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November 25, 2013

Crunching Software, Hidden Writer

Unlike many other members of my family, I am a bit of an enigma. Easy identification comes with fame or recognition, and I have little of either. Most of my writing has been unattributed (software manuals and journalism) or under various pen names.

In the software industry, technical writers are not encouraged to sign their work. This bothers me. I am proud of the manuals and other materials that I produced and I wanted to be able to prove that they were my work, especially since I had interviewed several people who were obviously incapable of producing the examples that they claimed were their work. So I signed all the books I produced by hiding my name in them somewhere.

The first one I did was an excellent bit of subterfuge back in the early 1990s. I was working for Russell Frye of Frye Computer Systems. Russell was way ahead of the curve when it came to designing outrageously fine diagnostics and controls for networks, but when it came to me putting my name on the manuals I wrote, he stuck with the industry-standard. I never told him what I did so, if he's reading this and never figured it out, sorry Russell.

One of the illustrations in the manual was a list of network user names, The original was a screen shot of the list of users on our own system. We needed to replace those names with fakes.

It was easy to do. I used a graphics editor to write a new list and pasted it over the original. This was my chance to do some tweaking. I couldn't use the initial letters of the names to make an acrostic since they needed to look as if they had been sorted alphanumerically. So I had the bright idea of using the final letters instead. Since the user names were different lengths, making for a ragged right margin, and often appeared truncated, it was easy for others to miss my little personalization.

Reading downward the last letters spelled out "dlettvinmadethis."

Nobody knew it was there except me, and it would provide embedded proof that I was the author if I ever needed it.

I'm not the only one who has played around with manuals. One of my favorites was an old Mac manual the title of which I can no longer remember. I was reading it back in about 1990 when I was editing a tech support magazine for North Edge (later Timeslips) Software.

There was this one paragraph that kept bothering me. There was something about it that had my J. Jonah Jameson senses tingling. I read it a couple of times before it suddenly fell into place.

I re-typed the text block, breaking lines at the rhyme words, to reveal a hidden but perfectly written Shakespearean sonnet. It was in modern English, and the information was clear, but it was obvious that some poor schmuck had reached a limit and decided to have some fun.

I wish I could remember the name and version of the software. I would dearly like to try to track down the author to tell him or her how much I appreciated their little Easter egg.