Son of Devil's Advocate, October 2001

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle

Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

Business As Usual

This column was in mid-draft when the terrorist attacks of September 11th struck New York and Washington, nay, all of us. I share the outrage and grief. And offer my inadequate condolences. Even those of us who had no immediate family victims are suffering from a long, still uncertain chain of friends-of- colleagues, colleagues-of-friends, at six, more or less, degrees of separation. Or rather "unity."

Of all the counter-productive acts in Mankind's mindless mongerings, Sep 11 surely comes close to Pearl Harbor.

We writers hate events "beyond words" and us satirists are especially challenged.

The scenes of the World Trade Center and Pentagon devastation reminded me of the World War II blitz. I was there! I survived by inches the Nazi attacks on my native Liverpool in the 1940s. But we had a few minutes siren-warning [fnote 1], time to reach a Morrison bomb-shelter or, in my family case, duck under the kitchen table. Yet, we had a general warning, being at a formal "state of war" (we have the signed protocols) with a known enemy, full of Fascist face.

Previous "terrorists" have boldy admitted "responsibility" (often, e.g., in many IRA and Euskara instances, with genuine apologies for inadvertent collateral massacres), but, so far, every well-meaning thug in the Universe is saying "Pas moi."

Before completing this column, I consulted several author- columnist friends. You can guess the angst: whether to disrupt the "normal" flow of discourse?

Some of my cols appear several months after the penning-thereof (e.g., "Postmortem Debunker," C/C++ Users Journal) whilst my SODA ramblings hit you in real-time or better.

General feedback from Bjarne Stroustrup, Bob Toxen, Fred Butzen, et al., was "Nil Illegitimi Carborundum." I.e., "Don't Let the Bastards Ground You Down."

We should remember the patriotic shop signs of WW II, when all around was ge-flattened: Business As Usual

To do otherwise is to solace our cowardly foes.

Come on outback. Debate via (fat chance) whether the Koran sanctions a Jihad against the unarmed. Then we'll discuss the unmentionable excesses of the Crusades.

Meanwhile, back to my trad dead-lined SODA.

fnote 1: At the time I was studying Homer at de Inny (the Liverpool Institute), wherein Odysseus (tie me down, sport) resisted the Sirens yet survived. Lucky sod. We also read Goethe and listened to Wagner -- the very Huns who were trying to kill us. Discuss, as the Examiners demanded.

You Don't Say

There's been volumes written on the concept of tautology. You might even cite this "ongoing debate" as the ultimate, endless example. And, no sooner than you mention "this," but some crazed epistemologist with time on her hands will ask which "this" is this?

The basic tautology (from the Greek root, tauto meaning "same") seems harmless enough. In natural-linguistic discourse, we often repeat ourselves without philosophic phisticuffs. The people we vote in to rule us regularly thank "each and every one." We feel twice blessed, at least, without question.

The few meta-logicians, comme moi, who spend sleepless nights risking our marital status, pondering the deeper meanings of predicates such as "some" and "all," have, alas, little influence on the democratic process.

Thucydides, the Father of "subjective" History and Social Science warned us back circa 400 BCE that the gullible Athenian mob would end the Periclean Golden Age. There was great counter-example to the thesis that only the victors wrote "history." Recall the Peloponnesian Champs League: Athens 1, Sparta 3, after extra time.

See (I insist!), e.g,. Prof. Michael Sugrue: Thucydices and the Dawn of History, Great Authors of the Western Literacy Tradition, Part II: The Literature of Ancient Greece and Rome. The Teaching Company, 1993; 1-800-832-2412, 7405 Alban Station Court, Suite A107, Springfield, VA 22150.

Then there's Prof. Sweet Georgia Nugent (Princeton Univ.) on the same audio set, with donnish giggles over the Oresteia, Oedipus, and the Bacchae.

I think of all my co-elites stuck in the Silcon Valley traffic jams (embouteillage is the slick Frog, implying we are all too pissed to find the bypass) digesting the wider world web on our ancient cassettes.

Note the analogue discontinues:

Some tapes say "End of track N; wind forward to the end then stop and re-insert obversely..."

Others just say "This tape is continued on the other side."

Others admit the possibilty that your system has auto-reverse.

Regardless, we elites crawl on imbibing all-known wisdoms.

We really know the narrow difference 'twixt tautology and oxymoron.

I appeal, in vain, for the Athenian Sophist tradition. The idea that rhetoric can provide well-formed formulae both pro-con sans sparagmos and omophagia.

OK: I'm sure I'll get queries:

Sparagmos is simply "tearing a living animal limb from limb."

Omophagia is simply "ingesting the raw animal bits."

Bill Gates assures me that He is not related to the House of Atreus.

Nowever, I am a devout Philoctetan. My corns are killing me but I retain the magic Bow.

15 Long Years Ago

The Devil's Advocate, Stan Kelley-Bootle, Unix Review, October 1986

Birth and Compilation and Death

The CCG (Computer Columnists' Guild) has threatened me with expulsion and warned me as to my future conduct. Apparently my essays, observing as they do the three (count 'em) classical unities (more!), are blatantly Baconian, inordinately Montaignesque and excessively Hazlittian. They completely fail to meet the Guild's rigid standards for columnarity, as prescribed in the CCG Bible, "Writing Gooder Columns." Rather than risk losing the perquisites of Guild membership (the discounted tickets for Dvorak's conference addresses, and the half-priced, signed portraits of Pournelle are particularly valued), I am resolved to get in line and forsake my belletrist pretensions.

My final fling, my last dalliance with literacy, is this month's title, which I dedicate to my Editor, Mark (Full-screen) Compton. Mark has managed to get us (the Bourne and Kelly-Bootle clans) tickets for the musical "Cats," no mean feat in this Unix-crazed town. You might have thought that people get enough file concatenation at work, but apparently not. Everyone is flocking to see how it is done on-stage and with music to boot! Steve Bourne is particularly anxious to see the shape of their prompt; getting this wrong may ruin his evening.

By the way, the connection between "Cats" and the title of my column is...tease, tease...obvious, surely? Anyroad, a prize beyond valuation is offered to the reader with the cleverest explanation. Mark your letters "UNIX Review: T. S. Eliot Competition." The results will appear in my November 1986 piece (D.V.; fat chance) The contest is null where void and non-void where non-null.

This month, patient and adoring reader, as I struggle to meet the Guild's demands, expect the sharp rattle of disjointed bullets. I refer, of course, to the typographical bullet, a large black dot "so placed in printed matter as to call attention to a particular passage." (Webster's Third NID). By metonymy, the bullet becomes the actual passage itself, whence the Hebrew plural, bulletim, and further whence, by way of the Brother Grimms's fabled mutation of consonants, we reach the modern bulletin. Wait a moment, I hear the Guild Enforcers breaking down my door.

You can scan my bulletim in any sequence, or none, as Backus used to say to Naur. Those of you more concerned with form than content can simply read my first self-defining bullet, then EXIT to greener pastures.

  • Dan Doernberg of the Computer Literacy Bookshop, Suunyvale, CA, tells me that the flood of computer books has now subsided to a modest 3000 new titles a year. They reckon it will dry up completely by 2996, by which time every permutation of "Language1 for Language2 Programmers" will have been published. Already we have "LISP for BASIC Programmers," "BASIC for LISP Programmers," and my own forthcoming, "LISP for LISP Programmers."

  • A variation on the above theme is the cross-vocational title, as seen in "Modula-2 - A Seafarer's Guide and Shipyard Manual," by Edward J. Joyce (Addison-Wesley, 1985). This breezy, well- written book assumes you know all about Messing Around With Boats, but nothing about Professor Wirth. A better title would be "What Shall We Do With The Drunken Module?" The programming examples include counting the hulls on a trimaran and dividing a FirkinOfGrog between AnyNumberOfMiddies. (Only joking, Edward!). If you already know Modula-2, this book is a damned fine, convoluted guide to sailing!

  • My own contribution to cross-vocational titles is "PAIN REAL - CONST PLEASURE - The Pervert's Guide to PASCAL." This will show you how to calculate the total cost of WHIPSNUM whips @ WHIPCOST dollars per whip, and how to visit SPGNUM school playgrounds while incurring the minimum mileage.

  • People often ask me "What is the single most important fact in Computer Science?" My reply: "The fact that there are n+1 elements in the set {0..n}." (One famous book on C gets this wrong!)

  • Where do I stand on Windows? Away from the ledge. More seriously, I prefer to work with four adjacent on-line terminals.

  • UNIX joins the Crusade Against Substance Abuse! "Sometimes you can get into a state where your terminal acts strangely" (UNIX Programmer's Manual (Holt, Rinehart & Winston), Volume 2, Seventh Edition, page 41

  • At first sight the Swiss Army Penknife design philosophy is highly commendable: provide a pull-out device for every possible contingency. I have two such penknives. The smaller is used to access the less tractable blades of the larger. Zurich UNIX guru Denis Baggi tells me that the Swiss Army may be disbanded. Will we have to switch to the Swiss Navy Knife?

  • My latest Errorsol (tm) Spray is SuperNull. Are you absolutely sure that your empty sets are truly free from nasty, clinging elements? Residual grunge can ruin your logic. Modula-2's curly brackets are especially prone. SuperNull clears those tricky cusps with one carefree swoooosh!

  • The maniac capsule-tamperers have turned their attention to plastic-wrapped microprocessors. My MC68000 has definitely been nobbled. How else can you explain the fact that registers D0 - D3 are now called AX, BX, CX and DX! Thank God, they did not get at my address registers!

  • Note to all librarians: the following books, a study of Biblical metaphor and a spy-thriller respectively, should NOT be filed in the UNIX section:

"The Great Code" by Northrop Frye (Harvest/HBJ Books,1982) "The Bourne Supremacy" by Robert Ludlum (Random House,1986)

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.