Son of Devil's Advocate

Son of Devil's Advocate, May 2001

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle

Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

Well Beyond

There's a grand Southern Baptist Hymn that never reached my Northern Baptiser tradition. It sings "Further Along, We'll Know All About It; Further Along, We'll Understand Why."

Could the US Civil War have been averted noting this North-South prophetic dichotomy? See, for example, poor James Buchanan's presidential angsts reported in John Updike's Memories of the Ford Administration (Knopf, 1992).

We bland historians always have the advantage of hindsight. A million lives saved by spiked guns at the wrong Fort?

For less disputed foresights, it depends how far ahead we dare to peek.

We would love to know tommorow's weather and NASDAQ index.

The sci-fi extrapolations are daily disowned. Things are pace H. G. Wells and George Orwell not quite as bad as warned. And Jules Verne's modest fantasies have been far surpassed.

What are we currently offered?

Gritch: I once wrote for a futuristic magazine (Mondo?) that failed to pay me and predict its demise. Reminds me of the ancient warning:

"Tonight's Psychic Meeting has been cancelled due to unforseen circumstances."

Next SODA: a serious review of "The Next 1,000 Years" from ACM Communications, March 2001, Volume 44, Number 3.

This Column 14 Years Ago

From Way Back: Devil's Advocate UNIX Review May 1986

Without a Null, That String Would Never End!

The situation has become a cinematographic cliche. A tense, expert-hero is seen at the radio-telephone guiding some poor, far-distant wimp through a series of critical steps. "Talking- through," I gather, is the official name of the operation. "Listen good, Billy," yells the hero-brain-surgeon, "the next step is crucial. See that dark red piece just above the stem? Well, if you cut too deeply into the hippocampus, Chief Kazuli's daughter is a goner, and the Tribe...O my God, the Tribe..." o$3

A popular variant has James Mason as the grounded veteran pilot coaxing a terrified passenger into landing a crippled, fog-bound Concord. "Listen good, Billy, you've got 30 seconds to correct the azimuth...a-z-i-m...damn it, I thought you said you knew some geometry. Switch back to automatic, that's the fourth switch from the right on the fifth row in the upper-middle console..."

Last week, I found myself playing the role of the "talker- through." There were, alas, no cameras rolling, no take-five- from-the-top-all-quiet-on-the-set, no doting maidens powder- puffing my noble, sweaty brow. Not a single witness to my patient heroism, apart from the wimp on the other end of the 'phone (and she will deny everything). I give you the gist of our exchange with some judicious amendments to protect the OS and my client- base.

SKB: What have you got on the screen?

WMP: I usually get a menu.

SKB: Life is indeed an inexplicable sequence of imponderable surprises, but what in fact do you have on the #@%^**$# screen at this moment in time?

WMP: It's mainly blank, especially where I usually get my menu...ah, yes, there's a C in the top left corner..

SKB: Great, lovely, marvellous. Anything showing after the C?

WMP: Not really.

SKB: O Lord, are you sure? We should have a prompt...

WMP: O yeah! I got a funny V shaped thing on its side, a sort of toppled over V...

SKB: Fine, that's the prompt. If you call it a toppled-over V just once more I'm going to hangup forever. Let's recap, what's on the screen?

WMP: OK, what is on the screen is an ongoing lack of menu, plus a C and a funny V, sorry, a prompt.

SKB: OK, type WS and tell me what happens.

WMP: How are you spelling that? OK, I've typed WS.

SKB: What d'you see now?

WMP: OK, I've got C, er, prompt, W and S.

SKB: Nothing else?

WMP: No; still no menu!

SKB: Oh, I forgot, hit the RETURN key.

WMP: Where's that? Let's see, no sign of...

SKB: It may be called CR or ENTER or just a curly arrow.

WMP: OK, I pressed ENTER. Something's happening...I'm getting a message...

SKB: There, you see, all you need is patience and...

WMP: It says "Bad Command or File Name."

SKB: Mmmm...OK, don't panic. Just type A colon enter DIR space WS period asterisk wait, I've got a better idea. Listen and listen good, Wimpy, this next step is critical. We're going to do a double- nephrectomy. Strip to the waist and grab a knife, any knife...

Wimpy hung up on me.

I called him again as soon as I had recovered my well-known bonhomie, and offered to make a house-call. His menu was revived with a few keystrokes, leading Wimpy to remark that he could easily have done that with the proper instructions.

Later on, I reflected that similar scenarios must now be commonplace. A growing army of "talkers-through" are providing hot-line, round-the-clock, telephonic software support. "What d'you see on the screen now? Really? That sounds like Lotus 1-2-3 you're using - this is Ashton-Tate here. Let me give you the Lotus hotline number!"

The problem of converting keystrokes and disk-changes into readable manuals is hard enough, but extemporizing them into a crisp stream of phonemes is indeed intractable.

I can picture an APL guru like Edward Cherlin explaining over the 'phone: "You need a rho, r-h-o not r-o-w, it's a like a curly p on the same key as capital R...honestly, you must have it somewhere...Oh, never mind, give me your address, I'll be right over."

Whatever the full-time, toll-free tech-support folk get per hour, I say, quadruple it immediately. Or maybe, like the gas-station attendents in Hollywood, they dream of making the silver-screen. "Listen good, Billy...together we're going to reconfigure your system..."


If I've discouraged you from 'phoning, there's always uucp

While Honeyman and Allman quarrel about name and address route- spaces, source path routing, and domain-based naming (UNIX Review o73 January, 1986), remember SKB's Law of Accessibility: "Prestige is inversely proportional to uucp path length." If you are ever asked to contact !grot!who!etc!squat!help!mix!over!wimp, forget it. By the way, you can always reach me via !stan. Or just ! often gets me!!

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 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.