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The Yoda of Silicon Valley (2018) (nytimes.com)
128 points by wglb 13 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 33 comments

One the aspect I like the most about this man is how approachable and down to earth he still is after all these years. I'll give one example. Late on night, my friends were in the basement of the Gates building at Stanford working on their CS107 Heap Allocator project. Lo and behold, Donald Knuth walks by and sees them drawing all sorts of things on the white board in the hallway. "What's that?" he asks, to which my friend responds about the heap allocator project. "Oh, I know a thing or two about heap allocators; let me guide you" :)

edit: lo and behold!

I think you meant “lo and behold”, but lord sounds good too in this context

ah! I wish I was this clever--sadly, I am just bad at writing...

It's a great story!

btw, "Lo and Behold (Reveries of the Connected World)" is the name of a documentary by Werner Herzog about the history of the Internet. "LO" was the first text sent on UCLA's Internet test. They probably intended to enter "LOGIN" but the network crashed. :)


Of course the phrase itself existed long before the documentary.

For example, the phrase goes back at least as far as Shakespeare.

The following anecdote about Steve Jobs is from [1]:

I was sitting in Steve's office when Lynn Takahashi,. Steve's assistant, announced Knuth's arrival. Steve bounced out of his chair, bounded over to the door and extended a welcoming hand.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Professor Knuth," Steve said. "I've read all of your books."

"You're full of shit," Knuth responded.

[1] - http://www.folklore.org/StoryView.py?project=Macintosh&story...

I think this is suspect on the face of it--was Steve Jobs known for fabrications? Giant dreams, yes, but known to say outrageous falsehoods?

Further, Donald Knuth, as is pointed out in another link on this thread, is quite humble and polite and unlikely to have called anyone full of shit.

This is uninteresting and very likely wrong. Let's not post junk like this.

>> was Steve Jobs known for fabrications? ... known to say outrageous falsehoods?

Just off the top of my head... He lied to Woz about being paid to develop break out and stole money from him to go to India; He presented essentially a block of wood as the finished, functioning iPhone in 2008-ish; oh, and he denied paternity of his daughter Lisa as in "I am not the father" even after a paternity test. The last one seems pretty outrageous.

I'm not convinced he viewed himself as outright lying; He probably had seen Knuth's books and in his brain that meant he had read and understood them in their entirety.

So maybe don't be so quick to dismiss this as junk. It's a pretty innocuous example but completely inline with his behavior.

These make sense, but somehow they are more of the manipulative variety, whereas the incident with Knuth was outright bragging, which seems less like him.

Seems more like pandering than bragging. Or maybe just lying out of self consciousness.

It's a beautiful bit of folklore, but is probably apocryphal: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2634635

I wonder if that anecdote exists s/Knuth/Asimov/.

TAOCP is in my opinion like the Bible. If you've "read" it, you probably didn't study the begats* and skimmed it out of order quite a bit.

* e.g. the fold-out charts in the tape sorting section

I have two editions of TAoCP. One is from the first publication way back when. The latest has the third revision of Volume 1-3. It has the foldout.

However, this is not in the modern editions, as apparently even the mainframe folks don't sort on tape any more.

(I am keeping the old set for nostalgia, and read/reference the newer volumes.)

I first met Prof. Knuth at a conference in 1995 where James Gosling and I gave a talk about Java, and at the same conference I told folks that I was leaving Sun and joining a startup.

Three years later, while talking to Don at a picnic, he said, "When I first met you I couldn't tell if you were really smart or really stupid." :-) He thought that being part of the original Java team would be the most exiting place to be. Then a couple of years later (2001, post dot com crash) he told me he had decided I had made a pretty smart choice, all things considered. That was a good day.

I want to mention you are one of the handful of people I recognize on this site so it's interesting to learn more about your background.

There is always this http://mcmanis.com/chuck/ :-)

I second this.

There are many more important things about Knuth and his work, but one of my favorite stories about him is that he showed up at Randall Munroe's Google tech talk [0], and, during Q&A, asked Munroe "Have you thought about animated cartoons?" and "What is your n log n algorithm for searching?"

I have a special respect for people who are both brilliant and humble, and Knuth is my poster person for that.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJOS0sV2a24

Headphone users beware

Is he really? The title is so mis-leading. Coach of SV - Bill Campbell. Yoda of SV - Knuth? Not really.

Knuth is more like the Yoda of CS. What is SV really? He is so far away from all the SV excesses - greed is good, VC shenanigans, founder hubris, drinking cool-aid, becoming new defacto destination for MBAs instead of Finance, FANG mania and worshipping, Leetcode grinding to get into FANGs and their brethren to chase insane comps, starry eyed and naive entrepreneurs who want to change the world

Where does any of this overlap with Knuth. Lot of pirates in SV. Yoda like figure - I can't even think of one. If tweets are any indication, I would nominate Naval and PG as Yoda's of angel-funded/pre-series-A start-up landscape.

What is SV really? He is so far away from all the SV excesses

That's precisely the point: He's the icon of the ideals that SV claims to espouse - but has obviously long since deserted.

That's why he deserves to be called Yoda.

I thought this was going to be about some dumbfuck VC but OK, for Knuth this silly headline is acceptable.

"who bears a slight resemblance to Yoda" -- though I found this comment somewhat disrespectful, HE would be the kind of person finding this amusing.

Obligatory mention: the Knuth Reward Check. [0]

I've learned about Donald Knuth and TAOCP about 22-23 years ago. Since then, I have dreamed of collecting one check and framing it on a wall in perpetuity.

"Intelligence: Finding an error in a Knuth text. Stupidity: Cashing that $2.56 check you got."

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knuth_reward_check

I have two (weak) connections to folks connected to Knuth. The first is in the bibliography for a paper he wrote in High School--check out Fibonacci Nim. I got to work with the author of the paper for a number of years. Exceedingly bright.

The other was a key part of the MWC story. Bob called up Knuth asking if he knew of any bright programmers and Steve had been a masters student of Knuth's.

I have read parts of TAOCP vol 2 and the TeXBook. His attention to detail inspires me. I have found that whenever I pay close attention and immerse myself in details of a paper, shutting off my computer, it is very relaxing.

I don’t fully understand the warnings at the end and the refusal to cover ML.

I had no idea Donald Knuth towers over most at a height of 6’4. Wow

He just towers over most, elegantly.

I remember working in an Internet cafe and in the evenings out of boredom would read Knuth. I used to visit uni libraries and hunker down with TAOCP for a few hours until cramp, physical and mental, became too painful. Oh my golly what a privilege.

These are the tablets of our age. You'll note these tomes are granted the only definite article in English.

But mainly the thoroughness. Every path is an avenue of thought in this vast mapping of computation. It's always graceful, terse, and full of pleasure. The guy can carve candyfloss with a jackhammer and weave a mountain out spider's web.

Gates famously said anyone who'd read the books would get an interview. Yeah! "So what about ..., pretty lovely eh?"

And he's still going strong. A true hero.

I wonder what he thinks about HOTT... any clues? A quick ddg didn't show anything :(


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