Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On Community

Tuesdays at the Chapel
Tim Hawkins



from JohnForeman.com, Data Privacy, Machine Learning, and the Destruction of Mysterious Humanity

"How should we respond to this distillation of human motivation into predictable models where mystery is replaced with math?

Well, one response would be to go along with it. There is no doubt that these models can make us happier. They’ll be able to place in front of us products and services that purport to match our needs. Or as the AI in Minority Report puts it, “Welcome back to the Gap Mr. Yakamoto! How did those assorted tank tops work out for you?”

But while happiness might increase, there can be no doubt that the meaning of our lives will decrease. As understanding of each person increases, as we all become predictable systems, our individual meaning and worth takes a hit.

The famous neurologist Viktor Frankl once said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

But in the face of sophisticated modeling and targeting the question is raised: in the future will we know our own mind enough to choose our attitudes? Or will the disingenuous arguments directed at us be so powerful that it will become impossible to know our own mind?

To Frankl, “A human being is a deciding being,” but if our decisions can be hacked by corporations then we have to admit that perhaps we cease to be human as we’ve known it. Instead of being unique or special, we all become predictable and expected, nothing but products of previous measured actions."

John Foreman, the author of the blog excerpt for the first reading and the recently released book called Data Smart, is the Chief Data Scientist for Mailchimp and more importantly a 2008 MIT graduate in Applied Mathmatics graduate program.

I met John before I became I began spending time with students at MIT.  John sized me up quickly when I asked what he studied:  “Math” was his reply to my naieve question, “So, what do you study at MIT.”  While factually correct, the answer was more of a way to end the conversation before I became more confused.

I spent a lot of hours peppering John with questions about algorithms.  Not really…I spent a lot of hours trying to understand how John thought about algorithms and how he was forming them to solve problems of waste in production of Sunkist orange drink…or whatever his current project.

We spent time each week over dinner, Bible study and cheap wine pushing through assumptions and questions about faith, what we believed about Jesus and how what we believed impacted things like algorithms.

John and his wife Lydia now live in the home of Mailchimp headquarters in Atlanta, GA.  Fortunately, because of my work on another board, I get to spend a fair amount of time in Atlanta each year and with John, Lydia and their three boys.

Shortly after meeting John, I met Craig, one of the first Fellows of the Legatum Center…an Sloan entrepreneur.  Craig is a passionate about free-markets, the challenge of distribution in developing countries and social enterprise.  A strong libertarian, our views on politics could not have been more at odds. 

He gives my kids copies of books about the history of money and global politics, and spends hours playing a board game with them called Acquire.  We spend days together skiing or at the beach with he and his wife, all while he makes fun of my hope for change during the election and presidency of President Obama.

I could tell you about Geoff, an Aerospace graduate student who was the first graduate student I met who enjoyed sports more than learning.

Geoff was an evangelical Christian, and one of his best friends a committed agnostic.  To Geoff I was not evangelical enough and to his roommate I was too much.

I could tell you more about Kyle, Christina, David, Kwasi Lisa and Michael.

Or the Thanksgiving when we hosted 24 graduate students from MIT from 9 different countries in our tiny, tiny 2nd floor Somerville apartment.

For years, a rotating group of these committed, thoughtful, intelligent people sat with us at our home.  Eating a home-cooked meal, drinking the best wine we could possibly afford on a graduate student and/or pastors budget (which is not really good wine at all I suppose!).  They took interest in our kids, invited us to be a part of their lives and thoughtfully engaged conversations about Jesus and the Kingdom of God (even if they were uncertain about their own belief).

I’m certain that my experience is not unique to those of us in this room.

And, as I reflected on a book or an individual that has changed/impacted my life, to share with you this morning, it gave me time to reflect not an individual or a book that I would identify this morning that has changed me or shaped me in a significant way, but this community, the MIT community.

And I hope that does not sound trite or pandering.

While those who have called MIT home or an alma mater might at times take the MIT community for granted (though I rarely if every have heard anyone say this), it is this revolving door of inspired world-changers that continue to challenge and inspire me.

Last week my conversations ranged from the ethics of free-market, to the current advancement/challenges of robotics, a short lesson on 3-D printing at which time I was shone an engagement ring designed and printed by a young man who will propose soon, to the Biblical view of suffering and natural disasters, the everyday life of a grandmother living in poverty in Venezuela, and origins and reliability of sacred texts. 

And my connection to the MIT community is relatively small.

The reading that you heard from John Foreman, and the reading you will hear after from Sherry Turkle, are readings from the MIT community.  They, along with others, are continuing to raise the questions about our understanding and assumptions regarding humanity and the nature of self, about our collective understanding of community.  About the difference between being connected and being cared for, about the difference between mechanized response and genuine empathy and if the difference matters, will matter or should matter.

Because these chapel reflections are self-reflections, I am not attempting to give either a philosophical position or a biologically determined defense our understanding of self.

Only that the shared food, shared, laughter, shared caring, shared stories, shared arguments, shared wine, shared differences and shared needs I have experienced are somehow life-giving and seem worth protecting and fostering.

As a pastor, I have heard probably every complaint in the book there is to hear about church.  And most of them have probably come from me.

But, the church at its best…

The community that, “[was] together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people.

from Sherry Turkle's Alone Together

"Ours has been called a culture of narcissism. The label is apt but can be misleading. It reads colloquially as selfishness and self-absorption. But these images do not capture the anxiety behind our search for mirrors. We are insecure in our understanding of ourselves, and this insecurity breeds a new preoccupation with the question of who we are. We search for ways to see ourselves. The computer is a new mirror, the first psychological machine. Beyond its nature as an analytical engine lies its second nature as an evocative object."

Friday, March 28, 2014

Books that Changed my Life

"Greetings to you, the lucky finder of this Golden Ticket, from Mr. Willy Wonka! I shake you warmly by the hand! Tremendous things are in store for you! Many wonderful surprises await you! For now, I do invite you to come to my factory and be my guest for one whole day - you and all others who are lucky enough to find my Golden Tickets. I, Willy Wonka, will conduct you around the factory myself showing you everything that there is to see, and afterwards, when it is time to leave, you will be escorted home by a procession of large trucks. These trucks, I can promise you, will be loaded with enough delicious eatables to last you and your entire household for many years. If, at any time thereafter, you should run out of supplies, you have only to come back to the factory and show this Golden Ticket, and I shall be happy to refill your cupboard with whatever you want."
-Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.” 
-Charlotte's Web, E.B. White

A Book that Changed Your Life…
Preparing for this speech, I found it hard to think about just one book that had an impact in my life. I wracked my brain through my favorites; Stephen King’s It, the Harry Potter series, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, even the ever-beloved Little House on the Prairie collection. They range in genre, indeed.

I thought no, these won’t do.  Because all books I have read have had some impact on my life, one way or another. Whether it was the Bible to senior year’s AP reading requirements to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. When I was little, I literally gobbled up books as if they were a McDonalds’ Happy Meal. Books were a smorgasboard of other worlds, other lives, other experiences. It provided a whole new perspective from the authors’ point of view. As a farm girl from a small town in Central New York, these imaginative texts and written words were able to deliver me to worlds that my parents couldn’t afford to take me to. I was in awe of any book that I picked up - whether it was fiction or biography, it transported me to the world that the author imagined to be true or real or worth talking about. To me, that was impactful.

I remember being under my covers at night with a flashlight when I was little – I was one of those kids that read deep into the night trying to be quiet while I turned the pages. I read books over and over again, just to relive the thrill of whatever was happening to the main character. For example, for those of you who read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, remember the feeling you had when he tore open the corner of that chocolate bar, and experiencing with him that first glimpse of glorious gold, that flash of metallic loveliness that made him rip the rest of the wrapper off in a matter of a second. Do you remember how many times you might have re-read that paragraph just to cheer for him all over again? I do.  I read it many times over. Or Charlotte’s Web, when the words “SOME PIG” appeared in the cobwebs that summer morning? The thrill you had when Wilbur stood proudly in front of the crowds, escaping the hand of the butcher, thanks to his good friend Charlotte? Or when Charlotte was dying and you may have found yourself crying right along with Wilbur? Even as a child the range of emotions books brought up within me was enough for me to read them over and over again. THAT, my friends, is impact. That is enough for you to go and take out all the books that Roald Dahl or EB White had ever written –  just to read more. (I Love the feature on my Kindle that recommends books for me --- it’s a never-ending list).

I still read books with the same fervor today, even when I was doing a dissertation and had to master the art of “skimming” through thousands of books and articles. That skimming never felt right to me, by the way. I was afraid I was going to miss out on parts of the book that would bring it all together. But they still are an opportunity to escape, to learn, to engage. To me, it brings all that life has to offer to words on a page.

Here are some facts:
14% percent of American adults are illiterate, that’s 32 million people in our country.
However, there are 774 million people in the world that are illiterate. 
66% of the worlds’ illiterate population is female.

I am extremely privileged that I can read, that I am in a place where books can make an impact on my life and my world; to make me think differently about a topic, make me think about my work and life differently…to me, these statistics alone are an impact. I would not be where I am today without a good book – it is hard to measure an impact of one book when there are so many still left to read. And here is where I equate reading to living life --- which was another question I was posed today– what life experience made an impact on you? Many – and I’m sure that there are many more to come that will make a larger impact. Which is why I write about my life experiences – I write because I’m captured by the magical effect that reading had on me. And I want to do that for others.  I asked for volunteers to “read with enthusiasm!” in the beginning…my first grade teacher encouraged us to do the same. We made sure to emphasis on areas of sentences and paragraphs that made sense – we made our reading come alive. I’m telling you to do both – read and live with enthusiasm.

One of my favorite things to do is to curl up with a good book and escape what ever might be going on that day.  A lot of people, I’m sure, like to read for the opportunity to escape. We all need to do that once in awhile; but there are also books that keep us grounded and ever present in our life and to gobble up those life experiences around us as if they were words themselves. I encourage you all to go home – pick up your favorite book, and read it again. And remember the ways and reasons of why you loved it. And then share it with me --- I’ll add it to my list.

Leah Flynn Gallant
Assistant Dean and Director for Student Leadership and Engagement

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Left Overs

Laying the foundation:
When I was just a boy about five years old, my mother – we called her Muemera.  I don't know why, but we did (I guess we all had a nick name of some sort as we were growing up) – my mother would have many of her friends gather at our house, and she would always, not ask, but tell, me to stand up and tell them what you're going to be when you grow up.  I would always do as I was told - stand up and say, "I'm going to be a doctor when I grow up."  Mind you, she had already decided and told them that I was going to be a doctor.
I also remember our family having barely enough to get by…I’ve never seen French fries prepared so many different ways.  One day we’d have French fries, the next day they turn into hash browns and the next day, we’d have mashed potatoes.  She would always be the last one to eat…if there was enough left for her to eat.  I didn’t know that until later on in life when I was trying to raise my own young family. Then I begin to think of us as human beings in society, as social leftovers.  If it were not for leftovers, I wouldn’t be standing here this morning speaking with you all.  I thank god for leftovers…they’re not too bad, even if I have to say so myself.  The late Dr. W.A. McMillan would always say and I quote – “There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us --- so it doesn’t behoove any of us to talk about the rest of us”.
Well, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on all the life lessons she taught me and my siblings, and how she inspired us all.  Much of what was inspired by her teachings came to light when I joined the Boy Scouts:    
As a Boy Scout, I learned the Boy Scout Oath/Promise:
On my honor, I will do my best 
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; 
To help other people at all times; 
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.
The Oath has traditionally been considered to have three promises. They are delineated by the semicolons in the Oath, which divide it into three clauses. The promises of the oath are, therefore:
       Duty to God and country,
       Duty to other people, and
       Duty to self
DUTY TO GOD AND COUNTRY: Your family and religious leaders teach you to know and serve God. By following these teachings, you do your duty to God.
Men and women of the past worked to make America great, and many gave their lives for their country. By being a good family member and a good citizen, by working for your country's good and obeying its laws, you do your duty to your country. Obeying the Scout Law means living by its 12 points.
DUTY TO OTHER PEOPLE: Many people need help. A cheery smile and a helping hand make life easier for others. By doing a Good Turn daily and helping when you're needed, you prove yourself a Scout and do your part to make this a better world.
DUTY TO SELF: Keeping yourself physically strong means taking care of your body. Eat the right foods and build your strength. 
Staying mentally awake means learn all you can, be curious, and ask questions.
Morally straight means to live your life with honesty, to be clean in your speech and actions, and to be a person of strong character.
Boy Scout Law
A Scout is:
       and Reverent.
Boy Scout Motto
Be Prepared! 
Boy Scout Slogan
Do a Good Turn Daily!
The Outdoor Code
As an American, I will do my best to -
       Be clean in my outdoor manners
       Be careful with fire
       Be considerate in the outdoors, and
       Be conservation minded.

What inspired me after all these years is that my mother, Willette, was a Boy Scout and I didn’t even know it!  A Boy Scout is simply doing all the right things for all the right reasons.  She can be summed up in one of my favorite poems:

Live Your Creed Written by Langston Hughes
I'd rather see a sermon than to hear one any day.
I'd rather one should walk with me than just to show the way.
The eye is a better pupil and more willing than the ear.
Advice may be misleading but, examples are always clear.
And the very best of teacher are the ones who live their creed,
to see good put into action is what everybody needs.
I can soon learn to do it, if you'll let me see it done.
I can watch your hand in motion but, your tongue to fast may run.
I can soon learn to do it if you'll let me see it done.
I can watch your hand in motion but, your tongue may run.
And the lectures you deliver may be very fine and true but, 
I'd rather get my lesson by observing what you do.
For I may misunderstand you and the fine advice you give but,
there is no misunderstanding of how you act and how you live.

I’ve been at MIT for 19 years and I’ve learned that we have plenty of leftovers among our community.  I now understand leftovers are part of the very fabric that makes MIT special. 

“Thank God for leftovers”!

Larry Anderson
Associate Professor
Head Coach, Basketball

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A process that changed my life!

Seeking God
We seek God so earnestly, Eliav reflected, not to find Him but to discover ourselves.”
from James A. Michener, The Source
Hillel and the Golden Rule
Once there was a gentile who came before the distinguished rabbi Shammai, and said to him: "I will convert on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot”. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. Later the same fellow came before Hillel, and made the same offer, and Hillel converted him, saying: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it."
Popular story from the Talmud, told of the two famous rabbinic leaders of the first century CE. 
The Miracle of Life
     This is the story of metamorphosis. In fact it is the story of yours, mine, and every human’s metamorphosis. If it were a screenplay, we would say it was fantasy, incredible.  But it is reality - it is your history. It is the story of cells dividing and producing daughter cells that take paths very different from that of their parents.
     If a caterpillar could speak, could it tell you that it was about to become a butterfly? And if you had not even seen it happen already, would you believe it? Who would believe that from eight identical cells, clustered together in the shape of a mulberry, could become a human?
From Gerald L. Schroeder, The Hidden Face of God

Our Tuesday in Chapel themes are never simplistic or superficial. For this New Year, the Chaplains have posed a challenge that really makes you stop and think – “books or events that changed my life”.

Well like the speakers before me and those still to come, I grappled with this for a while. Certainly, one very significant life changing event for me – and for my twin brother Ray was getting accepted to MIT. That really changed everything. Before then, I had always assumed I would live somewhere close to our old neighborhood - if not the same house where we grew up in on Chicago’s North Side.  That’s what our father and uncle Gene did.

The change that MIT brings to a young person’s life is not a new story, though. It has been by so many so eloquently over many decades.  Just this Sunday, we had a fascinating “Class Connections” event in which three of my ’67 classmates spoke of the respective journeys that began – way back in 1963 - from provincial towns throughout this country and the transformations an MIT education made possible in their lives.  Then we heard from freshman, today’s class of 2017, with similarly auspicious stories. 

And just a week ago, many of us heard very compelling narratives from young students at the annual Martin Luther King celebrations.  I am particularly looking forward to a film which follows the development and dreams of four African students coming here to MIT. It is called “One Day Too I Go Fly” and it is being produced by young alum from Ghana named Arthur Musah. In a year or so, Arthur’s film will be ready and, frankly, I think it will be a much better story than I could ever tell.

So instead I chose to talk about a second life changing event in my time on the planet. This was my conversion to Judaism. Unlike the “jump” to MIT as a teenager, this transition wasn’t so much an event as a decades long process. It certainly is not a very common journey, but it is one that suited me well, and I’d like to share some of my thinking on why it made sense and why I am very comfortable in the Jewish tradition and find it to be a very beautiful religion.

Though I have been married to Deena, a Jewish woman, for over 40 years, the idea of conversion never entered my mind for most of that time. Though we respected each other’s cultural backgrounds – my Catholic and her Jewish - we were busy raising kids, working hard, and getting to know our community of Acton, where we moved for the good schools.

In the very late 1980s, Deena somehow got selected maintenance chair of the local congregation, a job to which she was not particularly adept. In fact, she had no qualifications whatsoever. So I really had to get involved, getting to know the HVAC, heating, and other creaky subsystems. One thing led to another and I moved up from Assistant Maintenance Chair to be the Vice President of Operations, a job I did for a number of years. In fact, we had to expand the synagogue and it was my privilege to head that effort. We created a beautiful building for Congregation Beth Elohim, one that served us well. In any event, as I got to know the building, I inevitably got to know the people and the religion also. And I really grew to care for and respect both. My wife never pushed me in the least to convert; she knew it had to be my choice.

So in the late-1990s, just a few years after I changed employers from Raytheon to MIT, I started in a conversion class. There was a ton of very interesting reading and lots of discussion. But the book I loved the most was James Michener’s “The Source”, a brilliant work of historical fiction which traces the development of Judaism through the millennia; Like all of Michener’s novels, it is set in a particular place – in this case a town in Galilee in northern Israel – and then takes a cross-section slice of history, as seen through the eyes of a contemporary, at various times from the distant past to the present.

Michener’s wants you to experience the history of the place – as it actually lived and experienced by people. I found “The Source” gave a sense of the evolution of religion, of how practices and beliefs change to help people meet the challenges and mysteries of their eras. And he traces an admittedly speculative chronology on how Judaism itself might have evolved to from a tribal cult to a more universal religion.

I was happy to discover that this idea of evolution is not at all foreign to Judaism. It is imbedded in it. Each generation must interpret and add to a continuing revelation that develops through the ages. Even in modern orthodoxy,” the original revelation at Sinai was a start, but it did not stop. God is not revealed today through prophets and miracles. Modern divine revelation is in daily events, science, history, and the development of culture”. Moses’s role was to get this chain going, not provide the final answers Trying to understand why we are here and what we should do is an ongoing process

So it incumbent on today’s Jews to keep advancing, questioning, and inventing new applications of their faith. It is hard to be dogmatic in these circumstances. This is just one of the many characteristics that I deeply appreciate about Judaism. Here are three more aspects of this religion that I especially like.

First, Judaism is people-focused. So much of Jewish teaching is about treating others fairly. Nobody gets a free pass to salvation – no indulgences, divine intervention, or predestination shortcuts. You have to do it the old-fashioned way – being decent …even when you don’t want to. The selection we read from Hillel on the “Golden Rule” exemplifies this so well. If we can’t treat other folks well, this religion is non-starter.  

Another story in the Talmud expounds on seven questions God asks in reviewing our lives. The afterlife is not a prominent feature of most Jewish belief, but in this story the very first question God asks is “Did you conduct your business affairs with honesty and with integrity?”. On the other hand, the theology – at least for most congregations – is much less prescribed. In my home congregation of Beth Elohim in Acton, we even have a few atheists. One is a fabulous guy, an MIT alum from Burton House.

Second, Judaism seems to be a good partner with modern science. If anything, Judaism promotes and embraces the inquisitive, searching nature of science, which also is a process of continuing revelation/discovery. If anything my experience is that Judaism is quite complementary to science.  It seeks to explain and guide the areas where science really does not operate.  

Third, so much of Judaism brings an appropriate sense of awe of wonder for the created world.  You will see this in the prayers in the liturgy.  This great planet that is home to such abundant life, set in an unimaginably vast universe. Again, if anything, I think science helps deepen that sense of awe. For example, the astrophysicists explain how we are made of stardust – quite literally – as the material of our bodies was created in supernovas.

I especially resonate with the observations of Gerald Schroeder, a MIT-trained Ph.D. physicist, who wrote an engaging book called “The Hidden Face of God”. My middle sister, Gen, a very devout Catholic, found it and insisted I read it. It was great advice.

The science alone is absolutely informative and engaging. Schroeder takes the reader through the recent discoveries and the deeper questions in the realms of both quantum and cosmic scale physics. And then he investigates the far more complex tapestry of life. Computer scientists would enjoy his viewpoint. There is this molecule DNA that encodes information so effectively. As he sums it up, “The essence of life is found in the processing of information. The wonder of life is the complexity to which that information gives rise. The paradox of life is the absence of any hint in nature, the physical world, as to the source of that information”. In a word, where did all this dazzling complexity arise?  Each of us is comprised of a trillion (mostly) cooperating cells and magnitudes more neuronal connections.  

So this is my short lesson on Judaism, albeit from a fairly new practitioner.

In our final readings I’d like to share with you two absolute staples of this religion. The first conveys the reverence for life, present in all Judaism’s many variants. The second reading is Judaism’s central, most recited prayer – the Sh’ma. It reflects many of the elements mentioned here – except of course for the atheism. 

I hope you feel a little closer to the wisdom of Judaism,  a wisdom to be found in so many of the world’s other great religions as well.  And we have touched on some of Gerald Schroeder’s and James Michener’s wisdom, too. In fact, I’d like to close with a great quote of Michener’s, which seems especially appropriate for MIT.

“Scientists dream about doing great things. Engineers do them”.

May we treasure them all - our scientists (the dreamers), and our engineers (the doers), and our humanists (like Bob Randolph and Hillel)!

Value of Human Life
“Whosoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whosoever that saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." 
Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a 
Sh’ma Yisrael - 
the central prayer of Judaism, to be said every morning and evening. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Blessed be the Lord’s glorious kingdom for ever and ever.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.
Set these words that I command you this day upon your heart.
Teach them faithfully to your children.
Speak of them in your home and on your way,
And when you lie down at night and when you rise up in the morning.
Bind them as a sign upon your hand,
Keep them as a symbol before your eyes.
Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
From Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Bob Ferrara '67
Senior Director for Strategic Planning
and Alumni Relations