Son of Devil's Advocate, September 2001

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle


Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

On The Road Again

Since I set up shop with Uncle Sam circa 1980, many of my idle, isle-bound Brit friends and relations have asked "What's America really like?"

First, I have often had to exegete the vast geo-metric discontinuities. My brother Arthur (RIP) once called me from London saying he was flying into New York, and asking if I could pick him up at the airport. I was living in San Francisco at the time, so was forced to remind him that JFK was roughly equidistant from SFO and Heathrow. Pick yerself up, I quipped.

Then there's the related old-golden yarn: a boastful Texan farmer (not all stereotypes are false?) claims that he can drive his truck from dawn to dusk without leaving his ranch. The bored Brit replies "I have a car just like that."

Harder to explain is the pot-boiled-melting USA diversity which is uniquely beyond categorization. Here, we suffer/enjoy the angsts of a broadly civil democracy, and apologize for all past wrongs. Warts go-leor, yet so many millions risk the rigors of both legal and illegal immigrations.

Yes, there's always been tribal-demographic shifts subject to the greener-grass on the other side. Better still if your holy books guarantee a "promised" land. The Aztecs hate the Incas; the Incas hate the Olmecs; the Olmecs hate the Tolmecs; and everyone hates the Jews ((c) Tom Lehrer).

The global cybercom is playing a major role in tempting/discouraging people to move.

True/sad story: An Albanian climbed limb-breaking, bullet-ridden mountains to reach a safe Western refuge.

When asked re-his motivation, he said that he had seen a Yank TV commercial: A dog slurping real-meat goodies from a silver bowl.

I am, myself, an indirect victim of economic field-forces. The 1840's potato famine caused thousands of Irish to seek chippies (chip-shops) elsewhere.

Note: a chip is a fry not a crisp. Whence an Irish Mixed Grill is boiled spuds, pommes de terre Lyonnaises, roast tatties, baked skins, and chips. Battered fish optional.

Others are driven by dire political threats. The theocratic Taliban regime cannot prevent Afghans watching TV from nearby Russian stations. Beijing.mil is trying, in vain, to replace our open internet with a closed-filtered alt.

Can we welcome, as promised by the Liberty Statue plaque, all them huddled masses? Huge paradox: those of us who have painfully achieved legal, green-card status seem united in resisting the influx of non-legals.

Koan Korner

Ken Ashcroft tells me that the London Observer reports that Charm Ltd. has released a record of the one-minute silence captured at the Hyde Park celebration of Princess Diane's 1997 funeral.

Reminds me that I have the "Marcel Marceau Live" LP. Anyone recall the "silent" movie wherein mime Marcel was the sole speaker?

Then there's a genre nearer to my Prouvencale homes. Did I ever mention that we have old (12th century Bargemon) and new (17th century Callian) domiciles in the Languedocien domain?

Nearby, we visit the Felibrigist school at Mouns (aka Mons) to tackle the ancient language of the Trobadors.

Did you know that Fréderi[c] Mistral won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1904?

"La gardaren riboun-ribagno nosto rebello lengo d'O!" [We must protect by-all-means-possible our lovely Occitan!]

Prof. John Flemming (audio-book Lesson 7, "The Troubadours, Great Authors of Western Tradition," The Teaching Company, 1993) reveals the literary revolution of these obscure poets. I blame the Pernod.

In particuar, we have a new subjective, zen-like approach to poetry. Thus Guillaume V of Aquitaine writes "A Poem About Absolutely Nothing."

An appropriate title for this and all computer columns?


This column 15 years ago

UNIX Review -- Devil's Advocate -- September 1986. (c) skb

Parsing Strangers Or - Are You Natural-Language-Ready?

If you haven't got X, the next best thing is to be "ready- for-X" or, more fashionably, to have the "X-ready" feature. In place of the rather negative "Monitor not included," adverts now actually boast that their PCs are "Monitor-ready!" 640K mother boards turn out to zero K mothers, but every slot is positively brimming with plug-in-DRAM-readiness.

Apart from a brief spell during King Æthelred's reign (978-1016) preparedness has always been a highly-regarded virtue, both within and without the Boy Scout movement.

[Note for non-Brit readers, added for September 2001 SODA, he was known as Ethelred the Unready, part of the ongoing, universal tradition of belittling nobles and monarchs. I suppose that the opposite of the Hebraic majestic plural (Elohim is one great God), must be a singular put-down. Thus, the French have Charles le Chauvre (bald) and Charles le Gros (fat). Of course, Ivan the Terrible (inspiring terror?) and Vlad the Impaler were probably proud of their nicknames.)

Mary Queen of Scots, you'll recall, bravely maintained to the bitter end that she was axe-ready, and we know that Gene Kelly (no relation), having the sun in his heart, was love-ready in spite of six hours hoofing around a damp MGM set. We also know that the Office has been UNIX-ready (and vice versa) since beyond living memory.

But, but, but (trois grands mais) are you next-BIG-computer-leap-forward-ready? I do not mean last week's next-BIG-computer-leap-forward, which was simply adding exclamation marks to the names of software packages, I mean the next-BIG-push to end all next-BIG-pushes. We are talking Verdun, mes amis.

We are within one decent recursive descent from breaking the Natural Language thingy. Sez who? Sez me! Fifty billion yen, eighty million dollars and twenty-four zloties can't all be wrong. Forget my YACC (Yet Another Comment Compiler, see this column UNIX Review, February, 1986). Shelve those QL processors that respond with "Please be more precise" or "Run that by me again in C" to all Natural Language input. We are when-you-are-ready!

My latest breakthrough is called NL! Before you groan "O Lord, not another self-exclamatory product," let me warn you that NL! is pronounced factorial en-el. If you get this wrong when ordering I may not deliver, so there.

NL! is both object and subject-oriented. It is also predicate-ready. The Hank Cinque module (named in honor of Henry V, the Prolog pioneer) has achieved 10 MSPS (Mega syllogisms per second) in the Sieve of Aristotle benchmark. Many of you, by the way, will ask, "Why all these Greek Sieves? Why can't we have some American Sieves?". I'm afraid the argument just doesn't hold water. There's something, how can I put it, rather vulgar about:

All Lincolns are Mortal; Abe is a Lincoln; Abe is Mortal.

The creativity of Hank Cinque is shown by the following examples:

is(god,love). is(love,blind). ?-is(god,blind). YES.

has(no_cat,three_tails). is(I,no_cat). ?-has(I,three_tails). YES.

Our major triumph, however, was proving that time does indeed fly like an arrow, especially when your AI funding is running low. So you can drop that dumb objection to AI, Dr Dreyfus. The few remaining pathological sentences, like "Sing until the boat comes in," "Some non-crows are non-black" and "Snow is white," are being reviewed by the NL! SS (Semantics Standards) Committee. Their ruling will be final and binding, so come on guys, let's have some discipline out there! Fuzziness and marketing just don't mix.

To those of you waiting for Turbo Prolog to drop below $29.95 before taking the AI plunge, I say "Delay not, ye fools!" Don't be left behind like the Dodo-stuffers' branch of the Taxidermists' Union. NL! is here'n'now, aggressively priced at a sub-borlandish $9.95 including editor and RTD. The optional, but far from inessential, DOCK module, offering dramatic tail- optimization, is timidly priced at $$CALL.

The NL! editor has several unique features including auto- adaption. Suppose you want to use Wordstar commands. You enter ^E to scroll up a line. Whoops, the line is deleted. Do not panic. NL! has not yet learned your funny ways. Now enter (free form) something like: "Please note that I want to use ^Y for line-delete and ^E for cursor up. By the way, can I have my missing line back?" Before long, you and NL! are in perfect harmony. Does the NL! editor support windows? Was C. P. Snow a crow? Is the Shroud of Turing genuine? We can handle any number of any size window, including a full screen of single-pixel windows. You can't beat that.

There are just two minor problems holding back NL! sales.

Firstly, market research reveals a distinct dearth of fluent Natural Language speakers in the computer community with anything close to minimal thingy. Switching from LISP to English, say, is not just a matter of removing "all them brackets," you know. Some of those parentheses may have a natural significance, so you must be selective. And, as Dijkestra says, learning anything if your mother of a tongue is BASIC is well nigh impossible. NL! is therefore merging with the Berlitz organization.

Secondly, we have to establish a standard Natural Language. ADA got standards; COBOL got standards; Natural Language don't got standards. See what I mean. To promote sales of my "Cherokee-Basque/Basque-Cherokee DP Dictionary", I was tempted to confine NL! to an eclectic mix of these two fine tongues. Choosing the obvious Standard English as a standard would clearly incite xenophobia in both the French and the Americans. Unbiased reason has forced me to adopt the Scouse dialect of Liverpool as the NL lingua franca. It would be hard to find a more common language, and one that is essentially grammar-free. "They Shall Not Parse!" was the rallying cry of the early Merseyside warriors as they fought off Caesar's army and syntax. More importantly, the velar fricatives of Scouse have a Xhosa-like intensity that will limit your use of words like UNIX, file-lock, clock-tick and Backus-Naur to about once a fortnight. You can't beat that. Next month, in collaboration with Berlitz, we will begin our five year "Scouse By Example" series, starting with "Scouse For SAIL Programmers." T'ra f'now den, like.

[Meanwhile www.louisville.edu/~tavan001/ is a fine site for tracking Scouse usage and folklore]


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.
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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.