["Ascends...Alive!" ESR amends his title after another commenter and I are momentarily mislead into thinking Sir Terry had died. So have I.]
Now comes the news that as part of his preparations to be formally knighted by the Queen of England, Terry made his own sword – smelted the iron, and helped hand-forge it. Including, as he says, “several pieces of meteorites — thunderbolt iron, you see — highly magical, you’ve got to chuck that stuff in whether you believe in it or not”.
To heck with a trivium like knighthood – with this beautiful hack, Terry ascends to a different pantheon. Here’s what I emailed him:
That is take-my-breath-away *awesome*. Even though no actual code is involved, it arguably exceeds the awesomeness even of the guys in Norway who actually implemented TCP/IP over carrier pigeons in 2002.
Some instances of ha-ha-only-serious achieve a sublime quality that will be praised as long as there are geeks and hackers to remember them. I think this is one.
The linked original article from news.com.au contains this sad outrage:
Pratchett has stored the sword, which he completed last year, in a secret location, apparently concerned about the authorities taking an interest in it.
He said: “It annoys me that knights aren’t allowed to carry their swords. That would be knife crime.”
There’s no longer an England occupying that island off the coast of France, except in the hearts of men like Pratchett. I pray the day comes when his fellows rise up and smash to jelly the heads of those who oppress them.
Incidentally, that weakness is reflected in this previous ESR article about Pratchett:
it burst upon me that Terry Pratchett has the hacker nature. Which, actually, explains something that has mildly puzzled me for years. Terry has a huge following in the hacker community — knowing his books is something close to basic cultural literacy for Internet geeks. One is actually hard-put to think of any other writer for whom this is as true. The question this has aways raised for me is: why Terry, rather than some hard-SF writer whose work explicitly celebrates the technologies we play with?
The answer now seems clear. Terry’s hackerness has leaked into his writing somehow, modulating the quality of the humor. Behind the drollery, I and my peers worldwide have accurately scented a mind like our own.
I said some of this the following day, when I ran into Terry surrounded by about fifty eager fans in a hallway. The nature of the conference was such that about three-quarters of them were hackers, many faces I recognized. I brought up the topic again, emphasizing that the sort of playful improvisation he’d been describing was very normal for us, and that I thought it was kind of sad he’d been blocked by the belief that hackers need to know mathematics, because about all we ever use is some pieces of set theory, graph theory, combinatorics, and Boolean algebra. No calculus at all.
Terry then admitted that he had at one point independently re-invented Boolean algebra. I didn’t find this surprising — I did that myself when I was about fifteen; I didn’t mention this, though, because the moment was about Terry’s mind and not mine. I think reinventing Boolean algebra is probably something a lot of bright proto-hackers do.
“Terry,” I said, fully conscious of the peculiar authority I wield on this point as the custodian of the Jargon File, the how-to on How To Become A Hacker and several other related documents, “you are a hacker!“
The crowd agreed enthusiastically. Somebody handed Terry one of the “Geek” badge ribbons the convention had made for attendees who wanted to identify themselves as coming from the Linux/programming side. Much laughter ensued when it was discovered that the stickum on the ribbon had lost its virtue, and a nearby hacker had to ceremonially affix the thing to Terry’s badge holder with a piece of duct tape.
Terry actually choked up a little while this was going on, and I don’t think there was anyone there who didn’t understand why. To the kind of teenager and young man he must have been — bright, curious, creative, proud of his own ability — it must have been very painful to conclude that he would never cut it as the techie he so obviously wanted to be. He ended up doing public-relations work for the British nuclear-power industry instead.
The whole sequence of events left me feeling delighted that I and my friends could deliver the affirmation Terry had deserved so long ago. But also — and here we come to the real point of this essay — I felt very angry at the system that had fed the young Terry such a huge load of cobblers about the nature of what programmers and hardware designers do.
I’m not referring to the obvious garbage about needing a brain-bending amount of mathematics. No; they fed Terry something much subtler and more crippling, a belief that real techies actually know what they’re doing. The delusion of expertise.
Read the whole thing. Please.
I note that Pratchett’s novel Going Postal, which prominently features hackers of the semaphore system used on the Discworld, was published about a year later. Much is made of the clandestine group, The Smoking Gnu.