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Posts Tagged ‘Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About’

3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated”  —  book review
Today’s review is for “3:16 Bible Texts Illuminated” (1991©) written by Donald E. Knuth.  Back in 2011, I read another book by Knuth, titled:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About“.  (Review here.)  That book, was a discussion about the author’s faith and his prior book, which is being reviewed in this post.  When I retired (in 2017), I was presented with an Amazon gift voucher, which I promised to “waste” on books, music or technology.  In this case, part of it was used to buy this book (along with a number of other Knuth books).
To save everyone the time of reading my earlier review, basically, Knuth wanted to know if one can learn anything unique or unusual about the Bible by doing a stratified (but random) sampling / review of a particular Bible verse.  In theory, if you have a sufficiently large sample to draw from, you can gain “some” knowledge about any topic by analyzing a random sample of the topic’s data.
Because Knuth was not sure this type of investigation would work for literature, Knuth chose a verse he knew would have at least one interesting data point:  “Chapter 3 Verse 16”.  The chapter and verse he was confident about was John Chapter 3: Verse 16 – “Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only child, so that all people with faith in him can escape destruction, and live forever.
The first problem Knuth encounters is that not all of the books of the Bible have 13 verses in their chapter 3.  To get around this, he simply carried the sample forward the same number (count) of verses and take up wherever that left him.  There were, however, a number of books which were simply to short to use even this method.  In those instances, he simply chooses to drop the book.  Knuth ends up with a sampling size of 59 verses.
The second issue was Knuth found scholars did not always (rarely, in fact) agree on what exactly was meant by the writings in the various Bible sources.  Not only were the scholars interpretations differing, so were the texts across the various Bible versions.  There was (is) even disagreement on if some source material is valid and / or should be included in the Bible.
In order to determine why this was happening, Knuth determined to read the Bibles in their original Hebrew / Aramaic and Greek / Latin.  He could then present his own translations as he felt they should be interpreted.  In addition, he felt he needed to translate the verses immediately before and after the target verse to ensure he was accurately relating context as well as the literal meaning.
The method of describing each of the 59 verses itself is interesting.  Each verse is covered in four pages.  Page one provides overall historic, geographic and character background information.  The second page is devoted to a calligraphic representation of the verse.  The final two pages are a word by word breakdown of the verse.  In order to do this in a manner which makes sense, Knuth sometimes adds an analysis of the preceding or following verse(s).  Just a word on the calligraphy.  Knuth approached a friend who happened to be a world renowned typeface designer to assist with the book cover illustration.  The friend (Hermann Zapf), in turn commissioned calligraphers from over 20 countries to provide the “illustration” pages.  This calligraphy, in turn, became part of a formal exhibit which I believe is currently “owned” by the San Francisco Library.  I don’t know if it (the entire exhibit) is ever shown publicly.  I know it was back in 2011, but I was not able to go view it back then.  My loss, I am sure.
So, is this book interesting?  Is it entertaining?  Is it enlightening?  Yes.  Yes, and Yes!  I am a life-long Roman Catholic, but I have never read the Bible through cover to cover.  I tried to a few years back, but had limited knowledge of the names and places and found it rather boring.  I attempted to co-read Isaac Asimov’s “Guide To The Bible“, but even this was of limited value.  I now think I just gave up too soon.  Mea culpa.
Almost every chapter of this book explained something I didn’t know or fully appreciate about the book being covered in that chapter.  Some were simple “interesting”.  Some were “that never occurred to me”.  And, some (a few) were “Wow! I’ve got to go back and read that!”  Anytime I read a book which prompts me to read more or more in-depth, I am grateful to the author.  (I’m still not sure if I’m weird that way…)  In any case, I’m now more determined than ever to read more of Knuth’s books.
In this case:  final recommendation – very highly recommended!!  Even if you are not a Biblical scholar or particularly religious, this book will provide insight into one of the greatest books in all of literature.  At less than 270 pages, this is a fast read and the calligraphy is truly beautiful.  Two final notes: 1)  in the afterward, Knuth wonders if his selection of “3:16” was not “influenced” and therefor not entirely random.  His conclusion was, with further analysis, it may have been, but was not intentional.  He adds, however, that he enjoyed the process so much he intends to use the methodology for further future study of other verses.  And, 2)  I’ve seen in various places this book was copyright in 1990.  My version says 1991 and that’s the year I’m using above.
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My experiences suggest that the optimum way to run a research think tank would be to take people’s nice offices away from them and to make them live in garrets, and even to insist that they do non-research things.  That’s a strange way to run a research center, but it might well be true that the imposition of such constraints would bring out maximum creativity.
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
[I think this suggestion would stimulate what I call “Background Processing“.  That is, force you to do the thinking you’re supposed to be doing in the back of your mind while the current moment forces you to think about other things.  In other words, it’s not the pressure (as suggested by Knuth), its the distractions which make this work.    —    kmab]
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There’s a word “bibliolatry,” which means “worship of the Bible.”  Sometimes the Bible can be your God, if you consider it to be too sacred, not realizing the human context in which it came from.
…  At a personal level, I consider that my main goal in life is to do what God wants me to do, so I try to understand what God wants me to do.  And I believe that by understanding the Bible I get very good clues about this;  in other words, that’s what the connection with God is for me.  But I don’t treat the Bible as a magical thing, as something for which I might just close my eyes, fall down on my knees, and say “I’m going to repeat these blessed words over and over.”
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
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Like any writer, a translator has to have a target audience clearly in mind.
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
[I would argue the same is true for teachers – as well as writers and translators – because these are all similar functions – communicating ideas to a target audience.  In fact, I would make the case that teaching is translating.    —    kmab]
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I didn’t choose to be a computer scientist because my main mission in life was to advance computation.  I chose computer science simply because I was good at it.  For some reason, my peculiar way of thinking correlated well with computers.
…Experience shows that about one person in 50 has a computer scientist’s way of looking at things.
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
[I’m not sure I’m all that good at it, but I’ve managed to make a living out of working with computers.  And in any case, as we used to say in the Army:  “It is better to be lucky than good.”    —    kmab]
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Thus I have a strong recommendation to anyone who wants to get into the Bible:  Don’t simply read what other people have said about the meaning of a verse;  put the verse into your own words, by using the resources that are available.  You can do this even though you have just an ordinary, nontheological education.
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
[And the same holds true for learning about any non-trivial subject.    —    kmab]
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We found out that we learned a lot when we tried to put a small part of the Bible into our own words;  we agreed that this exercise was an ideal way to get into the real meaning of the original.  After this experience we were, in fact, glad that the Bible was not written in English; we even felt a bit sorry for Greek-speaking people, who don’t have the opportunity to translate the Bible into their own language.  We were able to do this sort of thing with the Bible in spite of the fact that we were untrained in Greek, because the experts have made their scholarship available in convenient reference works.
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
[For me, the important point is the value of alternative sources in learning.  Knuth is reading the Bible in his native tongue, then looking at and translating the original language, then looking at what other Bible scholars have said are their interpretations.  The rich tapestry of interwoven viewpoints is what is creating the learning and personal growth experience.  This is consistent with my own method of learning.  I purchase books by different authors to get a more varied presentation of the material.    —    kmab]
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The decision that I made to do my own translations, even though I knew neither Hebrew nor Greek, was one of the best decisions in my life.  For I learned that the absolute best way to find out what you don’t understand is to try to express something in your own words.  If I had been operating only in input mode, look at other translations but not actually trying to output the thoughts they expressed, I would never have come to grips with the many shades of meaning that lurk just below the surface.  In fact, I would never have realized that such shades of meaning even exist, if I had just been inputting.  The exercise of producing output, trying to make a good translation by yourself, is a tremendous help to your education.
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
[Emphasis – italics, bolding and underlining are mine.
The absolute proof of knowledge about something is being able to explain it in your own words.    —    kmab]
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Let me tell you that the amount of terror that lives in a speaker’s stomach when giving a lecture is proportional to the square of the amount he doesn’t know about his audience.
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
[Interesting the lack of knowledge about the audience causes the terror, not the lack of knowledge about the subject matter.    —    kmab]
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One of the main characteristics of a computer science mentality is the ability to jump very quickly between levels of abstraction, between a low level and a high level, almost unconsciously.  Another characteristic is that a computer scientist tends to be able to deal with nonuniform structures — case 1, case 2, case 3 — while a mathematician will tend to want one unifying axiom that governs an entire system.  This second aspect is sometimes a weakness of computer science:  When we encounter a situation that can be explained by one axiom, we might still give it five, because five different rules are no sweat for us.  But we’re at our best in circumstances when no single principle suffices;  then we can handle the discrepancies between different cases very nicely.
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
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I’m convinced that computer science grew so fast and is so vital today because there are people all over the world who have a peculiar way of thinking, a certain way of structuring knowledge in their heads, a mentality that we now associate with a discipline of its own.  This mentality isn’t sharply focused, in the space of all possible ways of thinking;  but it’s different enough from other ways — from the mentalities of physicists and mathematicians that I spoke of earlier — that the people who had it in the old days were scattered among many different departments, more or less orphans in their universities.  Then suddenly, when it turned out that their way of thinking correlated well with being able to make a computer do tricks, these people found each other.
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
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Whatever I do, I try to do it in a way that has some elegance;  I try to create something that I think is beautiful.  Instead of just getting a job done, I prefer to do my work in a way that pleases me in as many senses as possible.
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
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Have any of you ever been to a convention of English professors?  Do you know that they actually read their papers to each other, word for word, relishing each and every literary nuance?  It blew my mind when I first learned that — because of course computer scientist do the opposite, we always just stand up and talk.
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
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…A good book is going to find its audience without any hype, and a mediocre book is going to die a quiet death even if it has wonderful advertising.
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
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I want to use this opportunity to say things about which I feel deeply, even though other people could say them better, partly in a effort to inspire those other people to come forward and advance the discussion.
    —    Donald E. Knuth
From his book:  “Things A Computer Scientist Rarely Talks About
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