Linus, Sarah and the Linux Civil Code

Anyone who has ever spent five minutes in the Linux blogosphere is probably already well-aware of Linux creator Linus Torvalds’ propensity for speaking his mind in the plainest of terms.

It was just slightly more than a year ago, after all, that he dropped an “F-bomb” on Nvidia, though that’s by no means been the only example over the years.

Linux Girl

Well, Torvalds is surely no stranger to criticism for his blunt approach, but recently an example arose to make that disapproval more clear than ever.

The critic this time around? None other than a Linux kernel developer named Sarah Sharp.

‘Not Acceptable’

“Seriously, guys?” wrote Sharp in response to an email exchange involving kernel developer Ingo Molnr and Torvalds himself.

“Is this what we need in order to get improve -stable?” Sharp went on. “Linus Torvalds is advocating for physical intimidation and violence. Ingo Molnar and Linus are advocating for verbal abuse. Not *f—ing* cool.

“Violence, whether it be physical intimidation, verbal threats or verbal abuse, is not acceptable,” Sharp added. “Keep it professional on the mailing lists.”

Sharp concluded with an invitation to discuss the matter at the next Kernel Summit, adding that, “I won’t be the nice girl anymore.”

An Historic Move?

History has often shown that sometimes it just takes a single small voice in the dark to bring about monumental change.

Will Sharp’s protest go down in history as one such example?

That’s what Linux bloggers have been trying to figure out, on Slashdot and beyond.

‘Be the Bigger Man, Torvalds’

“There are a lot of things which we may want our children to emulate about Linus Torvalds, but his use of language is not one of them,” offered Robin Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor.

Indeed, “it’s called being a pro versus being an ass,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet agreed. “Torvalds falls firmly in the latter.

“Be the bigger man, Torvalds,” hairyfeet urged. “If I can do it with customers that make me want to scream then you can do it with someone with years of education.”

‘He Should Watch His Mouth’

Similarly, “I think Sarah Sharp is correct to point this out,” Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien opined. “There is no reason that the kernel team *needs* to be an abusive environment, and it is well-known that it is, and that Linus is the main reason.

“There may be a group of emotionally immature men who will defend Linus, but adults should be capable of working together with a certain level of respect,” O’Brien added. “In most companies Linus would have been fired long ago for his behavior.”

Torvalds “should watch his mouth nowadays,” quipped Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol. “There are ladies around, listening. Not good, not good at all.”

‘She Is Right’

Linus is “wrong on this one,” blogger Robert Pogson agreed.

“Linus’ point of view is that he needs to crack a whip from time to time to keep the herd of cats moving in the right direction,” Pogson explained. “Sarah is simply asking for civility. She is right. It is possible to herd cats by persuasion.

“Shouting and swearing adds nothing to the conversation,” he added. “Linus could get a treadmill or go jogging to raise his level of endorphins. He doesn’t need to tell the world how he really feels when it’s supposed to be about technology rather than emotions.”

In fact, “clear guidelines and private messaging could accomplish what Linus wants without any of the flaming,” Pogson pointed out.

“Linus long ago established that his ability to reject commits was the supreme feedback,” Pogson added. “That’s brutal enough for getting the message through to the most stubborn cat. A brief, executive-summary type of message would do.”

‘You Can Change, Too’

As for swearing being “a part of Linus,” that’s just an excuse — “a very poor one,” Pogson said. “Grumpy old hermits use excuses like that. Linus is the head of an international consortium of developers working on a huge project. Foul language is just a waste of bandwidth on LKML. It certainly is not inclusive of valuable contributors like Sarah, who works with Intel.

“In my teaching career, I observed that I could go all summer without hearing a swear word while my students used the F-word like punctuation,” he noted. “When I communicated this to my students they refused to believe me.”

Bottom line: “Believe it, Linus,” Pogson concluded. “There are people who just want to get on with the job rather than read foul language in the inbox. You changed the world. You can change, too.”

‘She’s in the Wrong’

Not everyone was so sure, however.

“I have a great deal of sympathy for Sarah and her point of view here, and I cringe when I see some of the responses she’s gotten as a result of her taking this stand,” Linux Rantsblogger Mike Stone told Linux Girl. “I think she has some very valid points.”

That being said, however, “I think she’s in the wrong here,” Stone opined. “Linux is Linus’s house, and she’s a guest. That’s why it’s called ‘Linux’ and not ‘Sarax.’ You don’t go into someone else’s house and rearrange their furniture without asking.”

‘She’s Free to Not Participate’

Some of Sharp’s responses also “feel as if she’s attempting to assume some kind of parental position over the mailing list (‘I’m not going to put up with that #$&@ any more’),” Stone suggested. “If she doesn’t like the way the mailing list is run, she’s free to not participate.

“What she’s not free to do is tell Linus how to behave in his own house,” Stone concluded.

“I think that Linus has been pretty mellow in his responses considering, and that’s honestly surprised me,” he added. “I’d be more on Sarah’s side if she brought this up as a suggestion and less as what feels very much like a demand.”

‘I Don’t Think She Understood’

Similarly, “I just don’t get why she thought it was her business to complain about a conversation between Linus and someone else,” consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack suggested. “It seems like an attitude of, ‘I’m here now — do things the way I want.'”

The worst part is that “I don’t think she understood the original email,” Mack added. “Linus wasn’t advocatingphysical violence — he was making jokes about Greg’s size. On top of that, he was right about sometimes needing to be harsh with people to avoid them thinking they can just keep pushing.

“It’s actually one of the more annoying things I’ve learned about human nature,” Mack concluded. “It seems a significant number of people don’t think someone is serious about something until they are angry.”

Torvalds has a point, Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. agreed. “Sometimes you’ll have to say ‘no’ — let’s hope it’s still in a respectful way.”

‘Why Can’t We Do Better?’

Last but not least, “it is complicated, and yet, not at all,” Google+ blogger Brett Legree told Linux Girl. “Respect for others — that’s all this is about, really.

“Development of the Linux kernel WAS historically a volunteer effort, but it is not a small, volunteer project any longer, it is a billion-dollar venture,” Legree pointed out. “Linus and Sarah are paid by different companies to work on the Linux kernel. This is a business setting, thus the rules of engagement can and probably should be different.”

The LKML “can and should change policy,” he opined. “It is possible to run an effective project AND be respectful of all involved.

“Of course, it is certain that this kind of thing happens in other companies,” Legree added. “Steve Jobs was known to be hot-headed, and Steve Ballmer most definitely is (chair!).”

At the same time, “why can’t we do better?” he mused. “Why can’t we show the world that we ARE better? This would be another way.”

Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered ECT News Editor by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


  • I know who could go into Linus’ house and re-arrange his furniture without asking: The State of California:

    They have just enacted anti-bullying legislation.

    So now Sarah and other Linux developers can go to the Linux Foundation and bring up the new legislation!

    The Linux Foundation has an office in San Francisco! And he does work for them as a manager. He might be under a freelance contract, but the Linux Foundation would still be responsible if he destroys someone’s life by giving them post-traumatic stress disorder, or even causing their suicide.

    And yes, bullying in the workplace can do that. Time to get educated people!

    • To steal a line from Mel Brooks "Bullshit bullshit aaaaannnnddd bullshit".

      This at the heart has NOTHING to do with language, hell i know people that drop F-bombs like other people use the word "and" and they are some of the easiest to get along with, most fun to be with people you’d ever meet, No this is NOT about that, at its heart it has to do with the fact that Linus Torvalds is an arrogant ass, plain and simple.

      Its called being a PROFESSIONAL and Torvalds acts like a 14 year old halo player, anybody who DARES not to do things HIS way or agree with him? here comes the temper tantrum. Ya know I may hate the living hell out of RMS as i think he is one of the biggest hypocrites that ever drew a breath but at least i can give credit where credit is due and when he has a disagreement, no matter how heated? he acts like a professional.

      You can use coarse language and not be a douchebag about it, just look at this post for an example but that is NOT what Torvalds does, he uses it to belittle, to insult, and to act like a spoiled damned brat who thinks he is smarter than everybody. Grow the hell up Torvalds, and learn how to have an argument without becoming a giant ass.

      • Well then you are welcome to go elsewhere and stay the !@#$% away from Linus. He runs his kernel the way he wants and that is good. In all the flare ups over the years I have yet to not smile and think "good, damn glad he takes it the way he does".

        RMS may be a bit quick and jump on an assumption before hearing the whole story but his heart is in the right place. So you may "hate the living hell out of him" but you can count me on the other side. RMS is the moral compass that remains steady and true. Our world would be a much better place if more people listened to RMS.

        Linus works on a very important subject. There are a lot of people who do substandard work. Or attempt to throw a monkey wrench into the kernel while maintaining they are doing something good. Thankfully Linus takes it personally.

        If you want a cause to emotionally charge you then go after Steve Jobs. He was everything you accuse Linus of and much much more.

        • The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.

          Ralph Waldo Emerson

          Seems Emerson would have something more pointed to say about people telling Linus what is politically correct.

          • "All hail dear leader for he is never wrong!" you DO know that is EXACTLY what you sound like yes, that because "Dear Leader" works on your religion of choice he can do know wrong?

            But I hate to break the news to ya Sparky but Torvalds isn’t the only OS designer out there and ya know what? the others don’t act like spoiled 14 year old who was just told they couldn’t have the new playstation. Its called being a pro.

            I think I’ll steal a line from RMS "I won’t be glad when he’s dead but I’ll be glad when he’s gone" and I think that pretty much sums up how I feel about Torvalds, FOSS would be a better place without his temper tantrums and bad attitude.

          • You do seem to have something against RMS. It keeps you posting all over the internet.

            Was there a particular event that led you to start this personal war against the two of them?

            I’m going to stop at this point because though I like the two of them I don’t have the religion you do.

          • Uhhh…he is a giant hypocrite? When asked how coders were supposed to survive while having their work endlessly copied with zero compensation he said, and I quote, that "they should sell documentation" and guess what happens when the coders stop releasing their documents as GPL, the ONLY way to do what RMS advised? he says "Documentation wants to be free!"..hypocrite.

            He seems to have NO problem taking money from those involved in market riging like Intel, doesn’t have a bad word to say about CEOs or lawyers, no the ONLY ones that are supposed to work for free in his little utopia is coders and that IS bullshit. Its a shame I can’t post links here as i could give you a mountain of citations when it comes to RMS, at first I thought he was just an old fashioned communist "fellow traveler" but now I think he just hates coders, possibly because he is a failed coder (the 2 things he is given credit for, GCC and eMacs, have both been forked AWAY from him with RMS having to "bless" the forks because his version is no longer used by anybody) but in any case he simply refuses to accept reality which is if most coders were to follow his "philosophy" as currently written they’d end up living under and overpass.

            So that is why I don’t like RMS, he is a hypocrite who will start talking about the "spirit" of GPL if you follow the actual license (you know, the entire reason licenses were written in the first place, so i wouldn’t have to guess what you want?) but don’t do exactly to suit him,actually names a clause in GPL V3 after a company he doesn’t like which again simply followed his poorly written license (real professional, I’m sure that will make companies wan t to support FOSS to know if the "MIT Squatter" doesn’t think they follow the "spirit" they could be named the bad guy in GPL V4) and because of the messed up way he has written his license you can ONLY survive using the "blessed three" model, selling hardware, selling software/services, or holding a tin cup and begging like a bum.

          • Even worse, he has the truly annoying habit of always being proven right.

            About Tivo, about Java, about everything on which he’s spoken authoritatively.

            The only thing he’s ever been wrong about is the "I won’t talk to you unless you say GNU/Linux". That’s just stupid. But when it comes to important stuff, the guy is always right.

            People who have problems with "his" licenses have problems with the concept of copyright. Don’t want to abide by the license? Fine. Then you have no extraordinary right to start using other people’s copyrighted code. Just stop using it! The wonderful thing about the GPL is that if it’s (theoretically) invalid, standard copyright applies. Lay off the code; it’s not yours.

            I don’t much care about his bathing habits or his beard; his idea of enforcing shared software has worked brilliantly.

          • "All hail dear leader for he is never wrong!" except when he IS a giant hypocrite, but those don’t count…right?

            Again look up what he said on documentation to find him in full blown hypocrite mode, or just for fun type "RMS eats toe cheese" to see what kind of man you are defending, a guy that thinks its perfectly fine to clean and eat toe funk on the middle of a stage, during a conference being broadcast no less, frankly its a real shame I can’t post links here as his being a hypocrite goes back a good 20+ years and is well documented.

            At the end of the day I’ll say that RMS is the best thing…that ever happened to Apple and MSFT, his antics in public, his hypocrisy, his extremist left wing rants (going so far as to pose with Castro and Chavez and talk about what utopias they had, i’m sure the guys being tortured there would disagree) and his attacks against companies that actually followed his license, which frankly he deserved the blame for writing poorly, all make him a perfect spokesman for the other two.

            After all how hard a sell would it be when all they have to do is show some quotes and him eating toe gunk and say "THIS is the guy that is the one controlling GPL which in turn controls Linux" to make a company turn away?

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