Michal Linial: No Witches in Portugal

It gives me great pride to present:

 

Michal Linial:  March 2012

No witches in Portugal

Landing in LISBOA, Portugal last night. I need to get to my hotel in Cascais. The nice lady in the tourist information ordered a taxi and happily said: “Do not worry, our drivers speak excellent English.

Five minutes later my driver arrived, a huge person, nicely dressed with a fancy nice black car. “To Cascais, What is the price” I asked in a fluent English.  Well, it depends he replied…

My huge driver, was very fluent in English as promised… Then he starts… Three years ago I had a ski accident, at that time I was much heavier… I was wondering how such information might be relevant to our trip… My driver continues: “From the time of the accident my leg is not the same. This is why I bought this car with a “gear” instead of an automatic transmission, so I can practice my left leg. Most of time I can move it, but I still do not feel it when it is cold”… “Is it cold today?” I asked. No, today it is fine. Yesterday it was cold.

How long is it to Cascais? I was asking. My driver relied honestly: “it depends on the road”… Oh, I said… waiting for an explanation. It took a minute for him to explain: “You know, I always drive by my feelings. Sometime, I have a feeling that it is not good to take the freeway. Today I have this feeling. “OK, it is best that you listen to your feelings”, I relied quietly. He continues: “You know, there are no witches in Portugal, but it is better to listen to them”. Of course, I said.

You know he continue, my brother in law who was a driver in our taxi company had a bad feeling 4 months ago when he took the small road instead of the highway, and indeed he died. A truck crushed him. But the passenger, a British person that was in the car was not hurt. The passenger had his seat belt fasten, like you… Do you want me to show you where he died?, it is on the way to the hotel, he insisted. Sure I replied. If it is on the way, and you feels that we should not take the highway, let’s go on the other road…

We drove on a neglected road. It was not too cold… My huge driver mentioned me the spot where his brother in law died…  We are now 10 min from the hotel he updated me. But I missed the entrance. You know, he continued, once I drove with my mother, I missed the entrance to the road. Then, I knew that I should not get into this road. Do you mind that I will drop you here? it is no more than 200 meters to your hotel. I happily paid the 60 Euro, another tip for 10 Euro for the good witch that was with us.  

While I was walking with my luggage on the hill to the hotel, a taxi was stopping behind me. It was my big driver again… He said: I forgot to give you my card. Please call me when you want to go back to the airport. it will be only 30 Euro. We can take the highway. I am still in Portugal for another 2 days. I will call him if it will not be too cold.

The Möbius Undershirt

“Look at this brand new undershirt,” my wife said. “I am shaking it and shaking it but still I have this twist.  Can you see what to do?” 

I gave the undershirt a good shake. And another one. And one more. And then it struck me. It was a Möbius undershirt!

What a rare case in which mathematics can come to the rescue in domestic matters

“There is no way in the world this twist can be undone,” I said. “This is a mathematical fact! It is a Möbius undershirt!” My wife listened carefully to my firm statement.

I started to day-dream about the bright future of this rare Möbius undershirt: I will show her to my colleagues!, I will display her in public lectures, and even let some selected graduate students hold her. However, Continue reading

School Bus to Ramle

Jer2Ramle

We had just come back to Israel from Palo Alto after spending a sabbatical year there and my child was starting school. I walked down with him to wait for the school bus. To my great surprise it was a yellow school bus just like in the US. The school bus driver checked the name and said “Yes, we are going to Ramle, get on”. “To Ramle?” I screamed “Why Ramle?”. Ramle is a small town 50 kilometers from Jerusalem. I walked up quickly and asked my wife “Ramle? why Ramle?” My wife listened carefully and replied: “Do you think it is a bad idea to send the child to Ramle?” “Of course!” I said. “It is too late now”, said my wife, “You shoule have thought about it while we were still in the US.” Continue reading

The Intermediate Value Theorem Applied to Football

My idea (in my teenage years) of how to become a professional basketball player was a bit desperate. To cover for my height and my athletic (dis)abilities, I would simply practice how to shoot perfectly from every corner of the court. I would not have to run or jump. My team could pass the ball to me at the right moment and I would shoot. (I was a little worried that once I mastered this ability they would change the rules of the game.)

But this idea did not work. As much as I practiced, I could not shoot perfectly from all corners of the court, and not even from the usual places. In fact, my shooting was below average (although not as much below average as my other basketball skills.)

Next came my idea how to become a professional football (soccer) player. This idea was based on mathematics, an area where I had some advantage over other ambitious sports people; more precisely, my idea was based on the intermediate value theorem. (We had a post about this theorem.)

The idea is this: If you put a football on your head and start running the ball will fall from behind. But if you put the ball on your forehead and start running the ball will fall in front of you. By the intermediate value theorem, there must be a point, in between, such that if you run with the ball at this point, the ball will not fall at all. In fact you can find such a point for every way you would like to run. And you can even learn to adjust it if you change your route!  The plan was now simple. At the right moment I would get the ball from my team, put it on the right point on my forehead  start running and slalom my way towards the goal. (I was a little worried that once I mastered this ability they would  change the rules of the game.) I practiced it for several weeks, Continue reading

Coffee, Cigarettes, and Aggression

 

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Upgrade to hell

Getting an upgrade to business class on a flight to Amsterdam en route to NYC seemed splendid. But I soon discovered that I was upgraded to one of the two rows for business smokers.

The person on my left

The person to my left smoked Camel cigarettes. He had a pack of cigarettes on his table and he smoked a cigarette every 20 minutes. It was disturbing and I considered asking him not to smoke. But this was his right! He bought a business class ticket to the smoking section. I was just an upgrade, but even as a full-fledged businessman I would not have had the right to ask him not to smoke. 

An idea

I had another idea. When breakfast was served I had a cup of coffee on my tray, and the pack of Camel cigarettes was on my neighbors’s tray bordering mine. If I were to accidentally spill all my coffee on his pack, this may take the cigarettes out of action!

It was not an easy decision. Will it work? Is it morally justified?  Continue reading

Michal Linial: Vive La Technology

     
    Nebi Samuel
     
    It was a long night after crossing the Atlantic. I got to the airport and indeed the big signs of ‘Welcome’ and “TAAM SHEL BAIT” (taste of home) had a special appeal. It was 3:30 in the morning when I took the Taxi. The driver was very talkative and wanted to know where I am coming from, are the stories that he had heard on America true. Specifically he wanted to know if I went to the Twins to see the city from the tallest buildings etc, etc.
    I replied shortly: “Yes, New York is as everybody said”. For the Twins, I replied: “No, there is no elevator there anymore”… I tried to be polite but at the same time to keep our touristy discussion to a minimum.  The Taxi driver turned out to be quite sensitive to my poor situation and told me very proudly: “Please tell me where, and I will take you, I have a new GPS, just tell me the address and the GPS will show me the way”. Indeed, I shared with him the importance of the GPS technology and even told him that I may soon buy one for my own car. My address is Nave Sha’anan 18, I told him, and 2 minutes later, I was asleep, this time very confident that in 45 min I am at home and to my bed. The next thing I know is Continue reading

1:0 to Italy: Michal Linial

Coming back from Hinxton, the most exciting genome center in the world and the most boring place after 5pm… At 5:30, a shuttle bus takes all the ‘workers’ to the big city – to Cambridge. The shuttle bus dropped us in the middle of town and without noticing, I remained alone. I quickly looked around; actually, there was no one on the street… OK I decided, the evening is not lost yet, I will go to London…
 
I waited 5 minutes and a Taxi stopped next to me. To the train station” I said. My taxi driver started the ride and then slowed down, stopped for a minute next to an open bar looked extremely worried and after 2 minutes speeded up again. We moved another 100 meters and again, he slows down and stop for 2 minutes next to a TV screen in the next open bar. He looks bothered and mumbled to himself, I hate him, Continue reading

Academic Degrees and Sex

“251 Mercer street” I said, “it is in the village,” “I know that” said the driver “are you going to NYU?” “Yes” I said. I was going to give a lecture at Ricky and Eli’s Tuesday evening’s Geometry Seminar and came earlier to have a chance to chat with the guys. “Let me tell you something” the driver said, “I did not finish elementary school, I left in the 6th grade and started working, and everyday I come home and have sex. My friends who finished elementary school have sex 2-3 times a week, tops. And , you know,” continued the driver “those who went on to finish high school, they have sex maybe once a week, no more.” “I see,” I said. Continue reading

Cosmonaut: Michal Linial

  

Ladies and gentelmen, I am very happy to present to you:

Being a Cosmonaut

A story by Michal Linial

I am back from the airport… not in the best mood for a long discussion but quite open to hear refreshing political statements. 50 minutes taxi ride that is all what it takes… This time, the communication took its own turns… I start with my regular question: “What is new this week”. This time, my Russian Taxi driver ignored my question and asked back: “How many planets are there?” I told him that to the best of my knowledge there are 9 planets that orbit around the sun. Really, he shouted: “my wife tells me there are 8 and she tells me she is a cosmonaut” and he continues, she knows nothing! I said that there might be some debate, so 8 is a good number and probably I got confused. My Taxi driver got really mad now: “You are not a cosmonaut and you know better”.
Two minutes later, he asks me again “how old is the earth”. This time I was a bit less decisive and told my taxi driver that I am not sure, but the accepted number is 4-5 billion years. To make sure this time there will be no conflicts with his marriage, I immediately added, the universe is much older, also, many people believe that the earth is much younger. My taxi driver now is very excited and answers me without hesitation: “You see, I can not even ask my wife this question, she says she is a cosmonaut, but I am sure that if I ask her, she will not know”… Continue reading

Tel-Aviv’s “Jerusalem Beach”

 

Friday’s evening at the beach

Late Friday afternoon, and the “Jerusalem beach” in Tel Aviv is still quite crowded with young and old people, families and singles, tourists, foreign workers and Israelis. The sea is calm and beautiful and the Tel Aviv shore landscape of people and buildings is restless and captivating. A young Philippine man with a baby on his shoulders ends a long cell phone conversation spoken in a strange language, with the familiar Hebrew ending “yalla bye“. A  father of a Russian speaking family takes pictures of his family with his cell phone, as does the father of an Arabic speaking family on our other side; in fact people all over the place are taking  pictures of each other with their cell phone cameras. What do they do with all these pictures? Where do they store them?

On our other side, another groups of foreign workes, six young women and two men. Two try to play beach paddle ball (matkot), a national Israeli beach game. They also take cell phone pictures, and then one plays the guitar and they all sing, “Jesus is our savior”, and “Jesus is our Shephard”, and even one song in Hebrew.

The sunset is breathtaking. A long waiting and then when the time comes the big orange sun disappears in a matter of seconds. Many people take sunset pictures with their cell phones.

On the way back we see three nuns with black outfits and one priest. They have serious expressions. They are Greek Orthodox, I think. The priest spins his hat in the air and tries to catch the hat with his head.     

  

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Updates

I have uploaded to the archive a paper on noisy quantum computation, which is a revision and an extension of my paper from 2006. A paper of Ehud Friedgut, Noam Nisan and myself about manipulations in voting rules was accepted to FOCS08. This is my 4th FOCS/STOC paper. (Larry Stockmeyer was a coauthor in one of my papers.)  I am planning to blog on issues around these two papers sometime in the future. (Meanwhile, there is an interesting post and discussion on quantum computers skepticism on Scott Aaronson’s blog.) Remember A. Nilli? We danced in her wedding on Sunday! Congratulations Nilli and John! As this post is launched I am at a high-dimensional phenomena conference in Sevillia. I have updated (or will soon update) the post about Han’s formula and provided more details. I also added a link to an interesting discussion on “Secret Blogging Seminar” related to my post “Is mathematics a Science”.

Continue reading