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Quakers | Chasing Men Who Stare at Arrays

Archive for the 'Quakers' 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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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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