Son of Devil's Advocate, August 2001

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle

Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle


We are daily be-numbed (be-numbered?) by statistics that we can hardly check or challenge. If the figures and polls match our pre-stereotypes, we are ever-ready to accept the results. Else, we rush to declare that the tests are "flawed."

Beware when the studies come from an unnamed, "well-known" West Coast University. West Coast of whom/what? Papua? No offence to all my Papuan pen pals.

A recent stat that grabbed me recently concerned a study of web "activity." Allowing for the inevitable vagueness of the term "activity," it was interesting to be told that pornography comes out tops as the category most browsed. This, if true, is rather sad for those of us who, with Al Gore and Mrs Clinton, helped to promote the internet "family-values" agenda, with a special emphasis on the sort-of micro-global village democracy open to all without elitist peer review.

Again, we are tempted to rush to judgement before pondering the meaning of pornography. Some say, as in the case of defining "giraffe," you'll know it when you see it. Yet, where to draw lines has engaged the best taxonomists since Genesis.

We face tricky porn evaluations from "sweet soft" to "nasty hard," and the Bible, Homer, Dante, Rabelais, and Shakespeare offer a mind-boggling share of all possible interpolations.

Recall that Yahveh granted Adam dominion over the beasts by allowing Adam to name the buggers. We have inherited this original sin in wider semantic domains. Almost every culture has the "myth" that granting names empowers but revealing your name exposes you to your enemies.

Thus we have Odysseus lying to the Cyclops. "I am Nobody," he says. Later when the Cyclops is asked "Who blinded you?" the answer is "Nobody."

There are Homeric puns a-playing here, plus recent SODA remarks on web searching for and finding "absolutely nothing."

Just to keep your attention, please, how many times must I tell you: the unique null/empty set should not be confused with the unique set whose only member is the null/empty set. Lawd God! It's 0 contrasted with {0}. No wonder the US elections go sour.

But, shame, I digress!

Back to the web activity studies.

Sordid Roots

Following hot [sic] on porn as numbah one, the close runner-up is (drum roll): Genealogy.

You sex-raved browsers may see an obvious connection. The X begat Y begat Z begat you chain, after all, implies a certain sequence of, how can I put it politely, many generations of fruitful shagging.

The web has magically opened up unimagined resources for tracing your fore/five/six bears way back to Eden.

Even earlier, according to some recent DNA tracks.

Forget the Scopes Trial, a decent in-depth gen-search can trace your progenitor dad back to a particular primate in a particular rain forest mating on a particular branch. Yum, click to download the video.

The on-line data available for genealogical research is, seriously, beyond belief.

I subscribe to a relatively restricted sub-domain via yet can access almost every Merseyside census since King John (1200 AD)

If you are tempted to check if your were hung for molesting sheep (top points in gen-circles) try

Post Scriptum

Love physicist Robert Park's sublime quote:

"Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right"

Fifteen Long Years Ago:

The Devil's Advocate, Stan Kelly-Bootle, UNIX Review, August 1986

Everyman His Own Standard

My conversion to Modula-2 (this column, July 1986) is now official and binding. I have written my very first program, InitPri, a provably-correct masterpiece that sends ESC @ (1B,40) to my printer. It is not only provably-correct, provably-robust and provably-well-structured, it is also provably-long! The object code seems to occupy 10K (there are so many modules involved, I have not yet decided which one actually does the trick*) from which I rashly deduced an average of 5K per control-character-transmitted.

* Only joking, Niklaus.

However, they assure me that in Modula-2 the relation between program size and the number of control-characters- transmitted is non-linear, so I will not need a 20K masterpiece to send ESC @ followed by, say, ESC 8. Perhaps I'll need 30K? The ESC 8 sequence, by the way, is a wonderful example of Zen- Featurism-Running-Wild that I can't wait to use. The printer manual says:

ESC 8 Ignore Paper Empty

This is also an example of "Reality Chasing Satire." Years ago, in my ould Devil's DP Dictionary (McGraw-Hill, 1981), I defined the paper-low lamp as a device which signals that your output is now appearing on the platen. ESC 8 has implemented this idea, and killed off a damned good joke.

Haven't we all, at one time or another, watched anxiously as our stack of paper shrinks to zero? And wasn't it always at 5.35 pm when the shops had just closed? And didn't we all start hunting for some old reports so we could use their obverses? I know I did. But no more. Pop in an ESC 8, save a tree and relax! Get away from it all, escape! What if it does take 30K? The peace of mind alone is worth it.

I propose natural extensions to this concept of tranquility-control, whereby we can anesthetize other elements in the system:

ESC DIgnore Disk Full
ESC FIgnore Flags
ESC EIgnore Endless Loops
ESC SIgnore System Administrator
ESC sIgnore Scoping Rules
ESC u nUnignore the previous n Ignores

It may be possible, at long last, to bury those god-awful "Status-bit-Reset-Inhibit-Override-Disenable-Off Flag" situations. These can be transformed from type BOOLEAN to type WHOCARES.

In sophisticated implementations, of course, the reserved word would be DISREGARD (Ignore being weak in the syllabic department), subject to scoping, unless DISREGARD Scoping was in effect in the outer (inner?) block.

MODUS Operandi

To confirm my proselytic status, I have joined MODUS, the Modula-2 Users' Association. Since coming to live, nay flourish, in the United States, I have succumbed to many of the less unattractive American traits, such as the urge to join and belong. Having written that, I realize that I must work harder at shedding those anachronistic prejudices that unfortunately seem to be thrust at birth upon Europeans in general, and upon Brits in particular. The very name Brit no longer strikes me as an ethnic slur, but rather as a cruelly exact designation, chiming cunningly with "brittle," "bristle" perhaps, and a little bit of "prig." Can you detect the British sneer of quietly implied cultural superiority, indicated by the flicker of disgust on an otherwise stiff upper-lip. Brits base this snobbery on the fact that their institutions are some five times older than those of their upstart Yankee cousins, but even as I write, this ratio is inexorably converging to unity. It is worth noting that in 20,000 years time it will have fallen from 5.0 to 1.04, hardly an advantage to crow about.

My joining and belonging is in large measure due to the many tempting invitations I receive in the mail. My real weakness is for the "Send No Money!" and "Keep the Cray and write Cancel on our Invoice" offers. I also like the Book and Record Clubs, and their Goddess, Inertia. Their introductory deals such as the OED for $1.50 plus a nominal $29.95 for P&P. cannot be refused. Fourteen such clubs, including four devoted to computer books, have thereby gained my custom. Looking at my complex monthly postal and bonus-claim schedules (only once has the Main Selection arrived unexpectedly) and the salary of my full-time Book Club Secretary, I believe it would pay me to move to Riverside, New Jersey.

Theoretically, you need to join only one Book Club. Its company title may suggest a dedication to your particular hobby or vocation, but gradually they will include selections on all known subjects. There is one Electronics Book Club that regularly pushes Armenian Cuisine, Buying Real Estate Without Money, The One Minute Brain Surgeon and The Joys of Sexual Abstinence.

This is an excellent time to join MODUS. Firstly, the membership fee is a modest $20 per annum (payable to Secretary George Symons, PO Box 51778, Palo Alto, CA 94303) which entitles you to free copies of the MODUS Quarterly. Compared with similar societies, this is indeed a bargain. Secondly, you will become privy to the current debates over language and library standards, with the option to inject your pennyworth, and even vote for or against the various committee's proposals. ("Hands up all those in favor of Line Numbers!") There is some urgency about this as the number of commercially available Modula-2 implementations is growing, and no one wants a repeat of the Pascalian jungle, except possibly Philipe de Borland! The enthusiasm for Modula-2, I believe, stems from the fact that it is extendable in a controlled, portable manner.

The language, originally defined for the general public in Professor Wirth's Programming in Modula-2 (Springer-Verlag, First Edition, 1982), has undergone a few rounds of clarification with the publication of a Second and Third Edition. There still remain a few disagreements which appear minor and resolvable to the uninvolved, but which generate that fascinating, apostolic bickerage endemic to all Early Churches. After all, it takes time, skill and money to write and market compilers, so it makes sense to expunge all possible ambiguities from the syntax, and agree on the Definition modules of a standard library before you sell too many lines of code.

In exegeting some scriptures, such as the Koran and the Pauline Epistles, we are, alas, unable to seek the views of Mahomet or Paul directly (in spite of the many claims), but with Modula-2, as with C, we have a single, living authority to resolve doctrinal squabbles. His number is Zurich 01-256-22-27, and his views appear regularly in the MODUS Quarterly.

A paper in the MODUS Quarterly (November 1985) by R. J. Nagler and J. A. Siegel offers the delightful but unattributed quotation:

"The nice thing about standards is that there are so many different ones to choose from."

If any reader can help me trace the original source I would be most grateful.

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.