That kind of month

Months are odd things. Some months it seems as though nothing at all has happened. Others are very eventful.

For me, this has been that second kind of month. So many things have changed in the last thirty days that May now seems like a distant memory.

It would be nice if July were to turn out to be peaceful and uneventful. I think I can safely say that we are all long past due for a peaceful and uneventful month.

So that’s what I’m hoping for. But I wouldn’t put any money on it.

Elly Stone

I only met Elly Stone once. It was outside an off Broadway theater about ten or fifteen years ago.

She was there with a friend of a friend. When I learned who she was, I was very excited.

Her response was astonishment that I would know about her, since she had not been famous anymore for many years. I explained that Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris had been one of my formative influences.

The original Broadway production was before my time, but when I was a teenager I was involved in an amateur production of it, and that was my first introduction to Jacques Brel. I had never expected to meet any of the original cast.

For years afterward, I would obsessively listen to the original cast album. My two favorite numbers were Carousel and Marieke, both sung by Elly Stone, and I can definitely say that those two songs had an enormous influence on my concept of what can be accomplished within a song.

She and I had a very nice chat that evening, and then everyone went in to see the play — I completely forget now what it was. I never saw her again.

Elly Stone passed away the other day at the age of 93. When I read that sad news, I found myself hearing her within my head, singing those incredible songs, her powerful yet vulnerable voice still full of infinite sadness and defiance.

I would like to think that wherever she is, Elly Stone is now singing duets with Jacques Brel.


As the months go by, and even our daily habits change, it is clear that things are not going to go back to the way they were. A lot of people are making predictions about what things will be like a year from now or two years or five.

It would be interesting to compile all those predictions and put them together. Collectively they form a sort of time capsule of our state of anxiety.

Maybe one day we will all be able to look back on these predictions, from a place of safety and relief, and find them amusing.

We could all use some amusement right now.

Future virtual physical presence

There will come a point in the coming years when people will simply be able to beam their virtual selves into each other’s company, with a full sense of eye gaze, proprioception and other cues to physical presence, in a reasonable approximation of being in the same physical place. At that point, many interesting things will begin to become possible.

One of those things will be the ability for people who cannot walk to convey the impression that they can walk. Being in a wheelchair may not be as much of a social barrier in this future world has it is today.

Being able to get beyond such physical limitations is an important goal for society in general. After all, shouldn’t people relate to each other based on the quality of their character, rather than mere physical characteristics? I think that this may lead to a better world, if we can manage to get there.

Focus and recenter

Sheltering at home can have a funny effect on your head. The relative lack of contact with a physical outside world can be unnerving, to say the least.

One of the struggles we seem face these days (among many) is the simple ability to maintain a consistent sense of reality. I find that certain activities help me to focus and recenter.

One of these is the New York Times crossword puzzle. Since this has always been a mental challenge for me, not a challenge out in the physical world, it links me back to ways of thinking pre-pandemic.

I wonder whether one could systematically try to figure out which parts of one’s sense of reality before the pandemic were similarly independent of that outer physical world. Right now, embracing such activities might be very good for one’s mental state.

House plan

Today I drew a sketch for a house plan. I did it with pencil on paper, with no computer involved..

I realize that there is all sorts of fancy software out there I could have used. Yet there is something immensely satisfying about creating plans for things in the physical world using only tools that exist in the physical world.

It would be interesting to compare house plans created with pencil and paper against house plans created with computer software. Might there be systematic differences between them?

Even more interesting, would you be able to tell the difference just by walking into the house that eventually exists in the real world?

Probability machine

A lot of the important decisions we make are based on incomplete knowledge. Oftentimes, it’s not that we are making decisions carelessly, but rather that some aspects of a situation are simply unknowable.

Yet we don’t generally freeze like rabbits, unable to make a decision. Somehow we charge onward, continuing to decide on our next move while living with uncertainty.

I wonder whether there is a complex mechanism in the human brain that allows us to do this. Is there some sort of intuitive “probability machine” that we are always running, which assesses the current odds of success in any situation?

If so, I wonder how accurate it is, and what sorts of things can throw it off. We already know that there are obvious answers to that last question. Lack of sleep or too much alcohol can completely shut down our ability to choose the higher probability option for success.

But what about the opposite question? What can we do to increase the accuracy of our internal probability machine? Whatever it is, I’d like to try it!

Almost like being there

Tomorrow is the deadline for a preliminary proposal we are submitting to the National Science Foundation. Eight of us faculty members, at three collaborating Universities, are asking for $15M over seven years to develop ways to make it easier for people to collaborate over long distances.

Sadly, this is the best time to ask for support for such a proposal. It is all too clear that Zoom and its equivalents are poor substitutes for physical presence.

We are under no illusion that anything we do will replace being there in person. But that’s ok.

After all, nobody thinks of the telephone as a replacement for being there in person. But it’s still nice that some really smart people invented the telephone.

Father’s day

My father, whom I loved dearly (and who loved me dearly as well), passed away some years back. Even now he shows up in my dreams.

In those dreams, he is not suffering from the terrible wasting disease that made the last years of his life so painful. Instead, he is in the prime of his health.

In these dreams my father and I generally find ourselves walking along, deeply immersed in one-on-one conversation. He is his usual calm and wise self, and I know I can discuss just about anything with him.

When I wake up, I usually don’t remember what we talked about, but I know he has given me great advice. On those lucky mornings, I feel ready to face the world and take on whatever might come my way.

I have a feeling that my dad will always be dropping by from time to time, whenever he knows that I need him. This makes me very happy.