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back to article On International Woman's Day we remember Grace Hopper

Once again some of the world is celebrating International Woman's Day (IWD), and it's time to reflect on great female role models. Ada Lovelace usually grabs most of the attention but I'd like to use IWD as an excuse to pay a tribute to a personal female hero of computing: US Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. Amazing Grace was in at …

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Happy

Good stuff.

Great article. In real life she had to seem very driven.

On a side note, not to be an ass, but... "On the other hand, the fact that there's a need for an IWD does indicate that there's still a problem to be solved." ...these type of statements could be prolonging the problem. Yeh I know, it's a Catch 22 thing.

Good article though, loved the physical representation of a micro second. With a lot of today's programmers of C++, JS, etc., it seems hanging it around programmers necks is a very good idea!

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Holmes

Re: Good stuff.

That'll be a nanosecond, I fancy. One thousand feet is too much rope to hang one's self.

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Holmes

Re: Good stuff.

One thousand feet is too much rope to hang one's self.

Depends. For some cliffs, 1000 feet is just the right length.

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Facepalm

Historical quibble

The Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation did not "later become Unisys". It first became Univac, which underwent various changes in name and ownership, finally merging with Burroughs in 1986 to form Unisys.

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Meh

Re: Historical quibble

I'm failing to see by even your own words how the statement is false. From what you just typed in, it did later become Unisys. Did you leave something out or commit a typo?

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Re: Historical quibble

You left uot the fact that (apparently) it did not 'become Unisys'.

If, as is alleged, a merged company became Unisys, your statement would be like saying that a sperm becomes a child -- an idea of reproduction that was once popular, but was later replaced by the idea that a fertilized egg becomes a child.

If this bothers you, you could have said "became part of Unisys". If it doesn't bother you, you could have noticed and ignored the correction. If you wanted to be nice, you could have jus thanked the contributer for the correction. Your forth option, defending the indefensible, makes you look much worse. I hope it was just because, like me, you were feeling tired and cranky.

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Re: Historical quibble

"The Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation did not "later become Unisys". It first became Univac, which underwent various changes in name and ownership, finally merging with Burroughs in 1986 to form Unisys."

So it did emerge as Unisys...

Note the author said "later" not "Instantaneous"

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Happy

Exquisite choice

Thanks for the article. It is easy to lose the thread in acrimonious debate, but women's rights is not about who deserves what and who is guilty of what. Rather, it is about the value of enabling, or at least not impeding, all people to live their lives to the fullest.

For every Grace Hopper there were at least 10,000 women with a similar dream and probably 100 with comparable ability (hey, she was not merely utterly determined, she was also extraordinarily talented) who were forced away from their dream in favor of a droll, merely conventional dream belonging to someone else. Hopper is a hero for resisting, and so revealing to us the sort of thing that we might be missing.

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Good read

If only more *people* were as driven as her to overcome all forms of discrimination or merely what passed as conventional wisdom. She need not be only a role model for women. Not all men are by definition power hungry sobs belonging to the 'good old boys club'. Still, I understand that things could be better.

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An excellent article, thank you. She's long been a personal heroine. (Thumbs Up in the absence of a US Naval salute icon).

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"insisting on special treatment"

Owning a testosterone poisoned brain I may be mistaken but I dont think feminism demands 'special treatment'.

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Re: "insisting on special treatment"

That depends on the feminist.

A lot of people self-identify as feminists, ranging from so-obvious-you-shouldnt-have-to-still-say-it feminists arguing for equals pay for equal work to so-obviously-wrong-you-should-just-stop-saying-it feminists writing special pleadin garticles in the guardian.

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Re: "insisting on special treatment"

"I dont think feminism demands 'special treatment'."

What do you think affirmative action is, if not 'special treatment'?

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Mushroom

Re: "insisting on special treatment"

Some feminists argue quite vociferously against AA.

Some acknowledge that even given equivalent skills and qualifications, there are plenty of places that will hire men first, with such excuses as "team fit" and so on. Most AA schemes are about ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL, give women a fair shake (and are designed for environments which are still dominated by men for no good reason).

"Hopper did more than most to beat chauvinism in our industry, not by protesting or insisting on special

treatment, but by getting out there and doing the job better than anyone else"

So why should women have to be so much better to be considered for this kind of thing? It's that whole narrative about "exceptional" women breaking the bounds that gets up my nose.

I'm a good sysadmin, but I don't pretend to be a guru. And nor should I have to for my mid-range job. And yet I'm the only female systems administrator (I'm not talking DBAs or developers) I've encountered in any organisation I've ever worked in (except one, in one other job), in 15 years of IT. That's really appalling if you think about it.

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Thanks for this article. Previously, I only have a very fuzzy idea of who she was.

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Headmaster

An admirable admiral

I'm glad you pointed out that Grace Hopper never claimed to have originated the use of 'bug', as the word had existed in that sense since (at least) the industrial revolution. A recent SciAm '150 years ago' column quoted an 1860s articles referring to 'bugs' in the process (of steel production).

I'm sure there was some amusement when the cause of a computer problem was discovered to be an actual 'bug' (in those early days, program failure was as likely to be due to some physical defect as a coding error). I expect an equally pedantic entomologist will be along soon to point out that lepidoptera are not hemiptera.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: An admirable admiral

I fail to see why this got downvoted.

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Re: An admirable admiral

The amused observation about the real bug is actually there in the handwritten notes in the article....

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Windows

Thanks for a good read!

Funny, I've often used the expression "It's always easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission". Didn't realise the source...

One of the Greats.

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A toast

for U.S. Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. It's with good reason Admiral Hopper was so highly respected by ALL; from the lowly troops in the field like me to the highest levels of government. Admiral Hopper was truly inspirational and VERY practical; especially when it boiled down to accomplishing the mission efficiently, effectively, and quickly! I appreciate the reminder of good times with tough challenges. I never had the honor to meet her.

I served in a different branch of service, but was well aware of her many contributions operating a 16bit Honeywell DPS6 with the GCOS6 (General Electric Comprehensive Operating System - a MULTIX [precursor of UNIX] follow-on) in the Army with a single core & 256KB RAM; and later as a civilian in a business later upgraded to dual cores and 2MB RAM supporting ~60 19.2bps terminals, band printer, and 3 250MB SMD drives with software compiled with the COBOL Admiral Hopper helped pioneer.

A great many "modern" coders should be embarrassed by their bloatware and poor multi- efforts. They don't even deserve the title "Programmer" as a nanosecond means nothing to them. "Mouser" would be more appropriate! All too often load balancing scarce CPU/RAM/Storage bandwidth and capacity is a foreign concept! In the early 90s I brought a Dr. Dobb's Journal of Software Tools to work, applied multiprocessing techniques, and reduced batch times by 40% - even with just a single core! The Senior Programmer grumbled, and helped update the company's COBOL programs; but told me "Don't Do It Again" (no Dr. Dobb's) as such techniques were "too hard". I left about a year later. Unfortunately attitudes like that in the Microsoft dominated PC world poisoned the software industry for many years. We're only now starting to catch up to where we should have been. Ye Olde COBOL so prevalent in the minicomputer and mainframe environments and much derided in the PC world was often vastly more efficient - especially with a Disk based operating system in lieu of the more commonly used RAM based operating system so prevalent today grown from DOS (big deal, it could actually R/W to a disk, but it was still all about RAM), and Windows (also RAM based). It's too bad Microsoft in the 80s and 90s never had their "nanosecond" and allowed "Programmers" to mess with the settings. A good mini/mainframe Operator, along with a bunch of TRUE Power Users know better, but Microsoft's NIH allowed microsofties to screw up what should have been a good Workstation for a very long time. The results can be seen today with WART - limited multitasking! (The new server file system is lipstick on a pig and ya still gotta defrag - but they DO have some good people writing some of the low level software from time to time, otherwise they wouldn't have set as many disk and network records as they have - but these are NOT your typical "programmers".)

If you don't have your "nanosecond" yet - make your own HOPPER TOOL. (I recommend plastic for fishing out hardware "bugs".) Fortunately, we're finally seeing improvements in many areas, i.e. consoles (really close to the metal), HPC, drivers, and demanding applications with the assistance of superior tools. Modern multi- techniques should be taught earlier as the thought processes are very different and should be applied to most stages of software development. It really is hard for many (most?) people to think this way. It's far better to discover early in your career you're not cut out for it and apply yourself to a different part of the industry where you ARE talented! Admiral Hopper not only understood, but encouraged such thinking; especially in the lower ranks! Making the most of available hardware should always be a "BIG DEAL" because the latest and greatest is generally "unavailable" and the reason why typically doesn't matter - you work with what you have. If such thought was considered to be "outside the box" her response would be "Get a bigger box!" - even if it's only in your head. "CAN'T" IS ONLY A CONCEPT TO BE AVOIDED!

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WTF?

Revisionist B*llocks

"....and grew up in an age where women were supposed to be seen and not heard."

She grew up on the Mongolian Plains circa 1250AD? Otherwise I am struggling to find a time period where women were meant to be seen and not heard. The phrase you erroneously apply to women was in fact an expression aimed at Victorian era children, not women. Women in Victorian times were able marry, divorce and work, all at their own discretion. They could get served in bars, have an education, inherit, and all the things that men could do. Indeed as anyone who has ever read any 19th century literature can see, women were an important and functioning part of society and not the pseudo slaves that they are made out to be today. The only thing women couldn't do was vote in the UK until 1928, but then ALL men couldn't vote either until 1918, only the rich ones were able to vote prior to that.

All this discrimination, adversity rubbish is retrospectively applied to women. If you ask women from the era if they felt they were discriminated against back then, they invariably will say no and men and women were just different in those days and at no point did they feel objectified, controlled, discriminated against or held back. Such terms and thinking are all part of modern day brain washing and revisionism.

Grace Hopper was a computing great, but the article is somewhat ruined by your whole 'women were so mistreated, its a wonder any of them were able to accomplish anything..' rhetoric.

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@ Connor - Re: Revisionist B*llocks

Wrote :- "The phrase [grew up in an age where women were supposed to be seen and not heard.] you erroneously apply to women was in fact an expression aimed at Victorian era children, not women. Women in Victorian times were able to ........"

I am agreeing with you. To apply "seen and not heard" to Western women is a new one on me. I doubt whether it has ever been possible to make Western women "seen and not heard" - I am not being sarcastic, it is in the culture. Even in earlier times, think of Margaret of Anjou (The Tigress), Margaret Beaufort, Bodecea, and, at lower wider levels, women as depicted by Chaucer and Shakespeare. It varies and depends on personalities, as it ever does.

But Grace Hopper did not even grow up in Victorian times, but well after that, and she would have been able to have voted for example as soon as she was old enough in the USA, and in the UK too if she had been born here. In fact women were particularly assertive during that time, the phrase "New Woman" was around, and men, particularly alpha males, had been decimated by WW1. A lot of this stuff is Feminist revisionism.

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Re: @ Connor - Revisionist B*llocks

In Britain she couldn't have attended the two main universities for another half-century so would never have got the access to teaching, libraries, colleagues, collaboration that somebody like Turing benefited from

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Re: @ YAAC - universities

So anyone who went to the many other dozens of universities was a dumb-nut? Anyone who went to any university benefited. That Turing went to a top university is just coincidence. Other greats went to other universities.

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@YAAc

Oxford admitted women from 1920 (though they could sit exams for 40 years before that). Grace Hopper went to Vassar (a famous women's college) and Yale for her masters.

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Holmes

Re: @YAAc

Meanwhile, in Wilhelminian Germany, Emmy Noether could go to University of Erlangen in 1903 (which raised hackles) but allowing her to teach at Göttingen in 1915 took some serious arm twisting of faggots:

Emmy Noether at U. Göttingen

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Re: Revisionist B*llocks

My Mom grew up in western Canada, in a world where women were not allowed to have credit. If you didn't have enough money to buy a fridge outright, you could not buy a fridge. A man, didn't even need to have a steady job to be approved for credit. I'm early 50's and my Mom is early 80's.

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Re: Revisionist B*llocks

Well, in the 50s my gran was married with her own income from working as a full-time nurse. The manager of the electric board refused to allow her to buy electric blankets on HP because her husband needed to sign the forms.

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Joke

Great article

A pioneer, no doubt about it.

International Women's Day yesterday, Mother's day tomorrow. A good few days for women!

I better get a sammich brought to me today though!

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Trollface

Re: Great article

Maybe a knuckle one, with a "get it yourself" added for good measure ;)

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Hedy Lamarr invented and patented frequency-spread communications encoding, the basis of almost all modern communications systems. The US War Office told her she was better used in the war effort by looking pretty.

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@J.G.Harston

I thought that was a joke before visiting http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedy_Lamarr. In fact HOLY C**P!! That is amazing. And wonderful. Regarding the war effort and propaganda, was the War Office right ? I don't know.

Not comparing her to Admiral Hopper, but an article on Hedy Lamarr would be good.

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Truly remarkable person

I was an undergraduate student at Texas A&M in 1980 and attended a lecture by Grace Hooper. She showed her nanosecond and microsecond (a coil of wire). What I remember the most about her lecture was her point about information and the value of information. Currently we have plenty of information. The "current" problem is figuring out which information is important and which is unimportant. This is back before the IBM PC (I did my CS degree mostly on the Amdahl mainframe). I am intrigued by her early insight and the IT industry is still struggling with solving the information value problem.

(There should be a Grace Hopper icon methinks)

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Re: Truly remarkable person

It always amazes me when someone can get over a point so simply by using a totally non-apparent comparison.

As for the age old battle between 'data' and 'information', as it was explained to me it 'should' be simple as data is a collection of things whereas information is data which actually informs you. Of course as with most situations the meaning of words get re-assigned so frequently that halfthe problem is correctly defining the question.

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Boffin

Re: Truly remarkable person

Nice observation Alan but about your last sentence: "IT industry is still struggling with solving the information value problem" is to me at least funny. The problem of value is fundamentally *not* IT related, with as maximum solution supplying a few better tools for humans to make their ever-changing assessments. One might compare the problem with the issue of "truth" derivation in Gödel's incompleteness theorems in as such that axiomatic truths of a system would derive value from a higher order system. This is why the answer will forever escape any program operating in the confines of one system (which by definition it does in IT).

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In a similar vein, I'm sure some of you will enjoy this 10 minute BBC podcast about Dame Mary Cartwright, whose work as a mathematician helping wartime radio engineers laid the foundation for chaos theory- though into her nineties she would write letters bollocking those she thought overstated the importance of her work.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/pov

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Thanks

Just thought I'd chip in and say thanks for a really enjoyable article.

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Who said that?

Interesting article. I liked the caption on the Reagan/Hopper photo: who said the words?

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On my short list

of admired computer pioneers: Babbage, Lovelace, Turing, Von Neumann, Hopper. Thanks for paving the way, all.

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Amazing Grace...

I cut my teeth in the mainframe game, we ran DG's iCobol on Eclipse series AOS/VS boxes in the mid 80's

In our IT department we had a framed photo of Grace Hopper as our geeky tribute to this pioneering woman.

The chairman of the group of companies we worked for one day asked us about this photo portrait of an elderly woman in a Navy uniform.

Our lead programmer gave him a brief synopsis of Grace M H's contribution to the digital dawn and also highlighted that our entire financial system was based on Cobol.

The chairman was quite impressed, but I reckon it was because of our program team leader's passion for what she had achieved.

A few years later we relocated the IT department to the group's corporate HQ. The chairman and directors were giving some high profile customers a tour of the HQ including our IT department.

One of the VIPs asked about Grace Murray Hopper's framed photo which was relocated too. Our chairman rattled off, almost word for word how she was a pioneer in computing. He also made mention that the companies within the group used Cobol too.

I guess Grace Hopper touched us all in a small way, she was the unsung hero known only to us back room geeks.

Every now and then she gets a mention and I can only smile when she does. A brilliant mathematician who was a pioneer in so many ways..

Grace, once again, I salute you

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Wimmin's day?

Wasn't that yesterday??

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Dare and Do !

Good article. An interesting woman and deserving winner of the Defense Distinguished Service Medal and Computer Sciences, er, Man of the Year (lol), among many honours. Wonder where she hung that last one.

Unfortunately the author walks straight into a trap of desperate overstatement with this howler:

"1906... an age where women were supposed to be seen and not heard.".

After that the article settles down in to good solid, El-Reg stuff, before weirdly ending on a bootnote so irrelevant and tendentious one can't help wondering how balanced the rest of the article was. Hopper's success stands on its own merits, witnessed by countless awards and her lofty rank. Any Fact-photoshoppery, even with the best of intentions, is an unnecessary distraction and does no service to the Admiral's memory.

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Now Let's Drop Romanticism

..and analyse her real achievements:

A) A clumsy language named Cobol, used massively by beancounters and the finance industry

B) visualizing a nanosecond of light travel with a 30cm wire. I knew that fact before I could write any useful program, because I am a man and physics education mattered to me.

How does that compare to Fortran, which was invented almost at the same time and still is the best numerics language ? Fortran has been used to simulate nuclear processes (for killing, healing and much more), weather systems, airflows around flying objects, engines, turbines and essentially every relevant physical process.

What did bring mankind forward ? Beancounting and finance or true science (the "social science" bullshit does not count here) and engineering ? If finance, trading, shop-keeping and so on were more important than science&engineering, the Arabs would be the center of human civilization.

It appears that the good-old spearlobbing men who recently (2000 years ago) roamed the forests of Europe have pushed mankind more forward, because they knew "talking" to a spear would not help to make it fly a longer distance. You can talk to nature all day long and it will still not comply. It will not listen to your stupid "social" lies and manipulations. Men know this. That is why they spend thousands of hours playing with nature itself to make a better spear, to get a new turbine working, to characterize a seemingly arcane process.

Men know that idle words mean nothing to nature - they might mean something to humans. That is why Fortran is a rather cryptic language, but it is perfect to simulate the performance of that latest spear you and your fellow men have under development. Cobol is lots of talking and little substance. Ideal for the money world.

Now, should all human beings be cold-steel rational thinkers ? That would probably be a catastrophe for mankind. We might conclude that we are "not more than collections of atoms" and "we can kill all of mankind just for fun - it's just a bunch of pointless atoms". We could never raise kids on male rationality solely.

There certainly is a need for the "social intelligence" which women obviously have. In kindergardens, in hospitals and probably in every functioning household.

Just don't call it "discrimination" when women have different skills than men. Let me do my spearlobbery and you please mind all the "social" stuff which I only partially comprehend. I appreciate your work and you appreciate mine. At least that is what I infer from all the ladies with their cars and smart phones. And the nice jet holiday flights which can all be traced back to the Messerschmitt 262. Or the satellite conferences made possible because that von Braun wanted to build the ultimate missile and devoted his life to that.

That's a nice hydrazine fire because my latest contraption failed.

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Cobol v Fortran

When I were a lad, I worked in life assurance and learnt to code in both. We wrote the main program in Cobol, because reading structured files from tape and manipulating dates in Fortran is a bit of a pig, and called Fortran subroutines to handle the actuarial calculations. But (as in most compiled languages) the actual assembler performed equally quickly whichever high-level language it was written in (assuming some competence in writing the original code). It's just that an equation can be written in a line of Fortran took would take 10 lines of Cobol. And Fortran also has the big advantage that there are a huge number of pre-written subroutines for carrying out almost any numerical function.

FWIW the driving force behind Cobol was that the source code could be shown to a business line manager who was not a programmer and the program's function explained. Whether this is actually possible is debatable, but you've certainly got more chance with Cobol than with C++.

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Re: Now Let's Drop Romanticism

> Fortran, which was invented almost at the same time and still is the best numerics language

For some values of "best" that have to do with cleaning toilets at McDonalds.

Seriously, if there is anything good about that crud collector language it has been added in the 90s.

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Re: Now Let's Drop Romanticism

"if there is anything good about that crud collector language"

I assume it is pointless with you, but if you want to be enlightened why Fortran still blows C++ into little pieces performance-wise, you might read the papers of a certain David Kuck when he was at the university of illinois.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Kuck

http://www.mun.ca/hpc/kapc/kapc_osf_ug0115.html

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Windows

Re: Now Let's Drop Romanticism

Work on code optimization over 4 decades makes code more optimal.

Vector processing is more vector.

Language born from a straightjacket in order to compile to optimizable stuff is easier to optimize.

Next: People in wheelchairs roll faster.

Yeah, well, I'm blown away kid. To warm myself tonight, I will burn my UNICOS manual.

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Re: Now Let's Drop Romanticism

"because I am a man and physics education mattered to me"

That might not be the best thing to saywhen you are trying to persuade people.

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Re: Cobol v Fortran

FWIW the driving force behind Cobol was that the source code could be shown to a business line manager who was not a programmer and the program's function explained. Whether this is actually possible is debatable, but you've certainly got more chance with Cobol than with C++.

While this is a nice idea, it's not true that it was "the driving force behind [COBOL]". The original CODASYL report doesn't discuss readability for non-programmers, as far as I can recall. What it does promote is the (now generally discredited, but plausible at the time) idea that programs could be created by domain experts who had no specialized knowledge of programming - the same claims later made for 4GLs and the like.

That said, I believe the argument you make - that non-programmers could read parts of a COBOL program - was presented relatively early in the history of COBOL, though primarily for issues of compliance and verification of algorithms rather than management. That is, programmers could indicate the parts of a source listing which performed particular computations, and accountants and the like could confirm that those computations met regulatory requirements. It's easy to compare many of the line instructions on US tax forms with the equivalent COBOL code, for example.

Certainly FLOW-MATIC, CODASYL, and COBOL were all generally motivated by the idea that readability is important. This idea often runs a bit too far beneath the surface of programming language development; thus languages with some excellent abstractions, such as those in the ML family, are marred by excessive and idiomatic use of punctuation and a weakness for emulating some forms of mathematical notation which are far less useful in source code than they are in their original context. But it does occasionally come up, as with Knuth's "Literate Programming".

(Ironically, Knuth LP is something of a disaster, since the source for a literate program is written in an unreadable mess of text, code, and TeX-derived markup. But the idea was good.)

I presented on this a few years ago at the annual conference of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing. It's quite interesting to follow the history of attempts to make source code readable.

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