Son of Devil's Advocate, May 2000

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle

Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

The Billy Barren Show

Growing old is a mixed human blessing. The process starts at your individual t=0, the so-called moment of conception. Borrowing crudely from cosmology, one might call it the "Big Bang Up." At least one hopes it was a significantly "large" event with mutual-loving intent by your putative progenitors regardless of marital status [ref 1].

Alas, as with the birth of the Universe, an element of randomness seems to play a role in our personal origins. We haven't (yet) filmed the initial cosmic quantum fluctuations (Bill Gates [ref 2] and Ted Turner are battling for the rights) but we've all seen live on Public TV the crazy fight between the rival spermatazoa flailing away like upstream salmon to hit the ovarian spot. (I almost used the distracting idiom "Bull's Eye.") How could you or I depend for our very existence on this conflicting jellied flagellation?

It's a strange introduction to the Darwinian thesis: we are the monstrous, morphogenetic result of the "fittest" sperm among the millions on the move -- yet, as with all competitive sports, one wonders if there's a cheat sperm on steroids in track nine? Or whether, dipping into the fashionable Bio-Games Theory, groups of sperms may adopt sneaky cooperative strategies? And, on earth or elsewhere, to which Olympic body of Rules can we appeal? Far too late, by definition!

The cosmic birth, of course, poses deeper challenges, although in many cultures diverse deities are alleged to have shagged away with anthropomorphic abandon, and the resulting universes evolved in the family way. Voltaire's Panglossian "Best of all possible worlds," however, sprang fresh without prior "survival" tests. Under his 18th century theological cosmogeny, the Universe was "spoken" into existence, instanter, in toto, by the Logos of John 1.1.

Modern Physics, with all its mathematical grandeur, cannot add much to this clean myth:

"In answer to the question of why it happened, I offer the modest proposal that our Universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time." (Edward P. Tryon, "Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?" Nature Vol 246, No 5433 Dec 14 1973).

Lucky us, to be here and now -- we may have missed it all.


"I say 'magical' [the mystery of the effectivness of quantum theory] because the object of study of physics became more and more the formalism of physics itself, as though symbols were reality -- and the confusion of symbols with reality is what characterizes much of what we call magic. I have no great love for this word, however, and readers whom it offends can ignore it safely." (The Applicability of Mathematics as a Philosophical Problem, Mark Steiner, Harvard University Press, 1998).

Having Been Born...

Mere longevity, some claim, can be achieved simply by shunning all the things that make life worthwhile: the depressing choice between "short and happy" and "hanging on in misery." Others, favoring genetic-nature over diet-nurture, advise us to choose our parents carefully.

I've been around longer than most of youse fresh-from-the-womb, pink-wrinkled ugly kids. Bet the midwife smacked not your bum but that of yer reluctant mother for producing such a tiny distorted 6-lb upstart replica of Winston Churchill. Gödel is dead, Turing is dead, Weil is just dead, (when they announced that Clement Atlee was dead, the cynics asked "How could they tell?") and I'm not feeling that good meself -- yet, as Stevie Sondheim once told me "Malgré tout, we're still HERE."

True, there are some EOFs (Even Older Farts) clinging onto the putatively quicker side of the great divide -- indeed, my EDSAC I mentor, Maurice Wilkes, FRS, is now Sir Maurice and, with the Royal touch, will outlive us all.

When Queenie offered me a Knighthood, I modestly declined: "Never wear'em, Mam." ("Enough of this reckless foreplay," She gasped, ripping off her tiara, ... the rest is in "My Life" (tm)(c) Sunday Mirror [ref 3]

The archetypical "Old Soldier" genre (inspired by Monty Python) goes thus:

"640KB? You were lucky! We had 2K and they were BITS."

"BITS? We used to DREAM of bits! All WE had were 0's..."

"OUR zeroes were missing globs of snot on a rusty abacus wire..."

"WIRE? La-di-da -- F***ing luxury! ...

Looking Back 15 years to UNIX Review, May 1985:

Stop the Industry - I Want to Document!

Bertrand Russell was into paradoxes, as they say, especially his own, the famous Russell paradox ("If A is the set of all sets which are not members of themselves, then 'A belongs to A` implies 'A does not belong to A`), which floored Frege and damn near killed Russell himself. It also ruined the dream of putting Mathematics on a solid logical foundation.

He admitted to us later that the twenty years he and Whitehead spent trying in vain to resolve this paradox in Principia Mathematica had left him scarred for life. Their theory of types sought to avoid the paradox by brushing it under the carpet. If certain sets of sets lead to contradictions, they must be blackballed from the club.

" 'Fraid we blew it, Alf," Bertie announced suddenly. We were all sipping sherry, I vividly recall, in his Trinity College rooms. Whitey stormed out in a huff, leaving just Bertie, Wittgie, C.P., Al (Turing) and myself. "There's a pretty paradox," quipped Al in his best mock Gilbert & Sullivan accent, putting a comforting arm around Bertie. Wittgie carried on poking at the empty fireplace as though nothing had happened. And yet we all sensed that Formal Systems Theory would never be the same again.

Poor Bertie did not live to see the UNIX resolution of the problem. Clearly, if you have a set of directory files containing the names of files, they may or may not contain their own names. If they do, put them on Disk 1, otherwise on Disk 2. Now let's make a superdirectory file A, of all the directories on Disk 2, that is, for all those which do not contain themselves.

If we include A itself in this superdirectory, it would appear to belong on Disk 1...and yet all members of A, including A itself, by definition, belong to Disk 2. But are we dumbstruck by this impasse? Do we rush off for twenty years juggling with symbolic tautologies? No way, in San Jose. This is hard-headed, feet-on-the-ground UNIX territory. File A is simply swapped to and from Disk 1 and Disk 2 as a background task. Or maybe quietly erased when noone is looking.

Bertrand Russell was also fond of the Tristram Shandy Paradox. Tristram found that in trying to complete his autobiography it was taking him a year to cover each day's activity.

Given a tireless, immortal author armed with Wordstar (tm) version Aleph 0, on a Turing Machine (no tm yet!?), and an endless supply of floppy-tape, the question posed by philosophers and other layabouts is whether any part of Tristram's life would ever remain unrecorded. Or would the damned machine halt first?! Sorry, I seem to be mixing my paradoxes.

What is undoubtedly true about the Tristram story is that, complete or not, the opus would be infinitely boring. The bulk of it would resemble the average modern novel, the plot of which revolves around a modern novelist trying to write a modern novel.... This recursive narcissism pervades many fields of human endeavor.

When I was a full-time folk-singer touring the UK with other full-time folk-singers, we saw so little of the real world that we ended up writing and singing ballads about the tribulations of itinerant baladeers: "It's a mighty hard road - 50 miles to the next gig," "My Agent don' Dropped Me," "Fret-blood Blues," and similar ditties.

The speculation on Tristram Shandy arises from my recently completed Waite/Sams Primer on the Motorola M68000 family.

The emetic pace of the computer industry, especially in the last decade, presents a target not unlike Tristram's life, threatening to out-accelerate the traditional rate for producing timely and useful documentation. The M68000 chips themselves are Rocks Of All Ages but some of their implementations and implementors fly forgotten as dreams. Before the ink is dry on the paper, hardware obsolescence (not excluding the demise of paper and ink), litigation, negative cashflow, rewrites, unwrites, mergers, sudden death, and the thousand natural glitches our trade is heir to, can intervene to vitiate the writer's efforts.

With this in mind, I sent out a carefully worded letter last September to all computer innovators (with an "Information Only" copy to IBM), urging a six-month moratorium so that my fellow authors and I could "catch up." The response was mixed, to say the least.

The BASIC standards committee, bless them, cabled immediately from a restaurant in Geneva, promising to remain "poised for action, awaiting your signal." AT&T wrote to say that six months was hardly sufficient ("Call that a moratorium?"), that their planning charts allowed only a 2 year granularity, but nevertheless agreed to rush out some "Freeze UNIX" bumper stickers. My only other success was Lotus who reluctantly offered to hold back Jazz for a while. The industry as a whole pressed on with the usual selfish, me-too, up-you madness.

The only solution, it seems, is a break from traditional methods of information dissemination. In many user situations, on-line help files can speed up the instructional flow, but can they offer the convenience of books and manuals? Rapid browsability and informal, mid-job access are important but remarkably difficult to achieve. The helpee is not always sure where that tiny but cosmically vital piece of help is lurking. More often than not a simple question invokes a daunting overdose of unhelpful diversions. The car-owner wants to get from here to there without studying the molecular structure of hydrocarbons or the love life of Nicolas Carnot. All too often we are given the equivalent of "I wouldn't start from here if I were you."

Is there yet an electronic analogue of flipping rapidly through a well-thumbed text, spotting your previous annotations and yellow hi-lights?

On the broader educational front many computer topics suddenly become unfashionable. As the relative cost of various computer components fluctuates, last week's hot debate on method A versus method B can quickly become as meaningless as a medieval angel-counting contest. Small wonder that ACM's SIG are planning a daily newsletter.

Computer Science in 1985 still reminds one of Ancient Egyptian Mensuration, coping quite well on an ad hoc, day-to-day, problem solving basis, yet waiting for Geometry to arrive. We have our Thales' and Pytheas's go leor, even the odd Pythagoras (send a plain stamped addressed envelope for my listing), but where is Euclid or Euclidea hiding?

He or she is not required to add to the sprawling corpus of pre-, post- and praeter-structural gospels, but simply to step outside the cockpit and codify, codify, codify. We need machine-independent, language-independent, OS-independent, logo- independent axioms. We need an acceptable deductive framework free from the influences of xenophobia, inventory levels and sales commission. The rewards will be great.

Remember that Euclid's Elements has held top spot in the all-time text book best-sellers list for over 2000 years - indeed, it is second only to the Bible in the combined lists.

Principia Rationorum Digitorum would bring similar stability to the computer trade. At least until a Lobachevski or Riemann pounces on the axioms.

ref 1: In King Lear we meet the contrast between Gloucester's legitimate son Edgar ("...within a dull, stale, tired bed, Go to the creating of a whole tribe of fops, Got 'tween sleep and wake") and his "love-child" Edmund ("Why bastard? wherefore base? ... Blessed be the bastard's birth; In wondrous ways, he moves eccentric as the comet's blaze...") -- of course, Edmund turns out to be a right bastard, but I won't spoil the plot for you! Which reminds me of a recent letter to the Film Critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. I paraphrase: "Sir, you completely ruined my planned visit to the cinema last week by revealing the ending to Anna Karenina"

ref 2: Sudden thought: whatever happened to Microsoft's gourmet cosmologist Nathan Myhrvold who failed, in spite of many $billions of R&D funding, to warn Gates of the Internet "big bang?" My suspicion is that the rot set in when Nathan's mugshot starting appearing on the front covers of Time Magazine, Forbes, Upside etc. more frequently than that of His Billness. Steve Balmer (the MS answer to Scott McNealey and Larry Ellison), so far, is less of a threat. But, who know "when charismata hit de fan, man?" John Webster prayed: "Let my son flee the courts of princes."

ref 3: From my piece on Paul Robeson in People's Weekly World, April 14 2000:

I've always envied and possibly mistrusted those autobiographers who tell you exactly when, where, with whom, what they had for dinner, and the size of the tip. As revenge, I once parodied this "reflected-glory" genre with a set of chapters each using the template, "I Only Met The Once." Thus:

"I only met Alan Turing the once. He came rushing out of the Cambridge Maths Lab on a cold Thursday morning in November 1954 at 10:35, and collided head on with my bike. As our eyes met, a whole world of understanding passed between us. 'You idiot,' he screamed -- and then he was gone. We were destined never to meet again."

And now, sadly, truth being stranger and less credible than satire, nobody believes that I did in fact meet Paul Robeson -- and "just the once." Being young and foolish, I never recorded the date or what either of us was weaweawearing. The place, context and impact, however, are indelible. It was, I guess, the late 1950s, early 1960s when Robeson came to London en route from medical treatment in Moscow. As a minor but " emerging" left-wing Folk Song Revivalist (having joined the YCL [Young Communist League] in Liverpool circa 1943 before becoming a full party member at, where else, Cambridge University around 1950 -- click-click -- is this a protected internet connection?), I was active with the WMA (Workers' Music Association) who, with other Trades Unions, organized a Paul Robeson Concert at St Pancras [sic -- the Patron Saint of Children] Town Hall near the seedy, eponymous railway station. (Historians can no doubt confirm or correct the place and time before I risk my formal autobio.) So, I was there, and sang with the great man -- together with hundreds of others, of course, as we joined him in "Joe Hill." He also sang in Russian and Chinese, but "Joe Hill," to me, endures as the ultimate in Robeson artistry -- a uniquely profound (basso profundo) black voice declaring class unity across the Wobbly racial divides. And leaving long behind "Dat Ole Man Ribber" 1920s with the embarrassing but well-intentioned Show Boat.

More yet, as Leadbelly used to say: after the concert some of us went backstage to meet our hero. But "hero" sounds so trite and bourgeois (even un peu Stalinist?). I now realize that this was probably Robeson's last public, live concert, at least in Europe. I do honestly recall the large and charismatic presence in spite of his obvious ill-health. We were destined never to meet again!

Stan's bio:

Liverpool-born Stan Kelly-Bootle has been exposed to computing, on and off and vice-versa, since 1953 when, after graduating in Pure Mathematics at Cambridge University, he switched to impure post-grad work on the wondrous EDSAC I. After some trenching with IBM and Univac in the 1960s and 70s, Stan opted for self-employment as a consultant, writer, folk-song revivalist, after-dinner entertainer, and cunning linguist.

His monthly DA ("Devil's Advocate") column ran and ran in UNIX Review (aka Performance Computing) from 1984 until January 2000 (a date that will live in infamy) but lives on as SODA ("Son of DA") via the homepage devoted to UNIX performance.

The latest of his umpteen books are "The Computer Contradictionary" (MIT Press) and "UNIX Complete" (Sybex). More on his biblio- and disco-graphy can be found on soon due for its millennial update.

Stan welcomes reader reaction:

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Portions © copyright Stan Kelly-Bootle 2000.
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This column is sponsored by Aurora Software Inc., makers of SarCheck. The opinions of Stan Kelly-Bootle are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Aurora Software Inc. Especially opinions about people who can afford expensive lawyers! Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.