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Posts Tagged ‘Donald Knuth

“Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens”*…



You might think that digital technologies, often considered a product of ‘the West,’ would hasten the divergence of Eastern and Western philosophies. But within the study of Vedanta, an ancient Indian school of thought, I see the opposite effect at work. Thanks to our growing familiarity with computing, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), ‘modern’ societies are now better placed than ever to grasp the insights of this tradition.

Vedanta summarises the metaphysics of the Upanishads, a clutch of Sanskrit religious texts, likely written between 800 and 500 BCE. They form the basis for the many philosophical, spiritual and mystical traditions of the Indian sub-continent. The Upanishads were also a source of inspiration for some modern scientists, including Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, as they struggled to comprehend quantum physics of the 20th century…

Philosopher and Vaishnava Hindu theologian Akhandadhi Das. a member of the Science and Philosophy Initiative, explains how “Modern technology is akin to the metaphysics of Vedanta.”

* Jimi Hendrix


As we muse on metaphor, we might send carefully-constructed birthday greetings to Donald Knuth; he was born on this date in 1938. A computer scientist, mathematician, and professor emeritus at Stanford, he made numerous substantive contributions to computer science, both practically and theoretically.  But he is probably best known as the author of the multi-volume work The Art of Computer Programming, which he began in 1962, began to publish in 1968… and has (via multiple revisions/additions) still not finished.  Called by the New York Times “the profession’s defining treatise,” it won Knuth the Turing Award in 1974.

That said, it’s surely worth noting Knuth’s other major contribution to our modern zeitgeist: his “Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures,” published in Issue 33 of Mad Magazine when he was 19 years old.

192px-knuthatopencontentalliance source


Written by LW

January 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

The measure of things…

In issue 33, Mad published a partial table of the “Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures”, developed by 19-year-old Donald E. Knuth (later a famed computer scientist). According to Knuth, the basis of this new revolutionary system is the potrzebie, which equals the thickness of Mad issue 26, or 2.263348517438173216473 mm.

Volume was measured in ngogn (equal to 1000 cubic potrzebies), mass in blintz (equal to the mass of 1 ngogn of halva, which is “a form of pie [with] a specific gravity of 3.1416 and a specific heat of .31416”), and time in seven named units (decimal powers of the average earth rotation, equal to 1 “clarke”). The system also features such units as whatmeworry, cowznofski, vreeble, hoo, and hah…

More on the Potrzebie system, and other merry metrics, at “List of humorous units of measurement.”  (Though, as GMSV observes the list doesn’t [yet] include “The Kardashian.”)

As we trade in our tape measures, we might recall that it was on this date in 1889, that the word “hamburger” appeared for the first time in print (in the Walla Walla Union, a Walla Walla, Washington, newspaper– per the Oxford English Dictionary).  In the 19th century, German immigrants migrated to North America bringing along the recipe for the hamburg steak (i.e., “from Hamburg”), a form of pounded beef.  Americans adopted the dish, but used the adjectival form “hamburger” to describe it.  It’s a measure of the pounded patty’s prompt popularity that “hamburger” appeared as an entry in 1902 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.


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