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Dijkstra's Manuscripts Available Online 251

Posted by timothy
from the read-only dept.
Bodrius writes "Salon has a short but interesting article called GOTO considered joyful, about E. W. Dijkstra's manuscripts, as published by the University of Texas, and their bloggish nature. I'm not sure if the blog analogy is that accurate, but the articles are a must read for computer scientists and geeks in general." (Annoying but free click-through system for non-subscribers.)
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Dijkstra's Manuscripts Available Online

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  • by Richardsonke1 (612224) * on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:01AM (#6399881)
    GOTO considered joyful
    On his proto-blog archive, the words and spirit of the late computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra live on, inspiring new generations of geeks.

    - - - - - - - - - - - -
    By Rachel Chalmers

    July 9, 2003 | considered harmful: adj. [very common] Edsger W. Dijkstra's note in the March 1968 "Communications of the ACM," "Goto Statement Considered Harmful," fired the first salvo in the structured programming wars ... use of such titles has remained as a persistent minor in-joke (the 'considered silly' found at various places in this lexicon is related).

    That entry in Eric Raymond's edition of the Hacker's Dictionary was my first encounter with pioneering computer scientist Edsger Wybe Dijkstra, but thanks to the dedicated work of volunteers at the University of Texas at Austin, it was very far from my last. These volunteers maintain the massive and growing EWD archive. It's a tremendous and erudite proto-blog, the extraordinary record of an exemplary life, and it's one of my favorite places on the Web. A year after his death, a computer scientist who devoted himself to teaching people how to think is still on the podium, delivering gem after gem of insight.

    Born in the Netherlands in 1930, Dijkstra was a witty and thoroughly engaging writer in his nonnative English ("I have learned to be very suspicious of ideas I cannot express well in both Dutch and English," he noted, late in life. "As nice as it is to have the union at one's disposal, it is wise to confine oneself to the intersection.")

    Over a 40-year period that began in the early 1960s, Dijkstra wrote prolifically on timely and compelling topics: from his experience of the evolution of universities on both sides of the Atlantic from the post-WWII era to the beginning of the 21st century; to meditations on the science and art of teaching; to incredibly rich and detailed accounts of his own intellectual methods (don't miss EWD 666: "A problem solved in my head," which contains the endearing aperçu: "Goldbach's Conjecture -- I had never thought that I would ever use that!")

    Like entries in a modern weblog, many of the informal pieces collected in the EWD archive were never published in any traditional sense. Instead they were copied (and later photocopied), numbered sequentially from EWD 0 (sadly lost to history) to EWD 1317 ("From van IJzeren's correspondence to my aunt & uncle," written a few months before his death in August 2002) and circulated from the greedy hands of one computer scientist to another like Eastern European samizdat or fourth-generation copies of the Lions books.

    For years I have been dipping into this priceless archive (or at least its English language subset; is there a great Dutch-English translator out there who would do the world the incalculable favor of translating the rest?) and I have yet to scratch the surface of its treasures. But I continue to follow the trail; the archive is redolent of the spoor of Dijkstra's intellectual evolution, the physical evidence of a great mind thinking aloud. A fine, clear light shines through it all, the light of intelligence unmarred by any particular arrogance or egotism -- the set of personal qualities I tend to think of as integrity.

    Dijkstra is at his iconoclastic best on, for example, academic hypocrisy:

    "Today's mathematical culture suffers from a style of publication, in which the results and the reasoning justifying them are published quite explicitly but in which all the pondering is rigorously suppressed, as if the need to ponder were a vulgar infirmity about which we don't talk in civilized company."

    Or the relationship between programming and mathematics:

    "Programming is one of the most difficult branches of applied mathematics; the poorer mathematicians had better remain pure mathematicians."

    Or the truth itself, however unpalatable:

    "French science is poisoned by politics."

    One particularly apposite piece (EWD 696) is titled "Written in
    • This can't be : it was supposed to be manuscript, not typed !? :)
    • aperçu (Score:3, Funny)

      by mausmalone (594185)

      (don't miss EWD 666: "A problem solved in my head," which contains the endearing aperçu: "Goldbach's Conjecture -- I had never thought that I would ever use that!")

      The Fish [altavista.com] says aperçu is a french word that means "outline." Stupid fucking Salon elitist fucktards.

      I'm writing obscure french words in an english-language article, thereby ignoring the point of writing it in the first place! I exude a certain je ne sais quoi you cour de merd bourgoise can't approach!

      • Re:aperçu (Score:2, Funny)

        by dr.robotnik (205595)
        I find it particularly ironic the way the article writer feels the need to use a french word in an english passage, just after quoting the following from Djikstra:

        "I have learned to be very suspicious of ideas I cannot express well in both Dutch and English," he noted, late in life. "As nice as it is to have the union at one's disposal, it is wise to confine oneself to the intersection."


        lol :)
  • Bio (Score:5, Informative)

    by Arthaed (687979) <(arthaed) (at) (hotmail.com)> on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:01AM (#6399882) Homepage
    Here is a brief bio on Edsger Dijkstra [webopedia.com].
  • Compelling? (Score:3, Funny)

    by mao che minh (611166) * on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:05AM (#6399905) Journal
    That was a mighty gracious tribute to a mere blog. I understand that it is a very old blog, but honestly, who really cares? It's poorly selected stories like these that are dragging Salon down. I'll never pay for a website that bothers to publish such boring material.

    Oh wait......*

    • Re:Compelling? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by garcia (6573) * on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:14AM (#6399969) Homepage
      you really need to RTFA and his documents first.

      As a person only vaguely interested in CS I can say that I was more intrigued by the fact that he hand-wrote his documents, gave personal notes about what he was feeling at the time (my note [slashdot.org] about what pen-type he was using), which are all VERY interesting to me.

      For me, these little things are far more interesting than what topics he happened to be discussing.

      His "blog-like" notes are probably better to read than JoSchmoe049169666420's because they are coming from very well-known professor who was in touch with the CS academic community.

      That's my worthless .02 at least.
    • Re:Compelling? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by sbaker (47485) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @08:11PM (#6404285) Homepage
      I was one of the people that somehow got onto the mailing list for Dijkstra's notes. It was always a joy to see a photocopy of one of his hand-written (mostly) notes appear in my In-Tray at work.

      Unless you've read a good number of his writings, it's hard to appreciate the way this guy thought.

      He also had the neatest handwriting in the known universe. I recall getting one of his notes that seemed as immaculately neat as all the others - with a note at the end apologising for the quality of the handwriting as he'd written it with his other hand "because it could use some practice". He resented having to use a typewriter because he liked to invent new symbols. He always wrote code fragments in a programming language of his own invention for which no known compiler exists.

      It may be that you could describe this as a 'blog' - it was disseminated by mail to people who he'd somehow run into or been associated with. I have no idea how many copies were sent out - but it must have been hundreds. The earliest ones were long before the advent of the Internet.

      Whether it makes a suitable Salon story - I can't say.
  • by Blitzshlag (685207) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:05AM (#6399909)
    You could change the expiration on the temporary cookie they give you to get perminent access. Of course, this would be illegal.
  • by garcia (6573) * on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:05AM (#6399911) Homepage
    Does anyone know if he routinely let people know what type of pen he was using when he wrote that particular document? Here's [utexas.edu] one of the ones I found.

    Why did he do this? For his own personal notes on which pens were good (I guess important if you are frequently writing things).

    Why did he use pens and not electronic formats? For a CS person that surprises me.
    • by CoolVibe (11466) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:13AM (#6399963) Journal
      Dijkstra had a very distinctive and very readable handwriting. It certainly influenced mine. I don't know which pens he used, but I do agree there is something about writing stuff by hand. For one, you write slower than you think. And it can be a really meditative experience putting words to paper by hand.
      • I love fountain pens and I really get my ideas flowing when I use them, even if it is to turn around and code the thing with emacs. I have tried to use emacs or other editors to flesh out preliminary ideas, but it just doesn't have the same appeal to me. I believe I read something about air traffic controllers still doing part of their job on paper because they can't get the same results with computer programs. It has something to do with that meditative experience your talking about, IIRC.

    • dont know how much he is a CS person or more a math person
      • Since CS is (or at least should be) learning how to apply known algorithms to problems and the development of new algorithms to solve problems, CS should be very similar to math, and computer scientists ought to seem fairly similar to mathematicians. Most early CS people, as I understand it, were math people with an interest in computers.
        • by Black Parrot (19622) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @11:23AM (#6400481)


          > Since CS is (or at least should be) learning how to apply known algorithms to problems and the development of new algorithms to solve problems, CS should be very similar to math, and computer scientists ought to seem fairly similar to mathematicians.

          For researchers in the 'theory' and 'algorithms' sub-fields of CS, I'd say they are mathematicians. They work with axioms and theorems and stuff just like other mathematicians do.

          Other CS researchers are empiricists instead, e.g. most of those who do data mining or statistical natural language processing. And of course there's lots of other stuff in between. (E.g., network researchers may start off with an algorithmic concept but then run simulations to demonstrate their algorithm's effectiveness.)

          There's a family of jokes to the effect that PhDs in computer science don't know anything about computers or programming or whatever. In actuality the individual's engagement with computers/programming will vary very much with the sub-field he's in. These days a theorist will need to be able to use LaTeX to write papers and read e-mail to see the conference announcements, but doesn't need to program at all. OTOH someone doing experiments with genetic algorithms will probably write their own code for their experiments, and may even turn into a hardware geek by building beowulf clusters to run the massively CPU-intensive experiments on.

          > Most early CS people, as I understand it, were math people with an interest in computers.

          I think you can still find a lot of older CS professors with degrees in applied mathematics. Computers were around long before CS departments even existed.

    • by utahjazz (177190) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:17AM (#6399993)
      Why did he use pens and not electronic formats? For a CS person that surprises me.

      One of my profs said he was giving a speach at Dijkstra's school. He wanted to make sure Dijkstra didn't attend (apperently Dijkstra was an asshole), so he sent out the announcement via email only. This ensured that Dijkstra would never get the announcement, as he did have a computer.
      • I call bullshit.


        This ensured that Dijkstra would never get the announcement, as he did have a computer.


        How does having a computer ensure that you will not get email? All the professors at my school have said nothing but kind words about the man (although they have only mentioned him post-mortum). The professors that I am talking about also know the man and never mentioned cowering in fear of him, or trying to hide from him.

      • by Black Parrot (19622) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:33AM (#6400122)


        > One of my profs said he was giving a speach at Dijkstra's school. He wanted to make sure Dijkstra didn't attend (apperently Dijkstra was an asshole)

        I don't know about 'asshole', but he certainly qualified as a curmudgeon. Famously, if he was at a talk and the speaker put up a slide that had more than one color in it, Djikstra would interrupt and ask what the different colors meant. (I actually had an opportunity to see him do that once.)

        I have repeatedly heard rumors at second and third remove to the effect that at least some of the CS faculty at Texas found him "very divisive", but the rumors never told me what the context was. Decisions at faculty meetings, I would guess.

        But it shouldn't surprise anyone on Slashdot to hear that some CS geniuses have a contrary streak.

        • by wingbat (88117) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @01:34PM (#6401386)
          > he certainly qualified as a curmudgeon. Famously, if he was at a talk and the speaker put up a slide that had more than one color in it, Djikstra would interrupt and ask what the different colors meant. (I actually had an opportunity to see him do that once.)

          He was at UT when I did my master's in CS there, and he was certainly a character. When the speaker walked into the room and saw him on the front row, little beads of sweat would immediately begin to form.

          I actually took a class from him, which had a vague Latin name he translated for us as "whatever I want to talk about". He was quirky and intimidating but friendly and engaging at the same time.

          Some of the interesting things he did:

          He took pictures of each of the students (I think there were 7 of us) to file away somewhere. I guess it helped him remember our names.

          He used a different hand for writing on the chalkboard on alternate days. Lefty-days were sometimes a bit rough. He had broken his right wrist a year or so before, and wanted to ensure he could still function if it happened again.

          The class had no tests and no homework, but featured an open-ended one-on-one "verbal final" at the end of the semester, either in his (large, corner, carpeted, blackboards-on-every-wall) office, or in his home.

          The verbal final featured *me* with those little beads of sweat...

        • Famously, if he was at a talk and the speaker put up a slide that had more than one color in it, Djikstra would interrupt and ask what the different colors meant.

          Fair question. There's far too many people splashing colour around just because they can.

          It's a curse that affects newspapers as well.
      • I am befuddled that one could consistently spell Dijkstra correctly and yet err in spelling 'speech'.
    • by no reason to be here (218628) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:19AM (#6400008) Homepage
      Well, he started writing in the 1960's, so it was pretty non-trivial to fire up your computer and peck away at a keyboard in some very primitive text editor with (if one were lucky) a tiny amber monochrome display. At the point he started writing his JOURNAL (sorry, i just fucking hate the word "blog"), pen and paper was the easiest, most reliable, and most expediant option (also remember that at that time, mathematicians and engineers were still using slide rules). By the time word processing became a more viable option, he was entrenched in the habit of keeping a paper journal. Furthermore, until the advent of the portable computer, if you wanted to write in your journal regardless of where you were, pen and paper was the only option. Personally, I'd like to see more people keep pen and paper journals; one can tell a lot about people from their handwriting.
      • one can tell a lot about people from their handwriting.

        This is going to be really off topic, but it might be of interest to you...

        I'm a lefty and have a terribly messy handwriting. As I aspire to be a comic artist (and have done so for years :-P), this really is a vote against me; hand-lettering your comics makes them personal and makes the work a whole, but with my handwriting, it makes the work look like sh*t.

        I've had, what? 20 years to develop a proper handwriting letter.

        It took me less than a year
        • Handwriting is like body language; despite the fact I've seen several people try to catalog what this twitch means and what that jiggle means, it's more a gestalt thing then anything else.

          "Messy" doesn't automatically say bad; certainly it's not usually a point in the person's favor, but it's not that simplistic. Similarly, "neat" doesn't say good; sometimes it says "careful", sometimes it says "anal".

          It's another dimension to the communication, one much harder to fake. Certain lies are easy to write, but
    • Does anyone know if he routinely let people know what type of pen he was using when he wrote that particular document? Here's one of the ones I found.

      Why did he do this? For his own personal notes on which pens were good (I guess important if you are frequently writing things).

      IF he did track what pen he was using, I can think of one possible reason. It was mentioned that these were photocopied and re-photocopied to several generations. During that process it won't be readily apparent what pen he used

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Fact : GOTO is dying

    It is official; Salon.com confirms: GOTO is dying One more crippling bombshell hit the already beleaguered GOTO community when IDC confirmed that GOTO market share has dropped yet again, now down to less than a fraction of 1 percent of all servers. Coming on the heels of a recent Salon.com survey which plainly states that GOTO has lost more market share, this news serves to reinforce what we've known all along. GOTO is collapsing in complete disarray, as fittingly exemplified by fail

  • by errl (43525) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:15AM (#6399980) Homepage
    The article states that Dijskstra has said:

    "Programming is one of the most difficult branches of applied mathematics; the poorer mathematicians had better remain pure mathematicians."

    I do not agree with this. I mean, in pure mathematics there are not much to think about besides mathematics. Programming includes many other aspects, for example creativity. So if you are a poor mathematican but have other qualities that are needed for programming, you would have an easier time doing programming than pure mathemtaics I think.
    • Pure mathematics does require creativity. If it didn't it could all be done by computer. But some times coming up with, say, an utterly logical, but new, proof requires a degree of inspiration that most people don't ever experience. I sometimes wish I had the attention span and discipline do be creative in that way.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:17AM (#6399994)
    It's not accurate, because that would make the material self-important, tedious, badly written nonsense.
  • Salon.com (Score:4, Informative)

    by Orne (144925) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:23AM (#6400036) Homepage
    Funny, and I thought Salon [yahoo.com] was the one dying...

    "Salon has a history of significant losses and expects to incur operating losses in the near future. For the year ended March 31, 2003, Salon had net losses attributable to common stockholders of $5.7 million and had an accumulated deficit of $82.3 million." -- SEC Annual Report
    • Err, what's funny? Who said what was dying in the firstplace?

      I like Salon, though, and would regret its passing. At the very minimum it provides a good cartoon M-Th.
  • by tvm662 (232083) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:27AM (#6400067)
    There is some saucy stuff in there that he's written about wife swapping [utexas.edu] and you thought CS was dull.

    Tom.
  • Call for volunteers (Score:5, Interesting)

    by sheck (37769) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:40AM (#6400171) Homepage
    The EWD archive [utexas.edu] is looking for volunteers to convert the handwritten articles to google-able HTML. See here [utexas.edu] if you are interested.
  • by loonix_gangsta (517305) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @10:48AM (#6400229)
    Here's proof that Slashdotters are decended from Dijksta. Here's some quotes from document EWD498 "How do we tell truths that might hurt?". Note the problems that he faced in 1975 are similar to what we have today!

    FORTRAN -- "the infantile disorder" --, by now nearly 20 years old, is hopelessly inadequate for whatever computer application you have in mind today: it is now too clumsy, too risky, and too expensive to use.

    PL/I -- "the fatal disease"-- belongs more to the problem set than to the solution set.

    It is practically impossible to teach good programming to students that have had a prior exposure to BASIC: as potential programmers they are mentally mutilated beyond hope of regeneration.

    The use of COBOL cripples the mind; its teaching should, therefore, be regarded as a criminal offence.

    APL is a mistake, carried through to perfection. It is the language of the future for the programming techniques of the past: it creates a new generation
    of coding bums.

    Also the Microsoft-like problems that he faces with IBM. His disdain is clearly shown by labelling IBM the devil!

    ....

    Many companies that have made themselves dependent on IBM-equipment (and in doing so have sold their soul to the devil) will collapse under the sheer weight of the unmastered complexity of their data processing systems.

    We can found no scientific discipline, nor a healthy profession on the technical mistakes of the Department of Defences and, mainly, one computer manufacturer.

    ....

    18th June 1975

    Dijkstra - trolling since 1975 ;)

  • that support's the KISS principal when it comes to CS
  • Subject (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Laxitive (10360) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @11:02AM (#6400319) Journal
    I had the pleasure of going to a Q&A session with Djikstra hosted by our university CSClub. It was interesting - he talked about shortest path, algol, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

    One of the major points he made before he left, and somewhat adamantly at that, was that software is so poor in quality nowadays because developers don't really bother to come up with formal proofs of correctness for their programs.

    There was some back and forth from the audience on this point, with people wondering wether it was feasible for large pieces of software (e.g. OS kernels) to be proven, because of their size and complexity. He didn't seem to think that it should really be a problem, and attributed the lack of correctness proofs to laziness on the part of programmers.

    It was an interesting talk.

    No point to this post, really.

    -Laxitive
    • Re:Subject (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      ...software is so poor in quality nowadays because developers don't really bother to come up with formal proofs of correctness for their programs... people wondering wether it was feasible for large pieces of software (e.g. OS kernels) to be proven...

      Ideally, kernels and other large portions of code are made up of smaller functions. If each function is proved correct, then all that should remain at the end is to verify that each link maintains integrity. Think of it as a recursive proof, if you will.
    • Disclaimer - I was never particularly fond of Djikstra. He seemed to be too wordy and too self important, which is not to say he didn't make some good contributions.

      software is so poor in quality nowadays because developers don't really bother to come up with formal proofs of correctness for their programs

      Asides from it being perposterous to expect all the developers in the world to write formal proofs for their programs, this statement is at best a wild assumption. He is proposing that the lack of us
      • Re:Subject (Score:2, Insightful)

        by notfancy (113542)

        Forgive me if you find me rude, but offhand dismissal without cogent arguing really taxes my patience.

        Asides from it being perposterous to expect all the developers in the world to write formal proofs for their programs,

        Why would that be so, exactly? Dijkstra was especially vocal against this "can't do" attitude. I don't ask for a compelling argument, just for a reasonable one.

        this statement is at best a wild assumption. He is proposing that the lack of use of a particular (his) potential solution

    • Re:Subject (Score:2, Insightful)

      by murr (214674)
      One of the major points he made before he left, and somewhat adamantly at that, was that software is so poor in quality nowadays because developers don't really bother to come up with formal proofs of correctness for their programs.

      Evidence that Dijkstra was not particularly in touch with what most software nowadays is about. It's not that it's fundamentally impossible to prove a large program correct, i.e., prove that its postcondition follows from its precondition, but that for many programs, coming up
  • Suggested reading (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Oscaro (153645)
    I loved this one [utexas.edu]. The wolf-goat-cabbage problem will never be the same again.
  • Favorite Quote (Score:4, Interesting)

    by handy_vandal (606174) on Wednesday July 09, 2003 @01:57PM (#6401535) Homepage Journal
    "I would therefore like to posit that computing's central challenge, viz. 'How not to make a mess of it', has not been met. On the contrary, most of our systems are much more complicated than can be considered healthy, and are too messy and chaotic to be used in comfort and confidence. The average customer of the computing industry has been served so poorly that he expects his system to crash all the time, and we witness a massive worldwide distribution of bug-ridden software for which we should be deeply ashamed."

    E.W. Dijkstra: The end of Computing Science? [utexas.edu]
    Austin, 19 November 2000
  • Could somebody help me (and I'm sure others) figure out how to pronounce Dr. Dijkstra's name? I just don't want to make an ass of myself when discussing him (and his ideas).

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