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Messages in Bottles

The moment the UPS guy left and I pulled the KayPro out of the box and turned it on -- this was in the early 80s -- I was hooked. Knowing nothing, I wanted to know everything and so, after a few months, I was poking around in the high memory of WordStar with a hex dump utility that showed me on the right the hexadecimal number of each byte, and on the left the ASCII equivalent if any.

Way, way up in memory, where there seemed to be just gibberish, I was startled to find a message from one of the WordStar programmers: "NOSY ARENT YOU?"

For the 0.01% of users who would decide to page through a hex dump of the product, the programmer had purposefully inserted a personal note.

I don't remember a single line of the WordStar user documentation. I can no longer tell you what was on the on-screen menu staring me in the face for the several years I was a dedicated user. But I remember that one unexpected line clearly.

Why? Because I could see the imprint of the human hand on the product.

Another story. When I worked at Interleaf, FrameMaker was the upstart company that started to eat our lunch. We hated Frame and Frame hated us. But nothing irked me more than the fact that if you typed "interleaf" into a Frame document, their spellchecker would flag it ... and suggest "FrameMaker" as its replacement! Damn, I wish I'd thought of that. A little hostile, funny humanity was poking through.

A friend working in the technical documentation area told me recently that at a major aircraft engine manufacturer, there are pointed little jokes buried in the technical documentation - buried so deep that they made it through the QA process unnoticed.

Likewise, in a many products, if you know the secret incantation you can find a message from the developers. These "easter eggs" started as a way for developers to put a bit of themselves into a product, although these day they are not an assertion of individuality so much as a marketing requirement.

Humor is an act of human voice, an assertion of individuality in a managed, professional environment. It speaks clearly through the bland, efficient product that aims at meeting our requirements and nothing more. Behind every wooden paragraph and every beige, calibrated product are human hands and hearts.

And if a morsel of human contact buried in the op codes of WordStar stirs us, imagine what a business could do if it put human contact at the forefont of their business, rather than forcing its workers to throw bottles into the ocean in order to connect.

You can find a list of Easter Eggs at http://www.eeggs.com

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