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History | Chasing Men Who Stare at Arrays - Part 2

Archive for the 'History' Category

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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.



Charles Petzold still has feelings for APL

Oh!  The goose bumps!

It starts at the end of page 4, where Charles Petzold tell’s IT World’s Bob Reselman that he once had a “hot torrid affair” with APL.   Isn’t that lovely? And just for the record, I do agree with Mr Petzold’s stance on coding and the “imaginative act”.

Thank you, “Brad”  (Who I believe is in Ohio, and perhaps a neighbour of my sister.)

Charles Petzold’s technical writing reflects the evolution of computer programming over the last 20 years, particularly in the Microsoft programming environment. He has influenced more than a generation of computer programmers.

Petzold talks about coding, computing, and his love affair with APL July 15, 201 ITWorld


October 16, 2007

Where were you October 16, 2007?




Protected: Shared Roots – Swarthmore

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April 15, 1989

Where were you April 15, 1989?



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November 27, 1966

Where were you November 27, 1966?

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Where were you Nov 27, 1966?



Philadelphia’s secret computers

A documentary about the world’s first computers just arrived in the mail!  I’m excited to tell you about Top Secret Rosies, which was produced and directed by LeAnn Erickson and America’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)

Top Secret Rosies Trailer from LeAnn Erickson on Vimeo.

To set the stage speed dating style, two guys, Eckert and Mauchly met in 1941.  They later worked on a machine called the ENIAC which was developed at the University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with the United States government during WWII.

This collaboration was much like the joint effort between Harvard University, IBM, and the US Navy that was behind Aiken’s Mark series of computers.  Aiken began his endeavour at Harvard in 1937. (photo: Mark I detail)

It was later, in the 1950’s, that  Kenneth E. Iverson went to work with Aiken at Harvard and came up with the ideas behind our APL Array Programmning Language family.

As with all human innovations, advances in computer technology developed concurrently.  Many breakthroughs were made in the United States, primarily driven by the “Try Anything” WWII war time attitude of the government.  (A catchy phase, coined by Erickson, in her film. You really should watch it!).

As it turns out, however, the real first computers were women who did ballistic calculations to support the war effort.  Erickson found four of them still living in the Philadelphia area, close to where she lives. 

Philadelphia!  That’s where IBM moved us in the 1970’s.

Erickson does a great job of drawing out the personal histories of these four woman as their careers unfold against the drama of WWII. As Erickson effectively points out, not only were these women the world’s first computers, but they were later recruited to work on the ENIAC, as the first computer programmers.  Not too many people remember that our field was actually started by women.

It’s not difficult to draw an analogy between Erickson’s WWII story line and the APL Array Programming Language connection with the rise of international financial markets, and of course, the drama of subsequent market crashes.  I’ll be studying this excellent film very closely.

By the way, I gleaned dates and my attitude toward first computers from The first Computers: History And Architecture

AND YOU CAN See the Film in Philadelphia!

Date/Time: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 – 6:30pm
Temple Performing Arts Center (formerly known as the Baptist Temple)
1837 N. Broad Street, Philadelphia PA
The event is free and open to the public but ticket reservations are required.
To make free reservations, call (215)204-8660 or email topsecretrosies@temple.edu

Date/Time: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 – 7:30pm
Bryn Mawr Film Institute
824 W. Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr PA, 610.527.9898
The event is free and open to the public. Tickets will be available at the door.


Give me a break Big Blue!

I am so disappointed with Big Blue’s new 100×100 “film” that I can’t even bear to reference it here.   My first thought was to drone on about their marketing gimmicks, i.e. repeating their brand name 100 times in the guise of a “film”; let’s face it, historically APL folks have given marketing relatively little attention.  Maybe there is something to be learned here, however that would entail studying the damn thing when I barely made it through the first time.  BORING.  No thanks.  There’s a whole new wave of intelligent thoughtful people coming of age who aren’t going to fall for such unadulterated propaganda.  Yes,  THINK, indeed. Even commercials need to be more fun.

Rather than dwell on the negative, I decided to take this opportunity to remind everyone where the idea most probably originated.  You see, back in 2008  Richard P. Gabriel and Guy L. Steele made a wonderful piece about programming languages for the JAOO developers conference called 50 in 50. JAOO is an acronym that stands for “Java and Object Orientation” which is a really just a code word for a programming language family that was hot for a while, let’s say the last decade or two, but seems to be losing some of its Utopian shine recently.  Mr Gabriel and Mr. Steele are extremely well respected in the field of Computer Science.

Oh… pst… APL is featured in it!

I think some real thinking went into this thoughtful piece.  Enjoy.

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Array road show, road tested

I did not expect to find myself celebrating this week; the North American tradition of Thanksgiving never sits very well with me.  My uneasiness stems from the awkward history of European land acquisition on this continent.  It isn’t a very nice story when you get down to the details, and I’m a little too ashamed of this dark past to be in the mood for a big party.  That’s just me.  However, I recognize the importance of being thankful.

So to my surprise, I’m counting my blessing right in step with a large portion of the people right here in North America.


First of all, Professor Ali Miri invited me to speak at Ryerson University’s Undergraduate Computer Science Department awards ceremony last week.  That was, hands down, the most positive experience I’ve had since the beginning of time.  I’m still smiling.  Amazingly, after the event it wasn’t just the professors or the closeted APL aficionados who came out of the woodwork to further the discussion.  The students were engaged!

What? Really!  No shit.

At the very least, I am thrilled that I could keep one 20-something woman in a white Hijab smiling and nodding for 45 minutes while talking about array programming languages…. Wow. Life is good…. It made my day. Heck, it made my month.

Secondly, you might have noticed that we posted a Happy Birthday APL post.  Well, fine readers, you sent that thing flying all over cyberspace and our blogsite received the highest number of visitors yet.  This was totally unexpected to me; the only reason I remembered the date, is because Roger Hui posted a reminder on one of the APL forums.

That, Folks, is the power of cyber team work. You rock!  The Jedi live!

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.


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