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Source of the famous “Now you have two problems” quote (2006) (regex.info)
145 points by thewarrior on Feb 8, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 41 comments

There's actually a little more to the story than that. On 2007-01-09, I wrote to David Tilbrook:

    Hi David .. I came across a web page
    (http://regex.info/blog/2006-09-15/247) investigating the source of the
    following quotation:

        "Whenever faced with a problem, some people say `Lets use _____.'
        Now, they have two problems."

    The author of the site seems to have gone through a lot of trouble to
    hunt down the original author of the quote. The best he was able to do
    was discover a Usenet sig from 1988 attributed to "D. Tilbrook."

    I was wondering if this was you -- if so, I think you should contact the
    author to set the record straight. His post was recently linked from the
    news aggregator site Reddit, at
    http://programming.reddit.com/info/xlov/comments and quite a few people
    have been reading the story and discussing the quote.
He wrote back:

    I can lay claim to being the author, but I cannot remember when or where
    I first used it.

    Zalman Stern worked for me at CMU so may have quoted me, hence the
    attribution to him.

    Actually one of the funnier incidents regarding my "famous" quotes was:

        "Software is the only business in which adding extra lanes to the
        Golden Gate bridge would be called maintenance" -- David Tilbrook -
        circa 1981

    I was at a meeting when the speaker used this quote and attributed it to
    David Parnas -- I was appropriately indignant.

    -- david

    P.S.: Do we know each other?
The answer to his postscript was no. :)

And he later replied again to add:

    By the way, I think I coined the phrase at a European conference in
    Dublin circa 1985.

    I was talking about the difficulty maintaining portable software when
    supposedly "standard" tools (e.g., awk(1)) differed from system to

    Then later someone pointed out to me that it was appearing in various
    signature lines which I suppose led to its being spread.
I forwarded it all to Jeffrey Friedl (the author of the linked post), but I guess he figured the comments already did a good job covering the story, or maybe he wanted to get explicit permission from David to repost the emails but never got it. But I think David's reply is interesting and compuhistoric enough that I don't want it to die in my GMail archives -- and so I'm posting it again here.

I have found holes in google's newsgroup archives previously. It surprises me because it should be such a small amount of data in today's terms. It has enough historical significance that you'd think they'd care for it better given their mission to organize the world's data and make it universally accessible.

A few points, it's a hard problem, google has put a lot of effort into solving some of it, and it may not be fixable completely.

To start off with, usenet is ancient, much older than the web. Second, archives have never been ubiquitous, expecially in earlier eras. The storage media, e.g. tape, were troublesome and expensive, so most people didn't care. The records we do have back then are from a small number of individual archives (e.g. Henry Spencer's). It wasn't until much later that deja news starting archiving usenet routinely, and even then there can be gaps due to failed delivery. Also, it's possible for individuals to opt out of archiving by setting the x-noarchive header or by contacting google. The result is a swiss cheese record that won't get better unless we magically find new archives and/or decide to violate people's privacy.

It is odd because I feel like I have gone looking for older pre-1999 posts that used to exist in Google and they are no longer there. I had just assumed that support for pre-2000 was dropped.

The problems with the Google Groups Deja News archive have been well-documented; Google has acknowledged them but essentially said "not worth our time to fix." I don't have the direct link to it handy, unfortunately, but I'm pretty sure my memory is correct.

Personally I suspect that the only reason they haven't just taken down the old Deja archive entirely is that they know the press and tech community would give them hell for doing it. So they let it linger on in this sort of compromised state.

That's a real shame. Another option would be to hand over a copy of the complete archive to another part[y|ies], who can then distribute it as they please. Since the data has no real commercial value, I don't see the harm in doing that. I also don't see it ever happening, sadly...

I feel like it is a relic of a Google Past: the search company that wanted to organize the world's information and make it findable.

Today's Google seems to be a product company that wants to imitate other major tech companies and beat them at their own game (Google Apps -> Microsoft, Android -> Apple, Google+ -> Facebook).

Google bought Android two years before the iPhone came out.

You're right, it should be Android->Blackberry, until the iPhone came out, then Android->iPhone.

You do know that Andy Rubin had a track record at General Magic and then went on to make the Danger Sidekick, right?

You're missing my point. I don't hate Android or Andy Rubin. The question is why a search company, whose mission was to organize the world's information and make it findable, bought a mobile phone OS (and eventually, a mobile phone hardware company)--but neglects the Deja archive search engine, which provides access to hundreds of millions of posts of the world's information.

Because the original goal of Android, as it was explained to me at the pre-launch OHA meeting, was to bring the web (and, by connection, AdSense) to the billions of people that couldn't or wouldn't use a desktop PC browser.

"You have a problem and decide to use threads. have two Now problems. you"

Some people, when confronted with a problem, think, 'I know, I'll use floating point arithmetic'. Now they have 2.000000000000000000001 problems.

It's a shame that regular expressions are so often associated with Perl, as though they're a single topic. It's like speaking of astronomy and astrology in the same breath.

"so often"? Really? That must be a rather particular age bracket, as newer programmers probably don't know Perl at all (apart from its reputation), and the old Unix-heads know that Perl itself didn't really invent them (or basically anything, as Larry Wall would be the first to admit).

Sure, "Perl compatible" is a pretty common moniker (as in e.g. the "PCRE" library), as the POSIX (or original grep/sed) implementations are a bit anemic.

And I don't think any of them deserves to be compared with astrology, but don't particularly care to get into that argument again. About as worthless as vim/emacs/IDE discussions.

> "so often"? Really?

The relationship with Perl was a point made in the linked article. I personally don't use Perl any more, but I certainly use regular expressions.

> And I don't think any of them deserves to be compared with astrology ...

No, that wasn't meant as an analogy, just an example of contrasting entities that are sometimes confused.

> About as worthless as vim/emacs/IDE discussions.

Complete agreement.

"It's like speaking of astronomy and astrology in the same breath."

Hmm... which is which?

Well, let's just say they're different. Also, I've been told there are ten astrologers for every astronomer. :)

An astrologer has a question about stars. He says: "I know, I'll ask an astronomer." Now he has two problems.


Interesting quote by Zawinski in the comments:

    Third: obviously I got Kelly’s joke about “streams of
    bytes”, uh, that’s why I quoted it. It’s funny, and it 
    makes the point (which I fully agree with) that the 
    decades-old Unix “pipe” model is just plain dumb, 
    because it forces you to think of everything as 
    serializable text, even things that are fundamentally
    not text, or that are not sensibly serializable.

I like the backhanded comment jwz pays Perl in the comments. To paraphrase: “Perl; it’s not as bad as sed.”

Could really apply to everything. “Php; It's not as bad as Perl” (maybe). “Java; It's not as bad as C++”, etc.

Thinkgeek, are you listening? Would make an awesome geek coffeecup/T-shirt set.

> “Php; It's not as bad as Perl”

PHP is not as bad as Perl, it's worse.

That depends on which version of PHP you're comparing with which version of Perl.

Both have their strong points, both have their weak points.

Today's relevant xkcd: http://xkcd.com/1171/

Perhaps it's just me, but I find surreal how discussions on the internet 16 years ago were pretty much as they are today.


It's translations of Roman graffiti found in Pompeii. If you're surprised human nature hasn't changed in 16 years, prepare to be flabbergasted. :)

On April 19th, I made bread

I guess Twitter was pretty much the same back then, too.

We are some slow species when it comes to evolution it seems.

Its not surreal, just that people aren't moving on. Just solving the same problems over again using new toys; and often doing a poor job of it because they do not understand engineering fundamentals of their problem space.

Slight tangent: Anyone interested in the substance of the post should also read Russ Cox's "Regular Expression Matching Can Be Simple And Fast" for why Friedl is wrong:


That was a fun paper to skim, thanks for the link. Gonna peek at the other links in the Summary section at the bottom.

...and now I understand today's XKCD [0] - I'd never heard this quote 'til today either. All is right with the world again :)

[0] - http://xkcd.com/1171/

In future similar situations, the xkcd individual thread forum may help:


I'm surprised no one mentioned this one: http://xkcd.com/208/

You have a problem, so you code a solution in Perl. Now you have at least three problems.

Some people, when confronted with a problem, think “I know, I’ll quote Jamie Zawinski.” Now they have two problems.

Attributed to Mark Pilgrim in a comment at http://shreevatsa.wordpress.com/2009/06/23/who-said-that/

Great article, thanks to the author for chasing down and cataloguing another entertaining and fine piece of geek lore.

That broken link in the article is working fine for me. Did Google repair the issues with the Deja News archive?

Funny, I found myself referencing jwz when I called Wayland a CADT-compliant approach to the problems with X.

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