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Letters and the Law


My e-mail box is rusting from the nostalgia resulting from getting messages from old friends. Thom Hogan, Bob Kaehms, Mike Morton, and Ted Nelson all recently made guest appearances in my in-bin.

Ted, who turned 70 this year, is the author of Computer Lib and the inventor of Xanadu, which is hypermedia done right. Xanadu has been released, finally, after all these years. Sort of. Thom, Bob, Mike: Just some old friends, except that they may be old friends of some of you, too. If you ever used the CP/M operating system, you probably used Thom's User's Manual. If you got into the Web early on, you probably know Bob's work from Web Techniques, later known as New Architect. And if you have ever seen one of those lists of 20 different anagrams for some name in the news, Mike probably generated it.

Everybody's somebody. Everybody's six degrees of separation from everybody else. So they say; that's Somebody's Law.

Do you know Kernighan's Law? "Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it."

Old friends are more fun to visit than old code.

There's Eagleson's Law, which seems like it's one or two degrees of separation from Clarke's Law. Eagleson's Law: "Any code of your own that you haven't looked at for six or more months might as well have been written by someone else." Clarke's Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

To the best of my knowledge, there is no anagram for Xanadu.

Not all my e-mail is nostalgia-generating. Some of it is slap-the-forehead-and-say-"Doh!"-generating.

Michael, The Altair 8800 used the 8080 CPU (not the 8008). The kit cost $397,about the same as the single unit price of the processor at that time. Thanks for your article, Dave Jaffe.

Thanks for the correction, Dave. I ought to know better.

Michael, I can't believe that in "Swaine's Flames" for August you say that Ed Roberts used the 8008 in the original Altair. You certainly knew better when you cowrote Fire in the Valley in 1984! And as for Randy Cook being the driving force behind the move to consolidate the CTC instruction set into a single chip, I think the line of contenders from both sides of the aisle (i.e. Vic Poor from CTC and Ted Hoff from Intel) would have a bit to add to the story. 8 bits forever, Jack Rubin.

Thanks for the correction, Jack. I ought to know better.

I got a few more like that. The third-easiest way to fill up your inbox is to make a mistake in print.

The second-easiest way to fill up your inbox is to turn off your spam filter.

Correcting errors, in publishing or posting or programming, is a risky business. Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation, also known as McKean's Law or Skitt's Law, says: "Any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror [sic]."

Correcting others' errors, especially online, can quickly lead to invocations of Godwin's Law. You know, "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." Then some Godwin Lawyer will invoke the corollary, that the thread is finished and the person who mentioned Hitler or Nazis has lost.

The easiest way to fill up your inbox is to publish or post something that challenges people's politics.

I once wrote to Mike Godwin asking if his law wasn't obsolete in the current political climate, but he said that his law wasn't his law any more: It belonged to those who invoked it. Which led me to propose an exception to Godwin's Law: If George Bush can override any law with a signing statement, you can override Godwin's Law (or its corollary) in any discussion of the Bush administration. On the other hand, maybe we could speed-up processors a thousand percent by getting the President to issue a signing statement to Moore's Law. The possibilities boggle the mind: The Bush signing statement to Zipf's Law, the Bush signing statement to Amdahl's Law, the Bush signing statement to DeMorgan's Laws. Now John Edwards has proposed Brownie's Law, requiring that senior political appointees actually be qualified to perform the job to which they are appointed.

Fortunately, nobody ever suggests that magazine writers be held to such unreasonable standards. I jumped on the Twitter phenomenon recently only to make fun of twittering. Now I read that NASA wants its astronauts to twitter. Had I waited, I could have made fun of NASA as well. There's a law that covers that, too: "The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese."

Michael Swaine

Editor-at-Large

[email protected]


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