One of my fascinations, although not enough to warrant giving myself any sort of title, is the history of computer folk in the days when unix and the internet were purely academic subjects. A lot of interesting culture and cultural terms emerged from that time, and seem to be relatively consistent. There again, the consistency probably stems from the fact that the authoritative tome for these terms is the FOLDOC (Free On-Line Dictionary Of Computing).

Some of its more famous articles are still common terms in industry today, such as Cargo Cult Programming. One of my favourites is the Magic Switch Story (although it's rather less famous, or at least not used commonly).

What really captures my imagination is that these terms are relics from what is the closest thing to an oral tradition as we're going to get. A lesson abbreviated into the title of a story or lesson. You hear terms like "Deep Magic" and you can guess at what they mean, even before you read the definition. Sometimes when I take a step back and look at what programmers are actually saying to each other, I can only think of "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra". (By-the-by, the fact that I'm linkspamming with various pieces of hacker folklore, and the plot summary of a Star Trek episode is not lost on me)

Sometimes I'd get a little lost feeling about not having the same common depth of folklore nowadays, but hanging around the likes of reddit, I realise that there's as much of a common language now as there was before, but it's shifted. I can talk about doing a Bobby Tables and expect that folk understand it. If I say someone's a real BOFH, you might get an idea as to what to expect.

There are also traditions that are spreading as memes. For instance, the editing of production code, live on the server, now requires the perpetrator to wear a Pink Sombrero... and the thought of the pink sombrero brings me onto one of my own traditions.

Just over half-my-life ago, I was at the right age to appreciate the cartoon Earthworm Jim when it came out. I loved the graphical beauty of the game, even though I wasn't very good at it, and its attitude. To my mind, the cartoon managed to faithfully recreate and enhance aspects of game, and it was just enjoyable.

There's one scene from that cartoon that's stuck in my mind from then until now: Jim is, once again, captured by the bad guy of the episode, a particularly televangelist-sounding fish, who wants Jim's suit and, as a bonus, wants a nice worm-roast for dinner (what with Jim being a worm and all). The henchman tasked with making said wormroast decides to watch a cookery programme and learn how to make pot-roast. The henchman, not being the gifted in his class, says something to the effect of, "I know, when he says 'pot', I say worm."

The conversation follows something like this:
Chef: We're gonna make a pot-roast tonight.
Henchman: Worm Roast!
Chef: To make a pot-roast-
Henchman: Worm Roast!
Chef: you get a nice shiny metal pot and stick it in the oven.
Henchman: Get a shiny metal worm.
*casts eye around, and settles on a generic cartoon missile and shoves it in the oven*
*Hilarity ensues and our protagonist makes his escape*

So, how does this have anything to do with hacker culture, folklore, sayings and traditions?

Well, I sometimes have to heavily modify existing scripts. For better or for worse, I frequently find myself renaming and retasking one major component to make room for another. That's mostly fine but, from hard experience, I'm always conscious that I'm probably missing some of the subtleties that stop me from directly renaming one thing to another. Chances are I've got 90% of the problem in my head, it's just that last 10% is going to hurt me if I stumble blindly just swapping bits around.

It's just like saying 'worm' whenever they say 'pot' without understanding that the two are not completely substitutable.

Just to remind myself, when I do that sort of work, I chirp out in my dumbest little voice, "WORMROAST!"; it's fun trying to explain that one to co-workers who already think you're half-mad. Now that I've explained it to them, I'm more prone to chirping "WORMROAST" in the office.

I know that my call of "WORMROAST" isn't going to catch on any time soon, but it's a story that keeps me amused while I go and break things in the name of progress.

I know places like Stack Overflow like to enumerate all the new little terms that have turned up, but I'd love to hear any personal little terms you use, either in the comments here or by twitter.

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tara_hanoi

September 2015

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