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Palo Alto | Chasing Men Who Stare at Arrays

Archive for the 'Palo Alto' Category

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.



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


Home in Toronto & Moving Forward

I’m happy to be home and relaxed after a restful long weekend (Queen Victoria day in Canada – GBTQ).  I’m finishing up a video I owe which is long overdue.  I have promised to write up an account of the meeting with the Bay Area APL Association for the Vetor Blog – so I won’t get into that just now.

My trip to California was wonderful.  In between the presentation and taping sessions, I was privy to some pretty interesting gossip and personal reflections about relationships between fathers and daughters.  I expect that as I am talking to a preponderance of men, many of whom have daughters, this will be a re-occurring theme.  As for the gossip… well, now.  What should I do with this?

And speaking of fathers…

My father received a call from Adin Falkoff on Friday.   And even though he caught me in a compormising moment when he called to pass on the news, I was very happy to hear about all it.

Adin, it turns out,  learned about the film on the grapevine, and called to say he was excited by the idea.  Thanks, folks.  Good work!

And if you’re paying attention to Vetor’s blog, you already know about the new book, Masterminds of Programming which features Adin on the creation of APL.

As a side note…

The readership of this blog is now growing beyond friends and family, and people are asking, “Who are you to be making this film, anyway?” so I suppose it’s time to post some biographical details.  I’ve added this to my “to-do’s”.

As for forward momentum…

Today I put in a call to an award winning Canadian Animation artist and film producer.  I hope he returns my call.  I have met him casually so… fingers crossed.   So, guess what I’m thinking about to spice up this film?

I am also assembling the team.  I have high hopes for Iris, a camera woman who called out of the blue as I was running out the door to Palo Alto.   Many of you will remember Maria Nunes from the IPSA days, when we were operators together in the 1980’s, she’s now a video editor extraordinaire who also edits for CBC News.

I am also organising a ring of international spies.  Already there are agents in Europe & the USA.  If you think you are cut out for super secret missions, send me a note.  One can never have too many collaborators.

I’ve finally touched base with Roger Hui and he promised to drown me in photos of his Kids at BAPL – Yay!

Take care, everyone.  I completely appreciate the notes and references and contact info and anecdotes and moral support and co-operation from everyone.  This is why I love this community.

And remember – Nerds Rock.  We’re becoming cool, even.   Fancy that!


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