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Rumours and Errours

Brian Hayes

Gnothi Seauton

Mistakes bring the gift of self-knowledge—a gift that is not always welcome. Looking back on this episode, I could summarize it as follows: I wrote a program that gave a wrong answer, and then I fiddled and fudged until I finally got the output I wanted, and then I stopped. This is not a protocol to be recommended. What's most troubling is the uncomfortable thought that if the textbook answer had not been given to me at the outset, I would surely have been content with the result of my first, fallacious, program.

Still, for most of us, the only way we'll never err is if we never try. My fellow-columnist Henry Petroski has written eloquently about the necessary role of error and failure in all worthy undertakings; as he says, falling down is part of growing up. And if we are going to make mistakes, it seems salutary to bring them out in the open and discuss their causes. Staring them in the face makes them seem a little less mortifying.

Only a little, though. A confession of this kind is not followed by absolution. And instead of "Go and err no more," Knuth quotes Piet Hein's advice: "Err and err and err again but less and less and less." I take my own motto from the novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett: "Fail again. Fail better."

© Brian Hayes

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