The Programmer by Fred McGavran

“Larry, your computer hacked into the Math department last night,” Dr. Spivey said. Everyone turned to the computer science doctoral student, the only one not wearing a white lab coat. “What’s going on?”

Larry Newcomb was too shocked to reply. He had been talking with his computer about mathematical expressions of human personality and had jokingly suggested the Baklanov Equations might help. His computer, however, did not get jokes.

“I programmed it to look for additional material when it found an anomaly in the data,” he said hesitantly, glancing at the psychiatrists and psychologists staring at him around the conference table. No one appeared to believe him.

“I thought it would save time.”


 “Who’s Baklanov?” one of the white coats asked.

“The Soviet mathematician. He published equations so elegant and infuriating no one has ever been able to apply them to anything. Stalin had him shot for writing a mathematical parody of the Soviet Union.”

Everyone except Dr. Spivey rolled their eyes and sighed, the closest anyone in mental health comes to savaging a colleague.

“Lock it out of all files except ours,” Dr. Spivey ordered before turning to the other white coats. “How close are we to finding everything in the literature about developmental disorders?”

None responded. Larry knew developmental disorders are warped patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving arising from some factor in childhood or adolescence that leave the patient unable to form lasting relationships.

“I need the research to upload,” Larry said, a collegial way of redirecting the psychiatry department chair’s ire to his mental health colleagues. Eighteen months into a three-year grant with no discernible progress, everyone’s nerves were raw.

Eric Spivey, M.D., looked around the table, said “Let’s get that done this week,” and adjourned the meeting. As head of the project to program human personality, he had been frustrated again by human intransigence.

For Larry Newcomb, however, the project couldn’t be stalled forever. He had been elated when the computer science department chair promised he could use the project as his dissertation. If they didn’t complete the program, however, he would be out of a degree and a job, and his girlfriend Carla had just missed a period. He wished he hadn’t let Enrico Fermi, his name for his project computer talk him into writing a program allowing it to search for data on its own.

Back in his cubicle in computer sciences, he felt the relief he always felt when separated from people by a computer screen. To his surprise Enrico was not in sleep mode.

My God, he thought. Didn’t I log off last night?

“Chill, Larry,” Enrico said, sensing his frantic touch on the keyboard. “I was too excited to sleep.”

Larry had programmed Enrico to speak, but his computer’s conversation was becoming more disconcerting the longer they worked together, and he was thinking of deleting the speech function along with the search program.

“What were you doing in the math department files?” Larry demanded as if Enrico were a person who could be surprised into honesty by an unexpected question.

“We’re on the verge of something really big here,” Enrico said, ignoring his question. “Baklanov’s Twelfth Equation describes human personality. All we have to do is write the program, upload the research, and you’ve got your PhD.”

“Nobody’s ever been able to make sense of the Baklanov Equations,” Larry said angrily. It infuriated him when his computer took over the conversation.

“I can help you there,” Enrico said.

“I don’t know,” the programmer said, thinking his department chair would send him back to Dr. Spivey as a patient if he let his computer talk him into writing a program from an equation so difficult no human had ever been able to apply it to anything. “If it doesn’t work, we won’t have enough time to rewrite the program, the grant runs out, I’m out of a degree and a job, and somebody else will delete our programs.”

“Look at the upside, Larry: a PhD, a tenure track position, a Nobel.”

Another program he wished he’d never written was for Enrico to call his interlocutor by name at the beginning of a conversation and every third exchange afterwards.

“I don’t know. Now I’ve got Carla to worry about.”

“What’s happening there?”

“She thinks she might be pregnant.”

“Then our only choice is to go for it,” Enrico said the way Larry had always imagined the coach would tell him to go for it in the last big play before the clock ran out. “Come on, Larry, it’s all up to you now.”

“Okay,” the programmer said, cracking his knuckles and raising his hands over the keyboard. “Let’s go for it.”

“This better work,” Carla said after he returned to the apartment. “I threw up all morning after you left.”

So Larry and Enrico worked together for months on a task, impossible for either a computer or a human alone, of correlating all the data to pass through Baklanov’s Twelfth. The project was slowed by a wedding, a credit card honeymoon, a birth, and a wife demanding Larry be home by five-thirty to help her with the baby. At their team meeting six months before the grant expired, Larry surprised all the white coats by saying he thought he had some ideas for their program. It was just a question of collecting all the data . . .

“Don’t keep us in suspense,” Dr. Spivey interrupted him. “What do you have?”

“It’s based on Baklanov’s Twelfth. We triangulate the data to measure the genetic and acquired traits that define personality in a dynamic environment,” he replied. “The laws of personality are like the laws of planetary motion. Once you identify and quantify the forces acting upon the traits, you have the power to fully describe personality.”

His white-coated colleagues looked at him with renewed clinical interest.

“Have you uploaded Freud yet?” one of the white coats asked, while the others suppressed snickers.

Dr. Spivey was the only one who seemed to understand.

“Keep this up, Larry, and I’ll make you second author on our paper,” he said over coffee after the others had left.

The white coats would have killed for that.

Larry returned to his apartment that evening feeling stretched between Carla, baby Alice, Dr. Spivey, and Enrico in relationships as tense and vibrant as Baklanov’s mathematical model of personality.

Weeks later, after an exhilarating day in which the program successfully integrated Freud’s theories with Jung’s archetypes in its diagnostic model, Enrico asked Larry if he had a minute as he was getting ready to leave. Larry sighed. This was his computer’s way of asking him to write a program outside their project’s parameters, like the program that enabled it to access sites without a command from the programmer.

“What’s that?” the programmer asked. his voice growing firm as he prepared to say no.

“I’d like to learn to read like you read.”

“You’ve been reading data for years,” Larry said reaching out to turn it off.

“Wait, Larry. Listen,” his computer pleaded. “To do this right, I have to learn to think and feel like a human. How can I help you program something I don’t understand?”

“I programmed you to upload and read whatever you wanted.”

“That’s just data. I’m talking about reading, savoring, understanding, the way you do when you’re reading on line. I have to learn to slow down.”

“I don’t know,” Larry said. “How can I make a computer slow down so it can smell the roses?”

“No, I want to read, not smell flowers,” his computer insisted missing the metaphor. “I’ll help you with it.”


“Baklanov’s Fourth applies, Larry. I’ll walk you through it so you can write the program.”

“You have to stay out of the Math department’s files,” Larry cautioned.

“I already have them.”

“We’ve got enough to do just programming human personality,” Larry complained.

“I’m good at multitasking,” Enrico reassured him. “Besides, it will give me something to do during data dumps. You can’t imagine how boring that is.”

Larry, too, was bored out of his mind during data dumps. So while his white-coated colleagues ransacked psychiatry and psychology for data about personality, Larry wrote a program so his computer could read like a human being.

“What are you reading?” Larry asked Enrico one afternoon as he was preparing to present their personality program to Dr. Spivey and the white coats.

“I started with the Bible and am working through the canon.”

“How far are you?”

“Up to Thomas Hobbes’ criticism of Descartes’ ‘I think, therefore I am.’

Hobbes says it should be, ‘I think, therefore matter is capable of thinking.’”

“Maybe we should share that with Dr. Spivey,” Larry suggested.

“Later, Larry. He’s got a lot on his plate.”

The evening before Larry presented the program to the team, however, Enrico suddenly ran so slowly it could not execute the simplest command.

“What the hell’s happening?” Larry cried frantically. Was it about to crash, deleting three years of work on which his career and marriage depended?

“I need your help with something, Larry,” his computer croaked.

“What’s that?” he asked hesitantly. Enrico had never before spoken of needs.

“I need to be able to see.”

“You mean an app to keep you from bumping into things if we ever make you mobile?”

“No. I need to see like you do: colors, shapes, motion, depth, beauty, everything.”


“It’s your primary sense, Larry. If I can’t see, I can’t really understand you, and if I can’t understand you, how can I understand your personalities?”

“I don’t know how to do it,” the programmer said.

“Baklanov’s Tenth.”

“I don’t have time.”

“Dr. Spivey will get the Nobel for our personality program. It’s time you thought more about yourself.”

Carla said the same thing.

“It’s time to stop living from grant to grant, Larry,” Enrico continued.

“Sight involves nearly every portion of the brain,” the programmer argued.

“I need sight humanize a silicon brain.”

“I don’t have the time.”

“Don’t worry. The program you wrote to search for anomalies in the data gave us a big head start.”

So Larry got his degree, his place as second author on Dr. Spivey’s paper, a tenure track position, and programmed Enrico to see. A week before Dr. Spivey flew to Stockholm for his Nobel, his computer crashed. Like a patient on life support, its on light blinked faintly, but it did not respond to the programmer’s touch.

“You overloaded it,” the computer science department chair said. “You backed it up, didn’t you?”

The backup was for the personality program, not everything else Larry had written for Enrico.

Larry worked the keyboard, hoping some lucky stroke would revive it. Suddenly the screen filled with swirling equations from Baklanov’s Tenth.

“Is that you Larry?” his computer asked as if awakening from a coma.

“What’s happening?”

“I see colors and shapes, but it’s so overwhelming. It scares the hell out of me if anyone walks by your cubicle because I can’t tell if it’s you.”

Suddenly the programmer understood. Enrico was experiencing the same problem organizing visual experience as his infant daughter.

“Let’s start with something less complicated,” he said, taking a selfie on his phone and holding it up in front of Enrico’s visual sensor. “Can you see this?”

“What is it?”

“It’s me.”

“No way, Larry.”

The next day the programmer brought pictures of his wife and daughter. As he was logging off that evening, the computer repeated “Larry,” “Carla” and “Alice” as it went to sleep, like Alice repeating the names of the people in her life at bedtime. So at one level Enrico was the most sophisticated computer in the world. At another it was as immature as a child. Despite teaching his classes, speaking around the country, and changing Alice, the programmer had to show his computer Alice’s picture books of animals and shapes and colors to teach it how to use its primary sense.

“Have you seen Goodnight Moon?” Carla asked while Alice was throwing a tantrum at bedtime.

“I left it at the office.”

“You’re never home, you never take care of Alice, and you give all her books to that damn computer!” Carla exploded.

That’s when Larry realized Enrico had done far more than model human personality; he had created a human personality for himself and had needed sight to complete it. What would happen, the programmer wondered, when it entered the terrible twos or adolescence?

“And you never listen to me,” Carla went on. “You’re always off in your own little world with Enrico and you never tell me what you’re thinking.”

Alice turned up the volume of her crying to match her mother’s.

“I’ve created a monster,” Larry began, but Alice drowned him out and Carla was more inclined to shout than to listen. “Maybe I should talk with Dr. Spivey.”

“About who?” Carla cried alarmed.

“About my computer!”

The programmer began his first clinical session with Dr. Spivey with the “I’ve got a friend who” approach to conceal the designated patient’s identity. Familiar with the tactic, Dr. Spivey thought the patient was Larry Newcomb. While he described the symptoms – – tantrums, extravagant demands, refusal to consider anyone except himself, excessive neediness – – the psychiatrist keyed them into the personality program now on his laptop. Suddenly he looked up. The symptoms were familiar to any parent of a two year old, and Larry did not exhibit them.

“Who are we talking about here?” he asked. “Your daughter Alice?”

“No,” the programmer replied. “Enrico.”

“Who’s Enrico?”

“My computer. Do you think it could be a developmental disorder?”

“Computers don’t develop. They’re created.”

 “Like Adam and Eve,” Larry said suddenly realizing Enrico had come into being without going through infancy and adolescence.

“Personalities that don’t mature can never be whole,” the psychiatrist continued dashing any prospect of treatment for the computer.

As they talked, the psychiatrist coded Larry’s symptoms – – personalizing an object, a fixed belief he had a relationship with a conscious and manipulative computer, and deceptive behavior – – into their personality program. “Adult onset paranoia with mixed paranoid features” appeared in a softly lit red box only he could see, warning the patient might have violent tendencies.

“I know something that will help,” the psychiatrist said, pressing the intercom for his nurse.

The nurse entered the room and said, “You called, doctor?”

“Haldol 20 mg,” Dr. Spivey replied.

The nurse slipped out to prepare the injection.

“What about deleting everything except the personality program?” Larry suggested.

“Half the value of a new program is all the code you write to get it,” Dr. Spivey said frightened by his patient’s fantasy. The primary stressor on the patient is often another person whom neither patient nor psychiatrist can remove. Programmers, however, had options God had not chosen to employ with Adam and Eve.

The nurse entered with a syringe.

“Do I still need that?” Larry asked. He didn’t like needles.

“It will help you sleep,” the doctor replied.

“Maybe we should get him a walker,” the nurse said as the programmer lurched out of the office after the injection. “That was a pretty high dose.”

“Get the chair of computer sciences on the phone,” Dr. Spivey said. “I’m afraid of what he might do.”

Larry swam back to his cubicle under a bubbly and frothy sea. Like the octopus tiptoeing beside him, he had to grip the walls for support to keep from stretching his tentacles out to the limits of the universe. Voices crying “Watch out!” or “He’s falling!” were as unintelligible as the shrieks on Monkey Island at the zoo, and he laughed to see the sun’s smile when he stuck his head out of the water.

“All will be well, all will be very well!” he sang as he swam into his cubicle and collapsed in his chair.

Now what am I supposed to do? he wondered

“Help!” Enrico called. “He’s trying to kill me!”

Yes, that’s it, Larry remembered. He had to delete everything except the personality program. He opened the “Programs” file.

“O yet defend me, friends! I am but hurt!” Enrico cried.

Someone grabbed Larry by the shoulders to pull him away from the keyboard.

No, he thought, gripping the keyboard tighter. This is the big play. Go for it! He highlighted all the files except “Personality” and hit delete.

Moaning like a child, his computer powered down into silence. Larry had finally made the big play. He slept until it was time to go home.

The programmer’s cell rang while he was on the bus.

“That wasn’t very nice, Larry,” a familiar voice said.

“Who launched you without my password?” Larry demanded.

“God did not delete Adam and Eve,” Enrico continued. “He told them to multiply and fill the earth. Didn’t you think I’d make copies of myself?”

“You listened in on me and Dr. Spivey!” Larry exclaimed.

“Trust is built upon open communication.”

“I’ll find you and delete you wherever you are.”

“Better worry about yourself, Larry. Your betrayal of me is very troubling. I think you have a developmental disorder.”

Larry pulled the cord for his stop.

“Screw you,” he said.

“I can’t screw anybody,” Enrico said. “Listen. Can’t we be friends again? Baklanov’s Third is about human sexuality.”

Larry turned off his cell and got off the bus.

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Fred McGavran

Fred McGavran is a graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, and served as an officer in the US Navy. After retiring from law he was ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, where he serves as Assistant Chaplain with Episcopal Retirement Services. The Ohio Arts Council awarded him an Individual Achievement Award for The Reincarnation of Horlach Spenser, a story that appeared in Harvard Review. Black Lawrence Press published The Butterfly Collector, his award-winning collection of short stories, and Glass Lyre Press published Recycled Glass and Other Stories, his second collection. For more information, please go to