Cracking open the Single UNIX Specification (a.k.a. POSIX:2008) results in a slew of command-line operations that litter my computer screen. Some make sense: unsurprisingly, compress compresses a file. Some are a bit more cryptic. For instance, I assume fc means “process the command history list” because someone randomly pecked a couple of keys while working in the belly of Bell Labs.
Despite the cruft of former times that remains in the specification, tar, an archiving command short for “tape archive,” went missing in 1998. I notice its absence, because its use almost cost me my future a few decades back.
I was a couple of years out of Michigan State, having completed my computer science degree with a GPA buoyed by grades from my political science classes. (Prof. Tong, PLS 363: Political Violence, thank you for an especially interesting class.)
Barb was a mathematician working in a different department. Despite detesting clichés, I first met her at a work picnic. I noticed her while she played volleyball: auburn hair, wearing a red shirt and blue-and-white striped shorts. Later in the afternoon, I worked up the nerve to say, “Hi, I’m Chris,” after which I took a few hours to decompress from such an intense human encounter.
You see, I was a bit of an introvert. When I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment at work, I aced the introvert portion, attaining a perfect score. When I meet people, energy drains faster from me than on a five-year-old iPhone.
That’s not to say I lacked all communication strengths. After many hours of practice in my parents basement when I was in high school, I learned to recite the entire dialogue of The Empire Strikes Back, albeit an abridged version from a record album. This skill would lead to many chances to share my ability during conversations:
Me: “How much further to the arcade?”
Friend: “Not far.”
Me: “Not far, Yoda, not far. Patience. Soon you will be with him.”
Yes, annoying I was.
However, in one instance, work provided me an opportunity to show Barb that I was at least a competent computer professional. She and her team were having trouble with a C program accessing an Ingres database. Since this was in days before fully interconnected networks, she loaded up a QIC tape cartridge with her code and walked the half-mile to my lab with four of her colleagues.
Working to stay calm, I greeted Barb and her colleagues. She handed me the tape, which happily gave me the opportunity avoid small talk by interacting with a Sun workstation. As she chatted with her friends, I popped the cartridge into the tape reader. Then I typed in the command to transfer the files to my computer:
tar -cvf /dev/nrxt0 .
I could hear the drive run, but no files were appearing on my screen. It took me a few seconds, but, taking a look back at the command history, I realized what I had done.
UNIX commands can indeed be a bit cryptic. The critical part here were the flags -cvf. Flags on a UNIX command make it operate differently depending upon need, similar to setting a washing machine to hot, warm, or cold. Unfortunately, where I should used the -x flag to “extract files from an archive,” I had use the -c flag to “create a new archive.”
I had overwritten her files.
What had I done with my one chance! Five people had looked to me to help them with their code and the very first thing I did was delete their work.
I turned to Barb (my face, no doubt, beet red), looked into her hazel eyes, and told her.
Fortunately, she just laughed at my mistake, something I have given her the opportunity to do multiple times over our past 20 years of married life.
Chris Krupiarz works as a spacecraft flight software engineer for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Originally from Michigan, he now lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, with his wife and two kids. In his spare time he enjoys reading and writing, walking in the woods with the family beagles, and creating fictional sporting events with his sons.
This article was produced by The Magazine, an electronic, subscriber-supported periodical that publishes five features as an issue every other week. Give us a try with a free trial. Read Chris’s previous story, “Blinded by the the Light,” about a very bad day in his job as a mission scientist on the Mercury Messenger project.