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IBM | Chasing Men Who Stare at Arrays

Archive for the 'IBM' Category

CHM Honours Falkoff’s Birthday

Incidentally, Mr. Adin Falkoff’s entry in the CHM’s This Day in History was added a few years ago.  It is extra fun to see the legendary collaborators Falkoff and Iverson recognized together with birthdays two days apart.  My apologies for not posting this yesterday!

December 19. 1921

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My hero! Shustek, APL/360 & 10 Years Later

It took Len Shustek, chairman of the board of trustees of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, 10 years to get permission from IBM to publish the APL/360 source code.  Not only has he gone and done it, he’s also written a wonderful companion explanatory essay to go along with its publication. Please see: The APL Programming Language Source Code

Congratulations, Len!  Thank you for your persistence.

(Special thanks to the ever vigilant Christian Langreiter for scooping this story)

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Brooks on Iverson

In October of 2011, Dr Fred Brooks agreed to talk to me about when he and Dr Kenneth E Iverson, the father of APL, shared an office at Harvard University in the 1950s.  So, I went to Chapel Hill in North Carolina, USA to speak with him.

Professor Dr Jan Prins, also from The University of North Carolina, assisted with the interview and he thought it would be interesting to know what it was like for Dr Iverson to receive the Turing award in 1979, 17 years after the publication of A Programming Language.  Here is the answer:

– corrected (Thank you Roger.  Again. )

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Titor’s time travel & the IBM 5100

The year is 2036. Decades after the global nuclear war, an American soldier named John Titor is assigned to travel back to 1975 and retrieve an IBM 5100 computer. During this mission, John makes an unexpected stop in 2000 “for personal reasons.” He connects with his family — and his 2-year-old self! And he interacts online with a group of time travel enthusiasts, sharing information about the future and a detailed description of how his time machine works.

Please IGNITE ‘How to Build a Time Machine’!  Now is the time!!! Seven days left!

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The Origins of APL – 1974

I shared this video on Myspace on July 20, 2009 where it has received 4604 views as of today.

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Kenneth E Iverson – Toronto Memorial November 18, 2004

Well, hot dang! Youtube decided I get more time.  They sent me a note last week: Congratulations! You can upload videos longer than 15 mins.  This is GREAT news and I’m celebrating by uploading the synopsis of Ken Iverson’s Toronto memorial service I made back in 2004 when I first fell in love with my video camera.
 

 

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Lettow on Brooks honouring the 90th anniversary of KEI’s birth

As they say in rock and roll, “You can’t always get what you want… but you just might find you get what you need…”

When Ken Lettow asked me if he could swing down to North Carolina for my interview with Professor Fred Brooks,  I answered with a resounding and emphatic, “NO!”

You gotta love Ken.  Persistence is his middle name.  He then proceeded to convince me that he would not bring havoc to my film set and in fact, he would make himself useful.  And a short training session later…   I have a  sound engineer and set photographer all in one enthusiastic bundle  of a subject matter expertise.   In short, a much appreciated helping hand.

In honour of the 90th anniversary of Ken Iverson’s birth Ken Lettow sent out a wonderful account of our adventure to North Carolina to the J-Chat forum:

As [KEI and Prof Brooks] developed course material for the class,  Ken began to formalize the notation that came to be known as APL, the “the blackboard version” as Eugene McDonnell once so aptly put it.  Their collaboration ultimately resulted in the publication of two books, Ken Iverson’s “A Programming Language”,  in 1962 and “Automatic Data Processing” by Iverson and Brooks, published in 1963.  They also became lifelong friends during this period.

You can read Ken’s  full text here.  He’s also posted a great set of photos.

Happy holidays everyone.  May the Force be with you always.

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Country thievery and small arrays

Ken Iverson's copy of ALGOL 68

Klout reminds me this morning that my “influence”  has dropped 50%.  I guess this is what happens when one doesn’t participate in cyberspace these days, you get an automated email: “Hey!  YOU’RE not the cool kid!” Yikes.

The truth is I’m so busy, I can’t believe it. I got into that Statistics class I was hoping to avoid because last week it was full.  It’s still full, but now with me in it.  Damn. That’s good.  Right?

Fortunately, I had the foresight to hike up to Manitoulin Island to visit my dad on his new farm before it all began. The farm is not actually new, he moved up there two years ago, but this was my first venture.  If you’re wondering why it took me so long look at the map.

So, while I was there, dad worked.  I did nothing except wander around and photograph small and wild things.  And try to capture the moon and clouds. And poke around in his private business.  I brought back his journals from 1966 to 1977 among other bits and bobs.  And it turns out that my dad is perhaps a bit of a book thief, so I now own a couple books which previously graced the libraries of Ken Iverson and Adin Falkoff.

Incidentally, Sage, the infamous cat in the box loves country life and slept at my feet while I was visiting.

Now it’s back to the rate race.  Hey! Up my Klout!  I wanna be the cool kid again!

(Just kidding. I know it’s not Klout that makes me cool.  To borrow from Manuel Simone, it’s intellectual badassness.)

 

 

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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.

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America!

It took forever to get through immigration and I’m having a really bad hair day (sorry Monica) – BUT AMERICA HERE I AM.

You can follow this little story on twitter #arrayStories

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