Archive for the 'History' Category

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Happy Birthday APL!

1 Cleanspace is from APL2, courtesy of Jon McGrew.


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.


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.


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.


Just like a rock star!

There is nothing on this planet that transports me more quickly to the early APL days than the sound of Jim Brown’s voice.  I think I can speak for more than myself when I say, as children, we loved Jim! I think I have picture of a pack of us as wild-eyed munchkins assaulting the poor man in some lake, most probably in the state of New York.

So when I found this little clip on the APL97 video tapes, I couldn’t resist sharing. Enjoy. A minute and a half is all there was…


Where there’s light…

One of my most beloved programming mentors, who is very shy and might just kill me if I put his name here, once told me a parable about a drunk man looking for his lost key under a streetlight.  The punch line, of course, is that the drunk lost his key in a dark alley, however, he’s looking for it under this particular street light because this is where he can see.

The moral of the story is that we all naturally tend to look where we can see.  Therefore, if you want to find your key, you need to be fearless in dark alleys and you must carry a very strong light saber in your back pocket.  And it certainly helps to travel in packs (or prides).

Next week is a big one for all of us:  Gitte and Morten are in North America, Minnowbrook kicks off another season, and winter is easing into Canada…  This morning I’ve been rewriting history a little, correcting typos and removing the names of potential collaborators announced too soon.  And so, this project moves along.

The ironic thing is that these days, when I feel more lost than ever in this endeavor,  Barry, my Executive Producer, assures me everything is really starting to come together.  Thank goodness, someone has vision.

And what never ceases to amaze me is the growing number of views for The Origins of APL – 1974.  The current count is 4,134!  And the excerpts from Ken Iverson’s memorial in Toronto is at 575 views!

That’s more than enough to keep me going.

For those of you invited to Minnowbrook this week, a toast:  May the force be with you.


York, MCM70 & the angst of being there first

Since April, Uncle Bob has been prodding me to venture north, to York University to meet a true blue APL scholar, Zbigniew Stachniak.  So, on Tuesday, I finally did.

It turns out York has a lot of reasons to be interested in APL.  They wrote one, for starters.

Stachniak’s research includes a careful analysis of the successes and ultimate failure of MCM, a Canadian company who came out with the first personal computer in the 1970’s which happened to run APL.  As Stachniak demonstrates, being first, especially when it comes to innovation in technology, is hard and MCM went bankrupt in the 1980’s.

York houses a Computer History Museum which is shepherded by  Stachniak and Scott M. Campbell from the University of Waterloo, whom I’ve put on my radar to track down.

Stachniak is now turning his gaze towards I.P.Sharp and is particularly interested in the “APL community’s” views and attitudes towards micro computing in the 1970’s.

The more I learn about us, the less comfortable I am in generalizing about views, but that’s a puzzle for another day.

In any case, he has a boatload of photos inherited from the folks at Soliton, so I had the pleasure of seeing many of the old guard in their youth, which is, quite frankly how I remember everyone anyway.

Oh, and he’s a little reluctant to show me some of the photos.  Just when I was beginning to fear there would be no competing with the sex, drugs and rock and roll featured in The Social Network!

But seriously, Stachniak was able to interview Ken twice before he died and for this, he deserves a medal.

Thank goodness someone was thinking.


Truth, APL and the Dijkstra problem

Never underestimate the power of a tag line!

In June of 1975, Edsger W. Dijkstra wrote an essay called:  How do we tell truths that might hurt? Which is characterized as a series of aphorisms about computer programming languages, one of which is APL.

Essentially, Dijkstra wrote a bunch of catchy, satirical critiques about the programming languages of the day.  He prefaces this work by mentioning a lack of rigorous criticism in the computing community, which I haven’t experienced, but I believe, because it’s backed up by some of Dennis Shasha’s work. So, I suspect that as an artifact of its time, this work could have galvanized  computer scientists to shape up.

And then time marches on…

I haven’t done an official count, but my initial investigations indicate that Dijkstra’s 1975 quip against APL is the most frequently used quote about APL in cyberspace to this day.

Do you know what this means? Dijkstra is the author of APL’s most famous tag line. And that was 35 years ago. And it doesn’t appear as though he liked APL very much.

Now, there’s something to think about.


Alan Perlis and APL is More Like French

It’s interesting trolling the programming language forums where APL is sometimes referred to with unwarranted derision and in the past tense.  I actually start worrying that I am blowing someone’s cover when I say:  Wow,  still the underdog language out there silently kicking ass.

And I have to admit, I find the vehemence is just weird.  Maybe Ken peed on someone’s cornflakes and started some strange feud a long long long time ago, but that’s an almost impossible image on conjure up. I don’t get it.  Anyway…

What I’m winding up to here, is that there have been moments of validation and triumph all along this bumpy path, and Yale University’s Alan Perlis 1978 talk Almost Perfect Artifacts Improve in Small Ways: APL is more French than English represents  one of those moments.

I first learned about Alan Perlis from Dave Thomas, who spoke at a conference in Princeton NJ in 2009.  Thomas mentioned that in this 1978 talk, Alan Perlis talked about idioms in APL, and that these idioms actually were the first design patterns.

It turns out that Perlis also used APL to teach the introductory computer science course,  CPSC 221, at Yale around 1976-1984.

Well, now I have the audio tape of that 1978 talk by Alan Perlis.  Afraid playing it will destroy it, and dying to hear it,  I’m sending it off to the farm where my Dad will carefully digitize it.

I gotta say, it’s awesome holding that tape in my hands.



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


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