Sunday, March 1, 2009

Getting in shape

Well the thing about a blog is to get used to writing regularly, so here is my every-other-day post until Monday when I try to get used to twice-a-day.

Now, because at least part of my audience is made up of journalists, we begin our first regular feature, pithy quote from famous journalist.

The famous Journalist in question is Paul Boutin.

I first came across the work of Paul Boutin oddly through something called the Jargon File. I read the Jargon File pretty religiously in the late 80's early 90's in the old BBS days of computing.

in the jargon file Paul Boutin is quoted
TLA: /T·L·A/, n.
[Three-Letter Acronym]

1. Self-describing abbreviation for a species with which computing terminology is infested.

2. Any confusing acronym. Examples include MCA, FTP, SNA, CPU, MMU, SCCS, DMU, FPU, NNTP, TLA. People who like this looser usage argue that not all TLAs have three letters, just as not all four-letter words have four letters. One also hears of ‘ETLA’ (Extended Three-Letter Acronym, pronounced /ee tee el ay/) being used to describe four-letter acronyms; the terms ‘SFLA’ (Stupid Four-Letter Acronym), ‘LFLA’ (Longer Four Letter Acronym), and VLFLA (Very Long Five Letter Acronym) have also been reported. See also YABA.

The self-effacing phrase “TDM TLA” (Too Damn Many...) is often used to bemoan the plethora of TLAs in use. In 1989, a random of the journalistic persuasion asked hacker Paul Boutin “What do you think will be the biggest problem in computing in the 90s?” Paul's straight-faced response: “There are only 17,000 three-letter acronyms.” (To be exact, there are 26^3 = 17,576.) There is probably some karmic justice in the fact that Paul Boutin subsequently became a journalist.

Wikipedia gives the reason behind the math:


The number of possible three-letter abbreviations using the 26 letters of the alphabet from A to Z ( AAA, AAB ... to ZZY, ZZZ) is 26 × 26 × 26 = 17,576. Another 26 × 26 × 10 = 6760 can be produced if the third element is allowed to be a digit 0-9, giving a total of 24,336.
In English, WWW is the longest possible TLA to pronounce, requiring nine syllables. Although in written English it is an abbreviation, in spoken English it may use more syllables than that which it is abbreviating.[9] See also Pronunciation of "www".

what makes the quote so amazing to me is not its pithyness or its accuracy but how quickly Boutin could calculate a remarkably accurate estimation of the number of TLA's possible in the English language.

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