1. 19

    As with most of Gary Bernhardt’s writing, I loved this piece. I read it several times over, as I find his writing often deeply interesting. To me, this is a great case study in judgement through attempting to apply Americanized principles to speech between two non-Americans (a Pole and a Finn) communicating in a second language.

    There are several facets at play here as I see it:

    1. There’s a generational difference between older hackers and newer ones. For older hackers, the code is all that matters, niceties be damned. Newer hackers care about politeness and being treated well. Some of this is a product of money coming in since the 90s, and people who never would’ve been hackers in the past are hackers now.

    2. Linux is Linus’ own project. He’s not going to change. He’s not going to go away. If you don’t like the way he behaves, fork it. Run your own Linux fork the way you want, and you’ll see whether or not the niceties matters. Con Kolivas did this for years.

    3. There are definitely cultural issues at play. While Linus has a lot of exposure to American culture, he’s Finnish. Finnish people are not like Americans. I find the American obsession with not upsetting people often infuriatingly two-faced, and I’m British. I have various friends in other countries who find the much more minor but still present British obsession with not upsetting people two-faced, and they’re right.

    Go to Poland, fuck up and people will tell you. Go to Germany, do something wrong and people will correct you. Go to Finland, do something stupid getting in the way of a person’s job and probably they’ll swear at you in Finnish. I’m not saying this is right, or wrong, it’s just the rest of the world works differently to you, and while you can scream at the sea about perceived injustices, the sea will not change it’s tides for you.

    Yes Linus is being a jerk, but it’s not like this is an unknown quantity. Linus doesn’t owe you kindness. You don’t owe Linus respect either. If his behaviour is that important to you, don’t use Linux.

    1. 16

      Finnish people are not like Americans. I find the American obsession with not upsetting people often infuriatingly two-faced […]

      • I think this is a false comparison of some sort. Americans worrying doesn’t say anything useful about Finns.
      • I emphatically disagree that Linus is representative of the social culture around me in Finland.
      • Nonviolent, clear communication is not the same thing as avoiding difficult subjects. It’s the opposite!
      1. 5

        I think this is a false comparison of some sort. Americans worrying doesn’t say anything useful about Finns.

        In my experience of dealing with Finns, they don’t sugar coat things. When something is needed to be said, the Finns I’ve interacted with are extremely direct and to the point, compared to some other cultures. Would you say that’s fair?

        I emphatically disagree that Linus is representative of the social culture around me in Finland.

        I didn’t say that he’s representative of Finnish culture. He’s a product of it. He wasn’t raised American. He didn’t grow up immersed in American culture and values. It would be unrealistic to expect him to hold or conform to American values.

        Nonviolent, clear communication is not the same thing as avoiding difficult subjects. It’s the opposite!

        Definitely! Out of interest, what are your thoughts on this in terms of applicability to his communication style? I’m fairly certain there’s a general asshole element to his style, but I wonder how much (if any) is influenced by this.

        1. 1

          He didn’t grow up immersed in American culture and values. It would be unrealistic to expect him to hold or conform to American values.

          As an Italian, I can say that after the WWII, US did a great job to spread their culture in Europe.
          Initially to counter the “Bolsheviks” influx, later as a carrier for their products.

          They have been largely successful.
          Indeed, I love Joplin just like I love Vivaldi, Mozart and Beethoven! :-)
          But we have thousands years of variegate history, so we are not going to completely conform anyway. After all, we are proud of our deep differences, as they enrich us.

          1. 2

            At the risk of getting into semantics, Finland was much more neutral post WWII than other European nations due to realpolitik.

            Also, there is something to say for Italian insults, by far some of the finest and most perverse, blasphemous poetry I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It’s the sort of level of filth that takes thousands of years to age well :)

            1. 3

              Actually the Invettiva is a literary gender on its own, that date back to ancient Greek.

              In Italian, there are several passages of Dante’s Divina Commedia that belong to the genre and are spectacular examples of the art you describe.

              But since we are talking about jerk, I will quote Marziale, from memory: 2000 years later we still memorize his lines at school

              Os et labras tibi lingit, Menneia, catellus.
              Non miror, merdas si libet esse cani.

              Nothing Linus can say will ever compete! ;-)

              1. 1

                Os et labras tibi lingit, Menneia, catellus. Non miror, merdas si libet esse cani.

                Google translates this as

                Your mouth and lip licking, Menneas, catelle. I am not surprised, merda, if you like to be for the dog.

                Which I assume is horribly wrong. Is it possible to translate for us non-worldly folks who only know English? :-)

                1. 2

                  The translation from Latin is roughly

                  The little dog licks your mouth and lips.
                  Not a surprise: dogs like to eat shits.

                  It’s one of Martial’s Epygrams.
                  Not even one of the worse!

                  It’s worth noticing how nothing else remains of Menneia. And the same can be said of several people targeted by his insults.

                  1. 1

                    Hah, that’s great. Thank you!

      2. 9

        speech between two non-Americans (a Pole and a Finn) communicating in a second language.

        How is that relevant? On my current team, we have developers from Argentina, Bosnia, Brazil, China, India, Korea, and Poland, as well as several Americans (myself included). Yet as far as I can recall from the year that I’ve been on this team so far, all of our written communication has been civil. And even in spoken communication, as far as I can recall, nobody uses profanity to berate one another. To be fair, this is in a US-based corporate environment. Still, I don’t believe English being a second language is a reason to not be civil in written communication.

        1. 7

          You’re comparing Linux, a Finnish-invented, international, volunteer-based non-corporate project to a US-based corporate environment, and judging Linus’ communications against your perception of a US-based corporate environment. You’re doing the same thing as the author, projecting your own values onto something that doesn’t share those values.

          Additionally, by putting the words I’ve said, and following that up with a reference to a US-based corporate environment, you’ve judged the words of a non-American who wasn’t speaking to you by your own US-based corporate standards.

          I hope that helps you understand my point more clearly. My point isn’t that Linus does or doesn’t act an asshole (he does), but that expecting non-Americans to adhere to American values, standards or norms is unrealistic at best, and cultural colonialism at worst.

        2. 8

          For older hackers, the code is all that matters, niceties be damned. [..]
          Some of this is a product of money coming in since the 90s, and people who never would’ve been hackers in the past are hackers now.

          No, people who would’ve never been hackers in the past, are not hackers now either.
          And hackers have always cared about more than code. Hacking has always been a political act.

          Linus is not a jerk, his behaviour is pretty deliberate. He does not want to conform.
          He is not much different from Dijkstra, Stallman or Assange.

          Today, cool kids who do not understand what hacking is, insult hackers while calling themselves hackers.

          Guess what? Hackers do care about your polite corporate image as much as they do care about dress code.

          There are definitely cultural issues at play.

          Not an issue. It’s a feature! Hackers around the world are different.

          And we are proud of the differences, because they help us to break mainstream groupthink.

          1. 2

            Hacking has always been a political act.

            This is a really interesting idea! I’m seeing this kind of idea more and more these days and I haven’t been able to work out what it means. I guess you don’t mean something as specific as “Hacking has always been in favour of a particular political ideology” nor something as general as “Hacking has always had an effect on reality”. So could you say something more precise about what you mean by that?

            1. 3

              This is a good question that is worth of a deep answer. I’ll rush a fast one here, but I might write something more in the near future.

              All hacks are political, but some are more evidently so. An example is Stallman’s GNU GPL. Actually the whole GNU project is very political. Almost as political as BSDs. Another evidently political hack was done by Cambridge Analytica with Facebook’s user data.

              The core value of hackers activity is curiosity: hackers want to learn. We value freedom and sharing as a mean to get more knowledge for the humanity.

              As such, hacking is always political: its goal is always to affect (theoretically, to improve) the community in one way or another.

              Challenging laws or authorities is something that follows naturally from such value, but it’s not done to get power or profit, just to learn (and show) something new. This shows how misleading is who distinguish hats’ colours: if you are an hacker you won’t have problems to violate stupid laws to learn and/or share some knowledge, be it a secret military cablage, how to break a DRM system or how to modify a game console: it’s not the economical benefit you are looking for, but the knowledge. The very simple fact that some knowledge is restricted, forbidden or simply unexplored, is a strong incentive for an hacker to try to gain it, using her knowledge and creativity.

              But even the most apparently innocent hack is political!
              See Rust, Go, Haskell or Oberon: each with its own vision of how and who should program and of what one should expect from a software.
              See HTTP browsers: very political tools that let strangers from a different state run code (soon assembly-like) on your pc (ironically with your consent!).
              See Windows, Debian GNU/Linux or OpenBSD: each powerful operating systems which their own values and strong political vision (yes, even OpenBSD).
              See ESR appropriation of the jergon file (not much curiosity here actually, just a pursuit for power)!

              Curiosity is not the only value of an hacker, but all hackers share such value.

              Now, this is also a value each hacker express in a different way: I want everyone to become an hacker, because I think this would benefit the whole humanity. Others don’t want to talk about the political responsibility of hacking because they align with the regime they live in (be it Silicon Valley, Raqqa, Moscow or whatever), and politically aware hackers might subvert it.

              But even if you don’t want to acknowledge such responsibility, if you hack, you are politically active, for better or worse.

              That’s also the main difference between free software and open source software, for example: free software fully acknowledge such ethical (and thus political) responsibility, open source negate it.

              1. 1

                Hacking has always been a political act.

                So if I understand you correctly you are saying something much closer to “Hacking has always attempted to change the world” than “Hacking has always been in support of a political party”.

                1. 1

                  Politics is to political parties, what economy is to bankers.

                  If you read “Hacking has always been a political act” as something related to political parties, you should really delve deeper in the history of politics from ancient Athens onwards.

                  “Hacking has always attempted to change the world”

                  No.
                  This is a neutral statement that could be the perfect motto/tagline for a startup or a war.

                  Hacking and politics are not neutral. They are both strongly oriented.

                  Politics is oriented to benefit the polis.
                  Indeed, lobbying for particular interests is not politics at all.

                  Hacking is not neutral either.
                  Hacking is rooted in the international scientific research that was born (at least) in Middle Age.

                  Hackers solve human problems. For all humans. Through our Curiosity.

                  1. 2

                    IMO, you’re defining “Hacking is political” to the point of uselessness. Basically, nothing is apolitical in your world. Walking down the street is a political statement on the freedom to walk. Maybe that’s useful in a warzone but in the country I live in it’s a basic right to the point of being part of the environment. I don’t see this really being a meaningful or valuable way to talk about things. I think, instead, it’s probably more useful for people to say “I want to be political and the way I will accomplish this is through hacking”.

                    1. 2

                      Basically, nothing is apolitical in your world.

                      Read more carefully.
                      Every human action can serve the polis, but several human actions are not political.

                      Hacking, instead, is political in its very essence. Just like Science. And Math.

                      Maybe it’s the nature of knowledge: an evolutive advantage for the humanity as a whole.
                      Or maybe it is just an intuitive optimization that serves hackers’ curiosity: the more I share my discoveries, the more brains can build upon them, the more interesting things I can learn from others, the more problem solved, the more time for more challenging problems…

                      For sure, everyone can negate or refuse the political responsibility that comes from hacking, but such behaviour is political anyway, even if short-sight.

                      1. 2

                        I just don’t see it. I think you’re claiming real estate on terminology in order to own a perspective. In my opinion, intent is usually the dominating factor, for example murder vs manslaughter (hey, I’m watching crime drama right now). Or a hate crime vs just beating someone up.

                        You say:

                        As such, hacking is always political: its goal is always to affect (theoretically, to improve) the community in one way or another.

                        But I know plenty of people who do what would generally be described as hacking with no such intent. It may be a consequence that the community is affected but often times it’s pretty unlikely and definitely not what they were trying to do.

                        1. 1

                          Saying that “intent is usually the dominating factor” is a political act. :-)

                          It’s like talking about FLOSS or FOSS, like if free software and open source were the same thing. It’s not just false, it does not work.

                          Indeed it creates a whole serie of misunderstanding and contraddictions that are easily dismissed if you simply recognise the difference between the two world.

                          Now, I agree that Hacking and Engineering overlap.
                          But they differ more than Murders and Manslaughters.

                          Because hackers use engineering.

                          And despite the fact that people abuse all technical terms, we still need proper terms and definitions.
                          So despite the fact that everyone apparently want to leverage terms like “hacking” and “freedom” in their own marketing, we still need to distinguish hackers from engineers and free software from open source.

                          And honestly I think it’s easy to take them apart, in both cases.

                    2. 1

                      Could you help me understand better then your usage of the word “politics” because I don’t think it’s one that I am familiar with.

                      1. 1

                        Good question! You caught me completely off-guard!
                        Which is crazy, given my faculty at University was called “Political Science”!

                        I use the term “Politics” according to the original meaning.

                        Politics is the human activity that creates, manages and preserves the polis.

                        Polis was the word ancient Greeks used for the “city”, but by extension we use it for any “community”. In our global, interconnected world, the polis is the whole mankind.

                        So Politics is the set of activities people do to participate to our collective life.

                        One of my professors used to define it as “the art of living together”.
                        Another one, roughly as “the science of managing power for/over a community”.

                        Anyway, the value of a political act depends on how it make the community stronger or weaker. Thus politics is rarely neutral. And so is hacking.

                        1. 2

                          Thanks a lot. That does make things clearer. However I am still confused why under the definition of “Politics is the human activity that creates, manages and preserves the polis.” I admit that I don’t understand what ‘Saying that “intent is usually the dominating factor” is a political act’ but at least I now have a framework in which to think about it more.

            2. 4

              That’s very good explanation. I might add:

              • The author has the luxury of not having to worry about people dying because they didn’t get the message.
              • The author has the luxury of only caring about the message being understood by his own cultural sub-group.

              Linus has none of these luxuries. He cannot err on the side of being too subtle.

              This blog post is just another instance of an American that believes that the rest of the world has to revolve around his cultural norms.

              1. 7

                I think the author did a pretty good job of editing the message in such a way that it was more clear, more direct, and equally forceful, while ensuring that all of that force was directed in a way relevant to the topic at hand.

                (Linus has strong & interesting ideas about standardization & particular features. I would love to read an essay about them. The response to a tangentially-related PR is not a convenient place to put those positions: they distract from the topic of the PR, and also make it difficult to find those positions for people who are more interested in them than in the topic of the PR.)

                The resulting message contains all of the on-topic information, without extraneous crap. It uses strong language and emphasis, but limits it to Linus’s complaints about the actually-submitted code – in other words, the material that should be emphasized. It removes repetition.

                There is nothing subtle about the resulting message. Unlike the original message, it’s very hard to misread as an unrelated tangent about standardization practices that doesn’t address the reasons for rejecting the PR at all.

                The core policy being implemented here is not “be nice in order to avoid hurting feelings”, but “remove irrelevant rants in order to focus anger effectively”. This is something I can get behind.

              2. 2

                I find the American obsession with not upsetting people often infuriatingly two-faced, and I’m British.

                […]

                Go to Poland, fuck up and people will tell you. Go to Germany, do something wrong and people will correct you. Go to Finland, do something stupid getting in the way of a person’s job and probably they’ll swear at you in Finnish.

                Just wanted to point out that America is a huge country and its population is not homogenous. For example, you could have replaced Poland, Germany, and Finland with “Boston” and still have been correct (though, they’d just swear at you in English 🙂).

                I think because most American tech comes out of San Francisco/Silicon Valley that it skews what is presented as “Americanized principals” to the international tech community.

                1. 2

                  Just wanted to point out that America is a huge country and its population is not homogenous.

                  Down here in the South, they have an interesting mix of trying to look/sound more civil or being blunt in a way that lets someone know they don’t like them or think they’re stupid. Varies by group, town, and context. There’s plenty of trash talking depending on that. Linus’s style would fit in pretty well with some of them.

                2. 1

                  If his behaviour is that important to you, don’t use Linux.

                  Rather don’t develop the kernel. One can use Linux without having ever heard the nettle Torvalds (the majority I guess)

                1. 3

                  I administer Linux systems since 1995-ish (mostly amateur, though some was for real work at the uni).

                  I am far from an expert but the startup of Linux services has always been a nightmare. Maybe that there is a great philosophy behind but starting service A after service B was horrendously complicated.

                  It took me 20 minutes to understand how to do that in systemd and move all my services there. Never looked back never had issues.

                  1. 1

                    I recently switched to messaging instead of using APIs I pull from or websocketd. I use MQTT (on mosquitto) pour RabbotMQ.

                    Once you digest the asynchronous nature of the communication it is a fantastic solution.

                    1. 3

                      I find it odd that the author does not say that he’s a Google employee, probably paid by Google to work on NetBSD. I say that because I can’t see many outsiders pushing code into Google’s repos, which kind of makes the NetBSD support semi-official.

                      1. 1

                        Well, he does says that this is his activity paid with his own money.

                        Where he works is not relevant in that case, though he could mention that.

                      1. 1

                        I read the article and the comments here, and I can’t help but think of USENET. An any arbitrary group, people would ask questions, others would answer. Enough time would pass and one person (or a few) would basically create a curated list of questions and answers (“Frequently Asked Questions” aka FAQ) that would be posted periodically (usually monthly). I am seriously surprised something like this hasn’t popped up on Stack Overflow.

                        1. 2

                          The value of the FAQ is significant: it essentially archives a set of questions and moves them off the discussion table. This lets experienced users move on to something new, while still providing an answer to new users with those questions.

                          This would be a great SO feature. I think the suggested question list you get when writing a question tries to accomplish this.

                          1. 1

                            Wasn’t it the reason to create Stackoverflow Documentation? (I am not sure, I did not follow closely that part)