Chapter XVIII: MIT

of Travels with Samantha by Philip Greenspun
"I meet more people in an afternoon in a town of 3000 than I do back in Boston, a city of 3.5 million, in a month. I wore myself a rut after 14 years in Boston, going from home to MIT to friends' houses with blinders on. I eat in the same restaurants and go to the same Boston Symphony every Saturday night. When I get back home, I'll try to be more of a tourist in my own city, talking to strangers and going to new places."

Thus had I explained my new philosophy all through August. I applied it successfully on my first evening back in Boston, chatting up a grandmother from Wheeling, West Virginia, in the produce section of Stop & Shop. I was back to my old ways by the next morning.

New people and places were interesting in theory, but they couldn't compete with the reality of two hundred pounds of mail, 30 undergraduates trying to learn mathematics from me, old friends, my insurance company, a Ph.D. thesis, and this book. Exacerbating the situation was my conviction that, during my first two weeks back, I should be able to do everything I'd put off for months before traveling plus everything that had accumulated during 14 weeks on the road plus my standard MIT workload.

545 Technology Square, ancestral home of the MIT Artifical Intelligence Laboratory, Project MAC, and the Laboratory for Computer Science.  Known to MIT nerds as NE43. 545 Technology Square: the cradle of computer science

If one is going to be work-obsessed, MIT is about the most supportive environment imaginable. For example, one evening just after midnight I sat in my office writing problem set solutions. Raj, a fellow graduate student, was walking by just as my frustration with one problem was simmering. He came up with the right approach after five minutes. Ten minutes later, I presented the complete solution on the blackboard in our lounge. The rest of the late-night crowd, 10 nerds, blessed my solution.

As everyone turned his attention to helping Andy finish his Ph.D. project, a super-strong-for-its-weight model railroad bridge built out of thin strips of metal--Andy had figured out how to use sensors and tiny computer-controlled motors to keep beams from buckling--I reflected that, in all my years at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, I'd never had to walk more than 100 feet from my office to get the answer to any technical question. If I didn't have the tenacity or knowledge to solve a problem, someone else always did and was happy to help me. It didn't matter whether I was stuck designing a digital signal processor, solving differential equations, building an integrated circuit, representing complex surfaces in a computer, dividing welfare recipients into all possible family combinations, or building dozens of circuits--from phase-locked loops to high-quality audio filters.

It didn't take me too long to become blasé about the swirl of MIT life. I skipped U.N. Secretary General Boutros-Boutros Ghali's address to "leaders" from 53 nations. It didn't bother me that The Tech, MIT's student newspaper, glossed over Professor Philip Sharp's Nobel Prize in biology in favor of continuing coverage of sexual harassment and racial preference debates--Sharp's split-gene discovery was old news and 24 other faculty members already had Nobels. I wasn't sorry to have missed Salman Rushdie's first U.S. appearance since he was sentenced to death. I was too busy struggling with the return of my high expectations.

Was I alone in a small town for an evening? That's only natural, I only got there three hours before and couldn't expect to have made friends. Was I alone in Boston for an evening? That made me a loser, for how else could someone live in a city of 3.5 million and find himself friendless.

On the road, I was satisfied with just getting from one place to another, taking the occasional photograph or writing a few words. If I learned something or made a friend, that was a bonus that put me on top of the world. Back in Boston, the following goals seemed like a minimum: (1) know as much as MIT professors, (2) have a collection of friends who would drop everything at a moment's notice to be with me, (3) keep a girlfriend happy, (4) be as good a probability teacher as Al Drake, who's had 30 years of practice, (5) figure out how the computing landscape had been changed by the spread of World Wide Web browsers, and (6) find a Ph.D. thesis topic that would get me a faculty position ahead of 1000 other wanna-be's.

"The term started three weeks ago and I'm already five weeks behind" is a typical MIT student's lament. That's how I felt about my life. I turned 30 on September 28th and realized that the list of things I at one time thought I could do by age 30 would now take me at least another four decades. It made me jumpy.

When I noticed how jumpy I was, I resolved to stop dating in Boston. After a month or two alone in my minivan, I had been ready to listen to a stranger, man or woman. I could devote 100% of my attention to his or her situation, and I got to know people remarkably quickly. Back in Boston, with my head filled with thoughts such as "I forgot to call Bruce back," "I'm not prepared for the lecture I have to give on Monday," and "Why doesn't Neil ever call me?" I was in no shape to give more than 5% of myself to a stranger.

I was lonely, to be sure, and not sold on the idea of sleeping alone for the rest of my life. However, I thought I would feel even lonelier spending hours skimming the surface of a stranger while thinking that I really ought to be working.

It was an article of faith in Washington, D.C., where I grew up, that small towners were narrow-minded people good for nothing except paying taxes to support our $8 billion subway and free museums. Further, one can't live 14 years in Boston without absorbing some of the prevailing contempt for those who live beyond reach of Harvard and MIT. I'd accumulated 30 years of prejudice, but it melted away during my weeks on the road. People in small towns would listen with respect to any story I told, even if it underlined fundamental differences in philosophy, religion, or politics between us. After 10 minutes of patient listening, a person might frankly note that he saw things differently, but I was never scorned by anyone for holding a different point of view.

After returning home, I had high expectations for social gatherings. I figured my great stories from the road would make me the life of the party. In reality, I'd lost the social skills necessary to survive in Cambridge, as underscored one evening when 40 people came over to my house to see some slides.

Matthew asked me what I learned on my trip.

"One thing I learned was how narrow my experience of people had been. For example, I had my first real conversation with someone with AIDS on this trip. In Utah..."

Susan interrupted: "A lot of the people you know, even some of the people here tonight, probably have AIDS; you just don't realize it."

I was never able to tell anyone what I'd learned from Arthur because my introduction challenged one of Susan's cherished beliefs, i.e., that a large percentage of upper middle-class men who are neither gay nor IV drug users carried the HIV virus. She could not wait until the end of the story to put in her two cents' worth, but had to make sure that I aligned my beliefs with hers before she would let me continue.

Initially, I thought that Susan just had a bee in her bonnet. However, at two other gatherings I tried telling the same story. In both cases, a thirtysomething Jewish woman interrupted me at the same point for the same reason.

The inability of Bostonians to cope with differences of philosophy was driven home one night at the Harvest bar in Harvard Square. Bruce, Henry, and I were going over old times when Jackie, an acquaintance of Bruce's, and Roberto, her Chilean boyfriend, sat down next to us.

Bruce congratulated Jackie, a trim brunette in a stylish suit, for having just been on the cover of a travel agent's trade magazine. Jackie works for a consulting company. She gets paid big bucks to dress nicely, fly around, and tell companies how to make their benefits packages more "family friendly."

What was the subject of the article?

"It is about the difficulties that minorities have traveling."

Er... How is her situation relevant?

"I'm half-Japanese."

Wouldn't they have been better off choosing someone from a minority group with a lower-than-average income, perhaps someone black or Puerto Rican?

"Why do you say, that?" Jackie asked with a hostile edge in her voice.

"Most businesses' primary objective is getting money out of customers, so I would think that someone who looked poor would get worse treatment. By contrast, Michael Jackson would probably get treated better than any of us for the same reason," I theorized.

Roberto was furious.

"Are you saying that only blacks are minorities?"

To deny someone the victimhood status of "minority" was apparently an unforgivable sin. Jackie went on to relate how she'd been a victim of prejudice her entire life. She'd been teased in elementary school, treated badly by service businesses, and denied jobs. Against this bleak background, she admitted that Jews and Asians were comparatively lucky.

"We're allowed to pass by white society. If we have enough money, they let us buy houses in their neighborhoods. But they never fully accept us."

Henry, born and raised in Hong Kong, piped up, "that proves that it is classism and wealthism, not simply racism."

"That doesn't prove anything. If you get bad service, you might not chalk it up to racism." Jackie's philosophy was that any bad treatment should be put down to racism unless otherwise accounted for. Thus, nearly every day provided for her more evidence that Americans are full of bad will.

"This nation is full of anti-Semitism [a German word I don't like to use; it was coined in the late 19th century to replace the simpler "Jew-hatred" to make the feeling seem more scientific and hence acceptable to educated Germans]. Doesn't your own experience confirm this?" Jackie asked.

"I just drove 15,000 miles around North America and encountered a few people who said things that most Cantabrigians would consider shockingly anti-Semitic. However, these people had never had any experience with Jews. Despite knowing that I was Jewish, they were happy to take me into their homes and feed me. Their prejudices didn't affect their actions or their openness to learn about people. So I would have to say that it didn't matter much. I just hoped that someday they'd learn more about Jews and change their opinions."

"What about the Nazis?" Jackie asked. "Would you say that they would have been nice people if only they'd actually met a few Jews? I used to live in Frankfurt and there was one school with a few Jewish students. They had to have guards with machine guns outside because there was so much hatred from the Germans."

Jackie had a good point there. I probably sounded a bit too much like Candide. I reviewed the situation: Jackie was hurt that I'd presumed to deny her minority victim status and angry that I was too obtuse to see Americans as full of hatred. If tolerance was good in her feminist-liberal worldview, why was she upset with me for not hating my fellow Americans?

Before I could finish this thought, Henry observed that he'd "traveled quite a bit through the Far East and North America and noticed that the U.S. has very little discrimination and a lot of talk about discrimination, while the Far East is the opposite."

"A lot of clubs in Tokyo hang `Japanese Only' signs out front," Bruce added.

Henry continued, "Prejudice isn't bad. If you've met nine Jews and have found them untrustworthy and say that there is a 90% chance the next Jew you meet won't be trustworthy, that's good. But if you say that there is no chance the next Jew I meet can be trusted, that's bad. If you are willing to give people a chance, it doesn't matter what your prejudices are."

Jackie ignored Henry's radical position and focused on me as the prime heretic. I tried to soothe her by saying that I considered Anti-Jewish prejudice a problem, just not a significant one.

"In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud divided the sources of pain in life into three categories..."

Before I could explain Freud's thesis that the pain that one gets from problems with loved ones is in another category from the pain inflicted by strangers and society, Jackie stopped me.

"I won't listen to anything having to do with Freud--he thought women had penis envy."

The range of expressed opinion in Cambridge is broader than in a small town, but the range of opinion that any given person is prepared to hear is much narrower. All across America, I had seen people sit down and listen to each other even when they were on opposite sides of an issue. In Cambridge, people with slight political differences can barely get through a cocktail party together.

Despite seeing some folks as narrow-minded, it felt good to be back at MIT. I remembered a 1938 comment by Karl Taylor Compton, one-time president of MIT:

"In recent times, modern science has developed to give mankind, for the first time, in the history of the human race, a way of securing a more abundant life which does not simply consist in taking away from someone else."

Chapter XIX: What I learned on my summer vacation

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