II.
    It probably won't surprise anyone that some of my earliest
and happiest memories involve playing with my grandfather's old
electronic calculator.
    This was my mother's father, Leo Waldemar Törnqvist, who
was a professor of statistics at Helsinki University. I remember hav-
ing tons of fun calculating sine of various random numbers.
Not because I actually cared all that much for the answer (after all,
not many people do), but because this was a long time ago, and cal-
culators didn't just give you the answer. They calculated it. And
they blinked a lot while doing so, mainly in order to give you some
feedback that "Yes, I'm still alive, and it takes me ten seconds to do
this calculation, and in the meantime I'll blink for you to show
how much work I do."
    That was fascinating. Much more exciting than a modern
calculator that won't even break into a sweat when doing some-
thing as simple as calculating a plain sine of a number. With those
early devices you knew that what they did was hard. They made it
very clear indeed.
    I don't actually remember the first time I saw a computer,
but I must have been around eleven at the time. It was probably in
1981, when my grandfather bought a new Commodore VIC-20.
Since, I had spent so much time playing with his magic calculator.
I must have been thrilled -panting with excitement to start play-
ing with the new computer- but I can't really seem to remember
that in fact, I don't even remember when I got really into comput-
ers at all. It started slowly, and it grew on me.
    The VIC-20 was one of the first ready-made computers
meant for the home. It required no assembly. You just plugged it
into the TV and turned it on, and there it sat, with a big all-caps
"READY" at the top of the screen and a big blinking cursor just
waiting for you to do something.
    The big problem was that there really wasn't that much to
do on the thing. Especially early on, when the infrastructure for
commercial programs hadn't yet started to materialize. The only
thing you could really do was to program it in BASIC. Which was
exactly what my grandfather started doing.
    Now, my grandfather saw this new toy mainly as a toy, but
also as a glorified calculator. Not only could it compute the sine of
a number a lot faster than the old calculator, but you
could tell it to do this over and over automatically. He also could
now do at home many of the things he had done with the big com-
puters at the university.
    And he wanted me to share in the experience. He also was
trying to get me interested in math.
    So I would sit on his lap and he would have me type in his
programs, which he had carefully written out on paper because he
wasn't comfortable with computers. I don't know how many other
preteen boys sat in their grandfather's room, being taught how to
simplify arithmetic expressions and type them correctly into a com-
puter, but I remember doing that. I don't remember what the cal-
culations were all about, and I don't think I had a single clue about
what I really did when I did it, but I was there, helping him. It
probably took us much longer than it would have taken him alone,
but who knows? I grew comfortable with the keyboard, something
my grandfather never did. I would do this after school, or whenever
my mother dropped me off at my grandparent's apartment.
    And I started reading manuals for the computer, typing
in the example programs. There were examples of simple games
that you could program yourself. If you did it right you wound up
with a guy that walked across the screen in bad graphics, and then
you could change it and make the guy walk across the screen in dif-
ferent colors. You could just do that.
    It's the greatest feeling.
    I started writing my own. The first program I wrote was the
first program everybody else starts out with:
    
    10 PRINT "HELLO"
    20 GOTO 10
 
    This does exactly what you except it to do. It prints out
HELLO on the screen. Forever. Or at least until you kill it out of
boredom.
    But it's the first step. Some people stop here. To them, it's a
stupid exercise because why would you want to print out HELLO a
million times? But it was invariably the first example in the manu-
als that came with those early home computers.
    And the magic thing is that you can change it. My sister
tells me that I made a radical second version of this program that
didn't just write out HELLO, but instead wrote SARA IS THE
BEST on screen, over and over again. Ordinarily I wasn't such a
loving older brother. Apparently the gesture made a big impres-
sion on her.
    I don't remember doing it. As soon as I wrote a program I
would forget about it and move on to the next one.
 
 
III.
    Let me tell you about Finland. Sometime in October the
skies turn an unpleasant shade of gray, and it always looks as if it
will either rain or snow. You wake up every day to this gloominess
of anticipation. The rain will be chilly and it will rinse away any
evidence of summer. When the snow comes, it has that magical
quality of making everything bright and painting the place with a
veneer optimism. The trouble is, the optimism lasts about three
days but the snow remains for month after bone-numbingly cold
month.
    By January you sort of wander around in a shadowy daze, if
you choose to go outside. It's a season of moist, bulky clothes and
slipping on the ice hockey rink they created hosing down the
grammar school field you traverse as a short-cut to the bus. On
Helsinki streets it means dodging the occasional tottering matron
who was probably somebody's gracious grandmother back in Sep-
tember but by 11 A.M. on a Tuesday in January is weaving on the
sidewalks from her vodka breakfast. Who can blame her? It will be
dark again in a few hours, and there isn't a lot to do. But there was
an indoor sport that got me through the winter: programming.
    Morfar (the Swedish word for "Mother's Father") would be
there much of the time, but not all the time. He doesn't mind if
you sit in his room when he's away. You beg up the money for your
first computer book. Everything is in English and it is necessary to
decode the language. It's difficult to understand technical literature
in a language you don't really know that well. You use your
allowance to buy computer magazines. One of them contains a pro-
gram for Morse code. The odd thing about this particular program
is that it's not written in the BASIC language. Instead, it's written
as a list of numbers that could be translated by hand to machine
language -the zeros and ones the computers reads.
    That's how you discover that the computer doesn't really
speak BASIC. Instead it operates according to a much more
simple language. Helsinki kids are playing hockey and skiing
with their parents in the woods. You're learning how a computer
actually works. Unaware that programs exist to translate human-
readable numbers into the zeros and the ones that a computer under-
stands, you just start writing programs in number form and do
the conversions by hand. This is programming in machine lan-
guage, and by doing it you start to do things you wouldn't have
thought possible before. You are able to push what the computer
can do. You control every single small detail. You start to think
about how you can do things slightly faster in a smaller space.
Since there's no abstraction layer between you and the computer,
you get fairly close. This is what it's like to be intimate with a
machine.
    You're twelve, thirteen, fourteen, whatever. Other kids are
out playing soccer. Your grandfather's computer is more interest-
ing. His machine is its own world, where logic rules. There are
maybe three people in the class with computers and only one of them
uses it for the same reasons. You hold weekly meetings. It's the
only social activity on the calendar, except for the occasional com-
puter sleepover.
    And you don't mind. This is fun.
    [...]
 
                                  Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux.
 Quote from the book "Just for fun", Linus Torvalds & David Diamond

Linus' blog