Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Last Lecture

Today on a plane flight to Orlando for the eClinicalWorks National meeting, I read Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture, the wisdom of a Carnegie Mellon Professor dying of pancreatic cancer. I highly recommend this book as inspiration for engineering, computer science, and IT professionals.

Although I never met Randy, he and I had the same cultural context - we were born six months apart and grew up nerdy. His lifelong dreams were

Being in Zero Gravity
Playing in the NFL
Authoring an Article in World Book
Being Captain Kirk
Winning Stuffed Animals
Being a Disney Imagineer

I remember watching the original Stak Trek episodes when they were first broadcast, spending my free time reading 1960's era World Book Encyclopedias from A-Z, sitting in front of the television with my neighbors watching Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon, and marveling at how the special effects in Disney's Haunted Mansion were created.

What dreams arose for me from my 1960's life as a young geek?

Building the first bionic limbs

In middle school and high school I dreamed about bionics - the idea that biological systems and mechanical systems could be seamlessly combined to restore lost limbs. Throughout my life I've worked on pieces of this dream. As a high school student (1978) I designed computers that could measure human body signals and do real time signal averaging/fast fourier transformers that could be used to interpret visual and audio stimuli. As a college student I worked in a neurosurgery labs trying to understand the signals in the brain that coordinate movement. As a graduate student I designed robotic control systems. When I realized that limitations of 1980's computing capabilities and the lack of long lasting lightweight power sources would defer my dream for a few years, I turned my attention to electronic health records. The systems I work on today are a direct result of my early dreams of bionics.

Building and conversing with an Artificial Intelligence

In high school and college I experimented with the source code of ELIZA, the LISP-based computer psychiatrist. Although I never developed a witty interactive virtual companion, I learned a great deal about pattern matching and rulesets. The AI programming of the 1970's was the inspiration for the many decision support systems I work on today.

Immersing myself in Virtual Reality

As I kid, I thought that the analog world could be broken up into tiny digital fragments. If those fragments got small enough, human senses would be unable to tell the difference between reality and imaginary images - you could no longer believe anything you see. When I talked about this in the 1970's, my peers thought I was a little crazy. Today, my dreams of virtual reality directly inspire my passion for educational technology and simulation at Harvard.

Flying with an anti-gravity device

Many people wish they could fly. As a kid I imagined flipping a switch and riding my bicycle over the treetops E.T. style. At this point in technology history, we do not have any anti-gravity capabilities, but I believe my love of rock climbing and mountaineering is the terrestrial expression of my flying dream.

Being Henry David Thoreau

In my blog I've described my quest for simplicity, my veganism, and my dreams of a more green lifestyle. If you visit Walden Pond, you'll find a reconstruction of Henry's cabin with a plain pine bed, a desk, and his wooden flute. Every year, I aim for more time in nature and less complexity. Henry died of TB and my genome suggests I'm particularly susceptible to TB. Let's hope we do not share that in common!

Randy's book inspired me to reflect on my own dreams and how they've played out in my adult life as a CIO. Many of these dreams are still works in progress, which is appropriate since I'm only half completed with my lifespan. I look forward to the dreams of the next 46 years!

Thanks to Katherine Williams (originally Katherine Hoy), a friend from high school who recommended The Last Lecture and inspired this blog entry.
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