If only more people wrote like Lamport

I’m half way through the Part-time parliament on Paxos article by Leslie Lamport. It is an article that describes a three-phase consensus protocol by telling a story of a (fictional) parliement on the greek island of Paxos, complete with fat priests, busy businessmen, and a vivid description of the parliament hall. The story illustrates how the members of the parliament, who would walk in and out at any time, could pass decrees and agree on what had been agreed upon, decree-wise.

I find that this is exactly the way to teach a theoretical subject. Because why on earth shouldn’t you have some fun, just because you’re doing a PhD in computer science?

Poking around on the internet I found some stuff that he has written about using humor and fiction for communicating a complex theoretical topic (distributed consensus) and how it had been a dismal failure. How TOCS rejected the paper:

All three referees said that the paper was mildly interesting, though not very important, but that all the Paxos stuff had to be removed.

The paper was ground-braking stuff, and they didn’t notice because the guy who wrote it had a sense of humor. I’m sure the referees have learned from their mistake since, at least I hope so.

It’s one of the best papers I’ve read. I love computer science alot, but sometimes reading articles can be so boring that I fall asleep after 5 minutes (also because I believe that dreaming is a great way of processing what I’ve read, if it’s complex). I must confess I also fell asleep halfway through Part-time parliament, but at least I did so with a smile. The funny thing is I actually believed the account of Paxos to begin with, that these where actual archaelogical discoveries, the part about the priests, and the synod though I did wonder about the date (early in this millenium, meaning year ~1000). You learn some fancy words reading that article too, and not just mathematical notation either. Actual words like “Synod”, “Peripatetic propensity” and “Quorum”.

I was recently told by one of my PhD advisors that I shouldn’t/couldn’t write in a particular style of language because it was too un-scientific. I had inserted a tiny amount of humor into a rather dry subject. The article has made me think about that too.

Leslie Lamport, you are my new hero. If only my professors had dressed up in an Indiana Jones outfit!

I know it’s silly, but I had to write him a fain mail.

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