drwex: (WWFD)
Today (28 January as I write this) is the anniversary of the Challenger disaster. I've thought about writing this entry for a while because it's also the 30th anniversary of the accident, but I find I have nothing more to say on this anniversary than I've said on others.

  • I will probably always remember where I was when I saw the television for the first time. I will probably always have that Y-shaped smoke trail etched in my visual memory.
  • I remember it as the day I understood that I, personally, would never go into space. As a kid who dreamed (like so many other kids) of being an astronaut, as a kid who'd written his first grade-school fiction story as a first-person account of Astronaut Me landing on Mars, this was harder than you'd expect.
  • I remember it as the thing that led me to discover Feynman and to enshrine him as one of my idols.
  • I teach it to design students, when I teach, as an example of how (bad) design can kill.

I am bad with anniversaries and I forget my own kids' birthdays. Some years I even forget this specific date. But I do remember.
drwex: (WWFD)
Yesterday it was reported that Marvin Minsky had died this past weekend. It's hard to wrap my brain around this because I only knew him when he was, to be frank, old. In my experience he has always been - and will always be - the epitome of a crochety old professor, scientist, and even something of a philosopher.

I saw him, briefly, at the Media Lab's 30th anniversary celebration at the end of October. He was clearly in frailer condition than when I'd seen him last, but still you don't expect a fixture like that to be silenced forever.

I took a class from Marvin, who did not like his students calling him Professor Minsky, even the ones he did not house, mentor, and shepherd personally. If you were a professional colleague then "Dr Minsky" was alright but we learned to call him Marvin. I forget what the class was called but it really doesn't matter, because Marvin didn't so much "teach" a "class" as stand in front of a packed hall for three hours one night a week and do performance art.

It was almost all verbal - he never much bothered with slides or visuals except a diagram here or there - and it all appeared to be extemporaneous. He'd just... start talking and keeping up with him was unpredictably easy or difficult depending on how "on" he was that night. His topics ranged from theories of mind to the history of artificial intelligence to science fiction to current trends in computer science to why Americans are so bad at teaching children simple math. You couldn't predict what he was going to riff on for any given night, and that was just fine.

He was also an unabashed curmudgeon whom you'd find once in a while playing snippets of various symphonic pieces on the piano that used to be in the Lab atrium. I think it helped him organize his thoughts, though his music rambled as much as his lectures - he'd start things in mid-musical phrase and just trail off or stop if something else caught his fancy. Talking to him had to wait until he did stop, unless you were a pretty senior colleague or one of his favored students. He was hard to deal with oftentimes: abrasive and blunt, and stubbornly set in his ways.

My favorite memories of our few 1:1 conversations revolve around books. I'd tell him I had read another new book and he'd challenge me: "Tell me two new ideas that are in that book." I'd try and he'd dismiss them with "Nonsense" or "That can't be right." That didn't mean he actually thought the idea was nonsense so much as he thought I hadn't done a good job summarizing or framing the novelty of the idea. Minsky did love science fiction, with the strong emphasis on the 'science' part. He once averred that science fiction was about ideas and other fiction was about the seven deadly sins. Whether a book was per se labeled as science fiction didn't matter to him so much as whether it contained interesting ideas - once he'd determined that it did he'd apply his own label.

And finally, I remember and treasure the one assignment I did for his class that he called out for praise. We were discussing why humans have such a strong leaning toward comparing only two things, and why we go to such great lengths to simplify things into two comparables. What, he asked, is wrong with comparing three things?

I realized (and wrote in my answer) that if you are comparing A and B you only have one mental comparison to handle, A-B. Whereas if you compare three things, you have to manage three mental comparisons: A-B, A-C, and B-C. This, I pointed out, meant that pairwise comparisons involved an information reduction and thus the brain ought to favor them over three-way comparisons that did not reduce information load. He told me my answer was "interesting" and "might even be right". High praise indeed from Marvin.
drwex: (VNV)
Like most of us, I woke up to the news that David Bowie is gone. That's a hole in the universe that will not fill - someone [livejournal.com profile] sovay remarked that it's as though a constellation had been removed from the sky.

As a child of the 70s I grew up listening to Space Oddity and The Man Who Sold the World - I remember my first complete listen-through of that one being in the background to my first read-through of Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon and how weird my very young self found all that. And of course Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs and Young Americans. But mostly The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars - that was the LP I wore out from repeated playing, and it's that one I want to talk about.

I have a hard time telling this story because it has no referents to my present set of friends and social circle and yet it still echoes in my life.

Some of you know I used to do technical theater work - stage and lights mostly. That began in the early 80s when I was an undergrad. One of the biggest shows I ever took on was technical directing (and being sole stage shop for) the college's production of "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars." It was a musical adaptation of Bowie's ideas and themes into theatrical forms. And because one of our musicians was the younger brother of the trumpet player who was touring with Bowie at that time we got permission to use the real music.

My memories of that experience are incoherent, shaded by the decades between then and now, but points stick out and touch me.

- Weeks of listening to the music with the cast. We rehearsed and practiced with the real music while the band learned. Only once we got to tech week did the live band take over and I remembered how strange it seemed. By dress rehearsal they had it down cold and it was just others' voices over Bowie's music.

- The show featured a West Side Story-like dance-battle sequence on a staircase I built. I remember it breaking once in rehearsal and I remember going back to the shop to rebuilt. The end piece was so strong it took four people with crowbars nearly 20 minutes to break it during strike. I remember the director and I sat on the edge of the stage and passed a bottle of cheap champagne back and forth, taking swigs while we watched. We only had four crowbars and they were clearly having too much fun for us to interfere.

- We somehow got permission to use live flame on stage. In a wooden theater. In an all-wooden building. At the time, it was the third largest all-wood theater remaining in America. I remember having to fireproof the boards that would go on stage; to this day that is the worst smell I've ever been subjected to and I say this as someone who walked past a broken-open durian in Singapore later in life.

- I remember it as my first experience cutting Plexiglas and how horrible that was. Fiendish splinters embedded with mechanical force everywhere in my arms, clothing, hair. I remember putting Scary Monsters and Let's Dance (on cassette tape) into the shop sound system because I needed something to keep me going, but I didn't want to overdose on the show's music.

- I remember that the choreography called for the leads to dance from floor to table in the nightclub we had converted the theater into. I remember there being no tables that could take the leaping, thundering performers and the director coming to me in desperation. I remember building a box with 4x4 pillars for corner stabilization that we dressed to look like a table and still every night she and I would sit at that special table and hold it in place with all our might as the performers leapt on, did their routines, and leapt off.

- I remember that somewhere in there one of the cast or crew thought it would be hilarious to write my phone number in a stall in the men's room, offering blowjobs. I remember especially the scared voice on the other end of the phone asking for me, telling me he'd found my number. I remember trying desperately to reassure him that I wasn't angry or going to hurt him, but I did want to know where he'd found my number so I could erase it. Later, Bowie would come to be a public bisexual and later still I would understand how that label related to me and to how I saw myself.

But at the time of the call I remember the jolt of shock as (what we would now call) my bubble of het privilege was jostled by the sudden realization that some people were afraid because of their sexuality. I remembered thinking it was sad, and I was sad that the caller wouldn't come to the show and say hi. Notions of "safe space" were decades away, but I was already reading net.motss - soon to become soc.motss - and I mark this moment as one of those where I started to wake up to realities other than my own.

- Finally I remember that the male and female leads were a couple. I remember that during the production they fought, often vehemently, loudly, disrupting rehearsals with their quarrels. I remember that he hit her, in their house where they lived together - I remember talking with the make-up artist about what she could do to cover bruises. And I remember that she went back to him time and time again as we and friends who knew her better tried to figure out what we could do. We'd give her space, settle her on a couch or in a spare bedroom, and then wake up the next morning to her gone again.

I remember that the director offered to find another leading man, even as late as dress week and I think I remember the looks on both women's faces as our star refused, and asked that it not be brought up again. I remember particularly that the script called for a knife fight between the two characters in the last act and I remember my hands carefully taping the knife to try and prevent actual injury. I remember one night she managed to draw real blood anyway, and how she screamed her exit line that night.

Somewhere in my memorabilia is a CD of that performance, created by my brother digitizing an old tape he'd found. I wonder if it's still playable.
drwex: (pogo)
Last night brought news of the death of a long-time friend. I'd known him since 1991, a story I'll tell in a moment. Like many of his friends from earlier years I'd fallen out of touch with him as he changed social circles. We saw each other a few times a year, usually bumping into each other at a party or concert. We'd catch up a bit and drift on. You always think there will be time later to sit down and renew a friendship.

Rich made many choices in changing his life and, as I said to MizA last night, his choices were not mine. But neither are my choices so stellar that I want to be criticizing the choices others make. They were his to make and he lived the life he made for himself, with its good and its bad. Regardless, I will not forget nor easily set aside the joys he brought to our occasions, or the times he made me welcome. That meant a lot to me, so herewith my favorite story of him.

The time is 1991 and I am very new to the area. [livejournal.com profile] tamidon is about the only person I know and I am hugely intimidated by the tales I hear of a large social group who all seem to know each other and have history I don't share. Still, I am convinced to call a movie foo - back when we did such things - with pre-movie pizza at the Alewife Bertucci's.

To my amazement, people came and I found myself at a table Bertucci's staff hastily pulled together with a dozen strangers. Across from me were two guys who seemed a bit more boisterous than the others. Their names were Rich and Craig, and they were clearly back-slapping buddies. They seemed to be having trouble figuring out what to get, until the waitress announced that among the specials was a garlic pizza. Rich immediately lit up.

"I'd like the garlic pizza," he told her, "with extra garlic."
"Extra garlic?" she seemed a little incredulous.
Rich nodded emphatically: "If I can't smell the garlic out here then there's not enough garlic on it."
Then he grinned across the table at me and said, "You can have a slice."
And I knew I'd found my people.
drwex: (WWFD)
I'm embarrassed to say I nearly missed today's anniversary of the Challenger disaster. It's something I try to remember every year - something that I think we should remember. This despite the publication only a week ago of newly discovered pictures of the disaster.

If you're not familiar with the event and the people and systems around it, the Wikipedia article reads as thorough and remarkably unbiased, to me.

I will remember as long as I can what I was doing that day and how I saw the news. I will also remember Feynman's publicity stunt at the commission hearings, which I had been watching. I regard the astronauts as heroes and the NASA/Thiokol managers of that time as villains, mealy-mouthed excuse-makers who should at the very least have resigned in shame. That it was Feynman's impassioned grandstanding to call adequate public attention to their failures is what endeared him to me.

Hills

Jun. 20th, 2013 08:06 pm
drwex: (pogo)
In honor of [livejournal.com profile] whipchick whose writing, and writing about writing, seems to have tickled something in my brain. This piece is called "Hills".
I'm riding my bike again )
drwex: (pogo)
I had the urge lately to write down some more of my stories but then kinda lost the impetus. I'll try this one and see how it goes.
Short, but I cut anyway )

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