Bill Cowan's Homely Page

Who am I?

Bill Cowan

Computer Graphics Laboratory,
University of Waterloo,
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

E-mail: [wW][mM][cC][oO][wW][aA][nN] AT cgl DOT UWaterloo DOT ca
Telephone: 519.888.4567 x4527

I am a retired prof, which means that I used to do some research, some teaching, some administration, some other stuff, and even give the occasional lecture.

Professorial Appointments


Object-orientation is the Roman numerals of programming. Rob Pike.

STL is not object oriented. I think that object orientedness is almost as much of a hoax as Artificial Intelligence. I have yet to see an interesting piece of code that comes from these OO people.

Shared libraries are obviously a good idea until you've actually used them.

There is no problem in computer science that cannot be solved by another level of indirection - except performance.

One can't proceed from the informal to the formal by formal means. Przybylski.

C++ is to C as lung cancer is to lung.

Java is 100% buzz-word compliant.

Many familiar computing `concepts' are missing from UNIX. Files have no records. There are no access methods. User programs contain no system buffers. There are no file types. These concepts fill a much needed gap. Ken Thompson

The cheapest, fastest and most reliable components of a computer system are those that aren't there. Ken Thompson

Deletion is the most important tool of software design.

I was fortunate, however, to see some great mathematicians at work and became totally immune to a pseudo-mathematical rigor that unfortunately is so common in Computer Science.

The essence of XML is this: the problem it solves is not hard, and it does not solve the problem well. Phil Wadler.

It is written in GNU coding style, which hurts my eyes and brain.

Gnuemacs is portable, except to machines that are too small.

The MS programming motto, `Don't think; type!'

Re MS marketing: There's a reason for the funny names. If they don't include the word `object' enough times, they'll lose their Tier 1 status in the buzzword hierarchy.

Do not spend too much time trying to figure out why this math works. The basis for the computation is complicated; the important point is that this is how Microsoft operating systems do it, and it works. Note, however, that this math does not work perfectly. Microsoft EFI FAT32 File System Specification, p. 32

  >I'm just curious about causality that kept OpenBSD in the clear of this one
  >that made such headlines yesterday.
  We didn't chase the fad of using every Intel cpu feature.

At any particular moment in the history of science, the most important and fruitful ideas are often lying dormant merely because they are unfashionable. Especially in mathematical physics, there is commonly a lag of fifty or a hundred years between the conception of a new idea and its emergence into the mainstream of scientific thought. If this is the time scale of fundamental advance, it follows that anybody doing fundamental work in mathematical physics is almost certain to be unfashionable. Freeman Dyson.

Rule 3. Fancy algorithms are slow when n is small, and n is usually small. Rob Pike

But one must admit that the mathematical literature contains lots of junk, because some people need to publish for career reasons even if they have little interest in what they are doing. Ruelle.

Inside every large problem is a small problem struggling to get out. Niklaus Wirth

You want to make your way in the CS field? Simple. Calculate rough time of amnesia (hell, 10 years is plenty, probably 10 months is plenty), go to the dusty archives, dig out something fun, and go for it. It's worked for many people, and it can work for you. Ron Minnich

One thing I really love about plan 9 is the ability to make big changes like this without having as step 1: boil the oceans. Justin Jackson

Because there are no experiments this field is not an active one, so few of the best men are doing work in it. The result is that there are [sic] a host of dopes here (126) and it is not good for my blood pressure. Feynman.

If a high impact factor is the only goal of chemistry research, then chemistry is no longer a science. Nai-Xing Wang.

The growth of scientific knowledge has obviously [sic] spurred a massive explosion of technology. But, the driving spirit of science is not to change the world but to understand it. Kwame Appiah.

Enrico Fermi, wanting to encourage individual creativity and innovation, required his PhD students to select their problem, solve it, and submit the results for publication in their name alone. Robert Fefferman, dean of physical sciences at the University of Chicago. (Even if it does have the evil I-word, innovation.)

Words on presentation slides are a very good idea, but only when the audience is deaf.

Modern academic life seems to me more and more like a Japanese car factory -- with scholarship that could just as well be produced by robots. John Sutherland.

To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human is the key to modern life. David Foster Wallace.

If you are immune to boredom there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish. David Foster Wallace.

An economist is someone who has had a human being described to him, but has never actually seen one.

Marshall on how to do & communicate research
(1) Use mathematics as a shorthand language, rather than an engine of inquiry.
(2) Keep to them till you have done.
(3) Translate into English.
(4) Then illustrate by examples that are important in real life.
(5) Burn the mathematics.
(6) If you can't succeed in (4), burn (3).
This last I did often.

Academics have no duty other than to state the truth as they see it. Willem Buiter.

People with moral preoccupations, and courage, are uncommon. And scientists do not rate better than average in this respect. Ruelle, writing about Grothendieck.

I openly confess, the suggestion of David Hume was the very thing, which many years ago first interrupted my dogmatic slumber. Kant

Ficum voco ficum, et ligonem ligonem. Robert Burton.

`Not only' out of place is like a tintack loose on the floor; it might have been most serviceable somewhere else, and is capable of giving acute and undeserved pain where it is. Fowler.

Les Francais goutent de la liberte comme de la liqueurs fortes avec lesquelles ils s'envirent.

We have now sunk to a level where restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.

Anyhow, for what it's worth, I really would be surprised to find out that I was meant to be a hunter-gatherer since I don't feel the slightest nostalgia for that sort of life. I loathe the very idea of hunting, and I'm not all that keen on gathering either. Nor can I believe that living like a hunter-gatherer would make me happier or better. In fact, it sounds to me like absolute hell. No opera. And no plumbing. Jerry Fodor.

Some people have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else. Boswell's Life of Johnson.

One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you're going to wind up with an ear full of cider. Studs Turkle.

Re John Grisham. It is like reading toothpaste, but without the unbearable excitement. Sean O'Brien.

If money is your hope for independence you will never have it. The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience, and ability. Henry Ford.

Welcome to 21st century capitalism, where management never has to admit, much the less bear, the consequences of its errors. Just take it out of the hide of the little guy. Yves Smith.

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. Ghandi.

I find television very educational. Whenever the set is turned on I go into the next room and read a book. Marx.

Know thyself. Socrates. Become who you are. Nietzsche, via Badiou.

Making money cannot be an end in itself, at least for anyone not suffering from acute mental disorder. Keynes.

The most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance, and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes. Schopenhauer.