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!
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.