The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Mar 7, 2009


Around 1991 or thereabouts, a massive new building came up in the IISc campus, and there was widespread anticipation among us computer geeks about the impending arrival of a Cray supercomputer. The Cray was to be housed in the building, which was named the Supercomputer Education and Research Centre.

A few months later, the anticipation was ground underfoot when it became apparent that the Americans were putting all sorts of conditions on the sale of the Cray. The powers-that-be then decided that the money would be better spent on buying a bunch of Silicon Graphics and Sun Solaris workstations and CDC and VAX mainframes, arrange them as a distributed computing network, and wire up the campus so that all departments would be able to avail of the power of SERC. When we heard of the two American engineers who were reputed to be always on site at the Cray installation in the Meteorological centre in Delhi to vet any applications that might be run on it (in case they were simulations for a missile nose-cone, say, or a fighter wing), we flattered ourselves that we were well out of all that needless headache.

When the centre opened, certain ground rules were quickly established. General users were to restrict themselves to the monochrome VT100 terminals. These could only display characters in columns of 132 or 80. Not the fanciest gadgets, then. The graphics workstations were open to all, but if molecular biologists or physicists wanted them, people from other departments had to relinquish their place. This was because some high-falutin' modelling software that these worthies used was available only on the IRIS powerhorses. When engineering majors started doing Computer Graphics, of course, they insinuated themselves into the second line of priority behind the molecbios and the phizzes. But soon thereafter all the casual visitor saw in the workstation lab was geeky attempts at landing jumbo jets at various airports using the fancy flight simulator packages installed on the machines.

Another ground rule was to conserve printing paper. There were heavy duty line-printers chugging away at all hours of day and night, spewing outputs for intricate models. Each sheet of paper, we were told, cost 25 paise, so it was not too difficult to estimate that a few lakhs worth of paper was being used up on a monthly basis. Much of the output, it was clear, was white space because the programmers hadn't bothered to print laterally. Instead, there would be a column of numbers about 8 digits wide on the left margin - perhaps 60 or 70 numbers per sheet - and a large expanse of nothingness to right of each sheet. Many sheets were not even picked up from the printer, so the SERC big-wigs organised shelves by department, and arranged for a minion (or a research assistant) to collate the outputs and place them into the appropriate pigeonholes. Still, one found that many printouts remained abandoned. About this time, some stingy students decided that they could save big bucks by not buying notebooks, and using the line-printer sheets instead. They lovingly bound them up into scrapbooks, and toted them around proudly.

The more corrupt among the students would write dummy programs that would print white space - several pages of it - and take away the resulting output for use as notepaper. They didn't want to appear dishonest by opening up the printers and stealing paper directly, so they consoled themselves with the thought that they were only taking their own (blank) printouts with them.

Meanwhile, some students became system administrators of the CD4360 machines. These were the general purpose mainframes with VT100 terminals connected up to them from all over campus. Hack, that great (and possibly unsurpassed) precursor of role-playing computer games, became a campus addiction. Some sys-admin students, in an afflatus of authority, would decide that too many games sessions were going on in the mainframe and - without warning to the legitimate users - reboot it. I lost several running sessions of simulations in this manner, much to my fury.

It has been wisely observed that the smaller a person's authority over another, the more likely he is to abuse it. (If the observation has not been made, I'd like to stake claim to it.) The student sys-admins were one exemplar of this adage. The security guards at SERC were another.

For some reason, when entering SERC, we were all expected to go through a metal detector, sign our names at the entry roster, show our badges for identify ourselves, and sign out when we left. In no other department building (except possibly the library) on campus were there such controls. Invariably, the guards would refuse to allow in a student who had forgotten his or her badge. Often, the roster was so crammed with students' signatures that it became difficult to locate one's entry in it when one wanted to sign out. This meant that dozens of students would be milling about the security desk trying to sign in or out. At meal-times, the problem was particularly acute. Did I want to stick around to locate my signature, or did I want to hurry to the mess hall to stuff my face? One day, seeing the crowd at the security desk, I decided to leave without signing out. One of the security guards ran after me. "Hey!" he shouted, "You didn't sign."

"I'm in a hurry," I replied.

Furiously, he stamped the ground.

"You must sign!" he thundered.

"No," I said, and walked away.

Later in the evening, going towards SERC I realised that I had left my badge in my room. Had I continued to the centre, the guard would be sure to remember me from lunchtime and refuse to let me in. So I went back to the room, picked up the badge, and returned to SERC. The guard - the same fellow from before - stuck his hand out to stop me.

"Badge," he said.

I pretended to look for it. A look of triumph spread across his face. Malice followed triumph in quick succession. Just as he was about to throw me out, I plucked my ID card out of my wallet, and, waving it graciously in front of the guard, signed myself in. He choked in baffled fury. I smiled benignly upon the fellow. I patted him on the shoulder.

"Next time lucky, eh?" I said.

Ah, these minor victories. What would life be without them?


Voices said...

Hello Feanor

Greetings from Voices, IISc newsletter. We wish to include your post Sercked in the April 2009 issue of Voices as a Featured Blog post. Can we get your permission to do so?


Voices Team.

Fëanor said...

Voices: sure thing. Go for it. Thanks.

Voices said...

Thanks a lot. Can we have your full name? We suppose you are an alumnus of CSA.

Voices Team.

V Ramesh said...


I liked the comments about printing blank pages and security checks ... so very true couldnt stop laughing at those

very nostalgic

Fëanor said...

Ramesh: yup, painful memories :-)

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