Sunday, May 6, 2012

"Just for fun"

Last Christmas I got several books as gifts, one of which was "Just for fun: The Story of Accidental Discovery" by Linus Torvalds. Of all the books I got, this one got me the most giddy and I began reading it the first day back at school and found myself wishing my bus rides were longer so I could read on.

There are a few misconceptions that people might have when first picking up this book. The first is that it's going to be extremely technical, like detailed schematics of how the kernel was designed, but it really isn't. True, I am in computer science, but I don't really recall any long segments that would strike me as dull or boring to the average person. There are brief sections where Linus talks about why this techy method was better than that, but he explains it in a broad sense so that non-techy people will get the gist of it, and more-techy people will understand it.

Another misconception might be that you have to love Linux to enjoy this book. Personally, I love Linux, and the majority of the people interested in this book probably will as well, but it's certainly not a prerequisite. Linus really talks about his personal part of the story rather than the culmination of the Free Software movement. A similar implication is that the book was going to be very preachy toward the Open-source Movement, but it is not that either. Linus spends almost the entire book talking about himself. He dips here and there into what was happening as a result of Linux or even some philosophical thoughts, but for the large majority, it's not trying to glamorize open-source software. It's just telling you a story.

That's really the aspect of the book that I like the best; it is undoubtedly well written and narrated, but it's also very informal. It's as if you're sitting down with Linus and chatting one on one. It really helps you see him as a normal person rather than some grandiose computer god. He spends about 1/3 of the book just talking about his own personal life before even starting on Linux. Then he goes on to talk about the rise of Linux and its major adoption, but what that meant to him. And lastly, he finishes up talking about some of the ethical implications of the open-source model. Like I said, he doesn't push it, but he does spend a very brief chapter called "Why Open Source Makes Sense." And that's ok. Can you imagine a book entirely about Linux that didn't talk a little do a smidge of preaching about open source? As long as it's not suffocatingly strong throughout the book, it's fine, and it being confined to one condensed chapter at the end is perfectly fine with me.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this books is kind of getting into the mind of the guy who created Linux. And not because "Oh, he's some kind of genius." Yes, Linus is very smart, but it was more interesting to me to see the inner workings of the mind that kept this revolution going. Like, beyond his intelligence, what does it take? And the overriding answer to me is: clarity. Throughout the book, both in the narrating and the events that happened, it becomes clear that Linus is a straight-to-the-point type of guy; if he disagrees with something he will say "That's stupid" outright. Over the course of the book he describes his reasoning behind decisions he made or stances he takes and he does it in a way that is very sure of himself. That's how I would describe Linus (without meeting him, anyway): sure of himself. And that bleeds into being sure of Linux, and that's why it became so successful, at least part of. People listened to him and followed him (and still follow him) because his stances are straightforward and sincere. He has a code and he sticks to it (pardon the pun). And that's something you can really get behind.

As I said, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I would recommend this book to anyone who has even heard the word "Linux" or has the slightest interest in computers. It's very easy to read, entertaining, and has quite a bit of humor woven in. (Like Linus's stance of Root Beer.) If you're hoping to get "a history of Linux", this book might get you halfway there but it's really more of "a history of the guy who created Linux".  It's not even necessarily a "story", so don't go into it ready to make a map of chronological events; go in with the attitude of "I want to get in the head of Linus Torvalds," and then reading the book will truly live up to its name.

Just For Fun on Amazon


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