Donald Knuth on NPR

Donald Knuth was featured on a National Public Radio story this morning, Donald Knuth, Founding Artist of Computer Science. For all his brilliance, I think Knuth does a decent job of avoiding the limelight. It’s an interesting interview and I’m happy that many people who had never heard of the guy (or thought about the importance of hyphenation and typesetting) have been exposed to something new.

NPR is good that way: although much of their content is similar albeit more in depth than commercial radio news, they often throw in these important but not “immediately” topical stories.

NPR also suffers from a similar problem to the Free Software movement: figuring out a way to make money without limiting access to content or allowing advertisers to control the product. Of course, both NPR and Free Software do, in fact, make a lot of money, but with NPR it’s a particularly painful process. WBUR, one of several Boston Area public radio stations, seems to be in perpetual pledge drive mode. If they’re not doing a pledge drive currently, they’re running frequent on-air announcements encouraging people to donate before the next pledge drive so that the drive can be shortened.

Growing up in Vermont, I remember WVPR having one or two pledge drives a year—WBUR seems to have one every month. I realize that creating news has gotten expensive, especially with correspondents permanently stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the world, but there has got to be a better way to do this. It would be nice if NPR had a large enough foundation that it could largely subsist off investment income — but this is probably a long way in the future.

This might also be a good time to remind people to use email and not e-mail. Knuth has a great explanation: Email (let’s drop the hypen). It’s a bit ironic that Knuth is the best authority on the proper way to write “email,” since he himself abandoned the medium in 1990 (he writes, “I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.”). I hope it’s only a matter of time until the hyphenators see the folly of their ways, and email becomes the standard.