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Thursday, 25 July 2013 16:23

Female dev's outburst against Torvalds was planned

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Intel developer Sarah Sharp's challenge to Linux creator Linus Torvalds on the kernel mailing list, asking him to stop abusing and cursing at developers, appears to have been carefully planned.

In a post to the Linux kernel mailing list at 11:53:43am EST on July 15, Sharp replied to jocular comments by developers Steven Rostedt and Ingo Molnar, and also Torvalds, claiming "Linus Torvalds is advocating for physical intimidation and violence. Ingo Molnar and Linus are advocating for verbal abuse."

The comments from the three male developers were made after senior kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman had complained about the late submission of patches for the stable branch of development. (A detailed report is here.)

Along with her post, Sharp had sent out a tweet at 10.26am, in which she sought support: "Stand with me against verbal abuse on #linux mailing lists. No one deserves to be shouted or cussed," she wrote, linking to a blog post on her personal blog. This post had to have been written shortly before she sent the tweet.

The tweet was sent to The Ada Initiative as well, an organisation that claims to be working to increase the participation of women in technology and culture. In recent times, it has become better known for trying to censor discussion at technical conferences on anything with which it disagrees.

Sharp's directing of this tweet to The Ada Initiative does not sit easily beside her claim in a later post to LKML that "I'm not some crazy feminist ranting about cooties on Google+." If she did not want to canvass the support of women, why send the tweet to an organisation of this nature?

Had Sharp wanted to raise this issue without making her gender a factor, she would not have sought the support of an organisation like The Ada Initiative at any time. She would have raised it on the mailing list. And she would not have made it a PR issue.

A few days after the discussion on the mailing list, Sharp issued what can only be described a gloating tweet. "I'm on to something. 199 retweets. Google plus: +333, 122 reshares. 9 major tech articles. 180 blog comments. People care". It could be argued that not everything that is popular is also correct, but apparently such arguments are not part of Sharp's make-up.

The entire effort appears to be directed at generating media coverage to make Torvalds look like a serial abuser – when this could not be further from the truth. Torvalds has let fly at some developers, but his eruptions always have to do with mediocre work and are always directed at top maintainers from whom he expects much.

And as he himself pointed out in an interview last year, it is better to level with developers and let them know that work they are doing is proceeding in a direction which he does not like, rather than tell them after they have been working on something for a few months and then bring it to him, convinced that it is ready for prime time. In one case, Torvalds says, a developer became suicidal when code on which he had worked for a few months did not measure up.

Torvalds is brutally honest about things and no-one can ever call his integrity into question.

On the mailing list, Torvalds was at pains to point out that he did not subscribe to Sharp's definition of professionalism. "Because if you want me to 'act professional', I can tell you that I'm not interested," he wrote. "I'm sitting in my home office wearing a bathrobe. The same way I'm not going to start wearing ties, I'm *also* not going to buy into the fake politeness, the lying, the office politics and backstabbing, the passive aggressiveness, and the buzzwords. Because THAT is what "acting professionally" results in: people resort to all kinds of really nasty things because they are forced to act out their normal urges in unnatural ways."

One of the things that Sharp has tried to spread is that around 80 percent of the kernel development work is done by people who are working for various corporates. She told a rather gullible interviewer from Wired: "Twenty percent of the kernel contributors are either students or hobbyists. But 80 percent of the kernel contributors are paid by companies. So that means that the Linux kernel really has a lot of people from corporations on there. Some of them, like Linus, are paid by nonprofits. But it’s still becoming more of a corporate environment, and a lot of corporations have codes of conduct. And those codes of conduct often say things about how you conduct yourself on public forums or social media. The code of conduct for those companies also applies to the [Linux Kernel] mailing list."

To put it mildly, this is a stupid assertion. All these developers, no matter the company that hires them, are all joining the kernel project which Torvalds started. Hence, it is only logical that they adhere to his rules and not the other way around. Sometimes logic seems to evade even developers.

The harsh truth is that companies pay people to do kernel development because the company's bottomline benefits. This is not charity. Sharp is paid to work on kernel development by Intel because the company makes money off Linux. And if these corporate types weren't around, kernel development would still proceed, as it does on most reputable free software projects; nobody pays people to work on Debian, yet that project has been going for the last 20 years.

Essentially, Sharp is trying to do what many women are doing these days – push an organisation or project to function in a way that they dictate. Else, well, they will go to sympathetic media organisations and raise a noise, confident in one thing: any criticism of what they do can always be attributed to the fact that they are women. This results in a fringe element indulging in over-the-top abuse which can then be touted as evidence: "See, I told you they were against us because we are women."

The issue is to be discussed at the kernel summit which is scheduled for October.


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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