Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Time wasters

Everybody knows that Wikipedia is nearly the ultimate time waster.  I also have to give honorable mention to the Jargon File, which some geeks will recognize and the rest should go read.  This is Hacker* ancient lore, and by ancient, I mean really old: I have a printed copy from 1993, and it was up to version 2.9.4 by then.  It's the condensed "Oral Tradition" from the early days of programming.

For example, I used a toss-away line in an earlier post: You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.  This is from the ADVENT computer game, sometimes called Adventure or Colossal Cave.  The game is so old - from the early 1970s - that it ran on Mainframes in FORTRAN.

The Jargon file not only describes the game (as does the Wikipedia page), but puts it into a "hacker lore" context (as the Wikipedia page does not):
This game defined the terse, dryly humorous style since expected in text adventure games, and popularized several tag lines that have become fixtures of hacker-speak: “A huge green fierce snake bars the way!” “I see no X here” (for some noun X). “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” “You are in a little maze of twisty passages, all different.” The ‘magic words’ xyzzy and plugh also derive from this game.
(A word to the wise: xyzzy and plugh are exceptionally bad choices for a password ...)

Adapting this to the Gun Control debate, an appropriately hackish reply to suggested new "common sense" laws would be I see no 'common sense' here.  Old graybeard gunnie geeks will smile when they hear this.

Many entries show the love of punning.  For example, everybody's heard of optimal.  Optimal solutions are the ideal towards which we all strive.  Strangely, The Jargon file does not include this, but does offer its antonym:
pessimal: /pes im l/, adj.

[Latin-based antonym for optimal] Maximally bad. “This is a pessimal situation.” Also pessimize vt. To make as bad as possible. These words are the obvious Latin-based antonyms for optimal and optimize, but for some reason they do not appear in most English dictionaries, although ‘pessimize’ is listed in the OED.
There is a great richness of techno-geekery preserved here.  This entry is perhaps richer than some but gives you the exact flavor:

scram switch: n.

[from the nuclear power industry] An emergency-power-off switch (see Big Red Switch), esp. one positioned to be easily hit by evacuating personnel. In general, this is not something you frob lightly; these often initiate expensive events (such as Halon dumps) and are installed in a dinosaur pen for use in case of electrical fire or in case some luckless field servoid should put 120 volts across himself while Easter egging. (See also molly-guard, TMRC.)

Scram” was in origin a backronym for “Safety Cut Rope Axe Man” coined by Enrico Fermi himself. The story goes that in the earliest nuclear power experiments the engineers recognized the possibility that the reactor wouldn't behave exactly as predicted by their mathematical models. Accordingly, they made sure that they had mechanisms in place that would rapidly drop the control rods back into the reactor. One mechanism took the form of ‘scram technicians’. These individuals stood next to the ropes or cables that raised and lowered the control rods. Equipped with axes or cable-cutters, these technicians stood ready for the (literal) ‘scram’ command. If necessary, they would cut the cables, and gravity would expeditiously return the control rods to the reactor, thereby averting yet another kind of core dump.
But to me, the historical value is the best part.  The "don't do this, m'kay?" captured in Scratch Monkey should be required reading for all beginning engineers.

Eric S. Raymond maintained the file for quite a long time; he doesn't appear to be much involved these days, although his Unix Koans of Master Foo are worth your while.

But full warning: if you're an IT geek, this is a time sink of epic proportions.  You're welcome.

* Hacker is used in the original meaning of a clever programmer, not in the popular usage of an Internet Bad Guy.  Note: people thinking of trying out "hacking" in the modern sense need to read Master Foo and the Script Kiddie.  Just sayin'.


Dave H said...

I'm not sure if this predates the Jargon File (probably not), but I know the Infocom ZORK text adventure games were developed by Colossal Cave fans. If you tried to use "xyzzy" as a magic work in ZORK the game would respond, "A hollow voice says, 'CRETIN!'" (Or sometimes "FOOL!")

Samrobb said...

Oh, geez. There goes my productivity for the day.

I've still got an almost-read-to-rags printing of the New Hacker's Dictionary at home in a box somewhere. While I'm just now approaching grey-haired curmudgeon status, 20 years ago when I started programming professionally, it was a delight to be able to sit down and immerse myself in the lore and lingo generated by the pioneers in the field.

doubletrouble said...

Check Tam's post title today...

Tam said...


I swear to Vishnu that this is the first time I clicked on your blog today.

I'll take "Freaky Coincidences" for $500, Alex... :D

BobG said...

That brought back a lot of memories.

Buck said...

Thank you. A week of unemployment going down the rabbit hole for me. :)

Hat Trick said...

Hmm. I've always known it as "Safety Control Rod Axe Man"

Anonymous said...

I heard Stanford College Reactor Axe Man, which could be wrong very easily. Anyway, I enjoyed this a lot, particularly next to Tam's post.