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!

Peter Rowell
Datahedron Software

Ps. Here is a (now broken) link to some documentation that lives at HP (who bought Compaq, who bought DEC, who did various things with Mips, which was acquired by SGI, who then spun-off MIPS, who .... ah, the hell with it). If you want to know whether it is correct and/or complete, then you obviously have not been paying attention. I don't know because I didn't create the thing being described there, only it's grandfather.