The Magic Numbers of Dr. Matrix

Book Club — June 28, 2010

This week’s book is one of my all-time favorites – The Magic Numbers of Dr. Matrix by Martin Gardner:

It’s a wonderful collection of Gardner’s Scientific American columns spanning his 30 year relationship with Dr. Irving Joshua Matrix. For those of you who haven’t heard of Dr. Matrix, he’s considered by many to be the greatest numerologist of all time. (He was the first to reveal that HAL (from 2001: Space Odyssey) is obtained by shifting each letter of IBM back one letter in the alphabet.)

Filled with predictions, word play, number theory, and entertaining stories of an eccentric mathematical genius, whether you love numbers or not, this book is packed with fun. Take for example, their first meeting in 1960. Dr. Matrix says to Gardner:

“You’ve heard, perhaps, the theory that Shakespeare worked secretly on part of the King James translation of the Bible?”

I shook my head.

“To a numerologist, the theory’s not in doubt. If you turn to Psalms 46 you’ll find that its 46th word is SHAKE. Count back to the 46th word from the end of the same psalm and you reach the word SPEAR.”

“Why 46?” I asked, smiling.

“Because,” said Dr. Matrix, “when the King James Authorized Version was completed in 1610, Shakespeare was exactly 46 years old.”

The book is loaded with all sorts of riddles, some simple, some extremely difficult. Answers are in the back. Here’s the entire text of a postcard sent to Gardner by Dr. Matrix’s daughter, Iva, after having been out of touch for years.

A, B, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

If you struggle with that for a while, you’ll probably crack it as, “Long time no see.”

Names, Dr. Matrix says, exert a strong influence over one’s interests. For this point, he tells stories about all kinds of people. There’s J.J.C Smart, the smartest philosopher in Australia, and Kuan-han Sun, a Chinese physicist doing research on solar winds. Oh! Sex Education was quite the controversial book written by Mary Breasted. Anton Horner was the solo horn player with the Philadelphia Orchestra for twenty-eight years. L. Lines wrote a book called Solid Geometry.

Here’s one of my favorite word patterns; the traditional spelling rule is “i before e except after c, or when sounding as a, as in NEIGHBOR and WEIGH.” This rule is broken twice by ANCIENT SCIENCE. Then along came Albert Einstein, who broke many basic laws of ancient science. His last name also violates the rule twice.

If any of this interests you, and you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name from random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.


Winner: Tim Warren. Congrats! You’ll receive an email from me shortly… enjoy your new book!

Brave New World

Book Club — June 21, 2010

This week’s book is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:

A dystopian novel predicting the future under the extreme dehumanizing effects of scientific and mass-production “progress”.  And I must begin by saying that, as a work of literature (for me at least) it’s extremely hard to dissect! Like many great thinkers, far ahead of their time, Huxley novel received nearly universal criticism from his contemporary critics. Now, it is considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

632 years after Henry Ford first mass-produced the Model T, begins Huxley’s story. Stability of the State (called the World State in the novel) is maintained though biological engineering and psychological conditional. Citizens are not born, they’re “hatched” to fill specific societal roles. Everything and everyone is planned, controlled, and exploited as a form of State utility.

Here’s Mustapha Mond, the “Controller” of the Western European zone, describing the World State:

“In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. When there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended – there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren’t any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving anyone too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do.

Beyond the confines of the World State, exists reservations with populations of “savages” – those few whom still engage in love, child birth, and die of old age. At its core, Brave New World, is a tale of one Savage, named John, that is brought back into the World State and becomes deeply disillusioned. Both a satirical look and a blueprint of a possible future, we a made witness to a world run amuck with totalitarianism and scientific propaganda.

Take this passage, for example, where the Savage is speaking to a Controller:

“Isn’t there something in living dangerously?”
“There’s a great deal in it,” the Controller replied. “Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time.”
“What?” questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.
“It’s one of the conditions of perfect health. That’s why we’ve made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory.”
“V.P.S.?”
“Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”

“But I like the inconveniences.”

“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

I find Brave New World fascinating perhaps because Huxley is a such deeply pessimistic man and I am such the optimist. His morbid fixation with the economic realities of his time (1930s) and he deep rejection of the theories of J.M. Keynes makes for an incredibly thought provoking view of future societies. Especially for somebody like myself, who would be a contributor to his dim view of the future. But what exactly his view of the future is, after reading this book, I feel is quite ambiguous. Satire and political commentary are simply woven so tightly together that I struggle to unwind the difference. But that’s exactly why the book is so powerful and exiting to read!

If any of this interests you, and you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name from random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.


Winner: Mark McClellan. Congrats! You’ll receive an email from me shortly… enjoy your new book!

Ingenious Gadgets

Book Club — June 14, 2010

This week’s book, “Ingenious Gadgets” by Maurice Collins, is just pure and whimsical fun:

Fascinated by eccentric contraptions powered by anything other than electricity, Collins has been collecting “gadgets” for over 30 years. Most items span the time period starting from the Great Exhibition of 1851 to the Festival of Britain in 1951. Organized in categories with names like “The Working Day” to “The Stuff of Life” to “Body and Soul” and more, this book with inspire and provoke laughter – in equally heavy doses.

Here are three of my favorites:

1. Clockwork fly scarer
With a “wing” span of one meter (3ft), this clockwork propeller revolves at a very slow pace over the dining table to scare away flies. The large spring, when fully wound, has enough energy to keep revolving for 15 minutes!

2. Sight restorer
A late 19th century gadget that proclaims to increase your vision. All you have to do is apply the two cups against the eyes, press the central air puffer and the resulting massage would do the trick. The instructions also suggest that no excessive drinking or eating and plenty of sleep should occur at the same time as the treatment.

3. Bread cutter
This gadget, from the US Great Depression era of the 1930s, was created to help money go a bit further. Place an already thin slice of bread into this cutter and it will cut it in half again. Ingenious, albeit a tad depressing…

What’s the fundamental question of the items in his collection? Does it solve an everyday problem making a task simpler, quicker or easier. Collins is especially keen on gadgets that perform their function better than those sold in the 21st century that do the same thing. All the items in his collection are a testament to those creative minds that spend their time and money trying to solve everyday problems.

If any of this interests you, and you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name from random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.


Winner: Abdullah Tammour. Congrats! You’ll receive an email from me shortly… enjoy your new book!

Book Club: White

Book Club — June 8, 2010

This next book left a deep influence on my understanding and sense of creativity. It’s call “White”, by Kenya Hara:

Hara is a graphics designer, professor, and has been the Art Director of MUJI since 2001. Ironically, “White” has almost nothing to do with color. Not after the tangible, Hara’s thin, yet immensely thought provoking book, is an attempt to visualize the feelings common to all humans. It’s an aesthetic study of the unconscious. A journey from paper to communication to tea ceremonies and more. A search to find the essence of “white” through a concept he calls “emptiness”. He wants us to think of “white” as the embodiment of the aesthetic of “emptiness”. White is information emerging from chaos. He explains:

White as noncolor transforms into a symbol of nonbeing. Yet emptiness doesn’t mean “nothingness” or “energy-less”; rather, in many cases, it indicates a condition, or kizen, which will likely be filled with content in the future. On the basis of this assumption, the application of white is able to create a forceful energy for communication.

A creative mind, in short, does not see an empty bowl as valueless, but perceives it as existing in a transitional state, waiting for the content that will eventually fill it; and this creative perspective instills power in the emptiness. The deep relationship between kuhaku, or “emptiness,” and the color white is established through this communication process.

White (白) and emptiness (空) are closely intertwined, Hara argues. The representation of empty space  (空白) brings these two concepts together. There is emptiness in white and there is white in emptiness. Together, they symbolize simplicity and subtlety – absolutely fundamental concepts in Japanese aesthetics. They manifest in different forms, but emerge as the gravitative force towards completeness and perfection, that motivates the creative person to excel in activities such as writing, painting, music, and dance:

One condition of paper-based publishing is that ink cannot be erased once it’s printed… Its very irreversible nature means that we are emotionally moved when we achieve something on it… It is the possibility of (irrevocable) failure that lies behind all this creative energy. At the same time, the basis of the artistic mind is the overcoming of human error through strenuous practice and training. The moment before a performance of music or dance begins, for example, greatly resembles the purity of white paper; it is a state of tabula rasa for audience and performer, the perfect white tablet.

What a truly beautiful thought! But perhaps my favorite example is that of a Shinto Shrine. I shall leave that one unquoted for your own discovery.

Let me close with one final comment: I think of the “open” in “open source” in terms of the concepts of “white” and “emptiness”. This has let me to focus on making products that are open and simple. I believe only products that are open can grow as you grow. And only something simple can be used by everyone.

Development for our WikiReader began with the following idea; Give physical form to Wikipedia’s neutral point of view. Why focus on the neutral point of view? Because, I believe, it’s the source of Wikipedia’s own “emptiness”. Exposing this core reveals the limitless potential of Wikipedia to provoke our thoughts. I sincerely hope that bringing WikiReader around with you, wherever you go, will make the smaller moments in your day feel a bit more fresh. A bit more “white”.

If any of this interests you, and you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name from random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.


Winner: Tuna. Congrats! You’ll receive an email from me shortly… enjoy your new book!

Book Club: The Fountainhead

Book Club — June 1, 2010

Today, I’m going to start a book club with a bit of a twist. Once week I will give away one book. Most of the time the books will be used – which is, by the way, the only proper state for a book. They will span many different genres. Connected only by the fact that each has made a profound impact on my life. I want to share them with you.

The first book is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand:

This is a story of an individual’s (Howard Roark) journey through the work he loves — architecture — and the challenges it’s reveals to the very fabric of society. It is a tale dripping with the passion and strength of the human soul as it unknowingly confronts collectivism’s oppressive will. The novel’s many characters are elegantly complex. To say this is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and deeply inspiring books I’ve ever read, would not be an exaggeration. Three days after reading the final sentence, The Fountainhead is still all I can think about.

700+ pages thick, without a single misplaced word, Rand is a master story teller. Take, for example, a small passage of Roark explaining how he views his craft:

“Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape. Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose. A man doesn’t borrow pieces of his body. A building doesn’t borrow hunks of its soul. Its maker gives it the soul and every wall, window and stairway to express it.”

Integrity is the tightly woven theme in Rand’s novel. She defines it not through the main characters, but through Kent Lansing, a businessman, fighting for Roark to win his hotel commission. Lansing says:

“And what, incidentally, do you think integrity is? The ability not to pick a watch out of your neighbor’s pocket? No, it’s not as easy as that. If that were all, I’d say ninety-five percent of humanity were honest, upright men. Only, as you can see, they aren’t. Integrity is the ability to stand by an idea. That presupposes the ability to think. Thinking is something one doesn’t borrow or pawn.”

With considerable restraint, I’ll resist quoting my favorite part of the novel — the last trial. Spoiling such an eloquent climax would be far too unjust. So if you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name from random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.


Winner: Veerakesari. Congrats! You’ll receive an email from me shortly… enjoy your new book!

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