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:

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MIT tells us how to predict a coronavirus-free future

MIT Technology Review, the alumni magazine for what is regarded by people worldwide as the finest engineering and science school… in East Cambridge, titled its March/April 2020 edition “The Predictions Issue.”

There are ten breakthrough technologies presented for 2020 and a multi-futurist section regarding “How to predict what’s coming in 2030 and beyond.”

The breakthroughs circa 2020 include “hyper-personalized medicine” in which a single individual with a unique genetic defect can be patched up with heroic multi-disciplinary effort. We have purportedly made breakthroughs in anti-aging pills and AI-discovered molecules. We have more AI in general. The most important breakthrough is “Climate Change Attribution” in which we can figure out which unpleasant weather events are due to climate change: “If we choose to listen, they can help us understand how to rebuild our cities and infrastructure for a climage-changed world.”

Seven pages are devoted to the saddest emotional event of the 21st century, i.e., the failure of pollsters to warn us that the United States was packed with stupid, sexist, and racist Deplorables who would consider voting for a candidate who “appeals to the worst in us.” (Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon for this year. If election prophets don’t predict a certain Biden victory then enough of the righteous will be motivated to go to the polls and defeat Hate.)

The most interesting section, in light of recent events, is the collection of predictions regarding our world through 2030. The folks whom the magazine tapped (which happens to include one person of color and an LGBTQIA+ novelist, as well as a gender ID balance in favor of people with typically female-associated names) worked from the following assumptions: (1) the Earth will be warmer; (2) computers and Artificial Intelligence will be more powerful.

What did the best futurists that magazine could find miss entirely? That a human population of 8 billion on Spaceship Earth is an incredibly tempting target for a novel virus and that the virus would arrive in a lot of readers’ lungs on the same day as the magazine itself.

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Mining Oxygen on Mars

From a Valentine’s Day talk by Jeffrey Hoffman, an astronaut-turned-professor who is now part of an effort to mine oxygen out of the Martian atmosphere…. If the MOXIE system works and Blue Origin gets humans to Mars, they can come back without having had to pack 80 percent of their rocket fuel for the trip home.

Professor Hoffman explained that, though there is plenty of water in the Martian crust it takes too much energy to extract it. Thus, the plan is to “mine” the atmosphere, which is 96 percent CO2 (should be toasty warm from the greenhouse effect, except that atmospheric pressure is comparable at the Martian surface to what we have at 100,000′ above sea level).

Hoffman and collaborators’ experiment will launch in July 2020 and land in February 2021. The Mars journey will also be 7 months for humans, kind of like being on a cruise ship in Asia right now. The shocking news for movie fans is that The Martian is not scientifically accurate. The dramatic wind that forces an evacuation and is blowing stuff around would have to move at 1,000 mph to have enough force, given the thin atmosphere. In fact, the highest recorded winds on Mars are roughly 60 mph.

As with other astronauts I’ve talked to recently, Hoffman is not a fan of centralized government-run rocketry. Regarding the SLS, which promises to cost taxpayers $20 billion at least: “Maybe they will launch it a few times. It is Saturn V technology.” In his view, SpaceX and Blue Origin are where the innovation happens. The government “monopoly” had cost us decades of potential progress.

One thing I learned: this next Mars mission will include a helicopter! Also, landing on Mars is a combination of the worst features of the Earth and Moon. There is the friction from entering the atmosphere, as on Earth, but not enough atmosphere to slow down with wings or a regular parachute.

Sidenote: Hoffman first came to MIT because of Walter Lewin, whose physics lectures are now securely in a memory hole due to #MeToo issues.

Hoffman flew on five Shuttle missions, logged 1,211 hours in space, and did multiple spacewalks, including one to fix the Hubble telescope. An example of “bravery”? Perhaps not. There’s a talk on real bravery today at 4 pm:

What else do we find in the corridors at MIT? “The Trump administration is the noxious product of the capitalist system” (but didn’t most of the Wall Street capitalists support Hillary?)

A poster on “ethnomathematics”:

(If these “traditional and indigenous societies” are doing interesting stuff, why isn’t it just “mathematics”? Why do they need a special numbers nerdism ghetto?)

We crashed a Valentine’s Day party for a group of PhD students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Hollywood-style background:

The future engineering PhDs pour themselves coffee:

Circling back to Professor Hoffman… As with other retired astronauts I have met, this guy is incredibly fit and sharp at age 75. Makes one wonder why humans age at all. If we can live to 75 with hardly any deficits accumulating, why can’t we live to 750? If nearly all of us drop dead by 100, why don’t we drop dead at 10? Most of our cells have to go through at least one replacement cycle by age 10, right?

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Instrument flying talk at MIT on Wednesday at 7 pm

If you’re interested in instrument flying, I’m giving a talk on Wednesday (March 4) at 7 pm, MIT Room 35-225. The topic is IFR and also planning for trips over the mountains, over water, etc. Same general idea as the videos linked from our ground school. It should be comprehensible to non-pilots, but it is designed for people who have studied at least some of the VFR topics and done at least a lesson or two.

Pizza will be served by the hosts (MIT Flying Club).

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Advocacy for women is a sign of racism?

Emailed to me by the MIT Powers that Be… “Women in mathematics aim for an equal sign” (MIT School of Science news):

“It is crucial to recruit and attract more women at all levels in the department, but also that more of our women math majors consider going into graduate school in mathematics,” says Michel Goemans, department head and professor of mathematics. “Last year only 13 percent of our graduate applicants were women, and this is clearly not enough. The department is happy to support the activities of the MIT Women in Mathematics, and this group helps create a vibrant, supportive community in which more and more female students might pursue or continue a career in mathematics.”

[Let’s ignore the issue of whether this say-gooder is guilty of promoting gender binarism. Let’s also ignore the issue of why the say-gooder does not use MIT’s massive endowment to become a “do-gooder” and hire the women that he/she/ze/they says he/she/ze/they wants to hire.]

I wonder if the focus on female victimhood is a sign of antipathy toward mathematicians of color. Why not focus on the underrepresentation of black and Hispanic mathematicians, for example? Could the motivation be that the white/Asian mathematicians would rather share an office with a white woman from a wealthy family than share with an African-American from the ghetto?

Advocating for “women” is less likely to expose the advocate to ridicule for not having any friends or relatives who are in the featured victim class. Since even the most hidebound human who identifies as a “man” is likely to have a mother and/or sister, there won’t be the awkward search for a friend of color with whom to attend Black Panther and get a selfie.

The article is also fun for revealing the existence of gender traitors:

Staffilani recalls that when she invited female mathematicians to speak with MIT women, sometimes the offer was declined. Invited academics preferred to be seen as “mathematicians” rather than be singled out as “female mathematicians,” separate from men. It’s a dilemma Staffilani says she understands; gaining extra notice as a woman — or any underrepresented group in a particular field — doesn’t feel like “equality,” she says. … she was surprised when a female physicist asked the room, “Why do we want diversity?”

Speaker of diversity, let’s have a look at the folks MIT has selected to teach subjects featured on the “Women’s Studies” poster board in the Infinite Corridor (if you visit the teachers’ biographical pages, you’ll find them referred to using “her” and “she” as pronouns):

Another initiative of the Women and Gender Studies Department:

Within the same poster board, some tips on organizing your bookshelf:

Nearby, a poster remembering MIT’s most famous donor:

There is room in the Infinite Corridor to provide the biography of one MIT graduate:

(See also “RPI alumni stop donating amid concerns over leadership, campus climate” (2018) and “America’s Highest Paid College President is Dragging Her School Into Crippling Debt” (2014).)

Unrelated… a poster regarding procrastination:


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Diversity at MIT

In a “fun lunch” presentation of photos from Oshkosh in our FAA Private Pilot ground school at MIT (videos linked from the course home page), the next slide contained the following images:

(Bo 105 aerobatic helicopter in a custom Trump 2020 paint scheme)

Before the slide appeared I asked the 75-person class “Raise your hand if you support Donald Trump.” Guess how many supported America’s leading citizen and were willing to own up to it?

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Aviation lectures at MIT next week

For folks who are already certificated, there are a few guest lectures in our ground school class at MIT next week that might be interesting.

  • Monday, Jan 6, 12:30: flying the Cirrus SR-22 to Europe
  • Monday, 4 pm: “Laz” Gordon talks about the F-22 flight controls (video from last year)
  • Tuesday 4 pm: Eric Zipkin, founder of Tradewind, talks about flying the Tunison Foundation DC-3 in general and across the Atlantic to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of the invasion
  • Wednesday, 10:50 am: Michael Holzwarth talks about drone regulations (yay!) and practical experience as a Hollywood drone pilot (video from last year)
  • Wednesday (Jan 8), 12:00: Oshkosh slide show (me, being Tina’s guest! video from last year)

The fun is in Room 56-114. Except for those who are taking the class for credit, all lectures are offered at a discount of $53,450 from MIT’s normal annual tuition.

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MIT nerdism is genetic

“Sibling surprise” (Technology Review, the MIT alumni magazine) is fun for people who believe in the religion of genetics. Siblings reared apart were brought together as adults by DNA testing. It turned out that they had both gone to MIT:

[the brother] I had always believed that all of my potential came from my genetic blueprint. The newfound knowledge of Freedom’s and my biological roots has reinforced this. Many of my traits and interests seemed to come out of the blue, unrelated to the farm where I grew up. All of these attributes map to Freedom or my biological family. Every question I’ve ever had about my origin story has been answered.

Also in the MIT-specific portion of the same issue….

A celebration of Margaret Hamilton for (a) inventing “software engineering,” and (b) inventing the term “software engineer.” (The earliest references that I could find in the IEEE literature to “software engineering” were from the late 1960s, but the term is used as though it had already been in widespread use and would be well-understood. In the ACM literature, an early reference is from Alan Perlis in 1969, but again he uses the term without introduction, explanation, or credit. A “NATO and Software Engineering” article from 1969 talks about a 1967 study group recommending “a working conference on Software Engineering,” but no individual is credited with coining the term.)

A two-page obituary of Patrick Winston, an AI pioneer and one of the greatest teachers ever in MIT EECS.

A book by Susan Hockfield, former president of MIT, is reviewed: “Several of her examples are projects led by female scientists.”

A sad litany of death notices beginning with the class of 1970 and going backward. Apparently, none of us should count on living past age 70.

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Richard Stallman on Jeffrey Epstein: time to switch from Emacs to vi?

“Renowned MIT Scientist Defends Epstein: Victims Were ‘Entirely Willing’” (Daily Beast):

An MIT engineering alumna, Selam Jie Gano, published a blog post calling for Stallman’s removal from the university in light of his comments, along with excerpts from the email in which Stallman appeared to defend both Epstein and Marvin Minsky, a lauded cognitive scientist and founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab who was accused of assaulting Virginia Giuffre. Giuffre has alleged that sex offender and financier Epstein trafficked her to powerful men for sex, including Minsky, who died in 2016. She’s alleged that Epstein and his alleged madam Ghislaine Maxwell recruited her at Mar-a-Lago when she was 16 years old.

Stallman wrote that “the most plausible scenario” for Giuffre’s accusations was that she was, in actuality, “entirely willing.” Vice’s Motherboard later reprinted the emails in full. Gano did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Stallman also wrote in the email exchange that “it is morally absurd to define ‘rape’ in a way that depends on minor details such as which country it was in or whether the victim was 18 years old or 17.”

[MIT President] Reif is facing calls to step down after acknowledging that the Media Lab accepted funds from Epstein long after his 2008 conviction for soliciting a minor for prostitution, with Reif’s own signature found on a 2012 note thanking Epstein for his generosity to the university.

Will there be a mass exodus from Emacs to vi (also known as “the Devil’s crummy text editor”)?


  • “Please Do Not Buy Richard Stallman a Parrot And Other Rules” (Gizmodo): “If you can find a host for me that has a friendly parrot, I will be very very glad. If you can find someone who has a friendly parrot I can visit with, that will be nice too. DON’T buy a parrot figuring that it will be a fun surprise for me. To acquire a parrot is a major decision: it is likely to outlive you. If you don’t know how to treat the parrot, it could be emotionally scarred and spend many decades feeling frightened and unhappy. If you buy a captured wild parrot, you will promote a cruel and devastating practice, and the parrot will be emotionally scarred before you get it. Meeting that sad animal is not an agreeable surprise.”
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MIT Chemistry Discovery: Immigration is Oxygen

From MIT President Rafael Reif, “Letter to the MIT community: Immigration is a kind of oxygen”:

For those of us who know firsthand the immense value of MIT’s global community and of the free flow of scientific ideas, it is important to understand the distress of these colleagues as part of an increasingly loud signal the US is sending to the world.

Protracted visa delays. Harsh rhetoric against most immigrants and a range of other groups, because of religion, race, ethnicity or national origin. Together, such actions and policies have turned the volume all the way up on the message that the US is closing the door – that we no longer seek to be a magnet for the world’s most driven and creative individuals.

What kind of folks are currently streaming over the border and claiming asylum? Brilliant architects and future Ph.D. electrical engineers:

In May, the world lost a brilliant creative force: architect I.M. Pei, MIT Class of 1940. Raised in Shanghai and Hong Kong, he came to the United States at 17 to seek an education. He left a legacy of iconic buildings from Boston to Paris and China to Washington, DC, as well on our own campus. By his own account, he consciously stayed alive to his Chinese roots all his life. Yet, when he died at the age of 102, the Boston Globe described him as “the most prominent American architect of his generation.”

Thanks to the inspired American system that also made room for me as an immigrant, all of those facts can be true at the same time.

And now for the chemistry lesson…

In a nation like ours, immigration is a kind of oxygen, each fresh wave reenergizing the body as a whole. As a society, when we offer immigrants the gift of opportunity, we receive in return vital fuel for our shared future. I trust that this wisdom will always guide us in the life and work of MIT.

Apparently oxygen is no longer a source of corrosion, fires, and toxicity!

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