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University life: the fraternity system


University life: my basketball management system
Donald Knuth Scientist
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I believe it was the first year they had tried this, and I'm not sure how long they continued the experiment, but the… but the teachers… but they called this the Honor Section, and this just meant that the 20 of us just took all our classes together, while… while other students would tend to mix. I don't think the other students all spent Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday the same as… the same hours, like… like we did. And so the classes that I had… then I think they challenged us a little more too than they… than they challenged the other students, perhaps. Still, I had time to do, you know, to work on the school paper and to… one of the important issues of going to Case at that time was to join a fraternity. The… most of the interesting action on campus would be… would be centered around the fraternity system, and so I pledged a fraternity also in my Freshman year, and I guess I can say more about that… but I had mentioned that during the spring of my Freshman year is when my Mad Magazine article came out, you know, and so that well… that led later to… later on I was editor of… of a magazine that we founded at Case, called Engineering and Science Review, which… which wrote about topics in science, and I wrote an article about Potrzebie System for that… for that publication.

I was in the music… I was in the basketball… I was manager of the basketball team at Case, and I'll say a few words about that, because after I got into computers later on, I combined that with my managing the basketball team. So I devised a strange formula that I don't believe in much any more, but anyway, I had it at the time, where you could compute each basketball player's real contribution to the game. Not just the points that he made – the baskets that, you know, that he made – but really taking everything into account.  So, for example, if you… if you have possession of the ball in basketball, this is worth something. In fact, when you're watching a basketball game, if you… if you sort of add one point to the score of the team who has the ball that sort of gives a more fair indication of what the… of what the real score is of the game. So possession of the ball is worth maybe one point. You can work it out after the game; you can say, really, how many times, when you had possession of the ball did you really turn over, and fumble it, or how many… how many points did you really get during that series? And so you can work out that it is may be worth only seven-tenths of a point or something like this. But anyway, possession of the ball is worth something. So if you fumble, then you've lost your team one point, or seven-tenths of a point. So that's… that’s a minus something for you. If you steal the ball, if you… if you recover a fumble, you gain; your team gain possession, so you… so you get credit for stealing the ball. If you make a basket – in those days it was only two points, you don't have the three-point shots in those days – but, okay, if you can make a basket you get two points, but your… your team also loses possession, the other team gets possession, so you don't really… you didn't really win two points for your team when you made the basket, you made… you made two points, but you have to subtract from that, the fact that you have to get the ball again.

So… so at the end, according to my formula, the sum of all the players' contributions would be… would be the amount by which our team won or lost. But it… but it would rate, you know, if somebody makes a shot and misses, then sometimes our… our team gets the rebound, sometimes the other team gets the rebound, so I… you know, so you lose a little bit for taking a shot and missing. So I… I calculated a huge number of statistics for every player, and I had a spotter, who would… who would call to me, and I could write it down, every little thing, and after the game I would go and punch cards that… that recorded all these statistics, and fed them into… and fed them into a little computer program that calculated the formula and… and made a list for every player, what their real contribution to the game was, not just their field goals and all these traditional statistics.

So Case's coach, Nip Heim, loved this system, and… and, you know, he posted these numbers, and… and the Case News Service was always good at trying to plant interesting stories in the local paper, so they… so they sent reporters out and, you know, and showed, you know, told about this formula, and IBM heard about it. So IBM sent out a cameraman – a camera crew – to make a film of… of me spotting a game, you know, and there, our Case team playing basketball of course, and things, but then, how I would punch the cards, you know, and put it into the IBM computer. Before they took the shot of the IBM computer, they planted a great, big IBM sign on the machine, so that nobody could fail to miss it, you know, that… that I was doing this, and then I'm turning the buttons on the console, and… and getting the numbers out, and it's getting printed out on the IBM printer, and then the coach is looking at it and posting this up. So this was a little movie that… that I was in, about 2 or 3 minutes long. IBM supplies this movie to CBS, and… and they put it on the Sunday Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and all my relatives in Florida can see me on TV. This was very exciting. Also US News and World Report ran a story about it, and so this was… this was my connection between computing and sports, when I was at Case. I’m… this was also a clever way for IBM to… to get their advertisements in there, rather subtly, but it was a fun. That was when I first realized how hard it must be to be a movie star, because I had to walk through these scenes six times… everything, you know, punch those cards over and over again. So I can see, how… how could Audrey Hepburn possibly look so beautiful after she’s… after the sixth take, you know?

Born in 1938, American computing pioneer Donald Knuth is known for his greatly influential multi-volume work, 'The Art of Computer Programming', his novel 'Surreal Numbers', his invention of TeX and METAFONT electronic publishing tools and his quirky sense of humor.

Listeners: Dikran Karagueuzian

Trained as a journalist, Dikran Karagueuzian is the director of CSLI Publications, publisher of seven books by Donald Knuth. He has known Knuth since the late seventies when Knuth was developing TeX and Metafont, the typesetting and type designing computer programs, respectively.

Tags: Case Institute of Technology, Mad Magazine, Engineering and Science Review, Case News Service, IBM, Sunday Evening News, Florida, US News and World Report, Audrey Hepburn, Nip Heim, Walter Cronkite

Duration: 8 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008