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THE CS Bible? Let's be realistic and honest
on November 14, 2003
The Art of CP (TAoCP) book set covers the core of computer science curriculum on data structures and algorithms. Not everything there is today (that would be impossible), just the core, but that's more than enough to begin with (and for most people quite sufficient in general.) This is typical Knuth: he knows his stuff, he writes very well, he's an encyclopedic mind; his texts are mathematically rich, yet at the same time not overwhelming; time and again he demonstrates this 19-th century germanic scientific style, which is to say he's incredibly detailed and exact -- one can even accuse him of pedantry, but in a good sense. He writes with a sharp, dry wit (his sense of humour makes him unique among the rest of the writers on the computing theme.) So far so good.
However, all the benefits mentioned above notwithstanding, I have to say that on balance this triptych of his is impractical. It has either become outdated, or was even originally written with an independently-wealthy reader in mind, someone like an 18th century gentleman-farmer who, fully disencumbered of the vulgarity of having to earn a living, is leasurely indulging in the exercise of his mental ability for the pure intellectual challenge of it; someone with no plebeian concerns of practicality ever entering his exalted mind.
The problem is with MIX. I second what the others said about it, and what's more, I refuse to accept the explanation (purportedly Knuth's) posted below by someone: the problem is not only that MIX is an assembly language (which still would be a functional malapropism in a book like that) -- no, a far more grievous problem is that MIX is a phantasm, a whimsically extravagant invention having no real-life equivalent, at least today. The mythical processor underlying this thing (5-byte words, etc) is not something that anyone below 40 years of age has ever seen, even if it does have historical analogues.
The gravamen of the offence here is not that it is some real but unfamiliar processor's assembly -- after all, if you know i86 assembly, you can (kinda, sorta) read the motorola equivalent... No, it is that MIX and the fairy-tale processor architecture it is imagined to run on are *purposely made to resemble nothing* that you may have some familiarity with -- thus making the already-difficult material obfuscated beyond anything even marginally manageable for a regular computing Joe, who has a (real) life, and at any rate, can't limit his CS intake to this one work.
Elucidating difficult in itself CS material via examples in assembly language of even a real (or made-up but realistic) kind is a very bad choice because the student's attention, already taxed by the subject matter itself, will be further burdened by the non-algorithmic nature of the assembly language. But to exacerbate this potential ordeal by insisting on the use of something so gratuitously eccentric and profitless for the reader as MIX is simply unconscionable.
Ideally, what a good CS text of this sort will use is pseudocode. But if a writer wishes to add to his book a realistic slant, it is acceptable that he use some sort of real language -- so long as it is algorithmic; today, C is a perfect choice. Knuth counters (and he's absolutely right): there was no C when the book was written. He's also right in saying that had he written it with Pascal it would have become outdated by now. So if that was the problem, TAoCP could have been written with some sort of pseudocode; this would last forever.
Of course, even using a real language would not actually be such a great problem -- we all know of similar books where the originally-chosen language was replaced when it fell in disuse: for example the numeric programming book by Teukolsky; it started with fortran and was then redone in C; this demonstrates that the language part can be brought up-to-date if necessary. Both Fortran and C are algorithmic languages that, owing to their readability, can be used instead of pseudocode.
Ideally, books should be written with both pseudocode (a must, in my view), and, in order to give an example of an actual implementation, some real language (see the recent book by Goodrich; it's pseudocode throughout and a smattering of Java here and there -- perfect!)
To sum it all up: measured by today's needs, The Art of CP is overrated (out of snobbery; bragging of having read it is "kewl"; meantime, the truth is, not too many people are capable of such a feat for the reasons stipulated above; when actually used, TAoCP books are read in chunks, a chapter here, a chapter there -- which is a shame, because they are very well written, and to work through them in their entirety would be much more profitable than biting off a little here and there.)
I am going to be slammed by the Knuth cult followers for saying this, but I do not recommend these books. Instead, consider something similar but more practical: two titles immediately come to mind, Cormen &Co. (a.k.a. CLR) and Goodrich (forget the title but search on the name.) Foundations of Computer Science by Aho/Ullmann (The Tortoise book) is a suitable option as well.
TAoCP is potentially very good, but until someone ruthlessly excises all the bloody junk (MIX etc.) and replaces it with pseudocode or C, it will remain useless.
Don't get me wrong here: Knuth is an admirable, justly venerated computer scientist, and a very good writer to boot (for example his Concrete Mathematics book is excellent). But when it comes to TAoCP, even though to mention it is very chic in some circles, we must admit the obvious: he has produced a work that's impenetrable (or, rather, the enormity of time and effort required to penetrate it makes such an attempt an unworthy investment) and therefore useless in practical terms for the majority of the potential readership.