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Posted on October 31st, 2008 by Matthew Sparkes

Knuth launches The Bank of San Serriffe

Donald Knuth, creator of TeX and author of The Art of Computer Programming, used to post checks to anyone who spotted an error in one of his books – one hexadecimal dollar, or $2.56. It was a clever way to ensure that his work was as accurate as possible.

Nobody used to take the money, though. Instead the cheques are pinned up on notice boards in computer science departments all over the world as mementos. I’m lucky enough to have two, which I’ve stashed away at home.

“It turns out that only 9 of the first 275 checks that I’ve sent out since the beginning of 2006 have actually been cashed. The others have apparently been cached,” says Knuth on his website.

Unfortunately, though, he’s been forced to stop because of bank fraud. “The system that I’ve been using has worked well for almost forty years; but recently I have had to close three checking accounts, and the criminal attacks on those accounts have caused significant grief to my bankers,” says Knuth.

To get around this, he’s started the fictional Bank of San Serriffe, whose website now lists account balances instead. It’s the end of a tradition which has lasted 40 years – almost as long as computer science itself. The main irritation, though, is that I’m now going to have to find a new error to get listed on the site.

Thanks to G0SUB for the picture

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18 Responses to “ Knuth launches The Bank of San Serriffe ”

  1. Richard M. Conlan Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    But…why can’t he just print checks drawn on the fictional bank? Keep the tradition alive! If nobody ever cashes them anyways…

  2. Matthew Sparkes Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    That’s a good idea, maybe you could email him and suggest it. An easier way might be to email an image of a cheque, then people could print it out themselves if they wanted to.

  3. John Drinkwater Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Looks like you forgot how to spell cheque, see the first paragraph at the least.

  4. Zaphod Beeblesprockets Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 5:09 pm

    John Drinkwater:

    Unfortunately, some Americans are under the mistaken impression that it is okay to spell cheque as “check”.


  5. Alpha232 Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    Why not just mail in the check to open an account.

  6. patarroyo Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    *Sigh* These crazy Brits think that their convention of speaking and writing is somehow more correct than our American convention. Orthography in the English language is largely arbitrary thanks to numerous influences over the 1400 year history of what is now recognized as English. It isn’t Spanish where words are spelled like they sound, and even in that language, there is confusion as v’s and b’s are usually not distinguishable, c’s s’s and z’s can all sound the same, etc. Arbitrary!

    It’s check here. We don’t like to exhibit overtly French influence. Makes us look effete. Are you also going to complain about lorry vs truck, lift vs elevator, Marmite vs $#!^?

  7. Benjamin Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 5:59 pm

    I don’t think that emailing Donald Knuth is going to work seeing that he does not have an email address.

  8. Mike Hanson Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 6:09 pm

    “Check” vs. “Cheque”

    Just blame Noah Webster.

  9. John Drinkwater Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    You might be missing something, this is a (British) English Web-site, notice the domain…
    Whereas it might be forgiveable to have not transliterated American English in a direct quotes, in the English sentences above the author uses both check and cheque.
    Ergo, he fails at proof-reading.

  10. jbox Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    If the author has 2 then why is his name not listed on Knuth’s site? Just curious if you earned them or acquired them.

  11. Philip Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    patarroyo said: “It’s check here. We don’t like to exhibit overtly French influence. Makes us look effete.”

    Kindly explain the effetely Francophone pronunciation of the words “garage” and “herb” that is common in the USA, in that case.

  12. Austin Hook Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 10:48 pm

    How dangerous can it be for someone to just know your bank account number? Does that mean it’s dangerous to issue a refund to a customer who needs one, if you don’t know him personally?

  13. Andy Says:
    October 31st, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    Why not just use Paypal? Make a free email address just for this purpose..

  14. Henrik Says:
    November 1st, 2008 at 2:01 am

    I think it’s the signature that’s the problem…

  15. Henrik Says:
    November 1st, 2008 at 2:04 am

    No, sorry… It’s the numbers on the check. Explained here:

  16. c6ten Says:
    November 3rd, 2008 at 1:47 am

    “I’m lucky enough to have two, which I’ve stashed away at home.”

    I’ve got three, but I’m not going to show them to you…

  17. Matthew Sparkes Says:
    November 4th, 2008 at 11:12 am

    Ah, you spotted my deliberate spelling mistake. You all now have an account at the fictional bank of PC Pro with a balance of £2.56.

    Also, jbox, I do have two cheques, which of course won’t be listed on the bank’s site. I feel you may have slightly missed the point of the fictional bank…

  18. Discount Checks Says:
    June 11th, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Discount Checks…

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog. Most are full of garbage, but this is really interesting – and useful too! I particulary enjoyed the Knuth launches The Bank of San Serriffe | PC Pro blog post. I’ll be back often, starting next Friday. Kind regards, L…


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