The famed computer scientist Donald Knuth is giving a talk today, “Hooray for Probability Theory!”. He walks through the audience to the stage wearing blue jeans and two unmatched shirts. On the one hand, he walks among us, dressed like a regular guy. On the other hand, he seems taller than everyone else, as if he floats above mere mortals. His limbs are lanky overlong, swinging through the air like a giant’s.

He sits down on the desk at an angle, facing one of the cameras taping the event. The pose looks creepily calculated, like a President trying to make you feel like he’s a regular guy, sitting on his desk, as he opens an instructional film. Knuth opens with a metajoke before explaining he is here to tell us how probability theories quickly solved some problems he’d been stuck on for a long time (although “for me a long time is two weeks”, he says).

He is clearly getting old. He seems a little shaky and stutters when speaking, as if his audio track has cut out, and yet his hands continue gesturing even without the words. He takes his seat behind the desk to begin his talk and an overhead cam projects the contents of his desk onto a large screen next to him. He works by writing his mathematical symbols with a large pen onto a pad of paper, the equations just flowing out of him like water.

Still, the giant hands are disconcerting, the effect is like something out of Being John Malkovich — it’s as if you’re inside Knuth’s head, seeing what he sees.

Knuth makes a connection between his Faith and his work — he says he knew he should keep working because “God wouldn’t have wanted there to be no easy way to prove [X about] Stirling numbers”.

It’s time for a Guest Perspective. In an article headlined Full Moon fun not Absolute, but close the Stanford Daily reported:

Associate Dean of Students and Office of Student Activities Director Nancy Howe said that there were only two incidents of intoxication that required “emergency responses,” down from five last year.


While many students enjoyed the festivities, others felt somewhat alienated by the atmosphere.

“It can be off-putting, having a naked girl squeeze your stomach,” said sophomore Matt Smith. “Everyone’s definitely friendly, but there seems to be a little bit of shallowness to it all.”

For comparison: my report.

posted October 31, 2004 12:19 PM (Education) (4 comments) #


The Politics of Lying
Stanford: Day 39
Stanford: Day 40
Stanford: Day 41
Philip Zimbardo on the Psychology of Evil
Stanford: Day 42
Stanford: Day 43
November Surprise: The Votemaster is Andrew Tanenbaum
Money and Politics
The Facts About Money and Politics
Stanford: Day 45


The great thing about Don Knuth is his faith. If a man of his stature and intelligence has it, that should be a sign to many others that it isn’t a weakness to have faith in a higher power.

posted by Randy H. at October 31, 2004 12:33 PM #

“If a man of his stature and intelligence has it, that should be a sign to many others that it isn’t a weakness to have faith in a higher power.”

Ahh, yes, the good old appeal to authority logical fallacy.

Dear God, save me from religious people and their love for logical fallacies. Amen.

posted by George at November 1, 2004 04:42 AM #

I wonder what Don Knuth would say about these two comments.

posted by Zooko at November 1, 2004 09:58 AM #


How’s this an “appeal to authority” logical fallacy? Randy didn’t say, “Knuth believes, and Knuth is smart, so that proves that God exists”. Rather, he said (paraphrasing) that “Knuth believes, and Knuth is smart, so that demonstrates that faith isn’t necessarily about weakness… Even smart people profess to have it.” Not proves, or is logically rock solid, or even airtight. It’s an observation.

If he’d said (in a different context) that (1) Kerry is Catholic, and (2) Kerry is the kind of guy that should be running our country, so (3) Catholics must not all be bad, I’ll bet you wouldn’t have said a word.

Yet, because Randy’s talking about real faith (not the made-up babble that Kerry adopted late in his campaign, to win over the people who don’t see right through his shallowness), you take offense.

Why is that?

posted by Somebody Anonymous at November 2, 2004 07:59 PM #

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