Category Archives: Technology

The Found Art of Thank-You Notes



Cristiano Magni, a New York fashion publicist, with a collection of handwritten notes he has received over the years. CreditDustin Aksland for The New York Times

When Jimmy Fallon sits down to write his weekly thank-you notes on “The Tonight Show,” he is both ribbing and breathing life into a custom many felt was headed the way of the dodo. “Thank you, cotton candy,” Mr. Fallon scribbles on a correspondence card, “for making my grandmother’s hair look delicious.” Thank you, “bowling, for giving me an excuse to drink with somebody else’s shoes on.”

“Thank you, Chris Christie,” he writes, “for going back for seconds.”

Mr. Fallon’s routine is a hoot, of course, a joke that points up the truth that the boring stuff your parents made you do never actually goes out of fashion and that also inadvertently supports recent scientific findings linking gratitude to increased optimism, stress reduction and a better night’s sleep. Few who sit down to write a bread-and-butter note are likely to be aware that by doing so they are not only on trend but also on their way to becoming happier and more sociable people. Apparently, what Emily Post termed good manners (science prefers “gratitude intervention”) has all kinds of unexpected benefits. And as it happens, the handwritten gratitude intervention seems to be experiencing a moment of vogue.


Carroll Irene Gelderman, 20, a Columbia University student from New Orleans, ordered stationery after she was named 2014 Queen of Carnival to write thank-you notes for gifts and well-wishes. CreditDustin Aksland for The New York Times

The personal and professional thank-you notes Cristiano Magni, a New York fashion publicist, sends routinely are written on weighty ecru Connor correspondence cards adorned with a rhinoceros embossed in gold. “It is so important, in a digital world, to have the dignity to sit down and write something in your own hand,” Mr. Magni said one recent afternoon in a garment district showroom, where a collection of thank-you notes sent by editors and stylists was spread across his desk.

Fashion was a business notoriously late to adapt to digital technology, and it remains one in which such seemingly anachronistic customs as the handwritten note hang on stubbornly. Anna Wintour is a stickler for them. So, to judge by Mr. Magni’s collection, are editors at Lucky, Vanity Fair, Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar.

“It not only strengthens the bonds between people, in your personal life and in business,” he said of the custom, “it also rings an emotional chord.”

While researchers leave open the matter of which format is best for rendering thanks for small favors, courtesies, presents or a tuna casserole supper, there is a growing sense that the old, reliable handwritten note is making a comeback — and not just as a prop on “Tonight.”

For Martin Nowak, director of Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, thanking is a form of cooperative reciprocity with roots in primate behavior. For Paula Madden, a real estate developer in Portland, Ore., “Good manners are the basis of civilization.”

This truth is not, alas, universally acknowledged, added Ms. Madden, who manages a portfolio of family-owned properties and also oversees Portland’s Friday Evening Dancing Class for children, a social institution now in its 92nd year. “As you grow older, it becomes more important when someone recognizes the effort you have made on their behalf and reciprocates in the form of a written acknowledgment,” she said.

A text message just doesn’t cut it, Ms. Madden said, for the simple reason that conveying emotion in digital formats is a lost cause. Somehow thickets of exclamation points, ALL CAPS shouts, loaded acronyms and chirpy emoticons cannot approach the freight of feeling conveyed on a scrap of paper with words scratched on it by hand. Why?

“There are a lot of elements,” William Miller, proprietor of the Printery in Oyster Bay, N.Y., said recently. For decades, the Printery has supplied custom writing paper to North Shore swells along with clients as discriminating as Ralph Lauren and Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair. “Engraved stationery has a sculptural quality, shadow lines, artful arrangement of colors,” Mr. Miller said. Despite the incursions of electronic media, he added, “the handwritten note is very much alive and well.”

Mr. Carter writes his on correspondence cards whose weight and texture are selected for how ink flows across them from the fountain pens he prefers. “Graydon is really particular,” Mr. Miller said. “As with Graydon, a lot of people use a correspondence card to say thank you in business, but in a way that has a social affectation. They want to re-emphasize the personal relationship.”

What they want, said Liz Quinn, the owner of Stationer on Sunrise in Palm Beach, Fla., is to draw a distinction between the tossed-off, compressed nature of electronic messages and a form of ritualized communication that gives material evidence “that the person really did appreciate something.”


Jimmy Fallon writing his weekly thank-you notes on “The Tonight Show.”CreditNathaniel Chadwick, via NBC

Text and email “don’t mean anything anymore,” Ms. Quinn said, adding with a laugh that her own smartphone, of course, accounted for 90 percent of her correspondence. Make that 100 percent in the case of most millennials and aughties.

“It’s definitely important to show your gratitude, because not everything is going to be given to you,” Brooke Egerton-Warburton, a seventh grader on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, said recently. “But gratitude comes in different forms.”

At that, Ms. Egerton-Warburton’s twin sister chimed in with a litany of alternatives. “It’s, like, ‘This is my phone, this is my email, this is my Instagram, this is my Twitter,’ ” Avery Egerton-Warburton said. “If you want to say thank you, just send me a text.”

In 1960s Baltimore, when Catherine Kitz was growing up, stationery was an essential part of a social wardrobe. “Growing up in a black family, that was something we were raised to do, to send a thank-you note,” Ms. Kitz, a museum administrator in Oakland, Calif., said. “I saw people of all economic backgrounds and races sending them, and now I see people of all economic and racial backgrounds not sending them.”

Despite her best efforts to instill in her stepgrandchildren the importance of forging bonds of trust and dependence through ritualized thanksgiving, the handwritten thank-you note, Ms. Kitz noted, may be a generational lost cause. “After a while I stopped trying,” she said. “I’m still I’m hoping they’ll figure it out at some point — in school, in college, when they get their first job.”

In all likelihood, they will. “Ink on paper has been challenged on many fronts,” said Patti Stracher, director of the National Stationery Show, expected to draw 800 exhibitors and 12,000 attendees to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in May. “Thank-you notes, however, are one of the areas that a poor economy or a social culture shift has little impact on.”

Heather Wiese, owner of Bell’Invito, a luxury stationer in Dallas, said, “If you want to stand out, to be more polished, probably the easiest thing you can do is write that thank-you note.” She added: “Social media, texting and email are all completely relevant. But if after I’ve put my effort forward to interview a potential employee what I get is an email that looks exactly like 200 others, I may miss it.”

Where messages in an inbox look little different from spam, a tidy square in a mailbox crammed with bills commands attention. So does the vision of that other anachronism: penmanship.“If you are entertained by anyone in their home, that is such an honor it should be followed up by a note of thanks,” said Kathryn Urban, a community volunteer in San Francisco. “Sometimes there are kind acts people have done. Sometimes in a note you can express something difficult to say in person,” or else in an email or text. And sometimes you want to share the tactile, visual and olfactory pleasure provided by a thank-you card, whether a blind embossed engraved one or a Hallmark card bought at CVS.

One of the first things Carroll Irene Gelderman, a Columbia University student from New Orleans, did when she was named the 2014 Queen of Carnival was to order new stationery. As custom dictates, Mardi Gras queens are typically showered with tribute by their courts, and Ms. Gelderman was no different. Before Fat Tuesday rolled round, she had already received over 600 individual gifts.

The pearl white cards Ms. Gelderman chose for her thank-you notes are engraved in dove gray ink by Arzberger and bear her name engraved in Roman lettering at the top. The envelopes were lined with gray-and-white patterned paper, and a custom shade of ink slightly darker than the paper was ordered from Iroshizuku to fill her fountain pen.

“Like a lot of people in my generation, I might think, ‘Oh, just send them a text,’ ” said Ms. Gelderman, who is 20. “But I actually enjoyed writing the notes because in the process of opening a note, feeling the paper, seeing the imperfection of the writing, reading the message in another person’s voice, you actually feel like you have a piece of that person in your hand.”

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“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”  – Teilhard de Chardin

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Hydrangea flowers

Hydrangea flowers

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Hope for the math challenged.

April 6, 2013
Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math

E.O. Wilson shares a secret: Discoveries emerge from ideas, not number-crunching


For many young people who aspire to be scientists, the great bugbear is mathematics. Without advanced math, how can you do serious work in the sciences? Well, I have a professional secret to share: Many of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate.

[image]Vahram MuradyanMany of the most successful scientists in the world today are mathematically no more than semiliterate.

During my decades of teaching biology at Harvard, I watched sadly as bright undergraduates turned away from the possibility of a scientific career, fearing that, without strong math skills, they would fail. This mistaken assumption has deprived science of an immeasurable amount of sorely needed talent. It has created a hemorrhage of brain power we need to stanch.

I speak as an authority on this subject because I myself am an extreme case. Having spent my precollege years in relatively poor Southern schools, I didn’t take algebra until my freshman year at the University of Alabama. I finally got around to calculus as a 32-year-old tenured professor at Harvard, where I sat uncomfortably in classes with undergraduate students only a bit more than half my age. A couple of them were students in a course on evolutionary biology I was teaching. I swallowed my pride and learned calculus.

I was never more than a C student while catching up, but I was reassured by the discovery that superior mathematical ability is similar to fluency in foreign languages. I might have become fluent with more effort and sessions talking with the natives, but being swept up with field and laboratory research, I advanced only by a small amount.

Fortunately, exceptional mathematical fluency is required in only a few disciplines, such as particle physics, astrophysics and information theory. Far more important throughout the rest of science is the ability to form concepts, during which the researcher conjures images and processes by intuition.

Everyone sometimes daydreams like a scientist. Ramped up and disciplined, fantasies are the fountainhead of all creative thinking. Newton dreamed, Darwin dreamed, you dream. The images evoked are at first vague. They may shift in form and fade in and out. They grow a bit firmer when sketched as diagrams on pads of paper, and they take on life as real examples are sought and found.

Pioneers in science only rarely make discoveries by extracting ideas from pure mathematics. Most of the stereotypical photographs of scientists studying rows of equations on a blackboard are instructors explaining discoveries already made. Real progress comes in the field writing notes, at the office amid a litter of doodled paper, in the hallway struggling to explain something to a friend, or eating lunch alone. Eureka moments require hard work. And focus.

Ideas in science emerge most readily when some part of the world is studied for its own sake. They follow from thorough, well-organized knowledge of all that is known or can be imagined of real entities and processes within that fragment of existence. When something new is encountered, the follow-up steps usually require mathematical and statistical methods to move the analysis forward. If that step proves too technically difficult for the person who made the discovery, a mathematician or statistician can be added as a collaborator.

In the late 1970s, I sat down with the mathematical theorist George Oster to work out the principles of caste and the division of labor in the social insects. I supplied the details of what had been discovered in nature and the lab, and he used theorems and hypotheses from his tool kit to capture these phenomena. Without such information, Mr. Oster might have developed a general theory, but he would not have had any way to deduce which of the possible permutations actually exist on earth.

Over the years, I have co-written many papers with mathematicians and statisticians, so I can offer the following principle with confidence. Call it Wilson’s Principle No. 1: It is far easier for scientists to acquire needed collaboration from mathematicians and statisticians than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists able to make use of their equations.

This imbalance is especially the case in biology, where factors in a real-life phenomenon are often misunderstood or never noticed in the first place. The annals of theoretical biology are clogged with mathematical models that either can be safely ignored or, when tested, fail. Possibly no more than 10% have any lasting value. Only those linked solidly to knowledge of real living systems have much chance of being used.

If your level of mathematical competence is low, plan to raise it, but meanwhile, know that you can do outstanding scientific work with what you have. Think twice, though, about specializing in fields that require a close alternation of experiment and quantitative analysis. These include most of physics and chemistry, as well as a few specialties in molecular biology.

Newton invented calculus in order to give substance to his imagination. Darwin had little or no mathematical ability, but with the masses of information he had accumulated, he was able to conceive a process to which mathematics was later applied.

For aspiring scientists, a key first step is to find a subject that interests them deeply and focus on it. In doing so, they should keep in mind Wilson’s Principle No. 2: For every scientist, there exists a discipline for which his or her level of mathematical competence is enough to achieve excellence.

—Dr. Wilson is a professor emeritus at Harvard University. His many books include “On Human Nature” and “The Social Conquest of Earth.” This piece is adapted from his new book “Letters to a Young Scientist” (Liveright).

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This was really interesting:

Back in 1991, one of my clients was Johns Hopkins Hospital in
Maryland that had a similar project that used compressed video. There
was a group of patients who all lived a considerable driving distance
from Johns Hopkins and whose medical appointments often overlapped
among various specialists on the diagnostic team. Neurologists,
internists and other specialists were not all available to see each
patient when they came in for an appointment.

Thus the need for creating videos of the patient so each member of the
diagnostic team could see and evaluate the patient as well as compare
changes over time. Johns Hopkins wanted to create a briefcase to give
to a parkinson’s patients’ family. The briefcase had a camera and DDR
so the family members could record their loved one throughout their
daily round. Drinking morning coffee, buttoning a sweater, walking
into another room, etc.

These videos were incorporated into a patient database and made
available to the treatment team’s medical specialists who then
collaborated more efficiently on assessing and helping each patient.

It’s been a long time since I thought about this application of video
compression being used in medical imaging and this article reminded me


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