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Volume 22, No.3

Memories of Ken

From Arthur Whitney

The acts of great men deserve acts, not words, in their honour. So I’ll keep this short.

In the fall of 1950, at Harvard, a math professor came up to my dad, and said, with typical American enthusiasm and shaky geography, “There’s another student here from Saskatchewan!”

Well, they were both from Alberta. And they became very good friends. It’s well known that a lot of programming languages come from Alberta. Probably less well known is the fact that good languages, like APL, come from northern Alberta. Java is from Calgary.

Ken and my dad had a lot in common. They were both born in 1920 in small towns in northern Alberta, served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the war, won scholarships to Harvard Graduate School. And they were both gifted mathematicians.

It was very lucky for me that they were friends because when my father died in the Sixties I adopted Ken even though he lived three thousand miles away. For the last 35 years, every year or two we’ve visited, and I’ve really enjoyed his friendship.

Ken was extremely gracious, dignified and intelligent. And he had a sense of humour. One time I was complaining about an impertinent customer who was making suggestions, and he said, “You know, Arthur when I worked at IBM, I learned that it’s important to listen to your customers; and it’s even more important to disregard what they say, and do the right thing.”

Another time when I was concerned about getting credit for some idea I had, he said, “Arthur, if it’s a really good idea, you’re going to have to shove it down people’s throats. Don’t be worried about getting credit.” Or when I mentioned “computer science”, he said, “Any field of study that has the word science in it probably isn’t.” This is how mathematicians make friends. Ken was a wonderful combination of pragmatism and wit, and he had the conversational style of Socrates. An evening with Ken was very exciting, and could be a little stressful. Declarative statements were questioned and had to be justified. “Compared to what?” was a common refrain. But some statements are easy; they require no justification. APL and J are elegant languages. And Ken was a great man, and I will miss him.

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