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August, 2011 | Chasing Men Who Stare at Arrays

Monthly Archive for August, 2011

Daunting VIP interviews, Cat lady trigonometry and light!

Good cinematography is all about catching proper light will expertly balanced gear.

One of the uncomfortable consequences of the subjects I usually film is that they have a better handle on basic math than I do.  Not that I suck, but often my thinking-through process is slower than theirs.  One can see that internal gears are at work. I noticed a very well controlled twinge of impatience in one instance when I was mentally working out the angle for a light.  In other words, I need to practice a lot before I go out in the field.

Today I’m gearing up for some VIP interviews in the fall, literally.  I haven’t been satisfied my lighting system so I bought a new reflector.

And spent the evening testing it on my trusty models, Nichi and Nanna.

I want to be able to capture a richness of colour in people’s personal environments.

Light and cameras are all about getting the triangle just right.

Testing was going more or less fine, until the reflector came floating down on poor Nichi’s head.  At which point I switched and aimed the sun beams at Nanna.







Docs, housekeeping & the long haul

Organising my research material in Scrivener, a writers programThe big plan for the summer was to get my research 100% completely organised.  All this information is floating around in my head  and it is making a little crazy, to be perfectly honest.

I’m about 80% behind schedule.

Documentary film making is about as opposite to the finance world as you can get.  I’m adjusting to the time frames.

There is progress, but I’ve given up on the predicting side of things.  When will this end?   I don’t know.   And, yes,  I do feel a slight panic when I think about it.   I will, however, eventually figure out how to finish what I’ve started.  It’s a matter of pride.

What you see in the photo above is my new hope.  Scrivener is a writing program a thoughtful Array Jedi Knight passed to me. It’s WORKING!  After spending 2 1/2 years trying to figure out how the hell am I going to keep track of this… this… mess! Scrivener and the filing cabinet I got for Valentines day may do it.  What a huge relief.

These tools are driving a more introspective phase of the project. I’m sifting, evaluating and thinking.  And journaling with more commitment now that I have a way to integrate my daily thoughts with the volumes of material I’m wading through.

On the networking front, I met some people at Hot Docs this year who have already catapulted me light years forward, and they don’t even know it. Howard Fraiberg, for example, insisted that I join Docs, which I did do.  This gives me access to people across Canada who have been slugging it out in the documentary film business for decades.  And I’m privy to their conversations. Awesome.  There’s evidence I’ll live to tell the tale!  And the work! An endless stream of inspiration. This week, I fell in love with A Work in Progress, Frederic Bohbot’s new project. Look!



Jaxon and me on Falkoff’s one liner

The following is adapted from email conversations with Greg Jaxon, a Compiler Engineer from Illinois, USA who studied at Syracuse University.  He is an active contributor to the APL LinkedIn online forum and it turns out he met my dad at Minowbrook in 1980. I needed a little help to conclude my, “Where were you…” miniseries, and Greg graciously stepped up to the plate.

My dad, incidentally, sends his regards from Manitoulin Island.  Though he still controls his farm house with his iPhone, he doesn’t miss the Internet connection. 

To give a little bit of context, I was born in 1965 to very young and idealistic parents who believed that the 60’s really were going to change things.  In 1966, IBM whisked my family off to NY, USA from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  We subsequently moved to the Philadelphia, PA, USA area and ended up living in a small college town called Swarthmore.

Greg Jaxon writes:

One non-programming thing that has always intrigued me about the “APL community” and which has been formative for me politically and personally is our early and frequent use of consensus decision-making.  Perhaps your Dad could start that thread of the story, since (as I understand it) the group at Philadelphia took on this Quaker practice to form the exact definitions in the first APL implementation.

On Day 1 of the X3J10 APL standards effort the topic of voting came up right away. As that work progressed we used a few unorthodox voting schemes to tease out where consensus could be found – a lot of preference ranking and approval threshold measurement. It was clear that the intellectual descendants of the first 6 had the same passion for getting the hive mind to function optimally – to not marginalize the difficult corner opinions, not to cave in to majority rule. I’m convinced this is why APL is so very good – it hasn’t compromised on anything important – instead it found and fixed all the problems until no more could be found.  It’s not just good enough to get by…

The Minnowbrook conferences also echo this emphasis on cooperative agreement. Trade Secrets come out of their closets there – mostly I think out of the sheer joy of meeting other live humans who understand the topics (these are the uber-geeks of an already too geeky computing subculture).

This got my attention.   Swarthmore is in the heartland of Quaker territory.  I was educated by Quakers.  And Greg must have read Adin Falkoff’s, The Design of APL.

I belong to the generation uncomfortably sandwiched between the boomers and their children.  My attitude is formed more from the dress in black, hard core music generation, than the Flower Child generation but I still have strong ties to the Quakers and have remained connected to them up here in Canada.   To my good fortune, I started programming APL as a teen and unlike many of my peers, I’ve had a career from the get-go.  But still, the irreverence of my generation stuck.  In other words, I’m a little cynical.

The first time I read Adin Falkoff’s, The Design of APL, the line about Quaker Consensus jumped right out of the text.  (like: WHAT?  Where the hell does that come from? Consensus? At IBM?) And as I move through this project, I am learning a lot more about business, I have been chipping away at 50+ years of Computer History, and naturally, my gaze falls upon the history of IBM.  Which is also American corporate history.  And patent history.  An intellectual property law history.  I’m still pondering… What on earth is a reference to Quaker process doing in an IBM publication?

Greg responds:

My history lesson on this: Penn was a Flower Child of a famous military officer; he joined the Quakers who were emphatically not the Church of England, nor easily governed by any hierarchical law. Through consensus they sought God’s natural Laws for their community. Penn acquired his North American woods to settle the King’s debt to his late father. But by the time he got with the English aristocracy programme, his Woods were full of Quaker hippies.

For many years he sent governors and magistrates and others to try to collect rents or taxes, and the resident Friends politely declined to impose these on themselves. So your Quakers were the original American libertarians struggling to understand God’s intention for human Law.

To find Harvard mathematicians (arguably in search of much the same kind of revelation) adopt this practice, is interesting.  To see it grow into APL, itself a quaint minority language with an uncannily natural place near the heart of Computer Science’s new fascination with parallel execution models, cooperating independent processes, and clean data abstraction,  … is perhaps a recurrent story in the history of ideas. Your Dad’s “shared variables” ideas combine “message passing” with “shared memory” approaches to parallelism, a synthesis sorely missing in modern parallel languages.

There… my contribution to a historical explanation, I can cite “Conceived in Liberty” by historian Murray Rothbard for this summary of the Quaker colonies.

Wow.  Now THAT gives me a lot to think about.  On this crazy filmmaking journey, I’m paying careful attention to the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, our culture and “progress”.  And by we, I also mean people, not just us.

And, sadly, this is the one year anniversary of Adin Falkoff’s death, the man who wrote those words about Quaker Consensus at IBM in 1973.


August 6th, 1991 – Guest Ken Lettow

Editor’s note: The first time I met Ken Lettow face to face was when he showed up at a meet-up for the film in NYC with a stack of Computer History books.  He brought them to share with unbridled enthusiasm.  Right on! He even offered to let me borrow them take them home to Canada!  Then and there, I knew: Here’s a Jedi Knight! 

– Catherine

Where were you, August 6th, 1991?

Twenty years ago today, the 1991 APL Conference was in full swing at Stanford University in Palo Alto California. Nearly 400 APL’ers from around the world attended, making it one of the most well attended APL conferences in history.

For the array language community, excitement ran high for a variety of reasons. First, it was the 25th anniversary of APL. Second, a large Russian contingent was in attendance. A few Russians gave APL talks, while others began planning for the APL conference to be held in St. Petersburg the following year. This was two years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The J programming language also played a large part in the conference, just 14 months after its introduction to the world by Ken Iverson and Roger Hui at a Toronto APL SIG meeting.

Many of the immortal figures in the array language community presented papers on J. Donald McIntyre presented his talk called Mastering J, while Ken Iverson, Roger Hui and Eugene McDonnell gave a presentation on Tacit Definition. Roger Hui and Bob Bernecky gave a talk on Gerunds and Representations, and Ed Cherlin gave the presentation Pure functions in APL and J.

IMHO, the most interesting and funny presentation was the panel, “Is J a dialect of APL?” I say interesting, because I think it reveals some of the attitudes of the APL community towards J at the time, and funny, because the defenders of J made it so.

In its early days, J seemed to cause some level of consternation in the APL community. Many APL’ers seemed downright disturbed that Ken Iverson invented a new language that eschewed many of the things they had grown to love about APL (the lovely APL symbols etc.).

Jonathan Barman and Anthony Camacho’s reports on this panel (see Vector Vol. 8, No. 2, pgs. 76-80) provides an entertaining account of the speakers’ comments:

Eugene McDonnell – The question (“Is J a dialect of APL?”) is irrelevant. Surely proponents of J would not be thrown out of the APL community.

Phil Benkard – This is a political decision, but political decisions affect our lives. Many aspects of J are different from APL. Functions are referred to as Verbs, box is different from nesting, hook and fork are new in J, and strand notation is different. No formal decision can be made today, but what political decision should be made?

Joey Tuttle – Who cares if J and APL are different? Hopefully new insights will come from J and SAX which will enhance APL.

Richard Nabavi – …The academic view of a language is different from the commercial view, and sometimes the best solution does not win…The main objective should be to reduce the dialects of APL so that it can be promoted to a wide audience, and can be standardized. Will there be a J92 conference?

The first J conference was J96 with 123 attendees and 12 papers presented [Remembering Ken Iverson].

Bob Bernecky – APL and J ideas need to be disseminated to the larger world of computing, and it does not matter which language is used. The character set inhibits APL. J is more compilable that APL, and has a simpler syntax. The semantics of J are totally regular. Several mistakes were made in APL, and J is a new start where these mistakes have been rectified. J is not a dialect of APL, it is a functional language.

Garth Foster – Don McIntyre took a long time to learn J. Perhaps J is a successor of APL, but may not be a success.

J was introduced 14 months prior. What constitutes “a long time”?

Phil Benkard – The APL2 syntax is simple, and the syntax and semantics are separated. There were mistakes in APL. It was disappointing that there was nobody present at the last standards meeting representing the Sharp APL or J community.

Ed Cherlin – It is interesting that we are discussing the question at all. Why is this the one topic we want to argue about? Papers on J have been accepted at this conference and will continue to be accepted.

Bob Bernecky – Surely APL’ers will not drum out the J community. The popularity of APL and J will only increase if we all aim to publish articles in the big circulation magazines and journals.

Donald McIntyre – APL conferences without Iverson would be like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.

Now one that makes me smile:

Ken Iverson – The dictionary of J contains an introductory comment that J is a dialect of APL, so in a sense the whole debate is Ken’s fault! He is flattered to think that he has created a new language.

All in all, a pretty interesting day in array language history.



August 17, 2010

Where were you August 17, 2010?




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