Archive for the 'CS Roots' Category

J, July and Solidarity

I’d like to start today by drawing your attention to what promises to be the APL Array Language Family event of the year – The J Community/Conference 2012 right here in Toronto, this July 23 & 24, 2012.  If you want to rub shoulders with Array Language Rock Stars, this is the conference to attend.

J conference July 23/24, 2012

Eric Iverson 2012

J Conference planning w/ Eric Iverson 2012

Further, 2012 is a special year because it is the 5oth anniversary of the publication of Dr. Kenneth Iverson’s seminal text A Programming Language which ultimately lead to his Turing Award, the “nobel prize of Computing”.  In honour of this important milestone, Eric Iverson and Liz Giddens, the J conference organizer, have asked that I let you know that you are specially invited attend the The J Conference Banquet to celebrate the larger legacy of Ken and his colleagues, even if you choose not to attend the conference. (Note: the early bird ticket price is up now, so I encourage you to get your ticket, while there are still tickets available).

What’s else is happening?

2011 dished out a little more than I could handle but that’s to be expected.  This is, however, why we’ve been so quiet this year on the blog. We’re in the back room, pushing things along quietly…  For example, the interview with Dr. Fred Brooks has been transcribed and the transcriptions are now under review by our subject matter experts.

I also applied for a fellowship grant from the ACM. I didn’t win the fellowship, however the application process connected me with the ACM History group.  And in spite of my extremely awkward and painful debut where I made the biggest public email faux pas I have ever made, the group is warm and welcoming.   Nathan Ensmenger, as one example, is generously sharing some of his articles with me. He has developed an interesting analysis of how computer programming transformed into a male dominated profession, when it didn’t start out this way.   I am writing about this documentary in the context of my own programming career for the ACM-W newsletter which is why I am looking at the research on gender in computing.

As a side note, working on this article is making me miss programming, which is a bit of a surprise.

Nathan Ensmenger also has an interest in film and contributed to Tops Secret Rosies, a documentary film about the women who did the ballistics calculations during WWI and were recruited to program the ENIAC – the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer  in the 1940’2.  This experience gives him a special appreciation of the challenge set before us here with this documentary – how does one visualize an abstract construct like a computer programming language? 

This is just a taste of what’s going on behind the scenes.  Keep the faith. I hope to see everyone in July, if not sooner.


The Origins of APL – 1974

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


It’s APL’s Birthday! Or is it?

Last year we discovered that the first APL workspace was saved November 27, 1966 at 18.53.59. (GMT); the excitement of this momentous event pulling the guys away from home and the American Thanksgiving holiday.  Today we know that this evidence isn’t 100% the truth…  it’s more like 99.7% truth…  According to an eyewitness account from my dad history has been slightly amended… if only by a few seconds!

Should today be APL’s official birthday?

It just so happens that 2012 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of that one little book, “A Programming Language“. THE one little book, that Harvard deemed too small to launch its author, Kenneth E. Iverson into a tenure track position.  Harvard sent Ken packing! It wasn’t until much later that Ken’s work and this one little book was recognized by the world,  winning the Turing Award which is recognized as the “highest distinction in Computer science” and the “Nobel Prize of computing“.

The moral of this story?

Do it right and do it well.  Happy Birthday APL!


Many thanks to Rick Procter who reminded me about the significance of 2012 earlier this fall.



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.


Array road show, road tested

I did not expect to find myself celebrating this week; the North American tradition of Thanksgiving never sits very well with me.  My uneasiness stems from the awkward history of European land acquisition on this continent.  It isn’t a very nice story when you get down to the details, and I’m a little too ashamed of this dark past to be in the mood for a big party.  That’s just me.  However, I recognize the importance of being thankful.

So to my surprise, I’m counting my blessing right in step with a large portion of the people right here in North America.


First of all, Professor Ali Miri invited me to speak at Ryerson University’s Undergraduate Computer Science Department awards ceremony last week.  That was, hands down, the most positive experience I’ve had since the beginning of time.  I’m still smiling.  Amazingly, after the event it wasn’t just the professors or the closeted APL aficionados who came out of the woodwork to further the discussion.  The students were engaged!

What? Really!  No shit.

At the very least, I am thrilled that I could keep one 20-something woman in a white Hijab smiling and nodding for 45 minutes while talking about array programming languages…. Wow. Life is good…. It made my day. Heck, it made my month.

Secondly, you might have noticed that we posted a Happy Birthday APL post.  Well, fine readers, you sent that thing flying all over cyberspace and our blogsite received the highest number of visitors yet.  This was totally unexpected to me; the only reason I remembered the date, is because Roger Hui posted a reminder on one of the APL forums.

That, Folks, is the power of cyber team work. You rock!  The Jedi live!

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.


Predictions from the past

In 1998, Dennis E. Shasha and Cathy A. Lazere wrote a book called  Out of Their Minds: The Lives and Discoveries of 15 Great Computer Scientists. This book has become my most useful guide and reference.  In the postscript, Shasha and Lazere make some predictions about the upcoming 25 years.  As we are almost half way to the 25 year mark right about now, I’ve been giving their predictions some thought.  In particular, I’m contemplating three points with respect to the Array Processing Language family, namely:

Specialized languages that can meld components written in different languages will become popular (page 252).

Software design that will make parallel processors behave like a single very fast and very reliable computer presents… [a great challenge] (page 250).

… [New] programming languages will always catch people’s attention.  But like beautiful images, the innovative and influential ones will remain rare (page 251).

I’m also getting ready to speak at Ryerson University on Thursday at the Undergraduate Computer Science Program awards ceremony!  All the while, praying to the technology gods to please help me be entertaining, smart and a worthy array language ambassador to the next generation of Computer Scientists.


Just like a rock star!

There is nothing on this planet that transports me more quickly to the early APL days than the sound of Jim Brown’s voice.  I think I can speak for more than myself when I say, as children, we loved Jim! I think I have picture of a pack of us as wild-eyed munchkins assaulting the poor man in some lake, most probably in the state of New York.

So when I found this little clip on the APL97 video tapes, I couldn’t resist sharing. Enjoy. A minute and a half is all there was…


Truth, APL and the Dijkstra problem

Never underestimate the power of a tag line!

In June of 1975, Edsger W. Dijkstra wrote an essay called:  How do we tell truths that might hurt? Which is characterized as a series of aphorisms about computer programming languages, one of which is APL.

Essentially, Dijkstra wrote a bunch of catchy, satirical critiques about the programming languages of the day.  He prefaces this work by mentioning a lack of rigorous criticism in the computing community, which I haven’t experienced, but I believe, because it’s backed up by some of Dennis Shasha’s work. So, I suspect that as an artifact of its time, this work could have galvanized  computer scientists to shape up.

And then time marches on…

I haven’t done an official count, but my initial investigations indicate that Dijkstra’s 1975 quip against APL is the most frequently used quote about APL in cyberspace to this day.

Do you know what this means? Dijkstra is the author of APL’s most famous tag line. And that was 35 years ago. And it doesn’t appear as though he liked APL very much.

Now, there’s something to think about.


Alan Perlis and APL is More Like French

It’s interesting trolling the programming language forums where APL is sometimes referred to with unwarranted derision and in the past tense.  I actually start worrying that I am blowing someone’s cover when I say:  Wow,  still the underdog language out there silently kicking ass.

And I have to admit, I find the vehemence is just weird.  Maybe Ken peed on someone’s cornflakes and started some strange feud a long long long time ago, but that’s an almost impossible image on conjure up. I don’t get it.  Anyway…

What I’m winding up to here, is that there have been moments of validation and triumph all along this bumpy path, and Yale University’s Alan Perlis 1978 talk Almost Perfect Artifacts Improve in Small Ways: APL is more French than English represents  one of those moments.

I first learned about Alan Perlis from Dave Thomas, who spoke at a conference in Princeton NJ in 2009.  Thomas mentioned that in this 1978 talk, Alan Perlis talked about idioms in APL, and that these idioms actually were the first design patterns.

It turns out that Perlis also used APL to teach the introductory computer science course,  CPSC 221, at Yale around 1976-1984.

Well, now I have the audio tape of that 1978 talk by Alan Perlis.  Afraid playing it will destroy it, and dying to hear it,  I’m sending it off to the farm where my Dad will carefully digitize it.

I gotta say, it’s awesome holding that tape in my hands.


Amazing Grace on L*******n!

If I had to pick one person on earth to count on, Roger Hui would be in my top 10 list.  For sure.   110% reliable. And will you just look what a gem he found!  Wow I hope this gets to stay in the public domain!

In case you’re new to this blog, I received Grace Hopper’s biography ohhhhh, way back in October, 2009. In fact, if you type ‘grace’ in the search box to your right, you’ll find a couple of posts about one of the best biographies I ever read. 

In writing this, my inner voice says, hmmm…. it must easier to be candid and honest when everyone is dead. One wouldn’t need to dance around all those bits that make us human and interesting.  My father, incidentally, now prefaces his BEST emails with ‘This is NOT for your blog’.

And the photo, by the way,  is of the Mark I… I went to visit it in Boston last year (hem… try ‘Boston’ in the search box)


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