Thursday, September 20, 2007

Life is a crap shoot--existentialist alert!

All right, get out your hankies--If you were a college professor and you had a chance to give one last lecture before you died, what would you say?

At a number of colleges, professors have been asked to imagine what their last words would be and the results are no doubt fascinating and a great exercise. But for one of them, the exercise was not academic.

Randy Pausch, a well-known computer scientist at Carnegie-Mellon, has pancreatic cancer and will be dead in a few months. It was his last lecture. He is 46 and a father of three young children.

Jeff Zaslow, who writes “Moving On” for the Wall Street Journal, has a story about Pausch’s lecture today. It’s one of those only subscribers can read but I can tell you about it. If you have a subscription, click here. There is video of the lecture at the Carnegie Mellon website you will not want to miss. You also want to visit his web site to get more details on his illness. Click on his name above.

Pausch, the author of Alice, software that allows just about anyone to do 3-D animation on a computer, appears in remarkable health now that his chemotherapy is done. He said he feels wonderful and did push-ups on the stage floor to prove it. He lifts weights and rides a bicycle an hour every day That he has the most lethal form of cancer seems particularly ironic.

Four hundred people, all of whom knew the circumstances, came to hear the lecture. Pausch assured them he was not in denial. He knows he is dying. He even showed his CT scans with 10 tumors on his liver. The cancer had metastasized. If the audience expected him to be morose, he said, “I’m sorry to disappoint you.” And if you want to feel sorry for him, he said, you have to drop and do push ups first.

So what did he say as his last lecture:
  • Rejections in life, he said, are brick walls put there as a test. “They let us prove how badly we want things.” He also learned from a mentor that if “you wait long enough...people will surprise and impress you. If you are pissed off at someone,” he said, you haven’t waited long enough.
  • He got great pleasure, he said, from helping his students. He described requiring his students to create video games without sex and violence. “You’d be surprised how many 19-year-old boys run out of ideas when you take those possibilities away,” he said.
  • When he was a kid, he said, he had four goals in life: to win a giant stuffed animal at carnivals, design Disney rides, write an article for the World Book encyclopedia and fly in zero-gravity. He has done every one. He had all the stuffed animals he won brought into the lecture hall and gave them away to the audience.
  • Now he is facing death. “Like Moses, I get to see the Promised Land, but I don’t get to step foot on it. That’s OK. I will live on in Alice.” The program has had more than a million downloads.
  • He also admitted to a deathbed conversion, he told the audience. “I just bought a Macintosh.”

The lecture was taped so his children, 5, 2 and 1, can see it when they grow up. At the end he had a cake brought out for his wife, Jai [above] whose birthday was the day before. They kissed and everyone sang “Happy Birthday” and cried.

“This was for my kids,” he said finally. And everyone, I suspect, fell apart. Be my guest.

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