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                                 Linus' gift

                               Linus Torvalds

                At the March LinuxWorld Conference, Linus was
         mobbed by interviewers and admirers. (Photo by Paul Sakuma)

Finnish line

     We arrive at Zelda's beachfront restaurant in Capitola to grab a
     seafood lunch. We look out at volleyball players and bikini-clad
     sunbathers. To get a rise out of Linus, you just have to mention the
     tango. The sensual dance is known to be widely popular in
     Finland--not the most warm-blooded of locales. But Linus cringes
     when you assume that every Finn is a tangoista. "It's like Country
     and Western music is here, mostly popular among rednecks in the
     smaller towns," he says. Indeed, Linus is happy to clear up
     misconceptions about Europe's most misunderstood country. For one
     thing, Finland is home to Europe's most virile men, according to one
     study Linus cites. It may have more reindeer per capita than any
     other nation, although most of them are concentrated in Lapland, the
     vast Northern reaches, where Linus spent some of his required Army
     duty. Finland is also the country with the greatest number of cell
     phone users.

              Raising Linus: Mikke Torvalds talks about her son

    Linus was my firstborn child. If I regarded him as miraculously gifted
       from the start, it had more to do with the amazing abilities of all
     human babies to learn so much at such astounding speed, than with any
    special talents he had as an individual. The birth of my daughter Sara
        only reinforced my impression that there is indeed no limit to the
     geometrical progression of children's learning during their so-called
                                                        "formative" years.

    Linus once expressed his awe of his sister very succinctly at an early
       age. He might have been five or seven, when he told me: "You see, I
     don't think any new thoughts. I think thoughts that other people have
   thought, and I rearrange them. But Sara, she thinks thoughts that never
                                                             were before."

       I might pretend that was the moment it occurred to me that he might
     have a "special talent for computers". Or I might simply declare that
      he was a nerd from the moment he was born (that's what I usually say
   when people ask). I had been blessed and cursed with a father who was a
    scientist, and an older brother who is one. I knew the signs. They are
                                easily discernible, even in a small child.

      The symptoms can be alarming, or create some practical problems, but
      once you know them for what they are, you can relax and say: " Ahaa.
    One of those. They're harmless, but they take some adapting to. Not to
    worry, it's not an illness, not even necessarily a flaw. Just let them
        be, and they may surprise and even reward you, for they mean truly


     A nation of 5 million people spread out over a region the size of
     California, Finland is actually ahead of the United States in
     certain technological deployments. Finns routinely pay bills
     electronically, for example. Linus explains that the techno-savvy is
     the result of two things: electronic know-how developed as part of
     post-World War II reparations the nation delivered to Russia, and an
     extremely homogeneous population which easily adopts new technology.

     But the place is not heaven. For one thing, as Linus points out, the
     weather sucks. And it's dark half of the year. "Programming. Sex.
     Drinking. There's not much else to do," he moans, sipping iced tea
     through a straw. As a college student, Linus spent far more time on
     the first activity than on the others. And programming remains his
     No. 1 sport. "Although now at least I have a life," he says.

     "Here, if you're successful, people tend to respect you. In Europe,
     if you're successful, people tend to envy you. In Europe, if
     someone's really good you pay him more, say 20 percent more. Here
     you pay him 10 times more. Here it's easier to be rich and
     successful and that motivates more people. I'm completely converted
     to the U.S. belief that you encourage people to do things by
     rewarding them, as opposed to trying to be fair by even rewarding
     the bad people."

     But it was the chance to work on advanced technology--more than the
     opportunity to get rich--that motivated Linus to follow up on a
     Swedish friend's suggestion to interview at Transmeta two and a half
     years ago. "I grew up in a household where money was not the most
     important thing in the world," he says, pointing out that his
     father was "very left-wing by U.S. standards." He comes by his
     views honestly: His parents met at a protest rally. Despite his
     non-materialist upbringing and non-capitalist bent, Linus in
     California shares a trait that's common among newcomers to these
     shores: He's like a kid in a candy store. We pass a sports car and
     Linus stops to admire it. "I'm having a mid-life crisis. I'm looking
     at all these things," he says, almost embarrassed, then quickly
     adds: "I don't even think it's a mid-life crisis. It's just, I'm
     paid too well."

Sympathy for Bill Gates

     Linus seems less like a reindeer caught in the global headlights
     than a delightful alien dropped down from another planet--possibly
     to show us all the madness of our ways. Nobody has ever accused
     Silicon Valley of having a conscience, but it looks as if this
     bespectacled Finn might be the closest thing. For too many of the
     stock option-crazed minions in Silicon Valley, his very existence
     raises an unutterable conundrum, namely: "How can anyone so
     brilliant be so uninterested in getting rich?"

     A lot of folks in Silicon Valley are so drunk on their own bath
     water that they simply don't get Linus. Take Steve Jobs. After Linus
     moved to the States in 1997, the acting Apple Computer CEO got in
     touch with him. Jobs wanted to persuade Linus to get involved in
     making the MacOS an open source code project. "He tried to get the
     Linux movement going more into the Apple area. I think he was
     surprised that his arguments, which were the Apple market share
     arguments--which would have made an impression on people who did
     this for commercial reasons--had absolutely no impact on me," Linus

     It occurs to me that Linus might find it interesting to spend some
     time with Bill Gates. At first, he says he is not the least bit
     interested in meeting everybody's favorite nemesis. "There wouldn't
     be much of a connection point. I'm completely uninterested in the
     thing that he's the best in the world at. And he's not interested in
     the thing that maybe I'm the best in the world at. I couldn't give
     him advice in business and he couldn't give me advice in
     technology," he says. Then he adds, "Even if you're the best
     technology person at Microsoft, your goal isn't to make the best
     product possible.

     "His whole mission in life is to see that anything that threatens
     Microsoft goes away," continues Linus. "He probably is the best
     businessman alive today. And he happened to be in the right place at
     the right time and he was technical enough to take advantage of

     But later, Linus admits that he feels sorry for the world's richest
     man. "To have such a huge ego and have everybody hate you must
     really be difficult for him," he says, "And he probably has trouble
     trusting anyone other than his oldest friends." Yes, Linus relents
     that he would actually like to meet with Gates, although he
     "wouldn't know how to start the conversation."

     Unlike many in Silicon Valley, the newcomer is guided by a strong
     set of ethics. "There are like two golden rules in life. One is 'Do
     unto others as you would want them to do unto you.' For some reason,
     people associate this with Christianity. I'm not a Christian. I'm
     agnostic. The other rule is 'Be proud of what you do.'"

     Bill Joy, Sun Microsystems' founder, chief scientist and corporate
     executive officer, is one of the few people in Silicon Valley whom
     Linus says he found enjoyable. Joy was, as a graduate student at
     UC-Berkeley in the late 1970s, the most important person in the
     development of a Unix version which has been more or less supplanted
     by Linux. In Joy's words, "I was the person who added the Internet
     to Unix and distributed it widely in source form."

     Linus and Joy met once, for sushi, and it was clear they had a lot
     in common, although Joy's approach to open source code is less
     extreme than Linus'. Sun Microsystems shares its Java source code
     with people who want to improve it, but anyone looking to
     commercialize it must pay a licensing fee.

                                                       NEXT: SWEAT EQUITY



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