Monday, March 02, 2009


Leiba’s Lament

On This-Page-Intentionally-Left-Blank day, Beth mentioned “Leiba’s Lament” in a comment, and I said that I might have to explain that in a post some time soon.

First, a bit of background.

Some 25 years ago, or so, Mike Cowlishaw (and here’s his IBM web page) developed a software distribution system called TOOLS[1], which was widely used internally for many years. Under the TOOLS system, users could place data files on virtual disks, optionally grouping the files into packages. The disks could be public or private, and other users — any users, for public disks, and authorized users, for private ones — would retrieve the files when they needed them. The system kept a catalogue of the packages and files, and the catalogue could be searched.

One feature provided by the TOOLS system was forums, a kind of conferencing system. Forums were special files placed on TOOLS disks, and users could use the system to append entries, much as one comments on a blog or places a response into a Lotus Notes teamroom today. The forums have now been moved to network news servers, but in their heyday on the TOOLS system they provided a wildly popular place to have discussions, ask technical questions (and get quick answers, often), and the like. Some forums saw activity only rarely; some got hundreds of appends a day.

The TOOLS disks were arranged according to broad topics — IBMVM and VMTOOLS for discussions and software related to the VM system; IBMPC and PCTOOLS for the same about PCs, and so on. The IBMTEXT disk was filled with forums about document preparation and publishing software: Document Composition Facility (DCF) and SGML, Book Master and Book Manager, Print Services Facility (PSF), and the like.

We called those discussions of the publishing software “IBMTEXT1”, because there were other forums on the same disk, which we grouped as “IBMTEXT2”, devoted to discussing language and writing. Those forums had names like WORDS, ENGLISH, WHOSAID, and a bunch of others that included the infamous NITPICK, which was dedicated to the merciless trashing of anything written less than perfectly. The discussions in the IBMTEXT2 forums were often of uncertain business value on the surface, but they became easily justified when one realized that they provided a place to practice writing properly, to discuss proper writing, and, especially if one was not a native English speaker, to ask questions about correct English usage.

In the summer of 1992, in the middle of a discussion of something else, an IBMer from Dublin made a comment about how a language tool represented “a dipthong”, which prompted a participant from Hursley to reply thus (the quotes here are mostly verbatim, but I’ve changed the attributions a little to protect people’s anonymity):

- WORDS FORUM appended at 14:26:39 on 92/06/11 GMT (by ZZZZZ at WINVMC) -
Subject: Egad - I just saw a small child here in our suburban office
Ref: Append at 18:28:17 on 92/06/10 GMT (by XXXXXX at DUBVM1)

BTW, what exactly is a 'dipthong'? I suspect it isn't a scanty
bathing costume. Have you spelled it correctly?


That Bosco was being sarcastic was missed by at least three participants, who each quickly (within an hour and a half) and “helpfully” followed up with definitions of “diphthong” (note correct spelling). To those, I responded thus:

- WORDS FORUM appended at 18:19:41 on 92/06/11 GMT (by LEIBA at WATSON) -
Subject: Dipthong (was: Egad - I just saw a small child...)
Ref: Append at 14:55:12 on 92/06/11 GMT (by XXXXXX at AUSVM1)
Append at 15:18:55 on 92/06/11 GMT (by XXXXXX at DUBVM1)
Append at 15:46:38 on 92/06/11 GMT (by XXXXXX at WINVMC)

Oh, sigh. I suspect that Bosco knows (and knew) very well what a
"diphthong" is; you three have simply missed his sarcasm. Whither goes
the world, when wit and rhetoric are lost unless accompanied by some
accursed icon or other?

From: Barry Leiba, Watson VM Systems LEIBA at WATSON

Bosco replied the next day, with this append:

- WORDS FORUM appended at 12:30:51 on 92/06/12 GMT (by ZZZZZ at WINVMC) -
Subject: Dipthong (was: Egad - I just saw a small child...)
Ref: Append at 18:19:41 on 92/06/11 GMT (by LEIBA at WATSON)

> Whither goes
>the world, when wit and rhetoric are lost unless accompanied by some
>accursed icon or other?

I echo Leiba's Lament. Well said, Barry.


At that point, “Leiba’s Lament” entered the IBMTEXT lexicon, defined by the excerpt that Bosco quoted. Real IBMTEXTers almost always eschewed smiley-faces, frowny-faces, and other sometimes bizarre icons (and in more recent times you would never see any of us use abominations such as “LOL” and “ROFL”). As Beth said, WDNNS icon.[2]

[1] TOOLS was developed and ran on the VM operating system, and eventually became the VM/DSNX product. The system is stil around today, but for most of its uses it’s been replaced with web servers and browsers, wikis, blogs, RSS/Atom feeds, news readers, and the other modern conveniences we’ve all come to rely on.

[2] WDNNS, another item in the lexicon, stands for “We don’t need no stinkin’ ...”. It’s a reference to the movie Blazing Saddles, wherein a Mexican bandit, claiming to be a lawman and challenged for his badge, says, “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges.”[3]

[3] The line in Blazing Saddles is actually itself a reference to the Humphrey Bogart movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The original quote in that movie is, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges. ”


Laurie said...

Pre-Poe's Law. I think you should sue Nathan Poe. *must..not..make..frowny..face...gaakh*

Since Poe's Law spawned Bo's Law, maybe you could sue the Landover Baptist Church, too, though I don't think you'd get much from either.

Barry Leiba said...

Well, maybe Nathan Poe's law is a corollary to Leiba's Lament, specifically in the domain of mocking religious fundamentalism.

Unfortunately, we never published a study of Leiba's Lament in any peer-reviewed journal -- nor, indeed, in any external publication at all. The only other reference to it that Google turns up is an answer by Glenn ("Not R") to a question in Yahoo Answers from 4 August 2008.

Anonymous said...

Texters--sheesh. WDNNS icons. I do remember the bane.