17 November 2015

We Stand On the Shoulders of Giants

There is a reason for posting this CBS New article below, although it is a somewhat unusual departure from my normal discussions. And as you might suspect, it is for a good reason, both moral and practical.

I have known this man, Victor Lawrence, for almost thirty years. I worked for him in his Advanced Communications Research Department.   He has been both a friend, colleague, and a mentor, and more importantly, a role model.

But most significantly he is beyond doubt one of the kindest, and most humble people I have ever met.

He does more acts of kindness for more people than anyone I have ever seen. It is a way of life for him. You would have to work closely with him to know this, because he rarely talks about it. I will not recount some of the stories because it would be embarrassing to him and those he has helped sometimes in very difficult circumstances, but even after many years I am still amazed to find out about them and all the people he has helped.

So why bring this up?

There are two good reasons.

First, I keep a 'collection' of people I have known in my memory, of many races and creeds and persuasions. And so whenever I hear someone speaking harshly, or disparagingly, of any type of human being, I dip into my collection of true human beings and examples, and remember that they too are an example of whomever is being disparaged. As are we all if you think about it, because we are all just human beings, with our own faults and weaknesses if you look closely enough.  But they rose to become like beacons of light for others.

And secondly, it is useful to remember these good examples, to see people of truly remarkable achievements who are also a humble and complete person, in these days of elephantine greed and arrogant swagger, in service to the will to power. Whenever I am tired or discouraged by events or by wickedness in the world, their memory brings encouragement and hope and support.

And it reminds me especially how unworthy I am to judge anyone, especially out of ignorance. And the deep obligation that I owe to others.  To not acknowledge it by not trying to be kind and of some service, even in my blockheaded weakness, would be a colossal act of ingratitude.

Yes I know that 'inventing the internet' is a misnomer, because no one person 'invented' it. This is the sort of thing that we get from a media that tries to compress a complex reality into a sound byte for a broad audience for whom 'internet' equates to 'modern technology'.  Victor's work is fundamental and far reaching and pervasive for those who are aware of the many ways in which we use digital signal processing today.

Many people can point to their accomplishments.  But only the truly great ones have raised up others along with themselves, and made the world a better place by their simply being a part of it.  And he is one of those, and a worthy example to others and to me.

National Inventors Hall of Fame announces 2016 inductees

"I was so humbled when I found out. I did not believe it, because this is such a great honor," 2016 inductee Victor B. Lawrence told CBS News. "For me, this is something that I was really not expecting, it is really a big honor for me."

While Lawrence himself might not necessarily be a household name, his invention of signal processing in telecommunications has had far-reaching impact. An electrical engineer who spent the majority of his career at Bell Laboratories, Lawrence's work essentially made the modern Internet we know today possible. He improved Internet transmission, made high-speed connections more widely available, and kick-started the spread of the web globally.

"This work that I've done has really filtered almost every aspect of our modern lives. You can find it in communications in DSL, in phones, in EKG machines in medicine - it really infiltrates all aspects of our lives," he said.

Lawrence was born in Ghana, and said that one of his driving passions right now is to bring Internet access to the world's developing countries. He has been instrumental in trying to extend high-capacity fiber optic cable along Africa's west coast.

"I have this passion of brining the Internet to the far off nations of this world, and connect a number of countries that have no or limited Internet access," he said.

Lawrence developed his signature achievement in the 1980s as the world started moving away from data transmissions bogged down by masses of wires and cords to a more wireless future. After completing his PhD from the University of London, he was recruited by AT&T with the aim of finding ways, he said, "we could go from the analog world to the digital world."