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Values of Beeta

(taken from Dennis Ritchie's home page)

In Sixth Edition Unix, the mv command could produce this diagnostic:

values of β will give rise to dom!

This was noticed by some and is recorded in a WWW page or so, which are mostly copies of the same compilation of rarely encountered and striking error messages from various systems.

The actual source line in mv.c that produced the message was

write(1,"values of \016B\017 will give rise to dom!\n",37);

except that in the real source, the \016B\017 was written with literal ASCII SI and SO control characters. These shifted the Model 37 Teletype into its optional extended character set, and the B printed as the Greek letter beta. See below for more about rendering beta amidst changing hardware and software.

Like most of the messages recorded in these compilations, this one was produced in some situation that we considered unlikely or as result of abuse; the details don't matter. I'm recording why the phrase was selected.

The very first use of Unix in the “real business” of Bell Labs was to type and produce patent applications, and for a while in the early 1970s we had three typists busily typing away in the grotty lab on the sixth floor. One day someone came in and observed on the paper sticking out of one of the Teletypes, displayed in magnificent isolation, this ominous phrase:

values of β will give rise to dom!

It was of course obvious that the typist had interrupted a printout (generating the “!” from the ed editor) and moved up the paper, and that the context must have been something like “varying values of beta will give rise to domain wall movement” or some other fragment of a physically plausible patent application.

But the phrase itself was just so striking! Utterly meaningless, but it looks like what… a warning? What is “dom?”

At the same time, we were experimenting with text-to-voice software by Doug McIlroy and others, and of course the phrase was tried out with it. For whatever reason, its rendition of “give rise to dom!” accented the last word in a way that emphasized the phonetic similarity between “doom” and the first syllable of “dominance.” It pronounced “beta” in the British style, “beeta.” The entire occurrence became a small, shared treasure.

The phrase had to be recorded somewhere, and it was, in the v6 source. Most likely it was Bob Morris who did the deed, but it could just as easily have been Ken.

anecdotes/values_of_beta.txt · Last modified: 2016/01/12 10:27 by wkt