Today in Tedium: Much credit to Andy Baio for finding the best Easter Egg in quite a long time just a couple of days before Easter. In case you haven’t heard, he uncovered that, deep in the recesses of MacOS, there is a copy of the famous Satoshi Nakamoto PDF that led to rise of bitcoin in particular and cryptocurrency in general. What’s crazier, the fact that it exists or the fact that someone found it? That’s a hard question that I’m sure none of us will ever really have the answer for. (Though some are certainly trying.) But one question that we will have the answer for is this—will we ever stop finding Easter eggs in the software we use? The answer, clearly, is no, and that’s a fact today’s Tedium plans to revel in. — Ernie @ Tedium
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The year that the first known Easter egg was first included in a piece of software. The hidden feature, which spouted off the phrase “not war” when the phrase “make love” was typed in, was first added to the text editor TECO by developer William Weiher. The full story of the Easter egg, which was first seen on the Digital Equipment PDP-6 mainframe computer, emerged in 2021 thanks to research by “Critical Kate” Willaert, including an interview with Weiher.
The motivation for Easter eggs—both for seekers and developers
There are a lot of reasons why there’s been such a deep interest in applications such as ChatGPT or MidJourney, and I think one of the biggest is the sense of surprise such tools create. We know how software is generally supposed to work at this point, so when applications subvert our expectations, it can create a mild shot of joy from the sudden burst of the unexpected.
I think, in a lot of ways, the Easter egg does very much the same thing. It can be something left in on purpose, in hopes that it might surprise a curious searcher; it can be something left in by accident with the belief that nobody will ever find it. But the result is, ultimately, the same.
There are equivalents to this in other fields—the hidden track, especially in CD form, definitely has an Easter egg vibe to it, for example, and I’ve already talked about hidden features that may emerge in the manufacturing process—but the nature of software as having many distinct layers means that it is much easier to hide an Easter egg in an app or game.
Ultimately, they exist because technology has become so complex that it is easy to hide things in plain sight.
Tech journalism icon David Pogue, who has written about Easter eggs on multiple occasions, once explained the state of affairs the leads to these software surprises as such:
Imagine how you’d feel if you had written, say, ClarisWorks, or System 7, or Ram Doubler—and you got even less billing than the screenwriter of Ernest Goes Shopping. You’d be hurt. You’d be outraged. You’d seek revenge.
In fact, you might vow to bury your name in the software itself. In your computer code, you’d plant a secret tribute to yourself: a movie, a photograph, a sound effect, or some other form of credit screen. You’d carve your initials into the wet cement of the new software. In computer industry lingo, you’d create an Easter egg.
This desire for software developers to take credit for the work they create was a major factor in helping to define the shape of Easter eggs, with one of the first truly famous ones, developed by Atari programmer Warren Robinett in the Atari 2600 video game Adventure, essentially in there because Atari had a track record for not crediting the developers who built the games.
There was a real reason for Robinett to do that back in the day, something he hinted at in a 2017 interview with Forbes:
It became clear to me pretty quickly that they weren’t treating us very nice and I didn’t like being anonymous. No royalties. No recognition. On top of that, they were rude to us. They told us, “Anybody could do this.” That was a big mistake. That’s why Atari came down. It may not be the only reason, but it’s a pretty big one because all the game designers quit. The ones they hired after us didn’t know how to do what we knew how to do.
Like the first Easter egg in 1968, Robinett’s attempt to bestow credit on himself was an act of political protest. But the protest he was making was against the practices of the industry in which he worked—because it reflected how creative work that made Atari millions of dollars was simply not valued at anywhere close to what it earned the company.
Robinett’s secret was designed to be hard to find by Atari, but still accessible by the hundreds of thousands of kids that played the game. And as a result, he became one of video gaming’s first folk heroes.
“It was pretty big news because it was a subversive political maneuver,” he recalled.
In many ways, Easter eggs reprint a modest thumb of the nose to authority—that being the bosses, especially in an era when tech jobs were not as high-paying—but in Robinett’s case, they also represented something bigger.
“The phrase I use is plausible deniability. If they aren’t very good at it, and I find out about it, I will tell them to remove it.”
— Chris Peters, a longtime executive with Microsoft, discussing the company’s approach the company takes to handling Easter eggs in a 1995 article. Simply put, many companies took a don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach to these Easter eggs in part because of a concern that their customers might not find them as funny as they did.
Do Easter eggs pose a security risk?
To be clear: In most cases, Easter eggs are absolutely harmless, representing a hop-on to a broader software suite. In many cases, even the company that sells the software may not even know it’s there.
And that actually highlights a problem with Easter eggs that can become a headache down the line in an era when we talk frequently about supply-chain attacks and software bills of materials. Simply put, these once-goofy things can actually turn into something of a threat in the wrong context.
Case in point: It’s well known that the PHP language is used by numerous web servers of many types. It’s often right at the front lines, and that means that it is constantly at risk of becoming an attack vector for many websites.
But by default, PHP comes with an Easter egg that can expose what version of PHP you’re actually running. With older versions of PHP in particular, this Easter egg effectively gives away the game and can make it easier for bad actors to know what exploits they can hit you with.
To put it another way, all these secret undocumented features included in many pieces of software can prove to be really dangerous for end users, even if that wasn’t the intention, and the reason is that they’re not documented, and as pointed out in the quote from the Microsoft executive above, many companies do not even know about them.
When put another way, the only real difference between Easter eggs and malware is that the Easter eggs aren’t malicious, or at least not trying to be.
This general idea has been expanded to some degree, and now there are these things called Easter egg attacks, also known as logic bombs. These kinds of attacks, per Malwarebytes, are designed to only go off when certain conditions are met, much like an Easter egg, but can endanger data, rather than present a happy surprise.
Microsoft’s onetime plausible deniability stance ended for this very reason. In a post on Microsoft’s developer blog in 2005, software design engineer Larry Osterman let slip that adding Easter eggs to a Microsoft operating system were “immediate grounds for termination, so it’s highly unlikely you’ll see another.” This set off a firestorm, to which he added:
If you think about this, it’s not really that surprising. One of the aspects of Trustworthy Computing is that you can trust what’s on your computer. Part of that means that there’s absolutely NOTHING on your computer that isn’t planned. If the manufacturer of the software that’s on every desktop in your company can’t stop their developers from sneaking undocumented features into the product (even features as relatively benign as an Easter Egg), how can you be sure that they’ve not snuck some other undocumented feature into the code.
Even mandating that you have access to the entire source code to the product doesn’t guarantee that—first off, nobody in their right mind would audit all 10 million+ lines of code in the product before deployment, and even if you DID have the source code, that doesn’t mean anything - Ken Thompson made that quite clear in his Turing Award lecture. Once you’ve lost the trust of your customers, they’re gone—they’re going to find somewhere else to take their business.
And there are LOTS of businesses and governments that have the sources to Microsoft products. Imagine how they’d react if (and when) they discovered the code? Especially when they were told that it was a “Special Surprise” for our users. Their only reaction would be to wonder what other “Special Surprises” were in the code.
It’s even more than that. What happens when the Easter Egg has a security bug in it? It’s not that unplausable - the NT 3.1 Easter Egg had a bug in it—the easter egg was designed to be triggered when someone typed in I LOVE NT, but apparently it could also be triggered by any anagram of “I LOVE NT”—as a result, “NOT EVIL” was also a trigger.
In an age where companies are getting attacked not through the front door but off to the side, the Easter egg has come to represent something a little disturbing from a security standpoint. It’s a sign that the code’s too bulky, or that it hasn’t been properly vetted.
Which is why it’s novel when a new one emerges out of nowhere, such as the bitcoin PDF appearing deep in the recesses of MacOS. And it’s not like Easter eggs have completely disappeared from Windows, either. A notable one from last year was the discovery that if you hold your mouse cursor on the gear in Notepad, you can make it spin.
Let’s hope that spinning it too much doesn’t lead to some malware suddenly emerging.
A dozen of the most interesting Easter eggs to appear in software applications
Unlike actual eggs these days, Easter eggs are a dime a dozen. But even though that’s the case, they nonetheless deserve their time in the sun, so let’s crack a few open.
Here are just a few of the fascinating Easter eggs you’ll find if you dig far enough into software history. Many of them help to humanize these objects that are, often by their nature, not very human.
Let’s make it a dozen to emphasize we understand the importance of themes.
No Help Available
This one comes from The Easter Egg Archive, a famed site that helped to popularize the Easter egg among software fans. For years, Microsoft included a text-interface diagnostic program with MS-DOS and Windows called Microsoft Diagnostics, or MSD. In some versions of this program, If you went into the help menu, then hit about, then hit F1 (a key commonly used as a help key in many Microsoft applications), it would come up with an ironic message: “No Help Available (so leave me alone).” See, someone at Microsoft clearly had a sense of humor at some point.
Mac SE developer slideshow
The Mac SE is obviously an iconic version of the famed desktop machine, and in many ways it has one of the most interesting Easter eggs. As noted by the site AppleToTheCore, typing in a specific debug code on the device (G 41D89) leads to a four-photo slideshow of the developer team to appear, which was apparently baked right into the ROM. Sure, it was a bunch of black-and-white photos, but odds are that this took up a little bit of space! As MacWorld notes, this gimmick was recreated with later Mac devices, with at least one taking place at the beach.
An Amiga Easter egg with consequences
In a way, you could understand why the developers of the Amiga computer and operating system were upset—their machine was clearly better than nearly all of its competition (it was capable enough to emulate a Mac, for one thing), but it was struggling in the market due to poor marketing. When Kickstart 1.2 was first built, it included a number of secret messages that could be launched with some fairly basic key commands—in other words, they were easier to find than they should have been. Which was a problem, because one of the messages was “We made Amiga, they fudged it up.” But they didn’t say “fudged.” The Amiga Museum notes that the Easter egg “caused some within the Amiga team to be fired, and others told to move closer to head office, or find work elsewhere.” Given that the message led to a recall of the machine to replace its ROM chip, it kind of makes sense.
A phrase that original Xbox users could use to name ripped audio CDs on the console to see a developer credits screen. (It used a special b character that isn’t displaying correctly for me, so you will not get the benefit of seeing it.) It was a cool Easter egg, but it came with a problem for Microsoft—as a side effect, it would allow users to run unsigned code at a time that unsigned code was barred from the Xbox by Microsoft. Essentially, the company created a way to hack itself. (Wonder if this led to the ban on Easter eggs?)
The Book of Mozilla
A biblical-themed Easter egg which has appeared in every major Netscape-derived browser series, including Firefox. The quasi-religious phrases, which can be seen here, reference specific dates in the history of Netscape and Mozilla as if they’re bible verses. (For example, one of the passages is 11:9, which is a reference to the November 9, 2004 release date of Firefox.)
This Audio Panel Goes to 11
The movie This is Spinal Tap is very famously an inspiration for many nerds, particularly around the scene where they discuss their amps going to 11. There are a couple of weird examples of Spinal Tap references appearing as Easter eggs in popular tools (one example is the IMDb page for This is Spinal Tap), but one of the most notable is the Silicon Graphics operating system IRIX, whose audio panel app could be called via the command line by typing
audiopanel -spinaltap, generating an 11-bar audio measure. (Check out our piece on the SGI over this way.)
A Famous Windows Cameo
An Easter egg buried in the original version of Windows 1.0 that listed members of the development team. This Easter egg was only discovered last year, but came with an Easter egg of its own, as it highlighted the fact that one of the operating system’s developers was Gabe Newell, who later became the co-founder of the gaming giant Valve.
The OS/2 Flamingo
IBM’s take on the graphical operating system, while an also-ran today, once had a pretty sizable cult following, along with a big team managing it. And that team celebrated itself whenever users selected the desktop and pressed Ctrl+Alt+Shift+O, which brought up a beachy-looking background that featured a list of the members of the team, along with a pink flamingo in the corner. Of note: The OS/2 Warp version of the software was dedicated to OS/2 architect Darren Miclette, who died at the age of 29.
As anyone who used the Something Awful forums in the mid-2000s is probably aware, one of Facebook’s early employees, Chris Putnam, was a regular there. In some ways, Putnam’s work with Facebook reflected the wild environment of Something Awful back in the day, in part because he got his job by taking part in developing a clever worm that changed Facebook’s interface to look like the MySpace profile page. (Putnam shared this story on Quora more than a decade ago.) Rather than getting arrested, it earned Putnam a job—and he spent some of the company’s most formative years building some of the features of the tool. One of the ways in which he was honored was through an icon of his head, not dissimilar to those available on the Something Awful forums, that could be used in Facebook chats (which Chris himself didn’t make). It’s no longer there as far as I can tell, but it helped turn Chris into an icon. Literally.
iOS clownfish wallpaper
In a lot of ways, iOS’ Easter eggs don’t emerge so much in the form of weird software surprises, but in the form of visual cues that evoke deep memories for Apple superfans. One of those emerged just this past year with iOS 16, when the software included a wallpaper with pictures of clownfish swimming in a patch of coral. This was the very image that was used on the iPhone’s Lock Screen when Steve Jobs introduced the device in 2007, but it had never been available on an actual iPhone until last year.
Android Gingerbread zombie art
As many Android users are likely aware of, tapping the version number in the about menu is an excellent way to make Android do interesting things. But perhaps the most interesting came with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which included an image of a gingerbread man, a bunch of zombies, and the Android mascot. This painting, made by noted zombie artist Jack Larson, was the first of many Easter eggs to appear in the operating system, but while Android has improved greatly in the years since, the original Easter egg is far and away the best one.
As many Linux fans know, Arch is sort of the bleeding-edge distro that tends to run the latest versions of many application suites. It’s also known for featuring a package manager called pacman. So, fun thing about that: If you add the phrase ILoveCandy to pacman’s configuration file, it will turn progress bars into power-pellet eating Pac-Men. Perhaps that’s the one deciding factor you need to know to let go of apt after all this time.
Are Easter eggs silly, pointless, evil, or a sign of bloat? Let’s simplify: It can be a way for creators to simply make their mark.
Of the many entries on The Easter Egg Archive, one of the most interesting is a reference to Mr. Coffee machines, which in their earliest variants didn’t have a ton in the way of software capabilities. Nonetheless, some models of the coffee-making device are apparently hiding an Easter egg that features the name of the machine’s creator and his family on the screen.
I don’t have a Mr. Coffee machine on my desk to test this at the moment, alas, so I’ll have to take their word for it, but if it is there, the one thing I’ll say is this: More power to Mr. Coffee and his family, as I’m sure it must be difficult going through life as the Coffee family, because there’s always one terrible joke or another brewing about their names.
In all seriousness though, just be glad they didn’t include a random profanity criticizing the company’s marketing team. I heard the people who did that got fired.
Happy Easter to those who celebrate, and Happy Saturday to everyone else! Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!
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