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Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary

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Once upon a time Linus Torvalds was a skinny unknown, just another nerdy Helsinki techie who had been fooling around with computers since childhood. Then he wrote a groundbreaking operating system and distributed it via the Internet — for free. Today Torvalds is an international folk hero. And his creation LINUX is used by over 12 million people as well as by companies such as IBM.

Now, in a narrative that zips along with the speed of e-mail, Torvalds gives a history of his ...

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Once upon a time Linus Torvalds was a skinny unknown, just another nerdy Helsinki techie who had been fooling around with computers since childhood. Then he wrote a groundbreaking operating system and distributed it via the Internet — for free. Today Torvalds is an international folk hero. And his creation LINUX is used by over 12 million people as well as by companies such as IBM.

Now, in a narrative that zips along with the speed of e-mail, Torvalds gives a history of his renegade software while candidly revealing the quirky mind of a genius. The result is an engrossing portrayal of a man with a revolutionary vision, who challenges our values and may change our world.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Of the many characters who've arisen in 50 years of the computer revolution, few are more intriguing than Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux. Here's a guy who created the first Linux kernel in his bedroom, as a hobby -- starting a snowball rolling that may yet bury Microsoft in an avalanche. He seems to preside over his own personal global revolution with amiability, equanimity, bemusement -- and far less evident greed than you'd expect from your typical technology titan.

Ever wonder what it's like being Linus? How he got that way? What motivates him? Read his new quasi-autobiography, Just for Fun, and wonder no more.

We suspect when the mainstream press reviews this book, they'll cluck over amusing tidbits like Linus describing who picks his wardrobe: "'s the marketing staff for high-tech companies, the people who select the T-shirts and jackets that will be given away free at conferences. These days, I dress pretty much exclusively in vendorware, so I never have to pick out clothes."

Or, Linus on meeting his wife: "She had more of an impact on my life than even Andrew Tanenbaum's book, Operating Systems Design and Implementation."

The tidbits are embedded in a narrative that starts with a look at growing up in Finland, where "we have a healthy share of both alcoholics and fans of tango dancing. Spend a winter in Finland, and you understand the roots of all the drinking. There's no excuse for the tangoistas..." You'll learn why he started writing Linux, why he open-sourced it, and how he handles celebrity: "Take a person whose life-long philosophy has been to have fun and do something interesting, then add some money and fame, and what do you expect will happen? Instant philanthropist? I don't think so."

The whole book's laid-back fun with a purpose. Here's Linus's management philosophy: "...the same as it was when I coded away in my bedroom: I don't proactively delegate as much as I wait for people to come forward and volunteer to take over things.... I try to manage by not making decisions and letting things occur naturally. That's when you get the best results."

As Torvalds sees it, fun isn't just, well, fun: It's the inevitable, desirable direction of human evolution. "...neither business nor technology will change the basic nature of human needs and yearnings...[which] move away from plain survival through a society based on communication and finally into the realm of entertainment..."

If you're not having fun, you're not meeting your evolutionary destiny. In the longterm, you'll have to solve that problem for yourself, but in the shortterm, read this book. You will have fun. (Bill Camarda)

Bill Camarda is a consultant and writer with nearly 20 years' experience in helping technology companies deploy and market advanced software, computing, and networking products and services. His 15 books include Special Edition Using Word 2000 and Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies®, Second Edition.

Some people are born to lead millions. Others are born to write world-changing software. Only one person does both: Torvalds.
Time Magazine
Some people are born to lead millions. Others are born to write world-changing software. Only one person does both: Torvalds.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The autobiography of a career computer programmer, even an unorthodox one, may sound less than enthralling, but this breezy account of the life of Linux inventor Torvalds not only lives up to its insouciant title, it provides an incisive look into the still-raging debate over open source code. In his own words (interspersed with co-writer Diamond's tongue-in-cheek accounts of his interviews with the absentminded Torvalds), the programmer relates how it all started in 1981 with his grandfather back in Finland, who let him play around on a Vic 20 computer. At 11 years old, Torvalds was hooked on computersespecially on figuring out how they ran and on improving their operating systems. For years, Torvalds did little but program, upgrading his hardware every couple of years, attending school in a desultory fashion and generally letting the outside world float by unnoticed, until he eventually wrote his own operating system, Linux. In a radical move, he began sharing the code with fellow OS enthusiasts over the burgeoning Internet in the early 1990s, allowing others to contribute to and improve it, while he oversaw the process. Even though Torvalds is now a bigger star in the computer world than Bill Gates, and companies like IBM are running Linux on their servers, he has retained his innocence: the book is full of statements like "Open source makes sense" and "Greed is never good" that seem sincere. Leavened with an appealing, self-deprecating sense of humor and a generous perspective that few hardcore coders have, this is a refreshing read for geeks and the techno-obsessed. (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780066620732
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/28/2002
  • Edition description: First Harper Business Paperback Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 503,321
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Linus Torvalds was born in Finland. He graduated from the University of Helsinki and lives with his wife, the six-time karate champion of Finland, and his children. Linus currently works as a programmer on several projects for Transmeta.

David Diamond has written regularly for such publications as the New York Times, Business Week, and Wired. He is executive editor of Red Herring Magazine and lives in Kentfield, California, with his wife and daughter.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I was an ugly child.

What can I say? I hope some day Hollywood makes a film about Linux, and they'll be sure to cast somebody who looks like Tom Cruise in the lead role -- but in the non-Hollywood version, things don't work out that way.

Don't get me wrong. It's not as if I looked like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Envision instead large front teeth, so that anybody seeing a picture of me in my younger years gets a slightly beaverish impression. Imagine also a complete lack of taste in clothes, coupled with the traditional oversized Torvalds nose, and the picture starts to complete in your mind.

The nose, I'm sometimes told, is "stately." And people -- well, at least in our family -- say that the size of a man's nose is indicative of other things, too. But tell that to a boy in his teens, and he won't much care. To him, the nose only serves to overshadow the teeth. The picture of the profiles of three generations of Torvalds men is just a painful reminder that yes, there is more nose than man there. Or so it seems at the time.

Now, to add to the picture, start filling in the details. Brown hair (what here in the United States is called blond, but in Scandinavia is just "brown"), blue eyes, and a slight shortsightedness that makes wearing glasses a good idea. And, as wearing them possibly takes attention away from the nose, wear them I do. All the time.

Oh, and I already mentioned the atrocious taste in clothes. Blue is the color of choice, so that usually means blue jeans with a blue turtleneck. Or maybe turquoise. Whatever. Happily, our family wasn't very much into photography. That way there's lessincriminating evidence.

There are a few photographs. In one of them I'm around thirteen years old, posing with my sister Sara, who is sixteen months younger. She looks fine. But I'm a gangly vision, a skinny pale kid contorting for the photographer, who was probably my mother. She most likely snapped the little gem on her way out the door to her job as an editor at the Finnish News Agency.

Being born at the very end of the year, on the 28th of December, meant that I was pretty much the youngest in my class at school. And that in turn meant the smallest. Later on, being half a year younger than most of your classmates doesn't matter. But it certainly does during the first few years of school.

And do you know what? Surprisingly, none of it really matters all that much. Being a beaverish runt with glasses, bad hair days most of the time (and really bad hair days the rest of the time), and bad clothes doesn't really matter. Because I had a charming personality.


No, let's face it, I was a nerd. A geek. From fairly early on. I didn't duct-tape my glasses together, but I might as well have, because I had all the other traits. Good at math, good at physics, and with no social graces whatsoever. And this was before being a nerd was considered a good thing.

Everybody has probably known someone in school like me. The boy who is known as being best at math -- not because he studies hard, but just because he is. I was that person in my class.

But let me fill in the picture some more, before you start feeling too sorry for me. A nerd I may have been, and a runt, but I did okay. I wasn't exactly athletic, but I wasn't a hopeless klutz either. The game of choice during breaks at school was "brännboll" -- a game of skill and speed in which two teams try to decimate each other by throwing a ball around. And while I wasn't ever the top player, I was usually picked fairly early on.

So in the social rankings I might have been a nerd, but, on the whole, school was good. I got good grades without having to work at it -- never truly great grades, exactly because I didn't work at it. And an accepted place in the social order. Nobody else really seemed to care too much about my nose; this was almost certainly, in retrospect, because they cared about their own problems a whole lot more.

Looking back, I realize that most other children seem to have had pretty bad taste in clothes, too. We grow up and suddenly somebody else makes that particular decision. In my case, it's the marketing staffs for high-tech companies, the people who select the T-shirts and jackets that will be given away free at conferences. These days, I dress pretty much exclusively in vendorware, so I never have to pick out clothes. And I have a wife to make the decisions that complete my wardrobe, to pick out things like sandals and socks. So I never have to worry about it again.

And I've grown into my nose. At least for now, I'm more man than nose.

Just for Fun. Copyright © by Linus Torvalds. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Interviews & Essays

Author Essay
Linus's Law: How Life (and Technology) Evolves from Survival to Fun

Have you ever lain back on a warm summer's night, looking up at the stars, and really wondered why you are here? What is your place in things, and what are you supposed to do with your life?

Yeah, well, neither have I.

Yet I ended up devising a theory about Life. The Universe, and Everything -- or at least the subset called "Life." Why? I needed to come up with something for a speech with a panel of philosophers, and time was running out.

It's actually not much of a "meaning." It's more a law of life, hereafter to be called "Linus's Law." It's equivalent to the second law of thermodynamics in physics, but rather than explaining the devolution of order in the universe, it is about the evolution of life.

So, my argument goes, in order to understand the evolution of society, you have to understand what really motivates people. What fundamentally makes people do what they do? My answer: Survival. Your place in the social order. And entertainment.

But it's more than just "these are the things that motivate people." If that were all, it wouldn't be much of a theory of life. What makes it interesting is that the three motivational factors have an intrinsic order, an order that shows up wherever there is life. It's not just that we're motivated by those three things -- they also hold true for forms of life other than human life, and they show up as the natural progression for any lifelike behavior.

The first motivating factor is survival. After that is assured, people want to secure their ranking in the social pecking order -- it's the same whether you're a human or a hen. After that, you do things for the entertainment of it.

Take sex. It started out as something done for pure survival. Then it became a social thing -- that's why you get married. And then it becomes entertainment. The same is true of war. It began as a way of dealing with the guy who was between you and the water hole. Then it became a means of establishing social order. Now, the reasons for war and the perceptions of war are moving into the realm of entertainment.

Survive. Socialize. Have fun. That's the progression. And that's also why I chose Just for Fun as the title of my book. Because everything we ever do seems to eventually end up being for our own entertainment.

And what is interesting to me as a technologist is how this pattern repeats itself in the technology we create. Technology doesn't drive society. It is society that changes technology. Technology just sets the boundaries for what we can do, and how cheaply we do it. But the driving force behind technology is human needs and interests.

We call the early age of modern technology the Industrial Age, but what it really should be called is the Age of Technological Survival. Technology, up until not that long ago, was almost exclusively for surviving better -- being able to weave cloth better and to move goods around faster.

We call the current period the Information Age. It's a big shift. It's about technology being used for communication and spreading information -- a very social behavior -- rather than just surviving in better style. The Internet, and the fact that so much of our technology is starting to move toward it, is a big road sign of our times: It means that people in the industrialized countries are starting to take the survival thing for granted, and suddenly the next phase of technology becomes the big and exciting one: the social aspect of communication technology, of using technology not just to live better but as an integral part of social life.

The ultimate goal of course, is still looming. Past the information society -- a place where the Internet and wireless communications 24 hours a day is taken for granted -- exists the entertainment society.

So what does this all mean? Probably not much. After all, my theory of the meaning of life doesn't actually guide you in what you should be doing. At most, it says "Yes, you can fight it, but in the end the ultimate goal of life is to have fun."

It does, to some degree, explain why people are willing and eager to work on projects like Linux on the Internet. For me, and for many other people, Linux has been a way to scratch two motivational itches at the same time. Taking survival for granted, Linux has instead brought people both the social motivations associated with being part of creating it all and the entertainment of an intellectual challenge -- the fun. (Linus Torvalds)

In 1991, as a student at the University of Helsinki in Finland, Linus Torvalds created the first Linux operating system kernel. Since then, he has coordinated an ever-growing global community of Linux developers, building Linux into the world's fastest-growing operating system. Torvalds is also a member of the software development team that created Transmeta's renowned code-morphing software.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 27, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    The first sentence in Chapter one of this autobiography is "

    The first sentence in Chapter one of this autobiography is "I was an ugly child." That right there gives you a good feel for the humor of the book. But it isn't just humorous. It is also an indepth and candid look at the man behind the creation of the least-known yet most-used operating system in the world, Linux, yet told in language that most people should be able to understand without having to be a computer nerd (some places he gets a bit nerdy, but you don't have to be able to keep up with the geekspeak to follow the book).

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  • Posted October 27, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    The man behind the penguin.

    This book is a great read if you wanted to know more about the man behind the greatest free OS in the world. You'll read about how Linus grew up as a child and how his little side project became the powerful GNU/Linux that it is today. It's a fun read and and even funny. If you are a GNU/Linux fan then I would recommend you read this.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2004


    In Just for Fun, Linus Torvalds, the Finnish creator of the Linux operating system, mixes his personal story, told in both narrative and e-mail dispatches, with the saga of his development of the Linux operating system. Torvalds¿ personal account makes the book fascinating. He began as a self-proclaimed nerd who labored to create an operating system in his garage and eventually became the head of the world¿s largest open source project. By requiring buyers and licensees to keep the Linux source code open, Torvalds assures the continued technological evolution of his system. The episodic nature of the book makes it choppy, the technical descriptions are hard for the uninitiated to track and co-writer David Diamond¿s digressions are revealing about Torvalds¿ personal life, but a little disruptive. Even so, we recommend this entertaining, interesting book that may even lead you to consider using Linux on your computer, whether or not you are another self-proclaimed computer nerd.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2004

    Entertaining and reflective of Torvalds' personality

    Linux is one of the most important developments of the late 20th century, and this account of how it came about is surprisingly enjoyable. Torvalds and Diamond work well together to produce an easy-to-read, insightful, humorous, and very informative read. I suspect many readers will discover some empathy for Linus' life experiences, as well.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2001

    and it really is fun!

    There are two great things about this book: it's the story of one of the finest achievements of the 90s, and it makes me laugh while telling it. Get it, it's too much fun too miss.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2001

    Excellent book, a good read just for fun!

    <p> This is a very good book. I am a little biased, having been a Linux user from way back, but this really is a fun read. If you are a fan of Linux, Open Source Software, or would like an inside view of what makes 'The Man,' Linus Torvalds tick. Even if you do not fit into one of these categories, this is still a very well done book. </p> <p> It starts with an introspective look at Linus' life (I must admit the whole 'biography' thing is odd, because he is still such a young man), which is something that has not been covered much beyond the... A young Finnish college student makes his own version of Minix/Unix for free and distributes it on the internet. Then the book goes into the Linux operating system itself and the underlying ideology. </p> <p> I give it four stars simply because it is a little early to do the auto/biography thing. I do think it is a well written book, but it feels a little rushed and unpolished. It is a fun read just for fun, and is worthy of your time and money. </p>

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 11, 2001

    Very interesting and amusing, a great book

    I bought this book Wednesday night (May 9) and had finished reading it by Friday morning; I stayed up until the early hours of Friday reading because I couldn't put it down. The book is highly entertaining and thought provoking. It begins with Linus' thoughts on the meaning of life and ends with an elaboration of his thoughts on the subject. Between these two bookends, Linus discusses such things as life in Finland, coming to the United States, developing the Linux kernel, and the future of Open Source and Free Software. As the book progresses, it focusses less on Linus' life and more on Linux and Open Source. Linus is very witty and entertaining and he makes you enjoy reading about his life. David Diamond also discusses what it is like to be around Linus and even interviews Linus' mother and sister in Finland. I highly recommend this book both for people who are already interested in Linux, and also for those who are just wondering what Linux and Open Source are all about. If you weren't excited about Linux before, you will be after reading this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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