“What is it?” asked Arthur
“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s a sort of electronic book. It tells
you everything you need to know about anything. That’s its job.”
Arthur turned it over nervously in his hands.
“I like the cover,” he said. “ ‘Don’t Panic.’ It’s the first helpful or
intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day.”
Douglas Adams – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The kind and enveloping warmth that greeted me and kept me company while in Madrid for the APL2002 conference was not enough to hide the fact that I felt something wrong. It was not the venue, although something could be said about the lack of a place where attendees could sit and talk together; it was not the open and pleasant atmosphere of the European capital, despite its distressingly high rate of thefts, attempted and succeeded; it was not the Spanish language that, it’s no secret, I am not very fond of, one of those hard to explain, irrational dislikes. I felt as if there was something missing, something that made even the purely social aspects of the gathering somewhat duller than expected.
I am biased but I must admit once more that the highlight of the conference was Dyadic’s presentation: the not so new anymore but still exciting Dyalog.NET, on one side, and on the other, project X, finally revealed to be a port to the PocketPC platform of the full-featured interpreter. Now that we are used to high-resolution screens it is unclear to me how people will be able to exploit the possibilities of the ultimate portable device with its cranked screen estate, but it was not so long ago that IBM’s CGA ruled in the PC world and there are very bright programmers in the community of array-oriented programming languages.
It would be unfair to forget APL2000’s blazing introduction to Web Services and not to congratulate MicroAPL for their reborn APLX, or IBM for their steady introduction of new features in APL2 and their new pricing policy for educational purposes. It would probably be fair to forget Soliton’s pathetic presentation on a feature just introduced in their Sharp APL, a very long hour and a half spent describing with a detail not even a reference manual gets into, the so-called control-structures. Still I don’t feel like forgiving the speaker simply because he warned the audience before he started that it was going to be boring. Let’s face it: even if some purists still haven’t accepted them, more for academic reasons than because they would not bring real benefits to APL programs, control-structures are part of the daily routine of most of the APL programmers who attend APL conferences, so it’s hardly a topic worth more than a five minute announcement. What is really sad is that Soliton is doing a lot of interesting work based on their Java interface and that they allowed themselves to commit public suicide by making believe the unaware audience that there’s nothing more exciting in Sharp APL than “:if” and friends. In fact, just like Soliton’s show, the conference turned out to be a bit of a let-down, not because of a real lack of interesting topics that the community could have brought up, but because of the poor choice. I would not blame the organisers for this, since even a genius artist would have trouble shaping a masterpiece out of bad raw materials, and also because the program committee (I was part of it) did not do anything to improve the situation when they noticed that the content would not be up to standard.
Since we cannot change the past, it would be a good idea to at least try and make the best out of this unsatisfying experience and learn from our mistakes. In fact those who were disappointed by this year’s conference should be looking forward to better occasions in the future. Maybe because of its youth, APL2000’s user conference is still in the improving phase, despite its already good quality, and has pretty much substituted the SIGAPL conference in the heart of very many American users. Even Dyalog APL’s users have started attending it, and would probably welcome a European event, similar in content and organisation, better if centred around their favourite interpreter. Does this mean that it is time to retire The (capital “T”) APL conference? I don’t think so, at least not without giving it another chance. I believe that fragmenting the community more than it already is would be detrimental to the future development of array oriented languages. It’s only through the exchange of experiences and ideas that there can be progress. This is one of the reasons why I am very much in favour of expanding the scope of the conference to other array oriented languages: J, K and the old but new A+, which are closest to APL but also the other ones. Berlin2000 featured a few, academic but promising ones, and the paper by Paul Cockshott on Vector Pascal was the best research paper presented in Madrid2002. Now that the rest of the computing world, outside the laboratories of abstract research, is starting to see the benefits of the think-array philosophy when providing solutions for everyday business issues, now is the time to mix our experience, hopefully still supported by an ageless enthusiasm, with their new and fresh approach.