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Monday, February 19, 2007

You are not going to believe this!

So its an ordinary February morning in Northern California. I decided that I had had enough of junk food it was time for some Kashmiri food. So I was heading to my maasi's place in San Jose. After only 4.5 hours of sleep I got up to get ready and catch the 10:02 South Bound to San Jose. I reached the California Avenue CalTrain station about 15 minutes before the train time and there was no one on the station except this guy i saw as i was turning the corner into the ticket vending machine area. And as I got near, i realized my dream had suddenly turned into reality - I was marooned on the platform with none other than my main man - the great Donald Knuth

The first thing that struck me was that this guy was tall - man he was really tall! And he was wearing this black overcoat looking more like a CIA agent than a computer scientist! He asked me the time. I was like Oh My God - the Great Don himself is asking me for the time - it was 10 minutes to 10. "There are still 30 minutes for the train", assuming that even i was heading North toward San Francisco where he was going. "Oh my train is gonna be here in 10 minutes, I am going to San Jose". "Oh..!", he said. Anyways, he had a small folder with him and sat down
on a bench at the platform. The sun was bright without a cloud in sky - the typical sunny California weather. Now, I didn't feel like bothering him as he had opened a set of papers and was going about his business of being a computer scientist - even on the bench - but I still had to talk him. I couldn't give up this once in a lifetime opportunity.

So I walked up to the bench, and started - "So Don, can I ask you something? Why did you give up email so early on?". I know it was dumb questions given he has the answer on his website but still i needed a pick-up line! "Oh i have it on my web page, and the thing is that I couldn't even get started with work before 1pm as I was so busy answering people's email - and so i decided to give it up. Plus I had used 15-19 nears of email and that i thought was enough for a life time. Plus sometimes people would send me problems who's solutions they would expect and if i couldn't come up with one they liked, I would have to hear lots of unpleasant words". Me said - "So how much money did you end up giving as part of your books claim of giving money to people who pointed out errors in your book?" - Another dumb question I think - "Oh I think i have given out around 25K dollars as rewards! But people are nice and then don't en cash the checks, I just filed my income tax returns but i saw that none of the people had en cashed the checks - I saw to them - take a xerox of the check and keep that and en cash the original". Another question - "So how did you get started on La TeX? I mean we have a rumor going on in India at least in my school that you had a graduate student who had problems and in order to solve those problems you guys ended up creating LaTeX". "Well", he said, "that is not true about TeX( i felt like a fool calling it LaTeX!), the thing was that i wrote books and the publishers at that time printed them out in such a manner that made me cry! So decided to do something about it - and then I had a graduate student who was very smart - but you know the thing is that PhD is kinda weird a degree - in the sense that its not like BS or MS that you dont have exam to pass to get the degree - so therefore, a good student is not necessarily a good PhD student, and a good PhD student is not necessarily a good BS/MS student. Like my father, a wonderful man God Bless him, could never be a good PhD, but he was an excellent student. So I told this student of mine to try a couple of problems as warm up problems and see where it goes. And so he worked on it a bit. Plus I in a class that I was taking at that time - we were working on how some tools we used could help music researchers in their work - the thing with music is that their notes, when written on paper, cannot be half on one life and half on the other - and someone pointed out in class, we can use a similar structure for text formatting as well!".

In the middle of the conversation, Don asked me where i was from and what my background was. He wrote my name on his paper in his folder!!! That was exciting! He told me he had heard about the trouble in Kashmir. He knew a bit of Bengali - he said. I asked him where he was going in SFO, he said there was an invitation from some Stanford Society and then there was an Opera Premier that he really wanted to go to! And he showed me his tickets for that too. Then I told him what Jeff Ullman had mentioned to us in his Data Mining class - "In Computer Science, these days, you don't need to solve an NP hard problem to make money, all you need to do is make a video uploading site, what us your take on that? - Too bad my train just pulled into the Cal Ave station - and I had to leave - but without a smile - Don said - "He is a pragmatist! Goodbye" in the same breath!

Never in my life have I wished the train to be late as last Saturday. And thank God it was late that day by 7-8 minutes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

People say that Hanuman is still alive (because of the blessing that he had received) and that He inhabits the Himalayas. If I get to meet Him though, what do I ask Him? Is there any thing that I can ask, which is not answered in the Ramayana? I might just ask him something as basic as if he had really jumped up to the Sun in his childhood. I have thousands of interesting questions to ask him. I am sure none of these would interest him though.. It is impossible to think about any thing when you stand in front of Him. One just gets dumbstruck. Your experience, I'd say, was rare, still perfectly normal. It was an encounter with God.

-- Parlikar