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August 27 — The Important Anniversary In My Life, And This Year I Will Talk About ‘APL’.


IBM Hursley per Google Maps. Cricket pitch & local pub highlighted.

.Anura Guruge December 2014 thumbnail


by Anura Guruge

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For the last few years I have been trying to ‘put a stake in the ground‘ every August 27th. It is an important anniversary in my life. I left Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), for what turned out to be for good (though I had no idea that it would be thus then), on Sunday, August 27, 1967. I was a week shy of my 14th birthday. I left on (what I think was a Pan Am) Boeing 707 from what was then ‘Katunayake Airport’ to Athens (Greece). It was my first trip outside of Asia.

Seven tumultuous years later, during which I lived (at least for 11 months at a time) in three different countries, viz. U.S.A. (Buffalo, NY), France (Paris) and the U.K. (London & Swansea), on Tuesday, August 27, 1974 I started working for IBM — at Hursley in the U.K. Well since my birthday is my birthday (though due to the hospital mix-up it could be +/- 2 days), I joined IBM a week shy of my 21st birthday. That it was the 27th, as I have talked about before, was CUTE and neat. I had NOT planned to start work — the VERY FIRST working day of my entire life (having never worked, for pay, in any capacity prior to that) — on a Tuesday. But, for the second year in a row I was spending my Summer in Bangkok, Thailand — and what Summer it was with the Vietnam war coming to an end ‘right there’! [That is another story.] I had sent a telegram to IBM saying that I planned to accept my job offer (from nearly 18 months previously) and start work on Monday, August 26, 1974. Got a neat telegram back saying basically that that was good, and that August 26th will be my official start day (in terms of salary) BUT since that Monday was ‘August Bank Holiday Monday’ would I please not come into work until Tuesday, August 27. That was how I started my working life. Getting paid for a day that I didn’t work — and spent most of the day watching cricket on TV. (Well, to be fair to IBM, IBM also paid for many days when I was not at work — though I was supposed to be — but was in Southampton watching Hampshire play! That is another story too. My work didn’t really suffer and that is all they cared about. Performance reviews were BIG in those days. I had 7 reviews in the 5 years I was at IBM. The reviews were graded from ‘1’ to ‘5’. ‘1’ basically said you walked on water and ‘5’ meant that you passed water when you realized that your review was done. Of the 7 reviews I got a ‘1’ in 5. So I guess the time I took off, without telling anybody, during the Summer, to watch LIVE cricket, really didn’t affect my performance. I did, ALWAYS, make up the time — albeit working late into the night (and as such getting overtime). What can I say.

Well last year, on August 27, I talked about John Fairclough who was the lab. director during my whole tenure at Hursley.


Ken Iverson’s 1962 book, the TITLE of which begat the language …

This year let me talk about ‘APL’ — A Programming Language — the BRILLIANT coding system, for mathematicians, engineers and scientists, that was developed in the early 1960s by Ken Iverson. I can’t be 100% certain of this BUT I think I once ‘spoke’, obliquely (if I remember right), with Ken during my time at IBM. I will get to that in a second. Looking after APL was the first task I was given upon joining IBM (at Hursley) and going through about 10 days of orientation. I had been hired to work for the ‘System Support Group‘ (SSG). That it was called the ‘Swapping Society Group‘ had a lot to do with the 1970s and I will have to tell that story in a later post. So looking after APL meant that I was responsible for making sure that APL, which was an interpretive language, was readily available, 24×7, for all the hundreds of very clever engineers who used it for their work at Hursley — mainly for modeling engineering designs.

Though I was a programming language freak at the time — which is why IBM offered me a job during my 2nd year at University — and was proficient in about 5 languages, I did NOT know APL. Knowing APL was not a requirement per se. My job was to support the system — not write code. But I set out to learn APL and that was HUGELY rewarding and fun. I was never a master APL programmer (as I would be in Assembler, FORTRAN, PL/I, COBOL & PL/S) but I could get by — and most importantly those that used APL, in anger, at Hursley, knew that they could talk ‘APL’ to me and I would not be clueless.

I loved APL. It was so compact and terse. Not verbose like today’s programming languages. Much of it was done with SPECIAL mathematical symbols. Here are some examples of APL code. Neat … right?




So given all the special (Greek) symbols involved you needed a special APL keyboard to program in APL. 

IBM’s APL interpreter, which was very clever, was also VISUAL. That meant that you could create symbols by OVERTYPING and the system would recognize what it was. Well, in 1974, we, at least in Hursley, did not have any electronic terminals — i.e., (3270-like) displays. We used selectric teletype terminals for interactive programming and system management. Yes, we also, in 1974, used punched cards and paper tape. Given the symbols you needed a bespoke APL Selectric Golfball for APL. IBM, of course, made and sold them. You just needed to order them IF you planned to use APL. I kept a whole drawer full of APL Golfballs as part of my job for those that came by asking for one. I would also carry one in my pocket. Carrying a Golfball in your pocket really gives meaning to the expression ‘playing pocket golf’.


Selectric Golfball.

Well, soon after I joined Hursley we were tasked with implementing the new “APL Shared Variable”, APL SV, system. APL SV, like all of the IBM APL systems was developed in the ‘States’ — I think, at the time, in ‘Yorktown Heights’ in New York. SV was new and had some issues. There were a number of times I had to call the ‘States’ to report problems or ask for workarounds. My contact was Adin Falkoff, Ken’s collaborator and right hand man. Adin was very nice and always helpful. It was during one of these calls that I think Adin said “Ken says ‘Hi'”. Wow. [I always admired Adin’s last name.]

There was one printing problem in APL SV that had gone for over 6 months without a fix. The Hursley users were constantly bugging me about it. Though it wasn’t my job to FIX problems in APL SV — that being the prerogative of the ‘States’ — I decided to have a look. In those heady days ‘we’ — meaning anybody that worked for IBM — basically had ready access to the source code of more or less anything that IBM created. So I had the source code and I went digging. I found the problem. I fixed it. Even patched it locally on our system. Then I called up Adin and told him how to fix it. He was very pleased. BUT, not as pleased as my BOSS. He was ecstatic. It was funny. But in those days there was REAL competition between the ‘States’ and the non-U.S. labs. So now we had the situation that Hursley had fixed a bug that had foxed the ‘States’ for 6 months. This was why I could go off and watch cricket during the day and nobody complained! 

I miss APL. I keep on thinking about installing it on my PC.

Well that was 1974 to 1975, in Hursley, working for IBM when I wasn’t watching/playing cricket.

26 Days Till Hogmanay. Learn To Play ‘Auld Lang Syne’ On The Piano (or Keyboard). Deanna Is Going To Do It.

Anura Guruge, June 8, 2013.

Anura Guruge

Related posts:
>> ‘Auld Lang Syne’: Proper Way

>>Dec. 31, 2012.
>> Hogmanay — Dec. 29, 2012.
Search ‘Auld’ for other posts in THIS series >>>>
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Click for 'keys highlighted' video tutorial. This should be rewarding.

Click for ‘keys highlighted’ video tutorial. This should be rewarding.