Over the last few days I’ve discussed with a few people the origin of the word “hacker”, meaning someone who makes useful items with an axe. Having recently sharpened an axe, I decided that no phrase can be taken too literally when you only have yourself to amuse. I needed a stake to support a wobbly apple tree we planted at the bottom of the garden, so I decided there was no better solution than to fashion my own from the first hazel branches we cut last year. It turns out that I’m a natural axe hacker; probably all those hours whittling as a lad and the preference I inherited from my Dad to sharpen pencils with a knife rather than a pencil sharpener. I got my hardwood stick so sharp that when I tried to carry everything, I cut my finger on the point. Never has the phrase “sweat and blood” been more appropriate for a project. At the end, I had confidence that if I was ever lost in a forest with only a sharp axe, within half an hour I could produce a pointy stick with which to defend myself. I suddenly realised that I’ve worked on software projects like that too.
Flushed with my success and with no in-house health & safety accident recording system to slow me down, I determined to complete another hardware hack before bed. I needed to debug why the new water-butt wasn’t filling from the old down-pipe bypass system which had worked faultlessly for a couple of years. I’d had a cunning theory that as the new butt was taller than the old one (“I like big butts and I cannot lie”,) there was insufficient height differential for the water to overcome the bypass system. It had worked, I implemented the butt upgrade and then it didn’t work. It had to be that, NOTHING ELSE HAD CHANGED. I have worked in Information Systems for over 30 years and this thought actually went through my head. I ‘wrote a test’ (disconnected the pipe and put it over a bucket, as low as it would reach.) The test still failed.
I disassembled the water trap and identified the problem. I’m a trained engineer so please excuse any technical jargon: the pipe to the water butt was blocked by a big lump of slimy gubbins. I poked it out with my finger ‘because Real Man’. OK, I didn’t realise what it was in time.
I’ve worked on software like that too. At least, this time, I get free water from the sky to wash away my impure thoughts.