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Sunday, October 4, 2015

My Friend H

H (yes, you can image search him to find his name, but that will reveal no more about the author than previous posts

H was a non-Communist German Jew born in Eastern Europe in the early part of the twentieth century. As such, he had the honor that two of history’s great totalitarianisms made strong efforts to murder him and his family. Happily, they were not successful and after the war H was able to escape and become a professor of mathematical physics in the United States.

It was in that capacity that the author, then a newly enrolled student at H’s institution, first met H. H had at least two understandable reasons to take a dislike to the author. One is that the author always has been the most obnoxious of students; uncontrollably blurting out objections and questions on any subject which captured his interest and disturbing carefully constructed lesson plans. The other is that the author—a tall, blond, blue-eyed gentile and with an accent easily mistaken for German—must have born a superficial resemblance to one of the groups of people who had tried to murder him.

It bespeaks H’s decency and kindness that he did not follow either of these reasons. H would frequently summon the author to his office and, rather than reprimanding him, would instead offer longer and deeper answers to the author’s questions. Soon, what had been the author’s command became his license. Whenever he encountered a problem he could not readily solve, he would barge into H’s office and explain the problem and his current thoughts. H would invariably guide the author, by gentle mocking (Perhaps so. But how do you know?), to the correct answer.

H and the author became friends. H would instruct the author on many subjects from manners (the proper and improper occasions to use the phrase How do you do?) to computer science. H induced the author to read the Genie Book, perhaps the greatest introduction to real computer science, which showed the author (who had previously thought himself a rather hot-shot hacker) that he had known nothing. H invited the author to play with H’s personal HP-UX serversAlways named by terms from Yiddish folklore or mythology. When the author built his own first network, the first two nodes were named Capitalism and Freedom, after a little red book he once read. Eventually the networks grew too big to follow any book title and nodes were named in the style of amino acids. and would only occasionally plead that the author leave a few cycles and memory for H’s own use. H introduced the author to one of the writer’s of the Genie Book which eventually resulted in one of the author’s most cherished honors: bona-fide Knighthood of the Lambda Calculus.No, really! The author still has the pin, if he can find it.

Over the years and decades that followed H and the author would remain in contact via e-mail and, whenever the author found himself in the area, he and H would be sure to meet in H’s home or office, until a few years ago, when a particularly vicious form of cancer succeeded where the Nazis and the Communists had failed.

In one sense H still lives. For on the author’s wetware there runs a limited version of H (what Robin Hanson might call a primitive em). So to this day, whenever the author runs across a particularly difficult mathematical problem, he in his mind transports himself back to H’s office and tries to explain the problem.Fortunately these trips are usually unobserved. For while on them, the author—pacing, muttering to nobody, attentively pausing, laughing at unheard jokes, gesticulating, pointing at equations on imaginary blackboards—must be the picture of a perfect madman. And very often, H in his customary manner still guides the author to the correct answer.