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A LEXICOGRAPHER'S ADVENTURES IN COMPUTING Laurence Urdang In all fields of endeavor, there are basically two classes of practitioners; those who have a genuine understanding of how and why things work, and those who have little if any notion of the principles involved. The first class is exemplified by the electrical engineer who knows a great deal about the generation and transmission of electricity; the second, by the naive individual who merely plugs a lamp into a wall receptacle and neither knows nor cares how or why the light goes on. The limit of the latter's sophistication may well be the ability to change a light bulb. Computers are essentially extremely simple devices; to paraphrase "Paul Revere's Ride," binary (that is, digital) computers operate on the principle "one if by land, and none if by sea." (The only problem with such a code pattern is, of course, that if you are "on the opposite shore," you have no way of knowing, in the second instance, whether the British are coming by sea or if the signalman has simply lost his matches.) The core of the digital computer consists of little more than a bank of such "flip-flop" circuits, the on-off patterns of which are arbitrarily coded to patterns of information; it is the programmer's function to create the information coding patterns, generate the complex instructions that are required to operate the circuits, and translate the resulting patterns back into forms of information intepretable by human beings. That function has been greatly simplified by Reprinted with permission of DATAMATION* magazine. Copyright ° by Technical Publishing Company, a Dun & Bradstreet Company, 1984 —all rights reserved. 150 Laurence Urdang151 the creation of computer languages, and almost all computers today are prewired to accept and to perform operations under instruction employing one or more such languages. The presentation here of the foregoing may be regarded as akin to teaching a grandmother to suck eggs (though I must say that I never saw my grandmother suck eggs and can be reasonably sure that she was unaware of how to go about it). Yet, a moment's reflection will likely confirm the observation that an increasing number of systems designers and programmers know very little about the principles of computer operation and, because their work is, in large measure, by rote, care very little about how or why a computer works as long as it performs the tasks they set it to do. For many applications, such an attitude is acceptable, even though it has turned many computer professionals into mere bulb changers; but there is no gainsaying that among the ancillary results today is the unfortunate dearth of imagination going into the solving of major problems in information processing. The writing of programs for a new computer game may be ingenious, but it embraces a technology that is readily assimilated by a 12-year-old idiot-savant (perhaps even more readily than by a genuine computer expert, whose mind is more likely to be cluttered by all sorts of reasons why something cannot be done). Although I was a bit late in becoming involved with computers, having approached them first in 1959, there seems to be a danger of my becoming a senior citizen in the field; just as almost two thirds of the earth's population today was born after the end of World War II, so nearly 95% of those currently engaged in computer work became involved in it since the early 1970s. I scarcely view myself as a "grand old man" of computers, but there are not many of us around today (like veterans of the Spanish-American War) who have been using computers as long as a quarter of a century. 1 52A Lexicographer ' s Adventures I clearly recall my first brush with computers: in 1959, I was working on a new dictionary for Random House, and it occurred to me that a computer would be ideal for the sorting and manipulation of the various kinds of data I was responsible for generating. Moreover, the notion of having the entire text of the dictionary in machine-readable form appealed to me because it seemed logical that...


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