Lifehacker Australia interviews Linus Torvalds

linus_torvalds_small.jpgLinus Torvalds is one of the most influential hackers in modern computing, having created the Linux kernel as an open source alternative to the Unix operating system. He’s since spent nearly 20 years  maintaining the kernel in a leadership role (as well as continuing to have an active coding role) through the Linux Foundation. Linus is a regular attendee at (last year he was spotted tooling around the conference on a home brew Segway – possibly the geekiest moment in history). He’s back again for LCA this year, and we were thrilled to score an interview with him yesterday.

I explained to Linus that Lifehacker readers would be interested to know what his day to day computing and desktop setup was, as well as any productivity tips he might have to offer.What transpired was much more plain and simple than you might expect.

“I am the least organised person you’ll ever meet. My desk is a complete mess.I don’t organise my emails – everything is in one big email folder,” says Linus.

He says that he works largely in text-based windows rather than GUIs – with multiple windows open at once. But he’s not a multiple monitor kind of guy. “I have a single monitor, 24 inch, 1920 by 1200.”

Even his mail reader is purely text-based – so don’t bother sending any HTML emails. “I don’t want pretty pictures,” he explains. “I don’t do word processing. The only graphical thing is my browser (Firefox).

He uses a text-based email application called Alpine (the new version of longtime University of Washington mail app Pine). “I use the keyboardfor everything.”

When I asked about his productivity system, he has some pretty clear guidelines in place.

“I figured out the best way to kill productivity is to give talks and go to meetings,” says Linus, who says he now avoids doing either. “Even if I prepared for a talk the night before, I ended up spending the two weeks beforehand getting stressed about it.”

“So my calendar is basically empty.”

He says he plans ahead for the couple of conferences he likes to attend each year (which include He recently pushed out the latest stable version of the Linux kernel (, deliberately timing it so he could finish it before travelling to Australia for LCA.

Another part of his productivity system is KAlarm – a reminder program for the KDE desktop. He says having a reminder pop up for things like “pick the kids up from school” is a must.

So how does Linus keep in touch on the road? Is he a mad texter? Doesn’t seem likely, does it?

“I hate phones. I don’t have a mobile phone,” he says. “They’re a way to spread that evilness and take it with you all the time.”

Email is his strong preference for communicating. “I don’t do any business over the phone.”

Chat is also out – it’s just a distraction. “I don’t use IRC, I hate these chat programs. They’re real time so you have to answer and interact synchronously. It just doesn’t suit his workstyle, he says. “I’m so bad at multi-tasking. When I read a book, I block out everything else. I hate phones, they disturb you. When you have an IRC channel open, messages disturb you.

“I want to sit in my darkened den and do it in my own time – that’s how I work!”

So there you go, some plain and simple methods for keeping your work text-based, and making sure your workplace is distraction free, courtesy of geek legend Linus Torvalds.

Thanks to Linus for making the time to speak to Lifehacker AU, and to for helping set up the interview. Image from Wikimedia Commons, usedunder the GFDL license.


    Can't we hire a spy to take a new stock photograph? People are going to think that he never washes his shirt.

    A man after my own heart! My adult children cannot understand why I don't turn my cell phone on unless I want to place a call because "no one can reach me". That's kind of the point! I feel technology should make my life better, not more complicated. I love email but really don't understand the appeal of texting or instant messaging. The bottom line is, my life is busy: I want to choose when and how I communicate with others so that I can concentrate on the many other things in my day.

    Correction: Linus released 2.6.24 last week. The "stable" Kernel releases are done by another group of people.

    no offense, but he seems weird and anti-social.

    @Matt - Anti-social? Hardly, he's just functioning in pre-1990's mode, because he can.

    @Matt - You dare insult our leader?! Get him!! We must sacrifice him to the server gods!

    Linus can get away with it because there's pretty much nothing he could do to detract from the position he's established for himself, but maybe its not a good way for the rest of us to operate.

    I'm just surprised there is a Lifehacker Australia??? Isn't this the internets? Why does the country of the writer matter?

    Noticed many stories on the Lifehacker US site about Australian-specific services and products? I suspect not. That's where our localised version comes in. :) We run all the Lifehacker US stuff plus local stories too.

    Is there a lhuk? I agree, LT does seem a little obsessive and anti-social. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, he gets things done, and he makes time to focus on his kids too.

    LOL @ Greg!!

    A guy that still uses a text based email client an no GUI does have some personal problems, aside from just wanting to hold onto a past that is rapidly slipping away. He's out of touch with those in the industry, both professional and casual, that have wanted to move forward with new ideas.

    I find it ironic that people still associate text-based computer use with 'The Dark Age' of computing. In reality it's part of the reason Linux has become such a good OS.

    I've come across a plethora of websites that address this topic of GUI vs. text -based programs, all of which claim (and back up) the opinion that text-based programming/use is, in general, more efficient and more powerful. That so many of these websites exist is why I'm so surprised that so many people think that GUI oriented programs are still the "way to fly".

    Note*: Of course there are exceptions, such as drawing graphics and such. Also, if people can direct me to websites that argue otherwise, I'd love to have a look.

    I have just recently been trying to incorporate more text-based programs into my daily computer use (such as mutt for email, and vimperator for web browsing). Whether or not it is faster, I don't really care. But the fact that my fingers rarely have to leave the keyboard is far more comfortable than periodically having to switch between the keyboard and mouse. It means I can better focus, and thus be more productive.

    GUIs in a way trade power for ease-of-use. They turn novice computers users into competent ones, but at the same time its hard for users to advance much further than this.

    But make no mistake: using text-based apps take a lot more effort to learn. If your a part-time computer user its probably not worth investing the time. However if your a power user like I'll bet Linus is, you get much more bang-for-your-buck with text-based programs.

    I frankly dont understand why there is so much fuss on a person's app preferences.

    Some ppl work well in GUI mode, some in text-mode and some prefer combination of both.

    Please note that Linus says he uses firefox for browsing. Tht is GUI.

    Atleast we should praise Linus for understanding his basic mode of getting things done, and following it.

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