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Oral History of John Backus (2006) [pdf] (computerhistory.org)
56 points by mpweiher 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 6 comments

Fascinating read! I mean, all those interviews are. But I like how open and down-to-earth Mr. Backus was in this interview.

My favorite part (I think) is his description of his experiences as a visiting professor at Berkeley: "Never gave a lecture, just sat around in the engineering building. At the end of the year they were so pleased with my performance they invited me to be a visiting professor for another year. Again, never gave a lecture [...]"

Most interesting. He does not convey a real sense of enthusiasm, or even engagement with his own work: on the other hand, Booch interviewed him when he was 80.

His later work on functional programming was more or less a failure even by his own words:

Backus: But it was ultimately unsuccessful because it couldn’t take in all the peripheral stuff that you had. Booch: Your functional programming work was unsuccessful. Backus: Yes.

But also the video adds more colour he's got a dry sarcastic personality.

Booch: Your functional programming work was going down such a different path, of pushing simplicity and power of expressiveness and the like.

Backus: But it was ultimately unsuccessful because it coul dn’t take in all the peripheral stuff that you had.

Booch: Your functional programming work was unsuccessful.

Backus: Yes.

Booch: Let’s dwell upon that for a moment, because there were some other papers that I saw after your Turing Award lecture [“Can Programming Be Liberat ed From the von Neummann Style”, 1977] which was also a turning point. Because I’d describe it as a wake-up call to the language developers and programmers, saying there’s a different way of look ing at the world here. The world was going down a very different path. Let me pursue that point of why you think it didn’t succeed.

Backus: Well, because the fundamental paradigm did not in clude a way of dealing with real time. It was a way of saying how to transform this thing into that thing, but there was no element of time involved, and that was where it got hung up.

Booch: That’s a problem you wrestled with for literally years.

Backus: Yeah, and unsuccessfully.


Booch: What would be your advice to somebody that would want to take up the banner of functional programming? Where would you suggest they begin, and what hard problems would you like them to pursue?

Backus: Well, trying to functionalize all the input/output stuff.

Booch: Helping it talk to the real world.

Backus: Yes.

Booch: Do you think there’s a class of problems for which functional programming is better suited to solving than contemporary languages?

Backus: Well, any problem that just wants to transform some piece of data into another piece, I’d say functional programming is better suited to that.


Backus: Well, that remains to be seen. Actually that functional programming was an effort to try to go up a level, so that you didn't have to keep saying how to do everything, but rather say what you wanted done. That idea of saying what you want done bumps up against a lot of problems in input and output, and stuff like that.

Booch: All those real things.

Backus: But that's basically where it should go.


Backus: Well, yes. If they can really bet on software that will make it possible to say what you want done rather than how to do it. I think that would be nice.

Booch: Here's a philosophical question, speaking of softwar e. Is the world a better place because of all the software that's been written in your lifetime, or not?

Backus: Well, in human terms, probably not. Because it just takes us further and further away from human affairs. But as far as economic, and welfare, it's done a lot of good. So it's a mixed bag.

Booch: It is a mixed bag, it really is. You strike me as just an amazingly very human and gentle and caring person from that answer, and I absolutely love that. Where do we go from here? What do you think is going to happen in my lifetime?

Backus: Well, I don't know. But I don't envy you, I'm afraid. I think that we're getting more and more technological and less and less human oriented. And as a country, we're getting tremendously aggressive, and we're going to pay for it. So it's a tough call.

Booch: I'll sleep well tonight now. <laughs> I meet with a lot of people who are considering, should they pursue a career in software or not, hardware or software, anything in th is space at all. Any advice you might offer? If you were to talk to somebody, say in high school or something like that, saying, "Gee, what should I do here?", what would you say to that person?

Backus: Well, don't go into software. It's just such a complicated mess that you just frazzle your brains trying to do anything worthwhile.

Booch: Understood. Looking back on it all, have you had fun?

Backus: Yeah, I had a lot of fun.

Booch: And the most fun you talked about was the Fortran days and the SSEC...

Backus: Yeah, that was a lot of fun. I had a lot of fun too working on the functional programming stuff.

The interview on YouTube. It's an hour and 27 minutes. The audio quality seems excellent.


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