Happy virtual birthdays, Linux and PGP

It was was (pretty near) 20 years ago today Linus Torvalds taught the band to play. The young student announced to a Usenet group that he had created a new operating system kernel.

From: torvalds@klaava.Helsinki.FI (Linus Benedict Torvalds)

Newsgroups: comp.os.minix

Subject: What would you like to see most in minix?

Summary: small poll for my new operating system

Message-ID:   Date: 25 Aug 91 20:57:08 GMT

Organization: University of Helsinki

Hello everybody out there using minix –  I’m doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won’t be big and  professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones.  This has been brewing   since april, and is starting to get ready.  I’d like any feedback on things people like/dislike in minix, as my OS resembles it somewhat (same physical layout of the file-system (due to practical reasons) among other things).  I’ve currently ported bash(1.08) and gcc(1.40), and things seem to work.   This implies that I’ll get something practical within a few months, and   I’d like to know what features most people would want.  Any suggestions are welcome, but I won’t promise I’ll implement them :-)

Linus (

PS.  Yes – it’s free of any minix code, and it has a multi-threaded fs.   It is NOT protable (uses 386 task switching etc), and it probably never   will support anything other than AT-harddisks, as that’s all I have :-( .


Torvalds thought about calling it Linux, but decided it was too egotistical, so he called it Freax. Everyone else called it Linux, and the name stuck. Five years later, after he was bitten by a penguin at a zoo, Torvalds chose a little penguin as the symbol for the operating system. (The penguin’s name is Tux, in case you’re wondering.)

Today it’s highly unlikely that you can get through your day without touching or being touched by Linux in some way. Linux and its derivatives control smartphones and supercomputers, MP3 players and digital pianos, the servers that run the Internet information highway and the webOS that Hewlett-Packard just threw under the bus. Do you use a Macintosh computer? An iPad? A video game console? You’ll find Linux derivatives in the embedded controllers that control, well, lots and lots of automated processes. If you browse the Web or read email or watch Hollywood movies or invest in the stock market, Linux and its cousins are probably behind the curtain.

Torvalds from the start intended Linux to be free to anyone who wanted it. What a gift!

So, happy 20th birthday, Linux.


And while we’re at it, happy (pretty near) 20th birthday to Pretty Good Privacy, created by Phil Zimmermann in June 1991. PGP is a program that encrypts and decrypts digital files, providing privacy and authentication to people who exchange information. Zimmermann was/is an antinuclear activist and wanted a way for other activists to communicate freely and securely.

As with Linux, Zimmermann created PGP as a free resource for everyone. He uploaded it to the Internet. For his generosity, he was almost immediately made the target of a criminal investigation by the United States government, which considered military-grade encryption to be a “munition” in the same category with bombs and missiles. Zimmermann, the government said, had exported banned munitions to foreign countries by uploading PGP to the Internet.

Zimmermann refused to be intimidated. He printed the source code in book form and sent it through the mail, claiming First Amendment protection. Eventually the government dropped the investigation.

Happy 20th birthday, PGP, and thanks, Phil.

Google+ (Look It Up)

Google Plus or Minus


Does anybody use Google+ any more? That seems to be the question floating around these days.

The Google+ project made its debut two months ago and by the end of its first month had a user base of 25 million worldwide, becoming the fastest-growing social media network in the admittedly short history of social media networks, according to comScore. Almost immediately afterward, Experian Hitwise, an online consumer behavior and marketing consultancy, began reporting that Google+’s rate of growth was slowing, and that the average amount of time Google+ users spent on the site was declining. Then the otherwise respected website GigaOm trumpeted the dubious results of a “voluntary sample of more than 10 million Google+ users” that purported to find “that a whopping 83 percent of Google+ users are currently classed as inactive.”

This fits with the standard model of modern mass media: Gross overhyping followed by savage criticism. Google+ is the best thing ever! Hey, wait, it sucks! Hurricane Irene will destroy the East Coast! Hey, wait, they canceled my flight for this?

Even so, people are asking if Google’s flagship social media service is destined to follow the trajectory of Google Buzz and Google Wave. People are wondering if social media fatigue is a factor.

After all, did you stop using Facebook or Twitter when you signed up for Google+? If you have 10 minutes to catch up on your social media streams, and you already have established networks on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, how much time are you going to devote to Google+?

For me, it’s privacy fatigue as much as anything.


But back to the question: Does anybody still use Google+? As if often the case, I find myself in total agreement with Yogi Berra: “Nobody goes there any more; it’s too crowded.” Millions of people use Google+. Millions more are waiting to get in. But I don’t go there anymore.

My enthusiasm for Google+ was never great to begin with, and it diminished after Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, explained that Google+ is really an Internet identity service with social media elements.


Schmidt, according to a transcript of a Q&A session last week at the Edinburgh International TV Festival, said that Google+ is “an identity service with a link structure around your friends.” In other words, it’s a product that helps Google sell ads more effectively by gathering information about its users. To that end, Google+ does not allow anonymity. It has a “real names” policy and requires users to provide traceable personal information. “It’s central for Google to have such a service,” Schmidt said.

Asked how Google can justify requiring real names if doing so puts some users at risk, especially in unstable political climates, Schmidt said, “Well, the first comment is that Google+ is completely optional. In fact, many, many people want to get in. If you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to.”

By its own admission, Google developed Google+ as a more effective way to gather personal information from users and their friends that Google can then use to target advertisements more profitably.

If you signed up for Google+, here’s what you signed:

“By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services.”

“You agree that this license includes a right for Google to make such Content available to other companies, organizations or individuals with whom Google has relationships for the provision of syndicated services, and to use such Content in connection with the provision of those services.”

I’m taking Eric Schmidt’s advice: I don’t have to use it.

He Looks Pretty Good Now, In Comparison

Checkers v. “I am not a crook”


One of the greatest, and most infamous, examples of the power of storytelling occurred on this date 59 years ago. The world would little remember the details of the speech Richard Nixon delivered on Sept. 23, 1952 –in fact, would consider the campaign finance kerfuffle to be almost charming in contrast to today’s multimillion-dollar campaign binges — were it not for Tricia Nixon’s little dog, Checkers.

Yes, today is the anniversary of the Checkers Speech. It’s appropriate that we mark the occasion, because we’ve been thinking a lot lately about both storytelling and non-apologetic apologies.

Richard Milhouse Nixon was campaigning in 1952 for the vice presidency of the United States as the running mate of Dwight D. Eisenhower. (SPOILER ALERT: They won.) Someone discovered that Republican fat cats had established a secret $18,000 slush fund that “reimbursed” candidate Nixon for campaign expenses. Such slush funds were not uncommon or even illegal at the time, but some people were shocked — shocked! — that Nixon was accepting money and favors from people to whom he might later owe favors.

Nixon could have issued a denial. He could have released campaign finance ledgers. But instead, he held a half-hour live television special to tell his stories.

He started by talking about his modest upbringing in California, helping out at the family store. He talked about serving in World War II. He said he and Pat Nixon had $10,000 in savings — the equivalent of about $120,000 today — all in government treasury bonds. He and Pat didn’t invest in the stock market.

We lived rather modestly. For four years we lived in an apartment in Parkfairfax, in Alexandria, Virginia. The rent was $80 a month. And we saved for the time that we could buy a house. Now, that was what we took in. What did we do with this money? What do we have today to show for it? This will surprise you, because it is so little, I suppose, as standards generally go, of people in public life.

He talked about his two-year-old Oldsmobile, and about taking out loans from his parents, and about his mortgages, and his modestly furnished home in California, where his aging parents now lived.

Well, that’s about it. That’s what we have and that’s what we owe. It isn’t very much but Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we’ve got is honestly ours. I should say this—that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.


Pat Nixon sat in a chair off to the side, gazing adoringly at her husband as he continued:

One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me too, we did get something—a gift—after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl—Tricia, the 6-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.


Get the name of the dog! It’s what I teach journalism students today. Get the details: Little girl, Tricia, 6 years old, has been wanting a dog, and here comes a surprise: a cute little black and white cocker spaniel. The kids love the dog. He would never disappoint the kids.

So no, he’s NOT going to apologize for accepting the black and white cocker spaniel that so delights his little girls. He is, in fact, even more determined than ever to keep doing exactly what he was doing before, despite the smears, the “misunderstandings,” because you know, darn it, he Loves His Country.

And as far as this is concerned, I intend to continue the fight. Why do I feel so deeply? Why do I feel that in spite of the smears, the misunderstandings, the necessity for a man to come up here and bare his soul as I have? Why is it necessary for me to continue this fight? And I want to tell you why. Because, you see, I love my country.

One of the television cameramen had tears streaming down his face. Nixon had invited a small crowd of Young Republicans to the television studio, and they cheered. Yet Nixon was convinced he had blown it.

Nixon biographer Stephen (“Undaunted Courage”) Ambrose wrote that the Checkers Speech was “one of the most sickening, disgusting, maudlin performances ever experienced.” But millions of Americans disagreed, flooding the Republican National Committee with telegrams, postcards, letters and phone calls in support. Checkers received truckloads of gifts: bones, ribbons, collars, a year’s worth of dog food. Nixon was hailed as “an honest man” by Mamie Eisenhower.


The slush fund? What slush fund? It was forgotten. Nixon celebrated the anniversary of “the fund speech” for years afterward. He said it saved his career and paved the way to his presidency.

But somewhere along the way he forgot the power of storytelling. Somewhere along the way, the Checkers Speech evolved into the succinct and less successful “I am not a crook.”