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Jocelyn Paine

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Computer Science Revues at Cornell's Upson Hall

December 20, 2009

Heard about the Dining Philosopher who evaded resource starvation by sending letter bombs to his neighbours? Or copy 722 of Dante's Inferno, which has a Circle of Hell especially for computer science Ph.D.'s whose theses exceed a hundred pages? Or the joke by induction? It goes like this: "if you thought that last joke was funny wait until you hear the next one". I 've just chanced upon a Cornell University technical report containing scripts for computer science revues, years 1977 to 1981. It's TR82-482, Opening Night at Upson Hall (Scripts from Holiday Party Skits), also here as OCR'd text rather than PDF image. One sketch shows us a student, who earlier in the script was regretting that all he knows is Cornell's teaching language PL/C, ordering a language at Corky Cartwright's All-Language Cafeteria:

CONCROFT: Morning.
Corky: Morning.
CONCROFT: Well, what ya got?
Corky: Well, there's Bliss and Algol; Bliss, Snobol and Algol; Bliss and LISP; Bliss, Algol and LISP; Bliss, Algol, Snobol and LISP; LISP, Algol, Snobol and LISP; LISP, Bliss, LISP, LISP, Algol and LISP; LISP, Snobol, LISP, LISP, LISP, Algol, LISP, APL and LISP; LISP, LISP, LISP, Bliss and LISP; LISP, LISP, LISP, LISP, LISP, LISP, Russell, LISP, LISP, LISP and LISP; (pause) Or Algol68, fully implemented with true parallelism, automatic proof checking, complete runtime support, enhanced with message passing and multiprocessor synchronization and error repair, written in LISP.
ELIJAH: Have you got anything without LISP?

Hat tip to Monty Python's spam sketch. I didn't know who Corky Cartwright was, though it seemed fair to assume some association with LISP — but it took only a minute with Google to find out. He joined Cornell in 1976, as the right-hand sidebar on this advert for Cornell College of Engineering tells me.

Better known to me than Corky Cartwright is John Hopcroft, because of his books on data structures, algorithms, and automata. It would seem that some students found his lectures hard:

On second thought, this lemma has too many details for me to prove it. You can fill in the details of the proof yourself as soon as you figure out what the theorem was, that I was trying to prove. Is everybody bored — I mean on board? I see some blank faces. You may think this result isn't possible. Actually, it probably isn't. That is if you insist on using any standard model of computation. Mter you have straightened out your notes, you should be able to find a suitable model which will make this theorem interesting or somethin'. Now for my next theorem...
As a graduate student laments in another sketch:
Work! Work! I should have done more work
From my desk I never should have strayed
Beer! Beer! I should have had less beer
Then I might have earned a passing grade

I should have worked all night
I should have worked all night
Prepared for my exam

If I had worked all night
I might have got some right
Oh why did I not cram?

I couldn't prove a single theorem
Although I tried with all my might

I should have known that beer
Would not make theory clear
I should have worked, worked, worked
All night

By the way, I ought to point out that this fun-poking at Cornell staff is all in good heart. As the abstract to Opening Night at Upson Hall says:

Every holiday season comes the time when the thoughts of graduate students at Cornell turn to the fast-approaching A-exams. More precisely, they think, "We'd better get them before they get us.". Hence, these attempts at theatrical productions. Although they are based on the quirks and idiosyncracies of faculty members, they should not be taken as criticism. The authors would prefer to think that everyone is laughing together, rather than at anyone in particular.

Other gems include the deluxe Red Light pushdown automaton: a real connoisseur's machine, this, with a big red light on the finite control that warns a little man living in the stack when the tape head has fallen off the end of its tape. And there's The Critical Region, a parody of The Twilight Zone suggested by David Gries. If you practice multithreading, take heed.

One sketch has a pleasingly succinct put-down. Professor Duckstra is lecturing on the topic "Is terminating sometimes ever better than ... not terminating?" As he explains (with reference to crossword clues and weakest preconditions applied to the semantics of "YES"), a listener interjects:

But why worry about not terminating? PL/C only gives you one second and then terminates for you.
PL/C, as I mentioned at the start, was a language that Cornell developed and used for teaching. The interjection, I suspect, is mocking either limits on the time allowed for student programs running on Cornell's time-sharing system, or PL/C's supposed inability to complete a run without crashing. And don't we all know languages like that. I spent a happy blogging session laughing at the jokes in these revues.

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