Programmers At Work

March 27, 2008

Gary Kildall 1986-2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — sml @ 11:38 pm

“It’s fun sitting at a terminal and letting the code flow.”

“My pace varies during the development of the program. At some points the code gets explosive and I have everything inside my brain at one time; all the variable names and how they relate to one another, where the pointers start and where they end, disk access, et cetera. All sorts of things go on in my brain that I can’t put on paper simply because I’m always changing them.”

“The only time I don’t want to come back is when the code explodes. “

“I also think programming is very much a religious experience for a lot of people.”

Gary Kildall was a brilliant programmer who worked hard and played hard. As evidence of his bright outlook he originally named his company  “Intergalactic Digital Research” and after he sold the company , he moved to Austin, Texas and lived the good life, flying, boating, and collecting sports cars.

Gary Kildall died in July 1994 in Monterey at the age of 52. The computer media, with a few small exceptions, ignored his passing. The circumstances of his death are somewhat mysterious and covered in this excellent article on wikipedia.  He is buried in Seattle where he grew up.

Gary was the first person to interface a disk system to a microcomputer and create an operating system for the personal computer. He changed what had previously been a circuit designed for process control applications into a fully functional computer. This enabled microcomputers to perform tasks previously done only on minicomputers and mainframes. The world changed dramatically because of his work.

The full interview is posted at the right. It was a wonderful conversation about how Gary got into the code flow.

March 10, 2008

John Warnock 1986-2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — sml @ 5:19 pm

Today I’ve posted the interview I did for Programmers at Work in 1986 with John Warnock, founder of Adobe. It’s worth noting his is one of the few companies from 1986 that still remains an independent, thriving entity today. And it’s striking to me because of all the individuals I interviewed back then, John Warnock had far more of the professorial aire about him than a “business mogul” bent. He was a pure and focused spirit with an obvious dedication and love for his pioneering pursuit of making the pc and its peripheral into a powerful and elegant typesetting and publishing tool. Quite simply, Warnock’s invention of Postscript revolutionized the pc and publishing industries.

Warnock remains fixed in my memory as an incredible warm, kind, thoughtful person. He was clear and articulate in his vision and as you can see in the sample program design notes included with his interview, he brings an artistic hand to his technical pursuits.

Warnock now enjoys retirement. His company celebrated its 25th anniversary recently.

Read and enjoy.—Susan Lammers

P.S. The response to putting up the interviews has been wonderful. Thanks to everyone for your support and encouragement! And ideas are already percolating for adding new content and making the original book available. Keep coming back for more.

March 3, 2008

Behavioral Economics/Behavioral Software

Filed under: Uncategorized — sml @ 6:07 pm

With this post, I will wander a bit out of the Programmers at Work box and take a little interlude to digress to current events.

I went to hear Dan Ariely, a professor at MIT who works both with the economics department and the Media Lab, discuss his research and book Predictably Irrational. He was an entertaining, insightful speaker. His work focuses in on how people behave in decision=making trying to codify and explain seemingly “irrational” behavior. One example of the research he did was on cheating and how he found that there is a low-level of cheating that is widely practiced and tolerated in our society, yet over a certain threshold or in certain conditions, for example if you sign a pledge to be honest before you fill out your IRS form, rather than after you fill it out, you are much more likely to be honest or not.  It was a fascinating talk and I’d urge you to go see him or read his book.

One thing he mentioned is the desire to use this research for “good” and to inspire a new category of software he dubbed in the category of “mind” programs designed for the consumer, the idea being to help regular people, individuals navigate their personal path through to a point of making a good, informed rational decision or plan in important areas such as “retirement planning”, health insurance, and the like instead of “irrational” ones which is more often the case. I loved this idea and thought it’s a rich territory for developers today, particularly those who are willing to focus on the “consumers” needs and foibles, rather than being a tool of the businesses who sell these services.

I left the meeting wondering if there was a counterpart to Behavioral Economics in the software field, perhaps called “Behavioral Programs” or “Behavioral Systems and in searching on the web I have found very little specifically called this. Yet, one thing we know today is that software could use a lot more understanding and appreciation of patterns of “irrational” behavior and the internet provides a vast connected knowledge-base and connected consumer base and through this much prediction and behavior can be studied and used. I suppose the work of start-ups such as Farecast and others are just the beginning of treading in this interesting territory.

I’m sure there are lots of others. So I welcome your insights and ideas about this area of programming and research.

March 2, 2008

Butler Lampson 1986/2008 Reflections

Filed under: Uncategorized — sml @ 11:19 pm

At the cool jargon web site, there’s a word named and defined after Butler Lampson.

milliLampson /mil’*-lamp`sn/ /n./ A unit of talking speed, abbreviated mL. Most people run about 200 milliLampsons. The eponymous Butler Lampson (a CS theorist and systems implementor highly regarded among hackers) goes at 1000. A few people speak faster. This unit is sometimes used to compare the (sometimes widely disparate) rates at which people can generate ideas and actually emit them in speech. For example, noted computer architect C. Gordon Bell (designer of the PDP-11) is said, with some awe, to think at about 1200 mL but only talk at about 300; he is frequently reduced to fragments of sentences as his mouth tries to keep up with his speeding brain.

As I was updating myself about Butler Lampson’s activities these days, I ran across this entry and it brought me back to my meeting with Butler back in 1986. I’ve posted his complete interview from that time on this page found in the column at the right. Please take a look because he was and is a fascinating, engaging man and as the word implies, he’s articulate and a deep thinker on many levels. However, to this day, I’ve got to say, my memory is of someone who spoke with such clarity and deliberateness and broadmindedness that everything seemed to slow down and settle in as I settled in to my chair in his little office to offer up provocative open-ended questions that I hoped would spur him to offer up some insights into the “black magic” art of software that was taking hold of our world back in 1986. I hope I have the priviledge soon to engage him again in a wide-ranging discussion as there have been a lot of stones added to the software mosaic since that time and I imagine he has a lot of reflections upon the shape the world of software has taken. To this day, Butler has left an indelible imprint on me personally as he has on the entire industry. He continues to hold his lofty important seat offstage in today’s world of programming.

You can learn more about Butler Lampson’s current pursuits at the website he maintains at Microsoft where he now is a fellow in the Research Group.

Some excerpts from the interview back then that continue to reverberate:

Lampson: The most important goal [in program or system design] is to define as precisely as possible the interfaces between the system and the rest of the world…the biggest change in my design style over the years has been to put more and more eemphasis on the problem to be solved and on finding techniques to define the interfaces precisely. That pays off tremendously…

Lampson: Everything should be made as simple as possible. But to do that you have to master complexity.

Lampson: A beautiful program is like a beautiful theorem: It does the job elegantly. It has a simple and perspicuous structure; people say, “Oh, yes. I see that’s the way to do it.”

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