The Magritte Factor

Warhol's cans of soup are merely “cans of soup” (limited shelf life?), whereas Magritte's equally realistic rendition of a briar pipe is teasingly titled “This is not a pipe”.

René Magritte (1898-1967), the Belgian pop-surrealist, will outlive the undertalented, over-hyped Andy Warhol (1927-1987) in my book. My sister Doreen always called him Andy Arsehole, and thought she was more worthy of the 15 minutes of fame for this remark than Warhol was for his pretentious 3-hour movie of a sleeping man. “Call me a Palestine [note 1],” she said, “but I dozed off after 10 seconds.”

Warhol's cans of soup are merely “cans of soup” (limited shelf life?), whereas Magritte's equally realistic rendition of a briar pipe is teasingly titled “This is not a pipe”. I've made a copy of this painting called “This is not a copy of `This is not a pipe”'--sure to win next year's Turner Prize. Space precludes a full, emetic account of the family visit to the London Tate Gallery in December, 1999. Suffice to say we all stood gazing at Exhibit A, the infamous “unmade bed”, thinking, “Sh..., we used to dream of sleeping so bourgeois comfy.”

The Magritte joke digs deeply into the serious anti-self-referential paradoxes that have threatened the very foundations of logic, mathematics, computer science, and all we hold dear [note 2]. The rash Cretan swore that “all Cretans are liars”. Russell denied entry in the only club that would have had him as a member [note 3]. Gödel proved that “this proposition is unprovable”. Turing asked, “Wanna wait 'til this program halts?” And the ever-elegant Chaitin says, “There's no elegant algorithm for establishing its elegance.”

Briefly, in Chaitin's algorithmic information theory, a program is “elegant” if no smaller program written in the same programming language has the same output for a given input. Rush back to your methodologies, patterns, use-cases, UML flow charts, include files, class frameworks and source code (if any), you inelegant swine! Unless, of course, you are paid by LOC (lines of code).

Most busy humanist mathematicians, such as Lakatos, Hersh and myself, have other rent-paying grapes to fry.

For example, back in the real (sez who?) world, provably elegant Linux gathers momentum. For those who still ask how to pronounce “Linux”, I checked with several IPO billionaires and was told “two short, equally stressed syllables as in Red Hat”.

The latest Corel incarnation has just arrived in the largest-ever shrink-wrapped box! As a JOLT judge, my lips are sealed and incorruptible, but there's a growing number of Linux candidates in each year's list of nominations, and I have an intuitive urge to support Corel and its Linux-aware WordPerfect. As with the Academy Awards, the number of JOLT Award categories also increases, and we are close to having “Best Linux Spreadsheet by an Albanian Unijamb”.

BUT a warning from

“IBM Exec Touts Linux as Key to Net Evolution:

IBM has big plans for Linux, says IBM's Irving Wladawsky-Berger, the visionary who shaped IBM's e-business initiative and now leads the firm's Linux push. In an interview with CNet's Kim Girard, Wladawsky-Berger, who heads IBM's new Next Generation...”

Beware the well-intentioned Big Blue “Kiss of Death!” Especially when it comes from a “next-generation visionary”. Remember OS/2, Taligent, OpenDoc and the emerging Java standards impasse.


Stan Kelly-Bootle ( has been computing on and off since his EDSAC I (Cambridge University, UK) days in the 1950s. He has commented on the unchanging DP scene in many columns (“More than the effin' Parthenon”--Meilir Page-Jones) and books, including The Computer Contradictionary (MIT Press) and UNIX Complete (Sybex).


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