A Modern Bestiary

In the spirit of the long-forgotten hacker lore

To many young developers and sysadmins, the machine room is nothing but a cold place, filled with cold machines and twisted wires. There is nothing in there, other than the inhospitable racks and the whirring coolers. A dead place, deserted of life, save for the rare moments when someone from the maintenance staff wanders in there.

And yet the old sysadmins wander in there only with great caution, trembling at every step. Their scruffy beards seem to shiver. For they know what lays in there. Countless nights they have spent there, seeing every blinking light, touching every cable, and they have come to know the peculiar creatures that dwell in server rooms. The graybeard Unix programmers know the tiny critters that wander on their desks on those nights when they are not at their office.

When no one munches on Twinkies and coffee to get through a coding night, the office is not empty. But creatures even stranger than programmers lurk there.

The Cable Leprechaun

The Cable Leprechaun is a peculiar creature that likes electricity more than anything. He is small, wears green clothes and smokes a tiny pipe, and is otherwise a fine, but highly mischievous fellow.

His favourite pastime is to twist any cable through which some form of electricity passes. When you leave your cables in good order behind the desk and then, three months later, they are twisted around and knotted tightly to each other, even though you could swear you have not touched them, it is the Cable Leprechaun that did it.

Some young fellows try to keep their cables neat by using some cable straps, but the soothsayers will tell you otherwise. The Cable Leprechaun just wants to play -- but to strap the cables is an insult to him, and he does not take insults lightly. He will begin to play all kind of bad jokes on the poor fool who dared insult him, fiddling with the grounding of his machines and twisting cables within the electrical installation to create various distortions in your Ethernet cables.

Instead, the old graybeards will leave one or two long Ethernet cables behind their desks for the Cable Leprechaun to play with. Sometimes, they will even leave a piece of Snickers or a couple of peanuts on their desks, when they leave the office at 4 AM after a prolonged hacking session. The Cable Leprechaun will know not to disturb their cables, and will even be okay with you strapping the cables, understanding that it is meant just for easier handling rather than as an insult.

The Printer Mule

The geeks who belong to the obscure sect of embedded programmers will attempt to convince you that there is a microprocessor inside your printer, driving the entire printing process, but they are lying. They are, in fact, paid by the salespeople from Xerox and HP to tell you this so that they can hide what really happens inside the printers. PS and PCL are simply well-conceited lies.

No, instead of those, each printer has a mule inside it. This mule is raised and trained at the stables of the printer producer to read the bits you send and maneuver an intricate set of levers and stamps, producing your printed document on the other end. The printer mule is a very shy, very easily-scared creature, that will run away and hide if you try to take apart the printer. However, like every mule, it is amazingly stubborn and unpredictable.

These irresponsible creatures will happily print things for months, and then one day simply refuse to print, no matter what you do. You can plug and unplug the printer, re-install drivers, change printing format, you can even kick it, without any success. And then, out of the blue, it will start printing again.

This has become a very common problem in the last twenty years or so. The high demand for printers and limited amount of places in the stables mean that there is less and less time for training the mules, and they are put into service at a very young age. Some companies attempted to resolve this by training their mules to understand another language, called PCL, which is rumoured to be simpler to read than the one they used before, called PS. Printers with old, well-trained mules are extremely expensive.

Regardless, the graybeards have learned to appease the stubborn mules by dropping almonds or pieces of candy in the printer every once in a while. Even if the mule is not of the stubborn kind, they will still drop him a little treat every week or so, just to make sure they are happy.

The Disk Ants

The Disk Ants are small ants that live in the walls of the office. Their small feet are magnetic, and when they walk on the surface of the hard drives, they sometimes flip a few bits here and there. When you find a configuration file that has an option disabled, even though you could swear you have enabled it, there is a good chance that it was simply the disk ants inadvertently tripping a few bytes here and there. In the days of Windows 95, it was also the tiny ants that would corrupt the Registry.

They look like a pest, but the disk ants are not malevolent. What they do is gather dust for their small children, who feed on it, but are otherwise tender, friendly creatures. The old administrators and programmers have learned not to get upset on them -- a healthy backup is necessary to us anyway. To help them, they also make sure not to clean the dust off their desks. Or, if some mindless fool from HR or upper management, a lesser man or woman, ignorant of the ways of nature, insist that they clean it up, they will at least leave a corner, or a drawer, gather dust so that the young children of the disk ants do not die of hunger.

The Floppy Worms

The floppy worms are distant cousins of the bookworms: they are small creatures that thrive on the thin material of which floppy disks are made.

No reliable account of one has been heard in a long, long time now, as the floppy disks are fewer and fewer, but every once in a while, an aging programmer will try to read an old floppy on his dust-gathering Amiga 500 and find out it is broken. As they curse the stupid disk, relieved that we have, in the meantime, found more reliable alternatives, a smile will flower on their lips for a few moments, at the thought that it may have been a floppy worm.

The Wall Switch Cat

The Wall Switch Cat is a small cat that lives in every light switch on the walls of the office. If you put your ear on the switch, you can even hear it purr sometimes.

Like most cats, the Wall Switch Cat spends most of its time sleeping. There is not much room within a wall switch anyway, so there is not much room to move, and what else to do there but sleep? Every once in a while though, the Wall Switch Cat will get bored and, when you flip the lights off before leaving the office, it will playfully flip the back on. You usually notice that only as you get out of the building, or after you locked the door.

Old programmers have learned to love this little creature. Most of the time they do not want to disturb its slumber and, as night creeps into their offices, they will leave the lights off. The computer screens give enough light anyway.

The Fuse Box Salamander

The Fuse Box Salamander is a terrifying creature that lives in the fuse box on every floor. Some soothsayers say it is a descendant of the dragons of the ancient world; like its ancestors, it can spit fire, but it takes them a great deal of strength to do so, and they rarely do it. They can stun the venturing fool with a single touch, and even kill those who are fainter of heart.

Truth is, though, the Fuse Box Salamander simply does not like human touch. Our skin is poisonous to them, which is why they repel it immediately. Wearing rubber gloves, or simply being careful not to touch one of their metal scales is enough, as they are otherwise tolerating to humans. Like the printer mule, they are simply shy. Even though they spit fire, they like to just hide when a human approaches; experts in camouflage, they will blend in their environment, and only when you touch one of their scales will you know that you touched the salamander instead of the circuit breaker's lever. But when you do so, they quickly creep even deeper within the box, which is why most people have never seen them.

The Backpack Piglet

The Backpack Piglet is a small piglet that lives somewhere in the backpack of every programmer. Although tiny and not dangerous to humans, this creature is as hungry as its larger cousins that we use to make bacon. He is the one responsible for objects that seem to vanish when you put them in the backpack.

Even though they may look selfish (who eats another guy's meal, after all?) they are very loving creatures, who bond immediately with their masters. No matter how much you try, they simply will not go away; if they finally do, after you thoroughly empty and wash your backpack, thus forcing them to run away, they will die of loneliness.

Old programmers have grown attached to these little creatures and cherish their presence. They are caring, even if discrete creatures (they only show their presence by eating the occasional apple shoved into the backpack), and it is in their nature, not in their will, to eat anything they can get their little paws on. Consequently, programmers throw in an apple every once in a while, to make sure the little critters have something sweet to munch on, instead of eating their laptop chargers or USB hubs.