Son of Devil's Advocate, March 2002

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle

Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

On The Rocky Road Again

Moving residential locations seems to be natural to the restless US body and psyche. Otherwise, all known Yanks would still be clustered around Plimouth Rock. At least until the turkeys and natives ran out. En passant, it seems that the first "Indian" that the Pilgrims encountered was fairly fluent in Spanish and English, having visited Europe under the wings of earlier invaders. Discuss!

So much for the Hollywood "How! Me bigum Red-Face, Fire-Water Running Wolf. You Pale, Black Stocking Devil" dialogues. Indeed, the oldest in-joke was "Cherokee, Miwok etc., easy when you know How!"

Not to mention Cole Porter's "Anything Goes": if only the Plimouth Rock had landed on the Pilgrims?

But I digress.

We working-stiff Brit/Angels have in recent post-colonial eras reverted to a homely inertia. Ignoring our frightful Celtic, Viking, Roman, and Norman incursions, we have donned a sort of independence from the alien "melting-pot" agenda.

We are, damn it, Gilbertian and Sullivanish!

In spite of all temptations to belong to other nations, we are proud not to be Russi-ans or Prussi-ans.

My putative parents never left their Liverpool birth-slum until it was torn down in a fit of 1930s social-engineering. Then we moved a few miles to the slightly posher environs of Wavertree. How posh can you get? Wavertee turned out to be older than Liverpool itself, appearing in the Domesday Book as Wautree several centuries before King John granted Leverpule its formal charter in 1206. More yet, Wavertree gained the glorious motto Sub Umbra Floresco ("I Flourish In The Shade") which guided my work-ethic until I succumbed to the job-rich haven of Silicon Valley: "Sub Micro Floresco."

You may need to know that the UK has long suffered a North/South dichotomy: partly cultural and linguistic but mainly economic. The power and the glory were London-centric. Southeners have a variant quip on the old "The jungle starts at Calais." Barbarism begins as you venture North beyond the M25. Indeed, some say the M25 (known as the world's largest parking lot) was deliberately designed to prevent vehicular movement between the two regions. Another ploy was to privatize British Rail.

Stand-up comics exploit the situation, mostly from the Northern divide, and especially from Liverpool which suffers the most chronic unemployment rates and (therefore?) boasts 90% of all known black UK humorists, both black and white.

Typically: "Chinwagged wit' dis guy at de bar last night. Knew 'e wuz from de Sout' -- 'e 'ad a job."

Sorry: ASCII can't indicate the Scouse internations. Neither can Unicode.

End of Digression?

Since I made that major transit to California in 1976, while maintaining pieds-a-terre en Scouse and en Prouvence, I've kept up the trad reluctance to hop addresses.

The old Liverpudlian address change was oft a "moon-lit flit" triggerd by overdue rents. Our landlord [ref 1] used to say

"Leave this place as you found it"

to which me Dad would respond

"Whur can I find ten dead rats late on a Sunday night?"

ref 1: See my Topic Record, "Songs For Swinging Landlords TO"

This is a picture of Erin, not Griselda.  Griselda's picture should appear here next month. My recent move from free-fall Point Richmond, CA to the adjacent Sonoma County Petaluma, CA is a tad less romantic. I'm nearer to the Napa Wine Valley but into an "Active Retirement" Condo which frowns on alcohol! Lest you bemoan my new status which may remind you of the BBC TV Soap called "Waiting for God," I must say that I am surrounded by hot'n'cold running maids, serving three wholesome meals-a-day, changing my incontinent sheets, and soothing my fevered brow. Where else can you find a real lady called Griselda.

I pondered deeply this switch of Weltenscau -- Weltenschaau -- lifestyle. On the upside, I've escaped the fear of dying undetected like Polonius until someone smells me on the landing.

On the downside, I've had to transport endless, accumulated shit (neatly known as "stuff" by the Iomega Zip marketeers). And learning that some Laptops, like Wines, don't "travel."

SO, my humble but valid excuses that this SODA March 2002 is overdue.

I wrongly entrusted the Starving Students [Inc!] to pack/unpack my belongings. They were 9 hours late! Compare with the well-fed Paris Students of 1968 who were 51 years late?

My new abode offers the quiet opportunity to finally complete my Auto-bio cum Novel. Pant, pant. Don't we all?

Inspired by W. V. Quine's The Time of My Life (MIT Press, 1985), I'll relate all the meals and drinks I shared with Bjarne Stroustup, Bertrand Meyer, Andrew Binstock, PJ Plauger, Don Winterhalter, Meilir Page-Jones, Andrew Goodwin, Shanan Hobbes, et all.

I can drop names sans cesse!

Xmas Quiz Winner

Howard E. Parks of West Allis, WI 53219

Prize book is on the way.

Runners up or Runner ups?

Still digesting. See Steven Pinker's "Words and Rules."

Why "Maple Leafs?"

15 Years ago

UNIX Review - Stan Kelly-Bootle - March 1987

My Name is Occupant - but you can call me Resident or The mail it maileth every day

Considering the Saganic bill-ions of mailing shots that are fired off daily, the delivery error-rate is commendably low. However, from time to time I end up with a neighbor's correspondence, and vice versa. (To preserve my neighbor's privacy, I will refer to her simply as Cutey-Pie.) I believe that this is part of a Postal Service plan to improve local fellowship. Certainly it has led to a regular, jolly ceremony known as the "Redistribution of the Junk." The neighbor and I meet at the bottom of the garden clutching our stack of misdirected mail, and having passed the time of day, engage in friendly bartering. "I'll swap you two Seedy Catalogs for one Radio Shack Final Grand Clearance Now- or-Never Offer." Or, "This bill is for you, I believe. Looks like a final warning - I know it's none of my business, but don't you think you should pay up and get them off my back?"

A growing proportion of our mail is unsolicited material of the promotional persuasion. But even this must be carefully sifted and exchanged - I would hate to unwittingly grab the million dollars promised to Cutey-Pie, just as she would be loath to make use of my free Toupe-fitting coupon.

The strange thing about junk mail is its buck-shot lack of precision. Although my neighbor and I could not be more poles apart in gender, vocation and spare-time obsessions, there are days when we are besieged with an identical set of sales brochures and gift offers. These include the despised and readily discarded "Dear Occupant" missives, but much of the junk nowadays is stridently personalized. The senders write to you like old friends and make outrageous assumptions about your tastes and desires:

"You and I, Stan Kelly-Bootle, share this PASSION for X. And to think, Stan Kelly-Bootle, that for $9.95 plus a small handling charge, you could WALLOW in X every MINUTE of every DAY..."

Where are all those highly intelligent databases we read about? Surely a mailing-list with the merest whiff of AI would know that I detest X and all its unsavory implications. Similarly, any database with the minimal relational pretensions would be aware of the fact that I have been computing, man, boy and child, for more than thirty years. Yet I still get an expensively glossy invitation to subscribe to "Understanding Computers." This urges me to "SIGN ON: Your future may depend on it!" The writer continues: o73 "For many of us, the world of computers is fascinating -- but still pretty mysterious and confusing. A world seemingly populated only by computer 'experts' and surrounded by an impregnable curtain of jargon like bits, bytes, ASCII, CP/M, RAM, ROM and on and on.

Don't be left behind by the computer revolution..."

The letter carries on like this for four exotic pages, but I gave up shortly after the bizarre mention of CP/M! Who's being left behind in the computer revolution?

A particular peeve of mine is the perforated token and its inane adjunct, the perforated slot. You are constantly implored to "simply" punch out a piece of the flimsy reply-card and insert it in an equally flimsy slot. These slots, you'll find, especially for subscriptions to the Journal of Applied Topology, are never quite wide enough. And when you open that pathetic little handwritten note from the Publisher entitled "Read this ONLY if you have decided NOT to subscribe," you find the following gems of sarcasm:

"$9.95 too much for you, eh? And we thought you were a real X- ophile! How wrong can we get? Ever stopped to think how much we spend sending offers to flake-heads like you?"

"Ha! Couldn't fit the token in the slot, eh? Well, we certainly don't want dummies like you near our magazine."

The invite from MIT's Technology Review screams: "Place FREE ISSUE token here" within a HUGE red arrow just in case you are both technologically and visually impaired.

And, assuming you are also illiterate, they precompose your reply:

"YES - I would like.... YES - I am THRILLED... NO - I can't wait... "

As a natural extrapolation of all this nonsense, I offer the ultimately inappropriate mailing-shot example:

Dear Mr Einstein,

Worried about being left behind in the big Unified Field Theory Race? If you're anything like me, Mr Einstein, you must be confused at the pace of modern Physics. Take the flood of new jargon, for instance. Can quarks affect your career opportunities? Your next job interview could depend on your reply to the question: "Well, Mr Einstein, where do you stand on the anti-neutrino issue?"

To get a free issue of "Particle Physics for the Complete Idiot" detach the tiny perforated replica of the Bohr Atom and insert it in the YES slot. If you are too dumb to accomplish this, what o73 the hell are you doing on our select mailing list? It's fools like you that drive up the cost of direct mailing. Nothing personal, Albert, but if you could see our printing bills and low response ratios.

Bonus: the next new elementary particle could be named after you! Yes, at no extra charge, the next 500 as-yet-unknown particles will be named for our first 500 subscribers. Can you imagine Mrs Einstein asking you at breakfast time: "So, how's your boson doing today?" BUT you must act NOW!

BLAND ADVICE: I did a technical review of a self-styled "advanced" PC-DOS manuscript recently. You may find it hard to believe, but some computer book publishers actually subject submitted manuscripts to such scrutiny before troffing off into hard copy! It's fun being paid for what I usually do for pleasure, i.e. scribbling "What???" or "No Way!!!" in the margins of books.

Had the authors projected their work with some modesty, I would have been less critical. However the book was aimed at the "SuperPower" user, the reader who has soaked up all the Norton pap, and wanted some solid red-meat.

Alas, many pages were devoted to maternal advice of the kind the French call "Mets-ta-laine," ("Don't forget your woollies") and we Liverpudlians call "Keep-tight-hold-of-your-change." Helpful counsel that Peter Norton overlooked, such as "Don't believe everything the salesman tells you," "Ask to see it work," and "Make a list of what you need before you go shopping." This last plea, I thought, badly needed a "See figure 4.9," showing you the sharp and blunt ends of a pencil.

Methinks I'll write a book called "Tricks of the Cray Masters," subtitled: "Probably the ONLY Cray book you'll EVER need!" Chapters 1 and 2 write themselves (usual ASCII tables and an introduction to Hex notation titled "Biting the Bullet," and ending "There, that wasn't so difficult, was it?")

I've already sketched out Chapter 3: "Buying Your First Cray."

"Shop around! It's amazing how many people just rush ahead and buy the first Cray they encounter. And, this is terribly important, ask to see it work, preferably running your own programs. It's amazing how many people wait til they get home, then find that their favorite spreadsheet or Riemannian Non- linear Elliptic Integrator package won't run. Believe me, there's nothing quite as frustrating as an idle Cray. Without what we call software (more on this anon), Crays are just dumb doorstops or possibly bookends, paperweights or even sacks of potatoes. To put it another way, suppose you have an automobile, it could be an '29 Ford or an '87 Mercedes, whatever, regardless of year and model, without gas, what have you got? Right! You've got a doorstop, bookend or paperweight. o73 Should you buy new or used, real-thing or clone? These are tricky questions. Even trickier is how to say "Cray Clone" in Japanese. So much depends on your needs and pocket-book. Only you know your real needs and the state of your pocket-book. So, make a list of the features you want and the price you are prepared to pay, then shop around, don't believe everything you hear, and above all, ask to see it work.

Well, supposing you've made the plunge and you're back home the proud owner of a Cray. It's important that you open the box carefully, and save ALL the bits and pieces of packing material. These will prove handy if you ever have to send it back for repair."

Next month: Chapter 4: Handy tips for Do-It-Yourself Cray trouble-shooters.

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 2002.
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This column is sponsored by Aptitune Corporation, makers of SarCheck. The opinions of Stan Kelly-Bootle are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Aptitune Corporation. Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.