Unreliable Biography
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Mark Tarver was born too many years ago to count in the industrial town of Manchester. One of my early memories include ruined houses still left from the Blitz. I can also just remember one of the last great smogs (a wonderful vision, greyish-yellow like catarrh from a smoker's lungs and thick enough to tap on the window). I wanted to go out and play in it but was refused. This was my introduction to the unreasonable world of adults.

My family moved to Jersey where I grew up. I experienced the Great Freeze of '63 and Hurricane Betsy in '65. I wanted to go out and play with Betsy too, but guess what happened to that idea? My school reports showed I did what I wanted at my own pace and showed little interest in competition. This was thought of as a problem, although it seems to me to be precocious wisdom.

I followed in the family tradition by being placed on school probation (my brother was suspended). I read philosophy at Reading University graduating in 1978 with a first and then going on to Corpus Christi, Oxford.

4 years old in industrial Manchester; with the same precocious attitude and suave dress sense that I carried into later life.

The nadir was reached when I went to Oxford. The college still sends me expensively bound periodicals of astounding dullness detailing the minutae of college life. The last one showed a picture of some ancient cloth which I at first took to be the corroded underwear of Oliver Cromwell. Expensively bound, pretentious and utterly dull would well describe Oxford. I took a Ph.D. at Warwick and found my way into computing by way of the BBC micro.

I had 32 KB of main memory to play with. It was an invitation to boldly go where no man has gone before and I was in charge of the spaceship equivalent of the Galileo shuttle. It was great fun. From there it was a hop to working in a software company and then to the philosophy department at Leeds which was investing in computers.

I knew the location of the little red switch at the back on the computer that turned it on. Who would have thought? Heads were turned. I had already solved an outstanding open problem and so I got the job. It was an invitation to mess about for two years with computers.

There was one person in the philosophy department who was treated with disdain. He smoked continental cigarettes and wore NHS granny glasses mended with cellotape. His name was Gyorgy and he was a Hungarian in exile. Gyorgy was unpopular because he actually knew something about computers and did not hide the fact, and because he wrote impeccably grammatical English sentences that really required the use of a bracket balancing editor to read them. One famous example was his seminar abstract which consisted of a single sentence of 200 words.

Of course Gyorgy wrote in Lisp and so I was hooked. We competed for the attentions of the DEC-10 mainframe, a class act who bestowed her favours impartially on both admirers. Gyorgy was infamous in computer support for resource-hungry Lisp programs that dimmed the lights whenever he ran them.

They were good times and of course they could not last. The government got wind of the fact that we weren't actually producing anything, but enjoying ourselves and put a stop to it. After two years of anarchy with Lisp, in 1988 I was sent to the LFCS in Edinburgh for correctional training in ML. Two years after that I returned to Leeds and gave my talk on ML. The first slide was titled

Why is Programming in ML like Safe Sex?

Because you can't catch any bugs but it's not much fun.

But I liked the idea of pattern-matching and borrowed this for Lisp. Thus was taken the first step to Shen.

Leeds was fun at first and then it too got very serious. The department took the government directives seriously and started to turn itself into a 'centre of excellence'. Finding myself increasingly out of step with the fuhrer directives, I left in 1999.

Then off to America in 2002 and Stony Brook. I was an instructor for discrete maths and given a deadly book by a chap called Anderson as the course text. Weighing the equivalent of bucket of lard and about as digestable, it turned me off so much that I donated it to a grad student and rewrote the course. We used computer-assisted proof to learn logic and these innovations seriously annoyed the UG committee. My resignation was a foregone conclusion but still remains, in my view, a masterpiece of how to napalm your bridges in style. It also contains a plea for making computer science coherent and interesting. From the ashes of that course was to spring Logic, Proof and Computation .

At 56 what I've learnt from life is that if you want to be free, you have to work at it and make sacrifices. Most particularly you have to beware people who tell you that true freedom is giving them your work and time for free. Remember if you're not irritating somebody, you're not being yourself.

copyright (c) Mark Tarver 2024
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