Programming Languages

Fortran was popular for the same reason starving people value shoe leather
Written by Paul Murphy, Contributor

for (i=0;i < N; i++) { (-\~i)+.x M;}
MOVE A{[{i}*..]& is M} TO N

Doesn't make sense? Try this:


With sobs for his job, with tears for his toil, with horror for his squalor, but with pep for his perdition, lo the boor plieth as the laird hireth him.

Boon on begyndelse.

At maturing daily gloryams

The ravings of the mad. Right? Actually, no - John Backus died last week. he was best known as the team leader during the development first of Fortran and then of its brain damaging offspring for beginners, but probably made his most important contributions in the development of logic tools like the Backus-Naur notation and other work leading, ultimately, to modern Fortran descendents like MAPLE.

The text above is from a somewhat frightening work called Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce, an Irish novelist writing during the run up to World War Two. It's frightening, not so much because it's difficult, but because the book proved almost absurdly prescient in terms of its look ahead at the influence language would have on the formation of political and cultural ideas in post war Europe.

People say you can't read Finnegan's Wake but that's only true for those of us who don't share most of the major current and historical cultures making up western Europe to the point of speaking the languages, understanding obscure cultural references, and thus sharing the emotional intensity of seeing everyman's human potential buried in national or religious culture. That, of course, leaves me a Jamesian philistine too, but the point is that the book assumes a cultural and linguistic polymath - someone, in our terms, equally comfortable with APL, Algol, C, K, lisp, Perl, PL1 and a host of others.

Joyce was predicting the future of language under the influence of cultural union - creating the kind of English we might reasonably expect Captains Kirk, Picard, and Janeway to speak.

Backus sought a computer equivelent for more than fifty years: Fortran was popular for the same reason starving people value shoe leather, and the languages we have that really work, APL and Lisp, are, like Joyce's future English, simply too hard for most people to understand - and certainly Voyager's computers won't be programmed using Java: it's today's 80,000 pound T-Rex, capable of sitting anywhere it wants to, but a giganticist dinasour nevertheless and correspondingly ready to die as species momentum prevents adaptation to external change.

So where do we go? Fortress? I don't think so -it's a design that's been compromised from the gitgo by complexity - so I'll venture a long term bet: that compilers evolve into expert systems taking interactive direction in what will amount to business contexts rather than programming environments.


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