This picture is of David, my brother. I think it was taken from the Empire State Building. You can see the World Trade Center towers across from his left elbow. He was working as a computer geek at Bell Labs in New Jersey at the time. He later watched 9/11 from his office window.
I'm posting this as a virtual candle for my brother. Today is his birthday; he would have been 37. He's been eulogised elsewhere on the net, so I'll avoid eulogising here. But recently I was thinking about computers, and how Gen-X seems to mark the cut off for computer competency (not that I have heaps of it myself). I've noticed that people like my sister, born in 1963, often seem fundamentally at sea with the new technology. Two of my oldest friends said they 'couldn't get into the blog, because they weren't good with email stuff'.
My brother was simply consumed by maths and computers from an early age. He often refused to go outside even when we were on holidays because he wanted to do more maths. One memory I have is of our family being in a caravan on holidays in the Snowy Mountains with a friend of my sisters. My brother, aged about 12 or so, was writing lots of ‘1’ and ‘0’s on a piece of paper on the caravan table.
'What’s he doing?’ My sister’s friend said.
'Oh, he's writing in a binary code,' my sister replied.
In a sense, my brother's life spanned the 'rise' of computers. I remember how we used to ride out to the mall that isn't so far from where he's buried, to see the first commercial computers in stock. I hadn't a clue what one was meant to do with them. I also found out something I didn't know about his early love of computers from his Math Master's obituary:
He had designed his own computer, circuitry and all, by mid year 10, and took it to a Senior Lecturer in Computer Science who lived near his home. To David's disgust he was told that, although his work was outstanding, he would never possess the finances to set up commercial production. He went home and tipped all his computer equipment in a corner and picked up a Maths book.
He returned to computers in his undergrad degree, and was later offered megabucks to work in the States. But he was always a keen hacker, I remember that much.
The other thing I was thinking about recently in relation to my brother and our generation is how much easier it seems to have been to have had a decent public school education back then. Although my brother and I went to a selective school, I don't doubt that we wouldn't have had a good education if I had gone to the same public high school as my sister and my brother had gone to the neighbouring boys' school. I have more reservations about some of the other public schools in the area although I know people who followed through to university afterwards. I get the impression this is less possible from a public school education these days.
I don't know what the ethos of my former school is now; I hear that many parent send their primary-aged kids to weekend tuition in the hope of getting into the school and scoring a free public education that will also ensure high HSC marks. In retrospect, I'm surprised what was achieved on the basis of 'ethos' and a commitment to education in a school that was not well-resourced in some ways.
I’m in two minds about the school. To my mind, the school encouraged a sense of independence of mind and behaviour that was lacking in many of the (spoon-fed private school) Melbourne Uni kids I tutored ten years later. At the same, I wonder whether we were pushed too much in some insidious way, although in a sense, much of the pressure came from within, from comparing yourself to others and competing. You learned fairly soon that unlike in primary school, you were only occasionally the best at some things. On the other hand, in a dawning age of 'equal opportunities', the school, which drew from the west as well as the north of Sydney, offered some outsiders a hope of a better career. One of my best friends, from what was then described as a 'broken home' in Girraween, later went on to become a gynaecological specialist.
I can't fault the school's basic, small 'l' liberal emphasis on the value of education as the first step up the 'ladder of opportunity'. But I also wonder whether were we encouraged misleadingly to believe that egghead pursuits would have some currency in a world that increasingly values pragmacy and presentation (i.e. marketing) over substance and values. A somewhat shiny comment from my brother's maths master underscores the pleasant naivete of such a view:
He learnt for the sake of acquiring knowledge, with challenges presented to me so that he could grapple, not for the marks that he might obtain in tests. His learning was very much self directed.... I suppose, in this new century, he could be considered something of a dinosaur in his attitude to learning and his lack of interest in financial rewards.
When my brother died, I ran a number of google searches on him, to try and pick up some, any, more information about the life he'd been leading. I came across some sites I'd seen before and some photos that I hadn't. I met some of his US friends on the net and corresponded with them. But overwhelmingly, the googles threw up threads of incomprehensible geek code. One of his work colleagues wrote in an obituary: 'He will live on through his codes.'
It's a nice thought. But I guess these codes will one day be superceded, like everything else.