There’s something in king and pawn
endgames called opposition in
which, essentially, you can force your
opponent’s king to retreat to a weaker
position. So, we had the computer gain
the opposition in king and pawn endgames.
Another thing we did was a simulation of postal codes. They were adopted, and as a result Canada had its first
postal strike, because there were all
these questions about how computers
would cause a loss of jobs.
[con TInuEd fRom P. 120]
You also got involved in timetables and
You were teaching at this time?
I was teaching, and since there was
no graduate department, I was teaching in the School of Continuing Studies. Most of the students were busi-nesspeople—actuaries and bankers
and insurance people and so on.
But eventually you did create a gradu-
Yes. In 1962, we decided we wanted
to form a graduate program. It didn’t
have a budget, it only had appointments.
Presumably, since the people involved
in computing also taught in other de-
That’s right. The university said we
had to get permission from mathematics, physics, and electrical engineering.
But since I wanted to form a department that didn’t need a budget, they
didn’t worry about it. Incidentally, our
department is now ranked eighth in
an occupation where
the urgent preempts
Are you still teaching?
I taught until three years ago. I was
the oldest person teaching undergraduates.
for many years, you taught a course on
computers and society.
“Computers and Society” always
had a wonderful audience. It qualified
as a science course for humanists and
as a writing course for scientists, so I
had a wonderful mix of students.
You’ve explored a number of different
socioeconomic issues throughout your
When we started with databases,
people got very worried about privacy,
so Canada appointed a privacy commission and put me on it. As a result
of our commission, the first Canadian
privacy laws were all passed. But people
don’t really give a damn about their privacy these days. They sell it very cheaply. Do you know what privacy is worth?
About eight dollars. If I give somebody
eight dollars, they’ll fill out the longest
form—name, credit history. Or just offer them a discount card.
In the 1960s, you were involved in a
united nations commission on what
computing could do for developing
This was the age of big mainframes,
so nobody imagined that developing
nations could use them at all. I remember coming to the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Protocol required that we
had to be met by the head, but in about
three minutes we’d passed three levels down the hierarchy—one person
would introduce us to his assistant,
who would introduce us to his assistant, and so on. But I remember being
greeted by the head of the World Bank,
and he said, “Now tell me, what about
this boondoggle of yours?”
The 1971 report that grew out of your
united nations research, The Applica-
tion of Computer Technology for Devel-
opment, was a bestseller.
We had a big meeting in Bucharest,
and we had written a draft report that
was going to be presented to the General Assembly. It was quite technical,
and all the other people were from human resources and management, and
they just tore into us at Bucharest. They
said, “You say nothing about training
and management.” We thought about
it and said, “They’re right.” So, in six
weeks we completely rewrote the report, and we sent it to the U.N., and it
turned out to be a bestseller.
In fact, you’re cited in the Oxford Eng-
[J.N.P. Hume] and I wrote a book in
1958 called High-Speed Data Processing, and the Oxford English Dictionary
found 11 words in it, like loop, that
had new meanings. So, we’re cited 11
times in the Oxford English Dictionary.
A friend of mine said, “You’re immortal.” And you know, it’s a lot cheaper
than a gravestone.
on a personal note, you were married
to a writer for many years.
My wife Phyllis wrote 18 books of poetry and science fiction. She died about
a year and a half ago. I’ve always said
that she was a humanist interested in
science, and I was a scientist interested
nowadays I’d guess people are more
concerned with their Google results.
One day my wife and I were arguing
about how long you cook fish in the
microwave. She’s the cook, of course,
but I’m the master of the microwave.
So she goes to Google and comes back
and says it’s 4. 5 minutes per pound,
end of discussion. Of course, when we
were arguing, I didn’t go to Google. She
went to Google!
I understand you’ll turn 90 on march 27.
My department is making a party for
me, and they asked me to give a talk. I’m
calling it “Chiefly About Computers.”
Leah hoffmann is a brooklyn, ny-based technology
© 2011 acM 0001-0782/11/04 $10.00