The fox knows many things
but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
— Archilochus, 700 BCE.
Most days, I feel a bit insecure about being a dilettante. I mean – that’s what I am. I used to be really good at one thing (statistical latent variable models for machine learning) and I did it for over 20 years. Actually, I’m lying: I wasn’t really good at it. I was tolerably good at it but, as obscure and pigeonholed as it sounds, it actually turned out to be a Big Thing, and the folks at Google, being freakishly smart as they are, were eager to snap me up.
But at heart I’ve always been a dilettante – in Archilochus’ dichotomy, a fox. Like many nerds of my generation, I’ve always revelled in Heinlein’s assertion that
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
-Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
(10 out of 21, in case you’re counting, and there are a couple there I’m not eager to try yet).
And while the jack of all trades is a fine archetype in the wilderness of brave new worlds, it’s a bit out of place in Silicon Valley. I find myself squirming whenever I meet someone new here; I know I’ve only got a couple of minutes before they’re going to ask me the inevitable Silicon Valley question. It usually goes like this:
“Hey Pablo, I want to introduce you to John. John’s closing mezzanine funding for his company that builds portable nanoscale masers.”
“Great to meet you, Pablo. What do you do?”
I, uhhh, umm, lots of things – fly, write, bake pies.
“Ah – you’re retired! Good for you!”
No, I, uhh, umm.
Eventually I usually beg off by explaining that I used to be a computer scientist, but now I’m a writer, mostly – I’m working on a novel (I am, really!); they file me away under whatever heading they reserve for lost souls and the conversation continues as before, only a little more awkwardly.
On my better days, though, I kind of relish the “What do you do?” question. Lots of stuff, I say. I explore, I write, I teach and learn. I collect stories of how crazy and wonderful this world is, and I tell them.
I’d like to think that this is not a purely selfish pursuit, and the best bulwark I have against that accusation is a children’s book by Leo Lionni. Have you ever read Frederick? He’s a mouse. And in the summer, when all the other mice are gathering nuts and seeds, Frederick sits and gathers the colors, scents, sounds and words of the world around him. It seems frivolous, but when winter sets in and the world is cold and gray, he sustains his family with the colors, scents, sounds – the stories of these things he has gathered throughout the summer. Now, as the ahem, more negative reviews of the book point out, stories aren’t much good if your family starves to death because you slacked on your nut gathering. But once you’ve gotten yourself off the bottom couple of rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy it’s the stories and dreams of what’s possible that get you to keep climbing. And that, I’d like to think, is where I come in.
On my better days, as I said, I can convince myself all this is true, and yesterday was one of those better days. A few weeks ago my friend Dana’s 6th grade geography class was having a hard time grasping the idea of the north and south poles. Were they really different places? How? What were they like? Hey, she thought, I know someone who’s probably had to explain this before! And she gave me a call. Yes, of course I’d be glad to come in and talk with the kids.
By the time yesterday rolled around, the agenda had expanded a bit and I had all hundred or so sixth graders at the Meadows school plonked down on the auditorium floor for a session with “Pablo the Antarctic Explorer!” We had an interactive demonstration of why “day” lasts for six months at a time at the Poles (with me and Dana do-si-do’ing around the floor with a globe), videos of folks sledding at midnight in full sun, Antarctic blizzards and discussions of riding a bike “around the world” at the bottom of the planets. We also talked about atmospheric science, climate change and astrophysics. You know what it takes to get a roomful of sixth graders to think that neutrino detectors are the coolest thing in the world? Not much.
Forty five minutes later, when the bell rang, these kids were positively buzzing (half a dozen asked me for an autograph). God forgive me if, half a century from now, someone asks what convinced them to become physicists and they say “You know, when I was in 6th grade, there was this guy who came and gave a talk at my school, and….”
But I think I did a good thing here. Walking into the room that afternoon, the most any of them thought about Antarctica was “Isn’t that where they have polar bears?” (answer: no). It was less real to them than Hogwarts, or Oz. Now? Now, they know it’s a real place, and that it’s every bit as otherworldly as any made up story. They know what it looks like, and what it feels like to live there. They know that real people go there; they even know someone who has gone there, to the bottom of the planet, to help Do Science (I made sure the teachers had my email address and knew it was okay for the kids to write me with any questions). And what’s most important is this: now they know that, if they keep their butts in gear, 10 or 15 years from now they could be down there themselves. Yeah, I think I did a good thing here.