Archive for the 'IBM' Category

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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

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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Happy Birthday APL!

1 Cleanspace is from APL2, courtesy of Jon McGrew.



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


The time space continuum

Running in High Park this evening, I was contemplating what more to say about The Design of Design now that I am about 1/3 of the way through.

Rather than calculating that number, I’m visually estimating it, by the way.

Brooks claims that most programmers are visual/spacial thinkers.  Which is part of his larger thesis about modeling a software design process, but that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Right around here in the park, where I shot this photo earlier this summer, it struck me. I love the way Brooks is able to sprinkle anecdotes about working on the architecture for IBM’s System/360 45 years ago with insightful analysis of modern design practices. This guy has seen it all.

And hey! That’s what I have to do. Or some Catherine tempered approximation.

And it’s not just me who thinks this is important.  Wired interviewed him this summer, where, incidentally, he confessed to becoming interested in computers in the 1940’s because he wanted to index his maps.

Now we’re all interested in indexing maps… And guess who I’m getting myself ready to call.


The Design of Design

This is how Friday went down:

I’m running late, tearing through the house in a where the heck is my bag, sort of way, and then… up pulls the UPS truck.

My books!

Late or not, my Amazon instinct kicks in… luckily the boxes are perfectly designed, they rip open with no struggle at all.  It’s Fred Brook’s new book, of course, The Design of Design. I drop the packaging and immediately flip to the People Index and search for Iverson (p. 72, 124 & 378). Wow.  Twice Brooks juxtaposes Ken Iverson with Google’s Marissa Mayer.  I make a mental note to ask Matt & Susan Gorbet if they know her.

Then I repeat with the subject index and look up APL (p. 72, 124, 141 348). They’re different.  Why?

Well, don’t you know it,  I find an example of not elegant design (pp 141-142) that echos a similar criticism made by Richard Bookstaber in A Demon of Our Own Design. Man oh man are we easy targets! And I’m completely floored – because I believe it is an urban myth.  Not so much that it has never happened, but I don’t believe it has been significant.  But, I guess it makes a good anecdote.  AND sorry folks, I’m not even going to say it because I don’t want to perpetuate its existence in cyberspace.  If you’re burning to know, buy the books!

And just to be extra clear, this is my opinion. And Fred Brooks rocks, so I’m… well… I guess I’m in the dog house again.

Bread Crumbs

In the early 1960’s, Brooks led the IBM System/360 hardware and software project which gave birth to a family of machines with interchangeable software that lead to IBM’s domination of the computer industry for the next 25 years.

Out of Their Minds page 158

Fred Brooks and Ken Iverson were together at Harvard in the 1950’s.   Iverson was hired by IBM in 1960 to develop his special mathematical notation into a programming language for the IBM/360.  And that’s how APL and its family of Array Processing Languages were born.

So…  Guys… I have the best job in the world. It’s terrible form to boast but I just can’t help myself today. After a difficult and trying summer not one, but a few people from the APL Array Language community have stepped up to steady my ship and blow some wind in my sails.  And this feels great.

We rock on!


Eugene McDonnell

Eugene McDonnell and Larry Breed, Palo Alto May 2009

Eugene McDonnell & Larry Breed, Palo Alto May 2009

Eugene Edward McDonnell

(October 18, 1926 – August 17, 2010) was a Computer Science pioneer and long-time contributor to the programming languages APL and J….

Studying the poems of Robert Frost, he noticed that the first two poems in Frost’s book West Running Brook, “Spring Pools” and “The Freedom of the Moon”, not only discuss reflecting, but the rhyme schemes of the two reflect each other: aabcbc and cbcbaa….

His first work at IBM was in the design of IBM’s first Time-Sharing system, which became a very early host to IVSYS, a predecessor of APL. In 1968 he became a colleague of Ken Iverson, used Iverson notation before APL was named, and was active in the very earliest days of APL…


Eugene - APL Bug Meeting May 2009

Eugene - APL Bug Meeting May 2009

Roger Hui’s Eulogy

Jeffrey Shallit’s Eulogy

Eugene’s Memorial site

Condolences, from me and my family.

– Catherine


Photons! The Speed of Light!

IBM Video released in March 2010 – but it’s still really cool!


Resurgence of Parallelism

Who’s your top “information” pioneer? I voted for Ken Iverson, of course.  And also, of course, I arrived at the polling station through a winding route.

For those of you who don’t know me, if I’ve mastered anything in this life, it’s the art of wandering.

So, I’m reading this article that I have on actual paper.  I’m fairly certain it was given to me by Alex Bochannek at the Computer History Museum when I was down there last year.  I’m a little confused by its title, but the ACM published it in 1981* and I’m reading it because I’m getting ready to talk some more with Adin Falkoff.  I bought one of those phone recording things, so we’ll see how that goes.

So, I went to sleep last night having just read that:

The first use of the Language [APL] to describe a complete computing system was begun in early 1962 when Falkoff discussed with Dr. W.C. Carter his work in the standardization of the instruction set for the machines that were to become the IBM Systems/360 family.  Falkoff agreed to undertake a formal description of the machine language, largely as a vehicle for demonstrating how parallel processes could be rigorously represented.

Page 663

My Translation for the folks who just can’t swallow that quote: Adin Falkoff used APL to describe parallel processes, an important problem in computing that people are still working on today – back in 1962!

So, of course I get all excited when I read my rss feeds this morning and notice the Lambda the Ultimate folks are discussing an article the ACM just published about the  Resurgence of Parallelism.

We gotta watch those ACM guys, though.  They put out an article about the history of parallelism that mentions IBM’s System/360, Haskell, disruptive innovation – AND NOT US?  Anyway, this is what got me surfing about APL & Parallelism, and lo; I get to vote for Ken as my favourite information pioneer.

And I’m quite confident there’s a Jedi Knight among us who can work up and post a clever comment for those ACM guys. Go to: Resurgence of Parallelism.

*It’s called APL Session and credits Chairmen: JAN Lee; Speaker Kenneth E. Iverson; Discussant: Frederick Brooks and then has a secondary title: Paper: The Evolution of APL, Adin D. Falkoff;Kenneth E Iverson. ISBN 0-12-745040-8.


IBM and the MUPPETS!

This is how it goes on Tuesdays.

At 4pm I drink 15 cups of coffee.

Then, I head over to the University of Toronto, go for a swim and settle down for three hours of a lecture on some Accounting subject.  Right now, it’s Management Accounting.  Focused on manufacturing, because that’s “the most complicated”.  Really this means Cost Accounting.  It’s getting more interesting as my teacher weens himself of PowerPoint…. Slowly.

Then I come home.  Last week this was EASY.  I just chipped away at the CanWest/Hot Docs development funding application for this project until I dropped.  This week… Humm dee dumm dumm daaaaa….

Now what?  Ali is out with friends, so there is no taunting him! Damn.

After a glass of ginger wine, I get the brilliant idea to install the Facebook “like” button from FileMobile’s Steve Hulford.  Maybe you noticed it at the bottom of this post (hint hint).

Further shenanigans uncovered a GREAT post made by my friend, George Spofford in Facebook: IBM and the Muppets – NO KIDDING

My night is complete.  Cyberspace rules.

I think maybe that’s the wine talking.


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