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Knuth Volume 4A

Knuth, The Art of Computer Programming, Volume 4 A, here. Calling a top in bitcoin here. If nobody from the “algorithm currency” bitcoin can solve Knuth’s problem then the universal dystonic constant has been exceeded. It’s like not having Rodney Dangerfield involved in a currency based on catch phrases. Also, who steals money from Knuth’s bank? There’s only 275 check routing numbers to search for, you would think there is a simple  algorithm to identify the guy with the felonious buddies. Presumably  someone out there owns the SQL servers in Knuth’s bank. Is it too much to ask to find the guy who screwed this up for everybody?

Separate item – If you could send someone back in time to change just one thing, it would be send Dennis Ritchie from 1969 back to when Knuth was starting work on MIX in 1968 and convince him to use C instead of MIX, right? Immediate advance of like 15 years in STEM across the board if you just change that single decision.

Financial Fiasco

Leading banks and investment funds have been foundering, because of bad debts and lack of trust; and other, less well-known kinds of fiscal chaos are also on the horizon. For example, due to an unfixable security flaw in the way funds are now transferred electronically, worldwide, it is no longer safe to write personal checks. A criminal who sees the numbers that are printed at the bottom of any check that you write can use that information to withdraw all the money from your account. He or she can do this in various ways, without even knowing your name — for example by creating an ATM card, or by impersonating a bank in some country of the world where safeguards are minimal, or by printing a document that looks like a check. The account number and routing information are all that international financial institutions look at before deciding to transfer funds from one account to another. (See, for example, Grant Bugher’s comments.) More and more criminals are learning about this easy way to acquire money, and devising new schemes to conceal their identities as they steal the assets of more victims.

Nowadays almost everybody knows that it’s dangerous to reveal your credit card number, or to have that full number on a printed document that somebody might find in the trash. Soon people will learn that it is equally dangerous to reveal the numbers that are printed in plain sight on every check. Forget signatures; banks have no time to verify them. The once venerable system of checking accounts is irretrievably broken. Before long, companies will find it impossible to give out paychecks without exposing themselves to unacceptable risk.

One consequence of this debacle is, alas, that I can no longer write checks to reward the people who discover errors in my books. The system that I’ve been using has worked well for almost forty years; but recently I have had to close three checking accounts, and the criminal attacks on those accounts have caused significant grief to my bankers. (Certainly I do not believe that anybody who received one of my checks has been in any way a culprit. But all such recipients are entitled to bragging rights; therefore the numbers printed on those checks inevitably become known to random members of the public.) I cannot in good conscience continue to traumatize the people at my bank, who obviously have plenty of other things to worry about.

After painful deliberation I’ve come up with a new plan, which I hope will be acceptable to all concerned, and perhaps even welcomed as an improvement. Instead of rewarding heroic bug-finders with dollars, I shall henceforth award brownie points, otherwise known as hexadecimal dollars (0x$). From now on it will be kudos, not escudos.

Instead of writing personal checks, I’ll write personal certificates of deposit to each awardee’s account at the Bank of San Serriffe, which is an offshore institution that has branches in Blefuscu and Elbonia on the planet Pincus.

It turns out that only 9 of the first 275 checks that I’ve sent out since the beginning of 2006 have actually been cashed. The others have apparently been cached. So this change in policy will probably not affect too many people. On the other hand, I don’t like to renege on promises, so I shall do my best to find a suitable way to send money to anyone who really prefers legal tender.

Everybody who has received a reward check or a hexadecimal certificate from me since 1 January 2006 automatically has an account at the Bank of San Serriffe, and these accounts are listed on the bank’s website. All of these people have my undying gratitude for the invaluable help they’ve generously provided in order to improve the books and the software that I’ve written. I ask friendly readers to keep sending those precious bug reports, and to let me know if my new policy displeases you in any way.

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