Saturday 28 December 2013


I returned to Ireland in 1990 funded by a retraining fellowship that was designed to re-package biologists from out-moded disciplines as biotechnologists.  Up till then I'd been a population geneticist which in the 1980s was at its nadir of interest and novelty.  My gaffer-to-be and I made a case that bioinformatics was a subset of biotechnology, so I was excused from ever having to flip open an Eppendorf; which act had previously led to one of my NDEs.  That retraining fellowship, intended to last a year and facilitate repatriating The Boy to his natal city, grew into a career that has kept me continuously in employment since then.

In the early 1990s, the operating system of choice for bioinformatics was called VAX/VMS a proprietary software interface with DEC computers. DEC's VAX computers had become the de facto standard by beating the competition in a HarryPotter winner-takes-all race.  The attempts of another company to wrest some of the pie from DEC's grasp in the early 1980s is detailed in Tracy Kidder's brilliant, gripping book The Soul of a New Machine, which you'd be better off reading than this, shorter, historical memoir.  I got to know quite a lot about VAX/VMS in order to load updates of the DNA database when they arrived and make them accessible to users.  But abruptly in about 1993, everyone I knew in the world of bioinformatics switched to UNIX based operating systems and I was back at the bottom of another skill-set tower-block which I was obliged to laboriously climb.  We were still using DEC computers, which were still running VMS, but the company offered UNIX as an alternative O/S.  As ever, I followed the herd because I was never going to be competent enough or confident enough to go it alone.

Meanwhile in another corner of the pre-WWW internet a chap called Linus Torvalds was developing a free version of  UNIX which was called Linux, partly after the author. He was another member of the finlandssvenskar or suomenruotsalaiset, born in Helsinki on 28 Dec 1969, so in 1990 he was a young chap writing up his MSc with a thesis "Linux: a portable operating system".  His parents, student lefties, claimed that they named him after peacenik and Nobellist Linus Pauling.  Linus himself claimed that he was named half for a "Nobel-prize-winning chemist" and half  for a "blanket-carrying cartoon character". Which suggests that he is fundamentally a nice bloke with a sense of humour.

The Linux business model has been that lots of people developed modules and features of the fundamental operating system and these were incorporated and made internally consistent, so that it did everything you'd ever wished for in an O/S.  If it lacked some function you could write it yourself and send it in.  Every line of code was visible if you wanted it to be, so that made further developments much easier.  It is extremely likely that the server which is handling your access to the internet, and another which is hosting this blog are both running some version of Linux.  Because of this radical community-centred project is offered free, Linus Torvalds will never be as rich as Bill Gates. Linux buffs have a tendency to the messianic in their comparisons with MS Windows but lots of companies are making a profit and employing lots of people delivering the basic operating system in a way that is as easy to operate as Windows.  But for old stagers like me there is always the option to run programs and make changes from the keyboard without tricking about with a graphical user interface (GUI) or the mouse.  They say that Torvalds is now only responsible for about 2% of the lines of code that make up the operating system named after him.  He is nevertheless among the most significant individual contributors - that indicates how big is the community which serves the servers.

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