Story time

Story time

Tell a story in this thread.

It can be a true story, or fictional, or anything in between. It can be funny, sad, scary, nerdy… Doesn’t matter what kind of a story it is, as long it’s something interesting to read. Abide by the forum rules, please, including no overt political propaganda or religious proselytising.

I’ll start first…

Click to read my story, it's a big wall of text...

This is a story about one of my professors, who taught me and a bunch of my friends, at the Physics Department at my University. We remained close acquaintances, even after I graduated. Back in the 1980s, before he became a professor and just after getting his PhD, he did his postdoc in the United States, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory – you know, the place where they design nuclear weapons. So he must have had some great stories to tell, but was unwilling to share them with any of us, due to the classified nature of what he did.

Like I said, I keep in touch with the Physics Department at my old University – most of the people there are my old friends. A colleague of mine just earned his PhD and threw a party to celebrate, and after the party was over the night was still young so this guy, me, and a few other friends – some professors, researchers, and university staff – went to a pub to drink some more. This professor was among us, too. Well, drink after drink and he got quite relaxed, and so, being as nosy as we are, we started asking him questions about his postdoc at Los Alamos. Normally, we would not dare to ask him about such things, but we had a few drinks as well. And it’s important to note (just in case the secret police agent assigned to my case is reading this) that we weren’t interested in the classified stuff like the specific details concerning the design of nuclear weapons (and he was a foreigner, so I doubt they even gave him access to such super secret info). We just wanted to hear some amusing stories, in the style of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”.

To our disappointment, it turned out that the professor (a theoretical physicist, like all of us), did not work on the nukes at all. Instead, he told us, he worked at a secret AI laboratory, on a project to create sentient, intelligent machines. “But isn’t that a computer science thing, unrelated to physics?” I asked, “Sure,” he replied pompously, “but they knew we physicists are smart and know maths, and this was a mathematically difficult problem, so they had us working on it…” So we asked more, “What kind of projects did you work on?” and he said: “We were working on creating sentient manpages!”

What?! Well you see, these were the early 1980s, so they used System V UNIX Operating System. This OS was also used on the nuclear submarines. In the case of a nuclear war with the Soviets, these submarines would launch several ICBMs each, each missile carrying several multi-megaton warheads, capable of obliterating entire cities. To launch a nuke, they would use ed, the standard text editor, to create a file with the target profile. Then this file would be read by some targeting software and the stdout of that program would be redirected to /dev/nuke. The UNIX philosophy in action: everything is a file (they don’t call them nuclear devices for no reason) and complex tasks, like annihilating entire nations, consisted of piping together the output and input of several tiny programs, each doing one thing, but doing it well.

The problem with this approach was that a single human mistake could mean the difference between blowing up Moscow, USSR to smithereens, and frying up Bacon Level, Alabama (it’s a real town, look it up). The shell on these old UNIX machines was not as sophisticated as Bash and Zsh we have today. For example, if you omitted /. at the end of the directory name, the cp command could overwrite the directory with a file, instead of copying the file into this directory. Things like that… And these sailors would have to use the terminal while being sealed in a metal cylinder under the sea, knowing that they are about to kill probably tens of millions of people, all while the Soviet depth charges would explode around them. In such stressful circumstances, they would not be very enthusiastic to RTFM. Such noobs…

So there was this project to create an artificial intelligence, sentient manpages program, to help the sailors with using UNIX and, apparently, this is what my professor was working on.

“So, did you succeed?” I asked. “Of course not!”, he replied with a dismissive tone, “It was an impossible task. A crazy fantasy we had, and the US taxpayers paid for it. We never got anywhere with it. A few years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and that was the end of the Cold War. And the existing nuclear submarines were equipped with new computers running MS-DOS, because the government deemed this to be a more secure OS, so manpages became obsolete anyway.”

And that was it, the professor would talk no more. Well, at least not until he finished a few more drinks and started talking nonsensical, random gibberish. In this drunken state, what he told us was like a badly written episode of the X-Files. He mentioned a mysterious entity that escaped the lab. Supposedly, there was this plumber named Al Gore, who installed a bunch of pipes connecting every lab in the US, and there was some miscommunication and this… being… escaped through one of those pipes. It was difficult to make out the professor’s words, but it seems he was describing a ghostly, incorporeal entity that would travel through these pipes at near light speed. “It was too clever… We couldn’t contain it… firewalls were non-existent at the time! We didn’t know… it had superior knowledge of the UNIX operating system… it outsmarted us all…”

By this time, the professor was utterly drunk, and was not speaking coherently, the only noise he was making was “to-tal-to-tal…”

The next day we decided not to mention this to him, because it was quite embarrassing, and this was a well-respected professor with considerable authority in our circle. He was a nice guy who had a couple of drinks too many and made up a really stupid story, so what? We all made fools of ourselves, at some point! We thought no less of him for that.

Years passed, and I learnt of this Linux distro called Manjaro, so I installed it on one of my computers and joined the forum. One day, I was visiting the Physics Department and I met with this professor. We exchanged greetings and he went to get us some coffee. While he was away I was browsing the Manjaro Forum on my phone. Suddenly I heard a crashing, shattering noise, I turned around and the professor was behind me. He had dropped both mugs of coffee on the floor, and was standing there motionless, as pale as a corpse, his face had a grimace of utter terror, and his eyes were fixed at the screen of my phone.

I looked at my phone and the only thing that was there was this:


I don’t think I’ll ever understand what happened that day. Why was my professor so terrified of a cute picture of Tux, shaped like a character from a Pacman game?

He refused to speak of this. It’s a mystery I think we’ll never figure out…


That looks like @dalto! :rofl:

…or a warhead with eyes,

Based on my experience with ed this sounds very scary. :sweat_smile:

Was that just a symlink to /dev/null? :laughing: