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Computer experts and e-mail strategy

  1. March 15, 2003
  2. Mike Langberg
  4. http://www.msri.org/ext/media/trianon.html

Computer experts and e-mail strategy

Posted on Sat, Mar. 15, 2003

Computer experts and e-mail strategy
By Mike Langberg
Mercury News

Overwhelmed by the crush of electronic mail, cell-phone calls,
instant messages, Web sites and other technological demands on our
ever-diminishing reservoir of free time?

You're not alone. The people who
invent this stuff feel the same way.

On Wednesday evening, the Commonwealth
Club of San Francisco and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute of
Berkeley staged an unintentionally ironic discussion at the Le Petit Trianon
Theater in downtown San Jose.

The featured speaker was Donald E. Knuth,
professor emeritus of computer science at Stanford University and something of
a legend in the field of computer programming. Knuth was questioned by Google
co-founder Sergey Brin, a former student of Knuth's, and Jennifer Chayes, a
professor of mathematics and physics at the University of Washington, who also
heads a research group at Microsoft.

Chayes began the hourlong discussion by
asking Knuth how humans are responding to the rising flood of electronic

``We scale up our ambitions,'' Knuth said.

People today are
trying to do two or three times more activities in a day, he explained, because
tools that make us more efficient also give us time to attempt more tasks.
Professors like himself are now expected to have far more answers at their
fingertips because Internet search engines such as Mountain View-based Google
make it possible to gather so much data in advance of lectures.

Knuth has
already adopted one unusual defense mechanism: He refuses to use e-mail.

have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an
e-mail address,'' Knuth says on his faculty Web page at Stanford. ``I'd used
e-mail since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of e-mail is plenty
for one lifetime.

``E-mail is a wonderful thing for people whose role in
life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom
of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible

If you want to reach him, the Web page suggests, send an
old-fashioned letter on paper.

Knuth, 65, began working with computers
almost 50 years ago and wrote one of the definitive textbooks in the field,
``The Art of Computer Programming,'' with more than a million copies in print.

In other words, Knuth laid some of the foundation stones for companies such
as Google and Microsoft to make products that complicate our lives.

``We are
just going to be assaulted with more and more stuff,'' Chayes sighed during
Wednesday's discussion, held in front of an audience of about 100.

Brin has
his own e-mail strategy: He only reads and responds to the most recent messages
in his inbox, ignoring older messages as soon as he gets distracted by more
pressing business.

``This way you can trick some small number of people into
thinking you're prompt,'' Brin said.

Still, the hour wasn't entirely

Brin asked Knuth toward the end of the evening if computers will
ever supplant humans in performing knowledge-oriented white-collar tasks.

Knuth quickly replied, ``If they do, I hope I can learn something from them.''