Here, you pull the panel and I'll get the torch ready...
With that he reached into his coat pocket and handed me a screwdriver. I had only met my director once before during the job interview, but here we were in one of the elevators at Bell Labs in Murray Hill about to hack said elevator. A bit of fiddling and the panel was off. He had closed the door and was lighting a small butane powered soldering iron. Friedolf was a known instrumentation expert - a breed as interested in how something is measured as the physics it is after. He made his reputation measuring hydrogen bomb blasts. How much can you accurately measure before your instruments are destroyed. These guys are astonishingly good with physical signals. In under three minutes the panel had been replaced. Spliced into the wiring was an empty connector. We stopped off at the stock room for a few 7400 series ICs and other bits and pieces.
He had worked out the simple logic of the elevator control during an hour of play the day before. The idea was to install a simple state machine - a primitive computer of sorts - that would change the requested floor every once and awhile. Every ten or so trips the elevator indicator would show where the rider intended to go, but bit of kit we installed early the next morning would redirect it to a different floor. We could adjust the period between redirects. It was an excellent introduction to the culture of the place.
A few months in and he called me into his office.
You're working too hard. Why don't you take a week or two off from what you've been doing. Find something interesting to work on. Something different from anything you've worked on or thought of working on. You're not going to learn much in a week, but if you're lucky maybe something will connect in your head. All I ask is you throw yourself into it and tell me about it in a month or two.1
These mini-Sabbaticals generally took place early in January. They continued for a decade until I moved to a different lab and assumed most people were doing something like this. In fact more than a few people created their own paths as part of their research direction - I certainly did - but the instruction to do something very different wasn't as common. My new director called me in and told me about a note describing the week long explorations suggesting it would be important that I stay with it as it had paid off.2 The same note made its way to the third director with the recommendation of the second. After leaving AT&T Research I maintained the tradition. I had made too many connections to different people and fields to give up. While my formal education and much of my work was extremely focused, I had found a mechanism for spreading out and finding a few new dots to connect. It had become something of a serendipity generator. All I have to do is be smart enough to wire in a bit of the new for a new perspective and vision. I'm pretty sure it has made me better at what I do and even how I think.
The 30th of December approaches. That's the day I choose the subject.
1 This is a rough quote
2 This was remarkable as the divestiture was taking its toll on pure research and the Labs was now business focused. Much has been written on the subject, but the organization and company were poorly suited a competitive world outside the protection of regulated monopoly. The end of an era - that kind of research is very rare these days. But good work is being done in some of government and university labs.
Most of the Christmas cooking consisted of old favorites. I did try a few recipes others suggested. This one is excellent - I used dried cranberries rather than raisins and very good heritage carrots. I'm back to playing with the food and the next post should see something different.
Honey Roasted Carrots