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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 information.

``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.

``I 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 concentration.''

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 downbeat.

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.''