‘The Worm Before Christmas’ (1988)

Geeky poem inspired 25 years ago by ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’ … and the Morris Worm

Last month the tech press helped mark the 25th anniversary of the Morris Worm, the first Internet-driven worm to garner widespread media attention. The worm also inspired a group of graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to channel their inner Clement Clark Moore and create the following poem. Check it out, as well as a few words from one of the authors below.

'The Worm Before Christmas'

By Clement C. Morris

(a.k.a. David Bradley, Betty Cheng, Hal Render, Greg Rogers, and Dan LaLiberte)


Twas the night before finals, and all through the lab

Not a student was sleeping, not even McNabb.

Their projects were finished, completed with care

In hopes that the grades would be easy (and fair).


The students were wired with caffeine in their veins

While visions of quals nearly drove them insane.

With piles of books and a brand new highlighter,

I had just settled down for another all nighter ---


When out from our gateways arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my desk to see what was the matter;

Away to the console I flew like a flash,

 And logged in as root to fend off a crash.


The windows displayed on my brand new Sun-3,

Gave oodles of info --- some in 3-D.

When, what to my burning red eyes should appear

But dozens of "nobody" jobs.  Oh dear!


With a blitzkrieg invasion, so virulent and firm,

I knew in a moment, it was Morris's Worm!

More rapid than eagles his processes came,

And they forked and exec'ed and they copied by name:


"Now Dasher!  Now Dancer!  Now, Prancer and Vixen!

On Comet!  On Cupid!  On Donner and Blitzen!

To the sites in .rhosts and host.equiv

Now, dash away!  dash away!  dash away all!"


And then in a twinkling, I heard on the phone,

The complaints of the users.  (Thought I was alone!)

"The load is too high!"  "I can't read my files!"

"I can't send my mail over miles and miles!"


I unplugged the net, and was turning around,

When the worm-ridden system went down with a bound.

I fretted.  I frittered.  I sweated.  I wept.

Then finally I core dumped the worm in /tmp.


It was smart and pervasive, a right jolly old stealth,

And I laughed, when I saw it, in spite of myself.

A look at the dump of that invasive thread

Soon gave me to know we had nothing to dread.


The next day was slow with no network connections,

For we wanted no more of those pesky infections.

But in spite of the news and the noise and the clatter,

Soon all became normal, as if naught were the matter.


Then later that month while all were away,

A virus came calling and then went away.

The system then told us, when we logged in one night:

"Happy Christmas to all!  (You guys aren't so bright.)"


[Original editor's note:  The machines dasher.cs.uiuc.edu, dancer.cs.uiuc.ed, prancer.cs.uiuc.edu, etc. have been renamed deer1, deer2, deer3, etc. so as not to confuse the already burdened students who use those machines. We regret that this poem reflects the older naming scheme and hope it does not confuse the network administrator at your site.]

One of the authors, Betty Cheng, is now a professor at Michigan State University. Here are excerpts of her reply to my email seeking the story behind this work of art.


"The co-authors of the poem, all graduate students in the Computer Science department at UIUC, were online working the night that Morris' worm was unleashed.  It became apparent fairly quickly when the response time gradually ground to a halt. When looking at the list of processes running on the multimax (10-processor parallel computer) we were looking for a 'process hog,' and we saw a number of jobs owned by the 'nobody' process. As we continued to check, more and more of the processes were owned by 'nobody.' Eventually, when we couldn't get any response for our respective jobs, we decided to quit for the evening.  (We sent a note to our systems administrator alerting them to the problem.)

"Of course, the next morning we heard the news about Morris' worm. It was either that evening or the next, when a group of us (the co-authors) were in the office, again late in the evening working, when we decided to take a break since it was getting close to the Christmas holidays. And line by line, joke by joke (some of which included references to people at UIUC -- e.g., McNabb and our machine naming convention) that we put together our poem. The reaction was very positive. It's even been published (in hardcopy) in a collection of CS humor. Of course, this was before the Web, Twitter and Facebook."

Maybe this time they'll get their star turn on Twitter and Facebook.

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