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.