Terry Pratchett lives on in the wires and how to see it for yourself

By Grant Jacobs 18/03/2015

Many readers will know the wonderful satirical writer Terry Pratchett passed away last week. I’ve just learnt from the Guardian newspaper of a rather sweet—and very geeky—memorial:

Pratchett’s 33rd Discworld novel, Going Postal, tells of the creation of an internet-like system of communication towers called “the clacks”. When John Dearheart, the son of its inventor, is murdered, a piece of code is written called “GNU John Dearheart” to echo his name up and down the lines. “G” means that the message must be passed on, “N” means “not logged”, and “U” means the message should be turned around at the end of a line. (This was also a realworld tech joke: GNU is an open-source operating system, and its name stands, with recursive geek humour, for “GNU’s not Unix”.) The code causes Dearheart’s name to be repeated indefinitely throughout the system, because: “A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.”

What better way to remember the beloved inventor of this fictional system, then, than “GNU Terry Pratchett”? Reddit users have designed a code that anyone with basic webcoding knowledge can embed into their own websites(anyone without basic webcoding knowledge can use the plugins for WordPress and other platforms). The code is called the XClacksOverhead, and it sets a header reading “GNU Terry Pratchett”. “If you had to be dead,” thinks a character in Going Postal, “it seemed a lot better to spend your time flying between the towers than lying underground.” And so Pratchett is, in a way.

Here’s how Apple Mac users can see it for themselves. Basically we want to show the HTTP header contents for the webpage.

Open Terminal – this application lives in the Applications > Utilities folder.

Copy this text and paste it in:

curl -I http://www.theguardian.com/uk

(You can replace the ‘uk’ with ‘au’ for Australia if you’re so inclined.)

Press return to have the command executed. You should see this output:

PNG Terry Prachett 600px

Any web server administrator could have the web server generate this message. In principle we could get the sciblogs developers to add it.*


* As there may be money involved, that’s unlikely I suspect.

Other articles on Code for life:

Teaching kids critical thinking (using advice from Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men)

Pratchett on becoming a manager: this too for scientists

What books do you think geeks should read?

Sinclair ZX envy

Book sales, frumpy readers, and mental rotation of book titles

The inheritance of face recognition (should you blame your parents if you can’t recognise faces?)