Son of Devil's Advocate, August 2000

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle

Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

Sweet Talk

There's this sad tradition of lonely males calling various services in order to hear a consoling voice of the distaff intonation. I'm told that barloads of macho Brazilians regularly dial for the time of day simply to swoon over the sexy response that at the next heart-throb beep it will be "dez horas, trinta minutos, doze segundos" or whatever [ref 1]. No need to check the husky numbers with those on your expensive Omega -- just hold on and fantasize as the precious segundos roll on: she's confiding in you alone.

I'm not immune, alas, to such titillations. In spite of provable ISP fiscal impediments, I've long been loyal to my CIS (CompuServe) account, predating the internettoyage excesses. CompuServe, snidely and unfairly dubbed CI$, has oft saved my connectivity life's-blood bacon when all other email routes have been blocked. Further, it has a charming vox-mode logon ack, of whom, more anon.

I've tried several "free" ISPs with mixed results. Some, like NetZero, confuse my simple email needs with a bewildering array of flashing omni-portal banners. I think, mon dieu, what brilliant exploitation of Java applets, dynamic HTML, whatever, but seldom click on the "Win a trip to Hawaii" nor double-click for the free $10 beverage coupon ("Valid except where invalid"). Someone should warn the marketeers that serious drinkers go for drinks and would rather die dry than succumb to a beverage however free.

Even those octal [ref 2] IDs with dubious separators ("," for CIS, but "." for the internet to avoid weird parsing UNIX calamities) are rather endearing, now that unique names are hard to find. They say that over 80% of all Webster III headwords are currently "registered." The mind boggles, does it not, that I was unable to secure the ID "grannyfrog" with a well-known, nameless ISP. I refuse to further boggle your mind by explaining why I sought this peculiar appellation.

And some ID-traders are raiding the Cambridge Biographical Encyclopaedia, then selling famous appellations to their tardy eponyms. The California DMV query applications for personalized car plates (denying the obviously offensive) [ref 3], but anyone, it seems, can register, e.g., or -- oops, they've probably been took already.

The resulting search for distinct IDs has brought us back in the direction of the CIS numerical system. At a recent party, exchanging email addresses, I encountered a "moongoddess19" (I dare not reveal her full designation). Only in Marin County, CA, as they say. I refuse to seek "grannyfrogN" for sufficiently large values of N. If the original "grannyfrog" is reading this, please drop me a line. And likewise, is the top-bitch 'moongoddess' out there, seeking a helio-e-pen pal?

The CIS log-in invokes a deep-throat Joyce Grenfield voice murmuring "Welcome to CompuServe," and her "You have mail" sends me dizzy. She, my Ursula Undressed, has emerged from the Botticellian shell to serve her delicious spam just for me. And when I reluctantly take leave of my virtual Venus, there's none of that shrewish sequence: "Are you sure you want to exit? Y/N" "Absolutely certain? Y/N"; "You'll be sorry --" My siren simply croons "Thank you for using CompuServe." I whisper "My pleasure, dearest, a bientôt, mon amour," though, in the unrequited trobador tradition, she will not heed my words of love.

Sour Talk

The contrast when calling for so-called "hot-line" support, where 24 x 7 == 0 x 0 + musak, could not be greater. If you do reach a meatbod, there's an overwhelming lack of sincerity: "Welcome -- may I call you Stan? Together, Stan, I'm sure we can solve your problem -- are you sitting comfortably -- have a cigarette -- is your computer plugged into a source of power? There's a two or three pronged connector that should match the little slots in your wall -- "

I do sympathize with all those serious, well-meaning, real-time helpers -- I've been there myself on both sides of the blazing firewall. The ugly acronym PEBCAK (Problem Exists between Chair and Keyboard) oft sums up the ugly truth. Touching on keyboards, by the way, has been a sore lowpoint in my life of late. Not the carpal syndrome whingeing, but the fact that certain keys on my laptop started failing. First the X went bad, but I carried on using a simple work-around (avoid words with x|X). A greater challenge was the S-W-malfunction, since some of my passwords contain these letters (that's all I prepared to reveal to all you nasty hackers out there). The old bulldog BritGrit evaporated when the E-disaster struck, that is to say, the E failed to strike. Yes, I know Georg Perec wrote a whole novel avoiding that dominant vowel, but he didn't use E-mail.

The catch-22++: warning my impatient editors that "th? col ?a? running lat?"

UNIX Review AUGUST 1985

Look for that Silver Lining

Many of my readers will be aware of the recent hiccups in the erstwhile exponentially blissful growth of the Computer Industry. I refuse to join those gloomy commentators who scream "major recession" and "Armageddon" every time Silicon Valley shuts down for longish weekends ranging from 5 to 15 days. God knows we've earned a break: the company car parks hold an adequate inventory of work-stations, my UNIX integrated accounting package (code-named "Larghissimo Ma Non Troppo," the last remaining musical idiom unregistered as a software product) is but a few tweaks away from perfection, and the Giants have a home-stand against the Dodgers.

When reading of plant closures and staff layoffs, it is tempting to proclaim that the End Days of Tribulation are at hand:

"And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire." (Revelation Ch. XX v. 15)

where "book of life" is interpreted as a company annual report with a healthy bottom line.

I still prefer the word "hiccup" which reflects my own calm view that what we are suffering is not the final judgement, nor even a chronic sickness. Rather, I maintain that we are being hypochondriac over a few spurious spikes and annoying discontinuities which show up on our Sales and Profits Graphs, most of which, I claim, are entirely due to the unendearing quirks of the Macintosh Image Writer. If you step back far enough (to the rear of the Welfare line, for example) and half- close your eyes, the trend curves become smoother and less ominous, the fuzzy pie-charts assume a more edible disposition, and, hopefully, those ghastly Macfont legends disappear completely.

The two extreme sectors of the computer plexus (main-frame and noddy) certainly perceive themselves to be in a state of flatness if not decline.

It is good to see two of the leading main-frame manufacturers, Sperry and Burroughs, close to a merger which might reverse their ailing fortunes. It will not be easy to forge a unified product line from two such disparate ranges. Outside of Apple Corporation, indeed, it would be difficult to find a pair of systems of such daunting incompatibility.

In the widely debated case of the Rise and Fall of Home Computing there is no doubt that even Invincible Business Machines have been disappointed. A closer inspection reveals that the root of the problem has been unjustified expectations and crazy forecasting. If you predict a 400% growth, and crank up production accordingly, then a 200% growth, miraculous by any normal standards, becomes abject failure. The absolute number of Home Computers sold is a monument to marketing ingenuity and human gullibility.

I offer one recent snippet to back this view. Having replaced a $300 typewriter with a $2000 Word Processor ("The advert said it was 'affordable` so how could I resist?"), the Home Computerist is next offered a $95 software package which allows direct keyboard-to-printer mode! "Bypass all those time- consuming diskettes! Forget all those funny file-names!"

The Home Computer peddlers have also overlooked the growing number of Homeless persons (excluding those with Ph.D's in computer science) who, more than any other segment of the market, are in need of affordable, systematic, integrated, press-any-key-when-ready general problem-solvers.

Pessimists, especially laid-off pessimists facing eviction and vehicular repossession, may well quibble at my carefree analysis.

Unemployment, it seems, breeds a nasty form of intolerant cynicism which inhibits the rational assessment of reality. Indeed, I meet many who blame Reason itself for their plight. "My job was secure until they rationalized production," is a common complaint in Santa Clara County. Ironically, the very work-free people whose leisure to ponder objectively on the deep structure of the cosmos would be the envy of any Golden Age Athenian, waste their time casting stones at the blameless.

Little did the semi-conductor assembly-line workers realize that, as predicted by Ezekiel, Marx and Engels, they had been "tilling their own graves through the seven years of abundance; their lamps were left unoiled, yea, they trimmed not the wicks thereon." They have literally automated themselves out of a job, and should expect no sympathy from the millions who were earlier victims of automation in other trades. An industry founded on the proposition that machines can legally work for less than minimum rate must accept the logic of computerized computer assembly together with the ALO (Automatic LayOff) package, which sends termination notices and W2's by Electronic Mail.

Nowadays, no self-respecting chip wants to be manhandled into this world, or even photographed alongside a human, germ- ridden, pinky finger-nail. Letting the chips procreate and assemble in their own unsullied environment certainly improves the yield and lowers the unit cost. And, naturally, there will be cycles of glut and shortage - but eventually the brighter chips will adjust (they can hardly do worse than the semi- conductor industry).

Programmers should be aware of similar suicidal trends in automatic software generation! Rash attempts to simplify awk are just the thin end of a dreadful wedge that could lead to major layoffs. An unemployed programmer is a pitiful sight. I have seen a few in San Jose. They gather round Automatic Teller Machines idly tapping the dead keyboard, dreaming of past glories.

ref 1: I'm as ever grateful to Rainer Brockerhoff, divinely multilingual, who rules the Brazilian Mac world via

ref 2: I'm still inordinately proud of detecting a rare error in my second favorite UNIX book: UNIX for the Impatient, Paul W. Abrahams & Bruce R. Larson, Addison Wesley, 2nd Ed., 1996. On page 625, we see a reference to, which might be counted as two octal excesses.

ref 3: The UK DMV equivalent has to watch for naughty and/or religious words in Welsh and other Gaelic tongues. A classic case that escaped even the English sieve was a madame's E-type Jaguar that cruised Soho in the 1960s with the inviting plate PENIS. Closer inspection (I know, being there) revealed that the final "S" was a distorted "5."