Some Books on C

March 26, 2016

I have gathered such introductory books on the C programming language as I own or could borrow. The result is an eight-storey tower. A quick scan shows that I could easily buy another half dozen, but I doubt whether that would yield any new insights.

For most teachers “an introductory programming book with C” is an oxymoron. The extreme wing in this school of thought consider only designedly friendly languages suitable for an introduction to programming. BASIC is an early example. My current favourite friendly language is Python [1]. But the mainstream of teachers of introductory programming has settled on Java as a compromise between friendliness and attractiveness to prospective employers.

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Why does C not have an exponentiation operator?

March 15, 2016

The most authoritative source for an answer to the question in the title would be Dennis Ritchie. Next best is Bjarne Stroustrup:

The semantics of C operators should be simple to the point where each corresponds to a machine instruction on a typical computer. An exponentiation operator doesn’t meet this criterion. [1], page 247

Stroustrup’s criterion needs to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, the assignment operator does not meet the criterion: a = b takes a LOAD and a STORE. In this case the criterion translates to: “should correspond to no more than a LOAD and a STORE. But Stroustrup was onto something, because we can tweak his answer to:

The semantics of C operators should be simple to the point where they each compile to code that is as fast as what one can write in assembler.

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IA or AI?

October 9, 2015

I’ve been reading a paper [1] written two decades ago, which itself is an account of events two decades before that. It is Alan Kay nominally writing about the history of a programming language called Smalltalk. I say “nominally” because already by Smalltalk 72, Kay was losing interest in language matters and wanted concentrate on what the language, as part of the computer-as-medium, could do for thought. Along with various other sources of inspiration that led to Smalltalk (Sutherland’s Sketchpad, the Burroughs B220, the Burroughs B5000, …) Kay mentions attending in 1968 the conference presentation by Douglas Engelbart [2] that has since become known as the “Mother of All Demos”.

In 1968, when timesharing by users behind teletype terminals was regarded as avant-garde, Engelbart gave a demo that featured a number of firsts: a screen display for both and text and graphics, interactive text-editing, a mouse. All that was integrated into a fluidly handled medium. Kay gives testimony to the huge impression this made on him: “Engelbart was a prophet of Biblical proportions”.

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Recursion versus iteration

July 30, 2014

The first programming language to allow functions to be recursively defined was McCarthy’s LISP in 1959. Its introduction was not controversial: nobody but John McCarthy had any say in what the language was going to be. In addition to his work on LISP, McCarthy was on the committee finalizing the Algol language in 1959 and 1960. In spite of the fact that a majority was opposed to it, the definition of Algol 60 ended up allowing recursively defined procedures. In [1] I gave an acount of how this happened.

Why was recursion such a big deal? For us this is hard to understand: for decades the programming language C, not exactly a paradigm of avant-garde, has allowed recursion. Still, remnants of unease remain. Still, in some introductory courses, recursion plays the role of a pons asinorum. Have instructors been traumatized by a sarcastic teacher finding, oh horrors, a circular definition in their high-school essay? In this essay I’m going to explore recursion by contrasting it to its opposite, iteration.

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How recursion got into programming: a tale of intrigue, betrayal, and advanced programming-language semantics

June 18, 2014

By now it is difficult to imagine that once there was a time when the utility, and even the possibility, of recursion in programming was in doubt. Yet that was true of the programming community around 1960. Even the committee that was to create Algol 60 was divided on the issue. How recursion got into the language is a story of intrigue and misunderstandings. I came across this story for the first time when reading Gauthier van den Hove’s excellent MSc thesis [11]. It is also the subject of Chapter 3 in [12].

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Dijkstra, Blaauw, and the origin of computer architecture

June 14, 2014

E.W. Dijkstra is known for several important contributions. It does not seem to be widely known that he played a role in the origin of computer architecture as a concept. In arguing that this is the case I draw attention to the passage in his 1972 Turing lecture where he recounts that the darkest week in his professional life was when he studied the specifications of a newly announced line of computers that he does not further specify than being “of the third generation”.

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Python slams into its exponential wall

April 6, 2014

My first Python sighting was around 1999, in the part of the building where the hackers hang out. Somebody had a poster on the door saying something like If you would have used Python, then you would have been done by now.

Next stop 2005. Since 1986 I had been a fan of “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs” by Harold Abelson and Gerald Sussman. At the University of Waterloo it was only in a fourth-year topics course that this book could make a brief appearance. I was envious of MIT, where masses of first-year students took EECS 6.001, where Abelson and Sussman was used from day one. That was class. In 2005 I heard the sad news that, after two glorious decades, EECS 6.001 was closed down, replaced by a course where the text was … a book written for high-school students. Maybe EECS wouldn’t have picked that book if its language would have been BASIC. Perhaps it had to do with the book’s choice of Python. It was from this news item that I learned that Python is a programming language.

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Boltzmann’s Brood

March 8, 2014

When Ludwig Boltzmann (physicist, 1844–1906) was criticized for his ugly brute-force calculations, his defence was: “Elegance should be the concern of shoemakers and tailors”. The criticism was of course not about elegance in the sense of fashion. It was about the fact that an elegant structure would have had the power to convince the reader of whatever the calculations were intended to demonstrate.

I think this episode has something to do with the fact that much of what we do on computers depends on software that, among other weaknesses, is in need of frequent and urgent “security updates”. Those who criticize this state of affairs are dismissed as unrealistic. To be realistic is to understand that any useful piece of software consists of millions of lines of code written by many programmers, mostly no longer traceable and certainly not accountable. No one has a clear view of the system as a whole; there is no description that enables anyone to gain such a view. The realists of today, who accept this state of affairs as inevitable, are of Boltzmann’s brood.

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The H-bomb and birth of the computer, part III: triumph of brains and slide-rules

April 2, 2013

The question that led to von Neumann’s involvement with Edvac in 1944-1945 was whether Teller’s design (the “Super”) for a hydrogen bomb was feasible. The question that von Neumann wanted to settle was whether in Teller’s design a fission explosion causes a self-sustained propagation of fusion in fusible material.

When Eniac was ready for the first trials in December 1945, von Neumann had convinced its owner, the Ballistics Research Laboratory, to give the ultra-secret computation from Los Alamos priority. Only the researchers from Los Alamos, Metropolis and Frankel, had the requisite security clearance to know the subject of the computation. The necessary personnel to help operating the Eniac did not. The problem was finessed by ruling that the equations and the data only were demoted from their lofty top-secret classification. Eniac performed splendidly, all 18,000 tubes working in unison for a sufficient proportion of time to get the computation completed in six weeks.

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The H-bomb and the computer, part II: the revolution that almost didn’t happen

April 2, 2013

In spite of the tumultuous development of computers, the architecture in the form of the fetch-execute cycle has remained the same from EDVAC design of 1945 to the present day. And we are used to call this basic architecture “von Neumann machine”. This makes John von Neumann a sort of patron saint of our field.

Not everyone accords this status to the great mathematician who lived from 1903 to 1957. One of my favourite architecture books refuses [5, page 32] to use the term because of the supposedly equal contributions by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. Many of those who do accord full credit to von Neumann for the architecture invoke the name in the pejorative sense of “von Neumann bottleneck” and suggest that the architecture has hindered rather than helped the development of computers.

In this essay I review publications that shed light on the origin of the computer and conclude that it was von Neumann who made the critical contributions in 1944 and 1945. In addition I will argue that von Neumann’s was the basic architecture that propelled the computer along its miraculous trajectory covering three orders of magnitude in size and five in cost and processor speed. Finally I will reflect on the fact that von Neumann was not only an extraordinary genius, but also that he combined in his background a most unusual combination of disciplines — a combination that was essential to the birth of the computer. Without this fortuitous confluence of circumstances the development of computers in the period 1950 – 2000 would not have had the explosive character that we actually experienced. Hence “The Revolution That Almost Didn’t Happen.”

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