17.280 dance steps to coding

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Tue Oct 07 2003 - 02:01:11 EDT

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 280.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Tue, 07 Oct 2003 06:59:49 +0100
             From: Alan D Corre <corre@uwm.edu>
             Subject: Re: 17.279 dance steps to coding

    I really like the title of this thread. It has produced some interesting
    and thoughtful contributions.

    I became interested in computing some thirty years ago when I read of a
    project in Italian texts being carried out in Utrecht by Prof. Alinei. I
    paid him a visit, and he graciously showed me what he was doing. I thought
    it might help me to carry out a dictionary and chrestomathy of
    Judeo-Arabic texts that I was contemplating. At that time it was quite
    difficult for humanists to find out what the computer could do, and how to
    operate it. My university has a Social Science Research Facility, and they
    offered to help me, and I got started. I devised a transcription scheme
    for Judeo-Arabic, and had the good fortune to locate a student from Iraq
    who also knew Hebrew, and had studied computers in the Israeli army. And
    he was qualified for a government student help scheme which enabled me to
    pay him, expending only a nickel from my available funds for every dollar
    he received. He cheerfully and accurately entered the texts on punch
    cards. This all went along quite well, but I became tired of having to go
    to my programmer every time I needed some slight modification, so I read a
    pamphlet by the Research Facility about the Univac 1100 we were using and
    its editor, and became able to do many things without help. I lectured on
    this project in 1982 in Paris at a symposium on Jewish languages, and the
    lecture was put out (in French) with illustrations, in volume 2 of
    "Massorot" published by the Magnes Press of the Hebrew University a few
    years later.

    I then looked at programming languages. Fortran was opaque, and Cobol
    clumsy in my eyes, but Pascal came as a revelation. It was just so
    *beautiful*. It had a clear, logical structure, was straightforward, and
    was a pleasure to use. I felt somehow that it helped me to think
    logically. Pascal was designed for teaching students the bases of
    programming theory, and it does it wonderfully well. Or did. I guess it is
    hard to find Pascal these days.

    The Apple II+ came as another revelation. No longer did I have to
    laboriously enter programs on a clattering punch machine, hand them in at
    a desk, and wait an hour to find that I had made a little mistake that had
    to be corrected. The Apple had a beautiful Pascal using Ken Bowles'
    P-machine editor, and it compiled instantly to memory! Punch cards were
    history! I found a program in Apple Pascal in Byte magazine which made it
    possible to customize the character set, and I was able to create useful
    programs to drill my students in Hebrew in the Language Lab.

    Later, I became interested in the Icon programming language evolved by
    Ralph Griswold of Arizona, which is wonderful for text processing. It is
    the structured successor to Snobol-4 in which my dictionary program was
    written. I published a book, now long out of print, with Prentice-Hall,
    called "Icon Programming for Humanists." This largely showed how
    statistical techniques applied to texts could readily be programmed.

    I wrote a program which gives corresponding Gregorian/Jewish dates
    beginning around 3400 BCE and going up to modern times and beyond in Icon,
    originally for the old enormous Univac (which allowed me 128 *kilobytes*
    of memory) and later ported it to MSDOS. When the World Wide Web came
    along, I modified the program for the Web, and it is now used all over the
    world by historians, lawyers, and people who need to figure out the date
    for a barmitzvah. The Jewish calendar is quite complex, because it has six
    possible lengths, harmonizing the solar year and the lunar month, which is
    quite difficult to do, and is based on calculations made with astonishing
    accuracy for the time by the Athenian astronomer Meton in the fifth
    century BCE.

    Currently, I am placing Judeo-Arabic texts on the Web, which can be read
    in the original script without any special software, other than the
    Acrobat Reader, which most people have anyway. Clicking on underlined
    words calls up a comment or explanation.

    Using the computer has been a beautiful and productive dance for me, and I
    recommend any humanist to learn the steps.

                              Alan D. Corre
                      Emeritus Professor of Hebrew Studies
                      University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

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