The Great Startrek War
From: bostic@okeeffe.berkeley.edu (Keith Bostic)
Date: Wed, 7 Nov 90 10:05:55 -0800
Subject: God must have loved idiots, S/He made so many of them...

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.




Back to humor page.
Bryan Dunlap / Physics Dept. / The Ohio State University