Son of Devil's Advocate, January 2001

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle


Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

Yet Another Year

Yes, it's a whole new year, give or take the odd nano-second leaps and terrestial pertubations, since my first SODA column appeared on the noble sarcheck web site [ref 1]. My fawning fans will be familiar with the backgound. Newbies (the current feel- good PC idiom for the ignorant) may "need to know" that UR (UNIX Review) was suddenly snuffed in December 1999 by Miller Freeman Inc., aka the MaFIa. The hard-glossy UR had appeared monthly with Copernican regularity since late 1983, enhanced by my DA (Devil's Advocate) column from May, 1984, with ne'er a deadline missed (well hardly e'er). This continuity almost matches or excels that of Pournelle/BYTE, Neumann/ACM, O'Brien/Computer Language, Dvorak/Computer Weekly, and Swaine/Doctor Dobbs. But, as Cantor said to Turing: "Who's counting?"

UR, momentarily renamed as Performance Computing (don't ask) fought the good fight while various well-dressed suits decided which magazines would survive the MFI/CMP merger codependicies.

In the event, or, as Shannan Hobbs, my preferred epistemologiste (unrelated to Thomas Hobbes) might say, "In the event of an in- Quine event," my DA column was eventually web-revived as SODA (Son of DA), thanks to Don Winterhalter (literally, "end the ice-age") of Aurora Software.

I am far from being critical re-the on-going hard-copy publicational demises. If the inevitable marketing forces indicate that the finite, competing advertising revenues will not support, say, three database magazines, something has to give (or, in current jargon, relinguish "persistence").

As a mere prole-slave scribe, subject to the dreaded Marxian cash nexus, I accept these apodictic restrictions. Who cares who will feed my starving kids and pugnacious ex- and future wives, or pay for my next Porsche oil change? The "suits" are equally indifferent to the fact that my great-grandma's cornea transplant is pushing $20K (the rest of the family say forget it -- the bitch was born sand-blind).

My colunny, therefore, is not mere wankage [ref 2] padding the wordcount with diverse anniversarial ramblings. I am bound by the ISO CompJournal Standard (Dvorak/Swaine Rev: 1987)

Thus, I invoke the ISO Survival Template that lets me thank "everyone without whom" followed by a list of putative parents, spice, offspring, in-laws, outlaws, guru-sources, editors, and readers. A single click (known as a "simple" click on one-button-mouse systems) triggers the default list. The resulting AckString includes "my dear wife," "percipient but annoying redactresses," and similar slots you can instantiate if real names spring to mind.

In addition to blessing "all the helpful reader feedback, both pro and con" there's a rare, nasty zen-option cursing the lethargic fans who failed to encourage.

Using Knuth's "literary" programming methodology, columnists can access the appropriate classics. A wonderful quote is Tennyson's

"Another Year -- another Mighty Blow!"

which Brit kids of my generation were forced (cane-thwacked) to recite with the best stentorian, imperial Victorian, iambic prosody. In fact, overcoming my native Scouse (Liverpool) adenoids, I won an elocution prize circa 1943 declaiming this very ode.

Of course, after all the so-called 2000 millennial angst, 2001 is a special col-thread-trigger which I must resist. Every magazine I scan exloits the eponymous Clarke/Kubrick Space Odyssey (filmed in 1968) with endless AI debates whether HAL ("I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that") is near or how far. Roger Smith's essays in Software Devlopment, January 2001 offer a fine summary including a review of HAL's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality (MIT Press).

We are deceptively close, but as Pinter says, not that close. It's a small mankind step to throw an exception on PodBayDoorOpenRequest() but yet another, distant leap for the system to query the ethics of your call.

Genug ist Genug

Enough of this unseasoned cynicism. The SODA anniversary demands a report of my 2000 hilite. I finally got to meet El Don Winterhalter and his sarcheck crew, in the flesh, at the Usenix LISA 2000 conference. I have the propellor-beanie hat jpegs to prove it. Iwonka tells me that the elegant French is "casquette a hélice" though she remains dubious when such headware is de rigueur. In fact, when I arrived home, she sang Georg Brassens' ditty: "Avec ma p'tite casquette, j'avais l'air d'un con, ma mere --"

LISA 2000 was held in N'awleans, a mixed blessing. Conference organizers need to balance their choice of venues. Who will come to, say, Cleveland? Yet, having come, who will be distracted from the formal by any informal proceedings? Baghdad by the Bay and the Big Easy risk the other extreme. The IRS should note that I spent all my time at the sarcheck booth, resisting the Bourbon Street and Mulate Cajun trivia.


Devil's Advocate January 1985

Such a Foiner Foile Did You Ever Kill?

While discussing System Friendly Users in the November issue, Jim Joyce casually threatened to emasculate the very soul of UNIX! (The metaphysics of soul-gender are beyond the immediate scope of this column - suffice it to say that Cicero, Livy and that crowd were careful to distinguish animus (masc.) from anima (fem.)). Jim suggested that we take all the macho fun out of

$ rm *

by adding

alias rm rm -i

to the .login or .cshrc files.

You will not need me or Don Norman to tell you that $ rm * is an awesome weapon, worth 3 ICBM's at any bargaining table, and hardly to be recommended as a casual demonstration of the power of the wild-card symbol, *.

But, haven't we all, at one time or another, developed the irresistible urge to kill all our killable files, or those of a colleague? I know I have. And as Macbeth (or was it Mrs Macbeth?) so rightly said, "IF 'twere done when 'twere done, 'twere best 'twere done quickly ENDIF." (Macbeth and Mrs Macbeth are probably registered trademarks of Apple Computer Inc). The last thing we want, after such a courageous and disk-space- saving decision, is an endless stream of dumb Y/N questions.

Hardcore UNIX users know that these are really {Y* or y*}/not{Y* or y*} questions, and feel honor bound to avoid nerdish responses like Y or N. It is essential to know enough words beginning with "Y" or "y" (or not, as the mood dictates) so that your responses (a) avoid repetition (b) are amusingly appropriate to the filename being erased or reprieved. For example:

        $ rm -i *
        bible: yea
        element: ytterbium
        cash: holy_holy_holy
        smegma: YUK

elegantly kills three of the four files.

Molly-coddling menu-mongers inject tearjerking pleas such as:

   Have you consulted the OWNER of these files? Y/N?
   Are you really sure you want to end it all? Y/N?
   Have you considered ALL the consequences Y/N?

followed, eventually, by visits from neighbors, social workers, priests looking like Spencer Tracy or Barry Fitzgerald, and your sick mother flown in all the ways from Wexford.

"So it's after killing off all yer foiles now, is it, they tell me?"

"Just ould rubbish from the past, Ma. Shameful memories we'll be well rid of, and no mistake. And besoids, they're mostly Jack Murphy's foiles, and him struttin and hierarchin' about like he owned the whole patch, roots an' all."

When the screen finally hits you with:

OK - this is IT, last chance - confirm DELETE ALL FILES Y/N?

and, worn out and terrified, you enter N, the system's response is a nauseating, folksy:

Well now, was THAT a pretty CLOSE CALL there, uh? Y/N?

UNIX panders enough already to the indecisive and chicken- hearted. The rmdir command, for example, will only remove empty directories. How mamby-pamby can you get? My solution is

alias rm rm -r

- and zap, zap, as they are calling your mother's flight at Shannon International, and as Jack Murphy complacently sips his coffee next door, another Royal Library of Alexandria is flagged dead without question, without wasting a single pagan match.

It has not escaped our attention that Jim Joyce's "System Friendly Users" essay reveals elements of parody way and beyond those found in his /usr/lib offerings, and that even from a paginational point of view he has migrated somewhat towards the Devil's Advocate's column. Our millions of hidden detractors could hardly call us paranoiac, but we do detect here some encroachment on our territory, the quiche-loving Oligarchy of Satira (population 1). Apparently our flabby indolence, love of peace, and low demographic profile have been taken as signs of weakness. But while we may lack numbers, we have a terrifying national unity of purpose when tickled the wrong way.

The Satirical State is taking immediate and vigorous action to protect its borders. By an overwhelming majority our Praesidium has approved total mobilization, quiche-rationing, the purchase of MIG fighters and the promulgation of a Sharply Written Reprimand.

It was further decreed that this column should mount a counter- attack on Jim Joyce's /usr/lib preserve by pre-reviewing an unpublished book on UNIX: UNIX System XIV rev 3.26 for Beginners, Jack Murphy (Pemmican Press, 1997, $749.95)

We will not mince our words. Apart from the low price this is a truly terrible book by an author who, throughout, seems to confuse UNIX System XIV rev 3.26 with a pre-AT&T/IBM-merger version, UNIX System XII rev 9.81. We say seems because the ghastly SuperMacWrite typesetting on coarse oatmeal recycled paper makes the whole mess damned near illegible. We spotted three typos on the spline alone, hardly a reassuring start for a book claiming to instill good programming habits in the beginner.

The few command sequence examples we did manage to dechiper and enter caused a wide spectrum of crashes and catastrophes. Suffice it to say that readers are advised to have plenty of back-up disks and to keep some 30 amp fuses handy.

The maddingly slow pace of the book is indicated by the fact that Murphy does not cover login until page 1207, at the end of Chapter 9. This could be a blessing in disguise, since it will postpone the many disasters in store for any innocent system and would-be user exposed to this dangerous volume.

Some historical background is undoubtedly useful for UNIX students, but one must question the need for a whole chapter on Ken Thompson's genealogy, 30 pages of PDP-7 timing charts, and the complete text of Pope Pius XIII's speech at the Beatification of Dennis Ritchie.

It is certainly false economy these days for the beginner to expect a decent UNIX book under the $1,000 mark. Our recommended best buy is still Kernighan & Pike's The UNIX Programming Environment (Prentice-Hall) now in its 27th edition, and a snip at $1,299.95.

The book is dedicated to my sick mother - nice try there, Jack, but "no cigar."


ref 1: A sweet quirk of some email text editors (e.g., MS Outlook Express) is that any string that parses like an URL is automatically converted to a visible, clickable link. Thus, it's tricky to warn readers that www.xxx.com is invalid or that www.sarcheck.com is the very page you have already reached.

ref 2: A long-lost UR editor once queried my use of "wanker" which did not appear in her/his dictionary. I explained that it was a mild Brit term of abuse, nay, self-abuse.


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 2001.
Portions © copyright Aurora Software Inc. 1997-2001, 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.