Kenneth Iverson, 1920–2004

Friday 19 November 2004

Ken Iverson, the creator of APL, died last month at the age of 84. I wrote a bit about APL last spring. It was innovative and unusual if nothing else. In the early sixties there were not many styles of programming available, certainly not many that have persisted to the 21st century. APL was one of them.

I attended a lecture by Iverson when I was at Penn in 1985 or so. I'd like to say that he was witty and urbane, a visionary and an inspiration. Unfortunately, I remember only two things from the talk, and they both were Iverson being obnoxious.

First, talking about APL, he had a set of slides explaining the good points about the language. One of the bullets was: "easy to read". Now say what you will about APL, but most people considered it the most difficult language to read (this was before Perl!). Even if you found it easy to read, you understood that it had a different reputation, and you addressed it. Iverson simply declared it easy to read (I guess because of its conciseness) and moved on. I think most of the audience was dumbstruck.

Second, at Penn we had a Univac something-or-other mainframe, and a grad student there had implemented APL for it. It was something of an achievement. This student stood to ask Iverson a question, and as a bit of an introduction, mentioned that he had written an APL implementation. Iverson interrupted him to say something along the lines of, "lots of people have implemented APL". What his point was, I don't know. I know what the effect was: he unnecessarily insulted his hosts.

I don't mean for this to be all negative. Iverson was something of a legend. I suppose being cantankerous was part and parcel of that. He was influential, iconoclastic, and clearly brilliant.

Lambda The Ultimate has more about him (including, naturally, some sniping about Dijkstra's legacy vs. Iverson's).

Comments

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james angleton 4:20 AM on 20 Nov 2004

Well, look at it this way. At least there's an "Iverson" out there that can speak without saying "Yo sup holmz", "seed Iz sayin' cracker", "i was like yo, wad up G-money" "seed i'm sayin'". "Yo main, chill weez still gots likes over 80 game left main, sheet you dumb as cracker"....seed i'z sayin'...? I'z gettin me yo momma holmz...seed i'z sayin..?
...Ifin yo jack meez around i'z cap yo white ass...


-- Alan Iverson

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james angleton 4:34 AM on 20 Nov 2004

Oh yay, one mo thang white bouy. Don'z be gettin on my shit caiusin me and my homies snatched up nutin but a bronze medel at dem dere Pain Am games. Dat shit was all rasist shit congered up by a bunch rich of white dudes lookinz for some cheep azz gold medel from uz brotherz.
I aint gettin all smacked up and sweaty if dem head crackers aint pimpin out no cash. So what...Italy beat us at hoops dem dum azz white boyz still aint got no beach holmz or luxkery model humers.....screw all yall whiye crackers.

-- Alan Iverson, BTW, i just wanted to let all you shiny white boyz no that in my lafetim iz used the phrase
"seed i'z sayin"..90,000,000 timz. I no all you crackers get off on stats n shitz lake that.

[gravatar]
andrew 9:24 AM on 20 Nov 2004

Cripes. Even *I* think those comments were over the top.

I have not had much personal experience with computer industry luminaries, but my second hand experience is that they are all cantankerous in some way.

It is almost like there are storage areas of the brain labeled, "personality" and "self-deprecating humor" and "empathy" and they are frequently overwritten by technical knowledge in these folks. Most of them are computer savants.

You aren't there yet Ned. But if you get any smarter, I will be there to bring you back to reality. And if you ever find yourself at a Cog lecture, berating your fans....

Anyway, what was with the faux hood crap in the two posts above? One was enough. Iverson may be a punk, but most of the NBA players are actually quite well spoken.

[gravatar]
Bob 3:47 PM on 21 Nov 2004

Ned's experience with Ken Iverson is just one data point. Maybe Iverson was having a bad day. Maybe he was like that to everyone. Without more information we can't say for sure. Sometimes folks like Iverson are witty, sometimes they're cantankerous and sometimes they're a solid disappointment. Creating a new and original piece of work is incredibly hard. That talent isn't necessarily coupled with a good personality.

[gravatar]
Doug L. 2:36 AM on 22 Nov 2004

?over the top? no, under the bottom.

Wrt Iverson, APL, and personality, though: I think this is one of those cases where certain aspects of the technical achievement (APL) are intimately tied to certain personality aspects of its creator. The personality traits that Ned describes are very consistent with the creation of a programming language that is very nearly useless for communicating algorithms among humans.

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David Boudreau 9:04 AM on 28 Nov 2004

But I think it's fair to say that one of the things everyone appreciates about Ned is that, for how much Ned knows technically and is more technically capable of compared to most people, Ned is so _un_like his memory of Iverson from that particular lecture. Maybe Iverson had a bad hair day, but Ned's points are still valid- not only valid in the sense of showing courtesy and respect, but also valid in the sense of pointing out Iverson's blunders- the blunders obvious to everyone except for Iverson. In fact it's ironic that Iverson assumed his syntax was "easy to read" and therefore a superior feature, when in fact it was not- maybe if he had a better attitude, he would recognize that we are often most critical in others of what we ourselves are afflicted by. Iverson didn't simply make an error (however small)-- he actually _embraced_ it. If all this had a positive effect on Ned to avoid ever behaving like that, then we're all grateful indeed.

When smart people get like that, it's like they're expressing some frustration- sometimes it's warranted, like we should all know better and do things a better way, don't we get it yet? But other times they're clearly in the wrong, and clearly riding on some wave of a superiority complex, start to make assumptions, and suddenly we all care a whole lot less, regardless to any technical acheivements. And then it's more like, Just hurry up and give it to us simpletons so we can benefit from it, you don't have to grace us with your presence anymore.

and for what it's worth, my best guess as to the top 2 comments is someone dealing with and coming to terms with the recent deterioration of the NBA, which didn't even stop along the way at the NHL standard, but headed straight for the standards of England soccer matches... but just like with (either)Iverson, it doesn't give him the right to be an ass.

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