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September, 2010 | Chasing Men Who Stare at Arrays

Monthly Archive for September, 2010

Concordance! Greek looks like APL to me

Earlier this year I received a post and email and then a tweet from Lyman Hurd, a software engineer in Atlanta GA, saying that if I was researching a documentary about APL, then I really should talk to his father John Hurd.

Well it turns out that the connections between APL and the humanities goes deeper than Eugene McDonnell’s membership in the Jane Austin Society.

Way back in the 80’s John Hurd wrote a concordance program for languages not using the Latin alphabet in APL.   A then used this software to teach an undergraduate course in Greek at the University of Toronto.

My adventure for today is a journey to the Northern reaches of Toronto to meet Professor Hurd!  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Letter from Toronto Computers and Humanities (19) 1985 Paradigm Press Inc Volume 19, Number 4, 251-253, DOI: 10.1007/BF02259579



My love affairs with stories and coffee shops are both well known. So you’ll understand why I couldn’t resist but to take Dan McKay’s blog post whole.

Check out his blog when you’re done here, folks. It’s something special.

I love unlikely connections, and the transition from folding paper to matrices on IBM mainframes at least feels like a fairly unlikely one. I was asked to do an origami exhibit at the West Nyack Library over in Rockland (southernmost county on the west side of the Hudson river in New York), which I feel I must first confess did not come together well. Sandy from the library was very nice and supportive about this, but I am alreadt looking to the fall when I may get another chance to pull off the real deal. The actual exhibit aside, as I was making it I had some occasions for weekend folding. That’s not entirely true. I had a crushing weight of occasions for weekend folding and there were times where, with my rafter-stuffed apartment, I realized that I’d either have to spend half my day cleaning to allow me the space for the work, or I could usurp a table at Starbucks. I often did the latter.

On one such visit, after a couple hours’ sitting and folding in relative silence, a woman began to have some trouble with the Starbucks wifi. In giving her a bit of advice, I learned she was Dr. Linda Misek-Falkoff. First of all, she is a Ph.D employed by the Communications Coordination Committee for the U.N.. Second, that she was a researcher at IBM in the 50s. Too cool. Further, her husband just happened to be the Adin Falkoff who worked with Kenneth Iverson to implement the APL matrix-oriented programming language.

I’ve since taken a look at APL, and of course my actionscript matrix class is a little bit like looking at an XML version of a database table in comparison. The language does use non-ascii symbols that make it a little difficult to adopt for the average developer. Yet its influences on some of the most advanced mathematics computing of today, like MATLAB and Mathematica, are significant and recognized. I quite enjoy opportunities to get a personal perspective into the roots of modern computing.

Further, it was just so nice to talk to someone who can speak a little bit of my language. At my work, there are no other developers. My friends aren’t developers. I have no professors with whom I’m close. I’m painfully isolated in that sense, and any conversation with a knowledgeable individual is like a feast to the starved for me.

I guess I just don’t get out enough, but that sequence of events was amazing to me. I could never have expected temporarily cluttered living space and an origami installation to lead to a new subject for a linear algebra project and a maybe even some new friends. Perhaps that says I should take more chances in general, but I’m definitely spending more time in coffee shops.

Dan Mckay


APL2010 – a brief introspection (Guest Brian)

Having been on the periphery of the APL community for the last several years, I found it refreshing to attend an APL conference once again. It was good to see old friends and associates and meet new people as well.

Prominent Theme:
Parallel computing… perhaps computing hardware is finally catching up with APL :-)… There were at least six sessions and many more informal discussions about how APL is natural fit for multi-core, parallel execution and about work and research that is actively taking place. It seems there is great potential, but not without challenge – for instance, while multiple fast cores are available to execute code they are still dependent on relatively slow memory for data.

Interesting Thing in the Works:
Dyalog’s APL# – a new, functional, array-oriented scripting language which aims to compete with Python / Ruby / JavaScript for technical / computational applications, and make it possible to deploy APL code in places where Dyalog APL cannot go. (I stole this from Morten Kromberg’s slide because I couldn’t say it any better myself.)

Something Cool I Plan to Use:
WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation) – want a slick user interface? WPF seems the way to go. It gives you virtually unlimited control over the look, feel, and functionality of your user interface. That’s the good news… the bad? WPF books are VERY thick. Thank you Michael Hughes and Joe Blaze for your WPF presentations.

Something Cool I Want Sooner than Later:
Dyalog’s RIDE (Remote Integrated Development Environment)… imagine being able to connect to an APL session and debug it from your iPhone. RIDE allows you to connect to a Dyalog session from a web browser on almost any client platform. Very cool stuff.

Most Entertaining Session:
Dyalog’s Jay Foad’s presentation on juggling patterns augmented by Jay himself juggling up to 5 balls. This raises the bar for future presenters… what’s next? Unicycles?

Something I Miss from Past APL Conferences:
Interprocess Systems buttons… they had the most amusing captions like “Greek Looks Like APL To Me” and “Another Brilliant Mind Ruined by APL”. Though, Dan Baronet’s “Ich Bin Ein APLer” tee-shirt was a welcome sight.

Interesting Banquet:
The banquet was held at Mercedes World at Salzufer. Imagine eating a buffet dinner surrounded by every imaginable model of Mercedes Benz. That, plus a 4 story climbing wall. Now if they only gave out cars as door prizes…

Most Encouraging Aspect:
The first and second place winners of the 2010 International APL Programming Contest, Ryan Tarpine and Mstislav Elagin… Both gave thoughtful and candid presentations about their experiences and impressions with APL, pointing out the aspects that they liked and those they didn’t. They shared a true enthusiasm and appreciation for the expressive power of APL. I found it poignant when Ryan spoke about the “beauty” of an APL expression, something I felt when I first encountered APL 35 years ago. Ryan and Mstislav represent APL’s future and we need to reach out to others like them.

Final Impressions:
There is active use and interesting development of APL and array processing technology.

We need to expand beyond our own community – there were several interesting papers and presentations that would play equally well, perhaps even better, at non-APL conferences. We need to get the word out that APL is a viable and vibrant technology.


Amazing Grace on L*******n!

If I had to pick one person on earth to count on, Roger Hui would be in my top 10 list.  For sure.   110% reliable. And will you just look what a gem he found!  Wow I hope this gets to stay in the public domain!

In case you’re new to this blog, I received Grace Hopper’s biography ohhhhh, way back in October, 2009. In fact, if you type ‘grace’ in the search box to your right, you’ll find a couple of posts about one of the best biographies I ever read. 

In writing this, my inner voice says, hmmm…. it must easier to be candid and honest when everyone is dead. One wouldn’t need to dance around all those bits that make us human and interesting.  My father, incidentally, now prefaces his BEST emails with ‘This is NOT for your blog’.

And the photo, by the way,  is of the Mark I… I went to visit it in Boston last year (hem… try ‘Boston’ in the search box)


My APL2010 – pick list (guest Vibeke)

Conference Presentations (based on those I managed to attend):
Most laughs: Prof Dr. Ing Horst Zuse – “The origins of the computer”

Best entertainment value: Jay Foad (Dyalog) – “An Interpreter for Vanilla Siteswap”

Presentation with highest sex-appeal (I want one of those!): John Daintree (Dyalog) – “Taking APL for a RIDE”

Most “wake up we’re moving ahead” presentation: Morten Kromberg, John Scholes and Jonathan Manktelow (Dyalog) – “APL#”

Most fantastic application presentation: Lars Wenzel (Fujitsu Sweden) – “Volvo application”.

Best up-coming APL’ers presentation: Mstislav Elagin & Ryan Tarpine – winners of the programming contest.

Most intriguing and thought provoking on parallel/multicore: Sven-Bodo Scholz (University of Hertfordshire)

Best selling proposition for flogging APL: Paul Grosvenor (Optima Systems) – “Making Money with APL”

Most progressive and “on the ball” APL Vendor with resources to do R&D: Dyalog Ltd.

Berlin is a nice city and I would like to go back sometime and play tourist. Great restaurants and good music venues. Went to A-Trane (Larry Goldings trio) and Quasimodo (Blues rock with German 5 piece bluesband called “five” & bough their CD ‘Five in the Kitchen’. Great food at Ottenthal – best pudding I’ve ever had (poppyseed & lavender sabayon).


The time space continuum

Running in High Park this evening, I was contemplating what more to say about The Design of Design now that I am about 1/3 of the way through.

Rather than calculating that number, I’m visually estimating it, by the way.

Brooks claims that most programmers are visual/spacial thinkers.  Which is part of his larger thesis about modeling a software design process, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Right around here in the park, where I shot this photo earlier this summer, it struck me. I love the way Brooks is able to sprinkle anecdotes about working on the architecture for IBM’s System/360 45 years ago with insightful analysis of modern design practices. This guy has seen it all.

And hey! That’s what I have to do. Or some Catherine tempered approximation.

And it’s not just me who thinks this is important.  Wired interviewed him this summer, where, incidentally, he confessed to becoming interested in computers in the 1940’s because he wanted to index his maps.

Now we’re all interested in indexing maps… And guess who I’m getting myself ready to call.


The Design of Design

This is how Friday went down:

I’m running late, tearing through the house in a where the heck is my bag, sort of way, and then… up pulls the UPS truck.

My books!

Late or not, my Amazon instinct kicks in… luckily the boxes are perfectly designed, they rip open with no struggle at all.  It’s Fred Brook’s new book, of course, The Design of Design. I drop the packaging and immediately flip to the People Index and search for Iverson (p. 72, 124 & 378). Wow.  Twice Brooks juxtaposes Ken Iverson with Google’s Marissa Mayer.  I make a mental note to ask Matt & Susan Gorbet if they know her.

Then I repeat with the subject index and look up APL (p. 72, 124, 141 348). They’re different.  Why?

Well, don’t you know it,  I find an example of not elegant design (pp 141-142) that echos a similar criticism made by Richard Bookstaber in A Demon of Our Own Design. Man oh man are we easy targets! And I’m completely floored – because I believe it is an urban myth.  Not so much that it has never happened, but I don’t believe it has been significant.  But, I guess it makes a good anecdote.  AND sorry folks, I’m not even going to say it because I don’t want to perpetuate its existence in cyberspace.  If you’re burning to know, buy the books!

And just to be extra clear, this is my opinion. And Fred Brooks rocks, so I’m… well… I guess I’m in the dog house again.

Bread Crumbs

In the early 1960’s, Brooks led the IBM System/360 hardware and software project which gave birth to a family of machines with interchangeable software that lead to IBM’s domination of the computer industry for the next 25 years.

Out of Their Minds page 158

Fred Brooks and Ken Iverson were together at Harvard in the 1950’s.   Iverson was hired by IBM in 1960 to develop his special mathematical notation into a programming language for the IBM/360.  And that’s how APL and its family of Array Processing Languages were born.

So…  Guys… I have the best job in the world. It’s terrible form to boast but I just can’t help myself today. After a difficult and trying summer not one, but a few people from the APL Array Language community have stepped up to steady my ship and blow some wind in my sails.  And this feels great.

We rock on!


A Day in the Life of a Canadian Mathematician

If you have been following me since 2004, you’ll know that not only is Jeffery Shallit one of our Array Language Jedi with some mighty impressive honours, he also has the largest collection of APL Press Buttons. He has more buttons than anyone else, ever.

My favourite, of course, reads:

A good woman will last a year, but APL is forever.

Actually, now that I think about it, I should ask him if I can sell them on eBay to support this project.

But I digress… Because Jeffrey also has the gift of gab and blogs, I know what he did today! And guess what he did today? Yup. Put his money on the table, and bought a new version of APL. 

Just in case you’re one of those guys worried that I’m gonna say… Okay, I won’t say it…. Anyway… here are some of the juicy bits from Jeffrey’s day

My sabbatical is over and it’s back to a teaching term. Classes start next week…

9:30 AM Working on the first assignment for my algorithms course. It’s not easy to create good, interesting problems about big-O notation. And I want problems whose solution isn’t on the web! I had a good one last year but I don’t want to reuse it.

10:15 AM Got a couple of problems written, but still looking for a really hard one. Time to go check my (physical) mailbox on the second floor. Most mail comes electronically these days, but still…

11:50 AM A colleague from another country was denied a visa to visit Canada and present a paper at a conference. This is really outrageous. I’ve got an appointment with my MP next week to discuss this case. I’m printing out the documentation that the colleague sent me.

12:00 Noon There’s a new version of the APL I use on my mac, APL X. Paid $160 Canadian for the update through paypal.

12:30 PM Spent the last half hour trying to submit a paper to Information Processing Letters. Gone are the days when you could submit a paper by e-mailing some files to the editor. Now you have to go through a web-based form where you attach files, etc. These nearly always are terrible, offering way too many options for some things and not enough for others. I’ve spent 30 minutes on it so far and am still not done….

Oh, Jeffrey, if you need an ass kicking Canadian Immigration Lawyer, let me know.


Geek chic old news goes bang!

Good golly! An award winning geek show created by Chuck Lorre (Two and a Half Men) and Bill Prady (Gilmore Girls)?

The Big Bang Theory


Blog in Photos

A Blog Year in Photos 2009

A Blog Year in Photos 2010


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