Son of Devil's Advocate, May 2002

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle


Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

O Canada!

Following my award-winning [ref 1] April 2002 SODA travelog (Viva Las Vegas), I thought I would push my lucky envelope and recount my recent trip to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The contrast with Nevada could be rated aleph-0 on the Conde-Nast scale, yet variety is what keeps me going, and fun (not to mention SODA copy) is where I find it.

ref 1: Note, I follow current PR usage by not naming the awarder. Suffice it to say that the Kelly-Bootle Tech Writing Trophy is subject to objective review by my mother.

It happens that I had planned to write on the deeper meanings of "Stereotype," and the related, controversial practice of "Profiling." Both topics, as you will shortly hear, have a direct bearing on my Canuck odyssey.

The reason for the trip was a Liobian mini-reunion in Nanaimo, BC. Regular SODA readers will recall that Liobians are Old Boys of the Liverpool Institute High School (known as de Inny in the local Scouse funicular [ref 2]), famous, inter alia, for being the alma mater of Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison. (John Lennon attended the adjacent Liverpool Art School, so can be rated a sort of token Liobian.)

ref 2: This typical, deliberate misuse of long words on Merseyside is known as a "malapudlianism" which is itself a deliberate misuse of "malapropism." Mrs Malaprop, of course, confused her words through ignorance, whereas true-born Scousers delight in intentional conflabulation. See Lern Yerself Scouse, Spiegl/Shaw/Kelly, Scouse Press.

Liobians are a far-flung, long-lived lot who love to assemble at the drop of a Black'n'Tan and chin-wag over the Baz (our sadistic Headmaster) and related myths. The more formal reunion is an annual dinner held at Livepool Football Club's grand trophy room at Anfield, the "Mecca of Soccer!"

The mini-reunion on Vancouver Island, organized by Ken/Norma Ashcoft of Campbell River and Bill Gard of Nanaimo, brought together Liobians mainly from North America, and gave me my first glimpse of British Columbia.

So, what of the Canuck stereotypes, as portrayed in the movie "Canadian Bacon?"

For every expected encounter with their famed, clean-cut politeness there's the counter-example of ruthless Ice-hockey players knocking out each others teeth. Even then, one has the feeling that they apologize: "I say, terribly sorry, old chap!"

And, in spite of their much-touted Health Service (in contrast to the USA cut-throat system), while I was there, there was a walk- out by the BC surgeons.

Still, on balance, Canada is a delightful place. It shows in many small ways. The remotest Porta-Lavabos on Quadra Island are kept so spotless, I felt ashamed to use them.

Re-profiling: you may know that my recent travels have required the use of a wheel-chair or one of those electric-mobiles. It has, so far, eased my transit through security and customs. Yet, I was strangely pleased when I hit the full search routine at Vancouver airport. It was one of those off-with-your-shoes-and- socks inspections which I believe are based more on statistics (as with the Ancient Mariner who stoppeth on in three) than on simple ethnic profiling.

Of course, the security staff were overwhelmingly polite!

Citable Cites, Quotable Quotes, Notable Notes

"Watching the television coverage of the May Day demomstrations against globalisation, capitalism, cars, fur, the United States, war, McDonald's and, or so it looked to me, soap and water, I was reminded of the film The Wild One. It starred Marlon Brando as a delinquent biker, who responded to the question 'What are you rebelling against?' with the line 'Whaddya got?' Is it any coincidence that Mayday is the international distress signal?" (Mitchell Symons, Daily Express Review, Nay 7, 2002)

"There is strong evidence that many of the recent [Food] disturbances have been caused by Balsamic fundamentalists. These militant food purists will stop at nothing to achieve their three main aims: the total elimination of malt vinegar from fish- and-chips; a complete ban on virgin olive oil; and a phasing out of planting fields of rape." (Beachcomber, ibid). [Beachcomber is the remarkable, immortal pseudonym of a sequence of master-wits whose columns have been running in the Daily Express [London, UK] for as long as I can remember, i.e., since the 1930s, maybe longer.

"With philosopical writing, it's usually all over by the bottom of the first page." (J. L. Austin)

"Despite having been working with computers since the time of Babbage, Stan is somehow managing to stay current in the field and can intelligently skewer the very latest products and developments in computer programming. With his mind-numbing grasp of English, literature, computer history, and programming culture, Stan is the Umberto Eco of programming. While you may find much to laugh at here, I guarantee you won't get all the bits of humor packed into every corner.

Have you heard every Microsoft conspiracy theory there is? Not until you've seen Stan's on page 126 where he picks up on the ominously named Win32 API function SetWorldTransform() and follows the thread though to the Biblical (Acts 9:24 KJV) prophecy: 'They watched [the] Gates day and night to kill him'" (Ron Burk reveiwing my Computer Contradictionary [MIT Press, 1995] in Windows Developer's Journal, October 1995)

[Modesty prevents me quoting the rest of Ron's percipient eulogy which I re-discovered while unpacking half-forgotten stuff during my recent re-location. See SODA April 2002.]

"Because Windows was not properly shut down, one or more of your disk drives may have errors on it [sic]. To avoid seeing this message again always shut down your computer by selecting Shut Down from the Start Menu." (Win98 warning coming to a screen near you! Since Windows often freezes, preventing you from Shutting Down gracefully comme-il faut, and forcing you to reboot, I reckon this message is the ultimate in anti-Microsoft frustration. Indeed, without revealing the tout-plot, my WIP [work-in-progress] novel tells of a Sean Boole [no relation] who stalks and murders Gill Bates [no relation, neither] following several OS vulnerabities.)

"America [USA] is the only country to have progressed directly from Barbarism to Decadence with passing through Civilization." (George Bernard Shaw. Quoted by Prof. Robert Oden, God and Mankind: Comparative Religions, The Teaching Company, 1992) This is Griselda.

"Vanity of Vanities, says Qohelet, Vanity of Vanities! All is Vanity!" (Ecclesiastes, 1:1. A new translation with introduction and commentary by Choon-Leong Seow, The Anchor Bible, Vol 18C, Doubleday, 1997) [Those who doubt the relevance of this biting verse to our computer domain should look deeply into their souls, my soul, and Dijkstra's soul. Further, Qohelet is a damned useful word when playing Strip Scrabble with Shannan Hobbes or Griselda

Likewise, the opening phrase is mist to the grill when discussing with Ken Ashcroft the blood-spilling challenges of translating idioms from the "Word-a-God." Your eternal salvation may depend on subtle disagreements between Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek scholars? In the current context, habel habalim is the noun- noun-plural idiom, whereby X-[of]-Xs implies a superlative X. But note that "servant of servants" (Gen 9:25) is taken as "the most abject of servants." Then we have the controversial translation of habel (aliter hebel) as "vanity" whereas elsewhere in the Bible it has many other readings such as "unreliable foreign help!" (Isa 30:7) and Idols (Deut 32:21).

"They are the best of series, they are the worst of series. One series converges for all z, but often fails to provide meaningful numerical values. One series diverges for all z yet often gives excellent numerical values. What the Dickens is going on?

The two series with the perplexing properties arise from an important problem: finding the area, P(z), under the normal distribution curve from z to infinity..."

("A Tale of Two Series," Thomas J. Osler & Marcus Wright; Page 99, Vol 33 No 2, March 2002; The College Mathematics Journal)

[A wonderful example of (i) counter-intuitivity (ii) highly literate mathematics. By the way, when I first saw the title, I thought "Surely this must be about Baseball Statistics comparing the Yankees and the Cubs?"]


This Column 15 Years Ago

UNIX Review - May 1987 - Stan Kelly-Bootle 03/13/87

Hello UNIX - Goodbye XENIX - or Vice Versa.

I seem to be the only interested party who has not yet commented publicly on the joint Microsoft/AT&T announcement of February 19th, 1987. Some have called it the non-event of all ages, while others liken it unto a non-agression pact between Christ and the anti-Christ, cancelling both Armageddon and the pre-millennial Tribulation. Any UNIX event attracting such divergent reactions simply screams for elucidation from "someone in the know." And that someone is, how can I put this modestly, me, me, me.

To avoid confusion, my comments will be broadly divided into two categories: true and false. Following the guidelines of the Public Relations Press Release Handbook, these classes of statement will be randomly interleaved with the minimum of contextual clues, leaving you free to take it or leave it as your mood dictates, in the traditional spirit of computer scientific exegesis. In passing, this reminds me of the following conversation reported in the AMUS Log:

A: "The manual says so-and-so but the machine does so-and-so" B: "Ah, you must read only the sections of the manual that are correct!"

First, let me squash all those nasty rumors that I am moving this column to the XENIX Review and/or that the latter is being renamed the UNIX Review. Some combinations of these bizarre predictions, if fulfilled, could scarcely change the status quo, so whether they take place or not is what we metaphysicians call "unknowable." (Metaphysicians are medically qualified metaphysicists who actually treat transcendental ailments, rather than just argue about them.)

It may well be true that Microsoft has taken over the computer side of AT&T, but they'll never get a profit-center like me! I never did go for those pretentious mock-Greek product names starting with "X." When they ask me how to pronounce XENIX, I usually say that the first "X" is like the "z" in "zoo," while the final "X" is like the "cz" in "eczema."

I hear you protesting that Microsoft have taken over only UNIX System V Release 3 and for use only with the Intel 80386. Yes, I do read the papers. But I can now reveal in the strictest confidence that ONE central 80386 will replace all known computers before the end of the year (subject to Intel's production schedule) using a secret mode called virtually-real- unprotected. Apparently you can get 2^40 overlapping address spaces each of 2^64 bytes - some clever trick combining the FS and GS registers and multiplexing the address and data buses, the details escape me for now. 10^12 copies of DOS (imagine, one for each of your neurons) can run concurrently, so sales of DOS and Sidekick should hold up. However, only ONE copy of XENIX/386 aka UNIX System V Release 386 will be needed worldwide, and the big question is who will get the order: AT&T, Microsoft, SCO, ISC or Phoenix? Expect some internal bickering over that one, and keep watching this space.

Glad we've cleared up that little mess. Why on earth do people make things unnecessarily complicated?

UNIX Review - 50 Years Ago

Many younger readers have asked us to reprint some of the highlights of earlier, out-of-print UNIX Reviews. Back in the 1930s, before over-staffing was invented, I was the UR jack-of- all-trades, doing the A Advisor column, the product reports (such as they were), the legal stuff, book reviews and illustrations. Besides pulling in the advertisers, hand-addressing the labels and dashing off the odd editorial, my favorite assignment was conducting the Interview. Here, from UNIX Review, May 1937 are the highlights of my interview with Alan Turing.

SKB: Dr Turing, or may I call you Alan?

AMT: Sure.

SKB: Thanks. I hope you didn't mind me asking. Some people I interview are so stuffy - especially the Swiss and Germans - you know, Herr Doktor this and Herr Professor that - it's good to cut the formalities and...well, Alan, your new machine has attracted a lot of attention. It seems to avoid all the usual technical incumbrances of wires and cogwheels and relays...on the other hand, your Turing Machine seems, how can I put this delicately, purely a conceptual device, one might almost say vaporware? Is there a market for the thing?

AMT: Not really.

SKB: That's a shame, Al. Is it OK to call you Al, I mean, we seem to be getting on so well, it kinda slipped out. Fine. We are all getting fed up with Hollerith cards, and your idea of using tape seemed such a wonderful idea. Now as I understand it, Al baby, your UTM is actually equivalent to any conceivable finite-state computing device...the obvious question is whether you hold patents and copyrights so that all future manufactures will have to come to some sort of arrangement...?

AMT: No.

SKB: Everyone is talking about your paper "On Computable Numbers with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem." My readers will never forgive me if I let you go before asking the question that must be on many lips. I hope you won't take it personally - only last month - well, during last month's interview Konrad Zuse threw a 20-contact relay at me when I asked him where he was on the night of the Reichstag Fire. What exactly, in layman's terms, avoiding all the usual formalist jargon, and bearing in mind that our readers move in practical, mundane circles where projects must be completed on time, where bills must be paid... Who exactly is Entscheidungs and what is his problem?

AMT: Well, Stan, - is it OK to call you Stan? Thanks...the simplest way of looking at it is....

SKB: Sorry, Alan, we've just about run out of time and space. Perhaps we can continue our discussion on some future occasion. You've certainly given us much food for thought. In particular, I admire the way you avoided side-stepping the issues. So often, you know, my questions simply generate evasion...


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 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.