Andrew S. Tanenbaum's FAQ


Your name is German, you live in The Netherlands, but you write almost as well as a native English speaker. What's the scoop?

My paternal grandfather was born in Chorostkow, currently in Ukraine, historically in Poland, at the time under Austro-Hungarian management. He came to the U.S. in 1914. I was born in New York and grew up in White Plains, NY. I went to Amsterdam as a postdoc and have sort of hung around ever since.

Where did you go to school?

High School: White Plains High School
College: M.I.T.
Ph.D.: University of California at Berkeley

What did you do after graduating from college?
I spent the summer right after graduating in the hollows of West Virginia at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. I had a 3-month career as a radio astronomer--well, as a summer intern among the radio astronomers. After coming from sophisticated, overly educated Cambridge, MA, West Virginia, was a bit of a new experience. The observatory was almost entirely populated by people with Ph.D.s in astronomy or physics (mostly from Harvard and M.I.T.) whereas many of the locals hadn't made it much past sixth grade. The two populations met (very cautiously) on the Fourth of July for a big party. An interesting time was had by all.

Which one did you like best?
High school was ok, but my real love was the stage crew, of which I was electrician. Nobody likes M.I.T. People respect it. I respect it. But like it? Does anyone like taking a drink from a fire hose? I am still in awe of the place. I loved Berkeley and the Bay Area.

Did you experience culture shock going from M.I.T. to Berkeley?
Oh my goodness. Yes. It was so strange to be in an environment with people having I.Q.'s below 150 and where it wasn't necessary to study 12, 13, 14 hours a day, seven days a week just to keep up.

What did you do with all your new-found time?
I spent a lot of time working for the Sierra Club and lobbying in Sacramento for a bill to protect San Francisco Bay from developers. I am Life Member of the Sierra Club, and proud of it.

Do you have any hobbies?
My wife says that playing with the computer is my hobby. A case could be made for genealogy and travel, though. Also, I am a bit of a photographer (click here for sample photos) . I also run a political Website.

What countries have you been to?
Hard to say, with countries coming and going like flies these days. I use the rule that what counts is what it was called when I was there (e.g., I have visited the USSR, but not Russia) Also, it only counts if I passed through immigration (although Karachi has the best airport WCs in the world, I don't regard my visit there as a trip to Pakistan). Sometimes the concept of 'countrydom' is in the eye of the beholder. For example, is Scotland a country? I have a cousin named Scott who, when he was four, liked the idea of having a country named after him. Good enough for me. Using these ground rules, I have visited the following countries. Some visits were for conferences or giving talks; others were on vacation. Here is the list: Algeria, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, England, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Namibia, Morocco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Romania, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, The Seychelles, Tunisia, Turkey, The USSR, and The United States.

Did you take notes on all these places?
Yes. Copious notes. In fact I wrote a travel book, but it has not been published because it is Politically Incorrect. Being Politically Incorrect is one of those little no-no's in academia these days, like being a Pinko in the era of Sen. McCarthy (Joe, not Gene).

What is Amsterdam like?
It is a pleasant, peaceful city, not too big, not too small, just right. I like the weather--dull gray and drizzly most of the year. Great weather for being indoors with a warm computer.

What inspired you to produce a personal FAQ?
See Computer Networks, 3rd edition , page 663.

How much email do you get?
Too much. Much as I might like to, I really cannot help undergraduates all over the world with their homework or help graduate students choose thesis topics, or write tenure letters for assistant professors I have never heard of or give product recommendations, or tell you how to set up your network or help you find references to interesting papers or help you find a job or engage in a discussion about your favorite topic or ... Nevertheless, I am constantly being asked to do all these things, and in great volume.

Do you speak Dutch?
The experts differ on that one. I'm pretty good at the big stuff (nouns, adjectives and verbs), poor on the little stuff (prepositions, relative conjunctions), and hopeless on articles. Will somebody please explain to me why 'ezel' (donkey) is masculine, 'paard' (horse) is neuter and 'antilope' (antelope) is feminine?

Why do you work at a university?
When I was in college, I worked at IBM one summer to earn money. One day I wore a shirt that wasn't the right shade of white. My coworkers informed me of my transgression and made suggestions for improving matters. In great detail. That's when I figured out that maybe the industrial experience was not for me.

How do you pronounce Vrije Universiteit ?
Phonetically, just like it is spelled.

Do you teach?
Only a little bit. I teach one course in our masters program (on grant proposal writing). I also supervise bachelors, masters, and Ph.D. thesis students.

Do you do research?
Yes, definitely. In 2004 I became an Academy Professor, which came with a grant of 1 million euro from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences plus another million in matching from the VU. In 2007 I received a European Research Council Advanced Grant of 2.5 million euro to try to build an oprating system that actually works all the time. I work with my Ph.D. students on a number of projects relatng to MINIX 3.

Are you proud of your (ex) Ph.D. students?
Of course. They are all so smart. I'm a regular mother hen. See my home page for the list.

Can I be your grad student?
Probably not my Ph.D. student. I don't have an vacancies at the moment. But you could apply to come here as a masters student in Parallel and Distributed Computing Systems.

Can I be an undergraduate at the Vrije Universiteit?
Possibly, but the language of instruction is Dutch. However, in 2013 we are switching the bachelors' program to English.

Do you do much administration?
Not any more. I was Dean of the ASCI graduate school for 12 years in the past though.

What do you actually do all day?
I spend a lot of time working with my Ph.D. students and postdocs and helping them do research and write papers.

What do you actually do all evening?
Write books and software (at home).

How many books have you written and published?
Like with counting countries, it depends. If each text book counts for one point, then five. If second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth editions count separately, make that 21. If you want to throw in the 486-page MINIX manual, it becomes 22. If you want to count the foreign language translations, it was over 150 last time I counted. See this list. If you are more visually oriented than list oriented, then here are pictures of them.

What languages have your books been translated into?
Basque, Brazilian Portuguese, Bulgarian, Castillian Spanish, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican Spanish, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, and Thai.

Castillian Spanish and Mexican Spanish?
Yeah. The Spaniards and Mexicans make up different words for new technical terms, and neither one likes the other one's technical words, so everything gets translated into Spanish twice :-( . Ditto Portuguese.

Who is Bram?
This is Bram .

Who is Sweetie pi ?
She was Bram's predecessor, may she rest in peace.

Have you written any books besides computer books?
I have writen a cookbook, How to Prepare Your Input , and the aforementioned unpublished travel book.

What is your favorite food?
Homemade chocolate chip cookies.

What computers do you use?
At the VU on my desk I have an HP 7900 PC with 2 CPUs, 4 GB of RAM, and 1 TB of disk space. It is multiboot with MINIX 3, Ubuntu, and Windows XP on it. I actually use it as an X Terminal though logged into a Solaris server most of the time though. My research group has a cluster computer called DAS-3 consisting of 144 high-end AMD processors and a high-speed (80 Gbps) optical This cluster is connected to clusters at four other Dutch universities by an fast network, and is used for research in distributed and parallel computing. However, I do all my writing at home on a cheap local Pentium clone.

Which editor do you use for producing books?
I used to use elle, a stripped down emacs clone, but I finally decided to take the plunge and move up to full emacs.

Do you like WYSIWYG systems?
Definitely not. I can type faster than I can point. And my mother told me that pointing is impolite.

What typesetting system do you use?
All my typesetting is done using troff. I don't have any need to see what the output will look like. I am quite convinced that troff will follow my instructions dutifully. If I give it the macro to insert a second-level heading, it will do that in the correct font and size, with the correct spacing, adding extra space to align facing pages down to the pixel if need be. Why should I worry about that? WYSIWYG is a step backwards. Human labor is used to do that which the computer can do better. Also, using troff means that the text is in ASCII, and I have a bunch of shell scripts that operate on files (whole chapters) to do things like produce a histogram by year of all the references. That would be much harder and slower if the text were kept in some manufacturer's proprietary format.

What's wrong with LaTeX?
Nothing, but real authors use troff.

Is MINIX dead?
Oh no. MINIX 3 alive and well. We are actively turning it into a highly reliable, self-healing operating system. In 2007 I got a 2.5 million euro (about $3.5 million) grant from the European Research Council to continue working on MINIX.

Have you ever written any software besides MINIX?
Around 1980 I produced a compiler-writing system called the Amsterdam Compile Kit (ACK) that was used at hundreds of universities and companies all over the world for producing compilers for half a dozen languages and over a dozen machines. For information, see my paper in the Communications of the ACM, Sept. 1983, pp. 654-660. I was also in charge of the Amoeba project, which has produced a microkernel-based distributed operating system that is freely available to universities via the Web. I have written many papers on Amoeba, for example, Communications of the ACM , Dec. 1990, pp. 46-63.

What are you most proud of?
Having been elected Fellow of the ACM and Fellow of the IEEE. There are only a handful of people in the world who are Fellows of both. I also have two honorary doctorates.

Anything else?
Well, in 2004 I started a political Website, www.electoral-vote.com, that by November 2008 was getting 1.3 million visitors a day. For what is basically a 1-man show (plus good techical help with the server and graphical software from two other people), that is probably noteworthy.

What is your philosophy of life?
I can't make up my mind. It is either

KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid

or

Get it right the first time.