Blown To Bits

The End of Checks?

Friday, December 5th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Don Knuth, the father of modern computer science, has for forty years been paying people to discover errors in his books. Catching the master in some minor oversight or typographical inconsistency was a grand game, at which everyone won: the lowliest sophomore could become a local hero, while adding to the sum of knowledge embodied in Knuth’s great encyclopedia of the field. It became such an honor to receive a small check from Knuth that almost no one ever cashed them (most people, as Knuth wryly observed, cached them instead). The proud display of a Knuthian check has apparently caused his bank account numbers to leak into the public domain, and his bank accounts have been broken into. Here is Knuth’s explanation of how this happens, and the larger lesson:

Leading banks and investment funds have been foundering, because of bad debts and lack of trust; and other, less well-known kinds of fiscal chaos are also on the horizon. For example, due to an unfixable security flaw in the way funds are now transferred electronically, worldwide,¬†it is no longer safe to write personal checks. A criminal who sees the numbers that are printed at the bottom of any check that you write can use that information to withdraw all the money from your account. He or she can do this in various ways, without even knowing your name — for example by creating an ATM card, or by impersonating a bank in some country of the world where safeguards are minimal, or by printing a document that looks like a check. The account number and routing information are all that international financial institutions look at before deciding to transfer funds from one account to another.

The end of personal checks may not be a big deal–we can certainly see it happening de facto. I used to write dozens every month, but with online banking and electronic fund transfers, I am down to two or three per month, and even that number is decreasing rapidly. I hadn’t thought about this being a real loss to anyone. But for those of us who know the enormous symbolic value of a $2.56 check from Don Knuth, his new plan doesn’t feel quite the same:

After painful deliberation I’ve come up with a new plan, which I hope will be acceptable to all concerned, and perhaps even welcomed as an improvement. Instead of rewarding heroic bug-finders with dollars, I shall henceforth award brownie points, otherwise known as hexadecimal dollars (0x$). From now on it will be kudos, not escudos.

Instead of writing personal checks,¬†I’ll write personal certificates of deposit to each awardee’s account at the Bank of San Serriffe, which is an offshore institution that has branches in Blefuscu and Elbonia on the planet Pincus.

Times change. Checks were always a way of transferring information, so turning them into bits makes all kinds of sense, but sometimes even those monetary informational chits carry a lot of emotional clout.

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