Son of Devil's Advocate, June 2002

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Son of Devil's Advocate

Stan Kelly-Bootle


Picture of Stan Kelly-Bootle

Rare Preamble

I suppose this is an Apologia in the old Newman Pro Sua Vita sense. Not a grovel excuse but rather an honest explanation why this SODA column has been delayed for three months. A unique discontinuity, since my original Unix Review Devil's Advocate column rambled on monthly since May 1984 with hardly-ever the merest hint of a missed deadline.

And, perish the thought, the gap is not due to that oxymoronic Writer Block. Rather, I've been bedevilled by Writer Glut.

So much to say, so little time, as the dreaded entropy attacks my maturing (aka fading) digits.

Reading David Laird Dungan's masterpiece "A History of the Synoptic Problem -- The Canon, the Text, the Composition, and the Interpretation of the Gospels" (visit http://www.doubleday.com), I am overwhelmed by the easy productivity of the Church Fathers and their critics. Origen, I gather, would "dash off" the odd Contra-the-current-heretic in forty volumes, only to be matched by equally large Pro tracts from Porphyry!

On the bright side, I note the fun of getting old and wearing my trousers rolled. As Erdös once told me alt/kalt multi-rhymes with old/cold.

I recall the time when I left an angle-lamp mis-poised over my posh Sony monitor. A large concave dent appeared -- nyet problemyu -- the perfect ashtray!

And one enjoys the in-vain struggle to beat Cole Porter's "old ennui."

Sep 21 saw me and Iwonka sharing a joint rave birthday in Mill Valley, CA.

Old pals from the birth of computing: Steve Bourne (just-past ACM President whose eponymous Shell goes marching on) and his wife Jane; Bob Toxen (the supreme Fly-by-Day consultant whose Linux Security Bible 2nd edition is due soon from PTR); Doug Merrit, last seen 17 years ago; Larry O'Brien (ex-editor of Computer Language magazine and founder of the Software Development Jolt Awards) and his wife Tina; Angela Hey and Richard who runs the Silicon Valley Computer Museum.

Picture of Shannon Hobbs

Then, the sweet Shannan Hobbs, my favorite epistemologist (see attached jpeg) and no end of well-behaved Mad Dog In the Fog soccer hooligans, supporting teams as diverse as Liverpool, Man United, Arsenal and Chelsea.

To make sure I was not the oldest geezer present, we invited author/publisher Tom Bates who signed copies of his latest book:

"Normandy: the Search for Sidney," the bilingual account of a true English version of Hollywood's Pivate Ryan.

Other book notables included Gordon Lee of Nortons, and Barry Richman late of MaGraw-Hill who gave me my first big break back in 1981 (The Devil's DP Dictionary).

Look out for my next book: "Charisma for Dummies," passing on my secrets for being the life and soul of every party.

I had many requests in spite of which (ho-ho, old folk joke!) I performed some of the songs that made me famous! Accompanied by the legendary Shay Black, of whom more anon.

But enough of this dropping of the names.

Back to our regular programming...

In Praise of Spam

To me and fellow Brits of my World War 2 generation, Spam means only one thing: salvation. I refer to the spic'e'd, cann'e'd ham (note the essential Shakespearean, Larry Olivian, Hank Cinque scansion), that kept us fed when we "stood alone" in the late 1930s/early 1940s against Hitler's master plan.

It probably sounds naive and how-you-say Politically Incorrect to many of my younger (now getting older, alack) readers that Kaiser's supreme Liberty Ship Building technology (a miracle of pre-fab with assembly based mainly at Point Richmond, California) saved the Free World from Fascism. Yet those gallant ships, with horrendous losses, provided a life-line of food and lend-lease arms to Britain.

Food-glorious-food and the relentless stomachs upon which all armies march [(c) Napoleon?] had by then extended the meaning of "army" to the hard-to-define "innocent civilians."

Some say Hitler's random terror bombing of "open" cities such as Rotterdam and Warsaw marked the transition to "total" war which was later to lead to, and justify, Bomber Harris, Dresden, fire- bombing Tokyo, and the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Others can go way, way back in the sordid history of Man's inhumanity to Man, and the idea that when failed diplomacy (almost a tautology?) leads to War, no holds are barred?

Truth is, they say, the first victim. And the victors write the books?

Is there ever a "Just" War and was WW2 the perfect paradigm?

Thereby hangs centuries of ethical discourse.

Recall that this lease-lend was a by-product and precursor of what we now know as the US/UK "special relationship" forged between Churchill and Roosevelt before Pearl Harbor blasted the US into WW2.

The Japanese attack has been dubbed by military historians on all sides as the major blunder of the century. Followed closely by Hitler's mistake in subsequently declaring war on the US. Well, we must also rate highly in the miscalculation tables Adolf's invasion of Poland and then the Soviet Union (just when he was close to owning Europe). Hindsight is a weird, precious commodity?

It's now difficult if you were not there at the time, to "see it through my eyes."

Spam and dried-eggs helping to feed a beleagured nation, all of us in the "front line." The posters said "Dig for Victory," and a country that was never self-sufficient food-wise started to extend the old "back-yard allotment" tradition to grow more spuds and carrots.

When Russia entered the "People's War," the Daily Worker told us Lefties to rally behind Churchill and Uncle Joe Stalin! We even had the WLA (Women's Land Army) with echoes of Eisenstein's Soviet Realism.

Woodie Guthrie's "This Guitar Kills Fascists" renewed its rage, and his tribute to Liberty Ship heroes resounded in our Folk Clubs:

"What were their names,
Tell me what were their names?
Did you have a friend
On the good Reuben James?"

Woodie's battered guitar, by the way of irony, has just fetched $5K on the open eBay market. This was the very box that first picked out "This Land is My Land..."

A doubtful contender to replace the bursting bombs in "O Say Can You See?"

I write as we remember, remember the 11th of September...

I can't match the grief thereof. We are now in a different kind of war, I suppose. But there's no formal "enemy" as in WW2, or the Korean or Gulf Wars. Apart from fuzzy terrorist groups, Taliban remnants, and several rogue evil states. By the way, another sign of age is that one's allegiances move ever so reluctantly from red-hot left to wise-blue right. To the point where verbs such as "marginalize" and "demonize" require more cynical and critical parsing.

Consider the John Shaw proposition: "We are demonizing Saddam Hussein." Compare with similar reactions to Hitler's critics in the 1930s.


15 Long Years Ago

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

I. Bill Gates Rescues PTL! God Named as Microsoft VP! OS/2 Slated Due In Six Working Days!

I have just been informed that the above item is unconfirmed and should be ignored until I have checked my usually reliable sources. While I have your attention, though...

Ethnocentricity gets my vote for the hot topic this month. Sure, OS/2 and Vanna Rice-Davies (or was it Fawn Hahn?) shredding Oliver Bakker's top secret papers are all hot topics (with the possible exception of OS/2), but Ethnocentricity has that catchy, contentious ambience that lifts an Editor's spirit and steals the headlines. (Not mine...Ed.) If you are unaware of the growing fever, you are not reading the same hot, trendy magazines that grace my mailbox.

My first example comes from the latest volume of the Journal of the ALLC (Association for Literary and Liguistic Computing) which attacks the ethnocentricity of the major Word Processing vendors. Scholars working in Sanskrit, Coptic or Cherokee obviously cannot expect much help from emacs or Wordstar, and have persued various do-it-yourself font design systems based on the new versatile 24-pin dot matrix printers. Several specialist, multilingual WP systems are now available commercially, such as nota bene (tm) from OUP, Vuman from Manchester University, and Multi-Lingual Scribe from Gamma Productions Inc.

However, being able to display and print exotic (aka damnably foreign, revoltingly bizarre) characters is only half the battle. Even in the "standard" European languages, producing bibliographies and concordances that straddle several countries remains a nightmare because of the limits of 7 and 8-bit encoding schemes. The case of a computer-based bibliography of European Opera was cited, in which key names had to be stored in two separate formats, one for printing and one for sorting. Such machinations greatly reduce the benefits of automation.

You may think you have a problem sorting straight ASCII (since "z" sorts ahead of "A" as everyone knows, but none can explain), yet handling simultaneously the special characters needed for say, Czech, Polish and Swedish composers and titles is obviously driving some people crazy.

Some of the ploys offered to print diacritical marks like the Czech hacek over s and c in Leos Jánacek, or the Polish Notational slashed L in Lukasiewicz, call for sequences. Well, not quite the challenge of Chinese and Japanese, as discussed recently in UNIX Review, but enough to prick your pet bubble!

ECMA (Europe's answer to ANSI, or possibly vice versa) has identified and issued ASCII-type coding standards for the 57 or so European languages that use the basic Roman alphabet, and I presume that there are similar schemes for the Cyrillic and Greek character sets. So, within each set, sorts should be well- defined; ASCII-mad, perhaps, but well-defined. Throw them all together and you may find Tchaikovsky indexed after Te Kanawa.

And would you be forgettin' the foine, ould Gothic alphabet still prized by traditional Irish printers? The Chicago Manual of Style, would you believe, ignores this noble font altogether, while wasting two whole pages on Portugese typography! Will you not come home, Mayor Daley, you've been away too long! If there's one ethnocentricity I detest, it's Portuguese ethnocentricity, mainly due to Brazil winning the World Cup in Mexico in 1970, and me having $10 on Italy.

To keep the UNIX Review typesetters on their toes, the true Irish looks like this: Preab Son Ól!

This allows me to explain an obscure pun that I recently perpetrated on M. Riordan of Michigan State University, and himself claiming now to know personally THREE genuine Cray Research employees. When in the June column I had queried his equally improbable claim that he knew ONE Cray worker, I referred to him as Mike Riordan, a perfectly honorable and noble name, to be sure. However, he has written to point out, in typical Celtic-Lansing nit-picking fashion, that he was christened Mark, and is widely known by that name. Having checked with his parish records, I must confess that, for once, Mark is right. Sorry about that, Mark...you don't mind if I call you Mark? Thanks.

The obscure pun is that I sketched a piece of toast hanging on the pitchfork of the Devil's logo that adorns my stationery, and gave Auld Nick a baloon caption: "Preab Son Ól! Your toast is ready, Sir!" The phrase is the title of a late 18th century Irish Gaelic drinking song by Riocard Bairéad meaning literally "Continuously in the Drink," or "Constantly Besotted." When the ballad was translated into English by Donal O'Sullivan, "Preab Son Ól" was rendered as "Another Round!" (The Dubliners have recorded a rousing bilingual version, by the way). I trust that all is clear, you know, another round of toast. What it lacks in humor, it makes up for in erudition and ethno-t'ingy.

II. IBM's All-New ADA

Irish Business Machines has launched a new range of Analogue- Digital-Analogue devices, which we plan to call ADA until the DoD sues. In fact our ADA concept predates all large, ugly languages by at least six committees. The basic idea is best illustrated by considering the evolution of the wrist-watch, from moving hands (analogue) to numeric display (digital) and now back to LED simulated "hands" (analogue). A more complex example can be seen in the Hybrid Arts Inc soundtrack equipment. You play a real note, digitize and display the waveform, which you then distort manually using a mouse. Finally you play it back via the old MIDI. We know of no better way to make a Stradivarius sound like a Jew's Harp.

Our own contribution to this inexorable trend promises to remove the tedium from doing sums. For integer arithmetic, the ADA approach works as follows. We display an abacus on the screen. You then MD (mouse-drag), JS (joy stick) or TD (touch-drag) the beads, taking care not to exceed the maximum bead-rate of 96000 bps. Next, count the beads on the bottom line and key in the answer. Or (less fun) you can switch to Auto and let the program shuffle and count the beads for you. Touch-dragging is an Irish Business Machine's exclusive that works only on certain VCR's. You need to dip your finger in our special, hard-to-remove, graphite compound (available at $49.95 per 1-oz jar, or $39.95 if purchased with a jumbo pack of TDGC cleansing pads, good for five fingers and three screens). The clumsy can zoom in to access those awkward beads at the corners. Rounding-off is achieved by zapping unwanted beads using the arcade-style joystick-canon.

We have developed a unique method for avoiding diagonal jaggies on our graphics displays. The whole CRT can be physically rotated + or - 45 degress around an axis perpendicular to the screen, so that all lines can be traced horizontally or vertically.

For Floating Point operations, we switch the display to show a slide-rule. You mouse- or finger-drag the medial slider and cursor, and read off the answers (or, less fun, let the program do it for you). We intend to call this DADA (Digital-Analogue- Digital-Analogue) until the late Tristan Tzara sues. Yes, we've checked with Glenn Groenewold, and the dead can sue, as proved by recent litigations initiated by Lotus and National Semiconductor.

Using the mouse is a little embarrassing at first for adults. It may help you to sing this little refrain from the immortal Georges Brassens' song, "Marinette,"

"Avec ma p'tite souris, j'avais l'air d'un con, ma mere "Avec ma p'tite souris, j'avais l'air d'un con.


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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