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Sedgewick Wins An Award

May 2, 2019

An award for educational writing

[ ACM ]

Robert Sedgewick is the 2018 recipient of the ACM Outstanding Educator Award.

Today we congratulate Bob on this wonderful honor.

The award is named after Karl Karlstrom. Years ago, he was an editor at the publishing house Prentice-Hall. To convey why the award was named for him, it may suffice to quote one nugget. This is “Fortune 341” from the old motd (message of the day) program which gave some humor or wisdom when you logged into UNIX/Linux:

“I have travelled the length and breadth of this country, and have talked with the best people in business administration. I can assure you on the highest authority that data processing is a fad and won’t last out the year.”

— Editor in charge of business books at Prentice-Hall publishers, responding to Karl V. Karlstrom (a junior editor who had recommended a manuscript on the new science of data processing), c. 1957

Karl K. had a knack for being right, you see.

Karl Stories

I recall Karl fondly. We mostly interacted when we were both attending some theory conference. I often found myself talking to him over a drink while we sat in a hotel bar. This was back, ages ago, when I did drink a beer or two. Karl was one we could count on to amuse and also—most importantly—pick up the bar tab. He had an expense account. The IEEE “Computer Pioneers” site says this about him:

Early computer science textbook editor who put Prentice-Hall in the forefront, but who lost heart when he learned that the best textbook criteria are short words, big type, wide margins, and colored illustrations. ACM named its education award after him.

Bob Stories

The ACM award may be named for Karlstrom, but I suspect that many of the awardees, including Bob, never had the pleasure of meeting Karlstrom. Too bad.

I believe we all know why Bob was selected to get this award. He has done some wonderful work in many aspects of education. He is best known for his series of Algorithms textbooks. I thought it might be fun to recall a couple of Sedgewick stories that have nothing to do with his main work.

{\bullet } A big result. One day Bob grabbed me and told me that he had a wonderful result. This is when I was still at Princeton. I asked what was the breakthrough? He explained:

I now can do arrows really well. Really.

What? He explained that TeX and LaTeX did not do arrows well. This refers, of course, to arrows as in directed graphs or flow diagrams. Bob uses lots of diagrams, with lots of arrows, in his textbooks. He had worked hard to get a postscript hack that made arrows look great. Thus he could typeset an arrow so it looked perfect even when it touched another object. I listened and was unsure what to make of his claim. Was he losing it? He then showed me a print-out of some of his arrows. I have to say they really did look quite good.

{\bullet } A secret result. Bob and I worked for a while on a front-end to TeX we called notech. The concept was to have the absolute minimum of commands, and have the notech system figure out what you mean. For example, in an earlier system for typesetting from Bell Labs, called Troff, a new paragraph was marked by the command {.PP}. Thus

This is part of a paragraph. .PP And this is the start of the next paragraph.

This is ugly and TeX’s idea is much better. As you probably know the start of a new paragraph is marked by a blank line. No ugly command like {.PP}.

What Bob and I did was to try and take this idea as far as possible. The system notech tried to guess line breaks, math displays, tables, verbatim for C code, text displays, and much more. It did this with out using commands for as much as possible. I used the system for years for all my papers and memos and notes. Eventually, I gave it up and switched to LaTeX like every one else.

{\bullet } A public result. Bob also worked with me and my team in the 1980’s on systems for designing VLSI chips. One such paper was joint with Jacobo Valdes, Gopalakrishnan Vijayan, and Stephen North: VLSI Layout as Programming. The trouble with this and related work is that it never took off; it never had as much impact as we thought it would. Oh well.

Open Problems

We wish Bob the best. May he be awarded many other prizes.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Bruno permalink
    May 3, 2019 2:12 am

    Concerning your secret result, it seems from what you describe that the idea was close to the now-widespread Markdown language. Is it the sort of things you had in mind?

  2. rjlipton permalink*
    May 3, 2019 9:16 am

    Dear Bruno:

    Indeed that is definitely the idea. Thanks for pointing it out. Here is a link to it:
    for the record.


  3. May 4, 2019 12:49 am

    Here is a post about Bob Sedgewick wonderful free courses on analysis of algorithms and analytic combinatorics:

    • rjlipton permalink*
      May 4, 2019 7:15 am

      Dear Gil:

      Thanks so much for this comment. Yes Bob did so much, especially in the area of analytic combinatorics.


  4. May 6, 2019 6:00 pm

    learned about P vs NP in a very brief intro from algorithms in C by sedgewick, 1st ed, and started talking about it on usenet, after which someone told me “its about the worst possible way to learn about it”. lol! think later editions fattened up the discussion some.

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