Meet The Champion: November 2021

Wednesday, Dec 8, 2021| Tags: Perl

Get to know about W. Luis Mochan

Welcome to the monthly series Meet The Champion.

Last month we spoke to Paulo Custodio, the winner of October 2021.

Today we are talking to W. Luis Mochan, the winner of November 2021 of The Weekly Challenge. I hope you are going to enjoy the interview.

Mohammad: Tell us about your technical background?

Luis: I’m a Physicist, working at UNAM, the National University of México where I do theoretical research on the linear and non-linear optical properties of materials, surfaces, disordered systems, metamaterials and photonic crystals. Currently I’m developing a system called Photonic to calculate the macroscopic response of composite systems of arbitrary geometry and composition using Perl and the Perl Data Language. The first computer language I used was MIX, the assembler for a non-existent computer with which D. Knuth illustrated the algorithms in his series The Art of Computer Programming. I learnt it during the only course of programming I took, around 1975; a MIX emulator had been developed at UNAM, at the Computer Science Dept. of IIMAS, its Research Institute on Applied Mathematics. Programming was fun and challenging, but the course was not. I wanted to learn more, so I went to IIMAS for guidance and, surprisingly, I was offered a job as a technician to work in an ambitious project: building a Latin American computer network (this was after ARPAnet, coincident with Ethernet, but before Internet). I worked on the first connections between heterogeneous computers in our country, linking a Burroughs B-6800 mainframe to a PDP 11/10 and a PDP 11/34 microcomputer, designing and implementing the communication protocols, and programming in Algol and in the PDP-11 macro assembler. I did some work as a freelancer, developing Fortran programs for a textile factory. I quit those jobs to finish my PhD. I assembled a Heathkit H-8 microcomputer (8 bit, 64K ram, 100K disks, Z80 CPU, still working!) and programmed it in C to finish the calculations for my thesis and to typeset its equations using an 8 pin printer. Physicists of my generation and older use mainly Fortran, so I’ve always enjoyed collecting and using different tools to develop solutions that would be very difficult for my colleagues to program with their old-fashioned language. Currently, I program mostly in Perl.

Mohammad: How/When did you start using Perl?

Luis: In the early 90’s with some colleagues we started a small PhD program in Physics at UAEM, the State University of Morelos, in México. At the time the University had no other research oriented program and it didn’t have much funds nor infrastructure. I became the head of the program but I had no administrative nor secretarial personnel, and no budget. Thus, I thought I should automate all academic-administrative processes. I didn’t know about databases and was wary of making irrecoverable mistakes. Thus, I decided to store all info using structured text files, so that the information would be readable in case the programs failed. There was no JSON nor YAML standards, so I designed my own text based format. Somehow I learned that Perl was great for processing text, so I built a system first with Perl 4 and later with Perl 5. My system kept track of the students, their coursework, grades, scholarships, their professors, their research projects. Eventually, the system fed a web site and it sent official looking letters using TeX. I was using C++ for my own research but used Perl for tasks that were not too computer-intensive, as it is much simpler to program and it took less time to get a working solution. Usually, I value my time more than the time of the computer. Then I discovered PDL and started doing my numerical work in Perl also.

Mohammad: How did you come to know about The Weekly Challenge?

Luis: On November, 2011, David Mertens announced on the mailing list of PDL that Gábor Szábo had started a weekly Perl news/blog roundup and recommended following it to keep on top of the current Perl-related developments. Thus I subscribed. I have learnt a lot from reading that newsletter. Then came the Challenges and I learned some more from just looking. I started participating when I saw a problem that could be solved in a very simple way using PDL, which is a very useful extension of the language but not very well known, so I tried my luck sending a solution. To my surprise, it was mentioned in the following newsletter, and that brought some reinforcing feedback.

Mohammad: What do you like the most about The Weekly Challenge?

Luis: One thing I enjoy of programming, as compared to other enterprises, is that even the hardest problems can be analyzed and cut into manageable pieces so that everyday brings some satisfying success, even if modest. Other activities, such as scientific research, are also very satisfying, but weeks or months may pass by with no results. The weekly challenge is an opportunity to change activities, relax for a while and get the satisfaction of solving a problem. It also brings opportunities for learning a new trick, exercising a new skill, acquiring a new tool.

Mohammad: How much time you dedicate every week to The Weekly Challenge?

Luis: Between a couple of hours and an afternoon.

Mohammad: Do you checkout others solutions and who is your favorite?

Luis: I enjoy looking at the solutions contributed by others and looking at their blogs, sometimes very well written and with a good sense of humor, but never before contributing my solutions. I enjoy the brief descriptions in the newsletter and the somewhat deeper reviews.

Mohammad: What do you suggest someone just started The Weekly Challenge?

Luis: The challenges are a fun activity, do them for your own satisfaction, to excercise your skills, to learn new techniques; solving them is its own reward. After attempting a solution you can appreciate more the solutions proposed by others and learn from them.

Mohammad: Anything else you would to like to share with us?

Luis: I would like to thank the PWC team for the effort involved in finding every week challenging and interesting problems of the appropriate technical difficulty, and for keeping the infrastructure running. Congratulations for the first 1000 days. Hope the future brings many more celebrations.

That brings the end of the conversation with W. Luis Mochan. Please do let us know your view. We will come back next month with another champion.


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