Letters to Japan

Mari’s comment about the difference between American and Japanese styles of email writing got me thinking that it would be interesting to compose equivalent hypothetical emails from New York to Kyoto using the respective conventions of these two contrasting cultures.

First, here is the American version:

Hey Kazuo,

Dude, can’t believe it’s October! Long time no chat. I’ve got news – Skype me.


Now, if this letter were written in accordance with Japanese convention:

Fond greetings from New York.

The lingering summer weather has now passed. As the cold of autumn gently emerges, the leaves have turned at last to gold and to crimson.

I earnestly hope your health is well. My own health has been much improved in recent days, no doubt from thinking upon your warm friendship.

It was so kind of you to allow us to look after your little dog Aki. He has brought much delight to family and friends here with his funny antics and zest for life.

I wish you all the best for continued health, and please convey my sincere regards to your family.

I am praying from my heart for your happiness,
21 October, 2010
Ken Perlin
Mr. Kazuo Tanaka

Also, please accept my apologies for accidentally running over your dog, who is now dead.

Is email the new TV?

There was a time — roughly from the 1950s through the 1990s — when TV was pretty much the thing for American families who wanted to share time together by consuming media. Yes, you could play games together, but it was hard to find games that parents and children would enjoy equally well. And movies were a “once a week” thing — something you went out to the cinema to see on a Friday night — not something you did every day.

But every night, without fail, most families would get together, gather around their TV after dinner, and watch whatever was that night’s prime time hit show. And then mom and dad (and maybe the older kids too) would stay up to see the Tonight Show. This pre-packaged way of spending time with your family was such a given, that after a while people stopped thinking about it.

Until, that is, it started to go away. The rise of the Web, and more compelling computer games, and even TV on demand, has, over the course of the last decade, gradually dismantled the entire concept of a family getting together at one place and time to have a shared media-consuming experience. Now when we see images of mom and dad and the kids all sitting around the living room watching TV, it feels like a window into another time, a time that is gradually receding into history.

And now I think the same thing is starting to happen with email. Once email was unassailable — the great connector, mighty cybernetic unifier, bringer together of worlds, killer of postage stamps. But now that we have Facebook, Twitter, micro-blogging, MMORPGs and various forms of on-line chat, it seems that the once mighty email — the electronic version of the long-form letter — has started to go the way of its tree-killing forebear. In just a few short years, the very idea that one would take the time to compose a fully formed personal communication with a beginning, a middle and an end has started to look like a relic of another age.

And I feel sad about it.

Two flowers

Two flowers grew in a garden one morn
One flower perfect, one tattered and torn
The beautiful flower was cheerful and glad
The other was woeful, forlorn and sad

“Why don’t you cheer up?” the first flower said
“Enjoy life! It’s not all discomfort and dread.”
The drab flower answered “Well maybe for you,
“But my life is dreary, and I’m feeling blue.”

The sun rose up high and then settled back down
And a young girl came back from her day in the town
She saw in the garden two flowers were there
And delighted at one, which was lovely and fair

That one she plucked from the garden with glee
And brought it inside for her mother to see
The fair flower proudly within their house shone
While the drab flower stood in the garden alone

The next day the plucked flower, no longer fair
Was dried out and gray and as dead as the air
Whilst the one in the garden was no longer sad
“Maybe,” it thought, “my life isn’t so bad.”

The draw of the marketplace

A while back I wrote a post about why people love going to restaurants, in which I posited:

My theory is that we go to restaurants because the constant chatter of strangers around us, which we consciously tune out, is actually continually infusing us with a subliminal stream of ideas, topics to discuss, words and phrases to use, imagery to invoke when making our next observation.

In other words, the atmosphere in a restaurant contains a built-in mechanism to give us the illusion that we are smarter, more clever, more interesting. And our dinner partner is transformed in the same flattering way.

Now that the entire world seems to have suddenly discovered “social networks”, it occurs to me that we’re just dressing up old ideas in new clothes. The buzz one feels on sites such as Facebook goes all the way back to ancient times, to the draw of the marketplace, and to that alive feeling one gets in a crowd — even in a crowd of strangers.

In our evolution as a social species with advanced linguistic abilities, there has always been survival value in being able to “read a crowd”. Because of the Darwinian utility of this part of our genetic heritage, we get pleasure from the myriad signals that emanate in waves off of any gathering of fellow humans.

These days, the forum for exchange of ideas has moved from village marketplace to global cyberspace, so rather than haggle and hawk, we twitter and post. We have moved the ancient Agora on-line, but we have not changed its essential nature.


This weekend I saw a retrospective of the work of artist Charles Ledray. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Ledray creates perfect, lovingly crafted miniature versions of seemingly banal objects from life, such as clothing or pottery. Some of the objects are oddly surreal, but many are simply scaled down, with an appearance of being worn, lived in, ordinary items their owner has possessed forever and no longer even notices. These are not the possessions of the rich and powerful, but rather of the kind of people that are just trying to get through each day:

At first the feeling is merely uncanny, as though you have stumbled upon the personal effects of an eerily miniaturized stranger. But after a while something else happens. You begin to realize that the miniaturization is a deliberate perspective effect — a representation of distance. Although in this case the distance is not so much of space as of time. The impression that gradually emerges is one of rueful nostalgia, of seeing into the telling details of a life now gone.

After half an hour with these works, I found myself thinking about the impermanence of life, of the fleeting nature of the comfort that we find in life as it is lived. The cumulative effect was immensely powerful, even startling, like unexpectedly discovering a set of photos of joyful young people at a wedding from sixty years ago.

And I was reminded that the simple comforts of the everyday, those very aspects of life that we most take for granted, are in fact life’s most precious possessions.

Mind share

We generally think of ideas as originating from the head of one person or another. But in the last few days, I’ve been hanging out with an extremely smart group of people, and it has become clear to me that many ideas have been generated that didn’t come from any one person’s mind. Rather, somebody will say something, another person will riff on that, and before you know it, an idea will start to emerge from the general mix.

In a process that would doubtless be very disturbing to an intellectual property lawyer, sometimes these ideas take a while to be born. It might take several conversations, involving dozens of participants, before an original thought evolves from initial gestation to full flowering, and in the course of that process it is not at all clear who really came up with what.

I mention this only because we live in a society where great weight is placed on the provenance of ideas. Patents are taken very seriously, and huge amounts of money are spent on their acquisition and defense. Yet the most powerful new thoughts will often come about in a way that cannot be ascribed to a single human brain, or even to any easily identifiable group of human brains.

It would be great if such ideas, born and raised in a group home, as it were, could be nurtured with the same love and attention given to those ideas developed in secrecy behind corporate lab walls. But that would require an entirely different way of thinking about ideas — one that is driven not by a desire for financial gain, but rather by our belief in the power of a good idea to help make the world a better place.


Hollywood has a way of reincarnating its iconic movie stars. Cary Grant comes back as George Clooney, Tony Curtis reappears as Robert Downey Junior, Tom Hanks was, for a time, a slightly refracted answer to Jimmy Stewart, Penelope Cruz has now essentially become the new Sophia Loren, and back in the 1980s Michael Jay Fox was his generation’s reiteration of the young Mickey Rooney.

By now we are so used to this pattern that we don’t even think about it. But every once in a while I get surprised to discover one of these reincarnations that had somehow slipped by me.

As it happens, this week I finally got around to seeing “The Sure Thing”, just about a quarter of a century late. This 1985 Rob Reiner film was quite radical in its day, in that it had the form of a teen comedy (Hollywood was churning out lots of these at the time), but the soul of a classic romantic comedy.

Structurally, the movie was essentially an update of “It Happened One Night”. And in a truly daring move for the time, the teenage love story took place in a completely believable world, with complex, layered and realistic characters, and not a single implausible plot point.

But it was somewhere toward the end of the film, in the scene in the pouring rain outside the locked trailer where Daphne Zenuba discovers her dad’s credit card (if you’ve seen the movie, you will never forget that scene), when Cusack closed the scene in style with a pitch perfect deadpan line reading that got my full attention.

And suddenly it all came together — the oddly attractive features, charming con-man’s fast patter, naked vulnerability, barely contained manic energy just this side of dangerous, and surprising depths of underlying sensitivity and offbeat grace.

That’s when I realized I was witnessing a performance composed of two parts “The Apartment”, three parts “Some Like it Hot”, and one part “Under the Yum Yum Tree”, and I knew that John Cusack was his era’s reincarnation of the young Jack Lemmon.

Attic, part 91

Josh looked at Jenny blankly. “What do you mean, ‘exactly’, exactly?”

“You said ‘it’s about time'” Jenny explained, “And yes, it’s exactly about time.”

“Why do I feel like I’m in an old comedy sketch here?” Josh said, “Oh, wait. You mean what we’re talking about. Time is what we’re talking about.”

“Yes, time” Jenny said, “and I must say this conversation just went through a lot of it. Anyway, I learned from my grandmother Amelia that time isn’t a line. It’s more like a sculpture in a room. You can walk around and look at it any way you please.”

Suddenly Josh’s eyes went wide. “You’re talking about seeing into the future, aren’t you?”

“Yes, and the past and the present, all of it.” Jenny shrugged. “It doesn’t make any difference.”

Josh looked at Charlie. “And I suppose you can see into the future too.”

“I wish,” Charlie said, “Unfortunately I’m stuck in the line view just like you. It’s only Jenny here who can step out of it. And then only since she got to know her grandmother.”

“You mean her dead grandmother?” Josh asked.

“I mean her neither alive nor dead grandmother. You should probably listen to what she’s saying.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jenny told Charlie, “I can just as well show him. I can give people glimpses now and then. That’ll do it.”

“Glimpses?” Josh said. “You mean, into the future? How does that work?”

“Like this,” Jenny said. And then she leaned forward and kissed him. It was a long, slow, passionate kiss, and Josh quickly went from startled to very attentive. As she kissed him, he saw the years ahead, all at once, like looking through a telescope. He saw that this was only the first of many kisses to come, and he saw many other things besides.

When at last the kiss was done, it took Josh a moment to stir from his dreamy reverie. He looked into Jenny’s eyes, and saw that she was looking back into his. After a long pause, he said, “It looks like the future is going to be really great.”

“Yes,” she said, “and the best part is that we get to share it.”

“I saw that,” Josh said. Then he took her hand. “Just one thing, Jenny.”

“Yes Josh?”

“The next time you talk to your grandmother, wherever — or whenever — she is, tell her I said hello.”

The End


Last week I attended a talk by Marvin Minsky. Among many other things, he talked about his decision not to go into mathematics because of a lunch he had, while a student at Harvard, with the late Andrew Gleason — one of the greatest theoretical mathematicians of the twentieth century.

The way Marvin told it, he realized over the course of that lunch that Gleason was such a toweringly brilliant and intuitive mathematician, that Marvin could never hope to rise to that level in the field of theoretical mathematics. And so he decided to pursue other areas, which is fortunate for us, because Marvin went on to achieve world changing results in such diverse fields as artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, computational linguistics and robotics. As well as inventing the confocal microscope.

As it happened, my mentor when I was an undergraduate at Harvard was Andrew Gleason — one and the same. By the time I got there he was a legendary professor in the theoretical math department. However, he still took the time to teach small undergraduate seminars, and to discuss math with students like me.

I found being in the presence of somebody like Gleason to be both profoundly inspiring and profoundly humbling. Whereas we mere mortals worked through mathematical theorems a bit at a time — like chipping away at rock — he seemed to saunter through the same space as though it were made of air. He just saw deeply into mathematical concepts, and then proceeded to prove things about them, without apparent effort.

I imagine it must have been similar to play a game of basketball with Michael Jordan in his prime, or to jam with Amadeus Mozart. From time to time individuals appear within this world who are simply on an entirely different plane of capability. We can talk to them, we can even trade ideas back and forth with them, but there is still a vast gulf between the truly great and the merely very good.

As it happened, my experience as an undergraduate at Harvard convinced me not to become a theoretical mathematician. I realized I could never achieve what someone like Andrew Gleason could achieve in that field, which got me thinking about what I might be able to do in some related field.

That summer I discovered computer graphics, and I never looked back. It certainly helped that Gleason had been my professor. He taught me a mathematical way of looking at things that I still apply to the things I create with computers — every day.

But it was only last week that I discovered that Andrew Gleason had the same effect on Marvin Minsky that he had on me. How wonderful to find out that Marvin and I have something like that in common. 🙂

Attic, part 90

Jenny looked from Charlie to Josh, and back again. “Do you think he’s ready to hear it?”

“He’ll never be more ready,” Charlie said. “Besides, you already know you’re going to tell him.”

At that Jenny and Charlie both laughed. “Right,” Jenny said, “I do already know that, don’t I? Among other things.”

Josh was turning red. “What’s going on here? Are you two, like, dating?”

“Oh no,” Jenny said, trying to stifle a giggle. “I could never date Charlie. He’s too, um, … old for me.”

“I’m older than I look,” Charlie added helpfully.

“The thing I wanted to tell you,” Jenny continued, before Josh had a chance to interrupt, “is about time.”

“Go on,” Josh said, trying not to sound as lost as he felt.

“In my family there is a gift, you could say it’s like a kind of talent. It gets passed down from mother to daughter, but it skips a generation.”

“OK, I get it. Your grandmother Amelia had it, whatever it is. And now you’ve got it. Is it about talking in dreams?”

“That’s part of it,” Jenny said thoughtfully, “but not the important part. I talk to my grandmother because she gets lonely sometimes. And besides, it’s really the only way she can teach me.”

“You’re talking about her as if she were alive,” Josh said. He looked from Jenny to Charlie suspiciously. “Wait a minute, is this some kind of practical joke?”

“No, no joke,” Jenny shook her head. “My grandmother isn’t either alive or dead. It’s complicated, but I’ll explain.”

“Well, it’s about time!” Josh said in exasperation.

Jenny smiled happily. “Yes, exactly!”