Third Eye Software and
the MIPS symbol table
A Cautionary Tale of Good Code Led Astray
I am writing this as an act of self defense. Every so often I am
contacted by someone who has found a Third Eye Software copyright
buried in the MIPS symbol table code. After they have done battle
with it for days (or months), they finally decide to Hunt Me Down.
I would like to start by saying, "It wasn't my fault!"
Let me tell you a story...
Starting in 1983, Third Eye Software (not third-eye) developed and
marketed a source level debugger named CDB. It was quite popular
in certain circles and I was porting it to anything that had a
*NIX in its name. One of the major difficulties in porting the
debugger to different *NIX platforms was that everyone
seemed to have their own idea of what a symbol table should
look like. Although many of them started out with the same
symbol table (think: System 3), they then turned around and
broke/mangled/hacked it into "something different". Others took the
bold step of creating something totally new, wonderful, and broken. Blech!
Personally, I think that you should be required to have a government license,
or something, before you are allowed to design a symbol table!
After having been ported to some 40+ systems (all different),
CDB's source code was a swamp of
#ifdefs — some dealing with
architecture issues, but many, many, many of them dealing with
symbol table issues. During the major rewrite for version 4.0,
I decided that the debugger itself would deal with only one
symbol table: its own. I could then write translators from all
other symbol tables to the Third Eye symbol table. In general,
this worked out quite well and it helped isolate all manner of
severe symbol table problems. (I think that ELXSI won the prize
for the most screwed up format, but there were a lot of
Honorable Mentions out there.) It also allowed me to reorganize
information that was all over the place into sections that were
designed from the ground up to support the debugger as it was
walking around the process stack, printing out structured dumps
of complex data types, and other sundry things. All in all,
I was quite happy with the results. I.e. it did exactly what it
needed to do for the task it was designed for.
A contractor, Mark Himelstein, who had done some work for Third
Eye, went to work for MIPS. He was in their compiler group, if
I recall correctly. Since he was very familiar with my symbol
table, he thought it would be neat to use it for MIPS' own format.
MIPS asked if they could use it and I said, "Sure! Just leave the
copyright in there." (God! I wish I hadn't said that!) Of course,
they needed to add stuff for relocation (which I had never dealt
with since I was always dealing with a fully linked executable),
AND they had all sorts of weird optimization notations, AND
etc. etc. Needless to say, by the time they were done with it,
it bore very little resemblance to what I had originally created.
Somewhat like starting with a perfectly good hammer and twisting
it into some kind of weird chainsaw. HOWEVER, the include file
still had that Third Eye copyright message in it....
As the GNU people started working with MIPS stuff, first with
gcc and later with gdb, they encountered the MIPS/"Third Eye"
symbol table. Many people were less than impressed with its
technical quality. As gcc/gdb became more widely distributed,
more and more people were "exposed" (and I use the term advisedly)
to the "Third Eye" symbol table. In addition to being twisted
in the extreme, it was also largely undocumented. People would
get little or no help from MIPS (or, as various companies bought and sold other companies, DEC, or SGI, or Compaq, or HP) and then become
desperate to find someone who understood the damn thing.
The most persistent found their way to me. Unfortunately, the
portions of the symbol table that are always (yes, always) giving
them the most difficulty are the MIPS extensions, of which I have
no knowledge at all. Once, while trying to help some poor soul,
I looked at the docs (such as they were/are) and my reaction was
"WTF?" — pretty much like everyone else's reaction.
So there are some number of people in the world who have hacked
either gcc or gdb or some MIPS/DEC/SGI/Compaq/HP artifact and have gained a
very low opinion of Third Eye's (read: "my") technical abilities.
I would dearly love to have Third Eye's name
removed from any and all programs having anything to do with the
MIPS abomination, but it's probably waaay too late to do that.
So there you have it. Did I invent the symbol table format?
I guess I did; at least the original one. Did it do what it
was intended to do? Absolutely! Was it ever intended to do
anything remotely like what MIPS did with it? No way, no how!
Should you have been thinking Bad Thoughts about the technical
ignoramus who begat that foul smelling pit of twisted code and
evil data structures, please think about someone other than myself.
Should you know anyone else harboring similar ill feelings,
please point them to this page so that they might reorient their
voodoo doll towards someone else! I might recommend either Mark
Himelstein or his boss, Larry Weber. I don't know that they were
actually responsible, but they were definitely in the building
when the crimes were committed!