Watching the Machines Run
There’s a bit from the Walker Percy novel “Lancelot” where he praises the kind of “interested idleness” that just watches the machines run. It was made in reference to an oil man and self-made millionaire who dug a hole a in the ground, worked to build an industrial mechanism on top of it…
And then relaxed and watched in idle, bemused interest as the machines worked and the money poured into his pockets. There is a lot of the pleasure of programming right there. Even the money part, if you take the entrepreneurial road, but not just the money part. Some of it is just the pure and simple pleasure of constructing an abstract edifice from pure thought-stuff, and then watching as electrons dance at the speed of light around its contours to do your calculus homework. Or simulate heroic deeds. Or, for that matter, a beautiful woman’s admiration.
That’s heady stuff. No wonder so many of us got hooked on it. More and more of us, from the later GenXers on, descending the socioeconomic ladder as computers became more affordable. Did you know that programming was once a female dominated profession? It’s true, and remained true right up until the first teenage boys who had grown up with computers started entering the workforce.
My first taste was the QBASIC Gorillas game, which you run by running the source code. Two pixelated, cartoon monkeys throwing explosive bananas at each other on a city sky-line. It didn’t take me long to realize that I could tweak the code to make the bananas blow up, not the other gorilla, but the entire city.
In high school, they asked me for the very first time which class I wanted to take, and I saw computer science on the list and took it freshman year. I would have taken it all four years. I would have taken it all-day all four years. As it was, the teacher let us work at our desks during lunch, and so I spent my lunch breaks writing a game in Turbo Pascal about a woman that did my every whim. Power fantasy much? What do you expect when, at four, I got hooked up to a cocaine-drip of digital wish-fulfillment. What ever I wanted, I could have, or at least, a digital simulacrum of it. I just needed to find the right configuration of bits. The teacher, a middle aged woman that always dressed like she was off to work at IBM and not at all like a teacher, saw my extra-curricular work and rolled her eyes. But she didn’t delete it from my workstation, or tell me I couldn’t come in during lunch and work on it. And when the class was over, and I had passed with a 98, she looked the other way while I brought a few 3.5” floppies to school and made pirate copies of Turbo Pascal and my slave girl source code to take home.
It turns out “master” and “god” were among the most popular passwords in the English-speaking world, according to security researchers and right after the word “password,” at least until it made the list of “common passwords” and started being blacklisted as too easy to guess.
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