Son of Devil's Advocate, February 2002

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle


Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

MS Uber Alles

So much going on. So little respite to maintain pace/peace. So much harder to "keep up" as the Actress said to the Bishop (or was it vice versa?)

Way back in the 1970s we would meet monthly at Jim Joyce's (no relation) gothic mansion on Waller, San Francisco. BTW, nobody lived on Waller Street! A local SF quirk is whether X is correctly declared a street, avenue or simply X. Getting it wrong is a sort of mortifying [sic] shibboleth. Nearby domains need more diambiguation: in Marin County, for example, there's no end of Parkwood Streets, Parkwood Avenues, Parkwood Places. We were delighted to find that notre abri was officially Parkwood Alley!

Jim (RIP in the perfect Kernel in the Sky) was a UCB Computing Science Prof. and early Unix evangelical.

Our monthly sessions were a sort of "What's new, Doc?" Hard to realize that even then the rate-of-change seemed beyond human digestion.

As new shells and languages emerged, we shifted to a weekly refresh. Could we ever be convenienty/provably up-to-date? How often and with whom should we meet? Old joke was that DP Vogue became a bi-daily.

This was before the full-mixed blessings of the Internet where we are now bloated with hard-to-verify exchanges?

One hates to knock the feel-great Village Voice concept but every day billyons of raving idiots feel free to swamp us with Peer- reviewed-less opinions.

And then we exponentially drain our finite bandwidth by complaining and invoking counter complaints. Email no more!

Recall the embedded paradox known as "Hard Real Time." Only Mother Nature, perhaps by definition the Queen of Math, solves Her many equations in real Real Time. She gives us, for example, the current weather as-is long before our Crays have painfully extrapolated from the previous nano-second database.

Xmas Quiz

I've had some wondrous responses BUT my column text had faulty clicks to skb@atdial.net

SO, I'll delay the PrizeGivings until next month's SODA


15 Long Years Ago

UNIX Review - Devil's Advocate, February 1987 - Stan Kelly-Bootle

Getting Started With Nelly.

First the UNIX Crossword results: As luck would have it, the first correct solution was sent in by my mother. Well done, Mum. You can collect the Rolls Royce Corniche whenever you like. I also have some socks for you to darn. Second prize goes to Cecil Rose, Jr., of Arden-Mayfair, Inc., Los Angeles, California. Cecil will receive a signed copy of my "Devil's DP Dictionary." (retail value $9.95). By mail. Had the winner lived in a more convenient place, like Maui or Copenhagen, I would have delivered the prize in person. Hold the front page, Mark! Mater has just called saying she would rather have second prize. Sorry, Ma. Rules is Rules. We cannot risk being accused of nepotism (or should that be "mammotism?").

Many entrants were disqualified for using Turbo-Prolog. Perhaps we should have mentioned that only human-aided solutions would be acceptable!

Those of you who do not time your breakfast eggs by racing through the London Times crossword every morning may need the following explanation of our puzzle:

Across:

1. UNIX (Review)
2. UNIX (World)
3. UN-IX ( "a" French =3D "un"; Roman "nine" =3D IX)
4. UNIX (anagram of XINU). Some sick readers tried NIXU, UXIN, etc. We suggest they find a better Prolog

The particular grid used in our puzzle has the advantage that once you complete the easy Across clues, the Down clues are self- solving, as it were. Nonetheless, a true crossword addict will insist on knowing the rationale behind all clues, whether answered deliberately or en passant.

Down:

1. UUUU (pronounced "'Ughes" as in 'Oward 'Ughes, whence 'oward's 'omophone)
2. NNNN (pronounced "'Ens" as in cockney for "Hens" =3D layers of eggs)
3. IIII (pronounced "Eyes," as in Gilbert/Sullivan: "Take a pair of sparkling eyes..." Here we have four eyes!)
4. XXXX ( pronounced "Dos Equis, Dos Equis" =3D two Mexican beers i.e. dos cervezas)

Slight pause here while you rest your tired brains...

My thoughts of late have been much engaged by the complex problems of teaching and learning in the fertile, nay, soggy fields of computer science. Whether writing a Primer or Users' Guide or giving a Seminar, one is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of absolutely vital, interrelated facts, none of which is particularly interesting (or even true) in isolation. There is a frustrating absence of crisp axioms from which you can build up a logically consistent corpus of computer know-how. Indeed, it is hard to find one simple sentence you can swear to on your mother's white locks without first appending a list of caveats and qualifications.

Cynics have observed that to understand any single component of the Macintosh Toolbox you must first understand every component. As the theologians say, "If you believe, then no explanations are necessary; if you do not believe, then no explanations are possible."

Such Catch-22's lurk in many aspects of our field, even in the relatively cohesive hierarchies of UNIX! This explains the number of asides and footnotes occurring in the text books: "As we'll see presently..." or "More on this anon..." or "Of course, this presupposes that the Inhibit-Interrupt-Reset-Valid flag has been set correctly (See Volumes III and IV)" The latter example usually occurs in a set of manuals with no index, or worse still, with an index that lumps together, without distinction, all seven hundred references to the word "flag." This misuse of computer- generated indices is often the cause of much frustration. I have seen, nay written, a Modula-2 manual, for example, the index of which fails to distinquish the procedure SIZE from the word "size."

Sections on critical operations such as backing-up files often have an ominous, parenthetical "BUT see Appendix C." or the carefree injunction "Ignore the resulting error message."

It is, to be sure, easy to criticize, but not so easy to avoid some of these pitfalls. The real problem is that the most blatantly obvious facts from the author's side of the knowledge- gap ("Surely they'll know what RAM stands for..") can include concepts quite new and strange to the reader. Here we face the "prerequisites" or "target readership" conundrum. General classifications such as "elementary," "intermediate," and "advanced" are useful but beg the question: relative to what? Compare, say, "Elementary Quantum Chromodynamics" and "Intermediate Morphogenetic Stability" with "Advanced BASIC for the Commodore 64."

An amusing aspect of this problem is seen in the Seminar Brochure. Under the heading "Hands-on Ada Conference: Who should attend?" we find a list that has clearly been influenced by the Leporellos from Marketing. Starting with upper, middle and lower management, we move through all the levels of supervisor, systems analyst, programmer and service with a warm extension to their family, friends and pets. Breathing members of the human race, regardless of age, color, race or creed are particularly welcome, while attractive group rates are offered for all primates interested in Ada.

Having nailed down your target reader, seminar attendant or trainee, you next have to choose the appropriate method for transferring information and skills.

One of the greatest advances in pedagogic methodology came from my native Liverpool during the first Industrial Revolution. It never got the credit it deserved, perhaps because they never called it pedagogic methodology. In fact, even today Scousers will look at you real funny, cross themselves and the road, like, if you dared to mention such a t'ing. The preferred name to the approach to teaching I have in mind is called "Sitting Next To Nelly." Forget your paradigmatic schemas, forget your skill- honing seminars, forget all those hands-on-structured- familiarization-sessions. Just sit your trainee next to Nelly for a few days, weeks or months.

Nelly is not a teacher per se, and not necessarily female per se. (Ed. That's your quota of per se's for this month). What Nelly has is skill and experience, undiluted by Educational Diplomas. Bernard Shaw's famous dictum, by the way, has a contemporary extension: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach; those who can't teach, manage; those who can't manage, consult..."

Nelly cannot provide the algorithms for grading blackpuddings or gutting fish, even if such algorithms exist. If you ask why that particular pudding has been graded AA, you'll be told that the main reason is the obvious fact that it looks and smells better than an A but worse than a AAA. Furthermore, you daft sod, it's been put in the box marked "AA," so what's your problem. After a while, the trainee tentatively starts throwing puddings into boxes. Subtle feedbacks, such as the occasional "belt in the gob" with a grade DD, gradually guide the beginner to acceptable performance levels. The ultimate promotion arrives when Nelly moves away, and you find a young, bright-eyed starter sitting next to you.

Wanna learn UNIX? There's Nelly, over there, at the Sun Workstation. Grab a chur, dere, la!


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 2002.
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