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Frodo as a Hacker

2006 intro

This is some­thing I wrote in 2002. I wrote it most­ly be­cause of a shame­ful­ly late read­ing of Lord Of The Rings, but at least I did it be­fore the movie!

Lat­er that year, I read Crypto­nomi­con, and I found out Neal Stephen­son com­plete­ly dis­agrees with me. Which prob­a­bly means you should lis­ten to Neal Stephen­son's the­o­ry that hack­ers are dwarves.

How­ev­er, just be­cause I am a shame­less nerd, here is, in all it's geek­i­tude, my es­say about hack­ing and Lord Of The Rings, res­cued from its de­served ob­scu­ri­ty for a few min­utes, with some ex­tra foot­notes.

You can read the span­ish ver­sion, too.

This is a first draft, it will prob­a­bly change a lot in the next few days/week­s/years [1]

The idea I want to ex­am­ine is the con­nec­tion be­tween what a sys­tem ad­min­is­tra­tor or pro­gram­mer ( from now on "hack­er" ) ex­pe­ri­ences and lit­er­a­ture about mag­ic and sor­cery, and try to fig­ure out if there lies the cause of the fas­ci­na­tion hack­ers of­ten feel for such book­s/­movies/games.

The ob­vi­ous par­alel­lis­m; there is a di­rect cor­re­la­tion be­tween know­ing what this does:

du -s `grep $USER /etc/passwd | cut -d: -f6`

and know­ing that if you in­tone cer­tain words in a cer­tain man­ner at mid­night with a full moon your en­e­mies will turn in­to hairy frogs [2]

The ob­vi­ous flaw in that par­alel­lism is that the hack­er ver­sion work­s.

Of course I ob­vi­ate some de­tail­s, like the to­tal lack of a su­per­nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ent on a hack­ish in­can­ta­tion, but that's not an is­sue here.

Any suf­fi­cient­ly ad­vanced tech­nol­o­gy is in­dis­tin­guish­able from mag­ic, right? That Arthur Clarke quote is usu­al­ly ap­plied in fu­tur­is­tic con­texts to ex­plain the use of things like nan­otech­nol­o­gy in the repli­ca­tion at a dis­tance of hu­man be­ings.

But a more earthly use is that for 99.99% of the people, our current technology is undistinguishable from magic already. That du -s `grep $$US­ER /etc/­pass­wd | cut -d: -f6` gives a number that has a specific meaning is, literally, magic.

I think that's so, be­cause most peo­ple are used to think that way all the time. For most, the world runs on mag­ic.

How else can the av­er­age per­son de­scribe a word pro­ces­sor? Or a fax ma­chine?

What word, oth­er than mag­ic, can de­scribe their blind faith that a phe­nom­e­non they don't un­der­stand will hap­pen ev­ery time it's nec­es­sary so that an ob­ject they don't un­der­stand will per­form the func­tion they dic­tate?

The dif­fer­ence be­tween be­liev­ing in the fax and be­liev­ing on the heal­ing through faith is sim­ply the re­li­a­bil­i­ty of the fax.

There­fore, if we con­sid­er mag­ic to be a nat­u­ral mech­a­nis­m, self­-­con­sis­ten­t, to which we have ac­cess, but many don't un­der­stand due to ig­no­rance of the pro­cess, the dif­fer­ence be­tween mag­ic and hack­ing dis­ap­pear.

So, we have two ob­jects to com­pare:

  • Hack­­ing in re­al life

  • Mag­ic in The Lord Of The Rings

My the­o­ry is that in­ter­nal­ly, ev­ery hack­er iden­ti­fies with a char­ac­ter, which makes him like the book.


Gan­dalf is a pow­er­ful wiz­ard. He seems to have had to work to have his mag­ic. He is wise. He is a very weird per­son.

I sus­pect Gan­dalf ap­peals to some hack­er ide­al. Hack­ers ex­pect that when they grow old­er (say, about my age), their ex­pe­ri­ence will al­low them to watch things from an olympic height, and help the peas­ants on­ly when they get in re­al trou­ble, and avoid the dai­ly toil.

Gan­dalf is a man­ag­ing hack­er. Maybe a con­sul­tan­t.


Elves pos­sess vast amounts of mag­ic skil­l, but I don't think this is con­scious on their part, but it's just how elves are. Does­n't Gal­adriel say she does­n; t know what mag­ic is?

I ex­pect that when Gal­adriel bakes lem­bas, she is mak­ing bis­cuits us­ing her granny's recipe. If I do that, I get bis­cuit­s. She gets lem­bas be­cause she's a frig­ging elf-queen.

Elves ap­peal to the hack­er that be­lieves he has an in­nate gift, those who be­lieve the world is di­vid­ed in­to hack­ers and non-hack­ers and the bor­der is very hard to cross.

So, if your favourite char­ac­ter is an elf, you are prob­a­bly an an­noy­ing elit­ist. You prob­a­bly us­ing num­bers in­stead of let­ter­s, and ar­bi­trar­i­ly try to use k and x in­stead of oth­er let­ters be­cause it makes the words look cool­er.

How­ev­er, you will prob­a­bly get over it. As soon as you screw up enough times, you will be­come more hum­ble. So, this cat­e­go­ry prob­a­bly in­cludes elit­ists and kid­s.


They are a pe­cu­liar breed. Chub­by. Hairy feet. Like to eat. Sleep a lot. If Gan­dalf ap­peals to what hack­ers hope to be, Hob­bits ap­peal to what many of the hack­ers I know ac­tu­al­ly are.

Let's be hon­est: be­ing a hack­er im­plies you are rather seden­tary, at least part­ly.

I al­ways say a good hack­er has to be lazy (of course Lar­ry Wall said it first). You do a lit­tle work so you don; t do a lot of work lat­er.

The hairy feet are ge­net­ic.

Al­though I don't re­call any men­tions of great hob­bit spell­s, there is one about the Shire be­ing pro­tect­ed by a pow­er­ful mag­ic.

I think it's just that be­cause they are the way they are, they have the pow­er to keep the place nice, neat and or­ga­nized.

How else can you de­scribe a good hack­er? For my taste, a good hack­er stays in his lair (although usu­al­ly they don; t have round doors) mind­ing his own busi­ness, and you don't need to call him be­cause he al­ready, by be­ing how he is, kept things nice, neat, and clean.

Nice, re­laxed peo­ple.

Peo­ple that keeps the shire pret­ty with­out run­ning around, at ease in their of­fice, hav­ing three break­fasts a day.

Back in 2006

As you can see, I did­n't say a sin­gle thing about dwarves. Neal Stephen­son's the­o­ry is that hack­ers are like dwarves be­cause they work in the dark­ness of their caves pro­duc­ing daz­zling goods that are rarely ap­pre­ci­at­ed by the oth­er races.


Perry / 2007-11-14 18:57:

Awesome article! This really shows a different side to you and I'm glad I found this blog through Reddit. It's amazing that you have been writing for 7 years, so I'm sure I'll have plenty of dazzling nuggets that are rarely appreciated, to sift through.

Roberto Alsina / 2007-11-14 21:15:

Hey, I am only a part-time annoying guy ;-)

employment background check / 2011-12-27 23:22:

Hi very nice article

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