his youth, a regular guy with a congenial grin, has now become the man that can make the mighty Microsoft totter on its pedestal.
The idea is mindboggling.
But hey, the great men and women have to come from somewhere. This time he came from an unassuming street and neighbourhood in Helsinki.
‘People will of course want to create the myth of a war between the tiny Linux and the giant Windows. Personally, I have no interest in that; all I want is to make Linux as good as possible. I don’t think the product will be good enough if hate is the sole driving force behind it,’ Linus insists
This is what he says. But it’s not really the whole truth. It is true that he repeatedly says during his tour of Finland that he doesn’t give two hoots what Bill Gates or Microsoft think or might opine of Linux, but in the next breath he can come up with an ironic comment about the world dominance of Microsoft or the general wretchedness of the Windows operating system. Or then say without recourse to diplomacy that the goal is that every computer in the world will be using Linux.
But then he’s joking of course. At least a little bit.
You see Linus’ humour isn’t always that easy to comprehend. When during the tour he is asked for the umpteenth time how rich he really is, he goes to the front of the stage and gives the audience what they want. ‘I’ve already made more money than most of you will make during your entire lives, so put that in your pipe and smoke it tonight, he says and scratches his right forefinger with his left one.’
A deathly silence ensues. And continues for a while more.
But then come the guffaws.
Phew, that was close. The line between humour and gall is a fine one.
He wasn’t as fortunate during a seminar in America when he came out on stage and was met with a rush of applause even before he had opened his mouth. Linus didn’t know how to react to the tribute so he uttered the now legendary phrase: ’I’m your God.’
Now there’s something you DEFINITELY do not say in America.
In the book, he admits that it was in poor taste.
In short, a geek’s idea of a joke.
No Mother Theresa
But no one should go around with the idea that he is following in his father’s formerly Communist footsteps. Quite the opposite. He believes in capitalism and the market. He has a well-paid job and has nothing against Linux being sold as a commercial product as long as everyone is committed to following the principle of open source code.
’I believe in open source because it’s the best way of making a programme. I’m not Mother Theresa; I’m not a do-gooder or a reformer. The principle of open source is the same as in science, in that progress should benefit everyone,’ he explains to me.
I wonder if there isn’t a source of possible conflict between certain top names within the Linux community and the majority of people developing Linux, who are unpaid geeks who slave over their computers for the good cause.
’I haven’t personally noticed that people have become tired of the project. The motivations that previously existed for working with Linux are still there. It’s about people who are completely committed to the technical side of things. I’m sure there must be people who think Linux isn’t alternative enough, but I don’t know of any programmer who thinks so. Personally, I would be programming, even though I didn’t receive any money for it, but I’d be stupid, if I said no to the money, ’ he continues.
In Oulu in northern Finland we are driven directly to the bookstore. The interviewer wonders if there isn’t an analogy between the city of Oulu and the principle of open source code. That is to say, um, that the IT miracle which is Oulu has originated in a small town where everyone has worked towards a common goal, in much the same way that the combined geeks of the world have worked with Linux and open source.
‘I have only visited Oulu once and frankly I can’t for the life of me see any connection between Linux and Oulu. I just don’t see it,’ he answers frankly
The interviewer is now visibly blushing.
Then come the usual questions: Will Microsoft crush Nokia? What does being Finnish mean to you? And after that booksignings until the cows come home. Now two teenagers have reached the front of the queue and want their autographs on the back of old receipts. The next person in line says that ’he comes from Russia’ and wants him to sign his autographs on the back of some Linux CDs. A woman wonders if Linus could come and speak at an international seminar next year, but the answer is no, and, oops, the sweat is already running down the back of Linus’ shirt. Linus is as cool as ever though, friendly and sympathetic, even towards strangers. A teenager wants to be photographed together with his idol and that’s of course fine and dandy. A fellow from Italy hisses in Linus’ ear that ’it’s a great system’.
Immediately after this, the Technopolis company organises a seminar in an impressive hall in the centre of town. Over 800 people are in attendance. The audience, which consists mainly of 20-30-year-old men, can’t get enough of Linus’cocky humour. However, an elderly gentleman rises and declares that he’s disappointed that Linus isn’t delivering a speech. He points out something along the lines that one should do the job one has been paid to do.
’I’m in the business of working with technology, not giving speeches,’ Linus answers point-blank.
Someone wonders how one can use modern technology to make the world a more equal place. We’ve heard this one before, how the steam engine and telegraph were supposed to unite humanity.
’Technology only accentuates inequality as it makes life easier for the haves and harder for the have-nots. That’s how it’s always been, ’ Linus exclaims.
He’s blaspheming! He’s almost badmouthing high technology! He points out repeatedly that he doesn’t like mobile phones. He maintains that it’s only Tove, Linus’ wife and about three other people on the planet who have his cell phone number. There’s a regular landline in the room at his workplace in Silicon Valley- one can only ring outside calls from it.
Someone wonders when Linux will mount a serious challenge to Windows in the PC and office desktop sector, a market that is extremely hard to penetrate.
‘Linux has excellent prospects. In one or two years time the first desktop version will be ready. Then it will only be a generation until Windows users have become extinct, ‘ he says happily.
When he finishes the applause is never-ending.
Although Linus has been up and running a straight twelve hours, the programme continues. A smoke sauna and tar schnaps with the City Director of Oulu is the following item on the intinerary. At midnight Linus tumbles into bed. At five o’clock he is woken up again. On the flight back to Helsinki he tells me about one of the few other passions he has in life besides Linux and his family, namely his car, a BMW Z3. The climate is so agreeable in California that he can drive with the top open for ten months during the year.
During the winter he turns on the heat full blast and during the summer he does the same with the air conditioning.
Um, let’s get this straight, you’ve got the heat on, but the top down?
’Look, that machine has so much horsepower underneath the hood which no one will ever need so it can only be a good thing if it goes to some use now and again. ’
But what is Linus’ regular weekday like ? Does he work 18 hours a day ?
The morning starts when he turns on the computer in the family’s ’million dollar house’. At around eleven o’clock he swims half a mile in the pool and drives to work. The radio dial is always tuned to the Classic Rock channel and the Beatles, Pink Floyd and AC/DC. Linus is no trendy when it comes to music, his most important and almost sole record is Pink Floyd’s The Wall. He stays at work until seven o’clock in the evening when it’s absolutely certain that the rush hour is over. At home it’s evening chores with the family that consists of Tove and three small girls. Linus’ life in other words revolves around Linux, the BMW, his family, and pool of course. Not to mention his great passion for sleeping.
’Sleep is good. I’m completely against working 18 hours a day,’ he says
He lives as he preaches. When I meet his wife Tove the next day in the bookstore I ask her who gets up in the night when the girls cry.
’Who gets up! Ha, ha! It’s me and exclusively me. It’s simply impossible to wake Linus up at nights, he won’t even wake up if the girls are lying beside him and screaming their heads off, ’she explains good-naturedly.
IBM´s loveaffair with Linux
Another seminar. IBM has decided to back Linux and in order to convey this message one cannot have a better poster boy than Linus Torvalds so the seminar is dubbed ’Linux goes e-business’. He receives a penguin, a sun hat, a marzipan cake with ten candles in order to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Linux system, as well as a standing ovation as he is presented as ‘the most famous Finnish computer geek of all time’. Then the IBM directors proceed to list the companies that have already converted to Linux: Shell, Korean Air, Telia, and Deutsche Telecom. So in the end perhaps it doesn’t really matter that much when one of IBM’s top executives Steve Solazzo concludes his lecture by saying ’and now I want to hand over to our IBM team here in Norway’.
Press conference. Can Linux be used to help Third World countries get online?
’It makes me happy when Linux is used in impoverished countries or by humanitarian organisations. But personally it doesn’t interest me at all, I wouldn’t even want to visit a developing country. I’d become exhausted if I involved myself in everything. My job is to create the technology, it’s for others to devise ways of putting it to good use, ’ he insists.
Students from various institutions of higher learning have been invited to the head office of IBM in Helsinki. Precisely when Linus is about to start talking, one of the students turns on the transparency projector and the hall is lighted up by the Windows logo. Undergaduate humour. Linus looks as if he’s just seen a ghost.
‘Oh my god, turn it off!’ he says in gest.
He talks about licensing fees, as well as copyrighting issues and legislation. He says that no one in the West should moralise over the fact that a Chinese person doesn’t want to pay a license fee that might very well be the equivalent of his or her annual salary.
’Wake up world ! Of course they’re going to make “illegal” copies!’ he says exasperatedly.
In Linus’ world things like that aren’t ’immoral’. It is the law itself that is immoral and wrong.
Interviews are held at the hotel. Linus wonders why I’m still hanging on his coat tails. I reply that I haven’t got a life of my own. Linus lets off a roar of laughter. Then he takes the next journalist by the hand, and the next and next. And then it’s the bookstore round, once again. The same questions and booksignings, but Linus only gives a friendly smile.
The last day kicks off. A seminar at the Nokia Research Centre. Full attendance. Then interviews at the hotel for the remainder of the afternoon. Linus sits in hotel room 823 looking exhausted.
’Is there a risk that this success will go to your head and power will corrupt you?’ I ask him.
’I have the type of power that can’t really be abused that much. It’s a self-regulating form of power. For the time being people trust me and take what I have to say in regard to the Linux project seriously. But people would notice pretty quickly if anything was amiss,’ he says.
The sweat runs down foreheads and shirtbacks in the other large bookstore in the centre of Helsinki. The rush to see Linus is intense. Tove sits amid the throng breastfeading her daughter. Tove says that she came up with the penguin as the symbol for Linux and that the version of events presented in the book is simply not true. He has such a bad memory, she says and giggles.
After the interview the queue for the book signings becomes improbably long. Linus scrawls his name innumerable times and the publisher punches the air and shouts ’Yes’ when he realises how many books have been sold. The last person in the queue after waiting for almost an hour is a fourteen-year-old girl who wants Linus to draw something in her notebook. Linus says no, no, but does it anyway. He draws a tiny penguin in the notebook. And what does the girl do?
She just stands there, completely immobile.
Then she folds her hands.