Volume 29 Number 8
Editor's Note : Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Bloom County
Michael Desmond | August 2014
In my March column I wrote about the valuable lessons that the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes has to offer working developers (msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/dn605870). But Bill Watterson’s tale of a 6-year-old boy and his imaginary tiger isn’t the only font of funny-page wisdom, and I soon came to appreciate the technical insights of another of my all-time favorite comic strips—Berkely Breathed’s 1980s-era comic, Bloom County.
Bloom County hasn’t aged nearly as well as Calvin and Hobbes. Breathed’s comic strip bent to the political and was steeped in the issues of the day, replete with cracks about the Cold War, Abscam and Gary Hart. And where Calvin and Hobbes was both genuine and whimsical in its keenly observational way, Bloom County embraced the absurd. Talking penguins and schoolboy journalists rubbed elbows with gin-soaked senators and whatever monster wandered out of Binkley’s bedroom closet of anxieties each night. And don’t even get me started on Bill the Cat.
Bloom County at times played out like an absurdist’s fever dream, and its depiction of humor around computers and technology was often unsubtle. Still, beyond the hackneyed cracks about sentient computers and jabs at Apple, there were moments of insight. Most of these came courtesy of the character Oliver Wendell Jones, a 10-year-old boy who is a gifted programmer and inventor. Like Calvin, whose struggles with his Transmogrifier and other inventions shed light on good development practices, Oliver offers some valuable lessons of his own.
For instance, in one strip Oliver predicted the unintentional hilarity of machine translation, when he hacked into the publishing system of Pravda, the leading state-run newspaper of the Soviet Union. Hoping to spark a peace movement, Oliver and his friend Milo changed the day’s Pravda headline to read, “Gorbachev Urges Disarmament: Total! Unilateral!” Alas, Oliver’s translation in Russian actually read, “Gorbachev Sings Tractors: Turnip! Buttocks!”
My guess is that Oliver today works on the team at Google Translate. But his experience illuminates a legitimate point: Localization is hard. The language needs to be right, program interfaces must respect cultural expectations, and the entire package has to transition efficiently across geographies to contain cost and speed delivery.
But Oliver’s enduring message to the development community is all about security—or the general lack of it in corporate and government computer systems. When Oliver broke into the Bell Telephone account system, he illustrated the fundamental weakness—back in 1983—of single-factor authentication. It would seem absurd that a 10-year-old kid could walk into a secured corporate database, but consider the real-life case of a Montreal-area fifth-grader, who pled guilty to three charges stemming from attacks on government and police Web sites and databases in 2012 (bit.ly/1pHK40H).
Breathed’s comic strip even predicted the risk posed by identity theft, when Oliver hacked into the IRS database and deleted all traces of his father from the system, causing him to wink out of existence. As Oliver said at the time, “Even the breathtaking political, philosophical and religious implications of this are dwarfed by the breathtaking implications of explaining this to Mom.”
In fact, the ones who really needed this explained to them were the businesses, governments and financial institutions that, two decades later, would find themselves contending with increasing identity theft.
Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County was very much a product of the 1980s, and its humor and observations reflect the era. Though some of the jokes may not have aged well, the technical lessons taught by young Oliver Wendell Jones certainly have.
Michael Desmond is the Editor-in-Chief of MSDN Magazine.