Observations on EuroForth '97

Paul Frenger M.D.

Firtst published in ACM Sigplan Notices, Vol.33 No.2, Feb. 98, pg.31-33.
Published with the authors permission.

1. Wondering Forth

Although the Forth language was invented in the United States, it has largely been ignored here. This is not true in other places, such as Europe, where it flourishes. I have wondered why this is the case. Of course, no one may ever understand this phenomenon, but my opinion is that it is related to the way Americans and Europeans deal with their respective spoken languages. In the US, there is one main language (which we laughably refer to as "English"), with relatively few challengers such as Spanish. This is like having C as the dominant programming language, with Java trying to catch up. The Europeans are polyglots who deal with multiple tongues: Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Russian, Swedish, and so on. They have their C, of course, and their Java, but they also program in Forth as just one more computer language of many they find useful, ipso facto. I think we should respect their diversity in both senses of this word "language".

I've been fortunate to attend three EuroForth conferences since 1989: two in Germany and one in the UK. My personal feeling is that they just keep getting better and better every time. The latest conference was held in the quaint English setting of Oxford, England, from September 26th through 28th, 1997. MicroProcessor Engineering, Ltd. of Southampton was our conference organizer, and they did it right. Let me fill you in on some of what took place at this extraordinary meeting, things you probably wouldn't hear anywhere else!

2. Venturing Forth

The city of Oxford lies between the Thames and Cherwell rivers (of which, more later). Its written history dates back at least to 912 A.D. Being well placed for moving goods on its rivers, Oxford became a thriving center of commerce west of London. The university was established in the 12th century, with its halls of learning (actually, walled fortresses) eventually overcoming commerce as Oxford's most notable accomplishment. EuroForth was held at St. Anne's College, established in 1879 as the first Oxford college to offer a higher education to women; in 1979 its doors were opened to men as well. St. Anne's is quite modern by university standards, and we found the residences, lecture hall and dining facility to be excellent.

Everything seemed to be within walking distance from our college, so we walked often and far. My wife Sandy and her friends enjoyed the shopping districts and took rolls and rolls of film of the ancient, gaudy architecture. My 12-year old son Kirk did much the same, but had to endure doing homework brought from the States (I have a memorable photo of him sitting in his dorm room at St. Anne's, working over his math while facing out onto the garden). I must admit, I've never seen so many Gothic towers, spires and domes all in one place. Fortuitously, the weather held mostly sunny or lightly overcast and cool, with a minimum of precipitation during the meeting.

3. Punting Forth

Of all the activities we undertook, the most hilarious by far was Friday night's informal evening at the Cherwell Boathouse. Although billed as a "barbecue", most Americans would be hard-pressed to find any of same at the event. Nevertheless, the food and beverage were quite satisfactory. Prior to the meal, and in order to burn a few righteous calories before gorging, the conference attendees were treated (if that's the right word) to punting expeditions on the river. A punt is a squared-off, flat-bottom boat which can be rowed or, more adventurously, poled up and down the river, Venetian style. Each punt held five stalwart sailors and one intrepid poler, and surprisingly about half of the attendees / spouses / friends decided to "punt forth".

I, of course, being the only physician in attendance, and fearing that my professional services as a Samaritan might be needed during the punting, elected to stay firmy on dry land in case of emergency. Unfortunately, no medical problems arose in the meanwhile, so I was forced to drink a truly wicked alcoholic punch excessively, while heckling the least accomplished punters from the dock. The other landlubbers did pretty much the same, so that when the punters returned and the food was served, we were more ripe than the melons.

One of the punt polers, who shall remain nameless at this time, suffered the inevitable consequences of a pole stuck in the fine mud of the river bottom. As his boat advanced, and the pole remained rooted, the sailor was pulled from the deck into the murky waters of the Cherwell. Splash! The punt's passengers at first tried to help him back into the boat, but the crazy rollicking motion of the punt during this maneuver scared them off and the hapless poler was abandoned (somewhat scornfully, the story goes). He had to wade to the shore and walk back to the feast, soaking wet, in the chilly Fall English air. This event colored his already scrappy disposition negatively for the next few days.

4. Formal Forth

The location of our formal banquet on Saturday night was St. Edmund Hall, which reputedly dates back to 1226 A.D. (266 years before Columbus sailed to the New World). These kinds of statistics can seem a bit daunting in the abstract, but in the flesh turn out to be most pleasant. The college was old and mossy, easily defensible in middle ages terms with its high stone walls and thick wooden doors (students then were made of sterner stuff). There were the requisite numbers of narrow corridors and corkscrew stone stairs to be endured, and a crazy modern multistall unisex bathroom in the basement for comic relief (or the other kind of relief). St. Edmund, himself was there in spirit, peering from his portrait on the wall, as we've all seen in old gothic mystery movies. His spirit, or "spirits" actually, were also present in the wines we tasted which bore the college's private label.

All attendees were fuddy-duddied-up in high costume and seated at two tables with a third (speaker's) table laid crossways at one end; from the gallery above, it clearly was the Greek letter pi. This was perfectly okay as the Greeks had no letter for "F", the first letter of Forth. This lays to rest the rumor that "Forth is all Greek to me" due to the obvious impossibility of the alphabet; but unfortunately still allows Forth to be linked to the dead Latin language, as the Romans invented the "F". I sometimes wonder if "Forth" had instead been named "Latin", if it wouldn't now be more popular overall?

In addition to five different fine wines, and a multicourse feast (including asparagus salad, salmon, pheasant, julienne vegetables, cottage potatoes, lemon torte, chocolate and biscuits), we were treated to rollicking tales of derring-do by our European Forth colleagues. One fable concerned the almost insurmountable difficulty of getting computer equipment into and out of the Czech Republic. The moral of this story was that if you have patience and plenty of money for bribes, no amount of bureaucratic hedging can stand in your way. Another conferee regaled us with a convoluted story of how brash entrepreneurial spirit (lying a lot), coupled with hardware and software knowledge (fooling around aimlessly), and eager employers (computer ignoramuses) can result in rapid advancement (promotion without merit) and future employment possibilities (getting laid off). There was much back- slapping and back-patting, with almost no back-stabbing evident at all (discounting of course the non-Forth world around us). In between these sagas there was the table talk with our nearby mates, which was ever entertaining. A brisk walk back to St. Anne's and this night was only a pleasant memory.

5. Crawling Forth

It's customary in Forth circles to hold a survivor's party for the attendees who remain overnight on the last (partial) day of the conference. So it was at EuroForth, where the organizers treated us to a real English "pub crawl" on Sunday night. We were whisked away at dusk by a string of Austin taxis to terra incognita, eventually arriving at a charming old pub called the Trout which was on the riverside. I was treated to transportation by Stephen Pelc in his SAAB, an experience best left to the imagination. The pub structure dates back hundreds of years, and has been rebuilt and added-to several times, so much so that the floors and ceilings are multilevel and never quite square. This becomes a hazard to taller customers and drunkards, who are forever banging their heads on low beams or stepping off unexpected ledges and falling heavily (respectively ... and woe especially unto tall drunkards!).

The bill of fare was impressively diverse and tasty, and my fish dinner was generous enough to feed a family. After eating everything in sight, we began to drink everything in sight, which is probably why we were the "survivors" (good nutrition). It's at times like these, with a full belly and too much alcohol, that one discovers why we are using Forth as our preferred computer programming language. My Australian friend found out that he was the only known Forth user in 500 miles; it will probably take him a long time to set up a local Forth Interest Group (FIG). My South African friend used a Forth- based business graphics package in the early days of PCs, and resorted to establishing his own Forth programming department when that package was no longer supported. An academic acquaintance appears to have chosen Forth as a kind of rebellion against the establishment, coincidentally filling a niche that no one else is likely to challenge for a long time. For every personality represented at the Trout that night, there was an equally fascinating story of how Forth became absolutely necessary to their way of life (sorry, folks, I was drinking only straight cola, I stayed sober and took notes. My request for blackmail payments is in the mail to you at this time).

6. Exiting Forth

So, that's the untold story of EuroForth'97. For sure, my carcass will now be in hot water with all my (former) friends, so you won't be able to count on my writing this kind of report for EuroForth'98 or beyond. I'd advise you to save your odd change every day and attend the meetings yourself, if you want to know what takes place at an international Forth conference. Can you really afford not to?

EuroForth'98 will be held at the Dagstuhl Castle conference center in western Germany near Luxembourg in mid September, 1998. Built originally in 1761, the castle's construction used stones from an older ruin dating from 1270. It was rebuilt as a modern conference center in 1989.

7. Back and Forth

Good grief, I almost forgot to mention the papers! Twenty-five papers were delivered at the meeting, two of which were formally refereed. The subjects included: networks (3 papers), language and notation (4 papers), applications (4), techniques (4), user interface and usability (3), critical systems (3), and miscellaneous topics (4). The quality of the papers was superior, in my view, and highly informative. Some of these papers should be briefly noted:
Peter Knaggs told us about Forth's new status as an ISO standard in "A Truly International Standard".

Stephen Pelc described "A Portable Open Software Architecture for Industry", which might be described loosely as an industrial-strength Java alternative.

Martin Rand spoke of "TIDE: Exploiting Forth in a Windows Environment". TIDE is a Forth-based sustem for supporting banking terminals in Europe.

Paul Bennett outlined "Forth in Safety Critical Systems, Configuration and Certification", which made the case for a higher level of professionalism in Forth programming where health and safety are involved.

Malcolm Bugler also covered this concept in his paper, "Forth in Critical Care Environments", describing advanced techniques involved in the use of Forth for controlling a medical anesthesia ventilator.

I spoke on "Forth and Artificial Vision", describing my design of a four degrees of freedom robotic eye using a CCD camera as an imaging device, its object oriented Forth motion control programs, and routines for image manipulation (capture, contrast enhancement, area-of-interest viewing and data compression). The conference judges were kind enough to bestow on this presentation the "best paper" award.

If you'd like a copy of the conference Proceedings, which include all of the papers, contact the organizers at:
MicroProcessor Engineering, Ltd.
133 Hill Lane, Southampton
SO15 5AF, UK
email: mpe@mpeltd.demon.co.uk
web: http://www.mpeltd.demon.co.uk

Paul Frenger is a medical doctor who has been professionally involved with computers since 1976. He has worked as a computer consultant, published over eighty articles in the bioengineering and computer literature, edited the ACM SIGForth Newsletter for four years and acquired three computer patents along the way. Paul was bitten by the reverse Polish bug in 1981 and has used Forth ever since. Occasionally, he practices a bit of medicine.