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The founding of Iverson College

Another type of travelling

Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana
Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice

It began in Venice. Miki had taken me there, her third visit, my first. We spent a day touring around, admiring the buildings and canals. I was impressed. “This is like Disneyland,” I said.

“No,” I corrected myself, “this is the original. Disneyland is like this.”

Aldo Manuzio
Aldo Manuzio

But I flagged. I am not a good tourist. Something repels me about treating a place as a spectacle for my education or entertainment. It turns a place into something to be consumed, its inhabitants into costumed ornaments. The Mickey Mouse and Goofy masks may be missing; the relationship is the same.

I revolted. On our second day I marched us into the tourist office off the Piazza San Marco.

— “Aldo Manuzio used to live here, I think?”
— “Ah, si! His house is quite close.”
— “Thank you — but I don’t need to see where he ate breakfast. He made books. Did you keep any?”

Blackletter type
Blackletter type
Aldine Press product
Aldine type

These it appeared, would be in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, also just off the Piazza.

I should explain. At the end of the fifteenth century Aldo Manuzio set up a printing press in Venice. The typefaces he had cut for his books revolutionised printing. Before, printed books looked like the hand-written books they had succeeded, with thick black lettering that modern readers struggle to decipher. His Aldine Press produced books with light, legible typefaces that still look familiar and readable, centuries later.

Around the corner from the Piazza, the library entry hall sported a big sign in Italian and English: the library is not open to visitors. One of my proudest moments: I used my toilet-and-restaurant Italian to blag a reader’s ticket, on the strength of my declaration that I was a student of digital typography. I spent the day in the library poring through old books. Miki, a photographer, wandered the city making pictures. We met for lunch. Over dinner I enthused about what I had found, and what a great day I had had.

And so I discovered how I really like to travel: to have some work to do, to which the location is a backdrop, experienced obliquely. We should come back, I thought. I’ll rent a big apartment for a week or three. I’ll bring some colleagues. We’ll each bring our own work to do; go out for lunch and dinner. So much to learn and share, so much better than formal presentations at conferences. Maybe time to do a little work together.

Array programmers tend to be somewhat scattered. As a young man I’d worked in offices and learned most of what I knew from the people around me. I missed that.

Trinity Hall
Trinity Hall

I pitched the idea to Arthur, who thought it sounded fun. But it seemed a lot of trouble to arrange and I did nothing until I attended the XML Summer School in Oxford and saw my way. I booked 20 rooms at Trinity Hall in Cambridge and invited Arthur and other colleagues to bring their work, and come and live with me like students for a week. We had a common work room and a private dining room. We called the event Iverson College.

We were APL, J, and q developers and implementors; veterans and also some youngsters who showed promise. We had lots to talk about, and there were frequent requests for someone to present to the whole group. We did not need a programme. We were the programme. We had guests from Microsoft Research, interested to hear what was happening in the array languages.

Morning work session, Lucca, 2017
Morning work session, Lucca, 2017

Brooke Allen told me: Work every day except play days. So we had one day as a play day, hired punts and took picnics up the river to swim at Grantchester Meadows in the waters where Russell, Wittgenstein, and Rupert Brooke had all bathed.

The event was a success. Several participants declared it better than any conference. So we did it again – at Trinity Hall in Cambridge, at St Edward Hall in Oxford, at a manor house in the Cotswolds, at a farm with a Tudor barn in Suffolk, and once in a villa in Tuscany. The last event before the Covid pandemic, in 2018, we offered a weekend ‘masterclass’ to anyone willing to bring a laptop and sleeping bag and sleep over in the bunkhouse.

It’s hard to know whether the pandemic will permit another such event. And as the extreme weather events worsen from year to year, I find it hard to imagine taking a plane flight that I could avoid – or asking anyone else to do so.

The pandemic has taught us so much about working and relating remotely.

There is a style of coding suitable to the array languages that is strange to coders familiar with C-like languages.

As the community of developers using Iversonian array languages continues to grow and is less concentrated in specialist teams in bank trading rooms, I’m thinking about in what form Iverson College can offer support and encouragement.

Kudos to Adám Brudzewsky of Dyalog, a fellow of the college, for the APL Orchard chatroom and the APL Farm on Discord.


Arthur Whitney
Arthur Whitney

A reader writes:

It made it possible for a lot of people to meet and talk to Arthur, Roger, and the mythical Mr Scholes who would never have managed otherwise and that has done a lot to make sure that there’s a fresh generation of array programmers on the way – who knows who’ll be the next leading lights?

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