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Author Topic: PC142: Abandonware  (Read 11207 times)
Talia
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« on: February 01, 2011, 07:53:55 AM »

PodCastle 142: Abandonware

by An Owomoyela.

Read by Christopher Reynaga.


Originally appeared in Fantasy Magazine.

I sat at my desk, feet jammed between the Quadra’s tower and my Dell’s, window cracked to let in the wet air. It’d been raining. Andy loved how the air smelled after it rained; I didn’t smell anything. I was just looking through Andy’s zip disks, thinking about her.

I opened one case and a disc fell out, dropping between the wheels on my chair. It’d been stuck between the pages, not fit into one of the pockets, and that was weird, considering Andy. Whatever the original label said had been worked over in sharpie, and the new label read only BURN THIS DISK.


Obviously, she hadn’t.

Andy was always open with me–ten years older and thinking she could tell me the secrets of life. She wanted me to tell her about girlfriends and classes and any juvenile delinquency I got into, and she told me about alcohol and sex and everything Dad didn’t want to talk about, like the time she got busted sneaking into a topless bar. I couldn’t think what she’d want to burn.

I turned on the zip drive, booted up the computer, and stuck the disk in. It was an early drive and an early disk, and it made a lot of noise for 100 megs, but it worked pretty well. Andy kept it fixed up.

The disk was named EraseMe. It had one file in it, a 77Mb document named SELDON.crn.

Rated PG.
« Last Edit: February 22, 2011, 11:26:15 AM by Talia » Logged
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« Reply #1 on: February 01, 2011, 10:46:29 AM »

  I knew from the moment the term "Zip disks" was used that I was going to like this story, but this ended up being one of my favourite stories that PodCastle has run in a long time. It reminded me a lot of the old "Twilight Zone" episode, "Nick of Time".

  I enjoyed how the story made me feel the narrator's loss so strongly, and its especially creepy turn when he puts in Andy's information.

  The ending made me wonder if I would be strong enough to destroy a program like that. Could I avoid the justification that I could just select good luck? My packrat tendencies make me think I would at least keep the disk (I do actually have my old Zip drive and a bunch of disks in my office, although the coolest things on them are probably data from my old Geocities page and some half-finished stories), if not continue to use it.
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« Reply #2 on: February 01, 2011, 02:38:02 PM »

Loved this story!!!

I learned to program on a C64, including childish attempts to "hide" information on random floppy disc sectors. I've always loved old Macs and used to own a zip drive too, so this whole story had a massive whack of nostalgia. Discovering an abandoned prognosticating program on an obsolete platform, wow. It has so much of the "invoking ancient dead gods" thing going for it.

This could be the beginnings of an absolutely epic Gaiman-ish tail, so many possibilities!  Using the resolution of grief and "moving on" thing to wrap this up quickly was perfect for a short story.  I think this goes on my top-10 favorite all-time escape-artists podcasts.
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« Reply #3 on: February 01, 2011, 07:07:05 PM »

I wanted to start this out with "That was great fun!" but really, the core of the story was not fun, however very well written.  I really enjoy stories that capture emotional impact.  The characters in this story were very real.  I felt for the dad who had lost everything and now seemed to be losing his son as well.  But I also understand the feelings of the protagonist of "the last thing I want to do is talk to Dad".  His sister had been the buffer and now she was gone.  I also could relate to the relationship he had had with his older sister, wanting to be into the things that she liked because he liked her, but also realizing his different preferences as well.

So where does the fun come in?  The nostalgia of older technology.  I too learned a lot of my initial programming on a Commadore 64, and spent hours typing in programs and disecting them to create my own.  I tried to build my own game called River Raid and wish I still had my console and that program.

The SELDON program was something I could completely visualize.  It sort of reminded me of the old text-based ELIZA computer psychiatrist program.  Try it out.  But what a great source for this bizzare fortune telling device, with limitations included!  I like how there are still many unanswered questions about Andy's death, and this program,, and how it all plays into the protagonists greif cycle.  It's destruction represented his acceptance and eventual recovery.

To sum up my felling on this story, I really dug it, on all levels.
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« Reply #4 on: February 03, 2011, 03:30:29 AM »

Excellent, excellent story.  Top marks all around, from a realistic portrayal of an emotionally shattered family to the wonderfully sly way the real darkness crept in around the edges.  I am envious.
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« Reply #5 on: February 03, 2011, 04:08:02 AM »

Great Lords of Binary, but I really loved this story.
We still have a ZIP drive and a few disks bumping around (my mom keeps trying to get us to through them away, arguing that we no longer have anything to plug the drive into, but packrat tendencies have so far won the day) so I totally dug this at a nostalgia level. I remember when we first got that ZIP drive and I was like "ZOMG! What are we going to do with 100 MB?" Lol at my younger self.
I like to program, and try to dissect code and all that, so I really loved that aspect of the story too.
And then there's the whole coping with a loss thing.
I think that in some way or another everybody has had to cope with some form of loss, and the protagonist's feelings here sort of summed up my own. If we try hard enough, then we don't have to let that person truly die, s/he will still be around as long as we keep them alive. Be it in memories, in some old program, a picture album... I really understood and felt his reluctance to destroy the zip drive, and why he finally was able to. It was as if his sister was giving him permission to kill this part of herself.
I also felt his frustration with the program, and trying to transfer his feelings of loss to understanding it. It was his way of coping.
I also understand the dad, trying not lose his entire family, but not really knowing how to back off.
*sigh*
It was a touching piece, and I really really enjoyed it.

I just have one complaint.
When writing something and referring to a directory (folder in Windows-Speak) it is common practice to type "directory_name/", so that it is clear that what is meant is a directory and not a file. However, when reading it out loud, saying "directory-name-slash" just sounds way too awkward.

Also, I kept trying to come up with some kind of easter egg or hidden joke about the file names. SELDON? MANCY? Some kind of acronym? A private joke us non-MAC users wouldn't get? Or just a pseudo random string of characters?

Oh, and finally, I still play Lemmings in DOSBOX. Tongue
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eytanz
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« Reply #6 on: February 03, 2011, 05:58:56 AM »

Oh, wow, this one hit me hard. Not so much because of the grief - I do know how it is to lose someone close - though not as close as the sister was to the narrator in this story - suddenly and inexplicably - but that's something I've come to terms with a long time ago. What really struck me is the part where the death of a loved one mean of not knowing, and there is no recourse. I have a big difficulty accepting that there are things that I want to know but can't. Just yesterday, half-asleep, my financee muttered something to me which I didn't understand, and she couldn't recall what it was when asked. I spent the next fifteen minutes fretting about it before I convinced myself it was probably not important. The thought of losing someone *and* being faced with a revelation that maybe there was something major going on in their life I was unaware of is terrifying to me.

Beyond this personal aspect, I agree with the overall admiration to this story. It is brilliantly written and evocative, and masterfully conveys the emotions of the narrator and his father in between the lines of what is said. The interplay between what the narrator thinks he feels and what he really is feeling deep down was marvellously done.
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« Reply #7 on: February 03, 2011, 09:55:52 AM »

Also, I kept trying to come up with some kind of easter egg or hidden joke about the file names. SELDON? MANCY? Some kind of acronym? A private joke us non-MAC users wouldn't get? Or just a pseudo random string of characters?

I wouldn't be surprised if there is some in-joke for SELDON, but if there was I didn't get it.  MANCY, I did get.  "-mancy" is a suffix used in many words as different ways of foretelling the future.  Such as:
necromancy--raising the dead for them to tell you the future (it's grown down different meanings so that it may just mean raising the dead)
geomancy--divining the future by markings on the ground or the pattern of thrown soil
There are a bunch more, pretty much any seemingly random event has been thought to be interpretable as omens of the future, reading tea leaves at the bottom of a cup, wax droplets in water, etc...


Anyway,  AWESOME story, one of my favorite Podcastle episodes.  I really felt like I knew Andy even though she was never even onscreen, which is a testament to how real David's character felt to me.  The idea of a prophetic program running on such an old system is intriguing and a little absurd (in a good way).  Awesome Awesome Awesome.  And the plot arc mixed well with his emotional arc of grieving, well mixed, well played.

Also I was very glad to hear a programming story from someone who sounds like they know programming (or at least has bothered to talk to someone who knows programming).  Too often, computers are used as a "magic" item by writers who don't really understand them.  Which seems odd to say, in a story where the computer was doing something generally considered magical, but the authentic details went a long way toward convincing me that this computer and the people around it were really real.  There were various details that indicated this, but foremost of those was pointing out that computers can't generate truly random numbers.  There are ways to simulate randomness, but it's never truly random.
-A side thought for you:  Humans are way worse at randomness.  That's why there are Rock Paper Scissors champions--they are the ones who are better at seeing the patterns in others attempts at randomness and exploiting them.

Interstellar Pig I was very excited to hear Interstellar Pig mentioned in the story.  Awesome YA Science Fiction book.  I had an awesome English teacher who assigned this as reading.  Extremely fun, I really got into that when I read it.  I haven't read it since, might be fun to read again.

Text adventures I love text adventures and other generally outdated game types.  About 15 years ago my aunt and uncle gave me "The Lost Treasures of Infocom" collection, I still don't know where they got it as they are not even computer players, barely able to use the internet.  It is awesome, having a couple dozen Infocom text adventures (they were the big developer of text adventures in their heyday).  I also like the old graphical adventures like King's Quest and Space Quest.  *sigh* They don't make games like they used to.

Abandonware On the topic of retro gaming, if you like old-school computer games, or would like to find out if you like them, you've gotta check out www.abandonia.com
They collect abandonware games and put them up for download.  Lots of text adventures, graphical adventures, and many other types.
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« Reply #8 on: February 03, 2011, 10:59:21 AM »

Also, I kept trying to come up with some kind of easter egg or hidden joke about the file names. SELDON? MANCY? Some kind of acronym? A private joke us non-MAC users wouldn't get? Or just a pseudo random string of characters?

I wouldn't be surprised if there is some in-joke for SELDON, but if there was I didn't get it.  MANCY, I did get.  "-mancy" is a suffix used in many words as different ways of foretelling the future.  Such as:
necromancy--raising the dead for them to tell you the future (it's grown down different meanings so that it may just mean raising the dead)
geomancy--divining the future by markings on the ground or the pattern of thrown soil
There are a bunch more, pretty much any seemingly random event has been thought to be interpretable as omens of the future, reading tea leaves at the bottom of a cup, wax droplets in water, etc...
Ahh, that also explains why it was "underscore mancy dot cee ar en".

Abandonware On the topic of retro gaming, if you like old-school computer games, or would like to find out if you like them, you've gotta check out www.abandonia.com
They collect abandonware games and put them up for download.  Lots of text adventures, graphical adventures, and many other types.
Yes, that's where I got Lemmings from Tongue
Well, recently. Originally I had it on a 3.5" floppy diskette.
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hautdesert
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« Reply #9 on: February 03, 2011, 01:11:26 PM »




I wouldn't be surprised if there is some in-joke for SELDON, but if there was I didn't get it. 


You kids these days!

Hari Seldon, a fictional character, is the intellectual hero of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series. In his capacity as mathematics professor at Streeling University on Trantor, he developed psychohistory, allowing him to predict the future in probabilistic terms. His prediction of the eventual fall of the Galactic Empire is the reason behind his nickname "The Raven" Seldon.

Don't they teach the classics in school anymore?   Wink


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« Reply #10 on: February 03, 2011, 01:25:07 PM »

*repeated headdesk*
OF COURSE!!
Hari Seldon! How could I have forgotten.
I read the Foundation Series the first time (in the order it was written in) when I was 12, and a few times after that (chronologically). But it has been a few years since the last time. I knew that name was familiar, I just couldn't place it.
Naturally a program that could predict the future would be named Seldon.
However, this raises a problem.
See, the reason why (I think) that this story is in Podcastle and not Escapepod is because of the fact that it's NOT science. The way I define the difference is: if you explain the strange using magic, it's fantasy. If you explain the strange using science/math, it's scifi.
So, I decided that the program works by magic. This explains a number of things:
1. Why it's in this podcast.
2. How she could have written 76 MB of plain text code in her short life span. Remember, she was ten years older than him, and he said he was 16, so she died when she was 26. Allow a few years for her to learn how to read, write, type and program and that isn't really enough time. (Also, I think at one point he said she was 28?)
3. How a computer program could determine the future. At first, when he described the code "could have been a map of the universe" I thought "Of course! Determinism! That's how it works!" But then I changed my mind, because quantum mechanics blew determinism out of the water. So the only conclusion is that it works by magic.

But if it's called Seldon.... maybe that's just a joke. Yeah, that's it. Programmers have a strange sense of humor which is (more often than not) revealed in their choice of program names.
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« Reply #11 on: February 03, 2011, 01:42:45 PM »

This story struck me a lot, at first, but its effect waned in the days that followed. Although this was a delightfully uneasy story, full of subtle and disturbing quirks away from the sane, safe world we all like to believe we live in, the magic wasn't foreshadowed enough to make it really stick. I think the story would have been stronger if the big sister had been behaving strangely in the weeks before her death, as she dealt with the effects of life with SELDON. Then the story would have had more weight, more consequence, as the main character struggled to avoid his sister's fate while dealing with her death. Unfortunately, as it was, the metaphor sat lightly and faded away.

That said, I thought the story was extremely well done. SELDON's predictions and their deeper consequences sent shivers up my spine. The narration was also excellent and added a lot to the story.
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« Reply #12 on: February 03, 2011, 01:51:23 PM »

Great story, very creepy.

What i found interesting was that there was a certain amount of "destiny" to the events, the main character was able to avoid the incident at school, but when picking the unlucky option for Andy on the day of her death there was a clear indication that it was just meant to be, and there wasnt any way of avoiding it.

One thing i found odd was the part where there dad came in all serious and mentioned the bomb at school, but then it turned out to be just a cherry bomb, which according to what i have learned from american tv is relativly harmless, or atleast not anywhere as serious as to his reaction.
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« Reply #13 on: February 03, 2011, 02:29:41 PM »

2. How she could have written 76 MB of plain text code in her short life span. Remember, she was ten years older than him, and he said he was 16, so she died when she was 26. Allow a few years for her to learn how to read, write, type and program and that isn't really enough time. (Also, I think at one point he said she was 28?)

What about self-modifying code?  That might explain why he can't decipher it.  It's not meant to be easily readable by any human, it's just meant to work.

Or

Who's to say that she wrote it all from scratch?  Maybe most of the space is occupied by data representing the map of the known universe and SELDON is nothing but a lookup program written spaghetti-style to make it hard to read.  The map could've been from any number of sources, such as just finding it on the internet somewhere (remember, SELDON ran on old hardware but was written recently), or perhaps she wrote another program to data-mine and create probability tables, and as time passed it could test its predictions against actual events and refine the weight functions for its decision criteria.


So I don't think the size of the file is necessarily unrealistic. She hadn't told him the details of what she was doing, so it's no surprise that he doesn't understand it.
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« Reply #14 on: February 03, 2011, 03:45:27 PM »

I loved this story. The characters' grief and their reactions to it were so real. It reminded me of my own brother's death several years ago: the things we kept when we went through his things said something about each of us. Since then, I'm always evaluating my own things, routinely purging unwanted junk. Never forget: someone has to go through your stuff when you die. Now is the time to toss those oracular zip discs.
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« Reply #15 on: February 03, 2011, 05:44:09 PM »

I wouldn't be surprised if there is some in-joke for SELDON, but if there was I didn't get it. 
You kids these days!

Hari Seldon, a fictional character, is the intellectual hero of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series. (etc. ...)

Don't they teach the classics in school anymore?   Wink

You beat me to it.  I smiled when I heard the name of the program and figured out the reference.  Nice bit of subtle character-building/reinforcement, there.

2. How she could have written 76 MB of plain text code in her short life span.

Who's to say that she wrote it all from scratch?  Maybe most of the space is occupied by data representing the map of the known universe and SELDON is nothing but a lookup program written spaghetti-style to make it hard to read.  The map could've been from any number of sources, such as just finding it on the internet somewhere

It doesn't even need to be the data that is Not Invented Here.  A decent (and humble enough) programmer will look elsewhere for code (libraries) that already do what she wants, or close enough that it only needs a little modification to get there.  The creativity comes in putting together existing components in heretofore unknown ways.

(remember, SELDON ran on old hardware but was written recently),

Huh, I missed that detail.

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« Reply #16 on: February 03, 2011, 06:30:48 PM »

(remember, SELDON ran on old hardware but was written recently),

Huh, I missed that detail.

I don't think that was explicitly said in the story. In fact, IIRC, I don't think there was any indication how long ago it was written and when the sister decided to stop using it.
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« Reply #17 on: February 03, 2011, 11:15:46 PM »

(remember, SELDON ran on old hardware but was written recently),

Huh, I missed that detail.

I don't think that was explicitly said in the story. In fact, IIRC, I don't think there was any indication how long ago it was written and when the sister decided to stop using it.

I'm not sure about how long ago it was written, but I think that she stopped using it on the day she died. My reason for thinking so is in the message it gave to the protagonist under her name for that day: something like "Outside of the door is randomness." Also "Maybe predetermination isn't that bad?"

I really enjoyed this story.  A bit uneasy - not the big flashiness that some part of me was anticipating, but instead a slow reflection that really hit the spot. _MANCY didn't click for me until I read the thread, but "Seldon.crn" clicked just as the story was finishing and I was thinking about the names - and we were explicitly told a few times that Andy was always very much into Science Fiction.
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« Reply #18 on: February 04, 2011, 09:26:08 AM »

(remember, SELDON ran on old hardware but was written recently),

Huh, I missed that detail.

I don't think that was explicitly said in the story. In fact, IIRC, I don't think there was any indication how long ago it was written and when the sister decided to stop using it.

I thought it explicitly said that computer was her recent pet project,  I got the impression she'd been working on it hardcore within the last decade before her death or so, at which point she likely had internet access on her other computers.  In any case, I don't think it said that she didn't write it, or at least finish it, recently.


It doesn't even need to be the data that is Not Invented Here.  A decent (and humble enough) programmer will look elsewhere for code (libraries) that already do what she wants, or close enough that it only needs a little modification to get there.  The creativity comes in putting together existing components in heretofore unknown ways.

Good point, maybe I should look for Seldon's origins on SourceForge.  If that were code only, that would be a helluva lot of text, which would make me skeptical that this old machine would ever be able to compile it all in a short period of time... then again it could be an interpreted language.  Still seems unlikely that it's all human-written code though.  I still think it's more likely to be self-modifying code or data.  Plus self-modifying code kind of has a nice mysterious lack-of-clear-origin quality about it that appeals to me in this case.


Thank you!  I've read surprisingly little Asimov, or from any of the Grand Masters.  Thanks for illuminating this.  Smiley
« Last Edit: February 04, 2011, 09:32:11 AM by Unblinking » Logged
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« Reply #19 on: February 04, 2011, 03:10:17 PM »

Wonderful story.  Really says something about that element of grief that involves accepting that there are questions that can't be asked anymore, secrets that are lost forever.  The ending fits well with that, too.

Since I'm a programmer, stories about programming often include descriptions that break suspension of disbelief for me.  This one was an exception, it did a really good job of avoiding the old Holywood Hacking tropes and describing how someone with limited technical knowledge might try to understand a complicated program written by someone much more skilled.

So the only conclusion is that it works by magic.

It's "indistinguishable from magic", at any rate.  Which is itself a common source of programmer humor.
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