Sunday, 23 December 2007

85 ways to tie a tie

My father taught me to tie a tie on my first day in high school. By the end of my first term, tying a tie had lodged itself in that part of my mind sometimes referred to as muscle memory. I don't know how I do it, I just do. It is the same type of memory that helps me touch type or drive a car.

Thomas Fink and Yong Mao, two Cambridge scientists, have shown that there are exactly 85 ways to tie a tie. Using Fink's encyclopaedia of knots I discovered that my father showed me how to tie knot number 31. That is an Li-Co-Ri-Lo-Ci-Ro-Li-Co-T for the mathematically inclined, or a Windsor knot as it is more commonly known.

According to Fink and Mao, the Windsor has some nice properties: (1) It consists of eight moves, not just three or four like some of its cousins; (2) It has three centre moves resulting in a wide knot; (3) It is nearly symmetrical. When the number of right moves are subtracted from the number of left moves, the result is one; (4) It is completely balanced. There is no switching back and forth between clockwise and counter-clockwise windings; (5) Finally, the Windsor's knotted status is negative. When it is loosened, removed over the head and the thin end pulled, it leaves no knot.

Two days to go till Christmas. What are the odds of getting a tie this year?

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Only in Holland

Only in Holland do you get shooed out of the building at 4 pm on December 5th. After all, you should be back home celebrating Sinterklaas with your family.

Friday, 16 November 2007

The Clocktower

Last night I attended a party to celebrate the successful PhD defence of a colleague. The party was fun, the location was spectacular. It was held on the second story of a stylish old Philips building: de Klokkentoren (the Clocktower). De Klokkentoren is the 70 meter high eye-catcher of a former industrial complex in a part of Eindhoven called Strijp-S.

On my first trip to Eindhoven I distinctly remember seeing de Klokkentoren toward my left as I entered the "City of Lights" by train. Unfortunately, most of the architectural heritage of Strijp-S has since been or will soon be demolished. One can only hope that this does not prove to be as short-sighted as the systematic destruction of Brussels' Art Nouveau masterpieces during the 1960s. Once it's gone, it's gone.

On a positive note, it seems de Klokkentoren will not meet the same fate as the buildings that used to flank it. Apparently, it has been designated a national monument and will be refurbished for housing and commerce. Now, if only we could save the W-Hal.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Walking on the Moon

When I woke up this morning, an excerpt from an old song by The Police was washing through my head.

Giant steps are what you take
Walking on the moon

I hope my legs don't break

Walking on the moon

Imagine my surprise when I turned on my car radio: today is the 50th anniversary of the launching of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. This in turn sparked the space race, culminating with Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in 1969. And so - the pun is irresistible - we have come full circle.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Souss Africa, Sirty-seex; Eengland neel!

Concerning last night's rugby in Paris, I cannot say it better than this article on (from which this post's title was also borrowed):

"The South Africans were coldly focused, clinical in execution and unwaveringly composed as they set about blasting England’s sweet chariot right off the park."

I came to the same conclusion in the crowded Irish pub in Eindhoven where I watched the game. I was surrounded by enthusiastic green-and-gold brandishing Dutchmen. As the final whistle came closer, they loudly assured one another that "we" - "De Springbokken" - were about to win by an even greater margin than the 0-36 already on the scoreboard. What a match!

Monday, 10 September 2007

Room with a view - part 2

This morning I knelt down to tie my shoelace in our kitchen. Here you see photo of the view I had when I looked up. Yes, that is a shark and a squid poking out from our washing machine. (And no, this was not set up.) I could not help snickering: life certainly has changed. For the better.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Dead weight

"That's lovely, but do you really need it, little man?" my grandmother would say as I showed off the latest acquisition I had made with my pocket money. I would always reply "Come on grandma, the war has been over for decades!" (The second world war and the resulting economic slump also had a profound influence on the psyche of the war generation in South Africa.)

Yesterday, I spent some of my "pocket money" on a new wallet - the previous one having worn out. When I got home I took the contents from the old one to sift out those things I do not need or use. I was dumbfounded by how much dead weight I carry in the form of various customer cards. Every day I haul around this useless plastic due to unrealistic financial incentives. After all, my fiftieth loaf of bread is free! I could not think of one time I have profited from this. Away with this, I say!

Of course, dead weight is not only found in our wallets. Our lives and our homes are full of it. And all of this translates to dead trees. I refer here to the earth's finite resources that are being used up for no purpose other than window dressing. I am not suggesting that my new-found refusal to get coaxed into more plastic carrying customer-discount scams will have any significant influence on the environment. However, grandma was much more of a visionary than I realized.

My grandparents lived comfortably but frugally. Nothing was bought without an express purpose and without being absolutely necessary. Their home was not cluttered by dead weight. Before replacing something that had broken, they would first enquire whether it could be repaired. Case in point: long after the advent of autofocus SLR cameras, my grandfather was still shooting with a beautiful old Rolliflex. "There's nothing wrong with it, and besides, the picture quality is far superior."

After all this moralizing I realize that my grandmother would not have bought a new wallet in the first place. She would have had her old one repaired. Shame on me.