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10:06am on Saturday, 1st January, 2011:



The number 2011 has special significance to a group of old-time programmers at the University of Essex.

The DECsystem-10 mainframe we used had a TOPS-10 operating system. The way that individual user accounts were identified was by project-programmer number, or PPn. This consisted of two 18-bit half-words in octal, separated by a comma and put in square brackets. Although in theory this meant PPns could go from [0,0] to [777777,777777], on our system we didn't need the full range of numbers so the administrators went with just four numbers either half.

The first number was the project number, and was used to group accounts working on the same project. "Project" was a broad term, though: all first-year Computer Science students has a project number of 4011, for example; all PhD students had one of 2600. 4015 was for Luser numbers — numbers given to students who needed more computer time to finish their assignment and had a vaguely plausible explanation as to why they had run out against their will.

2011 was the project number of the Computer Society.

The programmer number was your number within the group. If you had two PPns, in theory you should have the same programmer number for each, because it was supposed to be unique to you; in practice, this was rarely the case because a) people only normally had one PPn anyway, and b) when they did get a second one it was usually from a pool and was shared with someone else. Sometimes it was possible, though: when I was a PhD student, my PPn was [2600,2653] and my Computer Society PPn was [2011,2653] — the MUD development account (the MUD live account was [2011,2776] — a special number called COMPSOC 2, which allowed multiple people to log onto it at the same time. Most PPns only let one person log onto them at the same time, but this one had the right privilege bit set). The reason I wanted the same programmer number was that all accounts with the same programmer number had full write privileges on each other. If anything went wrong with MUD, I could fix it from my academic PPn. Also, CompSoc numbers could not be logged in on during prime time, so if I wanted to edit MUD during the day then I could use my academic account to do it (PhD students had 7 hours a week, and when I was reading papers rather than programming I didn't need that much for actual work).

Aside: this is also the reason why the administrators did not want people to have the same programmer numbers — so they couldn't use accounts granted for one purpose for some other purpose. It would have been unfair if Computer Society members could use their [2011,*] numbers to do academic work on if other students, without those numbers, were stuck with limited resources. For our final year, we had a whopping 240 minutes a week of connect time, which meant we could sit at a computer terminal for four hours in total before we ran out. This meant that most of our programming was done on paper listings, rather than in a test/edit cycle. You certainly pay more attention to the accuracy of your code if you only have a few minutes to make changes, recompile and rerun it...

Anyway, as well as programmer numbers, the project numbers were also significant. If you had a programmer number the same as a project number, then you had write privileges over all accounts in that project. This meant that [2011,2011] (pronounced "two oh one one squared", and also known as COMPSOC 1) was the master account for all Computer Society users. We could look in other people's directories and see if they were doing academic work on their CompSoc account (which was prohibited and resulted in an immediate ban, no-comeback deletion of the files in question, and permanent exclusion from CompSoc; the reason for this was because if the administrators found out before we did, we'd all lose our CompSoc accounts).

This is why anyone who was an active member of Essex University Computer Society back in the late 1970s to early 1980s will recognise with fondness the number 2011, and why, to this day, whenever I see it I read it as "two oh one one" rather than "two thousand and eleven" or "twenty eleven".

Maybe this coming year will finally get that out of my system.

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Copyright © 2011 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).