31 December 2005


Brushes with "Greatness," Part I

A friend wrote a list of the people he would like to meet, and K. Eric Drexler, nanotech and emerging-technology guru, made the list.

I used to live in the same apartment building as Drexler and his girlfriend. In fact, I think I lived right over them from summer 1984 to fall 1985. I only had a couple of stairwell conversations with him, but even then he was preaching the gospel of the future of tiny machines.

Yes, being at the prestigous Eastern technological school meant what is likely a higher rate of brushes with "greatness" -- sorry, I'm of the "they all take a dump just like the rest of us," "feet of clay," etc. crowd, which is meant to reduce hero-worship, not denigrate their achievements (and I say that in a post that clearly has "name dropping" written all over it) -- than, say, attending DeVry or ITT Tech. I got to take classes from and work with people like Gerry Sussman, Hal Abelson, Ken Stevens, B. K. P. Horn, Victor Zue and Stephanie Seneff (my SM thesis advisor), and the like. Bill Siebert was my doctoral thesis advisor, and I got to teach along side Al Oppenheim and Eric Grimson.

I once got to yell at Jerry Wiesner, then president of MIT, through a bullhorn. From about 10 feet away. Surrounded by smelly hippy people. This was back in 1975, the pseudo-radical post-Vietnam days. I can't recall whether we were protesting the Institute's trying to transfer inertial-guidance technology to Taiwan or to transfer nuclear power technology to pre-revolutionary Iran; regardless of which, either would've been a boneheaded move on MIT's part (even as we were complete assholes about how we protested it).

(The apartment building where both Drexler and I lived at the same time? I moved after that to the building next door, where I lived until 1991. Later I found out that I had lived in the same apartment there that had once been occupied by Dennis Klatt, who worked in the Speech Group at RLE with Ken Stevens, and his wife. Still later -- I mean relatively recently, like 2003 -- I met someone in a gay bar in Daytona Beach, Florida, who was currently living in that same apartment!)

Later (second time around) I was lucky enough to work out of Cam Searle's lab. Cam and Paul Gray, who was by then president of MIT, literally wrote the book on semiconductors. By then, Cam was (and still is, to my knowledge) working with Jerry Lettvin on cell-membrane models, so I got to hang out at Lettvin's lab, which was a kind of nearly-never-ending bull session on everything. (It was at Lettvin's lab that I once had a discussion on depression with a very low pre-Free Software Foundation Richard Stallman.)

Jerry had ended up with the library of Giorgio de Santillana (myth as natural history). I, er, borrowed two of the books in that collection and have yet to return them: Zen and Science, by Daisuke Ueda, and The Revolt of the Masses, by Jose Ortega y Gasset. Inside the Ortega y Gasset, there is still a newspaper clipping of a column by Sydney Harris, titled "Even the Best of Us Has a Faulty Side." The column:
One of the wisest and shrewdest men of our times, Jose Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, said something to me at Aspen a few summers ago which I have never forgotten.

When kind and charming ladies at that resort recognized him and approached him and asked, "Are you Senor Ortega?" he said he was moved with the desire to reply: "Madam, I am he only in a vague way -- because I feel so much that I am only a remote approximation of him whom I should be, of him whom I have to be."

What is this puzzling and paradoxical answer to a straight question? He meant that each of us has a double personality, not in the dramatic Jekyll-and-Hyde sense, but in a deep authentic sense.

There is another self, the true personality, which lives beneath the social self, behind the face and mannerisms and occupation and life-situation. And most often, the profiles of these two selves do not coincide.

What distinguishes genuine human beings from those who have already become monsters is this -- that human beings know that they are not living as they really should, morally and spiritually, no matter how much success or esteem they achieve in the eyes of the world.

The monsters have given up the struggle to conquer themselves and have reshaped their private identities to fit their public visage. The monsters define themselves by their occupation, their status, their reputations -- and have sacrificed their total inner life in order to present a bland and impressive coutenance to the world.

What constitutes a philosopher like Ortega, is that he knows how far he falls short of his public profile. He knows what an authetic man should be, in his thoughts, his actions, and his ideals. And he never fools himself that the figure on the platform, receiveing the honorable award, is the same as the naked personality in the silence of his soul.

Each man has to win a victory over himself -- which is another way of saying that each man has to lose his life in order to find it. For only when we shed the snake-like skin of our social selves are we reborn as creatures of freedom and integrity.
There are a few more "brushes with'greatness' " to mention, but I'm saving them for later.

This is a great article. (Spellcheck please.) This article made me think of myself in so many ways. I feel like sometimes I give up on the struggle and give in to the temptations of simplicity and ease. I run screaming from challenge. I bitch constantly about nonsense. I worry too much. (Oh and by the way, I'm always thinking about myself because it's all about me.) LOL I'm learning. I'm trying to learn to be more stoic.
So now, that I'm done commenting on myself, I like the article because it shows appreciation for others who've accomplished great things. It provides wisdom for living and a vision for change. Thank you.
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