Tea house

This evening I went to a tea house.

On one level it was all very simple. You sit down in comfortable chairs at a small table, in a quiet place with soft lighting. You order tea. After a while a tray is brought, bearing traditional hand-made clay pots and little clay cups. You pour. You drink.

But the experience is actually much more than that. Everything — the subtle flavor and aroma of the tea, the act of pouring, the calm stillness of the place — conspires to slow down time, to create an alternate universe, shielded from the hum-drum cares of the world outside.

A properly designed tea house is a place of quiet magic, where the noise and craziness of life gives way, at least for a while, replaced by thoughtful conversation and calm reflection.

It gives you time to remember that we are far more than the random daily winds that buffet us. We each have deep places inside ourselves, and perhaps there are words of calm reason that speak to us from our souls, if only we can quiet things down long enough to hear them.

Generation gap

Today I was participating in one of those technical conference juries where jurors need to periodically step out of the room, to avoid conflicts of interest. At this particular conference there were two graduate student volunteers.

At one point, there was a long discussion about a particular paper submission. At the start of this discussion several jurors had stepped out, because they were professionally associated with that paper’s authors. One of the students stayed in the room, and the other went out into the hall with the jurors.

At the end of the discussion, one of the jury chairs asked the grad student in the room to tell the other student to bring everyone back in.

The student looked up from his notebook computer and said “it’s ok, I’m talking to him.”

The jury chair clearly had no idea what was going on. Nonplussed, he repeated his request to fetch the other student.

Just then the second student came in, leading in all the people who had been waiting out in the hall.

I turned to the student with the notebook computer and said “He has no idea that you were actually talking to the other student, does he?”

The student smiled at the humor of the situation. And in that moment I realized I was witnessing a new kind of generation gap. A man in his forties, even a brilliant man who is an expert in his field, may not realize something known to everyone in their twenties:

That the young person he sees silently hunched over a notebook computer might be in the middle of a conversation with a friend who is just a few feet away.

Passing the torch

Today I wanted to get to the NYU web site. Even though I’m physically sitting here in a lab inside NYU, the fastest way to do this was still to go to Google and type the three letters “nyu” into the search window.

I was already confident that the first hit would be NYU’s homepage, which is the URL I wanted. And that was indeed the URL I got.

What I didn’t expect was that the graphic off to the right of the results screen would look so familiar. Superimposed on a little map of our Washington Square campus was a picture of the NYU Torch.

Except it wasn’t the official NYU Torch — the symbol of New York University. Rather, it was a procedural texture that I had made many years ago, and had more or less forgotten about. I had made the torch image just for fun, my own particular “procedural noise” take on NYU’s logo. Here is what my original looked like (the original image is actually much higher resolution):

The image above is actually a single procedural texture that takes pixel coords (x,y) as its input, and converts each pixel to a color (making liberal use of my noise function). There is an illusion of 3D and metallic reflection in the handle, but it’s only an illusion. The whole thing is just a 2D procedural texture.

Apparently this image has been passed around through the years and repurposed in various ways. The image that showed up in my search for “nyu” had various other graphics superimposed on it:

That particular image, when I clicked on it, led me to some blog page in the Village Voice. I found another at some on-line magazine somewhere, and I suspect that by now they are scattered randomly all over the Web.

I wonder how many sites my little torch has traveled to by now.


Today I was at an NYU facilities meeting at which somebody pointed out that in addition to a recycling bin, it would be useful for a new lab to have a place to throw technotrash.

It took about five seconds for my mind to register completely that he was referring to the detritus of our cyber world — old monitors, discarded motherboards, burnt out disk drives and the like. It makes perfect sense to refer to such stuff as “technotrash”. In fact, I can’t really think of a better word for it.

But during those first five seconds my mind flashed on Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bülow in “Reversal of Fortune”. And, by extension, as Scar in “The Lion King”, which is essentially the same role, only with more neck hair.

In other words, the first thing that came to mind was the transmutation from “Technotrash” to “Eurotrash”.

During those five seconds, I found myself doing a mental inventory of all sorts of interesting ways that a thing can be the “trash” version of something else: Robotrash, infotrash, machismotrash, flamencotrash, politicotrash, even espressotrash. The list goes on.

But “technotrash” just seemed so specific and evocative, and one image in particular came crisply into focus: Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker in “The Social Network”.

Complex conversations

Complex numbers are incredibly useful. Alas, as we’ve said before in these pages, because they are called “complex numbers”, people get scared away. To make things even worse, in the standard terminology, going from a “real” number to a complex number requires adding an “imaginary” number.

Clearly complex numbers need a better press agent.

On the other hand, this odd terminology is very useful in other spheres of discourse. Say, for example, a psychologist is explaining the Id, Ego and Superego to someone who has never even heard of Freud. Or a Catholic priest is describing the Holy Trinity to an atheist. Or a string theorist is explaining the ten dimensions of spacetime to a non-scientist.

In each case, the two conversants have very different ideas of what is Real. The speaker believes he is expanding the listener’s mind by describing something Complex. Alas, all the listener may hear is something that sounds Imaginary.

It’s a small world after all

Yesterday I was a the Rubin Museum in NYC with a friend, looking at a beautiful exhibition of Buddhist art. At some point a tour guide was discussing with a group of tourists the issue of the two Dalai Lamas.

For those who don’t know, China does not agree with the current Dalai Lama’s choice of Panchen Lama (the high priest who will help select the next Dalai Lama). So they have selected a different Panchen Lama, which means there are two: One who is recognized and seen as holy by Tibetan Buddhists, and one who is considered politically acceptable by the atheist Chinese government.

Perhaps the reasoning is that only an atheist government has the objectivity required to correctly identify the next earthly reincarnation of the Bodhisattva. Maybe we’ve been doing things all wrong in the West — we should have gotten Richard Dawkins to choose the next Pope.

Be that as it may, my very first thought upon hearing this conversation was that it reminded me of the intellectual property strategies of the Walt Disney Company. For most of its history, Disney has pursued a brilliant approach to I.P. hegemony: Do not even try to crush rival beloved stories out of existence. Rather, absorb them (with copyrightable changes), so that the original versions will quietly fall away.

This has been accomplished, with commendable success, in the cases of Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and countless other classic tales of childhood wonder. For example, when most children in the U.S. visualize Winnie the Pooh and his friends, they don’t see the E. H. Shepard illustrations that accompanied “The House at Pooh Corner” — the see the Disney versions, which have their own copyright. And try doing a Google image search on “Tarzan”.

But even Disney can’t hold an enchanted candle to the can-do spirit of the leaders of the People’s Republic. It’s one thing to gain control of a stuffed bear, an ape man or a glass slipper. It’s quite another to do the same with the immortal embodiment of the collective faith and spiritual hope of millions.

I think old Walt would have been impressed.

City states

Recent conversations with friends have created a kind of game: Pick a city in the world, and then try to capture the character of that city by imagining it as a person. What is that person like? How would you describe them.

Here is my own answer for two of my favorite cities:

Paris is a beautiful and somewhat mysterious woman. You find yourself drawn to her, although you know she is trouble, and you know you will regret your decision to spend time in her company. Yet once you have fallen under her spell, what choice do you have?

New York is an alpha male — brash, handsome, and full of arrogant charm. He wears a beautiful suit of a particularly fine cut, yet beneath the classy veneer he is something of a brute. And that’s part of the attraction. Your mother warned you not to fall for guys like this. But when you met him, you stopped listening.

Does anyone have analogous descriptions for other cities?

Concentrating the mind

“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” — Samuel Johnson

If you are an academic, the summer is a golden time. That is when you get to do all of the fun research that you have just spent a year wishing you could have time for. That stretch from around mid-May to the end of August is your time to pull out the stops and go for it.

Then again, summer is also the time when academics are most free to travel — our best chance to visit other labs, attend conferences, and work with colleagues in other parts of the world.

Which means, in my case, that I can spend only a fraction of the summer here at our lab, with my own grad students, going all out to build on the ideas we’ve been discussing all year. As the days fly by, I try to make each one count. Each successive evening marks one day less day that we can all be in the lab together.

The funny thing is, that very scarcity creates a kind of abundance. Because we know these days together are numbered, everybody pitches in and makes every hour count. In just the last week we’ve gotten more done as a group than we had in the several months preceding.

So I understand a bit of what Samuel Johnson meant. Fortunately, unlike Mr. Johnson’s doomed friend Dr. Dodd, we will have more fortnights in our future.


Today is the 143rd day of the year.

When I look at the number 143, my mind immediately converts it to 11×13 (which you can see right away if you write 143 as 130 + 13). And then my mind starts to wonder “what fun things can I do with this?”

Which brings me back to a math epiphany I had when I was twelve years old. It was the first time I’d ever gotten a chance to program a computer, and our teacher said we could write a program to do whatever we wanted.

Being a typical American kid, the first thing I thought of was to find a fraction B/A that was really close to π.

So I wrote a program that tried all values of A up to a thousand. For each of those, my program tried all values for B that were about three times bigger than A. Then I checked to see how near B/A was to π.

To my great surprise, one fraction was vastly more accurate than all the others: 355/113. This fraction gets amazingly close to π — to around one part in four million.

What made this especially cool was how easy it was to remember. I just needed to write “113355”, then chop in the middle to get the A and B for my fraction.

I found out later that this marvelous approximation to π was first discovered in China, by Tsu Ch’ung-Chih, around 1600 years ago. Unlike me, he managed to find it without a computer.

A little bit of learning

“A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.”

— Alexander Pope, in An Essay on Criticism

This morning I showed up at a doctor’s office for an appointment to have some minor surgery — nothing serious or worrisome. But the conversation with the receptionist was interesting.

“I’m here for my 9am surgery,” I said, telling her my name and the name of my doctor.

The look on the receptionist’s face was somewhere between concern and alarm. “For surgery?” she asked.

Oh no, I thought. Ten minutes until my operation and I’ve gone to the wrong building. We stared at each other in mutual dismay.

“Hold on,” she said, “I’ll look you up in the computer.”

There was a worried pause while she clicked on a few things.

“Oh,” she said, “You’re scheduled for an office procedure at 9am. Have a seat.”

I was left to ponder this odd little encounter. The receptionist had seemed genuinely confused. Was I naive to assume that when a doctor cuts into you with a knife, it’s always called “surgery”?

Let’s try turning it around: If the receptionist — who was, in fact, extremely kind and helpful — had also been more experienced, would she have understood immediately what was going on?

Perhaps we were both suffering from “a little bit of learning”, as so neatly described by Alexander Pope.

By the way, Pope’s poem references the sacred spring in Pieria, in ancient Macedonia. Maybe somebody who is both artist and scientist could be called a “Pierian”. You could look it up. 🙂