Jon “maddog” Hall Wishes Linux a Happy Birthday: Three Personal Stories



As one of the godfathers of Linus and Tove’s first two children, Patricia and Daniela, I visit them as much as I can just to see the family and to see how they are doing. We hardly ever talk about Linux itself. But here are a few stories from throughout the last 20 years that help illustrate how we started to see how big Linux would become.

Geek on the Boardwalk

Shortly after Linus and Tove moved to the USA from Finland, I visited them in California. Their furniture was still arriving from Finland, so they were sleeping on the floor in their new apartment.

I volunteered to drive them around and show them some of the sights that I knew, since I had previously lived in Silicon Valley for three and a half years, and knew the area well.

First we went to Stanford University, and I showed them the campus. Then we went to Santa Cruz and we walked along the boardwalk by the ocean, pushing Patricia’s carriage in front of us.

At one point the sidewalk narrowed and I was walking in front of Linus, Tove and Patricia. A person coming in the other direction stopped me and said “Are you maddog?” I admitted that I was, and this person started telling me about how much he loved Linux, the Free Software movement, and other things. He was definitely a geek.

After about thirty seconds I stopped him and said “if you like Linux that much, you probably should tell this guy,” and stepped aside to allow him to see Linus standing behind me.

I thought the person was going to have a heart attack.  All that came out of his mouth was gurgling noises.  Linus reached forward, took his hand, shook it and said “Glad to meet you,” then we walked on. Later I looked back and the geek was still standing there…..still (apparently) speechless.

In-laws Get an Earful

A few months after Linus and Tove had left Finland for the United States I was invited by the Helsinki office of Digital Equipment Corporation to talk about Linux on the Alpha processor to some of their customers.

After the meeting, which included one of the best “sauna fiestas” that I ever attended, I met with Tove’s mother and father (Linus’ mother-in-law and father-in-law) who I had met on a previous trip, and we went out to lunch together.

It was a beautiful July day and many people were eating at outdoors at various restaurants. We decided to join them and were sitting at a table quietly talking after the meal. As we talked, I noticed a young man sitting at the table next to us who seemed to be interested in what we were saying.  He kept leaning further and further back in his chair, trying to hear what we were discussing.

Finally he turned around in his chair and said “I am sorry, but I overheard your conversation, and I think you are talking about Linux. May I join you at your table?” I saw that the two in-laws were surprised by this, but I invited him to join us.

I introduced myself, but for the sake of their privacy I did not introduce Linus’ in-laws by their relationship with Linus, but only by their names.

“I love Linux very much,” the young man said. “I use it on my notebook and my servers and I would not think about using anything else.”  He went on to talk about other ways of using Linux, and we talked for about one-half hour before he dismissed himself due to a previously scheduled meeting.

I turned back to Linus’ in-laws.  Their months were open in surprise.

I said to them “You really don’t know, do you? You really do not know how popular Linus’ project is and how many people it affects, how many jobs it creates?”

“No,” admitted his father-in-law. “In fact, when we first met Linus we wondered about him.  There he was, sitting on the floor of our daughter’s apartment, with his cat and his notebook. We thought that he cared mostly for the notebook, then the cat, then (perhaps) for our daughter. Then Patricia (Linus and Tove’s first child) was born, and when we saw Linus playing with  Patricia, and how he looked at our daughter, we realized that he loved them first, then the notebook, and then (perhaps) the cat.”

That cat was Randi, and I know for a fact that Linus did love the cat, so you can imagine how much he loved the others.

A Dad Learns the Importance of Son’s Work

A couple of years later a friend of mine, Jeff Gerhardt, had an Internet radio show and he had heard about a new distribution of Linux that could install directly into the FAT filesystem. This allowed people to install Linux without having to repartition their disk. The distribution was called “PHAT Linux” and was produced by a person named Cameron Cooper.

Cameron lived relatively close to Jeff’s house, so Jeff asked if they could come to his house to make the recording of their conversation.  The person on the other end of the phone said “Well, I would like to do that, but I can not drive yet.” Jeff asked the person’s age. “14” was the answer. Jeff asked if the parents of the person knew what was going on. “No, I do not think so,” came back the reply. Jeff asked if he could speak to one of the parents.

“I have good news and bad news”, Jeff said when he had the parent on the phone. “The good news is that you will not have to worry about to which college your son will get accepted. The bad news is you will have to hire a tax accountant to help you figure out his income tax on all the copies of his distribution that he has sold.”

Two years later I met this person, Cameron Cooper, at IDG’s Linuxworld.

Cameron was sixteen and dragging his father along to help him staff his 10 foot by 10 foot booth at the show.  As his father walked towards Cameron’s booth, he was gawking at all the other gigantic booths from IBM, HP and Digital Equipment Corporation. I asked him, “You really did not know how big Linux was, did you?”

Cameron’s father answered that he did not.

And so it goes. Many people do not know “how big ‘Linux’ is,” even when they consider all of the numbers of systems supported, different architectures supported and jobs created. Add to that the concept of Free Software, Open Source, Open Hardware, Creative Commons, Open Document Format, Open Standards, and many more “open” concepts, and you have a real movement on your hands.

Happy 20th birthday, Linux!