The Bug in the Seven Modules

A Parody

Table of Contents

The genesis of the bug

The further history of Third Eye Computers

The programmer of the beautiful

An offer

Porting

The new facility

The twilight and the dawn

About Nathaniel Hawthorne

The genesis of the bug

Scattered across the eastern part of New England are a number of cities that I shall give the appellation “port towns,” not because of any connection to the mighty seafaring trade of earlier centuries that enriched a handful of this region’s citizens, but because of a quite different activity all too characteristic of modern industry. Finding haven in these towns for a trade whose practitioners display somewhat peculiar accomplishments and interests, numerous small enterprises have sprung up that create computer products through a process of translating software written for other systems to a new one; this “porting” has probably occupied more engineers than any software products that flow from true innovation.

It was while working as a writer in one of these small firms - one that was eventually to grow far beyond the limits set in anyone’s imagination, if I may permit myself a moment to jump ahead in the tale - that I heard of a particularly elusive and resistant member of that class of intellectual anomalies known in the trade as “bugs.” This error turned up near the end of the development cycle on a sizable and ground-breaking communications product. The story of the bug could appear, to one who is easily held in thrall by the power of analogy and symbol, to be the very story of the times we live in and the setting in which we toil, and hence I will describe here all that I have been able to learn about the matter.

Employment at Third Eye Computers was hardly regular. Night would find its staff at work as often as day, or more so. The programmers would practice their art in total solitude for hours at a time in small, dingy rooms that overlooked a sluggish river on one side of the building or the old town common on the other. Then a few might congregate in an eating area that was not so much erected by design as wrested out of the space left over from the other rooms. Ill-clothed and often ill-mannered by the Puritan standards held in the surrounding community, yet rigorously obeying a code they had established with others of their bent, they would swap memories with astonishing volatility, educating each other in the lessons taught by old projects and clever hacks. Rank meant nothing to them, nor conformance to any artificial regulations, but accomplishment was all.

The bug of which I spoke was said to enter the product long before I arrived on the site, and had been noticed by a junior programmer named Betty Rapini. She was not a regular employee of the company, but a temporary hire brought in for a fixed number of months to round out the communications product with a protocol. This piece of software, which had been under construction a long time, ran over a bus that connected the motherboard with a set of custom-built devices that the company wished to promote as its particular contribution to the industry. When she discovered the bug, this product was to be shipped the next day, and many large clients awaited it with impatience. She was putting the protocol through a parting test to assure herself that it performed its duties properly, when an unusual foray turned up a result she did not expect, and whose cause she could not deduce.

Being thoroughly methodical and intensely thoughtful in the performance of her work, she kept a log as well as her level head, and backed through the call stack to examine the globals and the parameters passed in each invocation of every module. The bug was at once both mercurial and devilish. It never announced itself the same way twice, but always in a slightly different location and an altered guise. No pattern could she identify. Even worse, there was no single branch, no particular return value, that gave offense. Each module did exactly what was documented for it, and yet a gradual accretion of casually chosen responses to unusual situations collectively led to disaster. An unanticipated input in one module propagated through the work of another in a slightly crooked manner, and so on through a stream of calls until the least unexpected diversion from the norm would produce some unwholesome outcome, such as an infinite loop or out-of-bounds error.

From one location to the next she chased the illogical sprite, and through one variable to another, till finally, late in the evening, she identified the sequence of errors that led to the unacceptable outcome. The scope of the bug made her hold her breath in awe. Fully seven modules participated in it. Take one away, and nothing was amiss. Put them all together, and the flaw emerged to one’s surprise, as if one fastened the two parts of a craftsman’s tool and thereby discovered them to be incompatible. The malfunction had been introduced by no particular person, nor on any single occasion; rather was it the accumulation of many poor judgments over a long stretch of time. In truth, it was a communal failing.

By now it was well into the night, and her protocol was destined for release in but a few hours. Betty complemented her considerable intellectual agilities with a strongly ethical disposition. She reckoned truly that the bug could not be fixed in one night, nor well in one week, and that she needed to report the event to her supervisor, Al Dunnersday. Thus she turned from her terminal and wrote a report on a form provided by the company, as well as several extra sheets of paper, detailing what she had found and estimating the delay that its repair called for.

Comprehending well the strain her news would place on a company that could count on willing customers for this single product, and no customers to pay for any other, she included also a few notes about a work-around. This would not fix the bug, but only shove it deeper into its foundations and cover it over more tidily. It would correct, by brute force, for certain known situations that triggered the bug. And she felt assured that it would cover any realistic situation in which a customer ran their product.

“It’s a tough little meddler, this one,” Betty explained to Dunnersday. “I would prefer to uproot it completely, because it deeply disturbs me. It comes and goes at random; I feel that the software is out of my control.”

“Rest easy, for it is precisely in regard to such matters as this that I hold my position in this firm,” Dunnersday answered. “No product shall ever go forth from here that embodies such sins toward our customers.”

“Take this report, then, and read it with care,” Betty told him. “I shall ready myself to carry out management’s decision.”

Al Dunnersday, software manager, was Third Eye Computers’ pre-eminent figure. His strength lay not only in his mastery in shaping the ethereal matter programmers work with, but in his ability to set a proper mold for others. Unlike the sibilant or quavering voices possessed by many of his type, he spoke boldly with all the facts at hand. When he argued a point on a topic that he knew, all gave way and his will became a binding contract upon them all.

Now he was making his way to the meeting room, where the most powerful members of the firm were joining together for the final conference before the product release. Reading the software problem report on the way down the hall, he blanched and felt a trembling in his breast just below his heart. Clearly, he thought, the bug must be fixed, even at the cost of holding up the shipment to the most clamorous clients of the firm! Almost staggering, he paused at the entrance to the meeting room and beheld the empty plastic chairs that would soon hold key fellow managers, and the unassuming, rough-hewn table dotted with ashtrays and empty tonic bottles. He poised himself for the most difficult act of his career.

At first he told himself with confidence and determination that he would amass the moral suasion to override the objections of the sales force and financial group. But then he noticed the final page of Betty’s report about the work-around, and this glance, as much as he tried to ignore what he saw, weakened his resolve. When we know there is but one way forward, we can fight through the most formidable thickets and attain the summit, but when an alternate and easier road is offered to us, we seem to lose our strength to travel the more difficult course. And so was Dunnersday a little less eloquent than was customary with him, a little more flexible in his resolve.

I can only speculate at the events of that long evening when finally the august leadership of the enterprise met in this room. Voices must have been raised in the heady atmosphere of heightened anxieties and clashing interests. Dunnersday presented his news concerning the bug. Superbly, I know, he evoked in his listeners’ minds the opprobrium they would face if the product failed to satisfy their customers. But many on the other side of the question spoke persuasively as well. Sales staff expounded vividly upon the customers with whom they had built a rapport, and the absolute trust which these worthy industrialists had placed in the firm to deliver a product when promised. Accountants wrote upon the white board the assets of the firm and lifted a veil on the doom that would engulf it were no payments to come in at the expected moment. Dunnersday pressed on, but knew he was losing ground before these utterly reasonable replies.

And finally the moment came when they put the point to him directly, was there any way to mask the problem without thoroughly ripping apart the modules and starting over? Bearing in his hands the sheets of Betty Rapini’s report, he was forced to affirm that indeed there was another solution. Around the table rippled an effusive outpouring of approbation, as people almost leapt up with joy and relief. Quickly they reviewed the drawbacks of the work-around, satisfied themselves that its impact would be benign, and decided the bug could be fixed in the next release. Thus it became the chosen course. Dunnersday took their decision back to Betty, who effected the necessary sleight of hand, and the product was shipped the next day with her portion under the name Network Interface Protocol, or NIP.

When the time for the next release came, Third Eye found no resources to commit to NIP. Already they were flush with new work pressed upon them by the customers who had bought their product. Betty finished her contract shortly after the first release and was not heard of at the firm again. She left the field of programming and relocated her address to Florida, where she turned to selling real estate. Occasionally she would speak to her friends of her amusing encounters in the software industry, but she never mentioned the bug in the seven modules. Perhaps she was simply adhering to a non-disclosure agreement that was signed by every employee of the firm, temporary or long-term, enjoining them not to discuss internal company matters outside it forevermore. Indeed, it was a topic subject to complete silence among all who participated in the events just described.

The further history of Third Eye Computers

With the release of its communications product, Third Eye Computers began a rise to a point of unimagined wealth and worldwide esteem. Having satisfied its earliest clients with the mechanisms they needed to meet their own commitments, it drew more and more commerce. NIP became the bus protocol of choice, licensed by computer manufacturers universally, and after a thesis by a graduate student showing its value in a wide-area networking environment, was welcomed as a propitious and easy solution to many other communications problems. Its very familiarity made it the first recourse to which busy IS managers would turn, whether they were faced with the need to hook a device locally to a system or to effect a long-range connection. In this nourishing market, Third Eye Computers hired new programmers, changed its name to Insight Systems, and spawned new threads of activity, preserving its original product and the NIP protocol as a reliable source of funds.

As the fortunes of his company brightened, Dunnersday alike grew in his role. Much favor was shown upon him for his success in bringing about the timely release of their first and most critical product. As new positions of power and opportunity opened up, he was always first in line to obtain them. His candor won favor among his charges just as his reliability did among his employers, so that he was respected throughout the hierarchy.

Yet among the old-timers from Third Eye, it was impossible to ignore a change that appeared in Dunnersday, not so much in any particular activity, but in an elusive element that invested the whole. His presence was less strong than before the release. His voice, while still a force to be admired, never quite achieved the persuasive sweep that it possessed in earlier days, and he required more effort to impart his customary inspiration. Still, with his guidance Insight Systems continued its rise, and everyone attributed to Dunnersday much of its success.

In the midst of this picture of unalloyed prosperity, however, lies a curious pattern of disturbance that, though inconsequential to the point where the author would certainly not be taken to task for omitting it entirely, does seem to be wound into the story of NIP. It must therefore be related that occasionally he heard somewhat discordant discussions of certain technical matters when the protocol’s name was raised. As it migrated to applications further and further removed from its original purpose, oddities in its behavior were sporadically noted by the most dedicated practitioners. These accounts were never given to public debate, but spread inch by inch through the community of developers who bore the responsibility for making applications work with the protocol. In their “folklore,” as they liked to call it, developers mentioned moments where their applications would inexplicably halt - moments that could never be reproduced reliably. At other times, they noted unwarranted slowness, or that most hated problem of computer programmers, data corruption. And always, while the difficulty could not be traced to it, NIP was in the picture.

Many claimed with the faith that one places in talismans and lucky charms that certain programming tricks they had discovered, which were not considered good form under normal circumstances, caused various problems in their NIP-based applications to recede. The “folklore” that grew over the years included many such magical rites, themselves perhaps deleterious to the applications of which they formed a part. They came to appear even in university courses and popular programming books. With the irreverence to which their profession is given, many programmers referred to these techniques as “the NIP kluge.” But over time, suspicions of the protocol’s culpability were largely forgotten, and the kluge became part of standard coding practice.

Some five or six years after the appearance of NIP, Insight Systems surprised the computer field by submitting the protocol to an international body to be recognized as an industry standard. Their public justification for this course invoked the usual spirits of public service and the desire for ensuring compatibility. Most observers shrugged at the move, seeing it as a marketing tactic for strengthening sales. But a few, especially among those who knew the firm’s internal operations well, entertained that there might be more personal motives. Indeed, they questioned whether Al Dunnersday might be behind the whole decision.

Certainly, Dunnersday was a leading proponent of the move to standardize NIP. He crossed the ocean repeatedly to attended many of the meetings of the European body before which the submission stood, and while shunning the trade press, let it be known to the industry leaders around him that he greatly desired the field to adopt the protocol. Those who attributed to Dunnersday the moving force behind standardization could not bring forth any hard and fast reasons for this perseverance, but speculated that he harbored some long torment, forever unsatisfied, concerning NIP. Far from expressing his confidence in the protocol, his drive to make it a standard was suspected to spring from a deep insecurity. Ironically, while thrusting it to ever greater and broader usage, he saw in its standardization precisely the means of relieving his own personal burden. As an adopted standard, the protocol would become the charge of the entire computing community, and whatever personal responsibility he might feel toward it would, in his hopes, be removed. And to bolster the musings of those who proffered this analysis, indeed, the day that the international standards body adopted NIP was remembered by his coworkers as one where his face bore the sanguine smile and slightly weary regard of someone in whom a hidden inner pain were eased.

The programmer of the beautiful

The next stage in our narrative turns to another small town, of modest but well-established character, where no one had ever attracted the attention of the major newspapers, but where residents plied their trades and raised their children according to solid and unassailable traditions. Independence of thinking and steadfastness of will were accorded the full respect that a New England community always musters. In this village dwelt an amiable lad named Clyde Ponderton, a boy still too young for anyone to expect notable achievements, with a softness of aspect and temperament that bordered on the feminine. He was a sociable comrade who loved nothing so much as the company of others. Sometimes happy to be pensively alone, he yet burst into groups of chattering young boys and girls with a merry observation, a provocative question, or a simple but bold statement that pushed the conversation to depths which the others had not anticipated.

Few who knew him paused to ruminate about what the Ponderton boy would do when he attained maturity. If the thought happened to descend on a relative or neighbor, the rough local would mostly likely say, “Ah, he’ll be a salesman, and a right good one, because he can talk up a fair storm with the crowd.” Thus they totally missed the spiritual quest that filled the boy’s encounter with life, and which he guarded deep within his breast during his apparently aimless adventures.

A fair athlete and a satisfactory student, Clyde had not been known to tinker with gadgets or excel at mathematical studies. It surprised his friends not a little, therefore, when he turned up one day in the small, windowless room of his high school that had long been the nexus for those fascinated by computers. In this nook, having made a minimal investment of taxpayer funds, the school personnel had deposited an outdated computer system, which yet became the focus of many a student of orderly and controlling temperament. Clyde was different from all the rest, however. He threw himself at the system with the statement, “I want to make something that will really get people thinking.” And there he worked for many months, reclusive to a degree quite unusual for him, regularly discussing some technical point where he needed help, but never revealing the overall goal of his sudden passion.

No one outside the circle of the computer literate noticed a change in Clyde. He displayed no indication in his normal conversations of the obsession inside him, and his dialogues were always on the most immediate interests of his listeners. He still tossed the football about with the neighborhood boys, and liked to walk through the woods, as he had done since childhood. The forest that separated the settled part of his town from the next was but an eviscerated reminder of the heavy glades that used to cover New England, giving sustenance to the native, but in his community new growth still provided ample room for an afternoon’s exploration. In these darkened corridors new ideas would come to him that he could not cull forth at other times. Now he was finding such excursions a fertile source for his software experiments.

The denizens of the computer lab allowed Clyde to pass the first phase of their scrutiny, but confidently flagged his status as temporary. “How long do you think he’ll stay, Dick?” one of the regulars queried another. “His aspirations are a bit big for his talents, don’t you think?”

“No doubt he’ll be out of here in a couple months” came Dick’s reply.

But on the contrary, after that time had transpired, Clyde purchased a computer system of his own, which he tinkered with during any free hours he could find, and then started to cart with him on the commuter train into downtown Cambridge, where he stood on the sidewalk among the various tricksters, jugglers, and flame-throwers who delighted the crowd, and invited the general public to try out his system.

And what a unique system it turned out to be! Upon logging in, each user would be stimulated to express a thought in visual or textual terms, and then to pass it on to others. Different users could view the ideas from many different angles and could add to them in novel ways. There was something enticing about Clyde’s software, a gentleness that allowed the users to relax and experience a feeling of pleasant aimlessness, but a mystery that seemed to call them to further exploration. They remarked that they were drawn to create what was naturally within them, without goal-setting, performance evaluations, deliverables, or scheduling constraints. Smiles went through the crowd and people broke into spontaneous applause. Clyde’s tender face shined with ardor. The software seemed not merely a pastime for those logged in, but the well-spring for a whole community.

After appearing in the same spot a few weeks in a row, Clyde began to develop a regular following, some of whom brought their own laptops. In order to allow multiple simultaneous users and spread his innovations, he began to bring diskettes containing his software and cables to tie the systems together. In response to requests, he then put his software on the Internet under the name Personal Augmentation Tool, or PAT. Since for his own speed and convenience he had written his program in a high-level scripting language, Clyde’s software was easy to install on all kinds of computers, and quickly became the choice of those who liked to present themselves as trend-setters.

PAT now had its own growing list of adherents, among them some impressive leaders in the computing field. Its unusual coding techniques, which stretched the conventional limits of the field in diverse manners, were widely cited. Many people, desiring to enliven their correspondence with others, used PAT as mediator, and journal submissions often noted in the acknowledgments that “this paper was developed and reviewed with the help of PAT.” But the main impression conveyed by the throngs who used Clyde’s creation was the sheer pleasure that came to them while interacting with it.

By the time Clyde graduated high school, PAT had become the major concern of his life. It now boasted a newsgroup where endless discussions of its features took place and where extensions were proposed and adopted, as well as a Web site and a developers’ mailing list. It began to enjoy an international base of support. People chatted about it at parties, gave it to friends with the zeal with which one shares a favorite book or recording, and spent whole weekends with it on retreats. Even the trade press started to pick up an interest in it, and Clyde often came home to be told by his mother that some interviewer wanted him to call. PAT was declared by many to be the shape that computers would take in the next century.

An offer

In the spring Clyde was invited to speak at a conference. Never before had he felt the electric atmosphere of intense intellectual exchanges, combined with the most extravagantly staged hucksterism. While harlequin-costumed men and women in suggestive poses waved brochures, thousands of roughly groomed attendees roamed the hallways and toasted with cheap ale their achievement of having congregated there. Many of the companies showing off their computers flaunted PAT on the screens. Clyde himself, flushed with wonder, gave a wild lecture full of references to things outside the scope of his audience’s ken, such as, “Software is but the metaphor our age offers for a struggle found throughout the human epochs, that of the spirit to be freed from the tyranny of the immediate and the necessary.”

On the eve of the conference’s final day, Clyde retreated to a secluded corner to stuff his backpack. The continual petitions of his admirers, combined with the hubbub and glitter around him, left him fatigued and jumpy. Feeling the eyes of another on him, he raised his face and apprehended a man of conservative dress and strong intent approaching. His solid frame and even tread indicated a person accustomed to thrusting his will upon others. Something about the man aroused an uneasiness in Clyde, making him wish for the company of his colleagues - perhaps it was the stranger’s suit of artificial fabric, or the cool manner in which he looked Clyde over as if to discern what methods could prove most influential with him.

“That was an impressive presentation you gave, Mr. Ponderton,” said the man. “I would like to make your acquaintance; my name is Westervale.” He presented a business card, and Clyde recognized immediately the logo of Demand Instruments, a local computer firm that had recently been seeing hard times as a result of falling market share. “Mr. Ponderton,” went on the executive, “my company would like to employ you to port PAT to our system.”

“But any computer system can host it,” said Clyde in an effort to stave off a discussion that would necessarily entail an intimacy he didn’t believe he could bear. “It’s been running on hosts all over the convention area.”

Westervale continued to regard Clyde closely, but softened his visage as he adjusted to this parry. “Those are valuable for mere demonstration purposes,” he explained, not unkindly, but with a deliberate breath that conveyed the benefits he was offering from a long and success-crowned career, along with the expectation that he was not to be haggled with. “We think PAT presents marvelous opportunities, but we want it ported to standard APIs, and made more robust and professional. We think you can do it, given time, and we are willing to pay you any reasonable salary to do it.”

Clyde admitted to himself that Westervale was true in the main. Not having had a formal university training, Clyde was prone to producing undisciplined streams of code. Many well-wishers had pointed out that his data structures were too unbalanced, his procedures too long, and his conditionals rather disorganized. In his novice’s inspiration he had eschewed many standard libraries for hand-crafted solutions. He had been advised that he should take some time to sanctify his work with the canonical criteria for elegance and good design. Here, it seemed, lay an opportunity to do so. Yet he had no desire to wed his virgin creation to the fortunes of a commercial enterprise. Furthermore, his distaste for Westervale placed a barrier between him and the obvious allurement posed.

“I will have to take some time to decide,” he said, and left quickly. Over a period of time he consulted everyone he knew about Demand Instruments and the offer to port PAT. These anxious weeks were punctuated by frequent telephone calls from Westervale, who was using all the wiles of his profession to press for an affirmative answer. The pecuniary enticements meant nothing to Clyde. Happily would he remain penniless, if only he could witness his users in their mirth and their pensivity.

Some of Clyde’s friends and collaborators advised him to accept the offer. “Your software is popular, to be sure, but it hasn’t received anything close to the exposure that it deserves,” he was urged. “This is your big chance.” They also pointed out, gently but incessantly, the weaknesses in his program structure and their expectations of the great boosts it would experience in speed and usability were it properly rewritten. Other friends, however, counseled him to be careful when dealing with large companies, and offered doubts about the viability of the one that had picked him out.

One afternoon, he decided to take a walk in his favorite woodland area to clear his mind. “Don’t go, please,” said his girlfriend. “The clouds will darken the sky early tonight, and you may lose your way.”

“Don’t worry, Fay,” he said with a touch to her arm. “I will go for but a short time, and my mind will be much freer if this excursion will help me make my decision.”

And with a bouncy step he approached the first knot of pines. But who should emerge from the forest path but Westervale, dressed in hiking clothes and carrying a stick gnarled in the shape of a serpent. “Well, Mr. Ponderton!” he exclaimed jovially, “you are a nature lover, then.”

“And what is there anywhere in the cosmos but Nature?” answered Clyde coldly. “Can anything exist, sir, that is not Nature’s offspring?”

“A thoughtful answer!” laughed Westervale, “quite enough to make me ponder. I see now that you have earned your surname.” Thereupon he left, but Clyde went into the woods in an unquiet state of mind. At a fast clip he strode through the fallen leaves and over rock fences, deeper into the wild. The evening was indeed turning dark. For a moment he wondered if he could find his way, and stopped a moment to look above. He heard the hooting of owls and the scrape of the trees against one another in the wind. And then, as if the landscape cavorted to produce an effect, visions started to assail him, possessing the reality of the rock on which he stood. He saw a world where millions used PAT. No adults felt comfortable engaging in negotiations or mutual deliberation without it. School children kept it on their desks and took classes in its use. It traded hands in department stores and adorned market stalls in poor nations. PAT had become synonymous with human discourse.

In a flash the vision passed; the trees took on their distinct and individual outlines. But the reality of the feeling remained. He stood there, with the path back home before him. The way was awash in light - not the natural luminescence of the moon, but a formless glare provided by the lamps of the cities on all sides of the wood.

He returned home as quickly as he had come, and phoned Mr. Westervale that evening to accept a position.

Porting

Demand Instruments set Clyde up in a tiny office space, devoid of true privacy but yet cut off from normal intercourse by a makeshift structure of metal walls. As if in recompense for the isolation thus imposed on him, they provided a high-speed line to the outside. A stack of manuals and style guides along with a crew of junior programmers made up the remaining compilation of resources at his disposal. By suitably modularizing and dividing the project among his helpers, he was expected to complete the port in a few weeks.

Even before Clyde gloomily installed himself in his cubicle, the trade press and the public had seized on the story of Demand Instruments’ patronage. To the columnists, the battle was already won and it was but the task of the rest of the computing world to prepare a victor’s welcome. The gossip in the industry enumerated the multitudinous advantages that PAT would bring in its commercial form. A set of new companies even sprang into existence to provide developers’ tools and add-ons for this upcoming product. The eyes of the world, in short, were on Clyde and his small band of programmers.

But as the weeks passed, the content of the articles on PAT grew thinner, and after several months they took a different and altogether less glowing tone. The pages spoke less of the glories of the product, and more of the frustrations expressed by its expectant users, as well as the weakness ascribed to Demand Instruments by being so late. Soon enough there started to appear intimations that the port had hit some barrier to progress.

These rumors were all too true. Despite rigid adherence to all interface specifications and absolutely obsessive use of the quality measures enforced through an iron discipline within Demand Instruments, the PAT team was unable to get their port quite to work as expected. During the early period marked by high spirits and a playful exploration of the new APIs to be employed, a certain level of difficulty was accepted by programmers and management alike, for, as had often been said in Clyde’s praise, PAT embodied constructs and techniques of a most unusual bent. When many weeks had passed, however, and the flaws persisted, tolerance waned considerably.

The problems in PAT, which were reported on multiple platforms, came seemingly at random. But there could be no ignoring them; they caused the product to produce garbled output on the graphical display, to stop for minutes at a time, or to stall hopelessly and irredeemably. Alpha versions of the product were sent out to numerous customers on diskette, and generated complaints by return mail. Clyde spent more and more of his time in his cubicle, rarely sleeping, and never speaking a word to any human being save to discuss the latest intractable failure.

The critics in the trade press grew even more strident, predicting that the company would have to shut the project down soon were no progress to be made. The general view on the Internet was harsher still. They wasted no pity in tearing down all that had been done to build PAT up in the public’s eye. Every weakness to which any user had ever been a witness, or imagined himself to be, was thrown into the arena and magnified by reflection around ten thousand news sites.

As debugging proceeded with lamentable lack of result for week after week, a strange notion came to Clyde and gradually seized hold of his consciousness with the fixity of the type experienced by those who fall into a fever. In this suspicion, all his torments were caused not by a multiplicity of bugs of different types and causes, but by one great, fundamental rent in the logic of the universe that undergirded every lapse in his product. This hypothesis being of no value in debugging, however, no path remained open but to keep running new tests on ever-smaller pieces of code, and this task absorbed him unceasingly. One night, Westervale passed by with some managers of the facility and came upon him in a completely darkened area, his wan face bathed with the unwholesome light of the video screen. “There must be just one! There must be just one!” they heard him mutter. They looked at one another with grave doubts over his capacity to prevail much longer under the strain. “Yes, cringe at me, you tempter!” he berated Westervale. “Cringe at the wretch you have made with your timelines and your coding standards!”

It was not long before the expiration of Clyde’s short-lived ticket to worldly success. The front pages of the journals informed their readers that Demand Instruments had closed down the PAT project. The system lost all further interest in the minds of the public, who quickly turned to fresh rumors about new panaceas. Those who kept the Alpha disks of the Demand release, perhaps as fragments of hope, soon forgot into which desk drawer they had been tossed. The old, freely distributed version of PAT lingered on with a few research facilities and oddball hobbyists, but scarcely received further mention.

As for poor Clyde Ponderton, taxed to the point of physical collapse, emotional ruin, and moral confoundment, he disappeared even more completely than his software. It was said that he spent several months at a recuperative facility in the countryside, and then that he took a job at a networking company that received substantial Department of Defense funding. But most computer users lost interest and pursued the matter no further.

The new facility

Funereal as the previous account has been, it may lift our spirits somewhat to skip over many years and once again visit Third Eye Computers, later rechristened Insight Systems. Indeed, their success has taken on even more momentum than we saw last. They outgrew their old offices, bought a number of other firms, took on the name Visex, Inc., and moved their headquarters to the Research Triangle. Those employees who remained in New England were housed in new, boxlike edifices where corridors snaked through each floor in a labyrinth that could barely be navigated even with the fabled string of Theseus. Some said this tangle also represented the morass of regulations and paperwork in which their every endeavor was caught. The largest facility of this type contained six hundred staff performing a variety of duties, so we shall turn our gaze there now.

The exterior was characterless, its smooth spaces marked only by a few pipes that carried water and gas. Inside, the walls had an insubstantial look, as indeed they were ready to be carried off and rearranged at the whim of a reorganizing manager. The superficial clutter of posters, cartoons, calendars, and reminder notes tacked onto these walls by employees did little to relieve the drabness. Just a single chamber in the facility contrasted with the utilitarian mood. This was the meeting room, a model derived from the baser class of which the scruffy area where Third Eye management blessed NIP was an instance. Even this room could not please those of true aesthetic sensibilities. The fake leather was too soft, the massive table too polished, the blinds too crisply set. In artifice it tried to make up for its essential paucity of design. Yet it stood out to every visitor as a place of consequence, where important decisions - often involving tens of millions of dollars - were made, and it was the most frequented room by those managers who came up from headquarters, including Dunnersday himself.

Dunnersday was still highly respected throughout the company, and everyone in this facility enjoyed when he turned his attentions toward them. His words were noted more attentively than ever, because they not only embodied his characteristic understanding and good sense, but were thought by his subordinates to contain precious nuggets wherein glistened the hidden opinions and deliberations of the top managers in the company.

One function delegated to this facility was customer service, and we must now take a few moments to acquaint ourselves with the unusual members of that group. The leader was Hectora, a nervous woman in her middle age who had spent much time in various parts of the company entrusted with the mundane aspects of routine operation, and who had absorbed the attitude of dull dependability that such work engenders. Her face routinely contorted into an unsatisfied frown, quite beyond her capacity to control, betraying her fundamental anxiety that she could not meet the requirements of her new position. She seemed to be concerned a great deal with how employees spent their time, and whether they were meeting the goals set by her supervisor. Remonstrances dropped from her lips as she paced the corridors, often twisting a sash or necklace uneasily between her fingers.

Luckily, Hectora was fortified by a strong team that kept a vivacious fire burning in customer service. The brightest ember was Polly, a young woman of such good cheer that everyone who spent a moment in conversation with her left her cubicle with a springier step and a broader smile. She liked to bring in flowers, and used any happy occasion - a coworker’s engagement, a new child, or even a birthday on a significant year - as an excuse to uncover a platter of food and interrupt office activities for a party. In such a lifeless and unrewarding environment, such moments of levity were greatly appreciated.

She was wonderful to hear during customer calls too. Immediately upon hearing their problem, she entered into such a sympathy with them that she often furnished the details of the problem before the customer got a chance to finish explaining it. She always elicited the whole context for a difficulty, and repeatedly advised customers as to changes in their work patterns and environments that alleviated the grievances they brought to her. Soon she was the most sought-after representative on their staff.

The second team member was Hollis, a less sunny personality, but one whose occasional storminess was welcomed as a beneficial cleansing. He was a tinkerer by nature, one who spent his work hours investigating new computer software and his leisure time fixing an automobile or putting together a sound system. All the experimental software that marched across the Internet was promptly conscripted by him, in defiance of the acceptable use policy on the customer service department network, and harshly exercised on his system. He scarcely concealed his cynicism for the corporate political machinations that are unavoidable in every large organization. His colleagues could expect always to hear him denigrate some design decision or marketing ploy, and yet in his next breath offer a cogent suggestion for making the best of the situation. Advice is generally more trustworthy from one who bears a distancing cynical attitude than from one whose view of a system is that of untempered respect.

The final member of the customer service team aroused the most notice when he arrived, though he quickly became the least noticeable once he settled in. On his first day there, when word of who had joined the staff went round, every single member of the facility had to come by his cubicle if only to be satisfied that the news was no hoax. It was none other than Clyde Ponderton! Grayer, slower in his movements, evincing a recalcitrance to enter fully into the world but still an innocently open manner, possessive no longer of optimism but only of resignation, Clyde nodded and smiled shyly at those who came by.

Once settled in his office, which backed up upon a wall in a remote corner of the facility, he showed a willingness to simply sit and plow through the work that came by, taking each moment as it came. He liked Polly best, as did everyone, and in his childish state looked forward to the tawdry morsels she brought for staff celebrations. “What does Polly have for me today?” he would ask as she carried the refreshments by.

He seemed to have no interest in the past, and said nothing about it. Yet, as a prank of some sort, an unknown employee got his hands on one of the disks containing the Alpha version of PAT distributed long ago by Demand Instruments, and hung it by a string over a thumbtack on the wall directly above Clyde’s head. Such a cruel reminder of lost glory, one would think, must certainly twist his heart with pain and possibly even force him to leave employment. But Clyde showed no ill emotion toward the accusatory relic of his crusading years, and carried on his plodding work month after month underneath it.

The twilight and the dawn

One day Dunnersday visited Hectora’s part of the facility and overheard Hollis and Polly in conversation about some software Hollis had obtained in one of his usual excursions onto the Net. “It really is quite a comprehensive new system,” announced Hollis with an energy that sounded quite unlike his usual flippancy.

“Why, I have never heard you speak of one of your discoveries in that way before,” remarked Polly. “What qualities lend it such virtue?”

“It embodies the best of current systems,” answered Hollis, “but more elegantly fashioned, as its makers have benefited from a study of older systems’ failings. It is a fair bit faster and quite robust for a product so young. I would like to fire it up and see what it can do.”

“If everything you say about it is true,” said Polly, “we should gather the facility here and let them see it. Soon our customers will have it all about us.”

“Well, Polly, if this new system is really worth people’s time,” put in Hectora, her involuntary frown emerging as it always did in such debates, “shouldn’t we put out a memo and arrange a formal company meeting?”

“Oh do go on, Hectora!” laughed Polly. “We have no need for such pomp.” Thus, with her usual cheerfulness she hailed a small crowd to gather around an open area sporting a cast-off workstation that had exhausted its usefulness in some division and was now left to the whims of passing users. She inserted Hollis’s disk and the assembled spectators watched the boot-up messages stream by.

“I loaded it last night,” said Hollis, returning to his more customary casual tone, “and untangled a few problems so we wouldn’t be held up today.”

A pang disturbed Dunnersday’s breast, just below his heart, as he heard these innocent-sounding words. Why had Hollis made it seem like he had just discovered the software, when in fact he had loaded it once already? Why the disparity between the facts and the impression he seemingly desired to convey? But Dunnersday could not take time to dwell on this trivial observation; Polly was speaking.

“Strange,” she averred, squinting at the boot-up messages. “It looks like this system doesn’t use NIP.”

“How dare they not!” exclaimed Hollis, with a sarcasm that made Dunnersday shudder. Again the unusual pain took hold of his breast. Even though well over a decade had passed since his close association with NIP, and even though its fortunes were totally out of his hands, this apparent slight aroused an emotional attachment whose ability to irritate him was surprisingly powerful. What was Hollis doing, bringing this roguish software into his company?

A debate meanwhile was arising as to what Polly should try first on the system, and various feeble suggestions arose from around the floor: a word processor, a file manager, perhaps the ubiquitous fractal-generation program always to be found on demonstration systems.

“I know!” cried Polly. “There is a piece of software that we must load!” And jumping from her seat, she went to the wall over Clyde’s cubicle and ripped the disk from its mount. Clyde stared at her with the strangest expression, in which were mingled a barely comprehending astonishment with a gratification at being thus recognized. Waving the disk about her head as if in victory, Polly returned to the computer system and inserted it.

“Now we shall see what this system is capable of!” she exclaimed. And as the familiar old images came up on the screen, the staff moved in closer. Only Dunnersday pulled back, leaning against a cubicle partition and entering into a morose contemplation. Soon the crowd was laughing and exclaiming over what they saw on the monitor, crying out what should be entered and anticipating with boisterous whoops what would appear.

But Dunnersday stayed alone, overcome by images in which he recognized what was to be his future, and that of Visex and its staff. He saw his mighty firm dissolve while it struggled pitifully with the irrelevance of its offerings. He envisioned massive layoffs, sales of useless empty buildings, assets tossed for cut-rate prices. His own career he saw collapse in upon itself, as he lost the empire of which he was champion and was left holding onto naught that he could offer elsewhere. Polly, however, and Hollis, both talented and responsive servants of the public, would prosper. Always they would be recognized for their ability to salve a user’s discomfort.

Now Dunnersday wiped his brow and retreated to a keyboard in a forlorn cubicle, where he started to compose a long message to several choice newsgroups dealing with technology. The convivial noise of the crowd still reached his ears as he wove his text. In it he revealed all: the report on NIP he had received from Betty Rapini, the bug in the seven modules, the work-around chosen by management on that fateful night, and the resulting rumors as to its effects, which he had faithfully kept memorized over the past many years. After a pause and a deep breath, he pressed a key that dispatched the message, knowing the news would travel around the world in a matter of hours. And also he knew that he had violated his non-disclosure agreement with the company. He submitted his resignation that afternoon.

But now Polly gazed about her, and with an abstracted look pushed her colleagues away as she quit the chair she held next to the workstation. “Where is Clyde?” she asked. “He must certainly see this.”

Clyde was no longer in his cubicle, and with a strange sense of alarm the staff fanned out to comb the endless corridors for him. For quite a while nobody could find a clue. But then Polly went to the door of the meeting room, and shouted, “Look!”

In the mock-stately recesses of the meeting room, one of the armchairs sagged backward, weighed down by a motionless figure. There lay Clyde, looking as if a great pain had been removed from his soul. The hand that but a moment ago had pushed a mouse now lay gently open, grazing the deep shag rug. He had left behind forever the hurt and disappointment of an earthly life. Indeed, with the flower of his spirit spreading its seed once again, what should keep him here? Now his legacy would serve multitudes, as he had always wished. In his final breaths he must have understood what agent had ruined him in his youthful pursuits, and understood, too, that the world would no longer be plagued by THE BUG IN THE SEVEN MODULES.


About Nathaniel Hawthorne

Author’s home page

Other stories

Code the Obscure
The Disconnected
Fair Players
Validators
Other fiction by Andy Oram