A Hacker’s Guide to Bending the Universe
If you’re going to conquer the world, you can’t let a broken CRT monitor stand in your way
When it’s functioning properly, a cathode ray tube is an engineering marvel more impressive than the Golden Gate Bridge.
You might have seen a tube in an older TV, but to appreciate it fully is to know what’s happening within. The inside of a cathode ray tube is a near vacuum, a close cousin to outer space. The glass holding it together, shaped like a curious chalice, is strong enough to protect both the entire apparatus from imploding, and viewers from being bombarded with too much radiation. Yes, radiation: it employs a small gun that shoots particles at a very high speed, surrounded by a set of coils controlling their direction. On the other side, a precisely machined mesh gets those particles re-aligned — like a shrunken-down game of skee ball — just before they reach their final destination, coated in phosphor.
And then there are the particles themselves. Discovered as “cathode rays,” they were later renamed “electrolions,” and eventually “electrons.” When the tube is on, they travel by the tens of millions any given second, following a complicated pattern that zigzags from top-left to bottom-right, timed perfectly so that the phosphor coating is hit at the right place and time. The kind of phosphor is chosen precisely, too, staying lit for just the right amount of time until it is bombarded again, and again, and again.
But a human face on the other side of the vacuum, and the gun, and the phosphor, will see none of their precise choreography, and might not even be aware of their existence.
What it will see, instead, is the moving image.
Tubes were used in radar screens during the second of the Wars, and as a curious tuning interface in radios. They also found themselves on the desks of nerds, as oscilloscopes. However, it was the earliest TV sets that propelled cathode ray tubes into omnipresence. The tubes became cheaper. Then brighter. Around the time of The Lone Ranger, the original electron gun was surrounded by two more, each was assigned a color — blue, red, green — and, for the first time, the moving image looked like the world outside. The tubes became bigger. Then flatter. When Seinfeld premiered in the early 1990s, one could purchase a back-breaking 200-pound tube that would happily show George Costanza’s conniptions in glorious forty inches.
And then, right around Grey’s Anatomy, a hundred years after it was created, the tube finally found itself a worthy competitor. LCDs, slow and pale, started as a joke, but eventually they made the tubes look like one. Impossibly thin, impressively light, and soon cheap and big enough, they took over the world’s living rooms, relegating tubes to niche applications and bouts of nostalgia like this one.
But this story takes place earlier, by about fifteen years, around the time of the final seasons of Miami Vice. So, let’s start again:
When it’s functioning properly, a cathode ray tube is an engineering marvel. It’s a piece of science fiction right in your living room. Millions of tubes connected to millions of antennas — also known as Television — must count as one of humanity’s most impactful achievements.
But the cathode ray tube in my room was connected not to an antenna, but to a computer. And it definitely wasn’t functioning properly.
The tube had seen better years. The computer also. It was a hand-me-down from my father’s shipyard office. It was born far away from the state of the art — let alone six years later, destined to be a replacement for my first, now badly aging home computer.
It wasn’t a replacement I wanted, but it was the replacement our family could afford. It was as old as the computer it was relieving of duty. Its yellow case betrayed years of service in rooms patronized by smokers. A dent on its side memorialized a short stint on a factory floor. The hard drive barely functioned; with the weight of thirty-two megabytes on its tired shoulders, it was not much faster than the ancient floppy disks mounted next to it. The computer was just a forgettable, nameless PC clone. It could barely make any sounds and its graphic card, Enhanced Graphic Adapter, was a second-generation relic in a fourth-generation world. The word “enhanced” in its name may have made sense at its introduction in 1984; at the beginning of the next decade, and compared to my friends’ computers, it didn’t seem enhanced at all.
The graphic card was connected to a 14-inch cathode ray tube — the height and width of a modern notebook, but burdened with one additional dimension. The visuals could operate in two modes. In one, the pixels were bigger: 320 of them across, and 200 down. In the other, at 640×350, the pixels were smaller, and the world on the screen presented itself more sharply, and with finer details. Both options were available at any time, and both allowed the software to paint the universe in 16 colors. Compared to other graphic cards, where higher resolution usually came with some restrictions, there were no penalties for using the better mode. Well, almost none: while the electron gun in the tube was fast enough to spit out the smaller pixels at will, the rest of the computer couldn’t always prepare them with required haste.
All of this meant that if you wanted finer, crisper pixels, those pixels could not move very fast. And if you cared for fast, realistic movement, your pixels could not be very small. As a programmer, you had to choose: sharper details, or smoother animations. The software split itself into two camps. Office memos, business charts, and shipyard databases chose the former. Racing cars, space combat, and ancient voyages went for the latter. Business in the front, or party in the back, but nothing in between.
Of course, I cared about one of these much more than the other. My computer always woke up in business mode, with the crisp pixels ready to do more shipyard calculations. I wasted no time switching it to use the bigger, more adventurous pixels. I raced cars in Test Drive, I traveled through the universe in Space Quest, and I explored ancient worlds in Prince of Persia.
Those three games I played time and again. But there was one game that visited my screen constantly. Called Civilization, it put me in charge of a little tribe, six thousand years ago. I could lead and grow that tribe into a modern empire, or stumble upon the way. I loved everything about it. I was magnanimous after school and a tyrant on the weekends. I was a warrior in the morning, and a diplomat in the evening. I led Americans as Lincoln one week, and Russians as Stalin the other. That I was actually learning history — which I hated just earlier the same day, at school — was lost on me. How quickly the game was teaching me English, I understood only decades later.
Even though the action on the screen was never frenetic, the game used fast and fat pixels. The graphics of Civilization weren’t realistic, but as a 15-year old with big imagination, I didn’t need them to be.
But then, one day, right smack in the middle of my multi-decade border war with the Mongolians, I noticed a little protrusion on the screen. It wasn’t there when I started the game, right after school. But by the late evening, it looked as if someone had rolled a small pencil behind the screen. I reached out to touch the protrusion. The tube itself, with its thick glass, was intact. Whatever was happening must have been happening inside it.
As I powered up my computer the next day, the affliction was gone, and so was my memory of it. I didn’t use my computer much that evening — homework! — but I did the next and, eventually, the protrusion came back. It seemed a bit bigger this time, but I couldn’t be sure.
By the end of next week, I was. After just a few hours of play, it seemed like someone was pushing the screen from the inside, stretching it more and more. I could still play Civilization that night, but I was worried.
Digital decay feels very different than analog decay. When something goes wrong with analog audio, it becomes stretched, noisier, or distorted: think of a guitar on overdrive, a vinyl record on a player with a worn-out belt, or an AM radio on a snowy day. But modern, wholly digital devices — like an iPhone — don’t do any of that. When they break, the sound stutters awkwardly or, most commonly, it just stops playing.
It’s similar with visuals. Modern digital graphics fall apart as glitches — blocks of color, contents shifting to another part of the screen, frames freezing. A YouTube video on a shitty wi-fi network. A stuck row of lights on a digital highway sign telling you to be aware of road maintenance. Or Pac-Man’s infamous “kill screen” — garbage, but garbage rendered with the perfect clarity of the sane levels that preceded it.
This is far away from analog visuals: a damaged VHS tape and its uneven lines traveling hesitantly across the screen, a halo surrounding the image when your TV aerial needs adjusting, or the pure static snow of a television channel left to play after hours.
Digital visuals break harshly and abstractly. Malfunctioning analog visuals feel like… nature. Like weather. It might be technology at its most human, betraying that it belongs to the same world we do. When Dave deactivated HAL 9000 at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the haunting rendition of “Daisy Bell,” slower and slower with each passing verse, came from the analog world so that we could relate to it better.
Today’s computers are much more digital, but a quarter of a century ago, my Enhanced Graphic Adapter and the tube attached to it were digital only half of the way. And the protrusion — soon, given its size, a protrusion pro — looked distinctly analog. It had a life of its own. It was slowly changing shape, getting worse the warmer the display was. It didn’t come from the game code itself, from the computer, or from the graphic card. It must have been happening inside the cathode ray tube. Unbeknownst to me, the electron guns, or the coils generating the magnetic field, had been slowly dying. They could no longer sweep the vacuum in a precise manner, sixty times a second, to create an illusion of the moving image.
A month later, what was previously a near-perfect rectangle was distorted so much it started warping onto itself. My Civilization tribes soldiered on, oblivious to the fact they were living in a wormhole right out of Star Trek, but it had become impossible for me to see them. I could power down the computer, wait for the tube to cool down, and for some time everything was okay. But not long after I plugged it back in, I could see the screen change shape again, like a blanket put out to dry outside in the wind. Within three minutes whatever was displayed warped so much it was no longer comprehensible.
The cruel joke? In business mode, the picture was fine. The problem, whatever it was, manifested itself only in casual mode: the mode all the games used. The home computer of a nerdy teenager could still be used do shipyard calculations all day, but I only had three minutes to play.
I don’t know how much time you need to spend to run a shipyard well. But three minutes was not enough to build an entire civilization.
I was heartbroken. Buying a new computer, or even a replacement tube, was out of the question — my family went into debt just to get this one. The old computer was donated to my cousin and besides, its simplistic games were no match for Civilization.
Fixing the tube? I didn’t know how. More importantly, neither did my father. He opened the display once, poked at the naked tube without success, and then spent the remainder of the evening teaching me new words — plasma arcs, implosion, electrocution — to ensure I would not attempt to fix the tube myself.
I didn’t. The only thing I did was to surround the display with all the fans in the house to make it cooler, but that did nothing except angering the rest of my family during that humid 1990s summer.
Every day, my computer would power up in the business graphic mode, taunting me. The entry to the other mode, previously available at will, was now forever locked. I wished I could convince Civilization to run in the business mode. I wouldn’t have cared if the smaller pixels made the game slower; I could be patient if the alternative was nothing at all. But that required touching the game code, the brains of what made it run, and it was so beyond my comprehension that it didn’t even occur to me as an option.
What I needed was a miracle solution that wasn’t a solution at all. And one day, I found it.
We don’t use the term multitasking today, since all computers are powerful enough to do more than one thing at a time. Even the years-old phone you hand to your kids can play music and show directions at the same time.
We didn’t talk much about multitasking then, either, but that was because most computers were so limited it wasn’t even a glimmer in anyone’s eye. Same with my aging PC, allowing just one program at a time. There was one clever exception, though: you could leave a little snippet of code, waiting dormant, to be eventually awoken when something specific happened.
The technology was known, awkwardly, as TSR: Terminate, but Stay Resident. Regular programs were like guests in your home — they came, and they left, one at a time. TSR programs told you “I’m just going to crash on your couch. Wake me up if you need me.”
That the couch might be in the basement, or you might not even be aware of its existence, is another story: the most popular software using TSR was… viruses. The most popular good software was called SideKick, and it was a perfect office companion, a set of pixelated renditions of common desk utilities: a calculator, a calendar, a notepad, an alarm clock. Once you loaded them, they hibernated and waited to spring to life only whenever you pressed both Shift keys together — and disappeared the moment these keys were pressed again.
It was a nice workaround. But to write TSR programs, you needed to descend into the darkest depths of programming, the complex and obscure area known as assembly language. It was the native language of microprocessors. Fortunately, I knew some assembly, and I wrote a tiny program with huge consequences — one that would allow me to again stand in charge of my tribes.
The program was primitive, but effective. It waited for any application to try switching to a low-resolution casual mode… and instead it would toggle it back into business mode, the one my tube still knew how to handle without ripping a hole in the space-time continuum.
My program was, in a way, a virus. Civilization had no idea what it did. The game still operated under the assumption that it had to bring to life a 320×200 screen of big pixels, rather than a 640×350 screen of precise ones.
This seemed like a recipe for a disaster. Imagine plotting driving directions on a map and then taking them and grafting, verbatim, onto a map of a different scale. Follow those directions and the first turn, now disconnected from reality, would land your car in a ditch or a tree.
However, a few things were on my side. The horizontal resolution of the business mode was exactly twice of that of the game mode, both used the same number of colors, and since the pixels were filled from top-left to bottom-right, the end effect was… passable. It looked something like this:
The top-left part of the screen had all of Civilization’s odd lines. The top-right part of the screen had all of the even ones. The rest of the screen was blank. Instead of filling the entire 14" screen, the game now took over only roughly a sixth of it. All of the text — half of the pixels now dispatched to the other side of the display — became impossible to read. It was an abomination.
But, also, it worked. However awful this was, it was much better than three minutes of play a day. My Civilization tribes were smaller and cruder, but our shared rectangle of a universe stood firm. I was once more magnanimous and a tyrant, a warrior and a diplomat, Lincoln and Stalin. I could pretend they just forgot to put on their glasses.
That twenty-five years later I don’t need to wear glasses is a small miracle, given how many months I spent squinting at the upper-left quarter of an already subpar computer monitor. Eventually, I earned enough money to buy myself a fourth-generation graphic card, and a corresponding cathode ray tube — one with a shiny new set of guns that could fire electrons in straight lines.
I must have have played Civilization for a million minutes more than the three I was allowed. But this was not the prize I got from my little TSR program. The true value of it became obvious only later; it was the realization that even though all the “proper” solutions — buying a new tube, fixing it, or not playing — were unavailable, I found one anyway. I rewrote the physics of the universe. It was like cheating, but I wasn’t doing anything wrong. It was intoxicating. This little program must have been my first hack.
Hacks helped me in my future career, where, once in a while, I encounter a similar seemingly un-winnable situation. Working on Google’s homepage, I came up with a little technique I called “Crushinator.” It was awkward, but effective. More recently, I had an audience of 100 people in a movie theatre watch a… Safari browser window. And, working at Medium, I came up with the most ridiculous way of drawing underlines. All of these were similar in nature: something was badly needed, nothing obvious helped and… I took the second mortgage on my soul in order to make it happen.
There’s more to life than hacks, of course. Hacks are seductive, but they need to be exceptions, rather than norm. Many better engineers I’ve worked with taught me the value of hard, methodical work; writing code that’s simple to understand and easy to maintain, be it days or decades later.
But that first little assembly program put in my mind a very powerful notion: that there’s always a way out. Always a solution. That if you care enough, put in enough time, and take ownership of the messy consequences, you can sometimes bend — or, in my case un-bend — the rules of the universe.
And for that realization, to the old cathode ray tube — now decaying in the most analog of ways at some landfill — and the countless civilizations I led to victories and defeats, I will forever be grateful.
Thank you to Robert Kaye and Łukasz Szóstek.