[SIGCIS-Members] Donald Knuth

Chuck House housec1839 at gmail.com
Thu May 15 08:59:44 PDT 2014

Some great inputs here

One might be tempted to label Knuth as a scalawag or miscreant, given the discussion herein.  Don is indeed quite a character, as many of you know.  

I have intermittently had dinner with Don, including last week as a small fete for Carver Mead’s 80th birthday, a dinner at our home twenty-two years ago to engage sponsors of the second Computer Bowl for the Boston version of the Computer History Museum fundraiser, and the night we assembled all of the Turing Award winners at the Computer History Museum four years ago around the ACM Annual Banquet in San Francisco.  At our home 22 years ago, Don was lamenting almost exactly this same point of view, in the midst of a conversation by several mega-millionaires (there weren’t mega billionaires yet) who got their winnings and went off to sail the globe or play golf with nubile youngsters, and then found that history was passing them by, and they seemingly couldn’t get ‘back on the train.'  He told them that three of us in the room (including me, so I thought it wonderful, natch) were the lucky ones because we hadn’t been seduced by the gold and glitter.  I reminded him of that long-ago conversation at the Turing fete, and he said, “I don’t remember that conversation, but I do remember spending time with your wife…”   Last week was the reverse—he remembered the conversation but not my wife.  Ah well.

There is, I think most of us might agree, more than a germ of truth in Knuth's bleat.  Teaching a seminar three years ago at Carnegie-Mellon's computer science department to more than a hundred students and maybe twelve faculty at both campuses, I found three people who had heard of Herb Simon, one of whom thought he had been important for something at CMU.  I was flabbergasted.  Alan Newell wasn’t a name known to anyone in the meetings.  This was preposterous, but unfortunately true.  

Dan Kevles taught the history of physics at a pretty first-rate physics school some years back, but to my perspective he was never ‘accepted’ by the physicists there.  And Feynman used to teach “everything" from a practitioner’s historical perspective.

Cogswell College, where I was a 'turnaround guy’ for a couple of years, subsequently hired both a CEO and a Provost who had never heard of Moore’s Law; one said, “Well, you can’t know everything.”  She also didn’t know, or care, about Ed Catmull, Pixar, or U of Utah’s legacy in computer graphics, let alone who Ivan Sutherland might be.  This college, essentially re-galvanized in the 1980s by PDI (Pacific Data Images, now known as Dreamworks).  The college, winners of 57 computer animation awards during my two years there, was voted in Beijing the #2 computer animation school in the world.  But the owners, and the leaders, see little value in teaching even the rudiments of the history of their singular expertise.  Worse, they dismissed the one first-rank historian on their staff as a cost-cutting measure.  Not rare, I think.

Is Don able to be educated on this topic?  Probably to some degree, but it won’t be easy to convince him that survey books—e.g. Aspray and Campbell-Kelly’s work—is technical enough, or complete enough, to qualify, even though it is not one of the lamentable corporate puff-pieces.  And the works on TeK are simply not going to reach any readership whatsoever, even if included in every CS curriculum.

Chuck House

On May 15, 2014, at 7:59 AM, Paul Fishwick <pxf130430 at utdallas.edu> wrote:

> Tom notes:
>> Neither have computer science departments embraced the history of computer science as an important area of teaching or research. 
> And Paul asks
> In what way has history ever been “useful” to computer scientists? 
> I am saddened that history and culture of computing are, indeed, not adequately covered in 
> computer science programs with which I am familiar. I am a computer scientist, not a historian.
> However, I don’t think I could do my research in model representation effectively without reading 
> the history of modeling, computing, engineering, and technology. I am presenting a paper this 
> coming week (ACM SIGSIM) on “computing as model-based empirical science.” This hypothesis 
> would not be possible without historical context, especially in the area of analog computing. Analog
> computing has good coverage in the history of computing, but is noticeably absent from computer
> science curricula (the topic split off into systems engineering).
> I am not sure I follow the thread on Knuth’s lecture, but am anxious to find out more. 
>  -p
> Paul Fishwick, PhD
> Distinguished Chair of Arts & Technology 
>    and Professor of Computer Science
> Director, Creative Automata Laboratory
> The University of Texas at Dallas
> Arts & Technology
> 800 West Campbell Road, AT10
> Richardson, TX 75080-3021
> Home: utdallas.edu/atec/fishwick
> Blog: creative-automata.com
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