personal

People I admire

This is a list of people I admire, because of their work, their contribution to the world, their ideas, but that I don't necessarily consider my personal heroes. I may respect them for a particular reason, but they don't resonate with my views entirely, or simply I do not know them well enough.

Also, I don't care about person x o y being considered important by the majority of ___ (historians, politicians, leaders, scholars, fill in the blank). This is my list, and could not care less what other people tell me to think. Moreover, I have no intention of placing some famous name just because, if I don't know them well enough, if I hadn't read their works, watched their speeches, their debates, I can't put them in.

Donald Knuth

Donald Knuth
Donald Ervin Knuth is the de facto father of modern computer science. Back in the day, when the field didn't even exist, and when books about computers and programming were just a bunch of incoherent pieces of work put together, he decided to set the record straight and build the most complete and comprehensive work on the newly created field that has ever been written. His monumental work The art of computer programming is for computer science what Newton's PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is to physics, with a small difference: while Newton's work is mostly obsolete now, Knuth's masterpiece is still at the edge of the field, and it is likely to stay so for a long time.

He released the first three volumes in a very short time (each one approaches one thousand, carefully constructed and painstakingly accurate pages): in 1968, 1969, and 1973. In 1992 Donald retired to medieval monkness in order to finish his work. After 38 years of work, he released volume 4A. He studies about 12-18 hours per day every day, entirely dedicated to this work. Sometimes it takes him a few weeks just to write one sentence, because he wants to use the most appropriate and precise words possible. He doesn't see that as just a book. To him, it's a Bible.

In addition to fundamental contributions in several branches of theoretical computer science, Knuth is the creator of the TeX computer typesetting system (arguably the best one ever created, and the standard for every scientific paper published in the world, all released Open Source from the very beginning), as well as the related METAFONT font definition language and rendering system, and the Computer Modern family of typefaces.

He has also a quirky sense of humour. He offered a reward check worth "one hexadecimal dollar" (100HEX base 16 cents, in decimal, is $2.56) for any errors found on his work. The correction of these errors in subsequent printings, has contributed to the highly polished and still-authoritative nature of the work, long after its first publication. According to an article in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review, these rewards have been described as "among computerdom's most prized trophies". Knuth reports having written more than 2,000 checks, with an average value exceeding $8 per check. The total value of the checks signed by Knuth was over $20,000, but very few of these checks are actually cashed, however, even the largest ones; more often, they are framed, or kept as "bragging rights". And who can forget his hilarious "Earthshaking announcement" at Stanford in 2010? Brilliant.

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