(From A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge.)
Pham Nuwen spent years learning to program/explore. Programming went back to the beginning of time. It was a little like the midden out back of his father’s castle. Where the creek had worn that away, ten meters down, there were the crumpled hulks of machines—flying machines, the peasants said—from the great days of Canberra’s original colonial era. But the castle midden was clean and fresh compared to what lay within the Reprise’s local net. There were programs here that had been written five thousand years ago, before Humankind ever left Earth. The wonder of it—the horror of it, Sura said—was that unlike the useless wrecks of Canberra’s past, these programs still worked! And via a million million circuitous threads of inheritance, many of the oldest programs still ran in the bowels of the Qeng Ho system. Take the Traders’ method of timekeeping. The frame corrections were incredibly complex—and down at the very bottom of it was a little program that ran a counter. Second by second, the Qeng Ho counted from the instant that a human had first set foot on Old Earth’s moon. But if you looked at it still more closely. . .the starting instant was actually some hundred million seconds later, the 0-second of one of Humankind’s first computer operating systems.
So behind all the top-level interfaces was layer under layer of support. Some of that software had been designed for wildly different situations. Every so often, the inconsistencies caused fatal accidents. Despite the romance of spaceflight, the most common accidents were simply caused by ancient, misused programs finally getting their revenge.
“We should rewrite it all,” said Pham.
“It’s been done,” said Sura, not looking up. She was preparing to go off-Watch, and had spent the last four days trying to root a problem out of the coldsleep automation.
“It’s been tried,” corrected Bret, just back from the freezers. “But even the top levels of fleet system code are enormous. You and a thousand of your friends would have to work for a century or so to reproduce it.” Trinli grinned evilly. “And guess what—even if you did, by the time you finished, you’d have your own set of inconsistencies. And you still wouldn’t be consistent with all the applications that might be needed now and then.”
Sura gave up on her debugging for the moment. “The word for all this is ‘mature programming environment.’ Basically, when hardware performance has been pushed to its final limit, and programmers have had several centuries to code, you reach a point where there is far more signicant code than can be rationalized. The best you can do is understand the overall layering, and know how to search for the oddball tool that may come in handy—take the situation I have here.” She waved at the dependency chart she had been working on. “We are low on working fluid for the coffins. Like a million other things, there was none for sale on dear old Canberra. Well, the obvious thing is to move the coffins near the aft hull, and cool by direct radiation. We don’t have the proper equipment to support this—so lately, I’ve been doing my share of archeology. It seems that five hundred years ago, a similar thing happened after an in-system war at Torma. They hacked together a temperature maintenance package that is precisely what we need.”