Remembering Richard Crandall

This morning while frying an egg I picked up the latest copy of Reed Magazine, which had been sitting around the kitchen for a week or so, and was very sad to learn of the death in December of Richard Crandall, Reed alum and Physics prof for many years. I had a weird half relationship with Crandall in my time at Reed, which I remember with a combination of excitement and gratitude, also mixed with some regret.

Richard team taught the intro physics course I took my first year at Reed (where I learned that I was decent but not great at physics). On the strenuous recommendations of two good friends and physics majors (Peter Shirley and Neil Alexander) I later took the classroom part of second year physics from Richard. It was, as Peter had said, the best applied math course on campus, and Richard was a total genius with colored chalk, leaving the board covered with true works of art at the end of class. This was one of the most profound examples of the difficulty of capturing certain kinds of process in one’s notes, an issue I still struggle with as a teacher. Richard’s lectures were amazing to watch, but near impossible to wrestle into a notebook. I tried all sorts of things, including using colored pencils, to try to capture the glory of his board work, but it all failed. I suspect the only other person I had who’s lecturing was both as beautiful and as frustrating was Edsger Dijkstra.

More important than the classes I had with Richard, however, was his impact on me as a budding computer scientist. I’d taught myself BASIC in high school, but had never had any kind of instruction on programming or computing before my first semester at Reed, when we learned PASCAL in a series of labs in that intro physics course; labs which clearly owed their existence to Richard’s grasp of the growing importance of computation in math and science. Richard was friends with Steve Jobs, and it was through that connection and Jobs’ fond memories of his time as a quasi-student at Reed that Reed got an early Lisa, and then some of the first Macintosh computers. I remember playing with MacPaint on that clunky Lisa (I think with Peter Shirley again) and just being blown away – it was totally clear that we were seeing the future.

It was in significant part through Richard that I got to spend the summer of ’84 working at Reed designing fonts and programming for the earliest Macs. This was a very exciting opportunity, and I really felt like I was contributing to something. Probably my most notable achievement was the design of a bitmap math font (we’re just a little before PostScript here). Richard was very excited by the bitmap graphics on the Mac (taken for granted now, but still a novelty in the early 80’s), and as a scientist and mathematician he recognized the potential and value of not being tied to the ASCII character set that dominated computing at the time. So as a math nerd with computing interest and calligraphy experience (I was fortunate enough to take one of Robert Palladino’s last calligraphy courses at Reed in 1983), I was tasked with making a math font. This mostly consisted of designing a set of Greek characters, along with other common math symbols. It was hardly LaTeX (which would have been a nightmare to run on those boxes), but it was useful and widely used, and available for several years in big free font packs that you could get on a set of floppies from a fellow in (I think) Utah that had taken on the task of coordinating the distribution of free fonts. Those early bitmap fonts were, however, supplanted in short order by the much better PostScript fonts, and when I wrote my undergrad math thesis in MacWrite a year and a half later, I used the PostScript Symbol font instead of my own work. Sigh.

I also did some programming (I think I worked some on GriffinTerm, an early Mac terminal emulator), but my regret is that I didn’t make more of that opportunity. Richard was a strange guy who I at least found hard to read, but he was also clearly visionary and well connected. It’s hard to know what might have happened if I’d pushed myself more and made more of that opportunity. Sadly, I didn’t really understand the value of making things, and was mostly focused on “learning things” by taking courses and doing homework. I compare that to Thomas, who has done more extra-curricular “making” in his first year than I may have ever done at in my time at Reed, and it reminds me of why it’s so important to support our students at UMM in their “making”.

So farewell and thanks to Richard Crandall, a fellow who certainly made things, and who helped give me a great opportunity to make things.

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Massive road trip, days 7-11

Day 7 started with a vist to Lewis and Clark College, which was interesting if not overwhelming for Tom. It’s a gorgeous campus and the study abroad stuff there is very cool, but it didn’t particular ring Tom’s bells.

We then spent most of the day hanging around Portland together, including a visit to the mighty and wonderful Powell’s City of Books (one of the last, great independent book stores) and checking in at GECCO to get my registration stuff. Tom totally loved Powell’s (“I could get lost in here!”), and has in fact spent large amounts of my money and his time there this week while I was at the conference. We also went out and saw Toy Story 3 that night, which turned out to be every bit as good as everyone’s said it is – lots of fun and very well written.

Day 8 was our last college visit in this part of the world, as we headed up to Olympia, Washington (2 hours north of Portland) to visit Evergreen State College. This was a real eye opener for both of us. I knew Evergreen was cool (and another of the small number of public liberal arts colleges in the U.S.), but didn’t know a lot of the details, and I think we both found the unusual curriculum and environment really interesting and thought provoking.

I had arranged beforehand to meet some of the computing faculty at Evergreen so we could learn a little more about their program as part of a program review we’re doing at Morris, so after the information session and tour we met up with Sherri Shulman and then headed over to meet her husband and fellow CS faculty, Neal Nelson. When Neal walked in, there was this very weird moment where we both those we knew each other but weren’t sure why. Duh, duh, and double duh – Neal was my undergraduate thesis advisor at Reed! I’d lost track of him when he left Reed in 1988, and I somehow thought he’d gone into industry so I wasn’t even looking to find him anywhere in our travels. Given all that and the the fact that his name doesn’t particularly stand out (and that I’m really crap with names), I totally didn’t consider the possibility that I knew this Neal guy we were going to see. After recovering from that somewhat awkward start, Sherri, Neal, and I had a really excellent conversation that ran a couple of hours easy. Lots of catching up on old times, as well as discussing undergraduate computing curriculum with limited resources in a public school – many thanks to both of them for all their time!

After returning to Portland, we went to Papa Haydn’s, possibly the best source of wonderfully scrumptious and rich desserts that I know of in the U.S. I had a wonderful Autumn Meringue and it was just like being a college student again (without the metabolism of a 20 year old). We used to walk out to Papa Haydn’s from Reed (maybe a 30 minute walk) several times a year and indulge, and was so cool to go back and find that it really hadn’t changed much in all those years.

That night was the opening reception at GECCO, so Tom and I hung around for a few hours eating little snacky things and chatting with various folks. Tom had never met most of my EC friends and colleagues, and he was very cool at meeting a bunch of strangers that are, even worse, all science nerds to a very high degree. Luckily it’s a really cool group of people, and I think he actually enjoyed himself.

By Day 9 I’d actually skipped out on the bulk of the first two days at GECCO, so at this point I essentially abandoned my son to the wilds of downtown Portland and started pretending to be a scientist for a bit. He spent most of his time hanging at Powell’s and reading books, while I listened to people talk about their cool evolutionary computation research.

That night I did actually skip out on the last session, though, and went back to Reed to join a bunch of faculty that have a regular Friday beer and food gathering at Woodstock Wine and Deli up the hill from campus. Jim had invited me to join them, and it was a great chance to meet some people I knew that I’d missed before (like Ray Mayer) and a bunch of other faculty that are new to the college since I was a student there in the dim past.

I wasn’t the only one meeting up with old friends, as Tom met up with Perry Webster from Morris (currently attending the University of Portland) and hung with her and a family friend pretty much the whole evening, which was a neat chance for him to spend a little time with people more his age :-).

Day 10 was much the same, although I stayed at the conference pretty late because the poster session and associated reception was that evening.

Day 11 (today) was the end of the conference, including eating lunch in the hotel sports bar with a bunch of very enthusiastic Europeans watching the World Cup final! Eli Mayfield (UMM ’09, now a grad student at Carnegie Mellon studying natural language processing) gave a talk today, and did a really excellent job. Tom and I went out to Jake’s Famous Crawfish with Eli and Bill Tozier. Jake’s was a great seafood house back in the day, and they didn’t disappoint, providing us with excellent food to go with the fine conversation. That was a great way to end our time in Portland!

Now we’re off to bed, and tomorrow we drive south to Tule Lake and Lava Beds National Monument. With a little luck we may hook up with Wayne Manselle in Eugen on the way!

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