Mel's Loop - A Comprenesive Companion to the Story of Mel
May 21, 2022 9:56 PM   Subscribe

Mel's Loop - A Comprenesive Companion to the Story of Mel
TL;DR: On this date 39 years ago The Story of Mel was published on Usenet by its author. Today, we launch Mel’s Loop project (https://melsloop.com), with some fascinating details about the epic hacker folklore tale, its characters' biographies and origins!

Today we celebrate the 39th anniversary of the first publication of The Story of Mel by Ed Nather. The Story of Mel was written as a memoir about the era of early computing of the late 1950s, creating a fresh memory of the days when Hackership was first forged. It continued to live through the years as an epic hacker folklore.

Little is known about the origins of The Story of Mel, its characters, and technical aspects. Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time researching the story. As I interviewed people who were related to it, I discovered some interesting details about the life and origins of Mel, Ed, and their stories, as well as the company where it all happened, and developed a deep perspective of Mel’s famous hack.
To celebrate this research, we launch today a new project: Mel’s Loop, which includes an annotated version of the story, along with articles and other materials that are soon to be added to this web companion – related to The Story of Mel, and to the Hacker Folklore genre in general.

During my research I was privileged to publish the translation of The Story of Mel into Hebrew, in an actual literary publication of a print literary periodical, last year. The Hebrew translation, together with Hebrew and English annotations, are now available on the Mel’s Loop website. I believe this is the first translation of the story, and hope the project will attract more translators of other languages.

That’s it for now. More to come, promise.

I invite you all to visit the project's. If you want to contribute content, have any question, or anything else – please don’t hesitate to contact me, or follow the project’s Twitter account (https://twitter.com/aboutmelsloop).

To conclude this post, here’s a short excerpt from the initial biography entry for Mel Kaye (or as I later found out, Melvin Kornitzky, may he rest in peace) as it appears in annotation next to Mel’s name, on the project’s website:

Mel Kaye (Melvin Kornitzky, 1931-2018) was born in Brooklyn to a family of Jewish immigrants. During his childhood, the family moved to Los Angeles. In the Summer of 1956, Mel joined the commercial department of Librascope, a technology division within General Precision, which held government and army contracts. Mel worked as an Application Engineer in the Commercial Development department at the company's new and fancy Building 3 in Glendale, California. He also provided support to the company's clients on the LGP-30. Within a month from his hiring date, Mel was transferred, along with a few other engineers, to Royal-McBee, a business partner of General Precision that had taken the task of marketing and selling the LGP-30. During his time in Royal-McBee, Mel wrote a Blackjack game that ran on the LGP-30, which soon became the flagship demo program for the new machine and was widely used by the company.

When the RPC-4000 was launched, Mel re-wrote (or 'ported') the Blackjack program to be compatible with the RPC-4000, for which he also wrote parts of the Assembly. As we know from The Story of Mel, Mel also helped Ed Nather with the task of writing a Fortran Compiler to that machine. Due to some differences of opinion with the company's management, Mel left Royal-McBee in the early 1960s. Some relics remained of his work, including a few hand-written code sheets and a usage guide to the Blackjack program for the RPC-4000.
Role: Researcher, Translator, Developer
posted by lipsum (6 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

Tiny correction: Since it took some time to approve this post, then it should be made clear that "On this date" means May 21st 2022 :)
posted by lipsum at 10:25 PM on May 21


This is amazing, thank you!
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 1:13 AM on May 22 [1 favorite]


Neat!

It's odd how much of the back story and possibly the original article source is lost (especially since esr got his mitts on it in the early 1990s) and possibly doesn't add up. I have the entire UTZOO usenet archive (as far as I can tell), and Ed Nather's original isn't in it. It was supposedly written as a response to Ed Post's "Real Programmers Don't Use Pascal", but the pub date of Mel is some months before Post's response.

I'd forgotten the bit about "... you'd have to use separate constants". In some languages such as early versions of FORTRAN, the unwitting programmer could accidentally assign different values to constants, so 1 = 2.
posted by scruss at 12:37 PM on May 22 [1 favorite]


Thanks for you reply @scruss!

That's really interesting what you're saying about not being able to locale Ed Nather's original post.

I did come across a version of "Real Programmers Don't use Pascal" from 1982. Also, it was re-published a year later, as you said - some months of the The Story of Mel was published, as a letter to the Editor in Datamation magazine. I believe the original post of Ed Post's "Real Programmers Don't Use Pascal" was in Usenet as well, and it's worth searching, but fact is that it was published circa 1982 (probably circulated until Ed Nather found it, read it, and decided to write a reply).

Regarding the separate constants - Super interesting, thanks. We're working on an article for the project which explains Mel's hack and the misconceptions around it, and under which conditions it would've been possible.

Can you please explain what you meant in writing "esr got his mitts on it in the early 1990"? Not sure I got it :)
posted by lipsum at 9:33 PM on May 22


esr = Eric Raymond, self-appointed/aggrandizing Keeper of Hacker Lore and deeply problematic person
posted by scruss at 7:49 AM on May 23 [1 favorite]


In some languages such as early versions of FORTRAN, the unwitting programmer could accidentally assign different values to constants, so 1 = 2.

I once participated in a Workday implementation. Many of Workday's features rely heavily on what it calls "calculated fields," which in many cases really are fields calculated from values in other data objects.

Constants are also considered calculated fields, and Workday does not seem to come, by default, with a set of constants with common numeric values, so users sometimes create (or modify!) them ad hoc.

I once spent ages debugging a malfunctioning calculation only to discover that the constant named "8" had the value 13 because a user had modified it.

Plus ça change.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:11 PM on May 25 [1 favorite]


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