Core Wars

From: moc.udanax|rekrul#moc.udanax|rekrul (Lurker at the Pleasure Dome)
Date: 3 Nov 90 18:56:01 GMT

This reminds me of a story from the dark ages of computing - when the Computing Center at a major university had both a monopoly on computing resources and a policy of "no frivolous use of the computer(s)".

The CC, in its unchallengable wisdom and power, had decreed a single file-and-compute server for a university with about 35,000 undergraduates. Much of the hardware was purchased with grant money, and the grants included strings that in essence required billing real $ for every microsecond of crunch, and guaranteeing the granting agencies a usage fee no higher than that charged any other user. (So the No F. Use bit wasn't JUST puritanism - the guys who kicked in the megabucks were likely to get irate.) And the sysops didn't realize how popular the first text-only Startrek game would be until it was well-known and chewing up significant computer resources. You can imagine what came next.

They removed it.

It reappeared.

They removed it again.

Several users had made copies, and some of them announced where copies could be found.

They wrote a program to search the entire filesystem for copies.

Several encrypted copies were announced on the grapevine.

They upgraded the program to search for these encrypted copies.

And the war continued, with progressively more redundant copies using progressively more of the disk farm, and the encryption methods evolving under the selection pressure of the system administrators' decryption efforts.

Like any war, it began to have effects outside the actual battle. (One observer placed a line to the effect of "Kirk Spock Enterprise NCC-1701 klingon phaser photon torpedo Federation" in a datafile used by a perfectly legitimate application, blasted the administrators through channels when the file vanished, and gleefully showed me how the usecount of the restored file kept rising, as the Startrekfinder kept finding it, and the CC administrators kept examining it to see if it was part of a hidden game.)

But, also like any war, destruction befell innocent bystanders. And, like any crusaders out to destroy sin, the staff didn't catch on from the early, minor incidents, and kept increasing their efforts. What finally ended it was a pair of almost simultaneous hits on valuable files.

The lesser incident was the destruction of a file named "Kirk", owned by a student nicknamed "Kirk", and containing coursework completely unrelated to the Great Interstellar War. The greater was medical.

It seems a drug company was in the late stages of testing a new drug, and had paid the university over a half-million (1970's) dollars to run one of the tests.

The drug in question had an effect on the endocrine system, and one of the measures of this effect was the length of the penises of male rats who had matured under influence of the drug. The project was near completion, the (rather large number of) rats had been grown, and as they were retired from the experiment, during its carefully-scheduled last few weeks, measurements made on each were filed on the exceedingly-well-maintained-and-backed-up central computing utility.

One day the researcher logged on to enter the latest set of measurements, and found that the contents of the file named "RAT_PENIS_DATA" had been replaced by a short tirade about improper use of the computing center resources. You can imagine what hit the fan.

The center staff, of course, in their War on Fun, had not taken care to preserve the latest state of the file they had blasted. Indeed, the file name had been, in their minds, a minor side-issue during their assault on the Startrek Plague. Yet the research was to prepare the drug for use on humans - with potential liabilities far exceeding the half-meg-plus pricetag of the research - and potential damage to the big U's reputation resulting in loss of lucrative research contracts ditto. Would error-corrections applied to the file between the last backup and the destruction be re-applied correctly? Was the CC prepared to pay for the extra costs incurred by Biochem as it completely re-entered the data from the notes, re-ran the experiment if it couldn't resolve any differences to the satisfaction of the FDA, and pay the drug company for the lost sales if it delayed the introduction of a useful drug?

Thus, goes the story, did the war end.

But the repercussions didn't stop, of course. The war had left lingering fallout, in the form of alienated clients of the Computing Ceter, and the center's destruction of valuable data provided an extra round to be used against the Center whenever a department was trying to obtain computers of its own, over the Center's opposition.

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