Comfort Hacking

From Merriam-Webster's online dictionary:
comfort food (1977) 1. food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal

You've heard of comfort foods - foods you eat to feel better when you're feeling low or stressed. This note explores the phenomenon of comfort hacking - hacking code or tinkering with computers as a way to work out stress or generally feel better.

If you're a computer nerd, you'll probably know what I mean. If you're not, you might want to read on so that you can better understand the behavior of any hackers in your life.

For me, comfort hacking has often taken the form of automating my digital world. When I have too many deadlines, or a system I'm working on is crashing for no obvious reason, I'll occasionally retreat to reorganizing how my email is automatically sorted, or come up with a better backup system. Why does this work for me? For one thing, I get immediate feedback -- whipping off a few scripts or short programs is easy compared to my "real work", and there is a sense of control and competence, and these programs (supposedly) improve my life.

Other comfort hacking I've seen includes writing emulators for old hardware systems, so you can run old, familiar software on your spiffy new computer; or writing a flashy screen saver; or learning a new programming language. Sometimes, comfort hacking is more like puzzle solving -- figuring out how to subvert some protection scheme, getting some bit of hardware to jump through hoops it was not intended for.

To the non-hacker, this sort of behavior seems counter-intuitive. If computer-related work is driving you crazy, why turn to your computer for solace? To me, this goes back to why we got so involved with computers in the first place. Computer hardware and software is a virtual universe, where you can be master of your own universe and create new systems and behavior from scratch. However, in the real world, building or programming computers tends to involve a lot of messy bits: piles of software that you didn't write yourself, and doesn't work, requirements that are imposed from outside, and don't make sense, relying on other people, who don't deliver. Every once in a while, we need to reassert control, to tinker, to revisit the fun part of computers and computer programming.


If this notion of comfort hacking rings true to you, send an email to me at, describing comfort hacks that you've indulged in, and I'll post it here. I reserve the right to post any, none, or all of the body of your message (i.e. I will not post information that is only in the email headers). Therefore, if you want your name and/or your email address posted, include them in the body of the email; if you don't, don't.

Now, I really should get back to my real work!

Greg Sullivan
Last modified: Fri Jan 24 21:50:17 EST 2003