Linus On Linux And Strong Language
Written by Mike James   
Sunday, 19 October 2014

In a recent video made of a Q&A at this year's LinuxCon, Linus Torvalds says some interesting things - including some comments about his interesting robust style. It also gives us the amazing one-liner, "On the Internet nobody can hear you being subtle."


The first nine minutes of the session is mostly about how the Linux project is going and its structure. Then suddenly the topic changes to the way Linus deals with people and his use of profanity and verbal abuse to mange things.



This is a topic that has been brought to people's attention by the recent post by Lennart Poettering on the high levels of abuse including death threats he has been receiving Poettering is responsible for systemd, the biggest change to the Linux initialization system for many years. Some people don't like systemd for a range of complicated technical reasons and some do. The problem is that the level of passion around this issue has generated personal abuse for systemd's inventor and in a blog post he points the finger at Torvalds for setting a bad example at the top of the Linux development community. For more on this see Lennart Poettering - Open Source Not A Nice Place

While initially Linus made vague comments about systemd not being his problem, the whole issue has made him think hard about his management style. The revealing comments are in response to a very general question put by Dirk Hohndel that didn't have to lead to where Linus takes it:

DH:  "If you could change a single decision you have made in the last 23 years .. which would you change?"

Linus:  “From a technical standpoint, no single decision has ever been that important. Technical issues even when they have been wrong - you can fix them later...The problems tend to be around alienating users or developers and I'm pretty good at that. I use strong language. But again there's not a single instance I'd like to fix. There's a metric sh*tload of those. At the same time, hey, I am who I am.”

DH:  "And what is important is that they enjoy being called monkeys on crack."

Linus:  "Some people seem to. There is a certain amount of Stockholm syndrome where when you abuse somebody enough they start kind of  liking it."

At this point the audience is laughing and it is clear that this isn't a 100% serious remark, but it is also clear that it is close to the truth. Then Linus produces an amazing one-liner sound bite:

"On the Internet nobody can hear you being subtle."

(not 100% original but...)

It seems that the difficulties of communication make it possible for developers to get their wires crossed and not understand the differing views of technical issues. Linus goes on to explain why a robust comment is required to almost shock programmers out of their comfort zone:

"especially if you are being gentle about this and saying 'yeh your patch, I don't like it, could you maybe change it a bit?' The other end is kind of encouraged to go along and continue doing the same thing when sometimes you really need to say 'No', 'No really, that is horrible - you cannot do this. Go away and come back with a completely different approach

One of the reasons we have this culture of strong language, that admittedly many people find off-putting, is that when it comes to technical people with strong opinions and with a strong drive to do something technically superior, you end up having these opinions show up as sometimes pretty strong language.”

Watch the video for the rest there are some other interesting insights towards the end:  


Other commentators are reporting the comments as an attempt at an apology. 

I think it is more a justification. 

Linus walks a very fine line. So far most of his comments have been softened by having an edge of humour. If you don't notice the humour then you probably think that his abuse is the same thing as a death threat. It clearly isn't. But would it take much for one of his barbs to be miscrafted to the point where it crossed the line?

The penguin might not be so smiling then...



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Last Updated ( Sunday, 19 October 2014 )