Not long ago, Simon Travaglia was a lowly system operator for Waikato University in Hamilton, New Zealand. The job had some moments of what he called "sheer, mindnumbing boredom." During those times, he took to writing facetious messages to Internet newsgroups ("The best response was from alt.aquariums when I asked why my angel fish got really active when I cranked the heat up on the thermostat, and suggested that maybe I'd discovered a way to 'exercise' fish to keep them healthy," he writes by e-mail).
From one of these long runs of boredom came Bastard Operator From Hell , a series of stories that have taken on mythic proportions in the networked age. BOFH is the diary of a crazed angry system operator, someone who helps oversee a college's mainframe, who takes delight in torturing his users:
So I fill in a couple of hours by killing users off and deleting their files, then waiting for them to call."
"Um, I can't find my files," the whimpering simp on the phone says.
"Files? What files?"
"The files in my account. My thesis, my research - all gone!"
"Gone, eh? What's your username?"
"TROJAN?! LIKE THE CONDOM?"
"No, TURGEN. T-U-R."
"Oh, Turgen, like TURD, but with a GEN instead of a D. . . Okay, let's see. . . uh-huh. . .yeah. . .AH!. . .You haven't got any files."
"Well, what are you calling ME for? We don't make the files, you know. We just look after them. And chopity-chop, too. Your thesis looks like it's due in a couple of days."
It's not hard to see the sublimation at work here. Some disgruntled workers go on shooting sprees; others just write it out of their system. Travaglia says he doesn't remember exactly when he starting writing BOFH - sometime between 1989 and 1991 is as close as he can get - but he does remember being surprised by the reaction to the stories. After posting them to a newsgroup, he got a trickle of responses, then a few more - then a lot more. In the best Internet fashion, BOFH took on a life of its own. Travaglia did no promotion beyond grudgingly placing old episodes on an FTP site, and later on a Web site.
These days, what with most companies having some sort of networked computing, Travaglia's Bastard ranks with the likes of Scott Adams' Dilbert as an unlikely hero of the digital age. By his own estimation, Travaglia has received "way over a thousand" pieces of e-mail about his little project. "At the peak, I was getting 60 messages a day," he tells me by e-mail. "So now it's calmed down. I get about 10 or so a week."
Take a gander around the system-administration newsgroups, and you'll find that some sysops worldwide add the initials BOFH to the end of their names, like some sort of doctoral title. BOFH even has its own newsgroups, bofh.general. One system administrator told me, "The BOFH stories are so good because there are lots of times that you wish that you could do what Simon does to his users."So, system operators think us everyday computer users are annoying?
The Bastard Operator From Hell series reveals just what sysops think about those of us who couldn't tell Lynx from Linux. BOFH is a good gauge of some of sysop's more hostile feelings. Behind our backs, we learn, they call us "lusers," an amalgam of "loser" and "user." Ouch. And it's not just name-calling; there's also the bad advice. The Bastard instructs the ignorant to hold their floppy disks over their head when walking outside because the "magnetic field is particularly strong today." He tells others to wrap floppies in a pillowcase filled with magnets to prevent damage from "solar flares." The Bastard even tells his own mother that to fix a failing floppy disk, she should "clean that brown stuff off the inside of the disk" with nail-polish remover.
"Longtime systems operators all forget what it's like when we started in computing," Travaglia says, "but when every single day you get the same questions, it gets a little annoying. Probably even worse is when you get the users who will demand attention because whatever they've done isn't their fault, and they believe the computer's just out to get them.
"In that case, you really don't want to disappoint them."
Disclaimer: Do not clean your disks with nail-polish remover or put them in a pillowcase with magnets. This is not good for the disks. However, if you're dumb enough to walk around with floppy disks over your head, I won't stop you