The horrific unforeseen consequences of a degree in English Literature

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“I’m afraid the diagnosis is unambiguous,” the doctor sighed. He couldn’t look the young man in the eye. No one ever wanted to hear this about their own father, but it was inescapable.

“You mean…?” Sam choked, unable to complete his sentence.

The doctor nodded. “Yes. Advanced Hemingway Parody Syndrome. Completely incurable. And, sadly, not fatal. Which means your father will be writing Hemingway parodies for a long, long time.”

Sam thought about the implications: if word got out, he’d be a social pariah. Of course, his friends would pretend to understand, pretend that he, Sam, wouldn’t necessarily go the same way eventually. Pretend that studying Engineering would, by some undefined miracle, protect Sam from the malignant gene that was now destroying his father’s credibility and threatening the sanity of those around him.

“Is there any chance that your diagnosis might be wrong?” Sam asked, knowing even as the words stumbled from his mouth what the answer would be.

“I’m very sorry,” the doctor said. “I’d love to be wrong about this, believe me. But we have irrefutable evidence.”

The doctor pushed a sheaf of papers across the table for Sam to inspect.

Glancing down, the young man instantly recognized his father’s handwriting. He sighed. He picked up the top page and began to read.

It was clearly a foreword, though forewarning would have been more appropriate, Sam thought mordantly.

What if Hemingway had been born 22 years ago? What if, instead of going to Spain in the 1930s and being so heavily influenced by the bullfight, he’d gotten a job at Google or Facebook? What would he have written about then?

Sam felt a sense of deep foreboding but he knew it was his duty to inspect the evidence. He reached out and took the next page from the pile.

DEAF IN THE AFTERNOON

The programmer inspected his reflection in the mirror, checking for flaws. He wore the traditional costume of the coder, the costume that marked him out and set him apart from other men, lesser men, men unwilling to confront the deepest fear a man can feel. The fear that tells you that you are a man, that you are alive.

He looked at his costume one last time: loose jeans fashionably torn open across each knee, scuffed sneakers, a faded baggy t-shirt with the logo Metallica emblazoned across the front. In the winter he’d also wear a hoodie. But it was not winter. It was Spring in Silicon Valley, and the Spring was good.

In a few moments he would leave the restroom and step out into the corridor. The corridor would lead him, dressed only in his costume and armed only with his courage and his determination to succeed, to his cubicle sans corrida: the arena of combat. There he would face man’s eternal foe and he would have only his courage and his determination to sustain him.

He left the restroom. He walked the endless corridor, his heart pounding and the palms of his hands moist with the intimation of fear. He would wipe his hands on his t-shirt, this he knew, so that his fingers could fly across the keyboard without risk of slipping or sliding. To slip or to slide would be to risk defeat, and defeat in the cubicle sans corrida would be the greatest shame a man could know in this brief thing men call existence.

He reached his cubicle. The moment of truth. The moment when illusion falls away, when a man steps into destiny, to live in the moment poised perfectly between life and code review. He was ready. He entered.

His monitor was as he remembered it.

The cursor blinked, challenging him.

He sat down on his task-chair. It was a good chair, firm and comfortable and strong, as a good task-chair should be. Once, a long time ago, he’d sat in a weak and unreliable task chair and he had known that one day his destiny would lead him to a cubicle in which a firm and strong chair would greet him and at that time his buttocks would be ready. And so it was now.

He sat.

He reached for his headphones and placed them on his ears, as all excellent coders do. This is the sign by which great coders are known: their complete absorption in the task, absolute focus, and the sound of 138 decibel heavy metal screaming in their ears. The ritual was already in his blood, already his second nature. Already he had no ability to hear the upper register. Already his friends had to shout loudly in order to be heard, on those rare occasions that they met for pizza and beer, at the local pizza place with its wooden benches and comely waitpersons, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon, the one day of the week when he did not work 14 hours per day in pursuit of the excellence he knew was within him.

The noise was everywhere, at all times and in all places. The rhythm guitar, bass, and drums were in his blood, they were his blood now. His frontal cortex flickered and then was extinguished. All he knew at this moment of perfection was the screen, the cursor taunting him, the code waiting to be written. He felt peaceful. He placed his fingers on the familiar plastic keys and began to type.

The code flowed. It was good code, beautiful code. It was code as no other man could write, for each coder had his own style, his unique signature that marked him out as an individual under the harsh neon lights of the vast office. Other coders in other cubicles were also fighting their battles, fighting alone, confronting their deepest fears and either rising or falling, each locked in mortal combat with the Adversary, each racing to complete his program and commit the code. It was a noble task, the task of the coder, and he was glad in his heart that he had chosen this path.

THE OLD MAN AND THE C++

He was an old man who coded alone in a cubicle in a deserted part of the office and he had gone eighty-four days now without checking in any code. In the first forty days an intern had been with him but now he was alone.

The old man was thin and gaunt, with deep wrinkles etched into his face from years of squinting at lines on a monitor. His hipster goatee and ponytail were grey. None of these signs were new; the old man had been old for a long time now.

He looked out over the rows of empty cubicles. Once this place had been rich in code. The sound of keyboards clacking in a thousand cubes had reminded him that he was a man, a man in his prime. But now he was old. He was an old man, alone in his cubicle, he had gone eighty-four days and still his program was incomplete.

He felt his shame. He felt his shame deeply. It was the shame of a man who in his prime would check in code every day. Not just ordinary code, but good code. The kind of code that makes others gasp in appreciation during code-review sessions. But now he was old, his fingers were no longer supple, and the code was a harsh mistress.

He knew he could not return to his modest two-bedroom apartment in Saratoga until he checked in his code. Yet he was unsure, unsure as he’d never been before, never in his long and productive life as a programmer. Yet he persevered. Persevering was what great programmers did. Especially when the shame of returning without having checked in code would be too great. Everyone would gaze at him and see his failure, though they would be too polite and too sad to speak of it. His would be the silent failure of a once-great coder who no longer checked in code.

Yet what did they know, these young programmers with their Angular JS and Python? Languages that were so abstract the coder was severed from so much of the richness, so much of the challenge. What did the new coder in his torn jeans and heavy metal t-shirt know of destructors, of the importance of keeping track of objects and arrays? What did the new coder, young and with supple fingers, know of two-phase commits and end-loop statements? What did the new coder know of waking at 3am in a cold sweat with the realization that yesterday’s committed code contained a memory leak?

For this was the dilemma the old man faced. He was sure that somewhere in his one million two hundred and forty-seven thousand lines of C++ code there was a memory leak. He felt it in his bones and in the resource consumption statistics he stared at on his monitor.

He had tried modularization. In his prime he could juggle fifty-three different DLLs in his head, never once needing to resort to documentation. But now he was old. He was an old man and he knew this would be the last code he would ever commit. But the memory leak was eating his code, line by line, chewing up resources that prevented execution of some of his favorite subroutines.

Eighty-five is a lucky number, the old man thought to himself. How I would like to check in the code on the eighty-fifth day. He bent over the keyboard, trying to unscramble the code in his mind. Once his mind had been sharp but now it was dim, cloudy, too full of yesteryear’s programs. He took a deep breath and began again to read through what he had written.

The sun rose through the tinted glass of the empty office windows and still the old man was there, bent forward, squinting with infinite patience at the monitor that stood on its cold impersonal black plastic stand a mere ten inches from his forehead. The old man hated the monitor but he loved it too for it showed him truth, the truth of his labor. He was an old man but still he loved the truth.

On that morning of the eighty-fifth day the old man felt confident. He had commented out over one million lines of code as he’d sat working through the long and lonely darkness of the night, a night of such darkness it could be illuminated only by the runway lights of SFO airport far in the distance.

Filled with determination and fury the old man worked on, commenting out code here, deleting it entirely there. Now he was relying solely on his memory for, as an old coder and as a man, he did not use text to remind him of what certain elements of the code were intended to achieve. Everything was in his head, even as his memory faded, even as the memory of his code continued to leak. But he was certain now that he knew how to get home.

The day passed and the old man’s fingers crept more slowly over the keyboard. He was tired. He felt his age in his bones. I’ve lived too long on cold pizza and energy drinks, he thought to himself. But that is the price a man must pay when he wishes to be a coder. There is honor in malnutrition. There is greatness in poor dental hygiene.

More and more code was excised as the old man labored on.

Finally, as the sun sank below the rooftop of the adjacent office block, the old man paused in his labor and looked up. He compiled his program and he ran it. He submitted it to his whitebox test routines. It worked. He had finally come home.

The old man leaned back in his ancient task chair. The chair and the man were as one now, each molded to the form of the other in an unbreakable bond of productive glory. He had triumphed.

Yes, now there were only fifteen lines of code where before there had been one million two hundred and forty-seven thousand lines, but these fifteen lines were good. They were lines like the lines he used to write when he was young.

They were lines he could commit.

They found the old man, desiccated and still hunched over his keyboard, eight months later when performing a walk-through inspection of the building prior to stripping everything out and refitting the interior for new tenants. The architect who found the old man did not understand the great significance of the bony index finger of the right hand, poised over the silent keyboard. It was the finger that pressed the key that committed the code to the repository.

It was the still-poised finger of the old man’s final code, and it was triumphant.

***

Sam finished reading and set the last page down on the table. He stared at the doctor.

“It’s bad. Very bad.”

The doctor nodded. “But we can be grateful that it’s a Hemingway affliction. Let me tell you: there are worse parodies out there. One of my patients has Advanced Henry James Parody Syndrome. Last week I had to read a 3,781-word paragraph with seventy-seven distinct sub-clauses and parenthetical sub-sub clauses. One of our nurses accidentally started reading it before we could put it into the biohazard disposal incinerator. She’ll be on disability leave for at least the next three months.”

Sam looked thoughtful. “Is there any risk that it’s contagious?”

The doctor furrowed his brow. “That’s the problem,” he said. “It appears the transmission vector may be the parody itself. So anyone who reads it…”

“Will become infected themselves,” Sam completed the sentence, horrified. “How long before symptoms begin to manifest?”

“That depends on the parody,” the doctor replied. “And on the sufferer. Only time will tell. Keep an eye on yourself, carefully review anything you happen to write. And whatever you do, try not to plagiarize. For that would be the best of crimes, the worst of crimes…”

The two men stared at each other.

The horror had begun.

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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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