Einstein: The Theory of Positivity (Q&A)

The pungent smells of cheap alcohol, cigarette smoke, and a mysterious odor that can only be described as ‘Stinger’s Fragrance’ swirl together on a crowded Thursday night in Long Branch, NJ.

All of the usual suspects have arrived. The underage Monmouth students with novelty ID’s over-eagerly spinning the shot wheel. The sorority girls clique-ing together in the back of the bar ordering their $5 red bull & vodkas. A group of happy-go-lucky 21 year old bar-rookies selfie-ing away on the dance floor hoping that maybe, just maybe, if they use #GetStung they’ll make an appearance on the infamous projector screen. And my personal favorite, the DJ walking around blaring into his prized microphone, “YO YO YO ALL THA LADIEZ WHO LEFT THEIR BOYFRIENDS AT HOME & READY FOR WHATEVER LET ME HEAR YOU SAY YEA!!” Gracefully implying that all morals were checked at the door.

I’m standing underneath questionably hung Chauvet club lights, doing my usual people watching, soaking in the culture, secretly attempting to read the minds of each passerby. Then, all of a sudden, a new face walks in the door. He has a regular name, however tonight he goes by his preferable nomenclature: Einstein. I’ve seen Einstein before. Nearly every time I do, I end up asking my friends the very same things: “Why do you think he’s here?” and “Do you think he’s ever picked up a girl?” Luckily, I had missed the pregame that night and was still sober enough to approach someone so mysterious. In another state of mind I’d steer clear and go about my night.

I walk over, for some reason nervously, almost so much that I’m forgetting how to walk normally. I wave awkwardly. I have his attention now. “Oh shit, what’s my plan here?” I think to myself as I stand next to him at a loss for words. I can’t just start asking Einstein every question that pops into my head. I start with a lie. “Hey man, I’m with the Monmouth University newspaper and I was wondering if I could interview you for a new story I’m writing.” He laughs confidently. It makes me think this isn’t his first time getting local coverage. He hands me a flimsy business card: Stephen Alan Jacobs — Elberon, NJ. There’s a superimposed photo of himself with 6 girls that he took several years prior. “Give me a call any time. But, call the house phone, I don’t prefer to use my cellphone if given the option.” “Sure thing,” I reply.

The next day I draft up some questions that proved to be worthless (you’ll see why) and I gave him a call. He answers, and politely asks me to hold. I’m eavesdropping on a conversation he’s having with an ex-girlfriend.. Someone hit her brand new car and she felt the need to call him. He’s a gentleman and asks if he could return her call later that afternoon. We begin our Q&A:

Q: How old are you?
A: I am about to turn 67.

Q: Any birthday party plans?
A: (Laughter) Probably not.

Q: Where’d you go to high school and college?
A: Long Branch class of ‘66. College at Harvard and graduate school at Northwestern. “(Wow)” Yeah, I’m not a dummy. Or at least I have the credentials.

Q: What did you study at Harvard and Northwestern?
A: Chemistry.

Q: What do you think about your nickname, “Einstein”.
A: (Laughter) That actually has a story. There was this very delicate featured girl at Stingers who approached me. During our conversation she said, “People call you Einstein.” I said, “That’s okay, he was a good guy. It’s not like they’re calling me Hitler.” She gave me this strange look and she said, “You’ll have to excuse me, I am very German.” Turns out I was speaking with a cute, delicate featured Skinhead.

Q: When did you first decide to go out and party?
A: Well, it started when I was in graduate school. This would be in the 1970’s. The era of garage bands. I loved garage bands. And I just had a reputation that if somebody wanted to go dancing, I was available. Then garage bands disappeared suddenly and that was over.

Q: So what happened after the garage band era disappeared?
A: Well, I got back into dancing because I actually was going to Stingers for the paid TV. I watched some TV things there that I wasn’t willing to pay for at home and one of the barkeeps talked me into showing up at one of the party nights. People tried to ignore me at first, but it was just fun to be there. Then people started dancing with me and that was truly fun. So 2003, 2004. What I was watching was the World Poker tour, so that’s about when that stuff went on television. And like I said, I was talking to a barkeep at Stingers and she said,“You have to go to the party night” and I said, “I don’t belong,” and she said“Well go anyway!” (laughter).

Q: Tell me, how do you muster up the courage to go dance with people over 40 years younger than you?

A: In college, a friend taught me the secret of dancing: smile and move to the rhythm and everything else is forgivable. So that made all the difference in the world. And that’s how I’ve been dancing ever since.

Q: What is it about dancing that you love?
A: Among my earliest memories is.. There was a place between the living room and the dining room where there was bare floor. I remember standing there with music playing, just stamping around. As far as I can tell, that’s the way I’m wired. I like to move around to music. And it helps a lot to have people smiling and think “oh we’re playing.” What’s wrong with playing?

Q: When did you start going to Bar A?
A: All I knew about was Stingers and I got fairly friendly with the semi-staff people and the promoters.. The people who go around giving out t-shirts and all that stuff. I ran into one of them by accident during the summer and I said, “I sure miss having a place to go dancing” and she said, “Check out Bar A, on a Tuesday night” and that was kind of instant. Partly because I had already gotten to become something of a fixture at Stingers and a lot of the people that were there were now at Bar A. I had no idea what it was about… When I was in High School, Belmar was nowhere. All the cool kids hung out in Bradley Beach!

Q: What’s your least favorite part about going out?
A: Some people just don’t like me; they think I’m creepy. I can deal with that. But, there have been a couple instances where people have threatened to try to start a fight with me. And you know, this is happy stuff. Why would you want to fight?

Q: What do you do when people try to start fights or think that you’re being creepy?
A: I hold up my hands and I walk backwards. That usually works.

Q: Has anything bad ever happened?
A: There was one guy that had an unfortunate contact with me. I still feel bad about it. He had done very badly on his job and I didn’t realize he was a trainee, and I complained about the service and he was disciplined for it, which I think was unfair of his boss. So he blamed me and he came up to me and said something or other. Then someone followed him around and threatened him and that was not something I could do anything about. You know, I was saying to everyone nearby, “Wait a minute, this guy has a point!” But some people did not think that made it okay. There are people who think I am one of the biggest parts of the entertainment, which I laugh about.

Q: Do people ever try to lure you into troubling situations?
A: When people come up to me and say, “Go dance with that girl and get really in her face” I look at her, and if she doesn’t do something to invite me there, I know she has other ideas. I try not to mess up other people’s good time. And you know, nobody’s perfect. I hope that I don’t spoil anyone’s fun.

Q: What do you want to say to all of the people who see an older guy in a young place like Stingers or Bar A and think, “Creepy old guy”, but really they don’t know you?
A: You don’t have to be within 10 feet of me if you don’t want to be. One thing I pride myself on is that I dance with people, not at people. At some point, maybe you think, “Hey, people seem to be having fun dancing with this guy, I’ll dance with him for a couple minutes.” If you never decide that, no problem! I’m having a good time and I hope you’re having a good time.

Q: What is your objective when you dance with girls?
A: For everybody to have a good time! I try to pick up on what kind of dance moves are in use. I take other people’s moves. Change them a little. Give them back to them. It’s an exchange. I should probably tell you, I have a lot of experience with international folk dancing.. Where something that you’re conscious of is the people in this area dance with these kinds of moves. It may look like other kinds of moves would fit in, but if you hung out among them and put that kind of move into a dance they’d look at you funny. I do the same thing with contemporary Jersey Shore Americans. Let’s see what kind of moves people use and let’s play with them!

Q: Tell me about your experience with International Folk Dancing.
A: When I started graduate school I realized I wasn’t doing anything that involved moving around. I looked at all the clubs that Northwestern had available and one of them was International Folk Dancing (laughter). So I went, and it stuck. Like I said, I just seem to be wired to like to dance and that was a nice way to do it. I wound up running the club there. I made friends, I made enemies.. It was a whole thing.

Q: What did you do after you graduated from Northwestern?
A: I went to work for Quaker Oats for about fourteen years I think. First in the flavor department and then in the analytical department. For a couple years after that I had a job with a home networking company. The company went out of business. That basically got to the Bush Jr. slump when it was very hard to find work and I only did a couple of casual things. Now, I basically live off some very lucky stock market stuff from my early years at Quaker.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your life at home? Do you have a family?
A: No family. I am somewhat known in the neighborhood because of my project. My lawn was taken care of by ChemLawn for many years, and I probably shouldn’t have said that. They fertilized and lined it to the average of the neighborhood. In Elberon, nearly all of the topsoil was trucked in from elsewhere. Every yard was different and my lawn became a disaster. So what I’ve been doing, every year I dig up the worst 8x8 square of the yard and I plant sunflowers. My expanding sunflower jungle is becoming somewhat of an institution in the neighborhood. My gardening project is really an effort to give intensive care to the worst parts of my lawn. It’s a chance to be a little bit of a showman.

Q: Have you ever been married?
A: No.

Q: What’s something not everyone knows about you?
A: The thing I get the most mileage out of is that for about 10 years, the flavor in Crunch Berries was something I formulated. Crunch Berries are older than this, but from about 1990 to 2000 the flavor was my formulation. The deal there was that they made a change in the dough recipe and the existing flavor didn’t taste right. I had been experimenting with the flavor for a different reason, but I had come up with a formula that had tasted the same whether you used the old dough recipe or the new one. Also at one time, when you got frozen pizza, the directions told you to put it on top of the box in the microwave. I was behind the research that led to this because we found it cooked the pizza more evenly. Unfortunately, the FDA didn’t really like you heating up the ink on the box.. They probably had a point.

Q: If you could give a big audience one piece of wisdom, what would it be?
A: If you’re looking for something big.. It’s that science is fun and worthwhile. If you find it scary, you’re trying to take gulps that are too big. I enjoy chemistry, math, physics as a spectator, I even got into some fairly tough biology stuff that was fascinating. It’s so much better to have ideas that you can actually trace back and see why this idea is likely to be truer than most others.

Q: How do you remain active in the science community today?
A: I have my own little corner of the issue of celiac disease. I annoy the people who are actually working. It’s very important and very much taken for granted. I have a mother’s love for this corner. The first thing that happens when a person is exposed to gluten is very interesting. If you look at this, it might change the way you look at the rest of the problem. From time to time, I sink myself in medical libraries to come up with ways to persuade people’s thinking. I’m actually in the process of lining up scientists to run an experiment that I think will really shake things up in this corner.

Q: What other hobbies do you have?
A: I spend most mornings with my little bit of stock market stuff. I am not by any means a trader and certainly not a day-trader, but I have a fairly active stock market investment. I trade for the long-term and “trade” really gives the wrong impression. I am sympathetic when Warren Buffett says “My ideal holding period is forever.” I don’t necessarily have good enough taste to manage forever, but more than a year certainly.

Q: What’s your favorite stock?
A: Oh God, that’s actually very controversial. The one that I have faith in, that I can talk about, is a company called Cancer Insight which makes a very specialized cancer drug. Their research program is incredible and they seem to be on the verge of making their one drug useful for many purposes beyond what it’s presently used for. For the long run, I like it very much. What I am more fascinated with is the company that does the genetic testing for breast and ovarian cancer risk. They are very hated because they claimed that they outright owned human genes. It’s called Myriad Genetics. They’re so hated that I think the stock price has been driven down far below what it ought to be and I expect that the people who are driving it down are going to be forced to give up soon.

Q: What do you want people to understand about you?
One is, If you see me in a place where people are dancing, I probably want to dance with you and all your friends (laughter)! I don’t necessarily have the strength or the wind for real show-off dancing, but you know, I’m not hopeless joining a circle. Other than that, what can I say? I’m available for chemistry and math tutoring (laughter). Everyone I’ve ever tutored, and that’s not many, has done better, and no one has ever come back. I am brutal, but it works. I ask the same question as long as I keep getting the same wrong answer. Come to think of it, I had a job once teaching computer programming teaching the C language, which is terribly out of fashion now.

Q: Do you still code?
A: Yes, I am most comfortable in visual basic, but I am working through a book on C#. I am from the era of procedural programming. I made just an adequate transition to structured programming. I coexist with object oriented programming and I don’t necessarily think I’m going to make it to functional programming (laughter). There’s just too big of an era gap. I remember when President Reagan announced a space-based system that would make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete. The outline of what he had been told could be done came out and someone did an estimate of the control requirements for star wars as it was conceived and said this exceeds the programming capabilities of everyone put together by orders of magnitude.. That’s when it became very, very obvious that the old procedural model was not going to scale very much farther.

Q: Have you ever built anything I might have heard of?
Almost. The home networking thing.. I was responsible for the music player. I did large desktop machines that were connected over a network to a database then to a music collection. Something more or less equivalent to your iPod. Only about a thousand times heavier and not as good. The only interesting things were.. there was a tremendous amount of code there to do something sensible when faced with a database full of errors. We found out as soon as you try to catalog a music collection everything goes completely screwy. The other thing that was interesting, was trying to recognize a CD. I think that now they have labels that actually identify them, but at the time everyone was trying different variants of catalogs. All of the CD’s issued and the lengths of the tracks were separate and you’d have to make a plausible identification of track times. The databases were unreliable and incomplete; you had to try to make the best guesses you could.. This was a thousand years ago.

Q: What was the name of the company?
A: It was called Touch Bridge. It did not succeed. The development operation was located on Chamber street near City Hall in New York, four blocks from the Trade Center. We were racing with General Electric and another company to see who would have this very complete home networking system to the market first. We had fun doing it. The network ideas included everything you could think of. We had just had a successful trade show where we thought we had made a very important sale. Then the attacks on 9/11 happened and our office was off-limits for two months. We had to scramble to move our development operation to a different place, with no notice, just when things were coming together. After that, it never really became organized again, so it failed. Fortunately the backer was smart enough not to sink all of his money into one project.

We finish up our conversation and I hang up the phone wishing it didn’t have to end. I’ve seen Steve a couple times since our conversation and I look at him very differently now. Before, I will be honest.. I thought he was a creepy old man with cruel intentions. Now when I look, I see an Ivy league scholar, a scientist, an investor, a computer programmer. I see someone who I can look up to. Someone with the courage to never stop having a good time in life. Steve’s mission to embrace happiness is something we can all learn from.

If you’re still reading this, the next time you see “Einstein” aimlessly looking for a friend, I encourage you to be that person. Go over, say hello, have a conversation, have a dance, live a little.

With love,
Timothy West


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