Del arrived at work late in the morning, and as usual, Pense, who had been there since dawn, was bent over his keyboard, serious as a scribe.
Pense wore noise-canceling headphones, as did most of the other engineers in his group. The company had no cubicles or private offices, which was typical in Silicon Valley, and the engineers sat shoulder to shoulder at long, white tables. The headphones functioned, culturally, as a virtual privacy wall — a kind of “Do Not Disturb” sign.
Still, Pense acknowledged him, slipping a phone off one ear. “Good morning,” he said.
“Yo, what’s up?” Del said in a dry, affectless voice. The younger man did not smile, nor did he make eye contact. He dropped his weathered backpack onto the whitewashed concrete floor, fished out his laptop, plugged it into the monitor and dropped into his seat, never once taking his dark eyes off the big screen. Then he tapped his grimy keyboard, which lit up the monitor, and logged in.
Pense did not interpret Del’s behavior as antisocial; that’s just how the kid was.
He was old enough to be Del’s father, and that, in many ways, defined their relationship: While Del didn’t report to Pense — no one did — he treated him as a mentor, advisor, critic, sage, pal, antagonist, and, yes, father. Which was fine with Pense. He liked the kid and was happy to be all those other things, too.
Pense tucked his ear back under the pad, and re-adjusted the headphones. Long ago, he had glued a square, black sponge mid-frame on the phones, for extra comfort, and to keep his mostly bald pate from chafing. People referred to him as “Spongehead,” affectionately, but behind his back.
He settled into his work. Work was a good place. He liked the raw act of creation that was writing code.
Lately, he enjoyed listening to the Keith Jarrett concert at Köln. It took him some place far enough away that he could focus without distraction and build ideas out of logic. He used an ancient (by computing standards) editing tool called GNU Emacs to write his routines. Over the years, he’d written literally hundreds of sub routines, which were stored in his Emacs editor like tiny, specialized tools, and called into service when needed.
Lines of numbers and strange punctuation marks and seemingly nonsensical run-on words such as “FeatureRubric.aux,” color coded in pink, violet and blue for easier reference, filled his screen. With deft combo-keystrokes, he inserted chunks of code here, and subtracted or amended other bits there.
Every few moments, he’d compile the routine to make sure everything was working. The computer would digest the latest lines of code, tack them on to the program and spit out, in a side window, an ever-lengthening series of colored boxes and text indicating that everything worked. It was a little like knitting.
Pense got into a groove. He rocked side to side a little, working his way through a particularly knotty module of the project. The autistic rocking, the frontlet-like headphones on his head, his springy, white beard — all of it made him look like he was at morning prayers.
He glanced at Del. The kid had his headphones on too and was going through email and the bug reports filed via a system called JIRA. JIRA was short for “Gojira” — Japanese for Godzilla. Wry, computer-engineer humor.
Pense thought about JIRA and how it is the nature of language to condense over time, while simultaneously expanding. Words become code and code becomes words. Like life itself, it’s ever expanding, folding in on itself, consolidating. And in that consolidation, something new and hot and powerful is created, that drives the whole iterative process.
At around 1 pm, the Palo Alto sun radiated hot in a typically cloudless, blue sky. Everything was warm and quiet and still as a nursery in the workroom. Tidy groups of engineers, in cargo shorts and garish sneakers, had begun to coalesce around the front door, ready to head out for lunch. Pense stayed behind and finished the section of code he’d begun that morning.
He leaned back, scratched his arms and compiled his work one more time, magically turning it from human-readable text to something that the computer could understand and execute. His code was never brilliant, but it was always serviceable, like the particular 245-line section on his screen. Every now and then, he’d have small flashes of genius, but it seemed to Pense (and, likely, the other engineers) that this happened less often these days.
Which was fine. The company itself was middle aged and prosperous. It had earned the right to carry a little fat in the middle. While the usual career path of a software guy such as Pense was to make one’s mark on the world early, and then graduate into positions that were increasingly managerial and less hands on, he opted out of that route. He loathed telling people what to do. Instead, the company allowed him to code alone, measuring out his work life by the number of lines he wrote each day.
He was about to upload his completed section to GitHub, a public repository where all the engineers stored, and ultimately interconnected their code, when he noticed something peculiar: The next section, which he was about to tackle, had already been started. In fact, it was mostly finished.
Pense had no recollection of writing that code. Was he losing his mind?
He examined the work and realized that an entire module had been written. The section, like the half dozen others he’d already written for this particular project, was detailed and complex, with a beginning, middle and end. It was 374 lines long — a good day’s work for a good programmer. But who wrote it?
“Dude — ” Pense said to Del.
Del didn’t respond. He had his own headphones on and was deep into whatever he was coding. Pense tried to get his attention by waving his hands, and finally got out of his seat so he could give the younger man a nudge.
“What’s up? Del asked, nonplussed and a little wide eyed.
“Thanks for the assist,” Pense said, smiling and jerking a thumb at his monitor. “But, um, why?”
“No sabe,” said Del. “No sabe what the fuck you’re talking about.”
“Come on,” said Pense. “If you didn’t write this, who did?”
Del scooted his chair back from his desk and looked at Pense.
Pense gently rolled Del, still in his Aeron chair, over to his work area and pointed to the screen. “That,” he said.
Del stroked his beard, which was panther black and much fuller and longer than Pense’s scraggly white one, and leaned in to examine the class. “OK,” he said, “so what?”
“So what?” said Pense.
“I am looking at a bunch of code,” said Del. “You, apparently, are saying that you did not write it. I, definitely, did not write it.” He shrugged and rolled himself back to his station.
Pense stared at the screen for a while, pondering the mystery. The code was tightly constructed — so terse and economical that, in retrospect, he realized that Del could not have been its author. And yet, Del was the obvious culprit (if “culprit” is the right word for someone who does you a favor by secretly doing your work.) If not Del, then who?
Was it possible that Pense had written the code and simply forgotten? Perhaps he’d gotten so deeply into the flow state that he wrote this routine and suppressed the memory. God knows, he had been getting more forgetful lately. The only way he could remember certain names or words was to try and recall what they were connected to, and then follow the strands back.
But there were no memory strands attached to this lengthy section of code. It was a complete blank in his mind. Writing it would be like forgetting that he’d just built a barn.
It’s true that, up to a point, computer programmers develop a “voice” the way that fiction writers do. Sometimes this has to do with the economy the great ones employ — accomplishing something in, say, 50 lines, that a lesser programmer would need 100 lines to do.
But this section wasn’t exactly Hemingway; it had no more, or less, economy of language than the rest of Pense’s oeuvre.
Likewise, even the phrasing of individual lines of code can be idiosyncratic and hint at the identity of the author. There was definitely something familiar about how the lines of this particular routine had been written, Pense noticed. For instance, his old-school propensity to write ‘if (true==variable)’ instead of ‘if (variable==true)’ showed up a few times.
And yet! There was no way that he could have written 347 lines of code on autopilot. It was too ridiculous.
Pense poked around a bit in his computer, examining files that logged the various times and ways his machine was used, looking for signs of an intruder. Pense searched for clues. By typing “git blame” he was able to see whether anyone had touched his file. The command lists who last opened a file and gives the date and time. But it showed Pense as the last author, parking the file at pretty much when Pense remembered uploading it.
Whoever did this had a perfect understanding of what Pense was trying to build, and gave him a valuable, precisely written chunk of code. But the piece was delivered in such a way as to hide the identity of its creator.
It was fruitless to think about it much more, so Pense stored his code in GitHub, and went home. Some mysteries weren’t worth solving.
But the next day, when Pense arrived early in the morning and logged into his computer, he was startled to see yet another new section had been written. This class was 324 lines long. Aside from the fact that this was what Pense thought of as a “significant number” — it was the sum of 18 times 18…Pense remembered certain numbers the way some people instantly recall faces — there was nothing else remarkable about it.
The section slotted into the program seamlessly. It was a tricky piece of work that would have taken Pense a few days to build. Yet here it was, done by God knows whom, threaded into his program as if he had written it himself. And he had not — he was now sure of it.
“Why don’t you send out an office-wide email?” Del asked. “See if you can get someone to ‘fess up.”
It wasn’t a bad idea, and Pense did it. Yet no one came forward. “Old Spongehead is going soft in the head,” one of the younger engineers quipped later, after Pense had gone home for the day.
Pense’s code got longer. While he wrote some of it, the rest just appeared, morning after morning, in ordered, coherent blocks that fit perfectly.
He continued searching for the true author of the new code, to no avail. He sniffed around the office, in an off-hand way, to see if anyone would admit to it. More aggressively, though half-jokingly, he accused various people of pranking him. He put a secret keystroke-logging program on his laptop, but aside from catching his wife ordering curtain fabric online, it trapped no intruders. He even stayed up one night to try and catch the perpetrator in the act. Nothing worked, though his vigil did appear to prevent any new code from being written that night. The next day, however, when he fell asleep for a few hours, he awoke to yet another new section.
Pense thought he was going mad. At first, he told anyone who would listen that the code appeared to be writing itself. But everyone assumed he was joking, pulling a prank or otherwise up to something. There was, simply, no explanation for the ghost in the machine.
Perhaps his computer had become sentient, a localized singularity. He’d once read that the GNU-Emacs editor was “Turing Complete,” meaning that it was itself a computer, capable of executing programs. But while the collection of macros and little subroutines stored up in his editor was unique, he didn’t think he had created primordial slime. The machine didn’t seem to come alive when he was around. It did not greet him by name or order flowers for his wife in anticipation of their anniversary.
The only thing it appeared to do, was write code by itself.
Finally, at last, Pense’s project was finished. He wrote the last section, complied it, and sat back to watch the routine run. It performed flawlessly — so well, in fact, that Si, his supervisor, commended him for the quality of his work.
Pense figured that whomever was pranking him would stop and that the self-writing code would abate when he began working on his next project. But it did not. In fact, the unseen hand redoubled its efforts.
Now, before leaving work for the day, Pense only had to indicate which section he intended to work on next by typing out a line or two, and the thing would be finished by the time he arrived. Always, the code was tight, perfectly built and fully rendered.
Sometimes 300 or so lines would be written, but on other nights, the unseen hand wrote more. And as time went on, the volume of code that was output each night increased. Most recently, Pense arrived to see that 586 lines of a class had been written — an astounding amount.
Of course, Pense’s enormous daily output attracted Si’s attention and notice at the highest ranks of the organization. Despite Pense’s demurrals, management believed that he was working around the clock, possibly to show that he had the stamina of a kid right out of college.
“Burning the midnight oil — eh, Pense?” said Si, patting him on the back.
“Actually, last night I watched an old movie,” Pense said. “With my wife.”
But Si just chortled like a man who can take a good joke. He enjoyed singling out Pense at team meetings and praising him for his prodigious — and elegant — output. He would tell the younger programmers that they all ought to aspire to be Penses when they grew up.
“A real craftsman, who has pride in his work. And he can run circles around you bunch,” Si said.
For the first time in years, Pense started to receive merit bonuses and the good type of “restricted” stock options. He even landed a significant annual raise. With the new found wealth, he and his wife moved to an adobe cottage with a red tile roof, in San Carlos on top of a hill that overlooked Silicon Valley.
Pense stopped mentioning that he was responsible for only half (or less) of his programming output. In fact, he quit complaining that anything unusual was going on in the code-writing department, and he no longer tried to figure out who was behind it, or why someone would do such a thing. Either the prankster would make himself known, or not. It didn’t matter to Pense.
Without being aware of it, he began to enjoy his new role as a savant and programming dynamo. In the old days, his fellow engineers loved to rib him for being too old and too Old School and too cynical. He was a figure of fun. But now he noticed his teammates stopped talking when he approached, as if humbled in the presence of the great man. He developed a little swagger around the office.
Even Del, who used to treat him with what was at best a churlish respect, was now unambiguous in his admiration for his mentor. He made a point of greeting Pense with a brisk, “good morning” when he arrived at work each day, and often solicited his opinion on problems that ranged from coding to career advice.
Pense began to imagine that his laptop was like a bottle with a genie trapped inside, always toiling away, doing his bidding. The thing in the machine was now so fast and so prolific — he had arrived that morning to see that 669 lines of code had been written overnight — that he began to throttle back on “his” output, checking in a more modest amount of code each night.
The completed parts, the newly written modules, began to back up and Pense had to create a mirror of his program. The mirror was the most complete version, and showed all the code he’d written, plus the sections that the computer had written. The production version, on the other hand, was what he uploaded to GitHub each night, and was truncated to a size that would not arouse suspicion.
Soon, the entire program that Pense had undertaken was completed. Since this was roughly two weeks ahead of schedule — even the super-human schedule that Pense was known for — he came up with a plan: Instead of starting on the next project (writing the first few lines of a program and letting the genie take over) he would surprise his wife with a vacation, to Paris. And he would do nothing more in Emacs until he returned.
As far as he was concerned, the genie could rest up; it probably needed a break, too.
But a week into his vacation, anxiety overtook Pense. What if the change in his daily routine had upset the genie? What if the genie, seeing that Pense was making no forward progress — and thus had no more work for it to do — moved on to another, harder-working programmer’s computer?
The idea really got under his skin and soon, he could think of nothing else. Unable to sleep despite having taken an Ambien, Pense flopped around as if on a rotisserie, while the streets of Paris throbbed with muted night music below. Finally, he could take it no longer. He quietly rolled out of bed and crept into his hotel room’s bathroom to avoid awakening his wife. Then he opened his laptop and launched Emacs.
He wasn’t even sure what he was looking for. A “Gone Fishing” sign, perhaps? Since Pense was not working on a project, there was no work in progress, so nothing could be added. Still, the act of simply looking at his work directory, he hoped, might calm him and assure him that the status quo, as peculiar as it was, had not been interrupted.
His eye was almost immediately drawn to a file named *.* The filename was a joke since asterisks aren’t typically used to name files. It’s possible of course to circumvent the normal naming conventions and use an asterisk. But why bother? Asterisks are commonly used in Search to find patterns, such as files that have the same name. Issuing the command foobar.* for instance, would find any file that had “foobar” in it’s name.
So what was the meaning of this file, and why would someone choose a name like that? The name seemed to indicate something like “pattern of patterns.”
Pense stared at the filename. It looked like an emoticon, a brazen face without a mouth. Trembling, a taut feeling in his gut, Pense clicked on it.
A torrent of multicolored lines of code flooded Pense’s screen with a violence that left him breathless. Rapidly, he scrolled through the text, studying it, attempting to understand the modules of code and how they fit together. He stopped at a section here, then scrolled forward and examined another. And, slowly, the intent of the program became clear. Everything became clear.
Pense closed his eyes, and smiled.