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.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Room with a view

Earlier tonight I visited the website of a professor whose undergraduate courses I took a few years back. On it she has a link to the view from her office. Could there be a correlation between the lovely summer's day and the empty parking lot in front of the Department of Computer Science?

From my office I look out over the Eindhoven city centre. In the distance I can just see the beautiful old Philips light bulb factory, De Witte Dame. If I look carefully, between the trees I can also see Le Corbusier's Objet Mathématique, the last remnant of the Philips pavilion at the 1958 World Exposition in Brussels. Not the purple Jacaranda trees of my home town, but not bad either.

I recently visited a friend who used to share my office, and view, in Eindhoven. After graduation he got a position with a first-class research lab. His new office does not have any windows. So much for a room with a view.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Serious about recycling

When it comes to the environment, Belgians are quick to point out that their government enforces recycling by law. Apparently, Belgium is serious about recycling and will slap you with a fine if you are not.

I recycle because I subscribe to the idea of sustainability and not because I fear the Belgians. As I often do, this morning I set out early to our local recycling depot. Unfortunately, I was told that today they cannot accept paper. This is the fourth time this has happened. The following flashed through my mind. Get serious!

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Independence day

Today India celebrates sixty years of independence from Britain. My son also set his first small step toward independence. This morning my wife and I took him to daycare for the first time. A great day for freedom? I am not sure. As I left my blue-eyed boy with strangers, I felt rather like a villain.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Travel, but not as we know it

Friday, 27 July 2007

The Back of Your Head

When I was a child, my mother had two mirrors inside opposing doors of her wardrobe. When you opened both doors at an angle of roughly 90° (facing each other), you could see what the back of your head looked like.

Even more intriguing was the Droste effect that resulted from the recursive bouncing back and forth of light between the mirrors. There were infinitely many me's getting progressively smaller! I also remember staring at my mother's tins of Royal baking powder. Each tin had a picture of an identical, but smaller tin on it. And on this tin, there was a picture of another tin. I remember squinting my eyes to see the picture on this third really tiny tin. Although I could not see it, I was convinced it must there.

These were my first encounters with recursion. I would meet it many times more. For instance, on the cover of Pink Floyd's album Ummagumma. (Apart from repeating, the band members also switch positions in every nested photo.) Of course, recursion is also found in computer science. Here it refers to the practice of defining a function such that its definition contains a call to the same function.

The past week I kept coming across programming problems for which recursion gives an elegant, easy to implement solution. Every time I do, I cannot help giving a little whoop. My colleagues assure me that this is very uncool. After all, we all have seen recursion many times before. I disagree. Every now and again, I think it is good to delight in opening that wardrobe to see what the back of your head looks like. Even if you have seen it many times before.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Walking the Dog - Part II

Apparently I am way out of touch. In a previous post, I wrote about the revelation I had regarding contemporary dog owners in European cities.

Yesterday, I was again doing my rounds in the neighbourhood park with my baby boy. On my way there a cyclist towing a doggy trailer flashed past. "Oh look, a cyclist towing a doggy trailer... Hold on, a cyclist towing what?!" This was no home-made effort either. No sir, this was a commercially made kennel-on-wheels. I put myself at ease by reasoning that if huskies have been pulling sleighs for hundreds of years, then this dog is just getting some justice for his northern cousins.

No sooner had I forgotten about the trailer encounter than one of those dog-in-a-baby-carriage-ladies appeared. Not being naïve enough to be thrown again by this sort of thing, I didn't winch. Only, it wasn't a baby carriage. Her canine companion was getting a free ride in a pushchair specially made for dogs. As with the trailer, there is a company out there that earns revenue making buggies for dogs. Fascinating. Right?

When I got home, I told my wife about my amazing discoveries. She said she had recently seen an television item about a dog boutique. In the very city we live in! Go figure, doggy couture. Here is a million dollar idea: a dog breed with a Burberry plaid or Yves Saint Laurent chequered coat.

Getting the Work Done

Last Friday my wife needed the car, so I worked from home. With me I had some source code for a research prototype that I had been working on. I got up bright and early, started up my C++ compiler and started "working".

There was just one problem, at home I have a different compiler than the one I use at the office. The source code that compiled without any problem at work now suddenly gave me linking errors. I quickly went through the list of usual suspects (circular inclusions of headers, outdated object files etc). To no avail. A few hours later I was still scratching (banging?) my head and loudly sighing in self-pity. (Of course, at least to some degree, by now it had also become an issue of pride and outsmarting the compiler.)

My wife came in and asked "what's wrong?"
"I'm not getting any work done,"
I said.
"What do you mean? You've been sitting there since 7 this morning."
I grunted in frustration, "Yeah, but I can't get it to compile and I can't find the problem."
"Well, you're still working."
"But I'm not getting any work done!"
"But honey, searching for and solving problems IS getting the work done."

I finally did solve the problem (with a workaround). But I'm still not convinced that dealing with different compiler idiosyncrasies is "getting the work done". Maybe I am just too impatient (another point my wife never fails to emphasize).

Sunday, 15 July 2007


Last weekend I suddenly had an irresistible urge for scones. Having lost my mother's recipe, I googled "scone recipe". The first result was a link to BBC Food. Once again my favourite broadcasting corporation delivers!

About forty minutes later we were feasting on scones hot from the oven. The only minor issue was that we did not have any cream. As any scone lover would attest, scones are best enjoyed with jam and clotted/whipped cream (and washed down with tea).

The photo at the top left is of yesterday's (double) batch. This time I made sure that there was ample cream.

Monday, 9 July 2007

The Times they are A-Changin'

Well, the times certainly are changing. When he brought out a cover version of A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, Brian Ferry did the world a terrible injustice by releasing what is in my opinion one of the worst Dylan covers to date. Fortunately, on his most recent album there is one of the best covers of The Times they are A-Changin' I have ever heard. I guess we'll call it quits then.

Saturday, 7 July 2007


A few weeks ago I bought myself... Wait! Let me start over. A few weeks ago I bought my son an awesome toy: a Skwish. The Skwish is based on the principle of tensegrity - a term first coined by Buckminster Fuller - and was designed by Tom Flemons, founder of Intension Designs.

The term tensegrity is a contraction of "tensional integrity" and refers to structures that get their strength by a clever (and often elegant) combination of tension and compression elements. Man, I can't wait to explain this to my boy when he gets older! This is what I will tell him:

The toy is made from wood and elastic cord. There are six wooden rods grouped into three pairs. The rods in every pair are parallel to each other and every pair is positioned orthogonally to every other pair in 3D. Elastic cord keeps the rods in position (tension). The rods, in turn, keep the cord from collapsing into a shapeless heap (compresion). This results in a structure that is quite agile; you can pull and twist it, but it will always rebound to its original shape.

Every rod is capped on both ends by two ellipses and is threaded trough another that is free to move over its length. This makes a nice sound that my son likes. The colours used for the rods and beads are not incidental either. Quick analysis shows that the designer uses the three primary (red, yellow, blue) and three secondary colours (green, violet, orange). Every pair of parallel rods and their spheres are coated in complimentary colours (pairs of opposite colours on the color wheel; red:green, yellow:violet, blue:orange).

I hope my son has as much fun with his Skwish as I did. As long as he knows that when he grows tired of it (how could he?!) it goes back on my shelf.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

30 Cents

At work there are two quick ways for me to get a cup of coffee.

About five meters from my office door there is a coffee vending machine. You put 30 cents into the coin slot and about 15 seconds later it presents you with a cup of the most vile "coffee" I have ever tasted. The term "muddy water" comes to mind.

I can also run up two flights of stairs to the canteen on floor eight. There you take a paper cup, put it under a spout and press the button labelled "Koffie". About 10 seconds later you can take your cup and proceed to the cash register. Once you're there - provided you have correct change - you just plonk your 30 cents on the counter and yell "Doei!" Usually, you're answered with another "DOEI!" from somewhere in the back.

When I opt for the first, I usually regret it. When I opt for the second, I leave sipping my beverage feeling very satisfied. Perhaps because I grew up in a large city where no one ever trusted me to "just leave the money on the counter". (The coffee is not bad either.)

Monday, 2 July 2007

Mentors - Part III

My PhD adviser gave me the following word of advice today:

"You're a father now. That means at home, you're last in line. You're at the bottom of the pecking order. Get used to it."

I guess that is another quality of a mentor - when necessary, they can be brutally honest ;-)

Friday, 29 June 2007

Keith Tyson - Large Field Array

In two days' time Keith Tyson's installation Large Field Array will close at the De Pont museum in Tilburg. Fortunately, I was dragged there today by my PhD adviser.

Was it worth it? Absolutely! This is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating art exhibits I have ever seen. The work consists of 300 individual pieces of art that occupies the floor and two walls of a rather large hall. The objects are placed 120 cm apart in a large grid and range from ultra-realistic sculptures to extremely detailed scale models. The position of a particular object is not random but as a function of its relation to others. Most of them fit inside a 60 x 60 x 60 cube, but some do not.

Of course, the idea is to coax the viewer into trying to make sense of this incredible complexity and diversity. The artist certainly succeeded: I saw elderly ladies get down on their knees to inspect things from up close. As for us, we did not stop darting between the different objects for three hours, and I suspect we could have stayed at it for weeks.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Why Pod?

I've loved the W Hal since I first set foot in it. Apart from its aesthetic appeal, its structure is technically innovative, offering vast areas of open space with access to natural light. The value of this building lies precisely in that it was designed to easily adapt to new needs. I think it belongs, and deserves a place, on the TU/e campus.

Whereas the TU/e main building represents the ambition of the founding fathers of our university, the W Hal shows that innovative, technically sound solutions can also be pragmatic, understated and (God forbid) beautiful. It fits in perfectly in the context of the TU/e campus, a characteristic that its proposed replacement (the pod) clearly lacks.

It would be a grave mistake to demolish the W Hal. You can join the discussion at:

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Running Shoes

The soles of my running shoes have been meticulously designed to provide me with the "ultimate running experience". Their outsoles are made from different types of carbon rubber - I count four colours in total - all with their own rebound characteristics. They are also threaded with different studdings, ridges and gullies to provide me with superior traction.

Unfortunately, as a result of being threaded, my running shoes also tend to accumulate unwanted substances underneath. The muck I collect in this way ranges from being slightly inconvenient to downright disgusting. I am happy to rinse off those at the low end of the scale when I get home, but those at the other end makes me want to dump my "high performance running machines" in the nearest rubbish bin.

So PLEASE, if you own a dog that you take for walks in public places, clean up after it.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Did You Say 1.5 Million?

While driving to work today, I heard an item on Zimbabwe's economy. I was sure that I had heard wrong.

Well, I just checked on the BBC website and it turns out what I heard was correct. The US ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell, predicts that inflation in Zimbabwe will reach (are you ready for this?) 1.5 million percent by the end of the year. That is 1 500 000%!

I don't know about you, but I cannot even comprehend what this means. I kind of expect time to warp back on itself at an inflation rate like that. Or, maybe the money in your wallet spontaneously bursts into flames.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Walking the Dog

For obvious reasons I tend to spend more time than I used to strolling in parks pushing a baby carriage. As a result I have discovered a bizarre phenomenon.

I am not talking about attractive women that spontaneously start to talk to me now. (I should have had one of these in college.) No, this is far more strange.

It seems that taking your dog for a walk is not quite what it used to be. The first time I saw a lady "walking her dog" in a baby pushchair my reaction was "what the hell is this?!" Then I convinced myself to not be so judgmental; the dog is probably old, sick or both. But lo and behold! All of a sudden Fluffy wakes up and jumps from the pushchair in a spectacular arc, starts running around and comes to sniff at my wheels ("get out of here you lazy sonuva...") It would seem fluffy is quite fit. Perhaps his owners just temporarily forgot that he is... uhm... A DOG?

Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with dogs (sometimes with their owners, apparently). But if you want to treat it, just give it a bone for crying out loud!

Mama Told Me Not to Come

I had been warned about this great evil by many people.

Did I listen? Of course not! But it really is evil - a productivity killer like no other. This is the devil's turf! Straight from hell.

Last night at about 21:00 I accepted an invitation from a friend to join Facebook. At 1:00 I looked up again and asked myself "what did I do for the past four hours?" And the worst part is, this morning I got up really early. Just to check.

This is bad, bad, bad.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Flip Stander

Earlier this evening I watched an awesome documentary on the BBC's Natural World. It dealt with the conservation/reintroduction of the desert lion in the Namib Desert. The photography was magnificent and I am always biased toward programs narrated by David Attenborough. But what I found most fascinating is an incredible man called Flip Stander.

Flip has a thick blond beard - perhaps a mane would be a better description - and skin that has been turned to leather by the sun. He tracks, studies and fights for the survival of desert lion in an old beat up Toyota Land Cruiser. Flip wears worn out t-shirts and rugby shorts. No shoes. There is no designer adventure wear (think North Face) in sight. Flip smokes Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes and spends his days doing what he loves under a big sky.

I remember thinking that I envy Flip.

Friday, 25 May 2007

Mrs Ball's

To anyone who grew up, or who has spent an extended period of time in South Africa, Mrs Ball's is is an institution. Whenever friends and family come over and ask whether they can bring me anything from home I always reply "Mrs Ball's please". Mrs H.S. Ball's Chutney!

If you don't know Mrs Ball's, it is positively the best chutney on earth. Generations have been raised on this stuff. Imagine my surprise when I saw a shelf full of Mrs Ball's in the supermarket today. "Tuna... where is the tuna? Over here? No, that's Mrs Ball's. Where is the damn tuna? MRS BALL's?!"

"Can't be", I thought, "time for a little authenticity test". But it was real, it said so right there on the cap: "Shake the bottle - Skud die bottel".

At the cash register I excitedly blurted out that this is "REALLY good stuff" and pledged lifelong loyalty to this particular supermarket chain. And "this is like mother's milk to me and..." The check-out lady lazily replied that as part of a seasonal promotion they will only temporarily stock this brand of "BBQ sauce".

BBQ Sauce?! Chutney you...! For the love of all that's decent, it's Mrs H.S. Ball's Chutney!

Thursday, 19 April 2007

One-Armed Bandit

I am typing this with just one hand. In my right arm I am cradling the new member of our family. I am typing a bit slower than usual, but I am learning fast. Although not that spectacular, I have also learned to set tea, make coffee, eat dinner, water plants, and much more, all with just one hand! For the time being I won't try cycling or driving like this, of course ;)

Saturday, 14 April 2007


Saturday, 7 April 2007

Forest National - Bob Dylan - No Cans

I arrived early. The billboard alternately flashed "Forest National" - "Bob Dylan" - "No Cans". I got a good seat: right behind the sound board with a clear view of the entire stage. In a heavy West-Flemish drawl, the guy to my left was telling his friend that he "first saw Bobby back in '84" and that he should watch carefully "he does this thing with his knee".

At exactly 20:06, accompanied by a tremendous roar, the band strutted onto stage. "Bobby", wearing a white, broad-rimmed Stetson, slung his Strat over his shoulder. Without any further ado, "Bob Dylan and his Band" delivered a red-hot country version of Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum. "There he goes! The knee! The knee!" the guy to my left yelled. Yee-HAW! There was blood all over the tracks!

About eight songs into his nearly two hour set, the guy on my right asked whether I had ever seen him perform live before. He continued that he hadn't and that he was a bit disappointed.

It was my first time too, but it was pretty much what I had expected. I know that his voice is completely shot. Still, it is impressive how great songs and an excellent band compensates for this to some extend. His new songs and their arrangements also suit his voice well. I agree that I had my doubts about the way that some of the classics were brought. But, whenever the band fell into that wicked back-beat, with Mr Dylan barking into the microphone, shaking his knee, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end from sheer pleasure.

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Mysterious Game?

I was just leafing through a book on Belgian surrealist René Magritte. On page 17 there is a reproduction of a painting entitled Secret Player. Part of the caption reads "... here two gentlemen dressed in white are playing a mysterious, apparently serious game" (my emphasis). This mysterious game, sir, is called cricket. And you are quite right, as you can tell from my previous post, it can get rather serious!

Friday, 16 March 2007

6 x 6

I heard the news while listening to the England vs New Zealand match on longwave while driving home. Since the South Africa vs Netherlands match was not being broadcast, this was the next best thing. At some point the commentary was interrupted for news about "an incredible over at the other game in St Kitts". South African cricketer Herschelle Gibbs had just written cricket history. I think CricInfo's Sriram Veera's live commentary sums it up best (my emphasis):

29.1 van Bunge to Gibbs, SIX, Violence! Gibbs charged down the track and hoicked it over long on.

29.2 van Bunge to Gibbs, SIX, Murder! Floated on the leg and middle stump line and Gibbs sends it soaring over long-off.

29.3 van Bunge to Gibbs, SIX, Carnage! Flatter one this time but it makes no difference to Gibbs. He just stands there and delivers. This one also has been sucked over long off

29.4 van Bunge to Gibbs, SIX, Wah Wah! Low full toss and guess where this went Yep. A slap slog and it went over deep midwicket! He is going to go for 6 sixes in this over!

29.5 van Bunge to Gibbs, SIX, Short in length, on the off stump line and Gibbs rocks back and swat-pulls it over wide long off. Simply amazing. What a batsman. This is pure violence!

29.6 van Bunge to Gibbs, SIX, He has done it! One-day record. No one has hit six sixes in a row. Gibbs stands alone in that zone. And the minnow bashing continues! Full and outside off and bludgeoned over deep midwicket

For the uninitiated, 16 nations are currently battling it out for the Cricket World Cup in the West Indies.

Ballad of Hollis Brown

As a result of living in an apartment I have had to "outsource" some of the tasks that I used to do myself. One of these is washing the car. There are no faucets outside of our apartment building. I have tried tackling the problem with buckets of water, but spent most of the time running up and down stairs. A hosepipe may be an option, but rigging it through our third-floor kitchen window does not seem that practical.

There is a carwash just around the corner from us. You must have seen one of these: you enter a tunnel at one end with a dirty car and exit at the other end with a squeaky clean one. As you enter "the tunnel" the machine starts with a low hum that quickly rises to a high pitched squeal. "Whoa-uh-eeh!". Then a cacophony of sounds kick in as over sized bottle brushes and jets of pressurized water start attacking the filth. At the same time it gets really dark as the car starts to rock sideways.

The last time I went to the carwash I was listening to Bob Dylan's third album, The Times They Are a-Changin'. I had just skipped to my favourite track, Ballad of Hollis Brown, when I entered "the tunnel". I don't know whether you have ever listened to some of Dylan's most haunting music while inside a tornado, but it scared the smithereens out of me! So run off people, and go have your cars washed! And don't forget your soundtracks.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Functional Design

I wish more products were designed like my eraser and I will tell you why. First, it does what it was designed to do and does not pretend to do anything else. It comes without an integrated camera or any other bells and whistles. It functions as an eraser and it does this very well.

Second, there are two different "sub-functions" that are clearly indicated. As far as I can tell there are at least three cues that are being used for this: (i) On the top, two clearly legible icons (that do not rub off) tell me that one end is intended for erasing pencil while the other is intended for erasing ink. (ii) The two functionally different ends of the eraser are clearly distinguished by color, red is for pencil and blue is for ink. (iii) The red end is larger than the blue end. If I apply a bit of reasoning, I realize that erasers are more often associated with pencils and deduce that the larger part must be intended for pencil.

Finally, after making sure that their product is functionally sound, it seems the designers went the extra mile (I cannot confirm this, of course). The proportion of the total length to the red part (seen from the top) is 4,7 cm to 2,9 or 1,62 ~ 1,618. This is known as the golden ratio, or phi. It is found throughout nature and also in art and architecture. Apparently humans, myself included, find this very pleasing.

Friday, 9 March 2007


While working on my master's degree, to help me cope with adjusting in another country, I started running. Many before me have claimed that there is a lot more to running than just, well... running. Once you get to a level of fitness where you can run for an extended period of time without experiencing any discomfort, it provides some kind of primordial pleasure that is hard to explain.

One of the coolest experiences I had while running happened toward the end of my master's. I was a bit stressed out about putting the finishing touches on my thesis and felt kind of down. As I was running along a wooded track I saw another runner approaching me through the trees. From his pace and style I could tell that this was an experienced athlete. I remember thinking "This guy probably has a couple of marathons under his belt".

Runners often great each other when they go by. Usually, a finger or hand is briefly lifted. For some reason at the spur of the moment (this had never happened to me before or since), we both lifted our right hand and gave each other a high five. It only lasted a split second and by the time I realized what had just happened we had passed and I was running alone again.

While a second earlier I was feeling quite bummed out, I now felt great! Without saying a word, this complete stranger had recognized my existence and reminded me about the world wide brotherhood of runners who do it "just for the hell of it". That was all I needed.

I am sad to say that I no longer find the time to run.

You Can't Draw

Currently, there is a book on Dutch painter Piet Mondriaan on my nightstand. Apparently, Mondriaan twice entered the prestigious Prix de Rome and failed miserably both times. The distinguished jury pointed out that he "could not draw". There is hope for us all!

Friday, 2 March 2007

Mentors - Part II

"This is... this is really!" He would exclaim. Then, after gulping for air, he would softly puff: "Beautiful". His hands expressively grabbing hold of thin air, his eyes piercing the audience, his head nodding rhythmically up and down. He looked worn out and spent, the back of his shirt drenched, his trousers covered in white chalk powder.

This was how one of my favourite professors taught mathematics. I have heard that he has since been promoted to dean. Well done! Although, I pity the scores of students who would now be missing out as a result of him taking on more management tasks. Because, I have to say, learning math from this man was a nearly spiritual experience.

I am tempted to compare his style of teaching to the way that Horowitz played Rachmaninov. However, a more accurate description might be to say that he taught mathematics like Stevie Ray Vaughan played the blues. You could not help but be moved.

Thursday, 1 March 2007


One of my pet peeves is the yield-to-right rule used throughout continental Europe. It amounts to the following. In the absence of signage at an intersection (very common), motorists should yield to traffic coming from the right. Sounds simple. The problem is that yield-to-right has since morphed into "I'm coming from the right, so I'm going to charge right through even if my judgement says that under the circumstances that's a stupid thing to do". Why? "Because it's my right!".

Yield-to-right does not work. I have lost count of the number of yield-to-right accidents I have witnessed at an intersection across from our apartment. What makes things even worse is that the rule is interpreted differently in different countries. For instance, in Holland you are supposed to give way to traffic from the right even when you are on a traffic circle. In Belgium cars on the traffic circle have right of way. So in addition to keeping track of a number of factors such as cars ahead, cars coming from behind, cars from the left, cars from the right, and cyclists and pedestrians coming from everywhere, you also have remember "Oh yeah, I just crossed the border five minutes ago, so the appropriate action is to...".

Surely, the idea is for motorists to act decisively based on a consistent set of clear rules that are not open for interpretation ("Is this guy planning to stop? Yes, I thinks he's slowing down... no... yes... no... no, he's not."). Tell motorists what to do. I know of two simple solutions to the problem outlined above: (1) the yield sign and (2) my personal favourite, the stop sign. These leave no doubt as to what the correct action to take is and have been in use in many countries for decades. Also, in the case of an accident, they leave little to the imagination when determining who is responsible.

Tuesday, 27 February 2007


Last weekend I finished John Maeda's new book, The Laws of Simplicity. In it Maeda proposes a set of 10 rules to achieve simplicity in design, in business and in life. I found myself agreeing with most of what Maeda says.

However, the part of the book that I keep thinking about has relatively little to do with its main theme. At the very end of the book there is a section entitled You're Still Here?. In it Maeda recounts a conversation with a "retired professor of linguistics" (I am assuming Noam Chomsky). Maeda and the professor share some wisdom and finally touch on the subject of mentors.

This got me thinking about the role of mentors in my life. For instance, what differentiates a mentor from a boss? Part of the answer, I think, is that you work hard for a mentor, not because you fear him, but because you do not want to let him down.

Friday, 23 February 2007

Simple Pleasures

As I was cruising along a stretch of open highway through the Campine this morning (Kempen in Dutch), one of my favourite Creedence Clearwater Revival songs came on the radio. I truly enjoyed the experience. Off the top of my head, here is a list of other simple things from which I derive immense pleasure (in no particular order and sticking to a maximum of 10):

  1. The cracking sound of a cricket ball smacking the bat on the 'sweet spot' (about two thirds down from the handle). There's nothing like leather on willow.
  2. Bending a major fourth double stop into a major fifth on a Fender Telecaster plugged into a valve amp (preferably on the second and third strings). The amp's gain should be cranked up just enough so that single notes are clean, but double stops start breaking up.
  3. The deafening crescendo of cheers when the teams run onto the field at an international rugby test match.
  4. Watching a procession of professors, marching silently in full academic garb.
  5. Seeing old friends meet again after many years, especially at airport arrival terminals.
  6. Reading an elegant computer algorithm. This is also related to the feeling when after labouring long and hard to debug your program (reasoning it through, finally finding and fixing the bug) you see it work.
  7. Seeing and experiencing an Alberto Giacometti sculpture in real life.
  8. The sound of a vintage Alfa Romeo engine idling. I am talking about that 'over-sized coffee percolator' sound.
  9. Walking through and experiencing Le Corbusier's Villa la Roche.
  10. Reading a book all the way through without cracking or creasing the spine.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Snow Rugby

Today, exactly two weeks ago, during a short-lived spell of snow, the TU/e campus was briefly covered by a (thin) white carpet. As an excuse to get from behind our computers and out of the office, we decided that it was high time for a game of snow rugby.

As I look out my office window now, it also seems unthinkable. Was it really just two weeks ago?

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

1,24 Meters

The TU/e campus was developed based on a master plan by Dutch architect S. J. van Embden. Van Embden's office also designed many of the original buildings on campus, of which I am quite fond.

Recently, I read something interesting about Van Embden's plan. According to the Small TU/e Encyclopedia (Het Kleine TU/e Encyclopedie, 1956-2006), he used the distance of 1,24 meters as the basis for it. That is, everything on campus fits neatly into a grid consisting of squares that measure 1,24 by 1,24 meters.

Van Embden's module (1,24m) is not based on ergonomics. Instead, all original buildings were to be fitted with Philips system ceilings. These consist of ceiling tiles in which Philips florescent light tubes fit. A Philips florescent light tube, with fixture, measures 1,24 meters. Talk about pragmatics; Royal Philips is an Eindhoven 'startup' from the turn of the previous century.

My office, in one of Van Embden's original buildings, measures 4,97 by 4,87 meters. To my initial disappointment, none of these distances are multiples of 1,24 (even when you compensate for possible lack of precision during construction). To explain this, I had to look up.

The Philips ceiling tiles actually measure 1,16 by 1,16 meters with strips measuring 0.08 meters (in width) that fit in between. 1,16 + 0,08 = 1,24. Aha! 4,97 ~ 4,96 = (1,16 x 4) + (0,08 x 4) and 4,87 ~ 4,88 = (1,16 x 4) + (0,08 x 3). Beautiful.

Friday, 16 February 2007

Lucky 7

Despite spending a considerable amount of time in front of a computer monitor every day, I still regularly put pencil to paper. I take notes, sketch out ideas or simply doodle. My instrument of choice is a mechanical pencil.

For the past couple of months, I have been (passively) looking for a new pencil. Unfortunately, it seems that most stationary shops do not stock decent mechanical pencils any more. They are either pretty flimsy or just plain ugly (often both).

Yesterday while running errands, I passed another stationary shop. Not expecting too much, I went inside to have a quick look. To my surprise, they had a wide range of mechanical pencils. Most of them were ruled out straight away; WAY too expensive. However, they also had some decent looking and affordable pencils from a German company called Lamy.

I tried out a couple, and found one that felt right. As I was leaving the shop with my purchase, a street musician was playing one of my favourite Neil Young songs. I felt like a lucky man. When I got home I saw that my pencil has a '7' on its clutch-cap.

Wednesday, 14 February 2007


How much yellow is there on your shelves? Right now, I have about 23cm of yellow on mine. The last time I checked my father had about 2m on his and my grandfather had at least 4m on his when he passed away.

I am referring to the trademark 'Yellow Border' cover of National Geographic Magazine, of course. I have been a subscriber to National Geographic for 38 months, so that is an average of roughly 0,61cm yellow per issue (seen from the back when filed in a bookcase). That means my dad has about 33 years of yellow on his shelf and my grandfather had some 60 years' worth on his. You could probably say that in our family, your 'distance in yellow' serves as pretty accurate measure of the time that has passed since your 'coming of age'. Almost like tree-rings or elephant tusks...

I bring this up because recently a colleague of mine proudly told me that he had taken a subscription on National Geographic as well. I wish him as many hours of enjoyment as I have had reading articles and gawking at photographs in this monument of a magazine. Here's to yellow!

Monday, 12 February 2007

Soul of the Ant

On a recent trip to South Africa, one of the items on my to-do list was getting and reading a copy of Eugène Marais's The Soul of the White Ant (originally published in Afrikaans as Die Siel van die Mier). I had been quite embarrassed recently when a Belgian fan of Marais's work started talking about the book. All I managed to say was "Yes, apparently it's pretty good". In an attempt to compensate for my ignorance I also added "Marais was one of our greatest writers, you know".

Within 48 hours of arriving in South Africa I had my first copy of the book; a gift from relatives. This was the English version and I was wondering whether I wouldn't be losing out not reading the 'real thing'. So, when I saw both volumes of Marais's complete works in a bookshop two days later I bought them (Versamelde Werke I & II) .

The Soul of the White Ant is a great book. In it Marais studies the behaviour of termites (white ants). His theory is that a colony of termites forms a larger 'composite animal'. What is more, individual termites are not aware of this. They basically go about their business (responding to pheromones and such) and behold, deterministic behaviour emerges. Does this remind anybody else of Swarm Intelligence? Here are some facts to put this into context. It is generally accepted that the field of Artificial Intelligence started in the 1950's. It was during this era that Allan Turing devised the Turing Test. Swarm Intelligence came into vogue in the late 1990's. Eugène Marais published The Soul of the White Ant in 1925. Not bad.

Here's another interesting fact. In 1926 a Belgian writer called Maurice Maeterlinck published a book called The Life of the White Ant (La Vie des Termites). This book bore a striking resemblance to Marais's book but Marais did not even make the bibliography. Fortunately, another Belgian (yes that's the third one) called David van Reybrouck set the record straight in 2001 and it is now accepted that Maeterlinck plagiarized Marais's work. I guess I won't be at a loss for words the next time Eugène Marais comes up at dinner conversation.

As for Mr Marais, my guess is that he would be working in AI if he were alive today... or blogging.