A searching question

I use Google all the time, as many people do. It is, more or less, the way I navigate around the vastness of the Web. But there is one obvious feature that seems to still be missing, a feature I would use constantly if only it existed. I’ve been waiting patiently for it to show up for years now, but still no luck.

Quite often when you’ve typed in a series of keywords, and you find yourself running down the list of responses, deciding which ones to click on, you suddenly realize that your search has become entangled by a “false positive” – a result you specifically weren’t looking for, but which returns lots of hits – hits which to you are just clutter. What you’d like to do is surgically remove this clutter from your results list, while keeping the rest of your list intact.

And as far as I can tell there is no way to use Google to do that.

For example, just today I was doing a search that contained the term “futuristic map”. After about three pages of results, I realized I was getting tripped up by the fact that there are so many copy-cat “this day in history” sites, all of which seem to have the following entry for January 25:

1942 Thailand declared war on the Allies.When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, Thailand declared its neutrality, much to the distress of France and England. Both European nations had colonies surrounding Thailand and hoped Thailand would support the Allied effort and prevent Japanese encroachment on their Pacific territory. But Thailand began moving in the opposite direction, creating a “friendship” with Japan and adding to its school textbooks a futuristic map of Thailand with a “Greater Thailand” encroaching on Chinese territory.

What I’d like to do is exclude references to Thailand from my search. But a search for “futuristic map” -Thailand won’t give me that. Instead, it gives me a completely new list, with all the results in a different order. So that promising result that I was thinking of going back to click on a minute ago in the old results list is not at a corresponding place in the new results list. Bummer.

What I really want is an option to cull the list I already have: Keep everything in my results list just the way it was a moment ago, but just don’t show me those entries which contain “Thailand”.

If I had something like this, I could start broad and gradually narrow down my search, while making use of my mental place memory to check back on interesting results I saw a few minutes ago.

I suppose I could write a program to do this for myself – get Google to give me a huge list of hits, and then do my own keyword filtering from that. But isn’t that the kind of thing my search engine should be doing for me?

Or am I asking for too much?

Saturday month

This month is a Saturday month.

Today, while talking about possible dates to schedule a meeting, I happened to mention this fact to a colleague, without really thinking about it. Then I realized that he couldn’t know what I was talking about. But it’s become so second nature to me to think in those terms that I sometimes forget.

Years ago, when I was still a teenager, I realized that it was just about impossible for me to remember the day of the week that corresponds to any given calendar date. I would be completely helpless until I could locate a calendar. If I need to know right away then I’d resort to counting up, month by month, from New Years or some other vividly remembered recent date, shifting two or three days in the week for each passing month while saying that little rhyme from childhood over and over to myself: “Thirty days has September, April June and November…”.

Clearly not a very good system.

So I came up with a better system. Since around the age of seventeen or so, I’ve gotten into the habit of telling myself “This is a Thursday month”, or “This is a Saturday month”. Or whatever day of the week falls on multiples of seven in that month’s calendar.

For example, this month is a Saturday month because March 7, March 14, March 21 and March 28 all fall on a Saturday. And once you know that, it only takes about a second to figure out the day of the week for any date in the same month.

I’ve internalized this system so thoroughly now that I rarely even think about it any more. Except of course when I find myself blurting out mysterious statements like “This is a Saturday month”.

I suppose these days I could take out an IPhone or some equivalent gadget and click on the calendar app. But this is still a lot easier. As soon as I had an actual system in place, that little rhyme from childhood became really useful. This year it tells me that April will be a Tuesday month, and May a Thursday month.

Now I’m all set until summer.

Phone interview

I was scheduled today for a phone interview, in which I was asked a series of questions about one of our research projects at NYU.

As it happened, my jet lag and general feeling of being under the weather conspired to keep me nodding off every few seconds, drifting momentarily to sleep, throughout the conversation.

I didn’t want to stop the interview and tell the interviewer to call back another time, since we’d already rescheduled this phone meeting once before. So I just stuck it out, answering the questions as they were asked.

And here’s what’s interesting: Being in this state made no difference at all to the conversation. He asked questions, I answered them. Admittedly, they were mostly questions I’d already been asked by others, so my answers were more of a cut-and-paste job from things I’d said before than an attempt at original thought.

Other than that, being in this near narcoleptic state just made me feel calm and centered. Emotionally it felt as though my answers were coming from a dream of acting in a play – a dream play in which I knew all the lines.

At some point in the conversation I realized that there was no way for the interviewer to know that I was nodding off at the end of his longer questions. As long as I didn’t actually drop the phone and start snoring – as long as I was coming back with good answers to his questions – we were fine.

I have no idea whether I could have done anything like this if someone had been asking me really hard questions – questions to which I didn’t already know the answers.

But still, it gives me pause. Perhaps we live much of our lives this way, without quite realizing it: Answering questions we’ve answered before, in a play within a dream.


I’m sorry Dagmar – my description was incomplete. You place one of those metal-mesh reusable coffee filters from yesterday inside one of these plastic coffee cone brewer thingies (pictured below). The coffee cone is designed so that it will sit securely on top of your coffee mug:

The plastic coffee cone has holes in the bottom (you can see where they are by looking at the shadow on the floor). Hot water poured into the open top first passes through the metal mesh filter, into which you have (hopefully) added fresh coffee grinds. Then the coffee (but not the coffee grinds) passes through the metal mesh, runs down the inside walls of the plastic coffee cone, and ends up inside the waiting mug below.

That is, unless you somehow forgot to place the coffee cone on the mug before you poured in the hot water, in which case you get fresh hot delicious coffee all over your kitchen counter, your sink, your stove, and probably (as I can testify from first-hand experience) your floor. 🙂

Morning coffee

Ever since I got one of these cool metal mesh coffee makers, my life has settled into a happy morning ritual: Fill a cup to the brim with water, pop it in the microwave for three minutes. Meanwhile, rinse out the filter and yesterday’s coffee mug, put the now clean filter over the now clean mug, fill with coffee from the fridge – just in time for the microwave to beep. Pour water into filter, wait a minute, and voilá, fresh yummy coffee.

Wonderful, right? Well, not always. You see, by definition making coffee in the morning is something I do before I have had my morning coffee. At which time of day my brain cells are essentially useless. And there’s the rub.

I have lost count of the sheer number of ways in which my little ritual has gone awry in the few months that I have had this device. There was the time I did everything but fill the filter with coffee grinds. That morning I ended up with fresh steaming hot water.

Then there was the morning when I did everything right except actually turn on the microwave. It turns out that if you don’t do this, none of the other steps actually do any good.

One morning I put the cup in the microwave without any water, another day – after a particularly late evening – I successfully boiled the water, only to turn from the microwave oven to discover that I had left off the entire filter/coffee grinds part of the rigamarole.

The most dramatic morning was the one in which I got almost everything right – with one crucial step. I boiled the water, washed the filter and mug, poured just the right amount of fresh aromatic coffee grinds into the waiting clean metal mesh, thinking all the time about that great mug of fresh hot coffee that was only a minute away.

And I was still lost in my thoughts about that mug of steamy fresh coffee even as the dark stain began to spread over the countertop. Soon coffee was spilling and pouring everywhere – into the sink, onto the stove, down onto the floor.

It seems I have forgotten only one little detail – placing the filter on top of the mug. Darn.

But things could be worse, and I count my blessings. You see, this mesh filter has been my morning’s great savior. The proof is hiding in my cupboard, where I lock away my trophies of shame – all of the wonderful coffee makers, once sparkly and new, that now sit there charred, blackened useless, their once-shiny plastic handles melted off. So many coffee makers that I had promised to honor and to use with care, now betrayed, destroyed by my careless morning love.

But not my mesh metal filter. I think this one’s a keeper.

All my guys and dolls

Seeing the latest production of “Guys and Dolls” on Broadway this evening, I was reminded of something I noticed many years back: the title tune starts with the same five notes as John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”: 1 2 4 3 1 of a major scale. For example, in the key of C major the notes would be: C D F E C.

Now, nobody would ever argue that the sardonic musical theatre of Frank Loesser has anything at all in common with the earnest late-sixties folk rock of Mr. Denver, and yet – as Edna Mode would say – here we are.

Are there, perhaps, certain combinations of notes that are so compelling that they can enter the brain of a composer spontaneously, just as a kind of proto life form can emerge from a mix of chemicals after an electric spark? Perhaps these lifeforms have the ability to jump from host to host, and thereby propagate, spawning progeny in the form of new songs that incorporate the same melodic theme.

After all, it is practically certain that John Denver would have heard the music from “Guys and Dolls” at least once, given the specific cultural eras involved, even if he was not consciously aware of Frank Loesser as an influence. And so the five note virus attached itself to a new creative brain, and spawned.

There are probably many thousands of such viral strains lurking out there by now, waiting to jump into the next song. I wonder whether we could study the gradual spread of certain recurring musical themes by applying the mathematics of epidemiology.

We often say a melody is catchy. Maybe there is more truth in this than we think.

Why we need universal programming literacy

I was prepared to be impressed with Continental Airlines. On the way to Delhi they had surprised me in a good way – every seat, even in coach class, has an electric outlet. And you can choose any one of two hundred and thirty seven movies to watch. Unfortunately I’d already seen most of the good ones.

I did manage to see “Holiday”, starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, which is delightful by definition, because it stars Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Although I felt very sad for another character – the young woman who is Cary Grant’s fiancée at the start of the film. She seems to be unaware that her own dear sister, whom Mr. Grant is about to meet, is Katherine Hepburn. Which means that she herself is basically roadkill. In their way, RomComs are a theatre of cruelty.

That was on the way out. The journey back was much worse, and therefore much better. Once we were all in our seats we were told that Continental’s vaunted entertainment system was broken, kaput, dead as a post. No two hundred and thirty seven movies, just a blank screen in front of every seat for fifteen hours.

The Continental folks were not quite apologetic. They kept announcing, repeatedly and somewhat proudly, that they could have repaired everything, but that would have delayed the flight by several hours. I can’t fault their logic – I would much rather be home on time than see a few movies – but it’s odd how smug they seemed about it.

And so I was reminded once again that a strange sort of attitude has taken hold among much of the U.S. airline industry. Namely, that customers have gradually become, in some odd and not quite definable sense, the Enemy. Rather than a profuse apology for inconvenience, the tone was a sort of smug message of “Yes, there was a problem, but we are professionals, dammit, and life is tough enough already, so don’t you mere passengers dare raise a fuss. Just be happy we’re still feeding you.”

Imagine an alternate Universe in which an airline actually asked the paying customers for their opinion on which option to take – perhaps taking a vote among the passengers. I suspect that if a U.S. airline were ever to do something so outrageous as to show that much respect for its clients, the Universe and everything within it would immediately collapse into a singularity.


Then they proceded to turn off the rest of the electrical system at the seats. No reading lights, no handy dandy little recharger plug. And no food service for most of the flight either. Just a planeful of forelorn passengers sitting in darkness for another fourteen hours.

I noticed a lot of people looking sadly at the books they had brought along on the flight – books that would remain unread for the duration. I’m not sure about the logic, but I think the airline wanted everyone to sleep so they’d be less trouble. Unfortunately, this resulted in a planeful of people who would be seriously jetlagged: If you go to sleep on a plane at 1am in Delhi, that’s 2:30pm in New York – exactly the wrong time to be falling asleep.

The airline folks then helpfully suggested that we not eat our little snack too quickly, because we wouldn’t be getting anything else for another thirteen hours. The young guy two seats away from me was sleeping when they handed out the snacks, so he was out of luck. I felt bad for him, so at some point I wandered to the back of the plane and nabbed one from a little stash I found there when none of the flight attendants seemed to be looking, and I brought it back to him.

Oh, and then the airline handed out vouchers to everyone (reminding us sternly that if we didn’t take our voucher right now, we couldn’t ask for one later). The voucher mostly gave you some little stuff that used to be free but that now you have to pay for. My favorite was the free headset. No entertainment system, but you can get a free headset. Honest. I couldn’t make up stuff like this.

To their credit, by the end of the long and grueling trip, the folks from Continental sounded truly contrite and apologetic in their parting announcements. It took seeing what fourteen hours of unrelenting boredom and darkness will do to a planeful of people to make them realize that there was something here to apologize for, but apologize they did in the end, and with conviction.

The strange thing was that for me this was all great. Nerd that I am, I had brought enough spare laptop batteries to last the whole trip, and then some. Without movies to distract me, I actually got a tremendous amount of programming done on the computer. I had a swell time, coding blissfully away.

Which just goes to show you: If only we had universal programming literacy, everyone on that plane would have had as much fun as I did.

Other architectures

In marked contrast to yesterday, I now find myself – still in Agra – listening to a group of scientists having a debate about String Theory. In some ways this is the opposite of the Taj Mahal. Where that is tangible and real and human scale, String Theory is a product of pure thought alone. Even the physicists who study it don’t have any confidence that it really does describe how to unify our theories of the universe.

But it is beautiful, and intricate, and lovely to explore. Perhaps this is the goal of all of our human architectures, whether made of marble or of mathematics.

Taj Mahal

Today something more upbeat.

I had known about the Taj Mahal all my life of course – we all have. I thought countless pictures would prepare me. But they did not.

Only when you are actually in its presence do you realize the genius of its architect. The Taj itself is not only beautiful, with perfect symmetry and balance of form, but also vast, imposing, far beyond human scale.

When you walk through the outer gates and catch your first glimpse and approach, you understand all this. What you are not prepared for is what you will find inside. The intimacy of it.

The whole enterprise is constructed as a cleverly proportioned set of nested spaces, so that when you reach the tomb itself, where the king and his bride lie side by side, you are in a very intimate space indeed, a small room just for two – like a lover’s nest for eternity.

I have never seen anything else quite like it. This juxtaposition of the vast and imposing with the small and intimate. The nearest thing I can think of is Wright’s “Falling Water” – but even that doesn’t quite achieve what the Taj does.

It makes me want to learn more about the architect, this genius who was commissioned by a king in mourning, and responded by creating such a wonder for all of humankind.

For when you stumble

I just – in these last hours – received the very sad news that someone has passed away, someone who has been enormously influential on my life, a great mentor and a true friend.

When you are young, you instinctively look for mentors. And one day, if you are fortunate, you encounter someone who has chosen to travel a noble and perhaps difficult path through life, who one day smiles at you and says “Come join me in my walk – you and I might enjoy travelling together for a while.” Of course you know that the journey is more than a simple walk. For when you stumble – and you will stumble – your mentor’s guiding hand reaches out to steady you, while gently teaching you how to steady yourself.

Part of my heart refuses to believe that he is really gone. Yet in an important way he is not really gone – he will never be gone. His light even now continues to shine upon me, and within me. And if I am brave enough and strong enough to honor his example, that light will continue to shine upon some of those who come after me. It will shine every time I reach out to a young traveller in friendship and fellowship, every time I show my faith in the potential of another, and every time I offer an encouraging smile and a steady helping hand.