Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

Some Heinz Stories

When I first met Heinz and Mai, I had just started graduate school in the Cybernetic Systems Masters Degree Program at San Jose State University. Heinz and Mai had taken a number of us under their wings, teaching us the cybernetics and history of the field we would never learn in class, regaling us with stories, and stuffing us with tea and Linzer Torte when we came to visit. Heinz was about to turn 76. He kept talking about how hepromised to retire when he reached 76... though Mai would delicately snort and give Heinz what is known inmy house as 'the look'... Finally his 76th birthday rolled around, and a number of us in the graduate program wereinvited to the house on Rattlesnake Hill to celebrate. Someone asked Heinz if, now that he was 76, would he really retire. Heinz laughed enthusiastically, and with the characteristic twinkle in his eye, he said, "Of COURSE I am retiring. From now on, when I travel and speak and write, I will no longer be PAID for it! That is retirement!! When you no longer get paid for working!"

Heinz had submitted a letter of recommendation in support of myapplication to the graduate program at SUNY Binghamton, which was then directed by Dr. George Klir. Dr. Klir was quite cordial at my admissions interview – but when he discovered that Heinz had written the letter of recommendation, all other admissions requirements became mere formalities. After Icompleted my residency and comprehensive exams for the PhD program, I hastened back to Rattlesnake Hill to report to my mentor. Heinz wanted to hear all about it, as I had managed to explain and successfully defend the notion of second order cybernetics to a scientific realist and an engineering professor during my comprehensive exam. It had been a tough time, almost three hours of oral examination. Finally, I was required to go to the board and provide a mathematical proof of Shannon's second law, using a particular theorem as the basis. I was rattled, and made an error in calculating with logarithms. Finally, after agreeing to 'help' me get a better hand on these formalisms, my committee passed me anddismissed me – finally. As I gave Heinz the blow by blow descriptions, hiseyes got wider and wider. He finally said, "You know, all you had to do to finish your orals was to say "I don't know' to one of their questions! THAT iswhat took so long! They are waiting for a chance to CORRECT you! When you are teaching, remember to tell that to your student!! "I DON'T KNOW – and it will be all over," he said, delightedly.

Heinz and Mai were always wonderful to me and to so many other people – students and friends, and even to casual acquaintances ofstudents and friends. I know of at least one instance where they 'lent' a significant sum of money to a PhD student – the advisee of a distant colleague – who was struggling with his dissertation, and suffering greatly over it. I don't know if they ever were repaid. I know that they did not expect to be. In fact, they invited him to their house, and told him to live on the money they were giving him, and work on the dissertation for one year, and only one year. At the end of that time, they told him, if it is not finished, just stop!! It is not worth ruining years of one's life over. And Heinz would help him to find work either way.

Another time, I was on my way through Northern California over the holidays, and was due to stop and visit Heinz and Mai. A day or so beforeI was to visit, I came down with a terrible case of respiratory flu. Some friends of mine arranged for me to stay at a nearby motel where they could visit me and bring me food – and I could be comfortable, and have some peace and quiet until I feltready to travel again. I called Heinz and Mai and left word that I wouldnot be able to visit until I was recovered, as I didn't want them exposed to this nasty bug. The next week when I did visit Rattlesnake Hill, Heinz and Mai embraced me, and told me that I should havecome to them! They had a bedroom, and would have been able to take care of me, and nurse my through the flu! I discovered that they had called every motel in Morgan Hill looking for me the week before, to invite me to stay with them until I had recovered. And I know that they would have, not thinking for a moment of the danger to themselves.

Kevin Kreitman

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift