Sunday, February 25, 2007

Smokin' Aces

Really fashioning a weapon to get food -- I'd say that's a first for any nonhuman animal.
~Craig Stanford, primatologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California, quoted in For First Time, Chimps Seen Making Weapons for Hunting

About eight years ago, a very critical production system at a major petroleum exploration firm crashed. Hard. Oracle Financials. No backups. Wouldn't come up. The individuals responsible for it had run fsck -y on it at least four times. Not mine in any sense of the word, but someone who knew someone who knew me called and offered a huge lump sum if I could resurrect it. I asked for twice what they offered, and they didn't hesitate at all.

So I took all of the vacation I had left from the job I had back then, and I went for it. It took just over twenty-seven hours, no sleep, lots of blind alleys and even more lucky breaks. More good guesses than bad ones. I became very, very well acquainted with od(1), I found out how Sun had changed the classic inode structure as of Solaris 2.6, the hard way. I got second, third, even fourth wind through the non-stop run. At one point, I really did cat > foo.c, typed in ~50 lines live, and it compiled, linked, and did what I wanted it to without further editing. Then a little later I panicked when I forgot for about 45 minutes where I'd been saving my ever-growing directory of utilities, cooked up on the spot. When I turned the final corner, when I knew I was closing in and it was just a matter of me not making any more mistakes, at least no unrecoverable ones, I stood up for the first time in hours. When I stretched, there were joints in my body that popped that I didn't even know would pop. Somehow, they knew to leave me alone. They just kept bringing more coffee, and I kept typing. The last time I pressed Enter, I stood up again and they came to watch too. They muttered, "come on, come on," like gamblers at the track with their rent money on the line.

I knew it would work by then. The last hour was a series of dress rehearsals before the performance. I actually spent a good fifteen minutes tuning the output, inventing nifty status messages, so they'd have something entertaining to look at.

After the database was up, and verified, and I was looking, feeling, and smelling like shit, I sipped bourbon with the guy whose ass really was on the line. He was self-described oilfield trash who'd gotten a few good breaks. His age spots were indistinguishable from the melanoma. We drank and smoked cigarettes in his office. I'd thought he'd be really happy that I'd put Humpty Dumpty back together again. He looked relieved, but no sign of happiness. He just looked tired, so very tired. After shooting the shit for ~30 minutes--mostly due to me asking him more questions to hear him keep croaking on, for reasons I chalk up to my borderline delusional psychosis--he thanked me, told me I was a "God damned genius," sighed deeply, and paid me in cash.

I never have shaken the feeling that I re-enabled something crooked that day. From the gleaming, climate-controlled data center, with its raised floors, the plush carpeting that started where the cubicles ended, to the people who smiled at me when I arrived and avoided me when I left, I felt unclean. I'd proven to myself and to anyone that was paying attention that I was clever and talented. When it had all come together, I remember thinking, "They can't take that away from me." Many time since then I've wished there was a way to take it back.

Oh. Smokin' Aces. Awesome flick. More surprises than obvious guesses. Buckets of blood, a little gore, moderate horrifics, and at the end, you wonder whether the guy left standing is going to do the right thing--or if there is such a thing any more.

I wonder whether I'll ever be done accepting money from people who--whether they realize it or not--are loyal to something wicked. That film got me to wondering: Is there a clean way to look into the eddying currents of the layers and layers of avarice, and to portray it in a way that will attract attention for anything besides the distraction of the same thing? Is there a way for me to express this so that it makes a difference, or would I just be amusing those who are engaged in the same insipid pursuits?

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