The origin of zero-based array indexing

An amusing historical analysis of the origin of zero based array indexing (hint: C wasn't the first). There's a twist to the story which I won't reveal, so as not to spoil the story for you. All in all, it's a nice anecdote, but it seems to me that many of the objections raised in the comments are valid.

John C. Reynolds, 1935-2013

Randy Bryant, dean of the school of computer science at CMU, sent out an email saying that John C. Reynolds passed away yesterday.

Subject: In Memoriam. John Reynolds, June 1, 1935 - April 28, 2013
Date: Sun, 28 Apr 2013 21:45:12 -0400
From: Randy Bryant
To: scs-all@cs.cmu.edu

I'm sorry to announce that John Reynolds, a long-time member of our computer science faculty, passed away early this morning. Many of you know that John had been in declining health recently. We were able to celebrate his retirement him last summer. He had a heart attack last week and went downhill over a period of several days.

John got his PhD in 1961 in theoretical physics, but while working at Argonne National Laboratory came to realize that his passion was for computation. He became a very successful computer scientists, focusing on the logical foundations of programs and programming languages. He was at Syracuse University from 1970 to 1986 and then joined the CSD faculty.

John has made many important contributions over his career. Interestingly, his 2002 work on separation logic, done jointly with Peter O'Hearn and others, has been especially prominent. Separation logic provides a formal way to reason about what we might think of as "normal programs," i.e., ones that operate by changing the values stored in memory, but where memory is partitioned into independent blocks, and so we can reason about different program components independently. I can only hope that the work I do at age 67 would be counted among my best!

We will also remember John for this cheerful spirit, his high ethical standards, and his deep intellect. He will very much be missed.

Randy Bryant

It's probably impossible to overstate the impact that John had on the field of programming languages. But beyond being a great scholar, he was also a generous mentor and a fundamentally decent and kind human being. He will indeed very much be missed.


I was surprised to see that DYNAMO hasn't been mentioned here in the past. DYNAMO (DYNAmic MOdels) was the simulation language used to code the simulations that led to the famous 1972 book The Limits to Growth from The Club of Rome. The language was designed in the late 1950s. It is clear that the language was used in several other places and evolved through several iterations, though I am not sure how extensively it was used. When Stafford Beer was creating Cybersyn for Salvador Allende he used DYNAMO to save time suggesting it was somewhat of a standard tool (this is described in Andrew Pickering's important book The Cybernetic Brain).

The language itself is essentially what you'd expect. It is declarative, programs consisting of a set of equations. The equations are zero and first-order difference equations of two kinds: level equations (accumulations) and rate equations (flows). Computation is integration over time. Levels can depend on rates and vice versa with the language automatically handling dependencies and circularities. Code looks like code looked those days: fixed columns, all caps, eight characters identifiers.

Here are a few links:

  • Section 3.7 of this history of discrete event simulation languages is a succinct description of the history of the language and its main features.
  • A more leisurely description of the language and the Limits to Growth model can be found in this article. Ironically, the author of the article reimplemented the model in Javascript (run it!). What was originally written in a DSL is now implemented in a general purpose language, with all the niceties handled manually.
  • Finally, a nice piece on Jay Forrester who prompted the creation of SIMPLE and DYNAMO, its offspring.

Photoshop 1.0 Source Code

Some people are amazed that it's in Pascal... HN discussion is here.

Milner Symposium 2012

The Milner Symposium 2012 was held in Edinburgh this April in memory of the late Robin Milner.

The Milner Symposium is a celebration of the life and work of one of the world's greatest computer scientists, Robin Milner. The symposium will feature leading researchers whose work is inspired by Robin Milner.

The programme consisted of academic talks by colleagues and past students. The talks and slides are available online.

I particularly liked the interleaving of the personal and human narrative underlying the scientific journey. A particularly good example is Joachim Parrow's talk on the origins of the pi calculus. Of particular interest to LtU members is the panel on the future of functional programming languages, consisting of Phil Wadler, Xavier Leroy, David MacQueen, Martin Odersky, Simon Peyton-Jones, and Don Syme.

Common Lisp: The Untold Story

Common Lisp: The Untold Story, by Kent Pitman. A nice paper about the history of my favorite lightweight dynamic language.

This paper summarizes a talk given at “Lisp50@OOPSLA,” the 50th Anniversary of Lisp workshop, Monday, October 20, 2008, an event co-located with the OOPSLA’08 in Nashville, TN, in which I offered my personal, subjective account of how I came to be involved with Common Lisp and the Common Lisp standard, and of what I learned from the process.

Some of my favorite parts are:

  • How CL was viewed as competition to C++. (Really, what were they thinking?)
  • How CL was a reaction to the threat of Interlisp, and how "CLOS was the price of getting the Xerox/Interlisp community folded back into Lisp community as a whole" (link).
  • How individuals shaped the processes of standardization. MIT Sloan did an analysis of these processes.
  • How the two- to three-day roundtrip time for UUCP emails to Europe may be responsible for the creation of the separate EuLisp.

I have a soft spot for CL, so I am biased, but I think Greenspun's Tenth Rule (and Robert Morris' corollary) still holds - CL is the language that newer dynamic languages, such as Perl 6, JavaScript, and Racket are asymptotically approaching (and exceeding in some cases, which is why I view CL as a lightweight language today.)

Dennis Ritchie passed away

I have just learned that Dennis Ritchie (1941-2011) has passed away. His contributions changed the computing world. As everyone here knows, dmr developed C, and with Brian Kernighan co-authored K&R, a book that served many of us in school and in our professional lives and remains a classic text in the field, if only for its style and elegance. He was also one of the central figures behind UNIX. Major programming languages, notably C++ and Java, are descendants of Ritchie's work; many other programming languages in use today show traces of his influences.


Bjarne Stroustrup puts the C revolution in perspective: They said it couldn’t be done, and he did it.

Open thread: RIP Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs (1955 - 2011) had a profound influence on the computing world. As others discuss his many contributions and accomplishments, I think it is appropriate that we discuss how these affected programming, and consequently programming languages. Bringing to life some of the ideas of the Mother of All Demos, Jobs had a hand in making event loops standard programming fare, and was there when Apple and NeXT pushed languages such as Objective-C and Dylan and various software frameworks, and decided to cease supporting others. Some of these were more successful than others, and I am sure members have views on their technical merits. This thread is for discussing Jobs -- from the perspective of programming languages and technologies.


Eric Schmidt on Jobs and OOP

Stephen Wolfram on Jobs and Mathematica

The iPhone mandate decision

Programming and Scaling

Programming and Scaling, a one-hour lecture by Alan Kay at his finest (and that's saying something!)

Some of my favorite quotes:

  • "The biggest problem we have as human beings is that we confuse our beliefs with reality."
  • "We could imagine taking the internet as a model for doing software modules. Why don't people do it?" (~00:17)
  • "One of the mistakes that we made years ago is that we made objects too small." (~00:26)
  • "Knowledge in many cases trumps IQ. [Henry] Ford was powerful because Isaac Newton changed the way we think." (~00:28)
  • "Knowledge is silver. Outlook is gold. IQ is a lead weight." (~00:30)
  • "Whatever we [in computing] do is more like what the Egyptians did. Building pyramids, piling things on top of each other."
  • "The ability to make science and engineering harmonize with each other - there's no greater music." (~00:47)

And there are some other nice ideas in there: "Model-T-Shirt Programming" - software the definition of which fits on a T-shirt. And imagining source code sizes in terms of books: 20,000 LOC = a 400-page book. A million LOC = a stack of books one meter high. (Windows Vista: a 140m stack of books.)

Note: this a Flash video, other formats are available.

Rob Pike: Public Static Void

Rob Pike's talk about the motivation for Go is rather fun, but doesn't really break new ground. Most of what he says have been said here many times, from the critic of the verbosity of C++ and Java to the skepticism about dynamic typing. Some small details are perhaps worth arguing with, but in general Pike is one of the good guys -- it's all motherhood and apple pie.

So why mention this at all (especially since it is not even breaking news)? Well, what caught my attention was the brief reconstruction of history the Pike presents. While he is perfectly honest about not being interested in history, and merely giving his personal impressions, the description is typical. What bugs me, particularly given the context of this talk, is that the history it totally sanitized. It's the "history of ideas" in the bad sense of the term -- nothing about interests (commercial and otherwise), incentives, marketing, social power, path dependence, any thing. Since we had a few discussions recently about historiography of the field, I thought I'd bring this up (the point is not to target Pike's talk in particular).

Now, when you think about Java, for example, it is very clear that the language didn't simply take over because of the reasons Pike marshals. Adoption is itself a process, and one that is worth thinking about. More to the point, I think, is that Java was (a) energetically marketed; and (b) was essentially a commercial venture, aimed at furthering the interests of a company (that is no longer with us...) Somehow I think all this is directly relevant to Go. But of course, it is hard to see Go gaining the success of Java.

All this is to say that history is not just "we had a language that did x well, but not y, so we came up with a new language, that did y but z only marginally, so now we are building Go (which compiles real fast, you know) etc. etc."

Or put differently, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it (or some variation of this cliche that is more authentic). Or does this not hold when it comes to PLs?

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