Monday, June 8, 2009

Be a scientist.

(original publish date 6/9/09)
These remarks were delivered to the 8th Group at Avery Coonley School in Downers Grove, IL on June 3rd.

Dear guinea pigs, I asked my father for his sage wisdom on how to begin today, especially given his many years of experience in life and as a previous ACS graduation speaker himself. He thought for a moment with closed eyes, and then said, “Jonathan, I know how you can start. Start by saying, 8th group, LISTEN UP … YOU GRADUATES.”

8th Group, I have good and bad news for you today. The bad news is, I want to take a risk and run an experiment: I’m going to assign homework, to a graduating class during a commencement address. Yes, real homework. The good news, though, is that although technically, diplomas have not yet been awarded I don’t think I have the authority to withhold them, so the assignment will be solely for extra credit.
With that out of the way, I wanted to take the chance to thank Mr. Barton for giving me the honor of speaking here today. Also, thank you to the larger ACS Family, faculty, parents, administrators, and Trustees, who literally make this all possible.

8th Group, please excuse one last order of business. I want to thank Mrs. Lenhardt. I get a bit emotional when I think about the effect you have had on my life. I remember you specifically in two roles during my time at ACS, first as leader of the student council, and second as my L.A. teacher. As you know Mrs. Lenhardt, I’ve always been more of a scientist than an artist, or even a “language artist”.

But if a student not finding his or her passion in the subject of a teacher is a sign that that teacher has failed, I want you to know Mrs. Lenhardt, that you have taught me more things about leadership and life to ever question your success as a teacher, things that have long outpaced my rather paltry skills in writing, and principles that I continue to treasure in my current endeavors.

8th Group. This day is about you. Congratulations to all, on a job well done! [applause]

I was lucky enough to chat briefly with a few of you yesterday, and Anna, your class president, informed me of your nickname as the “guinea pigs” or more affectionately the “gerbils.” I later asked a few members of the 7th Group about this name and they had never heard of it, so I’ve gathered in must be a mark of self-identity. It appears this “gerbils” term reaches all the way back to the 6th Group when you first received tablet computers as an experiment and the term relates to my message today.

My message today is, “be a scientist.” In my field of study, computers, we often strive to make messages short so they can be transmitted quickly, so I’ve chosen to boil this speech down to just those three words: “Be a scientist.”

I would guess that there are at least a few budding artists in the room that I may start to offend if I keep using the word “science” without also mentioning the “the arts.” So let me be clear: when I say “be a scientist” I don’t mean it in the literal sense that you need to become a physicist, chemist, or even to only study fields in the natural sciences. What I mean is to approach your academics, career, and life, as a scientist; that is, one who questions. Don’t take someone else’s word for it. Find your own truths.

Now 8th Group parents, I need to apologize. I know ACS is normally very good about permission slips. I remember in kindergarten having them literally pinned to our clothing as we went home. But I conducted an experiment on your children about 6 weeks ago, without permission.

I sent via e-mail three questions that I thought for sure would spur some interesting discussion and was completely surprised by the result of one of my questions. Of the responses I received, every single student answered “yes.” That question was, “can a scientist also be an artist?”

I thought I was so clever when I wrote this question, but each one of you very easily got the question right and if I may paraphrase, roughly said, “ofcourse Jonathan, you can be anything you want to be.” 8th Group, you have already taught me, in the course of running this experiment, that you have to ask the right questions.

So let me change the question a bit. High school will represent the first time you can choose your own classes through what are called electives. So what if I had asked, “In high school, if you had only one elective to take and the choice was science or art, which should you take?” how then, would you answer? I hopefully have made the question a bit more difficult. We have now a working purpose, or driving question for these remarks.

So let’s now try to answer this question just like a scientist collecting data. Let’s move from the left part of this backboard which contains the hypothesis, to the middle, where we find data.

I want to address both the scientists and artists in the room. But artists, let me first address you with a specific suggestion and scientists listen in too, because there’s a secondary relevant message.

My recommendation to you, artists is, “get a C, ++.”

When you get to high school don’t be afraid of taking a class where you might get a failing or less than desirable grade. Take a programming class like C++, for example, or at least one that is not in your comfort zone. I suggest this because in my experience, both have been helpful for growing in unexpected ways. Let me give an example.

I will admit, I was always good at tests and homework. In high school I found that among my peers I usually was able to do pretty well. I wouldn’t be at the top of the class, but I somehow managed to pull off decent grades consistently.

In college, I looked forward most to the classes that I could choose to take rather than the required classes that were part of a so-called “well rounded education.” Who needs that?! I thought, I just want to take the computer classes. An area I had a choice was foreign language and I thought to myself, I am so set. I can easily pass as I’ve had more years of French thanks to ACS than practically anyone else.

I took the placement test during the first week in school. I had to go into a dark booth, fill out a sheet of paper with a #2 pencil, and use a tape cassette player — do you still remember those? — to record my voice speaking French. A few days later I got the results:

FAILURE –take 2 more quarters of 1st year French, the sheet said.

Despite ACS’ excellent foundation in French, it’s a subject I have always struggled with for reasons still unknown to me. French was always out of my comfort zone but it did give me something I didn’t expect, a tool for connecting with other people around the world and an appreciation for different vocabularies, syntaxes, and grammars. Something I eventually put to use while learning a plethora of computer languages.

My main piece of advice is to take a class where you might fail. If you need a specific suggestion though, on what kind of class this should be, I’ll add one last detail. Take computer programming because I truly believe that over the course of the next century there will be no more important artistic medium to work in besides written computer code.

OK artists, hopefully I’ve convinced you to at least consider a science elective in that one slot you might have to fill. But now I want to speak to the scientists who might already be choosing a science class without any urging. Artists, pay attention too though. See if you’re able to guess where I’m going with my advice to the other half.

My recommendation to you, scientists, is “make a scene.”

Take a class where you are required to create something. I’m not talking about making the classic baking soda volcano. If you want a specific suggestion, try a video editing or photography class where you have to tell a story, or “make a scene.” I’ll give another example here.

At about the time I graduated college in 2004, Google decided to run an experiment of its own by hiring young college graduates and placing them in leadership positions called Associate Product Managers or APMs. The program was new, so I received a call from Google asking if I would like to apply. In 2004 I declined the request because I decided to finish another degree, but in 2005 when they called again I happily interviewed.

I knew very little about this new APM program but it sounded like fun and so I accepted Google’s offer. A few months after I joined, Google announced publicly something that I believe to be a historic undertaking, something on par with our country putting a man on the moon. I got a front row seat at such a project called Google Book Search.

The goal of the project is to scan in the world’s books with a current decade-long target of 15 million volumes. This way, all of the books, good and bad, ever written will be available at select collegiate libraries and hopefully, one day, to every person on the planet – no matter where they may be located.

A pesky set of laws called U.S. Fair use doctrine, something that evolves slowly since it’s made by a monopolistic thing called government, made such a project possible in the first place. Fair use says, you can make use of others’ ideas and works without asking for permission, as long as you don’t steal. And since Google was just scanning and not stealing, it luckily didn’t have to ask for permission 15 million times.

The day Google launched the project, you all remember, right? When Google Book Search launched banners streamed down in Times Square, there were fireworks in Paris, and the heroic engineers on the project marched in parades around the country and showed up even on American Idol, right? Not even close.

Rather, Google got sued. By who? Ironically, some of the people who would most benefit from the project, the authors of the books being scanned! And why? The real answer is complex, but slow moving out-of-date laws played a large role. All I can say is, Newton’s Laws never looked any better!

The point here is Google “made a scene” in scanning these books. They announced the project even when it wasn’t clearly in compliance with our nation’s laws. It scanned the books anyways and made our citizens and lawmakers question the validity of the old laws. Questioning authority and the old way of doing things, is an American principle that goes back to our Declaration of Independence which encourages us to alter or abolish any form of government that fails to serve its purpose.

Making a scene can take the form of book scanning or physical protests, but perhaps just as powerful, the phrase can be taken literally to mean making a video scene. So scientists, my advice to you in high school is take a video editing class, or at least something to tell a story but more importantly remember making a scene is about questioning authority and doing the right thing even when those around you might be doing the opposite.

First, I addressed the artists in the room, and told them to “get a C++”. Then I suggested to scientists, “make a scene.” So I now want to conclude with one final message to both. So let me move from the middle of the backboard to the final panel which holds the “conclusion.”

I want to close tonight with my homework assignment. High school is your personal declaration of independence. It represents the time in your life when you will transition from imperial control by your parents to being on your own.

So on this day, I want to give you just a small gift borrowed from a Berger Family tradition, because you have certainly earned it. The rarely used but still in circulation two-dollar bill is the only bill with a historical scene on the back – a scene of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I’ve written on each bill an e-mail address that is unique to that bill. I ask this: e-mail that address with what you plan to do with the bill and where you think you or the bill, will be both 1 year and 12 years from today.

In return, I will promise you this. I will keep your e-mail confidential and at both the 1 year and 12 year mark I will send the e-mail you sent, back, to the address I received it from. Also, if anyone else in the world finds the bill and decides to e-mail the address on it I will forward the message along.

Working out plans for the future, like this homework assignment, is something students at ACS have done since the beginning. A scientist studying ACS once wrote,
Boys and girls [appear to] experience the thrill, [the thrill] which is the reward of the thinker who has worked out his plans in harmony with nature's forces. The teacher encourages the work, but for the most part, experience is left to do its own educative work.
Gertrude Hartman wrote this in 1938 about the science classes within these very walls, or really, the brick walls over in that direction.

I give this $2 bill assignment because gaining experience through setting a goal or working out plans is the best way I have found to give the science experiment of my life, purpose. And purpose cannot come from science or art, but only from within.

Purpose, as seen here on the left part of this backboard.

When you set a personal goal both short and long term, it’s not necessarily important you reach it, because you are the only one who gets to define your own success. But it’s important to do because it gets you thinking about the future.

Finally though, I will end by amending my original message. Be a scientist, but be a scientist with a purpose. What I really mean is, be one who questions with a purpose.

Thank you.

Thank you also to Maliha Mustafa, Mike Kodiak, Germaine Hoe, and Andrew Ow, who sent me feedback and ideas for this speech.

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