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Alan the musician?

From: Ralph R. Swick <swick@csail.mit.edu>
Date: Fri, 02 Jun 2006 23:06:15 -0400
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To: public-memoria@w3.org

So here I am doing a very un-Alan-like thing: sitting in a tin can at
38,000 feet [1, on flying] over the Atlantic with my laptop open doing
e-mail (well, *that's* not un-Alan-like), having forked over good
[plastic] money to feed an addiction for IP packets.  That last is
the most un-Alan-like: he was one of the most carefully and wisely
frugal people I can imagine ever knowing.  It was clear that he
never bought something on a whim, nor without careful consideration
of the likely benefit regardless of the size of the expenditure.  But it
was also clear that when he recognized value and improvement
to quality of life he didn't at all mind the expense.

During Alan's wonderfully eloquent and humorously self-deprecating
talk about Judie during her memorial this past February he recounted
how her attempts to teach him to play the piano  were one of her few
utter failures.  He said, laughing, "I'm no musician".  Of course, it was
clear that the real outcome of that short-lived activity was the blossoming
of a much greater relationship between the two of them that made the
worlds of everyone they touched much more pleasant to live in, in the
unique way a great musical duo can.

Alan went on to say that when Judie became interested in harpsichord
they bought a kit instrument.  That was another failure, though not of
Judie's this time -- "It turns out I'm not a very good carpenter, either".
The very fine instrument they purchased after that is but one clear
trace of their mutual respect for each other, for fine things that make
life better, and for the value of good craftsmanship.

Alan, you may not have been a "musician" or a carpenter but you
were clearly a craftsman supreme.  From figuring out new uses
for stuff (RF coax to make the first computer network, repurposing
telephone switching systems to control model railroad switches,
hacking telephone switching systems to save DEC money by
fabricating a transparent world-wide internal corporate telephone
network and in the process showing the engineers from the
phone companies how to do things with their systems that they
didn't believe possible) to designing the right new stuff to fit
your vision of what would make the world easier to live in, you
have been a composer, a conductor, and a master craftsman.

A couple of years ago you were sitting in my office and we were
engaged in some conversation about phone lines and analog
modems.  You allowed as how you long ago had been able
to "whistle up" the right tone to get a modem to exit its speed
synchronization handshake and start communicating.  Either
I goaded you or you wondered if you could still do it after not
having tried for 20-something years.  I was -- but should not
have been -- astonished when you succeeded on your second
try.  An engineer's perfect pitch.

When you returned from the PDP-1 celebration event [2] last
month you fondly related how hearing the sounds the machine
made immediately brought back 45-year-old acoustic memory.
You knew that the machine was working again.

A musician's ear.

That same ear, you admitted fondly, could tell when the telephone
switch gear in the closets in the Mill were functioning properly
and when they were not.

I often wondered whether your love for early music predated your
love for pipe organs or whether your engineer's curiosity about
the history of organ construction lead to a greater interest in
baroque music.  I wish I'd thought to ask you.  Probably neither
really came first.  It was your unique combination of fine
engineering ability and sense for what makes a harmonious
world that found its expression in your hobbies.

You were also a conductor of people.  You were never one to
crow about your own accomplishments but I'm confident that
the chorus that created the PDP-10 would not have produced a
result with such impact on the computing community without
your having conducted it.

At W3C you demonstrated time after time your unique ability
to absorb all the various differing points of view on how to
resolve a hard problem then, at an opportune point in the
conversation (or debate) show us all a way to look at the
problem and think about which solution would lead to the
best possible outcome.  This ability was much appreciated
but surprised no one when the problem was a technical,
"stuff-oriented" one.  But you did it for non-technical, "people-
oriented" issues as well.  Truly amazing.  A fine composer
at work.

Alan, it will take me a long time to come to terms with a world
that has lost the ability to communicate with you.  I hope you
won't mind my indulgence in trying out this network connectivity
in a flying tin can than required a running start to get this little
bit off my chest.  I'll try to write more later.


[1] http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/public-memoria/2006Jun/0009.html
[2] http://www.computerhistory.org/events/index.php?id=1142978073
Received on Saturday, 3 June 2006 03:07:05 UTC

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