Doug McIlroy in The Hideous Name

Rob Pike and Peter Weinberger, two of my former colleagues at Bell Labs, wrote an essay The Hideous Name, which ends with a quote by another former colleague, Doug McIlroy. What stunning writing!
... bad notations can stifle progress. Roman numerals hobbled mathematics for a millennium but were propagated by custom and by natural deference to authority. Today we no longer meekly accept individual authority. Instead, we have ‘‘standards,’’ impersonal imprimaturs on convention. Some standards are sound and indispensable; some simply celebrate bureaucratic littleness of mind. A harvest of gimmicks to save appearances within the standard has grown up, then gimmicks to save the appearances within the appearances. You know how each one got there: an overnight hack to paste another tumor onto a wild cancerous growth. The concern was with method, regardless of results. The result is extravagantly worse than Roman numerals: you can’t read the notation right to left or left to right. As an amalgam of languages, it can’t be deciphered by a native speaker of any one of them, much as if we were to switch at random places in a number between Roman and Arabic signs and between big-endian and little-endian order. But now that it all ‘‘works’’ — at least for the strong of stomach — the tumors themselves are being standardized.

(Images of Rob, Peter, and Doug manipulated by another Bell Labs alumnus, Gerard Holzmann.)

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