Son of Devil's Advocate, April 2002

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle


Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

Viva Las Vegas

To get a real fix on the Fun Capital of the Universe, you must go when there's no Comdex to distract you.

I already hear your gainsaying howls of disbelief, but this is an April column where many layers of irony are permitted, nay, mandatory. See all my previous April DAs and SODAs devoted to the strange April Fools' tradition. I mention this because each year many readers are, well, fooled, by deliberately misleading articles in all kinds of journals. It works best in the usually serious publications. For example, the April Scientific American loves to slip in a few non-facts then awaits the flood of horrified letters [ref 1].

Even the staid BBC TV had an April fling in the 50s: the super- reliable Dimbleby (his Oxbridge voice was irrefutable) explained how spaghetti plants were grown and harvested in Italy. Viewers were shown fields sprouting pastas of various diameters.

Just recently Peter G. Neumann's April SRI risks column, where regular browsers, one assumes, must be aware of pgn's unique sensayuma, carried a bogus book review of a non-book called "Hacking for Dummies." But it seems that people have been trying to buy this non-title. As I write, could such a book be entering the lists?

ref 1: There's an interesting set of tags for those who write anonymously or request "withhold my name." Classics are "Worried Blues Eyes" for the Agony columns, and "Disgusted Tunbridge Wells" in the Daily Telegraph.

The Computer Conference Caravanseraglio is cleverly mapped to places that attract people who are permanently pissed off with yet-another peer-ridden Paper: "Let me walk you through my LISP Payroll."

Your bill-paying manager is usually sympathetic. She, too, is anxious to visit Tokyo, Sydney and Copenhagen.

An early example which I can now relate without fear of litigation:

At a 5-day UNIVAC conflab held in New Orleans circa 1960, a gang of us finally located the venue to hear the Rosette [ref 2]. Chairman (for such he was) say:

"If there are no further questions, I declare the Conference concluded."

Quick grab of the "lit" to establish our attendance.

ref 2: "Rosette" is a sadly neglected term, probably because it's not that easy to define precisely. Originally applied to the "dominant" organiser/spokesperson of a political election campaign (the one sporting the largest lapel button), it spread to include similar activists in other domains. Thus "X is a born Rosette" implies that X is likely to volunteer as the unpaid Treasurer in your local computer society!

Back to Lost Wages.

It's easy to mock the flagrant hedonism of Vegas. Yet that's the successful soul of capitalism that Lenin tried but failed to capture in his 1920s NEP (New Economic Policy).

If only Uncle Joe Stalin had exploited the greed of Homo Gamblus and put some fun into Socialism? Alas both winners and losers got the Gulag prize?

A recent non-Comdex trip that sums up the LV magic:

I was "best-man" at the Elvis Presly Wedding Chapel.

My dear friends Phil Cali and Heather Meadows tied the nuptial knot blessed by the King. Some of you wrongly assume Elvis is dead, apart from dubious sightings at Walmarts. But there He was huger-than-life crooning "Love Me Tender." I watched carefully to see if the rendition was lip-synch mimed. No, this was the King in all His Glory.

I rashly tipped Him $20 and He said "Thank you; thank you very much"

I have the jpegs to prove it.

What Themes May Come?

Some pedants will argue that "theme" is a noun from which the predicate "thematic" is readily derived. But Vegas goes for killer Yank syntax and offers several "Themed" wedding packages of which the Elvis version is the most popular.

You have a choice of Elves (is that the correct plural?): black, white, hispanic, proving the universality of the legend.

Phil and Heather went for the "Southern Baptist" model, the great gyrating guy we remember before the drugs and obesity moved in and the whole lot of shaking became a fatal symptom.

Elvis fans must forgive this unpardonable sin. And read Alice Walker's sublime short story "1955" which leaves you guessing who the unnamed rock star could possibly be.

The ceremony was, in fact, for all its glitz, deeply moving. My old left (left out?) comrades may never understand my tears of joy (except perhaps for Prof. Andrew Goodwin @ UCSF?).

I suppose that every marriage is a sort-of gamble, so Vegas seems the ideal venue. What more to say but to wish Heather and Phil the best odds in Pascal's Wager for eternel happiness. (I almost wrote "May their slots stay loose," but the idiom could confuse some of my non-betting readers.)

Themes Go Leor

Second best to Elvis is the Mafia Theme. The preacher-guy is dressed like Marlon Brando with a cotton-wool-stuffed mouth declaring "This a Union you can't Refuse." The witnesses carry ominous violin cases, and Sinatra sings "Each Day is Valentines Day."

Not yet on the list, but I'm working hard, are several possible computer-related nuptials.

The Turing Theme is for same-sex marriages: may they never HALT.

The Oracle wedding has a Larry-E-look-alike flying in on his MiG fighter and insisting that he shares the honeymoon suite. Hard to resist those silver-tongued, aka charismatic, bastards?

There could be two SunGod packages:

1. You move to the Luxor Casino and marry your mother/father/brother/sister/some/all [tick the boxes]. A real Ra is available (Akhton extra) with optional UA miles bonus (in conjunction with Horus Air) when you MOVE ON

2. Or you may prefer the slightly higher-tech SunGod Microsystems approach:

Scott McNealy, dressed as a standup comic, amuses the would-be couple and their families for three hours with quips berating all the rival Themes. SunSalesPersons infiltrate the vanishing audience distributing the latest version of Java: 3.14159 rev 27

Yet More Vows

The rather sober and lengthy Dijkstra ceremony requires many sermon-lines proving that the fated couple are provably compatible, give or take the odd lemma. The Topological Option proves that your nuptial knot is a true knot than none can rend asunder in 3-dimensions.

Drum roll...we have the ultra-expensive Microsoft Theme? Bill Gates (avoid substitutes) says "I now declare you man and ..." when the whole Chapel freezes and flashes "Wedlock Locked. Try 'End Task.' OR Ctl-Alt-Del for good-old-reliable DOS."

Book Nook

One of the mixed blessings of moving residences (see March 2002 SODA) is the Packing/Unpacking Problem.

I've encountered some old, great Shit (aka Caprolite?) beyond belief.

Literally! I found Merde! et Merde Encore! by Genevie've, subtitled "The Real French You Were Never Taught at School." [Quality Paperback, 1988.]

Wherefrom comes this quote re-forms of address, a subject of ongoing interest to sociolinguists [ref 3]:

"The height of rarefied elegance, becoming thankfully very rare indeed, is attained by those parents who make their children address them by the formal pronoun 'vous.' [rather than 'tu.'] It could result in 'Maman, vous m'emmerdez!'"

ref 3: For example, in Tom Brown's schooldays, the teacher would say "Come here Brown!" Brown would reply "Yes Sir" even to a female teacher. By, say, the 1960s students and teachers were moving to first-name or (horror, end of civilisation) nick-name terms. "Hate to whack you Tom." "That's OK Baz." In many cultures (e.g., Samoan) the address protocol is truly complex and life- threatening.

Then the joy of unpacking a half-forgotten, neglected, English philosopher:

Critique of Pure Verbiage -- Essays on Abuses of Language in Literary, Religious, and Philosophical Writings

by Ronald Englefield, Ed. G. A. Wells & D. R. Oppenheimer, Open Court Publishing, 1990

I mean the title alone! And for the life of me I can't recall how and when I acquired this wondrous book

Ronald (1891-1975) will rise rise again, I swear.

He entirely screws, oops, disputes all those humorless Krauts (Kant, Hegel, Heidegger and that crowd) with good old Brit, Humean and Russellian commonsense. Well, he's not just knee-jerk anti-German, although he physically fought (mentioned in Dispatch) the Hun from the WW1 trenches in France. He survived this horror, and went on to teach French and German at various schools from 1920 to 1952, never gaining his due recognitions.

He sees much merit in Leibniz and even more in Goethe, and occasionally knocks Ruskin, Ryle, Ayer, even Whitehead!

In his essay on Things, Ideas, And Words we read

"Unfortunately there are certain regions of thought where the most abstract ideas are the principal topic and where in consequence there is no simple imaginative substitute for words. The concrete foundation of a highly abstract idea is apt to be so vast that there is no room for it in the mind of the philosopher, whatever species of symbolic representation he may employ. But just where the idea expands beyond the speculative mind 'Da stellt ein Wort zur rechten Zeit sich ein'"

["That is just where a word puts in a timely appearance." Goethe's Faust, part 1, line 1996]

He's good on apparent NL paradoxes:

Of the liar who lost her dentures, Englefield posits:

"She speaks without truth and teeth."

April is MAM (Mathematics Awareness Month)

Yes, this is a genuine, no-fooling appeal to be more aware of mathematics!

It's almost a Caveat. Beware USA! The stats are fuzzy (by definition) but in overall world-student math competence the USA is regularly rated 14th, just above Albania and East Timor, just below Bulgaria and Cuba.

The alt.stats reveal that at the top Math Olympiad level, the USA is up there with the Russians and Chinese. Partly due, no doubt, to the fact that Hungarians prefer Boston and San Francisco to Budapest?

By works are ye saved, not by awareness lest any idiot should boast (St Paul Erdös).

Seriously, it's been hard of late for the most innumerati to igore mathematics.

Following world headlines on Wiles's proof of Fermat's Last Theorem (plus David Auburn's play Proof) we now have Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress) for "A Beautiful Mind," the Ron Howard film based on the remarkable story of the mathematician John Nash.

Nash struggled for years with bouts of schizophrenia and subsequent marital problems. Yet he won the von Neumann Theory Prize, 1978 and the 1994 Nobel Prize [ref 4] in Economics 1994 for his pioneering work in noncooperative game theory. For his Riemannian Manifold Embedding Theorem, he gained the Steele Prize 1999

As the Economist (March 30th 2002) reported

"Economical though it may be with the truth, and the economics, the film confirmed that love, mathematics and mental health are an unbeatable combination."

Mathematicienne (!!) Lynne M. Butler (Princeton and Haverford) provides a detailed movie review (Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Vol 49, Number 4, p. 455.

ref 4: Old faithful readers will recall exchanges on the domains accorded the Nobel approval stamp. The absence of a specific Mathematics Nobel Laureate has suggested the following suggestions. 1. Nobel's wife was being screwed on the side (and elsewhere) by some randy weirdo/topologist (Cantor, Alexander, Poincare?). This theory breaks down: Nobel never married! 2. Slightly less incredible: Nobel was deeply anti-semitic and found that all potential candidates were Jews.

Global Markets

From the Harvard Business School: Lesson of Economy

TRADITIONAL CAPITALISM:
   You have two cows.
   You sell one and buy a bull.
   Your herd multiplies, and the economy grows.
   You sell them and retire on the income.

ENRON VENTURE CAPITALISM:

   You have two cows.
   You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using
   letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank,
   then execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general
   offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption
   for five cows.
   The milk rights of the six cows are transferred via an
   intermediary to a Cayman Island company secretly owned by the
   majority shareholder who sells the rights to all seven cows
   back to your listed company. The annual report says the
   company owns eight cows, with an option on one more.
   Sell one cow to buy a new president of the United States, leaving  
   you with nine cows. No balance sheet provided with the release.
   The public buys your bull.

AN AMERICAN CORPORATION:
    You have two cows. You sell one, and force the other to produce
    the milk of four cows. You are surprised when the cow drops dead.

A FRENCH CORPORATION:
    You have two cows. You go on strike because you want three cows.

A JAPANESE CORPORATION:
    You have two cows. You redesign them so they are one-tenth the
    size of an ordinary cow and produce twenty times the milk. 
    You then create clever cow cartoon images and market them Worldwide.

A GERMAN CORPORATION:
    You have two cows. You reengineer them so they live for 100 years,
    eat once a month, and milk themselves.

A BRITISH CORPORATION:
    You have two cows. Both are mad.

AN ITALIAN CORPORATION:
    You have two cows, but you don't know where they are. You break
    for lunch.

A RUSSIAN CORPORATION:
    You have two cows. You count them and learn you have five cows.
    You count them again and learn you have 42 cows. You count them 
    again and you learn you have 12 cows.
    You stop counting cows and open another bottle.

A SWISS CORPORATION:
    You have 5000 cows, none of which belong to you. You charge others
    for storing them.

A HINDU CORPORATION:
    You have two cows. You worship them.

A CHINESE CORPORATION:
    You have two cows. You have 300 people milking them. You claim
    full employment, high bovine productivity, and arrest the newsman 
    who reported the numbers.
    
AN ISRAELI CORPORATION:
    So, there are these two Jewish cows, right? They open a milk
    factory, an ice cream store, and then sell the movie rights. 
    They send their calves to Harvard to become doctors. 
    So, who needs people?

AN UKRAINIAN CORPORATION:
    A farmer has two cows. Local prosecutor opens a criminal case 
    suspecting the cows were born from a cat and a dog (this is 
    illegal). The prosecutor milks the cows while looking for evidence.

A TURKISH CORPORATION:
    You have two cows. That one on the left is kind of cute!

15 Years ago

UNIX Review - Stan Kelly-Bootle - April 1987

Où Sont Les Chaddim d'Antan?

Serious fun-lovers seem able to party without troubling to dig up a valid excuse. For those whose conscience insists on a formal occasion, there are comforting "drinkers' diaries" that list the various options available. "Wow, it's the 163rd anniversary of the founding of the Bolivian Republic! This calls for a celebration." A more flexible ploy I encountered in Moscow was "If Vladimir Ilyitch were alive today, he would be 116 years, 4 months and 2 days old. Za zdorove Lenina!" But enough of these lame pretexts; you may now lift your glasses for a genuine toast.

Thirty-four years, 3 months and 4 days ago, to the very microsecond, I wrote my first computer program. It was keyed on a "blind" paper-tape perforator, verified using the Prayer method, then submitted to a room full of valves and mercury delay lines collectively known as EDSAC I (see this column October 1984 for detailed specifications).

WORUJ was a popular acronym in those days: Write Once, Read Until Jam.

Some aspects of computing have not changed. For example, programs were written with mnemonic op-codes, remarkably similar to present day assembly languages, although the limited single- address instruction set (18 ops each 18-bits long) might now qualify as "state-of-the-art" RISC!

Pieces of EDSAC I can still be seen at the Kensington Science Museum in London, but that early program of mine, a small roll of pink, 5-track teleprinter paper-tape, lovingly preserved for many years, has gone, alas, the way of all paper-tape. "Ou sont les chaddim d'antan?" ("Where are the chads of yesteryear?") And whatever happened to all the suppliers of paper-tape support products: winders (the posh ones had electrified motors), splicers, duplicators, rubber bands and those cute little white storage boxes?

There I was at the very dawn of a new cyboconsciousness and freedom for the desk-bound masses, yet my fondest memories are of neat stacks of white, glossy cardboard containers, and sprinkling pink chad over a Pimm's Special!

Maurice Wilkes, who was then Director of the Cambridge Mathematical Laboratory and leader of the EDSAC I design team, has more cogent memories: "We realized that building the machine was only the start of the project; that there was a great deal to be learnt about writing programs...as soon as we started programming, we found to our surprise that it wasn't as easy to get programs right as we had thought. Debugging had to be discovered. I can remember the exact instant when I realized that a large part of my life from then on was going to be spent in finding mistakes in my own programs!" (Inaugural Lecture, Digital Computer Museum, 1979)

Most readers will identify with this chilling summary of the programmer's angst. Matters will not improve until the SKB Coding Rule is observed: "Avoid Debugging - Get it right first time!" Nowadays, of course, we have Software as a branch of Engineering, which suggests that someone, somewhere really knows what's going on. However, if you read "Comparing & Assessing Programming Languages," (Edited by Feuer & Gehani, Prentice-Hall, 1984) you find the experts sniping at each other over the basic tools of our trade. Perhaps conventional engineers have their differences and feuds, but I'm sure they all agree on the fundamentals of metallurgical methodology!

In the early 1950s the long-term prospects for paper-tape and its accessories appeared rosy, in spite of the rival claims of the punched card lobby. In fact, the card v. tape controversy raged for some years, mirroring the altercations between Fortran and Algol devotees. Those who saw salvation in "either/or" terms failed to recognize that both cards and tape would be condemned to near-extinction by data-entry and storage technologies not then dreamed of. Ah, the dangers of sales-forecasts. Perhaps in those rumored warehouses stuffed with unsold hoola-hoops and Davy Crockett hats, you can find 30,000 rusting Winders/Hand/Tape/Paper/Mk IIA? My own invention of paper-tape cartridges, by the way, was and still is ahead of its time.

The seers of 1987, poring over the tabulations of past trends, often extrapolate without recognizing the essential discontinuities of technological progress. To add insult to injury the predictions are often made with stunning precision: "Micro software sales will increase by 18.392%..." The layperson suitably impressed by this spurious quantification. Who can dispute a number with three decimal places?

The definitive misuse of linear extrapolation occurred during a survey of London traffic in Victorian England. It was seriously estimated that vehicular traffic would squelsh to a nasty halt by 1925 because the roads, by then, would be covered in horse manure to a depth of 12.652 feet.

Everyone knows of the gross miscalculations made in the early 1950s just as the first leaps in electronic computing were being made. It was confidently predicted that three or four EDSACs would more than cope with all the foreseeable scientific computing requirements of the UK. This type of error arises from the belief that inventions fulfill existing needs rather than create new ones. Henry Ford did not start by conducting surveys on the demand for personal transportation. Had he done so he might well have devoted his talents to improving the railroads or equipping the road sweepers with bigger shovels.

With all this in mind, I limit myself to a very short-range prediction: It's good old Chaucerian "soote shoure drenchynge" Aprill again. If the Tax Man cometh can Baseball be far behind? Already I hear the whack of pine-tar on the jolly old spitball (Shurely shome mishtake here?...Ed.), the thump of crania as umpire and manager engage in rule-based paradigms: is(player,out)? is(your_parents,married)?

is(Jack_Clark,CARDINAL)?
is(Reggie,REAL)?
is(I_dont_know,On_First)?

We suspect that the rules of Baseball are incomplete, since all previous seasons have thrown up hitherto unexpected situations not covered by the Book. But, can any reader prove that the rules are consistent? Inconsistency would be established, for example, by describing a sequence of events after which two infallible umpires could give chapter and verse to uphold contradictory decisions. I will also accept proofs that the problem is undecidable.

Reassuring Quote for the Month: "But, so far, the ways in which AI systems can use knowledge to solve problems is still extremely limited as compared with humans." Ernest R. Tello, Dr. Dobb's Journal, Feb 1987


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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This column is sponsored by Aptitune Corporation, makers of SarCheck. The opinions of Stan Kelly-Bootle are his own and (especially this month) 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.