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.