Heinz von Foerster Festschrift

A Grasshopper Reflects

The particular night I now have in mind was most likely in the summer of 1971 or 1974. Somehow I had it in my head that I had to talk to Heinz. Apparently my main purpose was to discuss something about the structure of time; at least that is the only topic I remember from this event. Heinz may have another recollection, if he remembers this at all.

I made my way to Flora Court on my bicycle or on foot, through the quiet streets of Champaign. I'm sure the evening was very warm with that humid central Illinois all-night warmth that I have never experienced here in Maine. The time was somewhere between 11 and 2 a.m.

I must have surveyed the house for signs of life, but the first I remember was being outside the backyard of your house, separated from the street by some bushes, maybe lilacs, and calling your attention with "Heinz, Heinz."

Well. You were there straightening your lawn furniture. Possibly you had been back there working. Anyway, of course straightening lawn furniture is most appropriate before going in for the night. For those who have not seen it, this was very nice, made by Heinz himself, probably to his own design.

Of course! Here's someone in the bushes saying "Heinz." Why not? Come in, yes. What's going on? Please, let's sit down in these newly straightened chairs.

So I told Heinz that I had come to the conclusion that time is shaped like a conch shell, or some sort of 3-D spiral. He listened to this and asked questions about why I was seeing it this way. In retrospect I am very aware that his questions were directed toward my seeing, rather than toward the structure of time.

I would like to relate one other story, from the Cybernetics class. There was a controversy with the Dean of Engineering or the head of the electrical engineering department. It may have been the time the print shop objected to content they were being asked to print for the class. The sense of the group, or at least my own feeling, was in favor of direct confrontation.

Heinz was arguing for some sort of strategic avoidance. The illustration he used for argument was this: "If I am walking and come to an intersection and the light in front of me is red, then I simply turn and go in the direction that is green."

This red-light green-light strategy gave me a new option that is sometimes against my nature and difficult to know when to put to use. These days I also can fit it in as an example of the non-standard geometries of social space, and also as an efficient means to traverse unpredictable networks.

Those are the tales written at Monika's request. I would like to add a footnote to the story of the night-time visit. One evening Mai, who is a very loving person, took me aside and pointed to a particular drawing or etching on their wall, and said that sometimes she feels set-upon by locusts or grasshoppers, as shown in the picture. Then, after taking that tiny liberty to complain, with a shrug and a smile she turned back to their life among the rest of us.

Heinz and Mai, you have extended many kindnesses over the years. Thank you.

Paul Schroeder

Heinz von Foerster Festschrift