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The Programmer and the Elves: a Fairy Tale

© 1992 Michael Rubin
Transcribed by Lee Gold from the recording The Programmer and the Elves: East Coast Filk, issued in 1993 by Wail Songs, recorded live in 1992 at Arisia, Boskone, and Lunacon.


Once upon a time, at a company far away, there was a poor project manager named Jones. His department only did maintenance and hadn't gotten a new project in years. The computer was so old that it only ran Fortran.

Jones's one pride and joy was their young Chief Programmer Sandy, who not only had long golden hair that was the envy of all the secretaries, but was far and away the finest coder the department had ever seen.

Now most programmers this good would go work for lots of money at one of the rich companies in the Valley, with the beach parties and the hot tubs. But Sandy knew that the programmers there had to work twelve hours a day, and always lived in fear that their company would be shut down by a look-and-feel lawsuit.

And most older programmers this good would stay at Berkeley and work on nifty academic systems until they turned into tenured professors. But Sandy didn't like programs that were all theoretical and never really got implemented, and anyhow had flunked out of Berkeley.

Well, one year at the office Christmas party, after a few too many glasses of eggnog, Jones boasted to the boss that Sandy was probably a good enough programmer to write hypertext programs in Fortran.

The Boss took one look at Sandy with the blue jeans and the sandals and the long golden hair, and shouted, "Jones, you're a liar! This is no Chief Programmer; this is a hippie! I'm gonna lock this imposter in a room with a terminal and a Fortran compiler, and if I don't see a hyperwhatzis program by tomorrow at noon, I'm gonna fire the both of you."

Well, everybody knows that it's barely possible to write text processing programs in Fortran, much less hypertext, and especially in less than a day, locked in a room with no cola and no Twinkies.

So Sandy was scared witless, and cursed and wailed over the keyboard until early in the morning, and was all ready to crash out, when up from under a floor tile popped a little person with pointy ears and pointy shoes and a tall pointy hat.

"What seems to be your trouble, hacker?" asked the elf.

"My supervisor told the boss I could write hypertext programs in Fortran, which everybody knows is impossible, and now I have until noon to write one or I'll get fired."

The elf replied, "A bit of an odd request, but surely not impossible. I think I can help you out." And while falling asleep from caffeine depletion, Sandy may or may not have seen coming up from under that floor tile, a dozen more elves and a laptop Sparc-station.

They opened the door at noon and found Sandy asleep and a program running merrily away on the terminal.

The Boss, who of course didn't know a hypertext program from a kiwi fruit, called in some other programmers to figure out what the thing was.

"It is indeed a hypertext program," they replied, "but none of us can understand how it works. It has variables named Shamrock and Rainbow and Misty_Morning_Dew, and some of the most ferocious assembly language subroutines to be found outside the jungles of Borneo." [Yes, that's your part.]

The Boss was so astonished as to give Sandy a week's vacation on the spot. Sandy took the listing home and decided the elves must have been real, because no human being would write a program with variable names like that.

At least, not unless somebody had been putting really nifty drugs in the water cooler.

In the meantime, the news of this program spread far and wide around the department. Finally, it reached the ears of a secretary named Robinson, who had always hated Sandy from envy of that long golden hair.

An evil thought turned into a nasty plan, and Robinson whispered in the Boss's ear, "That program could never be written in just one night. You've been fooled. Sandy must have written it months ago, and they just brought it out as a party trick."

The Boss -- who also didn't know an ace programmer from a kiwi fruit -- was actually fooled by this evil rumor. So Jones was called into the Boss's office, and the upshot of it was that Sandy came back from a week's vacation only to be given an even more impossible task to do in one night: namely, put a graphical user interface on that program.

Well, everybody knows that it's utterly hopeless to write a graphical user interface in Fortran, even worse than processing hypertext, and especially in less than a day, locked in a room with no cola and no Twinkies.

So Sandy was scared even more witless than before, and cursed and wailed over the keyboard until early in the morning, and was all ready to crash out, when up from under a floor tile popped the same little person with pointy ears, etc., etc., etc.

"And what seems to be your trouble this time, hacker?" asked the elf.

"My supervisor told the boss I could write a graphical user interface in Fortran, which everybody knows is impossible, and now I have until noon to write one or I'll get fired."

The elf replied, "An amazingly stupid request, but surely not impossible. I think I can help you out on this one too."

"But wait," said Sandy. "What do you want in return? Royalties? Supper and a place by my fire? My first-born child?"

"Oh, nothing of the sort," said the elf. "We elves just do this to keep up our skills for consultant jobs."

And while falling asleep from caffeine depletion, Sandy may or may not have seen coming up from under that floor tile, a dozen more elves, a laptop Sparc-station, a copy of the Gnu curses library, and a C-to-Fortran translator.

They opened the door at noon and found Sandy asleep and a program running merrily away on the terminal.

The Boss could at least tell it had a graphic user interface, but called in the other programmers anyway for reassurance.

"Well, it is just what it looks like," they replied, "but we still don't understand how it works. It has variables named Shamrock and Rainbow and Misty_Morning_Dew, and some of the most ferocious assembly language subroutines to be found outside the jungles of Borneo.... And by the way, while we were testing last week's version, we found it was a pretty useful tool for writing documentation; and with this graphical user interface, we could even use it to put our manuals online."

So the company started using the new program for all their manuals and documentation, all except for Robinson who quit in shame rather than go near it.

Well, in the Happy Ending for this story, the Boss takes early retirement, Sandy is promoted to Vice President of R&D, and Jones is promoted to Vice President of Personnel for having the brains to hire Sandy in the first place, and they all live happily ever after.

But what really happened... is that Sandy is still a lowly programmer -- and is now stuck for the foreseeable future maintaining this horrid crock of a Fortran program, written by elves! After all, nobody else can understand how it works. It has variables named Shamrock and Rainbow and Misty_Morning_Dew, and some of the most ferocious assembly language subroutines to be found outside the jungles of Borneo.

And the moral of the story is: Never do the impossible. People will expect you to do it forever after.

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Last updated: Wed, 31 Dec 1969, 04:00 PM EST