I’ve been buying books lately by a man named Donald Knuth. Before you go out and buy any of these yourself, you might ought to talk to me. The books are a series of books called the Art of Computer Programming. They aren’t about art. Some might argue they aren’t about computer programming. I look at them and think the title is perfect. They are art..of a kind. They are computer programming...from 30 thousand feet. They are math.
Donald Knuth is an artist if that word has any broader meaning beyond "a painter of canvases." He’s done much that has shaped computing and through it the modern world we live in. When he first wrote The Art of Computer Programming, he wrote it out on yellow pads. When he got the typeset version, he didn’t like the way it looked so he designed an entire new way of typesetting mathematics. We still use it.
In my life, I’ve been undisciplined. This is my biggest fault, my biggest sin, my tragic flaw. Two years from now — just a tic and a toc — I will be 60 years old. They don’t give you black balloons on your sixtieth birthday. At three-score, you are just a bit too close to the three-score and ten for that. No, they start telling you — hey, you’re looking good.
Yes, medicine is getting better, and yes we’ve got people in the university who keep working into their seventies. But that’s not the point.
I’ve been learning the value of discipline. I look back over my columns. It was first an occasional drip; then more than occasional. Now it seems that it is turning into a steady shower: I am preaching on the virtues of discipline.
Lately this comes from getting serious about computer programming. I started programming when I was in high school. McLish public school bought a TRS-80 microcomputer even though it couldn’t be used for sports in any conceivable way. No one knew how to use one. Then Mr. Sloan, my math teacher, came to me with the manual for it in his hand and said, "Learn how to do this."
And I did.
I’ve only ever had one class, but I’ve returned to programming every few years since. Always in the same spirit: It was something to be learned on one’s own.
I want you to know that I do think the ability to do this is one of my strengths. I am not afraid to knock things together and figure them out. Indeed, if no one’s done it before, they don’t know that I’m doing it wrong.
But I guess that in getting closer to 60, creeping closer to that age when my time will be etched unchanging on marble, I’ve realized that I can’t always just figure it out by myself.
And I am looking at my grandchildren, my grandsons though maybe someday there will be granddaughters too. I got my strength of figuring it out on my own because there wasn’t anyone in the family who knew any differently. When my daughters were growing up, I was still figuring this out. (Something self-referential there.)
But now with the grandchildren. Can they be taught it? What is the best way for them to learn it?
One has to be careful. Much of the destruction that came from the Sixties was from young people who were rejecting what I consider to be the most wonderful discovery of my...uh... middle age. The children of men who had learned the value of discipline in WWII rejected institutions, threw away discipline, and began hammering on the pillars of the earth.
No. It is something they will have to choose.
I am now segueing into my grandfatherly role. I repair my grandchildren’s toys. I have projects in the yard that I plan and carry out in stages.
And I buy books. Books that I will try to read but I will never finish. They will be there when I am gone if my grandchildren want to look at them.
Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to "like" the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook.