'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Etymology And Computers

I heard recently from a wellwisher that one reason this blog has very few regular readers is that "not too many really care about etymologies of obscure words and such". Of late, I have cut down on etymological searches and have been spending more time with good old computer science material. But then, sometimes the twain do meet (or old habits die hard :) ).

Note: what follows does have a bit of com-science jargon but that is not consequential.
The B-tree is a fairly standard data structure which most self-respecting basic CS courses teach. The massive Algorithms text by Cormen et al. says: "B trees were developed by Bayer and McCreight in 1972. They did not explain the origin of the name".

Wikipedia says: "The B-tree's creators, Rudolf Bayer and Ed McCreight, have not explained what, if anything, the B stands for. The most common belief is that B stands for balanced, as all the leaf nodes are at the same level in the tree. B may also stand for Bayer, or for Boeing, because they were working for Boeing Scientific Research Labs at the time."

Let me add one more guess: The data structure was first implemented in the B programming language (This B was a precursor to C language, as most people who studied the latter have heard. B was apparently a scaled down version of something called BCPL => there was no language called A to begin with).

A somewhat more intricate data structure which I missed out on in my student days and have got to know now is the 'Red Black tree'. Tom Cormen's tome says: "These trees were introduced by Bayer and studied extensively by Sedgewick and Guibas, who introduced the red-black coloring convention." - there is no mention of why these two colors were chosen. Even Wikipedia is silent on this.

So let me float another guess: Either or both of Sedgewick and Guibas were admirers of (19th centure French novelist) Stendhal and his masterpiece "The Red and the Black" hence the choice of colors!

Well, I dont think the guess is that outlandish. Let me quote a bit from the Wikipedia article on this novel:
"The most common and most likely explanation of the title is that red and black are the contrasting colors of the army uniform of the times and of the robes of priests, respectively. The hero Julien Sorel observes early on in the novel that, under the Bourbon restoration it is impossible for a man of his class to distinguish himself in the army (as he might have done under Napoleon); now, only a career in the Church offers social advancement and glory. Alternative explanations are possible, however: for example, red might stand for love and black for death and mourning; or the colours might refer to those of a roulette wheel, and may indicate the unexpected changes in the hero's career."

Perhaps Guibas and Sedgewick's reluctance(?) to explain their choice of colors is a smart tip of the hat to the cloak of mystery in which Stendhal left the novel's title!

The same wellwisher quoted at the beginning of this post also said to me: "your blog is too impersonal. You are not very visible anywhere!". Anyways, let me add a personal note here. I do have a choice from among the alternative explanations Wikipedia offers for the title: "Red and Black" (no I have not read the novel, never got past page 3; this choice is purely (and very) personal) - the roulette wheel one signifying "unexpected changes in the hero's career".


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