Son of Devil's Advocate, October 2000

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle

Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

Signs of Age

There's one of those many Churchill stories, hard to pin down by date or truth (but what-the-hell), that has the Great Man [ref 1] arriving late for a speech. He tears up his notes, and gravely announces "I had planned today to extol the virtues of punctuality." I'm suffering the self-same irony, having chosen the title "Signs of Age" some months ago, then finding that this ninth SODA column was running late, in spite of Don Winterhalter's gentle prodding. Signs of age, indeed, after over forty-five years of being the Editors' prompt, on-the-dot dream scrivener. "We don't want le mot juste," was the Publishers' famous cry, "we want le mot Tuesday." I suppose that the recent shift of some of my columns from hard-copy to soft-web-content has influenced my work-flow. Indeed, the very concept "deadline" has "softened" at internet speed [ref 2]. Both code and comment are bandied and updated with all the volatile care associated with an chat space.

Yet, the unaccustomed SODA delay, whereby the October column may not reach you until the last week in September, does demand an apology and explanation.

I was rash enough to plan a grand b'day (pronounced bidet?) bash on September 15th. Fifty of my closest friends took the billing "My Final Such" literally and flew in to Point Richmond from Oakland, Georgia, and Malaysia to pay their last respects. A rare, uplifting reunion with old UNIX and CS colleagues such as Steve Bourne, Bob Toxen, and George Ledin, and folk-song pals such as Shay Black and Riggy Rackin, that left me nackered for days. Not to mention all the ex-pat, hard-drinking soccer yobbs from the Mad Dog In The Fog pub! Nor a moving array of ex- and putative wives -- but I digress.

George pointed out the "primeness" of my life: my age (71); my birth-year (1929); my Cambridge graduation year (1953).

The cake, supplied by RougeHilda, exhausted the Bay Area supply of candles, but bore the optimistic Wagnerian slogan "Zu neuen Taten" urging her fading Siegfried to meet the next deadline!

See youse all again at my next prime, really-final ceilidh?

UNIX Review -- 15 Years Ago

Devil's Advocate -- Stan Kelly-Bootle, October, 1985

You have 1 Files in 1 Directories

This month I return to the subject of letters, not only the individual, embittered 7-ch characters as codified by the eponymous Sir Arthur Askey (the Hammurapi of Holland Park), but also the tangled strings thereof which we send and receive with such reckless abandon via the random packet switching system known as the Postal Service. To the traditional hazards of sleet and snow, unchained dogs and unnumbered houses, randy homemakers and Canadian Zip Codes, we must now add the thousand natural glitches that bedevil our electronic mail, a la modem de chez nous. The whole of CommBiz seems to have hoisted a defiant banner proclaiming "No Pasaran!"

Beyond the theoretically avoidable impediments of fickle filters, clogged pipes and wicked gates, our messages run epistemological gauntlets that are quintessentially impenetrable, such as this sentence.

The often misascribed Kelly-Bootle Uncertainty Principle, which I have proved elsewhere (op. cit., ibid., et seq., et al., more), makes it clear that complete accuracy in both the message and its delivery is impossible. If you fix the content of a message, there is an non-zero error in achieving the desired destination; likewise, if you insist on correct routing you must pay the price in the form of data degradation. In the real tariff-ridden world, transmission errors are cunningly spread between the two: message distortion and misrouting. This, of course, explains why you get so much junk - the good stuff is going to someone else.

The Uncertainty Principle applies with greater frustration at the micro level. Programmers meet it daily when they try to pass parameters from one module to another. The "software crisis" boils down to the impossibility of getting both the pointer and the pointee correct at the same time. Clever chips like the Motorola M68000 offer some help in detecting errors; the BRTS instruction, for example, is the postal equivalent of "Return to Sender, Address Unknown."

No amount of humming or Hamming can change my Principle, nor Shannon's Canon which unites the immutable Laws of Mother Nature and Ma Bell! I often wonder why so many people waste their time meddling with the immutable. More Latin and less Logo in the schools, I say.

The only rational reaction to things unchangeable is good humored acceptance - looking on the bright side, as exemplified in my award-winning column. Admittedly, such a philosophy would ruin Act II of Medea ("Jason, dear, I've been thinking...perhaps it's best if I slip away quietly and leave the kids with you.") and o-u-t out goes big, ranting chunks of Shakespeare. In my "Happy Hamlet" the Prince marries Ophelia and Claudius abdicates in favor of his nephew.

The above-mentioned fundamental communicative flaws have not, happily, prevented my vast readership from trying to reach me with questions, comments and encouraging remarks. From the few garbled letters which have arrived I can extrapolate confidently, and apologize to the thousands who must be waiting in vain for my response.

What you are missing is FORMn.LET, where n is a uniquely appropriate integer in the range 1-4. When I scan my bookshelves I see those depressingly large volumes of "Collected Letters" by authors and composers who, unassisted by WP and WWB, somehow found the time to correspond so mightily. Incidentally, Wagner could have saved much effort with my FORM1.LET, a skeletal "Send me some money" request, freeing him to put some meat on his bony operatic trifles. If and when my own correspondence, "Yrs Etc. - From the Desk of SKB - The Golden Years," is published, it will, I fear, prove to be a somewhat slender and boring tabulation:

Mum /n=1/08-12-84/$50.00

and so on.

But, back to those readers' letters which did get through.

"Job-Hunter" writes from Cupertino:

"I have just done my MBA. My next ambition is to do something useful for mankind provided the money be good, else I would definitely consider doing something rotten but well-paid. I understand that AT&T have sound IBM-compatible products but lack forceful marketing strategies. My successful summer vacation job at MicroLand, where I won the Salesperson of June Award by flogging 2 copies of TurboPascal, leads me to believe that I would make an excellent Marketing Manager. Please help."

Dear Job-Hunter, $ cat form3.let

I hope that the fact that I have online, pre-prepared answers will not stem your flood of dumb questions.

ref 1: Winnie won World War II for us (with Turing's help), but never quite survived his Tory reputation as the 1915 Gallipoli architect and 1920s Strike Breaker. The world was shocked when he lost the post-victory 1945 election.

ref 2: deadline n. 1 Communications A NACKered line that rejects all handshakes, however friendly. 2 Scheduling One of a sequence of vague prophecies; a given date before which assignments must not be completed. See alsoHARTREE CONSTANT. (The Computer Contradictionary, SK-B, MIT Press, 1996) See also, my "Last Word -- Deadlines," Linux Journal, December, 2000.

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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