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April 1 and the Devil Speaks

Every year, this interval is rife with silliness. Because any shocking news can be told in earnest on April 1, many tech publications and sites run far-fetched stories or news items to see how gullible we all are. Items as unbelievable as "Oracle building and selling SPARC-based servers" or "Microsoft open-sourcing Visual Studio" are frequently featured. To avoid going down this well-trodden path, I've chosen to share some humor from undeniably the greatest wit in the history of computing, Stan Kelly-Bootle. Stan has written a humor column, "Devil's Advocate," for decades in various computer publications, including UNIX Review (mostly) and ACM Queue (recently). His technical chops include getting a Ph.D. at Cambridge in Computer Science, the first ever graduate degrees offered in the field, he claims. He's written several books on programming.

The book I want to focus on is his Computer Contradictionary, in which he catalogued his pithiest observations in a Devil's Dictionary-style work. Some of his observations and proposals are entirely unique. For example, I know for certain that he is still the only person to have formally proposed a series of ASCII extensions for American sign language. Others have been entirely ignored even though they are self-evidently valid, such as his correct spelling of the White Book: K&&R.

Here, then, is a slightly edited selection of definitions for your use and enjoyment. We'll resume serious topics next week.

Symposium [from the Greek syn "together" + posis "drink"]: A gathering of scholars in which each participant is intoxicated with his/her contribution and sobered by the lack of response.

Drag queen: A common move in computer-based chess.

Finite state: (of a machine) — having a limited repertoire.

Free Software Foundation (FSF): Richard Stallman's effort to bankrupt the free market.

LINO: Last in, never out. A stack uncertain whether Pascal or C argument conventions prevail.


Reference (adj., as in "reference section"): Tables copied from the official documentation.

Decompiler (Brooklyn English): the compiler

Yet Another... (abbrev.: YA...): Expression often prepended with "O Lord, spare us!"

To my knowledge, it was also Kelly-Bootle who coined the long-needed terms "bottom-down programming" and "massively serial" computing — both of which represent phenomena we have all encountered at one point or another. Don't get me started on his lengthy discussion of how to pronounce FAQ. I'll leave that til next year.

— Andrew Binstock, Dr. Dobb's Executive Editor
[email protected]

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