THE TOWER OF BABEL


Alice heard the arguing long before she got there. As she looked into the foyer of the tall building, she saw a group of people all talking loudly at each other.

"That is just not the way to do it!"

"You are a big windbag!"

"Well, I think that you are all wrong!"

"I say, there is a much better way. Ummm, yes."

"Darlings, you are all so old-fashioned!"

"You are all inefficient." "Be direct!"

"I, you simplify, tell!"

"Forget those branches!"

Alice did not know quite what to do, but she spotted a little white haired woman off to one side. "She looks a lot like my grandmother," Alice thought. "Maybe she could help me—at least answer a question or two." She walked up to the old lady. "Excuse me, ma'am," Alice said.

"Oh, how do you do?" said the woman turning to Alice, and then before Alice could respond. "It is so nice to see a young girl like yourself here. It is not often I get a chance to talk to anyone else around here except those other language translators, who all think that they know it all. But, of course, they don't really know what they are talking about. Most of them can't even perform the simplest thing correctly. You, on the other hand, look like such a lovely program. I just know that you are a lovely program. I have a way of telling these things, you know, when I first meet one. I am never wrong. Never! At least not about programs. Well, I just imagine that you would never behave like these. Would you?"

Before Alice had a chance to answer, the woman continued, "I remember meeting a program a few years back—it was just after I went into business. Oh, she was such a lovely program—just like you dearie. Anyway we had such a wonderful time talking—she didn't have much to say, come to think of it—but we did have such a nice time together. I wonder if she was a relative of yours? No, probably not. This world is such a big place, and I have talked to so many programs since then—as well as before that one too, of course. Anyway, it is so nice to meet you. I do hope that you can stay a while. You certainly look much nicer than those others. I am never wrong about these things, you know. Maybe it is the young generation, but the programs years ago were so much more courteous then. I do remember...."

"It is nice to meet you too," Alice interrupted loudly. "I really must be going now." And she turned away from the old woman as quickly as she could—before the woman had a chance to start again.

"My goodness, she really talks a lot," Alice said to no one in particular.

"Yes, she does!" came a voice.

Alice turned and saw a young woman looking at her. "Oh, I didn't mean to.... Uhhh, I didn't want to.... You, you two aren't related, or anything? Are you?"

"Don't worry about it," replied the young woman. "She is always that way—can't say the simplest thing in less than a zillion lines! We all are used to her by now."

"Who is she?" asked Alice.

"Oh, her name is Cobol. She has been around here for ages. By the way I'm Pascal." And Pascal extended her hand for Alice to shake.

"I am glad to meet you. I'm Alice. Exactly who are all these people? And why are they arguing?"

"That's easy to answer. Here, let me begin to show you." And with that Pascal opened a large attache case, pulled out a notebook, turned to one of the labeled sections, and showed it to Alice. What Alice saw was a neatly drawn diagram with boxes connected by lines. In each box was a name. The boxes were grouped in shaded circles.

"Oh, there is Cobol," said Alice, noticing that name near the top of the diagram.

"That's right," commented Pascal. "Each of these shaded areas represents what each of us is best suited for, and the lines represent how we are related. We are all language translators."

"Oh, can you translate from Russian to English?" asked Alice.

"My, my! No!" Pascal commented with a giggle. "We all implement a computer language—some of us better than others, of course."

"Why are there so many languages?" inquired Alice.

"Some of the languages are old—like Cobol. Some languages are popular—like me. Some are created for different purposes," Pascal remarked.

"I see your name in many of the areas," said Alice pointing to the diagram.

"Of course! I am well suited for anything!" Pascal responded proudly. "It is because I am so organized."

"Yes, I did notice that," Alice said. "I mean, you have your case and notebook and...."

"One must be organized to do well in college. You see I am a college student," replied Pascal with a smile, but then continued as the smile turned into a frown, "I have learned a lot, and I could tell all these translators a thing or two, but they never listen to me."

"With good reason, I might add!" commented an elderly gentleman. His clothes did not fit quite right, and his greying hair was uncombed. "Dr. Fortran, Ph.D, at your service!", he continued. "She may be organized, but efficient? Never!"

"That's what you claim!" replied Pascal. "But consider all those poor programmers...."

"And that's why there are, I calculate, hundreds of my programs for every one of yours." Dr. Fortran said to Pascal.

"No, there are many more of your programs than mine simply because you have been around longer," stated Pascal emphatically. "Further,...."

"All your book-learning is of no use in the real world—the world full of real and complex calculations!" he interrupted.

"The world has more than numbers!" she shouted back. "Characters are...."

"Real programs don't use characters!" he interrupted.

"Don't talk to me about your worthless programs! At least my programs are well behaved and don't jump around so!"

"Well, at least I'm not recursive!"

"Oh, is that like writing?" asked Alice, hoping to get them to stop arguing. "We learned how to do cursive writing is school."

"No, it is nothing like that," replied Pascal, shaking her head. "It is a very useful way of organizing and writing programs—a way, that I might add, he can't do!" and with this she looked hard at the doctor.

"Aha, your circular reasoning again! There never is any real need to be recursive and define things in terms of themselves!"

"It can simplify things for the programmer, but I guess it does mean you have to do more work!"

"What about all the blocks you are always playing with?" he demanded.

"I can build very complicated structures out of my blocks!" she responded.

"PLEASE!" cried Alice. "Please don't argue!" And she started to walk away even though she knew it was quite impolite.

"She can't help it!" Dr. Fortran called after Alice. "She is full of arguments!"

"So are you! At least mine are all typed!" retorted Pascal, and the two continued their heated exchanges, paying no attention to Alice who looked around sadly.

"What's the matter?

You ok?

Don't be upset.

They aren't that bad."

Alice managed a smile at the big teenager dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt that proclaimed 'The right to assemble'. "Do they always argue like that?" she asked.

"No.

Sometimes it's worse!

Everyone here argues.

Even I.

But then, I'm right."

"But don't they all think they are right?" inquired Alice politely.

"Of course!

They are, partially.

They think they're best.

But they're not."

"Pascal showed me a diagram that showed where each was best used...."

"She would.

She's organized.

But, she's inefficient.

Now, I'm efficient.

Nobody's as good.

They're all wimps." he interrupted.

"Well, why do you think that you are the best?" Alice asked with a smile.

"I know the machine.

Nobody knows better.

Nobody's faster.

I'm the Assembler."

"Oh, what is it that you put together?" Alice asked innocently.

"Nothing!

I don't 'put together'!

I assemble!" he said with a scowl.

"Oh, I'm sorry," replied Alice quickly. "I am afraid I don't know very much about what goes on around here. I didn't mean to upset you. What is it you assemble?"

"The assembly language!

Of course!

Direct to the machine.

It's so efficient.

No wasted steps.

I was before them all." he replied proudly.

"Pascal said you all were language translators. Do you translate this, this assembly language?" Alice asked.

"Of course.

It's straightforward.

It's ultimate control!

It's most efficient."

"And, of course he won't admit it, but it is also rather primitive and simple." It was Dr. Fortran who interjected this comment. He had finally finished his debate with Pascal (Actually, it is more likely they both gave up trying to convince the other one.) and had come over to where Alice was talking to the Assembler.

"But I'm most useful.

Nothing's too hard for me."

"He does speak the truth—as far as it goes," replied Dr. Fortran. "Even I find some use for the assembly language from time to time, and, of course, in the old days we had to rely upon his particular talents a lot more, but these days there really is very little he is needed for."

"I object!

He forgets.

I'm the efficient one."

"Hrumph! Try doing some nice floating point calculations. Even my son, as dull witted as he is, can do floating point arithmetic!" Dr. Fortran directed this latter comment to Alice.

"Who wants to?

I can, if I want.

But, I've better things to do.

"Oh, you have a son?" interjected Alice, who thought it a good idea to try to change the direction of the conversation before another real argument broke out.

"Yes, I do," Dr. Fortran replied sadly. "I was hoping that he might grow up to be like his Dad, but...."

"What is your son's name? May I meet him?" asked Alice.

"I suppose so! BASIC, BASIC!" he shouted. "Come over here." A boy looked up from across the room and replied, "What for?"

"This young program would like to meet you," Dr. Fortran called. And then to Alice he continued quietly as a boy slowly made his way toward them, "His name is Basic. You will discover he is a bit slow. Most of the time things have to be interpreted for him."

When the boy came up to Alice, she smiled and greeted him, "Hello Basic. My name is Alice."

He looked at her for a few seconds, then said slowly, "Hello!" And in a few more seconds, "How are you?"

"I am quite fine, thank you," she replied. "But some of the most curious things have happened to me today."

He looked at her as if he didn't hear her, then asked, "Are... Are you a program?"

"Oh, no!" Alice said with a big smile. "I am a girl, but many people around here have asked me that same question."

He didn't say anything for a longest time, and Alice looked at Dr. Fortran who seemed not to be paying much attention to the conversation and back to Basic, not knowing what to do or say. Finally, Basic remarked, "I never met a girl before." He paused, then added, "Is that anything like a sub..., a sub..., a...."

"A subroutine!" interrupted Dr. Fortran. "No she isn't!" Then to Alice he added, "Honestly, I have tried to teach that boy, but he just doesn't catch on. It seems that subroutines are quite beyond him!"

"Well, I'm not certain I know what a 'subroutine' is," said Alice. "I suppose, if I had to guess, I would guess it is a procedure for a diving boat."

Basic looked at her blankly.

Dr. Fortran looked at her with a scowl and said coolly, "That isn't at all funny. One should not make jokes about such important matters!"

Alice did not know what to say.

It was Basic that finally broke the awkward silence.

"I think I like a 'girl'."

Of course, that made Alice feel even more embarrassed.

It was a small child that relieved the situation. She came running across the room holding a turtle and bumped into Alice.

"Logo, watch where you are going!" cried Dr. Fortran. "Haven't you been told at least six thousand five hundred and two times to watch where you are going?"

The child paused for a moment with a hurt look on her face, then smiled a big smile and said to Alice, "I'm sorry ma'am."

Alice was not used to being called 'ma'am', but after only a moment to regain her composure asked, "Is that turtle your pet?"

"Oh yes! He is such a nice pet. He does whatever I ask him to do. He draws all sorts of pretty pictures." Logo paused, but before Alice could respond, said, "I must go now. It was nice meeting you!" And with that she ran off as fast as she had arrived.

"I can draw pictures too," said Basic.

Alice smiled and said, "That's nice. Do you draw pictures a lot?"

Basic thought for a while, then replied, "They're pretty too."

"Well, well! What have we here?" said a very attractive woman dressed in an evening dress, her hair done up to perfection. She was wearing several rings, bracelets, a necklace, and earrings of gold and encrusted with all sorts of jewels.

"Where have you been hiding yourself, darling?" she said to Alice, then to Basic and Fortran she added harshly, "Get lost!" And Basic turned and slowly shuffled away with his head bowed and his hands stuck deep in the pockets of his pants. Fortran shook his head and turned away with a scowl on his face.

"I declare, it is so hard to keep up one's level of culture with all these working class around, don't you think? Oh, dear! Please do forgive me, I know we have not been formally introduced, but my name is Ada! I trust you do not think me too forward?"

"Oh no! I am so glad to meet you, I'm Alice."

"I hope that you haven't been simply bored to death with all this drivel. Believe me, I know from experience what it is like to have to listen to it all day, Lisel."

"Alice! My name is Alice."

"One day they will all be gone. Everyone will use my language—oh it will be such a refined day, don't you know!"

"Are you a language translator too?" asked Alice.

"Of course, Lisel! But you being new here wouldn't know that. Don't worry! You are totally forgiven for that faux pas! Do you like my outfit?" And with that question Ada twirled around like a fashion model.

"Oh yes! It is quite lovely," replied Alice.

"I do my best to try to maintain some level of sophistication around here. Honestly, some times I don't know why I try. I mean, these so ordinary translators have no appreciation. I just know they are all so envious of my talents and good looks."

"Oh, you are very beautiful," said Alice, "but the others also do seem rather nice...."

"I could enumerate all their shortcomings, but it would be total overload to the max. Oh well, let me elaborate! Fortran is so, so common. Basic is simple—he doesn't even have exceptions! And Cobol, poor ol' dear, thinks all the world is divided into four parts—isn't that just unreal?"

At that moment, two gentlemen came by deep in discussion—not even noticing Alice or Ada. One was walking backwards so he could face the other as they talked. Even Ada stopped talking to listen to their quarrel.

"You; too complicated; are!"

"Functions of array an perform can operator one, but."

"And everything; backwards; is!"

"Gibberish Polish reverse this with what, yourself straightforward so aren't you, well."

"It; not as bad as right-to-left; is!"

"Time the all on work to have you that stack this about what and?"

"Who; your funny symbols; can read?"

"Hsilop, you... you as pushy so not I'm, least at!"

As they walked on, Alice asked Ada, "Who are those men? They talk so funny!"

"Isn't that just typical! They didn't even notice my dress." Then turning to Alice, Ada added, "Oh, they're two foreigners. I really don't know why they are allowed in here. The one walking backwards is Apl. He uses such a strange language. Most people here cannot even understand what he says, but he does make some sense, so to speak, if one listens backwards—but who wants to? I mean, why can't he talk like the rest of us?"

"Oh, the White Queen would like him," said Alice.

"No self-respecting Queen would go anywhere near either one of them, I'm certain of that!"

Alice thought of protesting, but Ada went on, "The other one is Forth. He is an engineer, I think. At least he told someone that he is used to control instruments and things—oh, so undistinguished! I, on the other hand, am named for the world's first programmer—such a lady too! In my family, refinement is just a way of life! I simply could not stand to be without the finer things in life. You know what I mean!"

At this moment another language translator walked to where Ada and Alice were talking. Ada paused for a few seconds, then continued rather loudly, "Oh isn't that just the pits! Here comes that poor Lisp. Why can't anyone do anything about his awful speech? Alice was feeling quite embarrassed, and started to say something, but Ada abruptly changed the subject. "I must go and check on my hair. You will forgive me, Lisel darling. It has been so charming to chat with you. Ta, ta!"

Ada left her, but Alice was not alone. "Hello, Aloha, Hi, Greetingth, Good Day."

"How do you do?" asked Alice.

"Good, Not Bad, Great, Wonderful! Thay, I haven't theen you here before. You mutht be a new, fresh, original program."

"Everyone thinks I am a program, but I am not really," replied Alice.

"Impothible, abthurd, incredible, prepothterouth, illogical. Everyone here ith a program of one thort or another," Lisp responded.

"Even you?" asked Alice.

"Of courth, thertainly, exactly, right. I can even tranthlate mythelf, you know!"

"My that sounds rather difficult," she said.

"No, negative, nope. It ith trivial, eathy, thimple. It ith becauthe programth are jutht litht of inthructionth, directionth, commandth, orderth. I am a litht too. In fact I mutht go and protheth thuch a litht right now. If you will excuth me." And with that Lisp disappeared into the group of translators.

For the moment Alice found herself alone. She had met so many different and, from her point of view, strange people. Was no one quite normal here?

As she walked away, she turned to look back at Dr. Fortran and Cobol deep in a discussion. Basic was by himself looking rather sad, and Logo was chasing her turtle around the feet of the others. And Alice was not looking where she was going....

"Well, excuse me!" Came the voice of the young man she had just run into.

"Oh, I am so sorry! It was my fault. I wasn't looking where I was going." Alice blushed and looked at the young man. "I didn't mean to run into you."

"I should have seen you coming," he said with a smile that revealed his teeth covered with braces. "But if you didn't just go to somewhere.... I'm called C. Don't ask! It isn't an initial, and it doesn't really stand for anything in particular!"

"Oh, I really wasn't.... I mean, I wouldn't.... Anyway, I'm Alice."

"Quite a strange bunch aren't we?"

"Well, I have not met any language translators before. I have met some very unusual people recently, but I guess everyone has things that make them unique and special."

"My what a little diplomat you are!" C replied. "Actually, we all have our weird idiosyncracies. Most of them won't admit it, of course. I can't help but laugh at them, but then I do like a good laugh now and then!"

"My mother says I shouldn't laugh at people," said Alice.

"Well, I really should agree," said C with a big smile, "But sometimes the antics of these language translators are really funny. For example, when Dr. Fortran and Cobol get together to play cards, all they can do is argue how the cards should be laid out. Ada thinks she has all the answers, but no one can afford her tastes. Lisp is always strung out, usually cursing and recursing. Basic has been taught so many things to help him, but he is still Basic."

"Is he called that because he is so simple?" asked Alice.

"Yes and no!" C replied with a big grin. "I once heard that before he was born his parents took a vacation down by the ocean inlet. His mother was ill, so they named him Bay-sick! Actually,when he came along the rumors that circulated were that his lines were numbered—he had some sort of terminal disorder!"

"Oh, how awful!" exclaimed Alice.

"He is rather disorganized, but then so is his father, old man Fortran."

"I met a rather nice college student. Her name was Pascal," said Alice.

"Oh, she's nice all right, but she has so much to learn, and doesn't know it. You know, a typical sophomore! She is in for a real shock when she graduates and gets out into the real world."

"I don't mean to sound rude, and I don't wish to offend you, but you seem so normal," said Alice.

He laughed. "Thank you! I do appreciate that as a complement. I am very normal. Of course, if you ask any of them, they think they're the normal ones, and the rest are a bit touched, if you know what I mean. Actually, they are all a bit out of touch, if you ask me. Take the assembler.... Please!" C said with a big grin, then after a pause continued, "He has cousins from tribes all over each speaking a slightly different language. Programs have to be rewritten all the time."

"That sounds like a lot of work," replied Alice. "Isn't there a language translator that could translate them automatically?"

"Oh, for some there are, but it is so inefficient. I wouldn't suggest anyone emulate them. And there is no need! If a program is written for me, it can be run on almost any computer—at least any computer worth using. That's the value of a properly constructed, high-level language! It makes things so trivial!"

"How many different language translators are there?" asked Alice.

"Hundreds! Thousands! No one really knows for certain."

"Oh my!" exclaimed Alice. "Why so many?"

"Some computer scientists once thought they had a better idea—invent the ideal language. What the world needs are more application developers and less dreamers! It would make things so much simpler."

"Didn't someone then invent you? Was he just a dreamer?"

"Well, I am different," C commented with a frown. "I don't mind getting in and doing some work—getting my hands dirty so to speak. And I am efficient and effective and able to do anything. If someone wants to do something, they can program the procedure once and put it in one of my libraries and then just use it whenever it is needed—no need to reinvent the wheel!"

"That does sound useful," said Alice thoughtfully.

"Speaking of procedures, you really should meet Sir Algol. He was a real pioneer, but hasn't kept up with the new compilations. Look, I have to go and point out a few things to a friend of mine. See you later!" And with that C strolled away, and Alice looked around for Sir Algol.

Alice found him off in one corner sitting by himself sipping a cup of tea. "Hello, Sir... Sir Algol," she greeted him.

"Hullo! Who's there? I say! I have never seen you here before!"

"No, I've only just arrived," replied Alice. "My name is Alice."

"Well, it is jolly good to see a new face—and a civil one at that, what with all this constant bickering!"

"Thank you," Alice replied although she wasn't certain just what to say.

"Would you like a spot of tea?" he asked waving his hand toward the teapot. "And perhaps a shortbread? Oh, drat! Sorry, I do believe they are all gone."

"The tea would be fine," she said, and he busied himself with pouring the tea and setting the cup on a saucer and handing it to Alice.

"I once met a knight," Alice said, "But he was always falling off his horse. I think he was an inventor. Are you an inventor too?"

"No, but in the old days, I was quite important—that's why I was knighted," he said proudly, then continued rather sadly and shaking his head slowly, "Now, no one seems to care." Then, more briskly, he continued, "Well, life must go on. Must keep up appearances, chin up and all of that, you know!"

"You have a most unusual name," remarked Alice. "Of course, so many of the people I have met do have unusual names—not that they are strange or anything! It's just that I haven't heard them before."

"Hmmm. Yes. Right! Well then! My name comes from algorithm," he said with a certain pride in his voice.

"What's an algorithm?" asked Alice.

"Hrumph, you don't know what an algorithm is? I say, what are schools teaching these days? Ever since the change in government, nothing's the same. Well, if you must know," he replied. "An algorithm is a step-by-step procedure. Your mother would probably call it a recipe."

"Oh, I used a recipe once!" cried Alice. "I baked chocolate chip cookies, but they didn't turn out very well. Maybe I didn't follow it."

"Probably the recipe wasn't really an algorithm then." he replied. "Algorithms are unambiguous. You should get the same result every time."

"Algorithms? Who needs them?" came a voice from behind Alice. She turned and saw a figure in a shabby overcoat. "All one needs are the facts—just the facts ma'am!"

"I say Prolog, that's a bit rude of you isn't it?" said Sir Algol.

"Listen buster—none of your lip! I don't need any of your fancy algorithms, just give me rules and facts. I'll have it solved before you can pay your syntax! It's elementary!"

Before Alice had a chance to say a word, and before Sir Algol could even respond, Prolog spotted Ada across the room. "Now there's a dame! Just look at the way she's packaged! If you'll excuse me, I got me something to deduce!" And with that he left as quickly as he had appeared.

"Rubbish," muttered Sir Algol. "What does he know? They're all punks, the lot of them!"

"Oh there you are! I've been looking for you everywhere." exclaimed Cobol bustling up to where Alice and the knight were talking. "You don't want to stick around here with him talking all night. I thought I had lost you. Just when I had met such a nice program. That would never do, now would it? Although I am certain it is not your fault, you know. These days I seem to forget the simplest things, even if they are put in an indexed file. I just can't perform all the things I once could. Sir Algol understands that, don't you? Maybe we really are getting old. Well, it doesn't really matter. At least I did find you once again."

Sir Algol had slumped in his chair and was quietly sipping his tea while staring into space. Alice tried to be polite and listen, but Cobol continued talking without pause until finally Alice put her tea cup on the table and walked away. Cobol never even noticed. The others in the room never ceased their arguing.



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