Son of Devil's Advocate
Homeward BindingsSome SODA fans, and several ex-wives, I hope, will be relieved to hear that I am back safe, and as sound as possible, in my dear old Petaluma "Waiting for God" [ref 1] Chateau Despair. For the time being, you are spared the false boring traveller's tales:
"The Dalai Lama poured me yet another cup of rancid Yak's milk which I promptly spewed over His Llama...our eyes met briefly in a wide world of understanding...we were destined never to meet again..."
"I found myself sitting next to the Emperor as Japan lost narrowly to Mexico in the World Cup [ref 2]. I jotted down 'Stiff Shit' in Kanji and our eyes met briefly in a wide world of understanding...the Empress was unconsolable in the back of our taxi...we were destined never to meet again..."
Forget the haunting Georges Brassens' song:
"Heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un bon voyage,"
a mere round trip package from Ithaca Tours with Circe and Cyclopes optional detours.
You may guess that I'm approaching the end-gamey [ref 3], auto-bio state where I'm anxious and free to tell ALL?
Whenever I tease Dr Iain Taylor about his on-going magnum opus (a complete history of the Liverpool Institute, complete with room numbers occupied by the Beatles, and which teachers warned them that they had no future), he counters with "Where's your promised auto-biography?"
Not so fast, lascivious reader.
Need to wait, insist my lawyers, until I've outlived my clean- living rivals.
Many of the usual suspects have indeed pre-died on me, usually while jogging after a pre-dawn, vegan-eggless brekky.
But "some remain, in my life, I loved them all" (c) John Lennon/Sir Paul Macca.
As I write sad obits arrive, and I'm loath to ignore the ancient "nil nisi bonum" warnings.
Take the legendary Alan Lomax who was taken from us on July 19th 2002.
He was a painstaking (A. L. Rowse would prefer the Elizabethan "painful") collector, with his father John A. Lomax, of early American Folksongs. Roaming round Southern swamps and chain-gangs the Lomaxes recorded songs/blues/yells that might otherwise have passed on "distorted" by the trad-oral transmissions.
Now, we can hear via the LibCongress Folkways archives exactly how Leadbelly, Jelly Roll Morton, Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie, more, sounded in the 1920/30s
Yet, alas, there was a downside.
The Lomaxes had Leadbelly released from a life-sentence for manslaughter (not to be confused with man's laughter) but he ended up in NY cabarets dressed up in convict's garb'n'chains.
Who grabbed the millions in royalties from Leadbelly's big hits such as "The Rock Island Road" and "Goodnight Irene?"
When Rory McEwan visited Leadbelly's widow, she was living in poverty and he bought Hudie's 12-sring gtr for circa $100
I got to strum on it (a bugger to tune!) -- talk about mini- moments of fame.
But I did get to meet Alan Lomax when he came a-collecting in London during the so-called Folk Revival of the 1950/60s
Mixed feeling among the local gurus such as Bert LLoyd, Ewan Macoll, Peggy Seeger and Dominic Behan. Although we were all singing Mankind, Brotherhood, and Sisterhood, there was no end of backstage squabbles. Many were understandable polemics on the nature of the Folk (never pronouced Volk!) and its Art (or rather Artless) Forms. The hardliners were against singer/songwriters dabbling outside their own "culture." Indeed, it was and still is strange to hear middle-class groups bashing out (known as the 3- chord trick skiffle versions of chain-gang "Midnight Specials."
Mea culpa, of course. May the sin-free chuck the first brick. I founded the Cambridge University Stan Kelly Skiffle Club circa 1950 which lasted several terms until the fascist proctors' bulldogs paid us a visit. Ironically, they objected not to our "Grey Goose" or "Lonesome Valley," but to my solo (acapulco) version of the terribly naughty trad "Manchester Mole Catcher."
"He goes a-mole-catching from morning to night "While a young fellah comes for to play with his wife..."
The mole-catcher gets suspicious and sets a trap [sic].
One cowardly couplet originally went
"And while the young man's in the midst of his frolics "The mole catcher trapped him quite fast by the [sly pause] jacket"
To which I was wont to sing:
"And while the young man is catching a packet "The mole catcher trapped him quite fast by the [no sly pause] bollicks..."
I also fooled around with, e.g., the Vipers. Typical of those innocent times, dozens of us turned up sans contract at the famed Abbey Road Studios to record "O Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O," which "made" the charts. But which chaotic take reached vinyl? Who knows &/or cares. We had no Epstein to promote our lack of talent? Was it Proust or Shaw or one of that great citational gang that said "Experience is what's left when you've forgotten her name?"
In my defence (which is the raison-d'etre of the auto-bio genre), some of my songs narrowly passed Ewan MaColl's tight criteria: Folk from Liverpool North must shun songs from Liverpool South! See e.g., "Revival in Britain," Folkways. More at www.feniks.com/skb/
I was born/bred/dragged-up many long years ago in the correct slums, "Roots an' all." Yet there was and is a lingering lack of a Scouse sensayuma in the left-wing apparatchik, and much of my satire is and was dubbed "flabby."
Proudly, I never bought or played the remarkable Donnegonophone, named after skiffle-king Lonnie. This guitar had a button- operated device you clicked over the frets. You pressed C/F/G7 as the mood dictated. Whence my risible: If the capo fits, wear it (c) skb
Ewan loved the old "poverty knock" and "miner's mortality" ballads such as "Fourpence a Day" and "The Gresham Disaster" which, incidentally, earned him millions of roubles and free nights on the Black Sea resorts. Likewise complaints (Fareweel Tae the Monty) when mines were cruelly shut down.
My own "Four Quid a Day" parody was appreciated by Marxist Eric Winter but, early signs of PC (proper communication), others damned me as anti-worker.
I'm in good "light-that-failed" company. A "must" re-read is George Orwell's "Homage to Catalonia" (alhough the movie was reviewed as "Homage to Catatonia.")
Next Month If Such There Be
More exotic dinner-table topping auto-bio yarns are now available if you can afford the various Russian Space Trips. How are the mighty fallen? The Great Soviet Dream I once marched and lost jobs for now reduced to milking Wall-Street Hyenas with dangerous visits!
PS: I've lost some incoming email -- long boring story. If you wrote me in the last two months, maybe you could re- submit?
ref 1: This is a BBC TV series where old folk comme moi sit around joking about "timor mortis conturbat me" and try shagging against the odds. Hard-ons are de rigor.
ref 3: Also written gamy or Brit gammy which reveals the possible pronunciations. Discuss, as the examiners say.
15 Long Years AgoDevil's Advocate, UNIX Review, July 1987 -- (c) Stan Kelly-Bootle
You Gotta Flush a Buffer or Two...
The DP Doctor writes: "It's not healthy to leave your buffers unflushed for too long. A bit of roughage in your coding works wonders - I usually download a few public domain programs from BIX every so often, while others find that Plauger's monthly algorithm in "Computer Language" does the trick. For stubborn cases I recommend Turbo-LAX (tm) to get those old, clogged bytes moving along the way Nature intended; keeps your expressions regular too!"
Sound advice! It's many columns since I unselfishly unburdened myself of the bizarre mistakes encountered during my obsessive, masochistic reading of the computer press. Since then, my buffers have accumulated yet another painful surfeit of errors and nonsenses - and I can't wait to tell you about them. My regular, faithful, doting, loyal (Get on with it...Ed) readers will know that I have always been reluctant to point the flying fickle finger of scorn at howlers and howlees. BUT, and this is a HUGE model mega-gallon BUTT, I would be failing in my sworn duty etc.
You will recall that I am wont to blink a forgiving eye at the normal, everyday typographical, grammatical or stylistic snafu. (That's the reason for my ocular tic - what's your excuse?) What elevates my dander is that special class of self-referential solecism, typified by those terribly badly painted signs you often see which proclaim "Hi Class Sine Riting!"
One does not expect Emersonian prose from hectic technical writers and programmers. Natural Language, bless its cotton socks, is so damnably unnatural once you're fluent in C or Modula-2. After all, there is no K&H/ANSI reference-standard or Wirth 3rd corrected edition bible to resolve NL logomachies; what we do have is a long shelf of conflicting Style Guides, and testy sermons from the Sunday lexicographers. What can the poor amateur do when the experts disagree so violently?
Take the simple case of precedence and associativity in a computer language. We know without hesitation and mamby-pamby parentheses how to evaluate:
X = a + b % c >> d * e / f << g - h && ~i;
(Get Smart Interlude: "I find that hard to believe, Max!" "Would you believe a slight, hardly perceptible hesitation, Ninety- nine?" "Not really, Max." "Well then, how about a few hours hesitation while I dig out my K&R and pencil in a dozen brackets?")
Now consider the following sentence (a phrase, in fact, but what the hell, let's not be too archaic) from a review in the LCIS (Library of Computer & Information Sciences) Book Club newsletter:
"For IBM PC users who want to add the efficiencies of assembler (sic) language to their small computer skills."
What precedences and associations are to be accorded to the adjective "small." Is "computer" a noun or an adjective? If readers are to avoid the insulting implication that their skills are limited, they must mentally add parentheses: "...to their (small computer) skills." Non-programmers might prefer the format: "small-computer" giving a compound qualifier to "skills." But what if the LCIS writer actually meant "small (computer skills)?" We ought to be told!
I was tempted to "enhance" the LCIS example by replacing "IBM" with "Big Blue." We could then have fun deciding how to parse: "Big Blue PC users."
The next example should be read in conjunction with Glenn Groenewold's "Rules Of The Game" column. Here we have dense, almost incomprehensible prose stemming from a fear of crisp symbolic notation.
"WCOPY may be used to copy whole directories. The destination name is made up from the actual source file name and the destination wild name. If a missing section of the source wild name is matched by a missing section of the destination wild name, then that part of the actual source file name will be used as the corresponding part of the actual destination name. Otherwise the actual destination file name is taken from the destination wild name. If there are more sections in the destination wild name than in the source wild name, then these extra sections will be inserted after the drive name, and vice versa."
CUMANA Disk Drive Guide Instruction Book 1986. (Quoted in "Private Eye," Pseud's Corner, Christmas, 1986.)
I find the "vice versa" particularly unnerving!
Using crisp symbols in place of soggy prose, of course, is only an improvement if you get the symbols right! My next little buffer-flush is a real gem that lightened my tiptoes for weeks. In a column called "Hacking the ST" (Computer Shopper, April, 1987), Wynn Rostek offered 30 lines of M68000 assembly (or as LCIS prefer, assembler) language code containing 20 major and 10 minor errors. As I wrote to Stan Veit, the publisher, the Guinness Records people might be interested. The major errors arise from confusing Absolute and Immediate Addressing Modes, while the minor errors involve unnecessary MOVEs. Need I addthat the author prefaces his example with: "To write in 68000 assembly language you have to understand the addressing modes."
My buffer is almost purged. A few odds and ends remain:
* The Small Computer Book Club, October 1986 : refers to "Computer-based Crytology [sic]" but I managed to break the cipher!
* The 3rd edition of "Strategies for Software Development in the 1990s" has diagrams with boxes labeled "transaction cards" and "out-of-sequence cards." Perhaps the IBM Collator will make a come-back in the 1990s?
* "The Plateauing Trap - How to Avoid It in Your Career...and Your Life," by Judith M. Bardwick. Surely the best method is to use "plateau" as a noun. The blurb says: "When that happens, you feel plateaued - stymed in your career, disappointed in your life." Personally, I feel disappointed that a McGraw-Hill staff-writer or typesetter thinks that golfers suffer from "stymes" rather than "stymies."
Enough of these whimpering complaints. I have a positive plan to improve matters. In Julian Barnes novel "Flaubert's Parrot," the narrator starts playing literary dictator and proposes a list of subjects and themes to be added to his Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Whole genres would be banned, such as novels set in abattoirs, novels set in Oxford or Cambridge, novels which are "really about other novels," and so on. A strict quota would be introduced on fiction set in South America, and all love scenes in showers would be instantly excised. It's fun to play a similar game with computer literature (I use the word in the loosest possible sense). Here are my suggestions, but readers are invited to submit their own lists for future airing in this column.
1. When offering a selected bibliography, authors shall be limited to citing no more than four of their own published works and no more than six of their "forthcoming" papers.
2. All references to the car registration plates of Apple Corporation officials shall be punishable by death.
3. Any attempt at RISK/RISC puns shall be heavily fined (since the acronym was deliberately coined by ??? (dave/mark to check) with homophonic intent).
4. All books with the words "Methodology" or "Environment" in their titles shall be burned without exception. Further, authors of books with both words in their titles shall be thrown on the pyre at some conveniently fiery peak of the conflagration.
5. Trademark-chickens shall be incarcerated for life. A typical example of trademark-cowardice is the advertisement that carries a footnote that "IBM is a registered trademark of International Business Machines" but nowhere else in the ad is IBM mentioned!
6. Authors' dedications shall be limited to their putative parents.
7. Columnists who refer, however circumspectly, to their busy schedules and the terrors of deadlines, shall be shot, hung, strangled, drawn and quartered in any sequence that pleaseth the mercy of the Court. It is acknowledged that this Law may reduce BYTE magazine to 400 pages of advertising material.
Next month I start a series "UNIX Abroad." We will be looking at UNIX in Albania and Patagonia, provided I can clear the expenses requisition. And, of course, subject to my busy schedule and terrifying deadline pressures.
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: email@example.com
The URL of this page may change in the future. Please bookmark the home page instead of this one.
Portions © copyright Stan Kelly-Bootle 2002.