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Some useless pondering

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Bill Amend is the smartest person in the universe.

Hang on... maybe I need to back up a bit and explain this properly.

So I was sitting around doing whatever, and suddenly, unbidden, something came to mind: an old Foxtrot comic strip where Jason writes a multimedia book report for school. At one point he's shown with a pile of thick, technical-looking tomes heaped on his desk. One of the titles there was "Binary Search Trees in C."

For some reason, this bugged me. My first reaction was that binary search trees aren't that complicated, and shouldn't deserve an entire thick book - maybe a 20 or 30 page chapter in a book on general algorithms and data structures.

My next thought was a sort of rebuttal to this (my mind like to debate itself). If you need to describe the notion of a binary search tree to an absolute initiate, it could well take an entire book: examination of representations for data, comparisons of alternate search methods, some guidelines for identifying areas where a binary search tree is a good solution, explanation of tree structures in general, examinations of various traversal methods and their inherent tradeoffs... maybe, just maybe, you could get an entire book out of it.

But, I countered to myself, does that even make sense? Would such a book really be titled Binary Search Trees in C? Don't you think it would have a better title, like, say, "Searching with Tree-Based Structures" or something? The phrase "in C" really seems to indicate that this is focused specifically on implementing binary tree related stuff in the C language. So to me, at least, that sort of implies that the reader is expected to have at least passing familiarity with the concept. And in that case, describing how to implement various tree-related things in C shouldn't take an entire book - again, maybe 20 or 30 pages, tops.

So, to me, this title is a miniature paradox. It doesn't make sense. It is inconsistent with the book's apparent mass. So what gives?

Then it occurred to me that maybe the secret here is simple: maybe it's just that the title sounds good. I mean, really - the vast bulk of Foxtrot's audience probably isn't comprised of veteran C hackers. So, by extension, it's quite likely that they don't know anything about binary search trees. In fact, for most people, seeing a book titled "Searching with Tree-Based Structures" will probably elicit a definite "WTF Mate?" reaction.

So, the phrase "binary tree" is important - because it has the word "binary" in it, and "binary" sounds, y'know, technical and stuff. Obviously then the phrase "binary tree" is technical too. So even if people do get weird mental images about oak trees made out of green glowing 1's and 0's, they'll be thinking technical. In fact, such an absurd mental image probably heightens the sense that this is a dense, specialized, genius-kids-only tome. Clearly, the notion of digitized flora is pretty strange, so a reader who gets such an impression on hearing the phrase "binary tree" is probably going to be more awed by Jason's mystical technological powers.

What of the "in C" clause, though? Again, to a totally non-technical reader, this gibberish is probably going to serve nicely to further confuse them. This isn't a bad confusion - in fact, it's a very good confusion, because it yet again reinforces the reader's impression that Jason is some kind of genius whiz kid computer magician. It also serves another, more insidious purpose: to the initiates, who will recognize the C language being referred to in the title, it's a sign of authenticity. You know who I mean: the CS dropouts who switched over to Creative Writing or something, heard about the C language once (and maybe have even seen a few lines of code). Those people now read this strip, and think to themselves, "Aha! I know about C. Clearly, this Bill Amend guy has done his homework. Clearly, Jason has teh uberskillz. I am deeply impressed by his wizardry."

This title, then, is not just a paradox - it's a masterful work of mental manipulation. It's nothing less than art. Because even veteran programmers are likely to see the title, and think to themselves, "Hmmm... binary search trees. Useful things, them binary trees. And C, too - Jason's no weenie. He uses a Real Programming Language. This kid must be some pretty sharp stuff."

So really, this title is brilliant on Bill Amend's part - he's masterfully impressed the vast bulk of his readership, and drawn them deeper into the immersion of his comic-strip world. Pretty much everyone comes away from seeing that book title with a sort of sense that Jason's character is just sickeningly smart. And that's a very solid win for Amend.

He only made one miscalculation, though: the few, the proud, the skeptical and bored - well, me, anyways. He didn't count on someone analyzing the brilliance of his fictional book title. He left a little hole by which a critically-thinking programmer could rip a huge chunk out of the fabricated world of Foxtrot.

Uh oh, wait a second - this book is fictional, right? I suddenly realize that maybe my argument is baloney, because maybe it's a real book! However, a quick search of Amazon indicates that this is just a false alarm. The book is indeed an invention.

Except now another thought hits me, slowly and painfully: I've just spent a good twenty minutes dismantling the implications of a fake book title in a fricken comic strip.

What's worse, I didn't come away concluding that the author is a faker trying to twist our minds. I came away concluding that the title, while bogus, is actually brilliant in its effectiveness. To rub salt in the gaping wounds, I actually wrote a journal entry about it. Eek.

Bill Amend is truly smarter than me. There's no way that anyone can analyze his book title and find a problem with it (as far as I know), so chances are he's also smarter than everyone else in the world.

All hail the new Overlord of the Human Race.
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Put the coffe cup down and move away from the coffee maker sir! You have overloaded on caffeine!

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I've talked to Bill over email from time to time. He is a humongous geek and gushes about his various pieces of hardware.

He'd probably be here if he weren't having a blast cartooning.

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