Fanatics, Fan Boys and True Believers: Tech's Most Rabid Cults

Tech cult No. 4: The Commodorians

Established: 1982

Gathering of the tribes: CommVEx, C4 Expo, World of Commodore

Major deity: Jack Tramiel

Minor deity: Jim Butterfield (1936-2007)

Sacred relic: Commodore C65

Commodorians know there is only one true path, and it is 8 bits wide.

From 1982 to 1994, the Commodore 64 was the most successful personal computer ever made. More than 30 million units were sold, and many are still in use today. It's probably the only machine to have a "nerdcore" rap band named after it or to have inspired a revival band (Press Play on Tape) that plays nothing but rock versions of themes from C64 games.

[ Relive the Commodore 64's 25th birthday celebration. ]

There are dozens of Web sites and multiple conferences devoted to the C64 (and its more recent sibling, the Commodore 128), as well as a small but thriving community of developers, says Jim Brain, an applications architect for a Fortune 500 life insurance firm. Brain says he started out with a VIC-20 in 1983 and graduated to a Commodore 64 before he "downgraded to a PC" in 1992. He develops new hardware for the Commodore Business Machines platform and contracts with overseas manufacturers to build the units.

"The Commodore 8-bit crowd is the computer world's analogy to old-time Volkswagen bug fanciers in the car world," says Eric W. Brown, president of Saugus.net, whose ShellTown operation provides Net access via shell for old hardware like the C64 and C128. "Believe it or not people are still writing new software for the C64/128, and these days there are people who handle all their e-mail and even surf the Web via their old C128 boxes."

"It's hard to distinguish among retro-folks, but I do think [Commodore 8-bitters] stand out as a collective group," adds Brain. "They appreciate game play over glitzy graphics, appear to be more willing to tear into something that is broken rather than just pitch it and buy something new. They like to modify things, and they tend to come up with creative solutions to problems."

Their most sacred relic: the Commodore 65, an improved version of the C64 that never made it past the prototype stage. Yet many Commodorians reject the notion of being a part of a cult; they tend to see themselves more as keepers of the eternal C64/128 flame.

"The cult is the Amigans," says one closely placed source who requested his name not be revealed. "These are people who worship the Commodore Amiga operating system and expect that one day its superiority will cause it to rise again. Some of them are really annoyingly crazy."

Tech cult No. 5: The Order of the Lisp

Established: 1958

Gathering of the tribes: International Lisp Conference

Major deity: John McCarthy

Minor deities: Paul Graham, Peter Norvig

Holy Scripture: "Paradigms in Artificial Intelligence Programming"

Like warrior monks driven into hiding, the Order of the Lisp was once a powerful force that lived at the heart of next-generation computing. Closely allied with artificial intelligence and expert systems, the Lisp (or List Processing) language fell into disrepute as those concepts became allied with the dark side in the late 1970s.

A backlash against overhyped rule-based expert systems led to the so-called "AI winter," notes Dan Weinreb, chairman of the International Lisp Conference (ILC). "The phrase 'artificial intelligence' became almost a dirty word, and the Lisp language was dragged down with it."

The language splintered into dozens of dialects as its practitioners dispersed across the Net. But it remained a potent force in academic circles and on message boards. Slava Akhmechet, a doctoral student in computer science at Stony Brook University, encountered Lisp on a programming bulletin board at the age of 16; he's been a devoted practitioner ever since.

He describes his conversion from skeptic to Skywalker in his Defmacro blog: "It was a journey on an endless lake of frustration. I turned my mind inside out, rinsed it, and put it back in place. I went through seven rings of hell and came back. And then I got it. The enlightenment came instantaneously. One moment I understood nothing, and the next moment everything clicked into place. ... I've achieved an almost divine state of mind, an instantaneous enlightenment experience that turned my view of computer science on its head in less than a single second."

Despite its being more than 50 years old, interest in Lisp is on the rise, says Weinreb. The International Lisp conference at MIT last March drew more than 200 attendees -- nearly twice as many as ILC 2007. The language is still in commercial use, though Weinreb says "there are companies using Lisp now who keep that fact a secret, feeling that they would be discredited to some extent if their use of Lisp were known, which is pretty silly."

Akhmechet says you can identify true believers by their contrarian nature and their love for things of great beauty, regardless of age.

"Remember the part of 'Star Wars' where Luke is introduced to the light-saber?" he says. "Obi Wan says, 'It's an elegant weapon, from a more civilized age.' That's how we feel about Lisp. It was designed in the 1960s by people who truly loved their craft and is an improvement not only on its predecessors, but also on most of its successors. It has certain elegance and beauty to it that mathematicians recognize in some of their formulas, poets in their poems, and physicists in their theories."

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