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November, 2010 | Chasing Men Who Stare at Arrays

Monthly Archive for November, 2010

Happy Birthday APL!

1 Cleanspace is from APL2, courtesy of Jon McGrew.


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Thoughts on Silverlight & APL# (Guest Morten)

Please welcome an honoured guest, Morten Kromberg.

There has been some debate recently in the wake of comments by senior Microsoft officials at the recent “Microsoft PDC” conference, regarding the Microsoft’s increased emphasis on HTML5 (an open standard), rather than Silverlight (which Microsoft has developed).

In my opinion, Silverlight is a more appropriate technology for APL users, because it provides a platform which allows an APL interpreter to run in the browser, while HTML5 dictates the use of Javascript as a “client-side” programming language. Silverlight has the disadvantage of being associated with a single vendor, although there is an open-source version, known as Moonlight, mostly funded by Novell (with help from Microsoft). In some ways, it is a choice between a rock (single vendor) and a hard place (single programming language).

Many people may be surprised to hear that Silverlight could be a platform for an APL system, as they have only heard of Silverlight as “a way to play video in a web browser” (Microsoft’s so-called “Flash killer”). Surprisingly few people know that Silverlight embeds a fairly complete .Net framework and that this is a general-purpose computing platform which allows us to make apps written in APL# downloadable to a web browser without security concerns – or run APL# apps on any platform where either Silverlight or its open-source cousin Moonlight can run.

HTML5 adds video support to HTML, and makes that “most well known” reason for Silverlight irrelevant – this is something that I think most informed observers have been expecting for some time. Most web apps want a bit of media and some nice controls – and a connection to a server app written in some other language. HTML5 (which actually means “HTML5+Javascript”) is going to beat SilverLight for these apps.

However, Silverlight is so much more than that… It provides us with a way to make languages like APL# and C# be identical on all platforms – desktop, web and mobile, something which HTML5 does not aim to offer. With APL#, I will be able to debug my client and server apps, both written in APL (if that is what I want), using the same debugger… On any platform… Whereas HTML5 and Javascript are both likely to be a bit different from Operating System to Operating System and browser to browser.

As an APL programmer, the last thing I want is to try to understand and then deal with all of that. And then try to debug it in 10 different browsers on 5 different Operating Systems. There is a very significant market for better tools than HTML5/JS, easily large enough to justify an ongoing investment from MicroSoft.

I can understand that MicroSoft needs to ramp up their HTML5 support, but I can not understand why they did not simply say “We are increasing our investment in HTML5 for simple applications, but investing equally in Silverlight, which is a fundamentally more powerful tool for applications which needs power (and languages other than Javascript) and debuggability”. They are now back-pedaling furiously and claiming that this is what they meant, and we’ll have to hope that this is correct and not just political damage control. Microsoft has announced a Silverlight event called ”Firestarter” on December 2nd, where enthusiasts will be hoping to hear news of the “road map” for the technology.

I would almost go so far as to say that, without a strong and growing Silverlight, Microsoft .Net itself will quickly become a very much less attractive platform for software development. Windows Mobile is also going to be a very unattractive platform to invest on if you need to learn Silverlight and then have it only allow you to support what is currently a very “minor” mobile platform.

In my opinion, Silverlight is the key thing that Microsoft can do, and others cannot – it was the main thing they had going in their favour, and I think it will have a bright future if they only keep investing in it – even if it only gets used for “real applications”. I can’t understand why they are not giving it all they have got, unless I think of dark theories like that they have realized SilverLight is “too good” in that – together with Moonlight – it would allow people to run all their applications on competing operating systems like Linux as easily as Windows. However, without it, Microsoft doesn’t have a consistent cross-platform story and I think new, lightweight players will soon run rings around them in the web/cloud and mobile spaces.

This might all be a Very Good Thing for APL in the longer term – as I think we can thrive in some of the new environments – but mighty irritating this month as we try to figure out what Microsoft is really up to!

Breaking News: Just to add to the confusion, the news this week is that Novell, who have been funding Moonlight development, is to be broken up and sold in pieces, and that some pieces may be acquired either by Microsoft or by VMWare, who might be very interested in a cross-platform technology like Moonlight. Fingers crossed, I’m hoping Mono and Moonlight end up with VMWare, but that is definitely “wishful thinking” at this point. Large quantities of blood in the water for conspiracy theorists!


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Predictions from the past

In 1998, Dennis E. Shasha and Cathy A. Lazere wrote a book called  Out of Their Minds: The Lives and Discoveries of 15 Great Computer Scientists. This book has become my most useful guide and reference.  In the postscript, Shasha and Lazere make some predictions about the upcoming 25 years.  As we are almost half way to the 25 year mark right about now, I’ve been giving their predictions some thought.  In particular, I’m contemplating three points with respect to the Array Processing Language family, namely:

Specialized languages that can meld components written in different languages will become popular (page 252).

Software design that will make parallel processors behave like a single very fast and very reliable computer presents… [a great challenge] (page 250).

… [New] programming languages will always catch people’s attention.  But like beautiful images, the innovative and influential ones will remain rare (page 251).

I’m also getting ready to speak at Ryerson University on Thursday at the Undergraduate Computer Science Program awards ceremony!  All the while, praying to the technology gods to please help me be entertaining, smart and a worthy array language ambassador to the next generation of Computer Scientists.


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The Language Slapdown, Programming Language, that is

The main topic of November’s monthly J users group meeting (NYCJUG) was The Language Slapdown.  Jedi Knight, Devon McCormick (in the photo on the right),  agreed to represent the array programming language J in this battle of the brains.  He called upon the group to provide feedback.

Sadly, the Slapdown was canceled, but not before I fell in love with the idea.  Why? Because I can’t think of a better way to channel all that ferocious energy that separates programming language aficionados from each other.

The passion behind programming language debates is truly exceptional, and perhaps a little incomprehensible to the rest of us.  I mean, really.  To paraphrase Dave Thomas, It’s easier to work with someone in China than with someone who knows a different programming language.

I wish that I had a team of Neurologists at my disposal, because I’m starting to amass anecdotal evidence that one of the reasons the programming language debates are so strangely polarized is simply because the various languages reflect different modes of thinking.  And these different modes of thinking loosely reflect a diversity of wiring in human brains.

One of the many reasons, both personally and politically, that I am publicly aligning myself with The Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership, Inc.(GRASP) is that it is an organization which publicly promotes awareness about a constituency of humans who are demonstrably wired in a unique way.  It is a huge mental leap to figure out how to communicate when you can’t make assumptions about the other person in the conversation, based on your own way of thinking.  The bottom line is that it takes education, awareness and practice to effectively communicate with someone who is wired differently than you are.

I challenge you to go think about this for a few moments.

So, the notion of a Language Slapdown should bring to the surface some different ways of thinking.  And besides, it’s a Slapdown so everyone is there to get slapped.

I’ve pretty much decided that the acrimonious battles between programming language followers are a mild curiosity in general.  When you dig down to the details, they border on tedious and boring, so for now, I plan to ignore them.

I will go to a Slapdown, though, given the opportunity.  And that’s Kenneth Lettow on the left, listening to Devon’s presentation.

So, if I plan to sidestep the great programming language debates, what’s next? I’m trying to figure out, with the help of some guest writers in the pipes: How are the array languages being adapted to the modern world?

Stay Tuned.




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Unstitched in Brooklyn!

I really had a fantastic time in New York.  Before the trip, my executive producer Barry Pearson gave me some sagely advice.  Don’t forget you’re visually talented. He’s talking about what Ken Iverson once called, all that art school.

The truth is I can become unstitched by the way a ray of sun hits a single leaf and then spend hours taking photographs trying to catch it. Light can be elusive and as such, presents a great challenge.

So, with Barry’s advice in mind, I spent a good afternoon in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden chasing beams of light.

Indeed, I cannot resist saying, the squirrels are very friendly!


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Circus news

I’m back home and am burning to share another New York story.  It starts like this…

On my way to lunch with Joel Kaplan, I’m getting into the elevator on the 27th floor of this absolutely stunning Park Avenue building.  Along for the ride are Adam Jacobs and Robert “rOml” Lefkowitz, two veteran APL programmers from New York, both of whom I’m meeting for the first time.  Joel launches into techno-talk, reminiscing about something or other.  Then he stops and apologizes, he feels he’s being rude.  I don’t know how much of the technical side you understand.

I explain that I worked as an APL programmer for years and then I say… Yes, I did technical work until 2001 when I ran off to join the circus.

Then, with complete and utter sincerity Robert says, Oh really, which one?

That stopped me. What just happened? I wonder.

Joel jumps to the rescue, I think she means it figuratively. And I do.  He looks at me and says, he thought you meant it literally, his wife trains kids for the circus. At this point, the woman standing next to me isn’t even trying to hide that she’s laughing her head off.

Real life circus experience;  and the guy even knows how to juggle!  I’ll bet ten bucks that by the time I get to the principle photography on this bloody film, he’ll be doing that behind the back act he performed for us.

Ah… isn’t life sweet?  A circus act for my film. Literally.

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New York confessions

Picture this: a crowded reception at the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd street in New York City.  I am at an annual celebration and, so you get an idea of the atmosphere: close your eyes and name 3 New York investment institutions.  They’re here.

I’m not very good in crowds, but having attended this event last year, I know a few people.  Happily, this is a friendly gathering.  Not only that, there’s a tremendous amount of excitement about my project; the folks here are almost as keen as I am about this whole thing.

I’m sailing through this trip like a dream.  On Tuesday, I had the opportunity to meet the elusive and busy Joel Kaplan.  One of the top ten scores of the year.  I wanted to meet him because I need someone to talk about the rise and fall of APL in New York in the 80’s.  Joel was right in there.  So, of course, my game is to figure out what kind of film presence he is going to have. What luck!  The guy is a natural.  Confident, funny and expressive.  This is going to be a riot!  I have found the perfect representative, 100%.  And now I can say I know Joel Kaplan. Ha!

Thank you Bubba, for the introduction!

So, here I am, at this fantastic party and I’m doing my best, but still struggling to feel comfortable.  I see Joel, a bit away from the crowd talking with two really smart looking young women. Women! Apart from the crowd!  I want to be over there!

True to my Canadian heritage, I make my way over to Joel and company:  excuse me, I’m sorry, excuse me, please, excuse me, I’m sorry… hi.

Scanning their name tags, all I can read at first is Harvard.  Ok.  That’s not so strange, we’ve infiltrated Harvard before. I explain my mission in code, I’m working on a documentary about this technology.

Joel said, she knows about APL; which should have tipped me off.  But, alas, it didn’t.  The conversation still a bit awkward, I’m trying to decipher through the noise, what  this 20-something woman is asking me, while at the same time wondering how on earth she knows so much about the array language community.

Finally, I reach over and remove the blond curl from her name tag.  It’s Natasha Whitney.  Natasha Whitney! Oh! Oh!

Well.  Then.  I apologize and start again.

Your grandfather, I tell Natasha, introduced my father to Ken Iverson in the 1960’s.  Wow.

Of course I mention the J meeting I attended the night before.  Natasha is curious about how J was started.  And that’s a legendary story which involves her father, Arthur Whitney, so I ask Joel to tell his version. Everyone has a version of this legend, and I’m collecting them.

Then we walk into the crowd to hear her mother, Janet Lustgarten, give the keynote speech for the night; and I say, You know, your mother has the best how-was-J -invented story I’ve heard yet – and you should ask her about it, because, you are in it.

Congratulations Kx for another fine year, and thank you for including me in your celebration.



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Evil plan part 2

Evil Plan Part 2 involves inventing a clever and fun business model to fund this operation and make everyone who is not a part of it jealous.

I think I’m on to something.  The timing is perfect for a collective cybernetic media strategy based on, guess what?  Stories, of course!

Are you lost?  You might be.  Here’s some homework.  Jinnean Barnard illustrates the power of unharnessed social media in A Recipe for Collective Outrage.

Let’s put some reins on this beast, shall we?


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Evil plan part 1

Part One of my Evil plan is to use free blogging, sharing and networking tools to expose and track the discovery process concerning my documentary.  My secondary agenda is to propose that in order  to preserve the history of APL and its descendant languages, some amount of organization from within the array language community is necessary, or it’s not going to happen.

My blog, which is central to this effort, is illustrated in this photo, on the right side of the dotted line.

The dotted line separates what exists now from what I want to build.  I have obscured the details regarding what I want to build; they will be revealed at the appropriate time.


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No plan B

I’m getting ready to travel again.  This time, I’m not revealing my destination.  In fact, I can count the number of people who know where on one hand, and I’m related to most of them.  Mystery!

Not really, I’m lying. No mystery.

Honestly, I desperately need a little time and space to think things through.

My travel routine is pretty typical:  ticket, passport, wallet – check!  Except, the night before…    every. single. time. I. fly…    I experience this period where I feel like I’m a sister from another planet.  At that moment, I panic:  what are you doing? I say to myself…  I can’t believe I’m going.  If you’ve been with me here for a while, you’ve probably begun to detect the pattern.

This time, it has started prematurely and I’m trying to comprehend why.

Maybe because during my last adventure, my cat almost died from some mysterious illness; had I not cut my trip short for an unrelated reason, that would have been it for her.

But no, that’s not it.  And I do think I know what it is:  there is no plan B.

Before I even knew what was happening, I said this out loud to an actual person this week.  I admitted it.

After such a colossal wipe-out this summer, rather than do the rational thing and get rid of plan A, I dumped my Plan B.  In fact I trashed 3 or 4 of them. Now I have none.

I’m totally focused on plan A: my evil plan.

Oh, I did notice that not everyone is comfortable with my use of ‘evil’…  But that’s a segue for another day.

My wise and supportive companion said:  You’re making a commitment.

Yes.

Curses! Damn! RATS! Bloody Hell!

Whew!  That felt good. Now, I’m off to have my run through the woods, because Jedi must be very fit.


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