Donald Knuth

Donald Knuth, now 70 years old, is one of the founding fathers of modern computer science; his The Art of Computer Programming series somehow manages to combine rigor and readability, deep analysis and nerdy humor. I first picked up a volume of TAoCP in 1975 — literally picked it up, since I was at the time shelving books in the Rice University's Fondren Library to help pay for my undergraduate education. (cf. CollegeCollage2) Someone had taken it out of its place and left it on a table, and in the course of putting it back I read a wee bit of it, and was immediately hooked.

Son Merle recently sent me a link to an interview with Donald Knuth, conducted by Andrew Binstock for InformIT, an information technology educational publisher. (At last check, the interview may be read here.) It's a fascinating conversation that raises excellent questions about the current tidal wave of parallel computer architectures. It also reminded me of Knuth's "Literate Programming" philosophy, which Knuth declares to be one of the most important things he has done, as well as something of a failure. As he describes it:

Jon Bentley probably hit the nail on the head when he once was asked why literate programming hasn't taken the whole world by storm. He observed that a small percentage of the world's population is good at programming, and a small percentage is good at writing; apparently I am asking everybody to be in both subsets.

Donald Knuth's self-effacing modesty is also striking, as when he observes:

... Literate programming is what you need to rise above the ordinary level of achievement. But I don't believe in forcing ideas on anybody. If literate programming isn't your style, please forget it and do what you like. If nobody likes it but me, let it die.

^z - 2008-05-03

(correlates: CoreValues, Refuse to Be Terrorized, ProgrammingProverbs, ...)