diff -u: Linus Posting Habits

A look into how, when and why Linus posts to the kernel mailing list.

Linus Torvalds sometimes is criticized for bombastically cursing out kernel developers. He does do this, but it's not his default behavior, and I think the real nature of when and how he posts to the mailing list is interesting. For example, he stayed out of the whole discussion of how to replace the BitKeeper revision control system for a long time, letting various projects guess frustratingly at his desires, before he finally took a break from Linux development to design and implement git.

In other cases, he's allowed developers to lambaste each other savagely for days or longer over key elements of the kernel or the behaviors of new hardware peripherals, only to enter the debate later on, generally to propose a simpler solution that neither camp had thought of.

Sometimes he'll enter a discussion for apparently no other reason than that a particular bug or piece of code interests him, and he works with whoever posted a given patch to get the kinks out or track down underlying problems.

In general, Linus tends to stay out of most discussions, coming in primarily only on controversial issues after he's developed a position of his own.

But yes, sometimes he comes down pretty hard on developers, generally saying they already should know better than to do a particular thing, or when he feels the developer is hawking a particular corporate goal that goes against the spirit of open-source development—although I doubt he'd put it that way himself. He doesn't seem to like making overtly evangelical statements and tends to stick to the "if it works, I like it" attitude that he took when adopting BitKeeper.

Occasionally, Linus gets a technical issue wrong—he'll claim something about the kernel as being true that isn't. An example of that happened recently, when Amir Goldstein posted a patch to alter a string hashing function. It was a small patch that preserved some dropped bits in the 64-bit case and left the 32-bit case virtually unchanged. Amir asked for Linus' advice because he couldn't find a maintainer for the file, and Linus had been one of the people most recently to change the code.

Linus didn't agree that Amir's code left the 32-bit case unchanged. And he singled out a call to the __hash_32() function as being particularly time-consuming. He rejected Amir's patch, saying, "the patch as-is doesn't seem to buy anything, and only adds cost."

But when Amir pointed out that his patch hadn't actually added the call to __hash_32(), that the call had been there already, Linus took another look and replied, "Oh, duh. My bad. It was indeed there already. Let me go back and look at the history of this thing."

He later replied to his own post, saying:

After having looked more at it, I take back all my complaints about the patch, you were right and I was mis-reading things or just being stupid.

I also don't worry too much about the possible performance impact of this on 64-bit, since most architectures that actually care about performance end up not using this very much (the dcache code is the most performance-critical, but the word-at-a-time case uses its own hashing anyway).

So this ends up being mostly used for filesystems that do their own degraded hashing (usually because they want a case-insensitive comparison function).

A _tiny_ worry remains, in that not everybody uses DCACHE_WORD_ACCESS, and then this potentially makes things more expensive on 64-bit architectures with slow or lacking multipliers even for the normal case.

That said, realistically the only such architecture I can think of is PA-RISC. Nobody really cares about performance on that, it's more of a 'look ma, I've got warts^W an odd machine' platform.

So I think your patch is fine, and all my initial worries were just misplaced from not looking at this properly.


To me the interesting details about this kind of post are that Linus never seems to drag out an admission of error. He won't cling to a mistaken idea out of embarrassment; he also avoids making excuses for why he got the thing wrong or dismissing the opposing side as unimportant. He also seems to put in some real work in developing a proper understanding of the situation after seeing that he made a mistake and moves directly into dealing with whatever the new technical details might be.

I personally like all that. And for me, it adds context to the times when he gets angry at developers. It seems to happen mostly—or only—when he feels that developers should have seen and acknowledged their own error by a given point.

Zack Brown is a tech journalist at Linux Journal and Linux Magazine, and is a former author of the "Kernel Traffic" weekly newsletter and the "Learn Plover" stenographic typing tutorials. He first installed Slackware Linux in 1993 on his 386 with 8 megs of RAM and had his mind permanently blown by the Open Source community. He is the inventor of the Crumble pure strategy board game, which you can make yourself with a few pieces of cardboard. He also enjoys writing fiction, attempting animation, reforming Labanotation, designing and sewing his own clothes, learning French and spending time with friends'n'family.

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