This trim volume contains 11 papers revealing an extraordinary range both in computing expertise and in application area. Of the more widely interesting papers, it should be noted that one is not about SNOBOL and another is not about English. In his preface, Eric Johnson assures us that he at least has "never attended a conference where the conversations were so animated and engrossing". While warmly welcoming the advent of this new international forum, this reviewer is tempted to ascribe at least some of its animation to sheer mutual astonishment. What common ground can exist between say Peter-Arno Coppen (Catholic University of Nijmegen) and Wayne Tosh (St Cloud State University)? Coppen describes GRASP, a parser-generator for context-free grammars which happens to be written in SNOBOL. Tosh's describes a number of undergraduate exercises which also happen to be written in SNOBOL. Both authors regard SNOBOL as an appropriate teaching vehicle, but the disparity between what is being taught is so extreme as to cast doubts as to the existence of any point of contact other than the accidental identity of the chosen language.
It is equally hard to imagine any common ground between Ronald Susskind of the Antares Corporation in Minnesota, and William C. Strange of the University of Oregon's English department. Without undue disrespect, Mr Susskind's style leaves me gasping for breath, but as I understand it, the tenor of his argument is that the English language itself can be interpreted as if it contained only logical statements, provided the notion of what constitues logic is "slightly" extended (it could also be said to consist of purple anxieties, similar licence permitted, but let that pass). Mr Strange, writing at a more even speed, contributes some good old fashioned practical criticism of three concrete or, in Strange's phrase, "computable" poems, leading him to the extraordinary and unsubstantiated assertion that "Poems and programs are surprisingly alike".
Surely more typical of SNOBOL's current user population are two workmanlike contributions about real life applications of the language, one from Paul Bantzer (Startext GmbH, Bonn) about its usefulness in a photo-typesetting application, the other from Timothy Montler (North Texas SU) describing a whole suite of programs developed to assist in the linguistic analysis of a Northwest American Indian language corpus. The latter is particularly impressive, and deserves to be better known. The book begins, as is only appropriate, with two contributions from Ralph Griswold, one, tantalisingly short, on the history of the language (which reveals that it was originally called SEXI for String Expression Interpreter) and the other describing ICON which, if people were as logical as their tools, will surely replace SNOBOL as effectively as the transistor replaced the thermionic valve.
People being people, however, it seems probable that new generations will continue to cut their programming teeth on this magnificently eccentric and dangerously powerful language. Hard evidence of this continuity is provided not just by two earnest contributions from recent academic converts to SNOBOL at the University of Nebraska but also in the new SNOBOL and SPITBOL systems available for microcomputers. Only one of these (Catspaw's SNOBOL4+) is mentioned here, in the context of some interactive debugging utilities, the code for which is the most substantial part of Mark Emmer's paper. It would be interesting to see some comparison between the performance and facilities of the various SPITBOLs and SNOBOLs now available on small machines; perhaps this will come in ICEBOL 86, which we are assured will also take place in Madison, South Dakota.