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Tough TTYs: Alan Cox leaves Linux

Hands up who loves Linus Torvalds? The count may be one down after Linux kernel hacker Alan Cox quit as TTY code base maintainer following stabbing public criticism from Torvalds.

Alan Cox has been involved with the Linux kernel for 18 years. He is credited with fixing many early networking bugs and at one time was even regarded as second to Torvalds in the Linux world.

Cox’ involvement diminished when he commenced a Masters degree in Business Administration (MBA) but he continued to maintain the TTY subsystem of the Linux kernel – the very important component which drives any text terminal or serial port connection.

The term “tty” harks back to teletypewriters that were originally used as input to large computers of the past. Type the w command into any Linux shell and you’ll see a list of logged-in users, each connected to either a tty device or pty (pseudo tty) device.

Yet, Alan Cox has now walked away from the tty code, posting on the Linux Kernel mailing list “I’ve had enough.”

Cox posted his message in response to criticism alleging he was not fixing bugs – specifically a bug that affected the emacs editor – and he was instead blaming the application.

Cox retorted to his abuser “If you think that problem is easy to fix you fix it.”

It’s an unfortunate truism of the Internet that flame wars happen on any mailing list or forum. This one is particularly significant because of who Cox is and the crucial nature of the tty code and because the person who incensed Cox so much to quit was actually none other than Torvalds himself.

Torvalds slammed Cox in a stern posting, using phrases like “You have been CONTINUALLY arguing that emacs is buggy. Without any logic to back that up what-so-ever” and “Why are you making these outlandish claims?” and “Why did it take so long to admit that all the regressions were kernel problems?”

Linus then landed his finishing blow, “Quite frankly, I don’t understand why I should even have to bring these issues up” the same way an adult might rebuke a wayward child.

It was this which led to Cox simply replying “I’ve had enough ... you fix it” and then flushing his entire code submission queue.

It possibly didn’t help matters that the specific program affected, emacs, is almost revered in some Linux circles. It was one of the first GNU apps, created by none other than Richard Stallman himself – although there is some irony that Alan Cox prefers the same unruly beard style as Stallman.

Are you a Linux kernel hacker? Looking for a voluntary role maintaining the TTY code base? If so, there’s a position now vacant.

Perhaps new kernel submitter, Microsoft, may wish to step in.


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David M Williams

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David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. Within two years, he returned to his alma mater, the University of Newcastle, as a UNIX systems manager. This was a crucial time for UNIX at the University with the advent of the World-Wide-Web and the decline of VMS. David moved on to a brief stint in consulting, before returning to the University as IT Manager in 1998. In 2001, he joined an international software company as Asia-Pacific troubleshooter, specialising in AIX, HP/UX, Solaris and database systems. Settling down in Newcastle, David then found niche roles delivering hard-core tech to the recruitment industry and presently is the Chief Information Officer for a national resources company where he particularly specialises in mergers and acquisitions and enterprise applications.