Thursday, April 26, 2012

My Life at MIT

Reflections on my time at MIT                                                                                  

 “Laboratory work and shop work… give honesty; for, when you express yourself by making things, and not by using words, it becomes impossible to dissimulate your vagueness or ignorance by ambiguity.”
William James from Talks to Teachers

I’m Ken Stone and I’ve been the Director of the MIT Hobby Shop since 1991.
This quote from, psychologist and philosopher William James, gets to the heart of my belief in
the value of making things and what is so important about the MIT motto “mens et manus”
mind and hand. It also speaks to my experience at MIT and the Hobby Shop which I’d like to
reflect on briefly this morning. 

In 1968 I entered MIT as part of the class of 1972; this year marks our 40th reunion. I think it
was January of 1969 that I first entered the Hobby Shop, charged with making paddles for my
pledge class of Beta Theta Pi.  I must say I was proud of the paddles my friend Dan and I made
and soon I was working on my first piece of furniture, a desk with one drawer. My lifelong love
of designing and building had begun.

Everyone at MIT has their own unique experience, mine has centered in the Hobby Shop. For me the Shop epitomizes the goal of educating mind and hand, the brilliant idea in my opinion, that has made MIT and its’ students so successful.  Shop membership is open to all students, staff, faculty and alums. It’s also entirely voluntary and allows all who join to pursue their building interests both personal and academic. It’s a community of people, that has shared interests, enjoys building and is excited to have the opportunity to bring their ideas to reality. I think in large part working in this supportive creative environment is why I have had such a positive experience during my time at MIT. But it is because MIT is filled with smart, imaginative, motivated and generous people that the Hobby Shop has flourished for almost 75 years. I have heard that some people are turned off by the name Hobby Shop. I think for them the word hobby connotes something trivial. For the people I know in the Hobby Shop, hobbies are something they pursue because they want to and they enjoy doing it. The work that MIT people do just because they are interested and want to, has always impressed me the most. Their diverse interests and creative imaginations lead to an incredible range of projects that are anything but trivial.
What I like best about the people I know at MIT is their enthusiasm for what they are doing and that they want to share their knowledge with anyone interested. They are generous with both their knowledge and time. They are inclusive, and when you get people like that together, soon they are kicking around ideas and you have a synergy capable of tackling the complex problems that face the world. I find the people who actually make the things they design tend to be both humble and self effacing. I believe this comes from the experience of many failures and remembering the huge amounts of time and effort that was needed to make a design successful.  I enjoy being around people working on concrete solutions to real problems. I’m tired of the good sounding but empty spin that fills our culture. There is however, a tendency of some MIT students faced with various forms of failure to lose self confidence and take self effacing to self demeaning. This is the cultural phenomena I would most like to see combated and changed at MIT. It is critical that we both challenge and nurture our students. There is a delicate balance between putting our best and brightest up against difficult academic challenges and overwhelming them to the point of diminishing their self esteem. For many at MIT working with their hands provides another way to learn while helping balance what can be an overwhelming academic class schedule. It’s also a way in which we learn things that can’t be taught in lectures that it is, both fun and productive.
To conclude I am grateful to have landed at MIT and to spend time with and get to know so many wonderful people. To be a part of and contribute to the work of this institution has been a great joy.  I’d like to finish with a favorite song the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” which beautifully expresses the blessings I feel. 

  Ken Stone ‘72

Thursday, April 19, 2012

More on the Prodigal Son

The Parable of the Lost Son, Luke 15:11-32 (NIV)
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs.  He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
 “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The prodigal son

Here we have a marvelous parable!   It recounts the journey of a human soul,
and metaphorically tells the journey of every human soul.  Sometimes I’m
tempted to think that everything we need to know about the divine plan can
be gleaned from contemplating the details in this one story.

At the beginning of the story, the younger son is not in a fallen state,
but in the security of a home and in possession of a birthright to a rich
inheritance.    By his own volition, he wanders away, cutting his ties to
the father.   He then squanders this inheritance.   These choices bring
about suffering and hardship.   And this in turn causes him to realize how
precious a gift he had forfeited.   He appreciated not only how well off he
had been at home, but, more importantly, the generosity of his father.  He
also felt a strong sense of unworthiness to be called a son. He had
squandered his inheritance on things that he now realized were worthless
compared to what he had at home.   He now returns, not feeling a sense of
pride or entitlement, but hoping for a station of servitude.

This is the turning point for the younger son, when, according to the
parable, he gained life after having lost it.  Genuine reciprocation of his
father’s love was now possible.  Knowing this, the father celebrates.

The anger of the older son is no peripheral detail either, but is central to
the point of the story.    He sees a gross injustice in his father’s failure
to punish the younger son or to reward his own many years of loyalty.    The
parable implies that the older son, like the characters in the story of Job,
is missing something here about the nature of divine justice.  There is, of
course, a kind of simple justice in this story;  the younger son did not get
off scot free; he had to suffer hardship.    But what strikes me as
significant here is that the hardship was not necessitated by the father
feeling a need to “even the score.”   The justice in this story is
restorative rather than retributive.

Many lessons can drawn.   We are noble beings, created rich, but we bring
ourselves down to abasement.   We are given gifts, not because we’ve earned
them, but because of the Giver’s love.   Have I reciprocated that love or
have I squandered the gifts on what is worthless?  When I stray from my true
home, do I have the humility to bring myself to account?    Can I see
calamity as an opportunity for a new relationship?   Is my relationship with
the Giver authentic love, or based merely on hope for a reward or fear of

From Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (#36)

Know thou that when the Son of Man yielded up His breath to God, the whole creation wept with a great weeping. By sacrificing Himself, however, a fresh capacity was infused into all created things. Its evidences, as witnessed in all the peoples of the earth, are now manifest before thee. The deepest
wisdom which the sages have uttered, the profoundest learning which any mind hath unfolded, the arts which the ablest hands have produced, the influence exerted by the most potent of rulers, are but manifestations of the quickening power released by His transcendent, His all-pervasive, and
resplendent Spirit.

We testify that when He came into the world, He shed the splendor of His glory upon all created things. Through Him the leper recovered from the leprosy of perversity and ignorance. Through Him, the unchaste and wayward were healed. Through His power, born of Almighty God, the eyes of the blind were opened, and the soul of the sinner sanctified.  He it is Who purified the world. Blessed is the man who, with a face beaming with light, hath turned towards Him.

Brian Aull, Bahai Chaplain

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Exploring Scripture

Kari Jo Verhulst shared a brilliant message last week about creating places for meditation. She also cited how easy it is for us to wander in our thoughts and not get down the business and how meeting together can help us in our meditation and reflection. I say, “Amen.” So, given that personal Bible study can also get bogged down or never done because of distractions, how could we ever get people at MIT to break into small groups that meet to do just one more thing: explore the scriptures? And if we were ever going to do it well, we would have to get through difficult passages like the one just quoted.

Any diverse group of people is going to find some level of discomfort with a passage where people are called murderers and then their city is destroyed, and some are thrown out of wedding parties. So for this idea of meeting in diversity to work you might have to telegraph certain notions ahead of time: like, if from time to time you run into a leader complaining about other leaders, the complaint is probably timeless and would apply to today’s leaders too. So even though Jesus sounds pretty bad-assed and mean, he really was in alliance with the man on the street who just happened to be getting a raw deal from the leaders of the day. So, I think that Jesus would just as assuredly come after Christian leaders in the 21st century, if He is truly aligning himself with the man in the street opposite corrupt leadership. Now, I wish we wouldn’t have to do any telegraphing, but for now, such might be the case. So, back to the issue: if we set up meditation pods, as Kari Jo and many of us might like, I’d like to set them up for scripture study as well, and have enough food and drink on hand to get us through the rough patches. Food and drink do not distract, in fact, they focus. Hungry and thirsty people are no fun, and it’s hard to hate someone you’re eating cake with, or downing a beer with.

And wouldn’t this be a great passage to fiddle with in a meditation and study pod? What does it mean: many are called, but few are chosen? Why does the king call the man not dressed in wedding clothes, “Friend”, and then still toss him out? Is “the outer darkness” code for anything? And what’s with the wedding clothes, why are they such a big deal? The thing I like best about the king is that he’s going to have this party one way or the other, and he does! And why? And even with good and evil alike at the party! And why’s that the case? Sure, I speculate that Jerusalem is the city that Jesus is referring to. But what about Rome? Constantinople? London? Berlin? New York? What city’s kings have ever understood respect for other kings? We’re all pretty self-centered and think we have it all together, and we’re all likely to mistreat anyone who tries to tell us that we’re not the only ones worth celebrating. That’s why we need to take breaks from our businesses and our farms, and meditate together, and study together, and eat and drink and party together, no matter whether we’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist or Agnostic, good or bad, and from New York or Boston or Jerusalem or Tehran. Amen.

David Thom
Coordinator, Cambridge Roundtable
on Science, Art & Religion