Ten Years in America

According to my passport, as of August 5th, I have lived in America for 10 years. Somehow, no profound thoughts occur to me. When I try to look back, no grand ethnographic synthesis or thick description suggests itself. Perhaps all the profound observations about America have already been made by Alexis de Tocqueville and the The Simpsons.

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The Fifty-Foot Rule Reconsidered

I have heard cited several times the so-called fifty foot law of sociology, which says that most collaborations happen among people who work less than fifty feet apart (the idea is generally credited to Tom Allen of MIT; the primary reference seems to be his monograph, Managing the Flow of Technology, MIT Press, 1977, which I admit I haven’t actually read). Let’s generalize and assert that most relationship interactions happen among people who live/work 50 feet apart, plus or minus an order of magnitude, say 5-500 feet. This being a probabilistic, phenomenological law, it should be interesting to mull how it is changing in Tom Friedman’s flattening world, and to what extent lives are getting transformed in terms of changes to this law.

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Harry Potter and the Cuaron Slam

Occasionally engineering provides me with startling perspectives on art. This happened for me with the third book in the Harry Potter series, the Prisoner of Azkaban, generally acknowledged to be the most accomplished of the series. Critics make a compelling case that among the movies too, Alfonso Cuaron’s treatment of this book has been the best of the lot so far, and better than even the book itself. So let me offer you a perspective on why the third book and movie are great, based on an analogy to a problem in robotics.

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Harry Potter and the Leaky Genre

In my first article in this Harry Potter series, I took a serious look at the foundations of the idea of magic in general, and its manifestation in the Potter universe in particular. In this second part, I want to ferret out that elusive aspect of the Potter series that makes it a genre-transcending hit. What explains its broad appeal beyond the fantasy genre? My answer is that the Potter universe is fantasy, but it is not genuine escapist fantasy. That is why people who have never heard of Robert Jordan still read J. K. Rowling. In fact, to find even a remotely similar premise in a major narrative, we have to go all the way back to Lewis Carroll. Not to Alice in Wonderland, but to his lesser known masterpiece, Sylvie and Bruno.

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The Third Dimension is Not Simple

Ever since Einstein got us thinking about the fourth dimension and string theorists got us worried about ten and eleven dimensions, we have not really given serious thought to the mundane old third dimension. Several things, ranging from the emerging three-dimensional Internet over at Second Life, to the delightful modern religion of Parkour and the Nintendo Wii controller, have made me think seriously about the third dimension in recent weeks. It isn’t just badly-developed characters in movies and books that are two dimensional — you and I are as well, in fundamental ways.

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Harry Potter and the Concept of Magic

The upcoming end of the Harry Potter series demands piggyback attention, especially from a new blog like mine. Since I have been talking lately about concepts and definitions using toy examples from geometry, I thought I’d take on a more complex concept: magic. In this first of a series of posts aimed squarely at piggybacking the Potter phenomenon, I’ll attempt a definition of the concept of magic that explains why we delight in imagined realities that depend on it.

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