Festschrift for Mike Hawley

A more-interesting-than-usual collection of folks celebrate the life and work of Mike Hawley, currently suffering from cancer. Mike was an early application developer at NeXT, then an early faculty member at the MIT Media Lab, before branching out into a wider world.

Annotations on the video, with my favorites in bold:

  • 2 minutes in: Nicholas Negroponte talks about the early days of the Media Lab, followed by some other MIT insiders (probably not interesting for non-MITers)
  • about 20 minutes in: fountain of Trump-related discourse from law school professor Larry Tribe (maybe not the best choice to teach Harvard’s “A Few Good Points About the Donald Trump Presidency” course)
  • 25 minutes in: the great architect Moshe Safdie shows how to celebrate someone’s life
  • 30 minutes: Alan Kay is introduced as the inventor of the PC (no credit to William Shockley for the transistor, Jack Kilby for the IC, Federico Faggin, Marcian Hoff, Stanley Mazor, and Masatoshi Shima for the first commercial microprocessor, George H. Heilmeier for the LCD, Waldemar Jungner for the NiCd battery (good argument for not shutting down Sweden if we want the next invention from these creative folks)); mostly this is about Mike playing the piano
  • 38 minutes: Bran Ferren talks about the intersection between technology and art
  • 41 minutes: Leonard Kleinrock respects the tradition by talking about Mike instead of himself! (Kleinrock helped build the foundations of the software that enables the Internet, which enabled this virtual festschrift)
  • 46:45: Bob Metcalfe, rounding out the tech foundations (he is the co-developer of the Ethernet local-area standard; also spectacularly wrong about Internet capacity! Coronapanic has proved that 100 percent of Americans can stream high-def simultaneously!), and tells a good dog story
  • 52: Peter Cochrane. Dull and confusing; skip.
  • 57:35: Stewart Brand, looking good and sounding sharp at 81! (He’s a righteous advocate for impeaching Trump; if only the Senate had listened!)
  • 59:45: Tod Machover, no longer an enfant terrible of the music world, but still interesting and he has a good clip of Mike playing.
  • 1:07:07: Gloria Minsky, widow of Marvin Minsky, gives a clear-eyed tribute informed by her background as a physician.
  • 1:11:20: Jill Sobule, singer-songwriter plays and sings, marred by terrible sound quality
  • 1:16:00: Rob Poor, Mike’s first Ph.D. student, talks a bit about the famous/infamous Media Lab Mt. Everest Base Camp assault
  • 1:19:20: Reed Jobs, son of Steve Jobs. Touching; seems like a sweet kid.
  • 1:23:00: George Hawley, Mike’s father. (at 1:27:00 an interesting discussion about how to decide whether to pursue professional music as a career) Sad to think about being told about a child’s stage 4 cancer diagnosis.
  • Mike himself comes on at the end. He was always at his best graciously thanking people with a public speech and does not disappoint.

If I had been asked to speak, I would have highlighted that, despite being late to appreciate the impact that World Wide Web protocols and standards would have, Mike was early to appreciate how digital cameras and Internet would democratize photography. Then he acted on this idea by working with Bhutanese children, putting advanced digital cameras into their hands to see what would happen (a lot of great pictures and a big heavy paper book!). Mike’s most impactful work while at MIT was in the area of photography: he supervised the Master’s thesis of Robert Silvers, whose photomosaics have been hugely popular.

(I also would have had to bite my tongue to avoid noting that Mike spent a tremendous amount of energy over the last four years being upset regarding the candidacy for and then the American Deplorables’ election of Donald J. Trump. Searching through his Facebook posts now… Before the election, Mike was paying attention to women who said that they got paid to have sex with Trump and to investigations by Eric Schneiderman (later in the news because the young women he was paying to have sex with him complained about the specifics of the sex). Even before Trump took office, Mike was #resisting by investigating ways in which the Electoral College could undo the illegitimate vote. In July 2017, Mike was trying to get Twitter to de-platform @realdonaldtrump (“posts constitute frequent abuse and harassment and promulgate outrageous lies”). In the fall of 2018, Mike was poring through the details of the people who claimed to have knowledge of an interaction between Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh in 1982. Despite his cancer diagnosis, Mike was following the Impeachment of Trump closely.

Certainly Trump’s election has been regrettable from a coastal elite point of view (“they forgot to take away their right to vote,” is my Dutch friend’s summary), but cancer proved to be Mike’s enemy, not Trump. Other than the corporate tax law change that made Mike’s stock market investments more valuable, there was never a single Trump policy that had any effect on Mike’s life. A good reminder to all of us not to get upset about what happens in Washington, D.C. We can’t do anything about it, so why rage at the political weather?)

Mike turned the concept of being a professor on its head. Ask a tuition-paying parent what a “college professor” is. Answer: a professor is someone who puts a huge effort into preparing lectures, handouts, and problem sets. Make sure that the students learn Signals and Systems in a logical progression, for example. Mike realized that modern research universities did not reward this Herculean effort in any way, shape, or form. The whole idea of teaching specific knowledge areas or skills was for chumps. Let the Media Lab students go learn whatever traditional material they needed from the dull-witted professors in other MIT departments who hadn’t figured out that they were wasting their time. To discharge his “teaching” responsibility, Mike set up a class that was one day per week, three hours per week, thus giving himself four free days per week. MIT is in session for 13 weeks so he had to prepare 13 three-hour lectures? Hah! Each week Mike would give a thoughtful introduction and provide some context for one of his famous friends, who would then proceed to hold the students spellbound with a guest lecture. He used a slush fund to order pizza in the middle of the class. Students wrote papers and then graded each other’s papers.

Mike contributed a lot to the early exploratory phase of the MIT Media Lab, that’s for sure. As the lab converged toward a more conventional academic engineering grand-seeking enterprise, which would have required him to pick a project and stick with it for 10-20 years, he wandered off to keep learning about new subject areas with some of the world’s most accomplished people in each area. When your interests are that wide you can never become a true expert in any one area. Thus, Mike’s biggest post-Media Lab achievements will not be reflected in conventional academic journals, but in the connections that he facilitated among some of the world’s most creative and original people.

Assuming that coronaplague does not get me first, I will miss him when he is gone. He has been a fun person to know and he added a lot of color to a university that has a reputation for being colorless.

Sad update: “Michael Hawley, Programmer, Professor and Pianist, Dies at 58” (NYT, June 24, 2020)


Mike’s student Rob Silvers and Alex in front of the Media Lab circa 1995:

Posted in MIT

9 thoughts on “Festschrift for Mike Hawley

  1. Watching it now…haven’t seen Negroponte speak in a long time.

    >Mike’s biggest post-Media Lab achievements will not be reflected in conventional academic journals, but in the connections that he facilitated among some of the world’s most creative and original people.

    Thanks to everyone who participated and thanks Philg especially for posting it on this otherwise dreary and depressing coronavirus weekend. This is the best of what American academe is about. I feel privileged to watch it.

    • Alex: The Biology department at MIT, with their stacks of Nobel prizes, might have a stronger claim to be part of the “best of American academe”! But they never made it to Everest Base Camp and Hawley’s Media Lab group did!

  2. “there was never a single Trump policy that had any effect on Mike’s life” – for sure, why bother caring about anything that isn’t going to kill you directly.

    Pretty much sums up this blog — “if it doesn’t happen to me and mine then I’m A-OK with it”.

  3. That was an important lesson in marrying a low maintenance woman, from a far away country, with nothing in common, to raise the family so you can focus on many different hobbies. He could have easily been some guy who drove kids around in a Honda minivan.

    • lion2: That’s painful! And not because I drive kids around in a Honda minivan (they love to sit in the very back for some reason, which leaves the middle seat for Mindy the Crippler). Mike’s wife is a truly wonderful person.

  4. I remember reading all the breathless dispatches from the Media Lab in Wired back in the 90s and assuming that it was basically where MIT put all the con artists. Was that not the case?

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