Saturday, March 1, 2014

Memoirists: Richard Gabriel

In 1996, Richard Gabriel published Patterns of Software, a collection of essays mostly about computer programming. As far as I can see, Oxford University Press has let it go out of print. Recently, though, I noticed that it is freely available in PDF format at Gabriel's site Dreamsongs It is well worth a look, particularly for those interested in programming, but also for those interested in his reflections about schooling and education. The book is free: you really should read at least the essay "A Personal Narrative: Journey to Stanford."

The memoirs appear in  Parts IV and V (of v) "The Life of the Critic" and "Into the Ground." Of the four chapters, I think that the first, "A Personal Narrative: Journey to Stanford" will be of most interest to those not involved with computers. Gabriel grew up in northern Massachusetts, on a farm outside Merrimac. This meant, among other things, that he attended what was said to be the worst high school in Massachusetts, perhaps the worst in the northeastern United States. Even so, he might have gone on to attend Harvard, but for an inadvertent conflict with a sensitive teacher. He ended up at Northeastern University, where he discovered programming. After graduation, he went on to a year at MIT, and then to the University of Illinois, and ultimately Stanford.

The point that he makes that strikes me most is
Being smart is largely learned  behavior. When I went to Northeastern—mediocre as it was then—I had a tough time adjusting to the way people talked and how smart they were. Keep in mind that every year only a handful of students in my high school went on to a real college and so there was no pressure at all to be smart.
 (Yet he had the toughness to meet the challenge there, and at MIT, and UIUC; many of us would have folded.)

The chapters "A Personal Narrative: Stanford", "Into the Ground: Lisp", and "Into the Ground: C++" have a lot to say about graduate school and the tech industry. Whether they will engage anyone not involved with and interested in computing, I can't say.

The first three parts of the book are primarily about the programming world as it was then. The software world of 1996 was very different from what we see today. The scripting languages so much used now were hardly known.  PHP, the language in which Facebook is written, had been devised the year before. Gabriel writes of a world in which programmers not working in finance or scientific establishments tended to use C, Assembler, or maybe C++. Still, his essay "The End of History and the Last Programming Language" remains relevant. His argument that "Languages are accepted and evolve according to a social process, not a technical or technological one" seems to me correct. That "Successful languages must not require users have 'mathematical sophistication.'" is probably true, to the chagrin of the Haskell and OCaml folks. The requirement that successful languages have modest or minimal resource requirements has decreased in importance, since computers are so much more powerful.

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