Friday, September 16, 2005

The Art of Computer Orthography

The Art of Computer Programming (TAOCP) by Donald Knuth has one of the cleanest, thoroughly proofread and debugged text in the entire book printing history. My take on this is that the Stanford's Professor Emeritus uses software debugging approach to the text in 'natural' English. Well, in a sense, any textbook or handbook is capable of programming you, the reader, so the less bugs its text has the better programming effect it may achieve. Naturally, this debugging process is greatly enhanced by the readers' feedback stimulated by this:

'The first finder of any error in my books receives $2.56; significant suggestions are also worth $0.32 each. If you are really a careful reader, you may be able to recoup more than the cost of the books this way.'

They say nobody ever cached their $2.56 checks, let alone $0.32 ones, for more than 35 years. They also say that there are special design companies for luxurious framing of such treasured autographed trophies (they usually specialize in framing stuff like "The First Dollar I Did" for mere $45.) After my 10 years long career of hardcore programming of target recognition algorithms for Soviet ABMD, I became sort of a sucker for such things. Now this addition to the rules helped me a lot:

'SPECIAL NOTE TO THE SPEAKERS OF FRENCH AND OTHER EXOTIC LANGUAGES: Numerous quotations and bibliographic citations found in this book have been copied verbatim from the original sources. If you believe you have found a typographic error, you must prove it by showing that the original was incorrectly transcribed; believe it or not, your language has changed over the years, just as English has.'

So my task became much easier, no need to compete with much better programmers and code-readers than I ever was. And still, it took me maybe a week of reading and browsing through my new boxed set of TAOCP 5 years ago, when I claimed my 'Gotcha':

'Chebyshev' must be substituted by 'Chebyshov' throughout the text of all 3 volumes and all fascicli of a 4th. I know, it looks like attempting to change Edsger W. Dijkstra's name to its archaic spelling 'Dijckstra', but in Chebyshev case Chebyshev sounds completely wrong, and to such an extent that Russian Academy of Sciences ruled to use 'Chebyshov' (actually, 'Чебышёв', instead of 'Чебышев', but with straight indications for transliterations: Chebyshov in English, Tschebyschov in German, and so on.) See also the Чебышёв article (not mine) in for the matter.

Alright, as soon as it's a mistake outside the code, or other serious matters, I could go for $0.32. Though it hurts to even think to cover $100 cost of TAOCP set with such corrections, as one might work oneself to death in searching.

To cut my painful story short, the corrector secretary for the Professor didn't accept my correction. She quoted the tradition. The Professor explained to me that he trusted her more. Still I have got my set authographed, all 3 volumes, complete with incorrect 'Chebyshev', 5 years ago, at some conference about Spirit and something. For serious book collectors only: bids for my set start at $1K, that is $1024.32 to be precise and in the spirit of Computer Orthography.


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