Sunday, January 25, 2015

Rob's 60th

Rob Calderbank is a mathematician of great caliber in coding and information theory, including its algebraic aspects. He is the winner of the Shannon award and the Hamming medal. Rob's 60th birthday celebration will be in La Jolla this weekend. He was a terrific mentor to me at AT&T in years long behind us, and I am looking forward to being at the celebration!


Monday, January 19, 2015

Again, On Haruki

I am a schoolteacher in Ashiya (Hyogo Prefecture). Each year, while the students stay the same, I age towards something, maybe my end, who knows.

I teach the English I know, and mostly avoid the new.  This year, as usual, I discussed the Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe and asked the  students to write something inspired by it. Tell-Tale Heart is the story of the narrator who decides to murder the Old Man, and slowly, surreptitiously puts his head inside the Old Man's bedroom in preparation:  "Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly --very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man's sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this, And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously --cautiously (for the hinges creaked) --I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye." Thus begins the tale that ends in a scream of "tear up the planks! here, here! --It is the beating of his hideous heart!".  The students came up with the usual -- one person narrative, unreliable protagonist's plan for a murder -- and the usual unusual -- a reverse perspective of the Old Man sitting absolutely still in darkness anticipating the single thin ray of lantern. I then did what I have done each year since early 60's, read to the class a few selected student pieces from my past. When I read "Elevator, Silence" by my student Haruki, the class excitedly told me that Haruki had just published that story.

Well, "Elevator, Silence" is a short story about a man riding an elevator:  he cant tell if it is still or moving, it has no control panel, it seems hermetically sealed, his coughing and whistling produce no sound,  altogether a scary predicament. He whiles away the time by counting the change in his pocket: "I always come prepared with pockets full of loose change. In my right pocket I keep one-hundred and five-hundred yen coins, in my left fifties and tens. One-yen and five-yen coins I carry in a back pocket, but as a  rule these dont enter into the count". The story ends with terror, "The only possibility was that they had intentionally placed me in this particular situation. They wanted the elevator's motions to be opaque to me. They wanted the elevator to move so slow that I wouldnt be able to tell if it is going up or down."

Now it is alright as a student piece, but  I dont know how to make that into a published story. Maybe Haruki added more to it, introduced a chubby woman or unicorn or may be a plot about End of the World. He didnt strike me as an imaginative boy, but people grow up, they start operating bars or writing novels. I havent read Haruki's story yet, but I am not sure modern writing has anything to teach these children. I dont let decades intrude my classroom.