Son of Devil's Advocate, November 2001

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle

Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

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Normal, like unique and pregnant, is one of those predicates that resists formal comparatives and superlatives. Even so, we often get away with saying that X is more unique than Y, Mary is more pregnant than Elizabeth, and I am more normal than thou.

Such are the quirks of Natural Languge, again inviting the recursive quiz: what is more or less "natural?" Is there a valid property worth debating that cannot admit some plusses and minusses?

Else, perish the thought, we are stuck in some deep, transcendental mud. And there's no deeper, more transcendental mud. QED.

Before Cantor and that crowd, we had incomparably infinite sets (seen one, seen them all), but now we face endless sequences of such, each more infinite than before. At the other "end," our views of an absolute zero have suffered in both physics and maths.

In modern analysis (the core of practical calculus that predicts our eclipses and lands us on the Moon) we still mess with the fleeting ghosts of damn-near zero.

Note, en passant, that the symbol for the Euro currency unit is rather like our maths "epsilon," standing for something smaller than you would wish to admit. QED?

The physical zero is no longer the vacuum that Nature abhors. Such a state is inconsistent with Heisenberg. Indeed, there's nothing more normal, unique or pregnant than empty space.

It just can't wait to burst out into one or more universes.

Voila! No smoke or mirrors!

I Have Safe Mail


To: "Stan Kelly-Bootle"
Date: Sunday, October 28, 2001 3:52 PM

Stan With some loony sending anthrax virus by post, only the e-mail version is safe! Terry Heath
Cheltenham UK


I was recently in Madrid, New Mexico on the Turquoise Trail from Alberquerque to Santa Fe. A pub called the Choking Canary devoted to the pre-Davey-safety-lamp coal-mining days when poor birds gave their lives warning of methane gas.

Alas, whom can we expose to PC pre-Anthrax sniffing?

Which reminds me that we must STILL also watch out for CyberTerrorism.

There's Bob Toxen's Real World Linux Security (Prentice Hall, 2001. isbn 0-13-028187-5

And many security guides/conferences from

Fifteen Years Ago

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

A Quiz Is Just a Quiz

I seem to have been invited to sit on a DECUS conference panel next month (or last month, when you read this), so naturally my thoughts have been focused on the whole linguistic mess known as the Interrogatory Mode. I have resolved at least one ancient "Question and Answer" question: Which came first? Jahweh, no less, settled that one by asking Adam, "Where art thou?" as early on as Genesis 3:9 (I know because I was there, re-coiling behind the tree of life). Some would argue that this was a rhetorical question, the only kind that can conceivably be posed by an omniscient creator. Ironically, in the first reported question asked by Man, we find Cain chopping rhetoric with God: "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Op Cit 5:9).

Conference panelists are accustomed to this form of non- question:

"Would the learned panel not agree that in view of...."

Flattery is the first warning sign that rhetoric is in the air. After fifteen minutes of moreovers and howevers, the questioner pauses at a nevertheless just long enough for the Chairperson to cough nervously and say "Do you have a question?"

The other side of the Q&A coin, of course, is the perfectly direct Yes/No question that the panel steadily refuses to answer:

"An excellent question, if I may say so, and one that reveals a commendable acuity. It is rare, indeed, to encounter a question that so boldly thrusts itself into the heart of the matter. Dijkestra once asked me the selfsame question, in 1968, I believe...we were on the way to Nijmegan, in a rented DAF, you know that now defunct 4 cylinder.."

Once again, the Chairperson fidgets and says "Do we have an answer?"

I was once told that the Cambridge Tripos for Diplomacy started with the instruction: "Candidates MUST evade Question 1 and then dodge any two from Questions 2 to 5."

Well-run computers never resort to evasion, in fact they would rather die, and sometimes do! I was reminded of this during a recent re-run of the TV series "The Prisoner." Patrick McGoohan (spelchek?) submits what he claims is the unanswerable question to the superintelligent CIA-type system. Sure enough, the machine huffs and puffs and glows (computers in films always have endless panels of 1950 vintage lamps and dials) and finally distintegrates. The killer question, it turns out is the one word "WHY?" A really smart machine would have replied "WHY NOT?" without hesitation.

My own system has recently gained in the smarts-department with the addition of PWP, the Professional Writer's Package from Emerging Technology, Boulder, CO. There are versions for UNIX and PC-DOS. My main motivation was the growing frustration in switching from editor to editor for different tasks, and having to remember whether ^T would delete a word, scroll up a page, or globally replace all occurrences of "misstake" with "eror". My new EDIX editor has cunning macro facilities whereby I can set up any sequence of ALT+^+Fn to do whatever I want.

At first, the instant on-line THESIX thesaurus was a mixed blessing. You simply ALT+q with the cursor over any word to get a window full of synonyms. Not only can you select and replace any word with a chosen synonym (ALT+r), you can also "chain" through synonyms of synonyms, or just browse (PgUp and PgDn) through adjacent unrelated entries in the thesaurus. You can have great fun until your publisher or editor calls about the deadline!

I used to have some qualms about sneaking the odd peek at the old Roget until I read that Dylan Thomas, my model for spontaneous mot juste outpourings, was not averse to hunting for equivalent words. As an experiment, I subjected Shakespeare's:

"The {quality} of {mercy} is not {strained}"

to a dose of THESIXation. Of the 15 x 11 x 20 resulting permutations I am particularly proud of:

"The condition of clemency is not percolated" "The status of discretion is not seeped through"

If the word is not located in THESIX, you are told the two entries between which your target would have fallen lexicographically. And therein lies a whole new world of word games. Here is an actual screen obtained by highlighting UNIX in your text:

UNIX: - is not in the thesarus. It would fall between universe and unjust


fornicate: - is not in the thesaurus. It would fall between formulate and forsake

Who dares to mock the advances of AI? Well, actually AI is NOT in THESIX but it does fall between "agreement" and "aid"!

Can any of you guess what falls between "frustrate" and "fulfill"? Or between "coax" and "code"? Your answers in a plain envelope, please.

Most of us, however, earn our daily bread by answering questions in one guise or another, without the aid of an instant ALT+q. These are often in a form known as the Imperative-Interrogatory: "Would you be so kind as to get your dumb act together and do something?"

Which reminds us that there are those who make a living by asking questions. In some societies, for instance, the torturing trade is highly regarded. You can imagine the high school career counselor asking young Jimmy why he wants to join the Inquisition. Jimmy says brightly, "Well, I like meeting people, getting to know them...seeing what they're made of."

My local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, runs a popular daily feature known as "The Question Man." A mysterious reporter, known only as Conti, stops people at random and pops them la question du jour, as it were. Conti also has a photographer with him, so the lucky pollees get their pictures and their opinions on a million editorial pages the following day. Andy Warhol promised us all at least 15 minutes of fame in our lifetime; the Question Man is doing his best. The questions posed range from the trivial to the insignificant, from "Do you Come Here Often?" to "What's your favorite ice-cream-flavor?" The answers are predictably prosaic and mercifully short.

One of my more mentionable fantasies is to be The Question Man for a day, and add some class and relevance to this enterprise. To shun the mundane, my question would need to cut deeply into the cosmic, quintessential fiber of epistemological t'ingy. Easy for me to say.

"Do you sleep in pajamas?" would be replaced by "What is your favorite feature in System V Release 3?" "Do you prefer cats to dogs?" might become "Does Modula-2 need multi-dimensional conformal arrays?"

The nearest I ever got to fulfilling this dream was asking "Whither UNIX?" in a crowded bar. Crowded is not a particularly good epithet. Neither is overcrowded. Steaming-hot-jammed- packed is getting closer. The bar was the "Plough and Stars" and the occasion was the late evening of a St. Patrick's Day. As I explained to the police later, it was not the ideal place or time for a meaningful discussion on Operating System methodology.

In fact, when I come to think of it, this column already gives me a wonderfully safe opportunity to query an Expert System known as the UNIX Review readership. In my August 1986 piece, you may recall, I quoted an unascribed gem and asked if any reader could supply the original source. I did not reveal my own private theory that Henry V, having been offered a choice of battle flags from his various regiments on the eve of Agincourt, proudly proclaimed:

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

Alfred J. Bruey of Jackson, MI wrote that the remark in question can be traced back to the Emperor Constantine. Having accepted Christianity, he was then faced with the choice between Catholicism, Presbyterianism, Baptism or Lutheranism. Good try, Alfred: "De regulis quod est bonum multipluribus sunt!"

Correct entries were received from John Hooper of Advanced Digital Systems, San Diego CA and Carl E Davidson of Apollo Computer Inc., Detroit, Michigan:

"Having finished yukking at your droll Devil's Advocate column in the August 86 UNIX Review, I am stable enough to help with the quote mentioned at the end. Please refer to "Computer Networks" by Andrew S. Tanenbaum (Prentic-Hall, 1981). The quote is from page 186, last sentaence in the second full paragraph.

As you will note, the original is even better than the partial quote. Tanenbaum is my choice as one of the two best writers on technical subjects in English (the other is Tom DeMarco, founding President of MODUS).

Your humor is much appreciated. Your bit on book clubs started a sympathetic vibration in my ribs which hasn't yet completely dampened. Good thoughts, John Hooper."

Carl Davidson wrote:

"I read with interest your column in the August issue of UNIX Review, especially the postscript regarding the quotation on standards. As is often the case with an unattributed quotation Mssrs. Nagler and Siegl have slightly misquoted the original source." Carl then gives Tenenbaum's words as:

"The nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from, if you do not like any of them, you can just wait for next year's model"

My sincere thanks to all who wrote. I also take this opportunity to thank Edward R. Byrne of Madison, NJ for correcting my faux pas in June's [1986] column. I referred to the mathematician Benjamin Peirce as Pierce. I was about to send my innards to the local sushi bar, but on second thoughts decided to buy a stronger Bausch und Lomb for my microcondensed Oxford English Dictionary; also I plan to sue all my teachers and/or their next of kin, who made me recite: "i before e except after c when the sound is eeeeeeee!"

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.
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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.