Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A bit of a gap!

Things have been a bit complicated recently, but I'll start catching up with some new photos and posts over the next few days.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Memorial date set!

Gill Pratt has informed me that Jerry's memorial will be:

Sunday, September 25, 2011
MIT Room 32-123 

Which means that it's on the old site of Building 20.

The present plan is for a interleaved mix of technical talks of reminiscences.

Monday, June 6, 2011


I remember Jerry coming out to Dad's summer camp, Homestead, back in the early 70's. He and Maggie would come visit, and sometimes Jerry would lecture. I had generally disliked the morning lectures, because I felt that was time taken away from a summer day that should be spent swimming, doing some craftsy activity at a workshop, or just watching grass and flowers grow. Jerry's lectures changed all that.

I will never forget that crisp summer morning decades ago. Jerry stood under those tall pines bordering Moose Pond, and drew magical parallels between Medusa and octopus from the sea. Sitting next to a sparkling boulder covered in mica and lichen, Jerry opened my eyes to everlasting truths behnd stories that are so often casually dismissed as "myths."

For example, Medusa was famous for her head of hair that was made of living snakes. The octopus has such a feature attached to it. Medusa lived a life of hermitage, as do octopi. They blend and disappear into their surroundings, appearing only long enough to catch prey or move to another hiding place. Medusa did not seek the company of others, people came to her. This is the way of the octopus as well. It camouflages itself into its surroundings, and food swims, crawls, or lands in the octopus's hiding spot. Medusa was known for turning those who gazed upon her into stone. The octopus stuns its visitors, renders them immobile, and devours them. When threatened, the octopus disappears in a cloud of ink, like a legendary assassin.

When Jerry's lecture was over, I knew that Medusa had not been slain. It was an ugly rumor in mythical form. I knew Medusa was alive and well - living a life of self chosen, blissful solitude, in the salty depths of the sea.

Every time Jerry came out to visit, I would toss whatever plans I might have had for that day. Instead, I would go do something REALLY exciting . I would plant myself among his loyal listeners and immerse myself in the magic, the brilliance, the gentleness, and the light that always seemed to radiate from his words, his smile, and his wisdom.

When I grow up, I want to be like that.

-- Cori (Ertha) Fukuchi

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Just so you know

I still don't have confirmation of a memorial date (but at this point I'm guessing that it will be September).

Anyone who sends me a Jerry story for the blog will be put on the notification list and will be contacted when plans gel.

A Mensch

Over and above everything, Jerry was a mensch.

There is a Yiddish saying: "When a mensch leaves the world, the world says he left too soon." It's no wonder that we all miss him so dearly.

I find it impossible to think about Jerry without hearing his voice as clearly as if he were sitting next to me. He is pronouncing his customary valediction (in Yiddish) with a depth of sincerity, an intensity, and a sprinkle of joy which are the unmistakable reflection of a true mensch.

Whether our encounter was brief or extended, whether we had merely touched base or had solved the world's problems, as we parted, he would always establish a connection directly with my eyes and, with a warm smile, wish me:

"Mit gluk oon mazel!" (With happiness and good fortune!).

-- Richard Kramer


I used to see Jerry and Maggie on campus together in the 1970s, with his large belly and her extreme fitness making such a contrast. For some reason my father-in-law knew Jerry, undoubtedly through academic connections over the years. They were both brilliant across many subjects and in love with arguing, but my father-in-law was not a mensch, as Jerry has been widely described.

Before reading the Boston Globe obituary, I didn't realize that pianist Theodore Lettvin was Jerry's brother. Theodore was at Cleveland Institute of Music when I was growing up, and I certainly knew the name. Maybe I heard him perform in Cleveland, or maybe I knew classmates who had studied with him.

-- Debbie Levey

Placing out

I'll never forget my first exposure to Jerry. It was orientation week in 1984, and a number of us were in the Concourse lounge debating whether to place out of first semester calculus and physics. Some people had taken AP classes in high school and had scored high enough on the AP exams to take credit for first semester classes. Jerry, and other Concourse advisors, insisted that we not place out of these classes because nearly EVERYTHING we were going to learn at M.I.T. had foundations in these subjects. It was imperative that we have solid understanding of calculus and physics. 

Jerry pointed out that there were two possibilities. The first was we already knew everything in these subjects and these classes would be easy for us. "Lord knows," he said. "You could stand to have some easy classes your first year at M.I.T." The second was that we DIDN'T know everything, and it would therefore be a very good thing that we took the classes to get that solid foundation.

One girl was not to be dissuaded. She was adamant about skipping the classes.

"Why do you want to place out of them?" Jerry asked.

"Because then maybe I could get started on my other classes and then graduate early and save my parents some money," the girl replied.

Jerry leaned back in his chair with a contemplative expression on his face. "Think of your parents," he responded as he took a long drag on his cigarette. "As a natural resource, to be used to the fullest extent possible."

I elected not to place out of those subjects.

--Joel Simansky

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jerry and the ‘miracle transistor’

For his experiments on the brains of various creatures, Jerry used his own unique design of ultra-high impedance voltage probes so a to subject said creatures to absolutely negligible currents. While he was describing some of these experiments to me – we saw him and Maggie often – he happened to mention that the critical component of his simple circuitry was a transistor from Transitron, my then employer.

Of the two genius friends of mine at that time – Jerry, of course, was one – the other was the late Nick deWolfe, indubitably the most brilliant semiconductor device guy on the planet. (On leaving Transitron, a story that deserves blogging, he and (non-techie) Alex d’Arbelof, founded Teradyne, a company alive and thriving still.)

When I told Nick that a friend of mine, Jerry Lettvin of MIT, was using Transitron transistors to make probes with 10-to-the-God-only-knows-what-power ohms impedance, Nick proclaimed this feat impossible – not just improbable, mark you – to achieve with our then actually quite crummy transistors. So off I went back to Jerry and told him Nick’s reaction. Jerry’s rebuttal was quite tangible: he demonstrated his probes and showed the data validating the impedance values thereof.

At this point, I’d had enough of acting as go-between, and requested that these two geniuses (genii?) meet, probes and all. They did, at a meeting from which Nick emerged chastened and baffled. “My God” said he: “that guy’s a genius”. But I knew that….

-- Ed Mlavsky

Cats and Dogs

When we lived in Harvard Square, we had a beautiful and highly snobbish cat called Carruthers: aplomp was his middle name. He would coil himself around Jerry’s neck while he, Maggie, Sally and I strolled to a coffee shop in the Square. Carruthers would sit on a chair like ‘a real people’ and drink cream from a saucer. OK, he wasn’t an octopus, but he would only do his shoulder-draping act for Jerry.

On one of our weekend sojourns at their Vermont pad, their dog chomped on a porcupine in the middle of the night, impaling itself with numerous spikes which penetrated both his upper and his lower jaws. To say that said dog was not altogether happy stretches even a Brit’s gift for understatement. Luckily, a more or less local vet told us to bring him over, but to restrain him from his own frenzied and futile attempts at spike removal…. So off we went in the Model A Ford, Jerry driving on seemingly endless dirt roads in almost total darkness while I was in the backseat trying to keep that poor dog from self-destruction. By the time we arrived at the large and sadistic individual who claimed to be a vet, the dog and I were both close to extinction.

After the brutally extraction of the spikes, the sedated animal and I again cuddled up in the back of the car for the journey home. And so endeth another vacation night in beautiful Vermont.

Ed Mlavsky


I took a little time off from the blog, but I'll be catching up today.