I just got Knuth’s newly published book of algorithm papers. There are many nice things in it; here’s one. (It’s not actually Knuth’s; it’s due to Larry Stockmeyer.)

Suppose you have a machine whose basic operations are
integer addition, subtraction and multiplication, and
greater-than-or-equal testing. Theorem: you can’t determine
whether a number *n* is odd faster than some constant times
log(*n*).

Proof: suppose you can; then, in particular, for large enough *k*
your program should be able to determine for any number up to (let’s say)
2^{10k} whether the number is odd or even, and do
something different in each case, using at most *k* steps.
I’ll show that it can’t.

Well, what *can* the program have done within *k* steps?
It’s done at most *k* comparisons
so there are at most 2^{k} code paths.
Each comparison is testing the sign of some polynomial in *n*;
what polynomial depends on the results of previous comparisons.
In any case, the path the program has taken up to this point
can depend only on the values of at most 2^{k}
polynomials in *n*. Oh, and they all have degree at most
2^{k}.

Well, all these polynomials collectively have at most
2^{2k} roots. We can therefore find an
integer *m* no bigger than 2^{2k+1}
such that none of those roots lies between *m*
and *m*+1 inclusive. (Each root excludes at most
two choices of *m*.) But then our program must produce
the same results for *m* and *m*+1 since all the
comparisons it does produce the same answer for both; since
*m* and *m*+1 have different parity, it therefore
can’t be doing the right thing for both of them.

Knuth’s book contains many clever algorithms. From the cursory reading I’ve given it so far, its contents don’t seem to be “papers on the design of algorithms” any more than the works of Shakespeare constitute “papers on the writing of plays”. So the title’s a bit misleading, which is a pity (it would be very interesting indeed to read Knuth’s thoughts on how to design algorithms) but not a surprise. The book is of course very good anyway.

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