Son of Devil's Advocate, July 2000

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle


Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

Little Bird

This month's title follows the deliberately obscure path that my dear, devoted fans have come to love and endure. We have, first, the common English idiom for an unnamed source, as in "A little bird told me ..." If the reported tweets are libellous, the courts are likely to indict you rather than your anonymous feathered informant. An English judge is unlikely to accept the Wagnerian defense: das Vögelchen, as sung by Joan Sutherland, revealed the whole truth to Siegfried! [ref 1]

Then, again, those of us seeking fluency (in vain) in diverse languages, are challenged by the morphology and meaning of the diminutive. There are so many pre- and post-tricks to indicate size and endearment. The len(string) is often inversely proportional to the sizeof(affection). William becomes my boy Bill, and Stanley/Stanislaus moves to Stan then on to Stasiu and Stachenko.

My favorite Papuan example, moving in the counter-diminutive direction, is "mwata" for a snake, and "mwata-mwata" for a larger snake. And so on. Thus, contradicting the Darwinian survival hypothesis, your scream for help (I'm being attacked by a HUGE snake) takes too many syllables.

Back to the "little bird," I'm much taken by a new open-source company called dLoo (visit www.dloo.com for details) which boasts (for reasons I'll reveal anon) a sweet tweety-pie logo.

As the looney cartoon might have said:

I t'ought I saw a coup d'etat a-creeping up on me

I must acknowledge my lack of objectivity insofar as dLoo co- founder, Alex Ledin, is the son of Professor George Ledin, one of my earliest CS chums from way back (we both qualify as EOFs, Extremely Old Farts in the nicest sense of that term, viz. mature yet not over self-serious). George had the audacity (aliter: good sense) to invite me not once but twice (aliter: rash judgement) as guest speaker at his Sonoma State University "open houses." Or rather "open departments," since he was an early advocate of ending Snow's "two culture" dichotomy by assembling humanist and science (especially computer science) students for a common dialog. I think one of my talks was based on Knuth's famous topics "Computer Science: the first billion years." I certainly pushed Shakespeare (aka Bill the Quill) as a computer pioneer: Thus: in the Henry V (aka Hank Cinq) prolog

O! for a MUSE of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invent-i-on.

we see an obvious acronym: Most Unusual Shakespearian Engine -- clinched by

Or CRAM within this wooden O

surely a reference to his primitive disk and compression technologies.

Elsewhere, we encounter Bill's assembly language: the use of AND.W to clear a word:

AND, in a WORD, but even now worth this, and now worth NOTHING." (The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene i).

Note too, the prophetic use of the C++ keyword this.

He was also ahead of Boole and that crowd in promoting the value of conditional statements:

... much virtue in an IF." (As You Like It, Act V, Scene iv)

And, yes, Shakespeare suffered all the frustrations of debugging:

Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague the inventor." (Macbeth, Act I, Scene vii)

So here's Alex Ledin whom I once dandled on my knee (he, of course, in the current fashion of historical revisionism, denies the incident), together with Nile Geisinger and James McGreen, launching a fresh approach to OSS (Open Source Software). The main gist is that billyons of Windoze and MacOS users should be able to benefit from the OSS revolution even if they can't, for many reasons, immediately switch to Linux/UNIX platforms.

Check out www.unixreview.com and www.linuxjournal.com for further insights by me and others more au fait on the far-from-consensual OSS "community."

A Native American Onomastic Gamble!

The name dLoo, as you surely know, has no connection with UK scatology ("Loo" for shit-house came via "WC" [water closet] to our grand anti-Frog victory at Waterloo), but is the Apache (the American-Indian language, not the eponymous server) for -- drum- roll -- "little bird."

The initial "d" in "dLoo," of course, is an Apache diminutive signifier, pronounced as a sort of inter-dental glottal stop.

Ideally, we should follow the example set by www.research.att.com/~bs where Bjarne Stroustrup offers a .wav file to answer the most F of the C++ FAQs: How to pronounce our Founder's name.

I'm more familiar with the Cherokee syllabary (90+ symbols uniqely recorded by Chief Sequoyah [1770?-1849]) for which I helped devise an ascii-mapping font for the Multi-Scholar Word Processor) -- yet I'm sure that there's a unicode char out there for that elusive Apache "d."

We Have Mail

Re-my SODA June 2000 ramblings on NULL, Brad Lieffring writes from Prairie Village, Kansas, reminding me (thanks a lot, Brad) of time's winged, far from (Andrew) Marvellous, chariot just as I'm running out of coy mistresses:

"Since x no longer exists after it joins the null set, the memory and any value or traits of the newly deceased x is a member of the null set, long gone and soon forgotten. Any values or word lengths we have ever had will not keep us from joining the null set. Historians of historians show that any traits attributed to our memories will be the interpreted values of the recorder, not truly ours. PS: Are there prime imaginary or complex numbers?"

To which, I replied:

"Yes, sad to think of dying as joining a sort of null domain, to be either forgotten or misremembere'd -- for devout atheists like me, it's just another depressing fact of life! Others, of course, have devised alt. scenarios: eternal bliss or eternal torture (non-Calvinists can take their pick) -- but it's still null in the sense that we don't seem to have reliable feedback from the deceased?

In the trad Math formalism: any x applying for NULL set membership faces a tricky entry test! 'I wouldn't join a club that would have me for a member' (G. Marx)

Taking 'prime' as atomic or non-decomposable, there are analogues in many branches of mathematics -- clearly you need to define how elements are combined and factorized -- and that can go well beyond our 'normal' arithmetic -- in Knot Theory, e.g., knots can be prime or composite (except for the non-knot which is neither -- back to null again) -- the interesting point is that some number systems do not have the "unique factorization into primes" property of our everyday integers."

Rainer Brockerhoff also wrote all the way from Bel Horizonte (the ideal location for my next non-coy Brazilian mistress?) that nil is a common synonym for NULL in the MacOS community. Look out for Rainer's forthcoming tour-de-force essay on GUI philosophy on the MacHack website.

He compares two metaphors:

  1. The user as God viewing and controlling a "world-screen."
  2. The user as confused observer of a "screen-aquarium" populated by random, expensive, tropical fish.

To the latter, I noted the old New Yorker cartoon:

Two goldfish musing in their bowl:

One says, "If there isn't a God, who is feeding us?"

Rainer replied, quoting our mutual friend Haj:

One dog says to its pampered mate: "Our owner feeds us and must be a God."

One cat says to its pampered mate: "My owner feeds me -- I must be a God."

This Column Fifteen Years Ago --

UNIX Review JULY 1985 -- Devil's Advocate -- Stan Kelly-Bootle 05/06/85

Keeping Track..

When I worked for what is now the largest computer company in the world, IB-something-or-other, way back in the 50s, I not only knew every available computer model, I also knew, off the cuff, where they were installed, what they were doing and which cards had an X in column 80. Indeed, I was on object code terms with all known programs and their perpetrators, often with a degree of intimacy that was too hot not to cool down.

Even today, I still try to keep abreast or two, but my omniscience is not what it used to be. Yes, I hear your howls of disbelief, but facts are facts. It is certainly true that Knuth and I togther, pooling our knowledge-bases, as it were, can answer all worthwhile questions (our respective lacunae happen to be non-intersecting), but left on my own I have been known to turn the other hedge.

When the Univac reached double-figures I was forced to commit my private Users' List to the spare pages at the back of my diary so I could refresh my memory before ACM dinner-parties. An up-to-the-minute knowledge of "who-got-what" was considered a major social asset, beating a black-belt in Mah Jong or a working acquaintance with the Earl Scruggs' 5-string banjo. Of especial merit was the ability to drop casually or counter-drop bitingly some obscure snippet of computer gossip ("Groupe Drouot has gone Bull, would you believe?" "Really? When I dined with Jacques last night, they weren't even on the old Short List." "How bizarre! I had breakfast with Jacques' wife this morning...she's the real decision-maker, you know...") My piece-de-resistance, guaranteed to empty any bar, was a snappy overview of the fifty Z22's installed by Konrad Zuse. Then the pace quickened with thousands of 1400's and hundreds of 9000's (this column refuses to bore you with the precise numbers), forcing all but the bravest to abandon the notion of a comprehensive user list. I, of course, persevered right through the deluge of DEC10's and DEC10 look-alikes, filling several notebooks a day, and beginning to wonder, "My God, is it all worth-while?"

Incidentally, some of you may be surprised to learn that the parasitic art of building look-alikes and act-alikes predates Compaq; in fact, exploiting the success of one's competitor predates even Data General, Honeywell and AlphaMicro. An advert in the London TIMES, dated May 15th 1851, proclaimed:

At Last! Comcog Unveiled! Analytic Engines for Affordable Disbursements! A Truly Wondrous Break Through! All of Mr Babbage's Most Popular Sequences will Run As Are! Stretch Your Differencing Pennies! Comcog might well be the LAST Analytic Engine you will ever need to purchase! How Do We Spell Compatibility? C-O-M-C-O-G! (Of Late Dilligently Demonstrated at the Palace of St James' Before Crowned Monarchs and Learned Skeptiks!)

Maintaining my User List became a full-time horror during the Micro Boom of the 70s, whereby 20 years of architectural bungling were suddenly concentrated into a single, mass- reproducible chip, and the Sorcerer's Apprentice, known as Intel, could not find the right incantation to stem the flood.

If pressed, I would now have to admit that I have no idea who is using the TRS-80 serial number #198563, or which attic is storing the Coleco Adam #6543. Because of the gray market I have lost track of several Sinclair ZX81's; worse still, people are slotting all manner of boards into their PC's, changing operating systems, keyboards, drives and monitors without advising me or IBM. There must be hundreds of so-called PC Users on my list who are essentially covert Macintosh users, but too ashamed to admit it. Look, if you wanna Mac, buy a Mac, and stop screwing up my User List!

Likewise, I am reliably informed by no less a source than Recent Studies at a Well Known West Coast University that some of you are tampering with your Microwave Ovens! My TMS1000 and PPS4 lists, tedious enough to maintain at the best of times, are being unnecessarily distorted by under cover chip-switching. It is a grotesque misuse of the Motorola MC68020 and the System V/68 OS! Your Cup'O'Noodles will not warm up any quicker with a 32-bit timer! And is it not reckless over-kill to use

$ grep steak oven

to check the contents of your TV dinner?

I am planning to publish my Universal Comprehensive Users' List, warts and all, with a daily supplement. It will not be cheap, but remember, it's more than just a tabulation of models and owners. We show you exact configurations and all applications (including file names, file contents and source code). The disassembled ROM listings and Current Password sections alone will quickly repay your modest investment. Founder subscribers will receive, absolutely FREE, a copy of my new book, "Winchester Technology - Are We Just Scratching the Surface?" plus a set of matching steak-knives, a bamboo endivesteamer and a rare poster showing the UNIX Review Editorial Board at work.

ref 1: "Historian" David Irving, the pathetic Holocaust denier, lost his libel suit against Penguin Books and Deborah Lipstadt -- see Dan Jacobson's use-case summary in TLS (The Times Literary Supplement) April 21 2000, No 5054).


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 www.sarcheck.com 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 http://www.feniks.com/skb/ soon due for its millennial update.

Stan welcomes reader reaction: skb@atdial.net

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Portions © copyright Stan Kelly-Bootle 2000.
Portions © copyright Aurora Software Inc. 1997-2000, all rights reserved.
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. Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.