Son of Devil's Advocate, July 2001

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle


Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

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Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School has championed the notion of "disruptive" technologies. It's an ancient, almost tautological concept. From way back, or to be historiographically precise, from well way back, significant technological advances have been characterized by unexpected Kuhnian discontinuities following boring periods of "mere" refinement.

Take the wheel, please. Some bright Akkadian, or one of that crowd, noted that triangular wheels gave three thumps per revolution, and any polygonal extension would only make things worse. Thus, a square wheel jolted you frice rather than thrice. Who would have thought that the solution was going le tout cochon (the whole hog), not just a weasel, on-the-side extrapolation but a leap to circularity: an infinitve number of infinitesimally tiny bumps?

Diverse plants and insects had "discovered" this trick much earlier, yet many equally-inventive civilizations failed to exploit the obvious vehicular applications.

Some say that the horse-driven wheel of los Conquistadaores outscrewed the static calendric wheel of the Aztecs.

As they say in the Anthropological Tripos exams: Discuss!

Consider the counter-intuitive history of the golf ball. Adding dimples proved to extend the distance travelled for a given swing. Yet, taken to extremes, that is, an infinite number of tiny dimples, you have a perfectly spherical ball known to be well under par.

Whenever historians look back (which is what we pay them to do), they are inevitably blinded by playful hindsight [ref 1]. Barbara Tuchman [ref 2], working outside the academic agenda, seems to be as close as possible to capturing and interpreting events as of then while suspending (in vain?) our knowledge of what happened next.

Barbara is correctly dubious on the question "What can we learn from the Past?" And the old cliche, "Ignoring History, we are doomed to repeat old mistakes." Yet, the ongoing PostModern challenge is that we cannot shed our current "now" lenses.

Take the endless debates on "Who invented the Computer?"

Whoever the culprit (Pascal, Leibniz, Babbage/Ada, Turing, Atanasof/Berry, Eckert/Mauchley, von Neumann, you, me), not one of us had the remotest idea of how disruptive we might prove to be. Nowadays, beyond conceivable extrapolation, the web gives us access to all known data and even more or less.

We have confirming Zen-mail:

From: Russ Phillips lurking in Seattle:

> Stan,
>
> Your June column is right on the mark and --of course-- a great hoot. I
> offer the following as supporting [frightening ?] evidence for your
> discussion:
>
> A search for "absolutely nothing" on altavista (http://www.altavista.com)
> yields miscellaneous hits, but the treat is at the bottom of the page,
> where the ubiquitous search engine informs me that I really can get
> "absolutely nothing" if I put my mind to it ...
>
> Shop the web for absolutely nothing
> Find absolutely nothing at eBay! Register now!
> Find absolutely nothing in your local yellow pages
>
> Well, I'm off shopping !
> Cheers,

To which I replied:

Russ: Yet another e-nail in the AI-Search coffin?

Reminds me of earlier (long-gone?) occasions when we used to receive bills for $0.00 followed by persistent threats to "pay or else." Just a simple [sic] FP confusion in the old x==0 test?

I did, in fact, once send AT&T a check for $0.00 marked ZERO dollars and ZERO cents ONLY (love that word ONLY) that was duly acknowledged with a Thanks-for-your-payment. Often wonder if my Credit-Rating suffered from this incident? Reader input, of course, welcomed.

ref 1: Compare Thucydides and Plutarch, and the tradition of historians as stand-up comics.

ref 2: "Practicing History," 1981. Recorded Books, Inc., Charlotte Hall, MD, 20622, 1989. 1-800-638-1304.


Many long 15 years ago. Hard to imagine that I was sublimely rambling thus way back in July 1986 in my UNIX Review Devil's Advocate column before many of my current fans donned long pants or dropped frilly knickers. (To be brutally frank, I no longer fully understand all I wrote in those carefree days. Except that I made a few useful quid writing the Modula-2 Primer for MacMillan/Sams.) o/3

Let's Drink, Drink, Drink to Lilith the Pink

This month's column is uncharacteristically fragmented, reflecting my sudden conversion to Modula-2. The following paragraphs were compiled independently, and they'll just have to learn to get along with each other, or risk a round of severe IMPORT restrictions. (Sound of whip cracking offstage). Within each paragraph you may also detect sentential fragments, modular to the point of being mutually contradictory. Be not afraid. Select the variables and data-types you feel comfortable with, and hide the rest.

Without a gross diversion into the Occult, I cannot explain the subtle differences, if any, between fragments and modules. My own private view, which I divulge only when offered honoraria, or when threatened by drug-crazed, machete- carrying epistemologists, is that a module is simply a fragment with good intentions. Was it not, however, Florence Nightingale who said "Intentions is not enough"? (No, it wasn't....Ed.). In which case, was it not a wise, old drunken sailor, shangaied from Liverpool by the notorious boarding-house master Paddy West, who in the eponymous fore'bitter sang:

"But the best of intentions, they never get far, "After forty-two days on the floor of a bar."

(If you say so...Ed.)

The crunch, of course, is socio-marketo-linguistical, namely that module sounds and sells better than fragment. Wanna hot deal on Fragmenta-2? No thanks. It's free, just pay for the media. Er, no thanks. OK, my final offer, it's free and the media's free. Is it shrinkwrapped? Not necessarily. Is it copy-protected? Not intentionally. How many floppies? Eight. What make? The best: genuinely generic, Taiwan-crafted 5 1/4" DSDD. No, really, thanks all the same. I'll throw in some labels and a simulated oak rollidex cabinet. Er, look, call me next month sometime willya, I'm in a meeting right now.

In majestic, authoritative Latin, even the diminutive (from modus, "a measure" to modulus, "a small measure") carries considerable clout, and euphony, to boot. The correct plural (another phrase that gives my age away) of modulus is, jure divino, moduli, and I know of some potential users in Dead Language Departments who will not touch Modula-n with any bargepole, for any n : CARDINAL;.

ETH may sneer at these lost-sales, but they should remember Peter Fellgett's warning in the 1960s that no half-decently educated person would dream of buying records or hi-fi equipment described as quadraphonic, an adjective that grotesquely mixes Latin and Greek roots. The hi-phi-listines (headed, in this context, presumably by Panasonic!) turned down Peter's etymologically sound alternatives: tetraphonic or quadrasonic. Stereophones are still solidly with us, thanks to the homogeneity of the roots (both Greek), but the Quadraphonic craze came and went like a thief in the night. QED! Quad erat demonstrandum - the Quad is still in the showroom!

As I was saying, my conversion to Modula-2 was sudden. I was on the rocky road to Damascus, whack-fa-rol-di-rah, sipping my seventh pint of camel's blood, when Wirth's Vision (or was it Virth's Wision?) swooped nigh, flooding my spirit with instant sobriety.

"FROM God IMPORT Truth, Goodness, Structure, Modularity, MilkChocolate, HardFloatingCurrency; EXPORT Evil, Falsehood, GoTos, ComeFroms, Chaos, Fortran;"

boomed a mightily indented voice from the heavens,

"....AND...forget not...."

The voice faded. "Forget not what?" I cried. "Forget not the semicolons;;;"

I woke up with a start, sweating cobs ( perspiring profusely : translator's note), to find myself standing at AT&T's booth amid the bustling ennui of the 11th West Coast Computer Fair. Incredibly, I had dozed off during a riveting demo of the new Crosby 6301 - formerly the AT&T 6300++ ("An obscure golfing joke in C" : translator's note).

"Does it support Modula-2?" I enquired, still under the influence of my strange encounter. "Ah-ah, excellent question, sir or madam, it's a rare delight to meet class and breeding," parried the salesperson, flicking through the closing-guide for Modula-2 in the section entitled "What To Say If They Ask For Non-Supported Languages." "Right, here we are. As a corporation we stand firmly behind Modula-2." "Five years behind," yelled a heckler. "We unreservedly applaud the aims and spirit of Modula-2, in fact Niklaus is a close personal friend, but we have not yet persuaded the Crosby 6301, per se, to support Modula-2. Let me be brutally frank. You're finding DC a little tricky are you not, nudge, nudge? Don't despair, we've all walked in the valley of the shadow, dreaming of some magical coder's panacea. Don't switch context in mid-stream. After all, Modula-2 is simply Pascal spiced up with bits from Better Basic, what?"

I fled from this heresy, and, guided by hidden forces, found myself at the Logitech stand. As though confirming my sense of divine mission, Logitech were running a special Modula-2 offer I could not refuse. The prices were close to being Borlandish - something like $80 for the Base Language System/MOD editor/RTD package, compared with $69 for Turbo-Pascal. As money changed hands, the AT&T salesperson approached and said, "Good deal. Glad you found what you were looking for. For the additional $11 you got all those bits from Better Basic!"


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.