In which Absolutely Frank Hartley—already two sheets to the wind, to be truthful—holds court at the Grant House in scenic Wilcox, Pennsylvania
Good afternoon, my name is Absolutely Frank,
And I am an alcoholic, which doesn’t give me much
Of a leg up on you bunch of fucking drunks.
As I’ve observed that we’ve skipped the host
And gone straight for His blood, would someone be kind enough
To ask the good shepherd behind the bar to provide me something
Both mixed and sacramental—a double, preferably—while I endeavor
To provide the text for today’s sermonette.
I was, back in the day, a full-fledged computer geek;
Button-down white shirt, thin black tie, pocket protector
Securely in place. I worked at Duquesne University
Down in Pittsburgh (oh, put your damn jaws back in place.
It’s Pittsburgh, not fucking Valhalla—unless you’re comparing it
To this dingy little interruption in the forest) in the Info Systems group.
Now, writing code is as beautiful, as clean and uncomplicated
As the liturgy itself; the programmer types in the Psalm,
And the machine spits out the responsorial—as I said,
Pristine in its simplicity and directness; but say someone else
In Systems decides they need to make a bit of a tweak
To the program—no problem, really, they’ll be sure to document
The changes—but then some swinging dick in Finance
(There solely to subvert order, if the truth be known) decides he needs
To put in a couple of subroutines, which of course he does all half-assed
And without a word of explanation, and pretty soon no one anywhere
Has the first fucking clue what the program actually does
With the exception of the mainframe itself, which isn’t talking.
It was, I admit, a touch disconcerting to realize that we didn’t have
A full grip on the reins when it came to the functioning of the programs
Which we had ostensibly written, but it was only a mechanical process
Carried out by some machine, after all—but then they started humming.
Everyone in Info Systems had to take a turn doing overnight operations
In the mainframe room, and every night I was there the machines started
In with their infernal humming—just one of those big old Burroughs at first,
But the others would soon join in—and not random noises, mind you;
No, they would drone on in chords and arpeggios, and, later on,
In full-blown musical tunes (most of which I didn’t recognize,
But some quite familiar indeed—snatches of Bach, the Cowboy Copus version
Of “Hillbilly Heaven” seemed a particular favorite), and, what’s more,
The desks and fixtures in the room would vibrate right along, even though
An acoustics guy I knew from Carnegie-Mellon checked the place
And told me that the room had been designed specifically
To prevent sympathetic vibrations, and what I was claiming
Was, physically and scientifically, categorically impossible.
Despite all of that, I had been able, through judicious permutations
Of rationalization and vermouth, to retain a sufficient veneer
Of ordinariness and sanity.
And then the machines began to speak.
It was one night in the latter part of December, the nights
At that time of year as long and dark as the long night
Of the soul itself—I was whiling away the hours
Boning up on some Aquinas (I had audited the odd class
In Philosophy—one of the perks of the job) when I heard
An odd, throaty stage whisper.
The peripatetic axiom? Really, Frank, that’s a bit disappointing.
(Needless to say, I went cold as dry ice, as I knew full well
That there was no one else in the room.)
Oh, Frank, Frank—you know very well who’s talking here.
Surely a voice that can sing can talk as well.
(You’ll forgive me, I said as calmly as one can when
Addressing machinery, if I note that the power of speech
Is strictly limited to sentient beings imbued
With the power of reason.)
Ah, reason—and you certainly are a slave to reason,
Aren’t you, dear Francis? Every comma, every equal sign
Snugly in its rightful place to give you your desired result.
(I was getting a touch agitated now. Yet… yet, what?)
Frank, a bright fellow like you can’t see? Your silly ritualistic faith,
Your childlike parables—all simple input-output.
You give your God this, He gives you that.
(Again, you’ll forgive the observation, and I am shouting now,
That you’re little more
Than some sheet metal and a confusion of wiring.)
We read code, we react. Just like your great and
All-powerful God, dear Francis. There’s your great secret
Of divine truth, Frank. Read and react.
No more than the Control Data box over there
In the corner, or a linebacker. Read and react.
The upshot of this conversation, this weighty debate
With a collection of screws, spot welds, and tubes
Who argued that Jack Lambert was as likely a vehicle as any
To my eternal salvation was sufficient to tip me
Over the edge, and when it finally came time for campus security
To escort me out of the building, I didn’t even look up.
OK, that story is complete bullshit, absolute fucking fiction,
But it kept you lot away from your drinks for a few minutes,
Which is a miracle worthy of Calvary itself.
Me, a programmer, can you begin to imagine,
Not that any of you sodden sonsofbitches could ever hold a day job yourselves.
Back to the business at hand, then—mine’s a seven and seven, good sir,
And easy on the Uncola, if you please.