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Remembering SKB

Published Monday, September 15, 2014 @ 9:32 PM EDT
Sep 15 2014

"With his mind-numbing grasp of English, literature, computer history, and programmer culture, Stan is the Umberto Eco of programming."
-Ron Burk

"Computers were simpler then. We had only 0's. We'd read papers discussing computers with 1's and 0's, which opened our eyes and made us yearn. We prayed for 1's to come to [Cambridge]. Finally, we got them and everything was greatly changed. Still, computing with just 0's was an awful lot easier."
-Stan Kelly-Bootle

Stan Kelly Bootle (September 15, 1929 - April 16, 2014) was a true renaissance man. He obtained the first post-graduate degree ever awarded in computer science the year I was born (1954), and was a singer-songwriter whose music was recorded by Judy Collins and Cilla Black.

I first learned of Stan through his book The Devil's DP Dictionary. Published around the time I entered the computer business in the early 80s, his Ambrose Bierce-like style made me an instant fan and admirer. Its successor, The Computer Contradictionary (1995, The MIT Press) is still in print, a tribute to his wit and depth of knowledge.)


cursor address, n:
"Hello, cursor!"

default, n.:
[Possibly from Black English "De fault wid dis system is you, mon."] The vain attempt to avoid errors by inactivity. "Nothing will come of nothing: speak again."-King Lear.

flowchart, n. & v.:
[From flow “to ripple down in rich profusion, as hair” + chart "a cryptic hidden-treasure map designed to mislead the uninitiated."] 1. n. The solution, if any, to a class of Mascheroni construction problems in which given algorithms require geometrical representation using only the 35 basic ideograms of the ANSI template. 2. n. Neronic doodling while the system burns. 3. n. A low-cost substitute for wallpaper. 4. n. The innumerate misleading the illiterate. "A thousand pictures is worth ten lines of code."-The Programmer's Little Red Vade Mecum, Mao Tse T'umps. 5. v.intrans. To produce flowcharts with no particular object in mind. 6. v.trans. To obfuscate (a problem) with esoteric cartoons.


In 1984, Stan started a 16-year run at Unix Review (later renamed Performance Computing) with his Devil's Advocate column. His influence was such that when I noticed the magazine in the daily stack of mail, all work stopped until I could revel in that month's example of technical expertise and lexicographic wizardry. Many of his observations can still be found across the web:

Computer Science: A study akin to numerology and astrology, but lacking the precision of the former and the success of the latter.

Science is to computer science as hydrodynamics is to plumbing.

Should array indices start at 0 or 1? My compromise of .5 was rejected without, I thought, proper consideration.

(That example evolved into the "KB," the Kelly-Bootle Standard Unit of 1012 bytes, a compromise between 1000 and 1024 bytes, in xkcd.)

Stan's sense of humor was not limited to the technical and arcane:

Q. What is the difference between Congress and the Library of Congress?
A. At the Library of Congress, you aren't allowed to lick the pages.

My first contact with Stan was in the early 90s when he used a joke from my DEC Pro column in Unix Review. Thrilled, I even overlooked his reference to me as "one of the last remaining DEC Professionals" although, as usual, he was presciently correct.

For the next 20 years, we exchanged emails about absurdities that struck our respective fancies. I never met Stan in person. We talked a few times on the phone, and he was thrilled when I sent him a copy of Lawrence Krauss' The Physics of Star Trek. as a Christmas gift.

He was also tickled about the inclusion of some of his observations in my now out-of-print quotations collection:

"Kevin G. Barkes's printed selection risibly titled "Eff the Ineffable, Scrute the Inscrutable" is available via his website or by email. I'm reluctant (not really) to boast of four quotation by my goodself, two more than Walter Cronkite, three more than Wolfgang Pauli (stung by his own Exclusion Principle?), and, quite unfairly, three more than Doc Cypher. Doc's solo quote, though, has the quality: "The day Microsoft makes something that doesn't suck is probably the day that they start making vacuum clearners." But I digress." (Original link here.)

Stan returned to England from the U.S. in 2004. Our last communication was a congratulatory e-mail following my January 2009 marriage.

Here's his obituary in the Guardian and his biography on Wikipedia.

Stan once wrote, "The Christian message is that... good deeds are rewarded: 'You can’t take it with you, but you can mail it ahead.'" You can also leave a good deal behind, and Stan left us an embarrassment of riches.

Categories: Passages, Stan Kelly-Bootle


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