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Torvalds: I want to be nice, and curse less, but it's just not in me

'People do think I'm grumpy ... CHRIST this is ugly code'

NVIDIA, gnomes and people working on Linux distro security – these are just some of those who’ve felt the wrath of kernel kingpin Linus Torvalds.

Now the KDE team is the latest to feel the heat after the Linux founder wrote a review of the desktop environment, albeit in relatively toned down language for the Finn.

“It still looks a bit too cartoony… It annoys the hell of me,” Torvalds penned.

He is the kind of person who hits the headlines for the way he says things let alone what he actually says, and it would be easy to dismiss the eruptions of Mount Torvalds as the outbursts of a geek who doesn't suffer fools gladly.

You’d be wrong. Well, half wrong, anyway.

“Some people do think I’m a grumpy old man,” Torvalds said during a Q&A chat with students at Finland’s Aalto University. “I realise if you only see my flames and curses, and not when things go well, you will think I hate everybody.”

In fact, Torvalds' biggest regret is his hothead reputation, and he wishes he could be more instructive and nurturing as the kernel's emperor penguin.

"I’d like to be a nice person and curse less and encourage people to grow rather than telling them they are idiots. I’m sorry - I tried, it’s just not in me," he said. "I like the fact we have a lot of personalities in the kernel team who can guide people through the development process. I’ve never been that person."

Torvalds explained it’s the way in which the Linux project is run that provokes his outbursts. He is sat at the top of the open-source kernel's vast tree of software code, merging in work produced by other programmers and releasing new versions of the kernel. He therefore only comes face to face with problems when they are big enough to shake him off his high branch.

“I get involved later on and say: ‘Christ this is horribly ugly code, how could you ever accept this?’ That’s the involvement I mostly have, and it can be negative and somewhat good at times." Did he just say “good”? Yes, he did.

Torvalds' job is to sort through software code from developers who contribute to the operating system's inner core, and respond to emails as a project manager. “I haven’t written code for years,” he said. “The code I write is simple fixes for the mistakes other people make, the contributions I make are one or two liners, and the contributions I make are code mergers.”

It’s a big task: there are nearly 15 million lines of code in today's Linux 3.2 kernel, compared to 10,200 when Torvalds started the project in the early 1990s. He relies on experts working in their own specific areas, from hardware support to filesystems, and claimed he doesn't double-check code submitted by 10 to 15 people he trusts.

One of Torvalds' most colourful outbursts was directed at NVIDIA: he told the graphics processor biz to "fuck itself" for repeatedly failing to properly support mainstream Linux despite the chip maker's presence in the world of Android, Google's mobile operating system based on the Linux kernel.

“NVIDIA has been one of the worst trouble spots we’ve had with hardware manufacturers,” he said in an earlier filmed interview. Looking into the camera, Torvalds also gave NVIDIA the finger.

Why can't I just have nice things?

Back at Aalto University, Torvalds mentioned SGI as another example of working with a troublesome developer, noting that the company's engineers initially submitted sub-standard source code updates for SGI hardware after the kernel gained support for multi-processor machines. Torvalds wanted, for instance, scheduler code that scaled well on all computers, within reason, rather than just working well on machines with two or four processor cores.

“When we added support for SMP and SGI was adding patches for its CPU monsters, the initial patches were useless for anybody else," he said. "I told them, I’m not taking that, you must write them in a form where your patches work for everybody else, too. And they did and it made the end result better, for us and for the SGI people.

“Some of these projects have the blinders on – they only care about their small world and don’t care about what it does for others. If you have that approach then you shouldn’t be surprised that I’m not interested in the patches you send me. I prefer code that just works and works well on small machines and big machines. It is possible but it takes a lot more effort.”

Another pain in the backside for Torvalds is the GNU/Linux desktop. He abandoned GNOME 3 for XFCE and got into a flame war with GNOME founder Miguel de Icaza on the topic of developers being in “total denial” of the failure of the Linux desktop.

According to De Icaza, too many people are trying to be like the famously short-tempered Finn - and while imitators have perfected the outbursts, they haven’t got the skills to actually deliver a project successfully to completion.

Torvalds also exploded when his daughter was asked for a root password to use a Wi-Fi hotspot and again to use a printer on the network using openSuSE. "Please just kill yourself now. The world will be a better place," he told developers.

The Linux desktop, it would seem, is something Torvalds takes very seriously. “That’s the part I care most about and was the original target for Linux,” Torvalds said at Aalto University. “The desktop is a very hard nut to crack and for a while it got harder rather than better. I’m fairly well known for not liking some of the things the desktop people have been doing.”

He added: “Things are better than a year ago.”

Torvalds has switched back to GNOME 3 as he reckons the desktop GUI's problems are being fixed: “It has been getting less painful. They have extensions that are still too hard to find. You can make your desktop look almost as good as it did two years ago.” ®

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