The strange tale of Linux, Linus and a town called Dunedin

One man's journey into the unknown

As a stranger in my own town, wandering the portals of the Linux Australia 2006 conference at the University of Otago in Dunedin, I was strictly doing the paint-by-numbers thing.

Grab the people, the editor had told me to, interview them for ten or 15 minutes each, then get out of there. This was not my world. My colleague Dene Mackenzie from the Otago Daily Times and myself were the only ones wearing ties for miles around.

I’d only learned a couple of days earlier what Linux was, and I was on a very steep learning curve. I’m working my way round a cramped ante-room, in tandem with Dene, interviewing this group of perfectly agreeable chaps, who surprisingly for someone like me, with an aversion to and complete ignorance of technospeak, speak relatively plain English.

In walks Linus Torvalds and there’s much bowing and scraping and tugging of forelocks. I’m sticking resolutely to my script here. I’m boxing on, talking to the people I’ve been told to, since I can’t distinguish chalk from cheese in this environment.

As I’m chatting to conference organiser Mike Beattie, Linux Australia vice president Pia Waugh nudges me “You better talk to Linus. You can talk to Mike anytime.”

Dene and Linus are engrossed in conversation so I think “hmmm, Dene’s a tech guru, this might be important”.

Somehow, in the 60 seconds before I’m introduced to Linus, it hits me that this laid-back guy with the beaming countenance IS Linux, the rock-star of open source.

“You’re Mr Linux, right? Yep.”

(So far, so good).

I’ve been thinking all week: Linux, Linux, that’s very similar to Linus the character from Peanuts. Well, blow me down if Torvalds isn’t the spitting image of Linus. Would you believe his extensive Wikipedia biography says he even claims to have been named after Charlie Brown’s loyal lieutenant. (He was actually named after Linus Pauling, the American Nobel Prize-winning chemist. Go figure.)

Arguably the University of Helsinki’s most famous alumnus, Torvalds wrote the Linux kernel in 1991 when he was a student there. Starting with the basics of a Unix system, he wrote the kernel for his x86 PC, which he later offered for free, propelling him into open-source super-stardom and a virtual deity among programmers.

Users around the world can add to the kernel all the time and tweak it.

Torvalds’s super-stardom has been enhanced in tangible ways. In 1996 he had an asteroid named after him. In Time magazine’s person of the century poll in 2000, he was voted at number 17. Four years later Time named him as one of the most influential people on the planet. The same year, he was placed 16th in a search for the 100 greatest Finns of all time.

“I ended up writing my own operating system because I needed it, and I thought ‘hey, how hard can it be?’” he told me.

“I’ve always been interested in really how the machine works, and doing the operating system, that really is the thing that controls the actual hardware.” Yep, with you there so far, Linus. (His parents were both journalists so he is well skilled in the dark art).

“That to me has always been very interesting. It was really just a personal project. I wanted initially to connect to the university machines, doing email, doing the stuff I needed to at uni.”

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