Son of Devil's Advocate, November 2000

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle

Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

Whom Can You Trust?

Well, cynics might call this a rhetorical question. That is, one that need not be asked since the answer is implied. Or, if you must ask in all seriousness, you cannot expect a direct response. Rather, in the ancient art of rhetoric, once an essential part of the Platonic curriculum alongside logic and geometry, such questions were intended to trigger profound debate. There was, in those good old days (I know, I was there) a distinction, sadly lost, between asserting a proposition dogmatically and merely proposing it for discussion. [ref 1]

In these seedy, sensitive polemic days, one is loath to say "If X..." lest someone accuses one of being a liberal or fascist or whatever Xite.

My title, of course, admits of the obvious answer. You can trust me, but beware of everyone and everything else. Especially speeches that start "Fellow 'Mericans." Even more-so [ref 2], shun PRs that promise portable multi-paradigmatic, cross- platform, scalable, low-cost, web-aware, maintainable, 24x7 frameworks.

But, apart from Al Gore's grand cornucopia of dubious data known as the Web, soon to mislead every kid on the planet, I must report some remakably untrustworthy information in the most dependable of printed sources.

A rare ripple in the usually smooth pond of philosophical bibliography! David Fate Norton (Department of Philosophy, McGill University, Montreal) spotted a weird entry in The Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers (what could be more reliable?)

Briefly, there was a long, detailed entry for an obscure Gaelic philosopher named "Beg Eolach Moidhach." David noted that this could be interpreted as "Little Knowledgeable Hare" and further bizarre biographical details convinced him that the entry was a hoax. (See TLS, July 7, 2000, page 17). The author of the entry (NRo'E) also turned out to be "unavailable."

So, just the editors taken in by a spoof?

And, maybe future spurious PhD theses based on Beg Eolach Moidhach's invaluable contributions to Gaelic philosophy?

Not so, it now seems. The current explanation is that reference book publishers often insert deliberate misinformation as a test for locating possible plagiarists.

Lord, echoes of Enigma code breaking. Whom, indeed, can you trust? Only me, and the known advantages of sarcheck productivity.

Check my recent Redux Redux column at for pithy comments on semantics --

As David Lindsay says: "The wages of sin is death -- but what's the syntax?"

UNIX Review: Devil's Advocate, Nov 1985 (c) Stan Kelly-Bootle

Goals for Sale

I have been asked to keep you updated on my exciting chase after Ty Cobb's life-time hit total. My attempt will obviously challenge Pete Rose's record also, but that is entirely coincidental. Relax, Peter my dear boy, it's Tyrant R. Cobb I'm after. For some time I had considered tackling Cobb's achievements in other non-Wrigley-type fields, off-the-plate, as it were. Take Ty Cobb's record in, say, M68000 assembly language programming. You needn't look it up; Cobb's coding was unbelievably ineffective at all levels, pure Bugsville, 0 for FFFF, man. There's no fun beating such an abysmal performance.

No, the improbable dream should be made of sterner stuff, as Hamlet once remarked to Brutus. Why drive up Mount Tam when there are Eigers to be scaled? Why grovel in RPG while the perfect payroll cries out for LISP? (You can test the eerie intelligence of LISP by typing


which sadly but correctly returns NIL

So here is the challenge I have taken on amidst a sea of doubting sniggers:

Ty Cobb's target record:    Tot Hits  4191

Stan "Mr November" Kelly-Bootle:  Last Game 0-5  Tot Hits     0
Hits still needed to tie Ty       4191
Hits still needed to pass Ty      4192
Hits still needed to completely humiliate Ty     8192

You will be relieved to learn that I plan to retire at this point, just as my 11-bit register overflows!

Be sure to follow my progress, reported exclusively here in Unix Review every month - you will definitely not find it in the so called Sporting Press (I leave you to draw your own conclusions; just remember that Pete Rose's first at-bat attracted very little attention from those smart alec-jock- scribes).

I am not the only Quixote on the block! Indeed, I am much encouraged by letters from Dorothy D'Attoma, the lively PR for Multi Solutions Inc., inventors of the S1 Operating System. I have a theory that S1 stands for Sisyphian #1 indicating that Dorothy has one hell of an uphill assignment, namely dislodging UNIX from the top of the heap.

I recall selling Univac's Exec8 against IBM's OS360 in those carefree days of core (by the way, whatever happened to plated- wire memory? Three bucks-a-byte, but verrry pretty). If we were asked if Exec8 had a certain feature or property, we would ponder to ourselves if such a feature or property seemed sensible and desirable. If so, our answer would be an enthusiastic affirmative: "Yes, sir, moreover it's transparent to the user." We would then rush off a cable to Sperry HQ in Bluebell, PA.

Another historical curiosity springs to mind, although it predates my own personal involvement. During the 1840's the British steam locomotive rail system had evolved haphazardly with private companies building networks with different track widths. Each, of course, had convincing arguments why 5 foot 6 3/4 inches was either a God-given boon or a pitiful, diabolical trap. If the wheels on all your trains and rolling-stock happen to be, for the sake of argument, 5 foot 6 3/4 inches apart, it is clearly difficult to admit the sanity of anyone singing the praises of a 7 foot 1 inch track.

The greatest engineer of the day, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), proved beyond doubt that the wider track offered a safer and more comfortable ride. Further, he went ahead and built the Great Western Railway on this basis. For a few years trains were actually designed with adjustable wheels, allowing them to make the journey from, say, Norwich to Bristol with two or three stops for wheel adjustment (compared with the alternative "All Change!" for goods and passengers). Alas, poor Brunel was just a little late; the narrow gauge, devised before all the design implications were known, became the prevalent, unshakeable standard.

The obvious question (if you like simplistic analogies): Is UNIX running on the right lines for the wrong reasons? Or vice versa? Who's on first? Not me, I still need one of those damned, elusive 4191 hits.


T. Boone Pick has taken over AT&T and the University of California, Berkeley. His OS is declared the ad hocissimus standard. ALL CHANGE!

Where did I put my old BASIC manuals?

ref 1: Russell/Whitehead's Principia Mathematica (CUP, 1903) formalized, in vain, this distinction. Thus "x" was a proposition held up for inspection, while "t:x" was the assertion, true or false after many pages of symbolic manipulation.

ref 2: Recall the Marxist (Groucho) ditty "Lydia The Tattooed Lady"? "She has eyes that men adore so -- and her torso even more so."

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. Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.