Monthly Archives: March 2009

Dave’s FAQ: Why You Should Introduce Yourself to the Person Sitting Next to You

Q: If I find myself sitting next to someone I have never met, be it on an airplane or waiting in line or at a concert, should I introduce myself to that person?

A: Yes.

Here are some examples:

A few days ago a member of my temple who is an Israeli said she had just flown in from Tel Aviv, and that the man sitting next to her was one of Israel’s most famous musicians.

Just this morning I introduced myself to a woman standing near me at a local Starbucks, and learned that her grandfather was the lyricist of the song “Moonlight Serenade.”

I also just wrote a post about a fellow congregant who met Howard Schulz, CEO of Starbucks, on a plane flight.

Fran Allen once told me that IBM’s greatest security risk was IBM Fellow Marty Hopkins. He would always introduce himself to the person in the next seat on a plane, or if that person were busy he would look for a fellow IBMer on the plane. In either event, he would then begin relating IBM’s deepest, darkest secrets, shouting them out if he saw an IBMer sitting several seats away.

My most memorable such encounter came during a trans-Atlantic flight in the 1970’s when my wife and I were enroute to Moscow to attend a conference on SETL sponsored by our National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences,. (Russian: Росси́йская акаде́мия нау́к, Rossi’iskaya akade’miya nau’k, shortened to PAH, RAN.)

I introduced myself to the man sitting next to me.

I can’t recall his name as I write this, though I do recall that:

  • He was from Massachusetts;
  • He had some other physical limitation, though perhaps he just said he had a bad back and thus flying was quite uncomfortable;
  • He was a member of the US Delegation to the United Nations, where he had a senior position;
  • He had served in the US House of Representatives;
  • He was enroute to a conference/meeting about the “Law of the Sea”;
  • He was a colleague of Eliot Richardson

I just did a search using Google and expect that his name can be found in the following document: oreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, Volume E-14, Part 1, Documents on the United Nations, 1973-1976.

He was a wonderfu, wonderful man, and I recall reading with great regret his obituary a few years later.

?? – May His Memory Be a Blessing.

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  • The World is Flat and Small: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz

    A few years back a member of my temple said that he once been on a plane and had spoken with the man sitting next to him.

    The man said that his name was Howard Schultz, that he was from Seattle, and that he was the CEO of a company called Starbucks.

    Half-cafe or Half-and-Half?

    As noted in a previous post, my coffee of choice is “half-cafe,” meaning equal amounts of regular and decaffinated coffee. “Half-cafe” is pronounced “Half Caff.” [1]

    Last week, I was another cafe and placed my usual order, but I made the mistake of ordering a “half and half.”

    I expect you can guess what I got — the lightest cup of coffee I have ever seen, for it was all “half and half” with not a drop of coffee.

    This is a reminder that you should always be precise when you ask someone for something.

    One of the clearest writers I have ever read was Ulysses S. Grant. His orders to his commanders were models of exquisite precision. Precision was essential at a time when orders could only be relayed by voice or writing. No situation demanded more precision than in the midst of battle, when all involved all waging war in a chaotic situation under great stress.

    For example, here is an order given during the Chattanooga Campaign:

    CHATTANOOGA, November 24, 1863.

    General Sherman carried Missionary Ridge as far as the tunnel with only slight skirmishing. His right now rests at the tunnel and on top of the hill, his left at Chickamauga Creek. I have instructed General Sherman to advance as soon as it is light in the morning, and your attack, which will be simultaneous, will be in cooperation. Your command will either carry the rifle-pits and ridge directly in front of them, or move to the left, as the presence of the enemy may require. If Hooker’s position on the mountain [cannot be maintained] with a small force, and it is found impracticable to carry the top from where he is, it would be advisable for him to move up the valley with all the force he can spare, and ascend by the first practicable road.
    U. S. GRANT,


    1. Unsure of the correct spelling, I did a search on “half-caff” and “half-cafe” on Google to find the most commonly used name.

    The World is Flat and Small: Glenn Miller and Mitchell Parrish

    I have at hand a cup of half-calf courtesy of the Starbucks in Mt. Kisco.

    As I was waiting in line to order the half-calf, I heard some music being played by the Glenn Miller Band.

    I mentioned to the woman next to me that Glenn Miller was my mother’s favorite musician.

    She said that her grandfather was a lyricist, and that he wrote a song with Glenn Miller!

    The Lyricist? Mitchell Parish.

    The Song? Moonlight Serenade: [1]

    Glenn Miller and Mitchell Parrish

    I stand at your gate and the song that I sing is of moonlight.
    I stand and I wait for the touch of your hand in the June night.
    The roses are sighing a Moonlight Serenade.

    The stars are aglow and tonight how their light sets me dreaming.
    My love, do you know that your eyes are like stars brightly beaming?
    I bring you and sing you a Moonlight Serenade.

    Let us stray till break of day
    in love’s valley of dreams.
    Just you and I, a summer sky,
    a heavenly breeze kissing the trees.

    So don’t let me wait, come to me tenderly in the June night.
    I stand at your gate and I sing you a song in the moonlight,
    a love song, my darling, a Moonlight Serenade.


    1. From the Wikipedia article:

    After “Moonlight Serenade”, originally released solely as an instrumental, became a smash hit in 1939, Mitchell Parish wrote new lyrics for the music under that title.

    Jack Schwartz (L), Dave Shields, c. 1975

    The only known photo of me with Jack Schwartz.

    I was going to call this post “Soldering On with Jack,” but on closer inspection I see he is holding a wire-wrapping tool.

    I’ve kept a copy in the top drawer of my desk for decades.

    Jack *always* wore a sweater, just as R. P. Feynman always wore a long-sleeved white shirt.

    Jack Schwartz on String Theory

    Though I forget the exact occasion, I do recall once working with Jack when he to spend some time untangling a rat’s nest of wires.

    After straigtening them out, he conjectured that there must be a theorem in this, but that it would be very hard to prove:

    A Conjecture by Jack Schwartz:

    If you put some strings, ropes, or wires on a table, then no matter how carefully you set them down, they will soon became entangled, as though an unseen agent had been at work.

    I would have then remarked on Thomas Edison, if I had then known what I learned a few years later while browsing through the supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary:

    Usage of the term “bug” to describe inexplicable defects has been a part of engineering jargon for many decades and predates computers and computer software; it may have originally been used in hardware engineering to describe mechanical malfunctions. For instance, Thomas Edison wrote the following words in a letter to an associate in 1878:“

    It has been just so in all of my inventions. The first step is an intuition, and comes with a burst, then difficulties arise — this thing gives out and [it is] then that ‘Bugs’ — as such little faults and difficulties are called — show themselves and months of intense watching, study and labor are requisite before commercial success or failure is certainly reached.

    The conjecture remains to be proved. It is a knotty problem.

    The World is Flat and Small: Jack Schwartz on Six Degrees of Separation

    During a phone call with Peter Capek earlier today I mentioned the incidents that led to my starting this series of posts on the theme, “The World is Small and Flat.”

    Peter agreed, and we then spoke of Six degrees of separation.

    I then told Peter about a conversation I had with Jack Schwartz, the eminent mathematician and computer scientist who died earlier this month at the age of79. He was a professor at NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences (CIMS).

    Sometime before President Nixon resigned from office, Jack and I were having lunch in a small restaurant in Greenwich Village when he told me of another occassion when Professor Peter Lax of CIMS was having lunch in an equally cheap and obscure restaurant. [1]

    The phone rang and Peter was told that the White House was on the line, and wanted to speak with him.

    Jack then commented that the White House had an incredibly efficient group of telephone operators. [2]

    We then on to discuss how any two people could exchange a letter, and how many “hops” it would take to do so.

    The problem was to give each person just the name of the other, their country of residence, and their profession or some other quality about them.

    Each would then write a letter to the other, and each would try to get the letter to the president or prime minister of the other’s country with the fewest hops.

    Thus there would be a race to the top, in which each would try to get the letter to the head of their country in the minimal number of forwardings, or hops.

    Once the letters reached the leaders then one leader could forward the letter to the other, who would then forward it back down the chain.

    For example, if I were told to exchage a letter with a Russian computer scientist, then I would give the letter to Jack, he would give it to Peter, and Peter would send it on to the White House.

    The Russian computer scientist would have as their goal to reach Academician Andrei Petrovich, who would then forward it to the Kremlin. Just a few hops would be needed.

    In this particular case, even fewer hops would be needed since I had visited Ershov in Novosibirsk, Siberia, in November 1973.

    Jack also mentioned that he had spent some time in Turkey around 1960. He said that he had learned that a small number of people ran the country, and that he had met many of them.

    Jack then conjectured that seven hops would usually suffice, and that just six would often be enough.


    1. I will write of my many “Lunches with Jack” when time permits.

    2. CNN’s Anderson Cooper was one of the speakers at my daughter Jen’s graduation ceremony at Yale in 2006. He said that he had recently gotten a request that he make a donation to Yale while he was on assignment in some remote corner of the world.

    He then went on to say that if President Bush really wanted to track down Osama bin Laden, then all he had to do would be to ask that Yale should award bin Laden an honorary degree. Copper said there would be an uproar, but the objections would die down within days, because the Yale Alumni Fund would soon locate Mr. bin Laden, and the rockets that would kill him would arrive within a few minutes after the letter reached his hands.

    The World is Flat and Small: John Cocke and Rabbi Michael Shields

    I had a wonderful phone call earlier today with Peter Capek, a friend and colleague for over forty years, both at CIMS and IBM.

    During the call I learned of an amazing coincidence, proof yet again that the world is much smaller than most of us think.

    Peter said he heard me mention, or write in an email, the phrase “Lake Norman.”

    I said that would have been because my son Michael is Rabbi of the Lake Norman Jewish Congregation. I mentioned that Lake Norman is about twenty miles north of Charlotte, North Carolina, and was built by a power company in the 1920’s.

    Peter then spoke of John Cocke, the legendary computer scientist, one of the five smartest people I have ever met.

    I knew that John came from North Carolina and that he came from a very wealthy family.

    Peter confirmed this. Moreover John’s father was Norman Cocke, and the lake is named after John’s father, Norman Cocke!

    It’s a small world indeed.

    My son is the Rabbi of a congregation that takes its name from a lengendary figure in the history of computer science.

    I also take this as further proof that fewer gifts are more precious than The Gift of a Name.

    Mazel Tov!

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