Sunday, July 21, 2013

Copenhagen 2009

Originally posted May 30, 2009.

I just got back from Copenhagen, where I participated in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conference on Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Climate Change and the Environment. Last year I had been the only US government representative, and that had been a little scary, somewhat disappointing, and very cool – when they called on me for questions and comments they called on “United States” and before opening my mouth I reflected on what I was about to say :-). This year there were representatives from the State and Commerce Departments, and my (big) boss and I from NSF. I’m not revealing any secrets here – last year’s and this year’s are on the Web ( -- more on this later and elsewhere.

I took the red-eye from Dulles to Copenhagen late Monday afternoon, arriving Tuesday morning Copenhagen time. I was on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and I like it – every seat its own little screen with on demand video and music, a salmon dinner with not-quite-spaetzle pasta and lima beans (!?) to die for, power outlets for laptops, and stuff I’m forgetting. I watched two movies, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (on the way out) and "The Reader" on the way back, both of which I'd balked at when they were in theaters, but I liked them each, particularly Benjamin Button, which was especially moving.

I took the train from Copenhagen airport to downtown, stowed my big backpack in a locker, only keeping my government laptop around my shoulder for safekeeping. Last year I happened upon the National Gallery of Art just before having to return, and wanted to see it especially this trip, but in no rush, and in fact exhausted but with really no option but to stay awake for many more hours, so I walked.

Thus far in my experience there has been no singular global “Wow” image about Copenhagen – there has been nothing analogous to crowning a hill on a streetcar in San Francisco (Wow!), coming out of the tunnel overlooking Pittsburgh (Wow!), looking across Barcelona to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia (Wow!) or vice versa from one of the Cathedral’s towers (, or gazing on the Chicago skyline from the Lake Michigan shore (Wow!). What I notice first about Copenhagen are bicycles – they are everywhere – Copenhagen is a commuter city, but very different from LA, which was my childhood territory. The parks, and I’ve only touched a few, are among the more local ‘wow’s that I’ve experienced -- I walked through two on my way to the National Gallery, Orstedsparken and Botanisk Have, then King’s Gardens afterwards.

Bikes outside the Copenhagen Train Station

At Orstedsparken I came across a statue that struck me personally, as I think it would have struck many other friends of recently departed Vivian C right now – an angel watching over a man who is not conscious of it, but he is being watched over nonetheless. The angel’s face is almost impossible to see in the shadows, and I was tempted to use the flash, which generally I think is much overused, but like the statues of Gandhi and Saint Jerome on Embassy Row in Washington, I think that the artistic vision is that the faces be hidden in shadow and you only see the detail to the extent that you look closely, and even then, you can’t see enough.

Whereas the Washington National Gallery’s West and East Buildings separate classic and modern art, the Danish National Gallery seems to have no such segregation – modern and classic art are side by side, organized by other themes. I was able to get a couple of shots illustrating the juxtaposition. In addition, many of its walls are packed with paintings, an organization principle that elicits a ‘wow’ but at the expense of seeing many of the details, at least from casual inspection.

After a full morning, I took the train down to Helsingor, a beach town where the conference was held, did some brief walking around, talked to the tourist center, then a public bus to my hotel, a spartan place a couple of miles inland. I really wanted to sleep, but there was a conference reception that I thought I should attend for professional reasons, I wanted to stay up as long as I could for a better adjustment to the time zone, and frankly I felt isolated and knew connecting would help, and it did help.

 Kronberg Castle, Helsingor

The conference, in a nutshell, was focused on using information and communication technology (ICT) to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to humankind, and most notably what governments should do about promoting and supporting these efforts. There is great optimism that much can be done through virtualization (e.g., telework and conferencing with Web-based computer tools instead of the barbaric practice of flying cross country – yes, I recognize the irony :-), smart embedded systems (e.g., smart cars, smart buildings), which save energy through a large variety of computer-controlled mechanisms, and intelligent decision-making and planning systems that combine climate, economic and other social models. There is a lot of pushback though in implementing so much of this – for example, there are innumerable organizations that require that you keep your computer running 24/7 for reasons of “pushing” software and security upgrades, but my gosh, fixes to this should be 20 years old by now and the stupidity of designing such an energy-inefficient system is stunning -- it offends the engineer in me. I could go on and on with other forms of pushback and lack of awareness, and frankly, among other reactions, our failure to solve even simple, gross technological inefficiencies like the 24/7 computer-on policy has given me a certain sympathy for the disfunction that seems apparent in those trying to solve the planet's truly hard problems. I expect to be writing more on the topic of the conference. Generally, there is a lot that computer scientists and engineers can offer, both in terms of the products that they produce and in the ways that they think – my (big) boss Jeannette Wing has termed the latter “computational thinking”.
Just outside the Conference Center
It would have been fun having Pat with me to share the simple excitements and anticipations of a plane ride, train ride, castles, gardens, museums, and I hope that for next year as we are a good travel team, but next year I might be participating over the Web! So many decisions coming up, and even the “easy” ones can give me angst.

Full set of trip pictures at

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Will ClenDening -- Artist and Engineer

The last time that I saw Will ClenDening was the morning of June 3, 2006 at about 9:30 AM. He, Mark, and an acquaintance of theirs from safety school had come to my McGill apartment on the Vanderbilt campus at about 6:00AM that Saturday. I had blueberry coffee waiting for them and Will walked in, breathed the aroma deep, and said “I don’t care what anyone says, I love this blueberry coffee.” In truth, virtually everyone does. We drank coffee, talked about motorcycles I’m sure, because the three of them were relatively new to riding, and headed to Green Hills to meet up with friends, who would follow us by car down Hillsboro Pike, cutting over on old TN-46 to Leipers Fork, where we planned on breakfast at Puckett’s. It was foggy and cool. I saw in my rear-view mirror our little caravan spread out during the 15 mile drive, disappearing in the curves, and reappearing after a time in the straight-aways – never out of sight for too long.

At Puckett’s we sat in the front and we looked out on “main street”. The fog had lifted and it was a bright day. We clowned around, jabbing each other with old jokes, and then caravanned again down Natchez Trace, heading towards Highway 100, where we planned to turn towards town. We pulled to the side, and said goodbye to our autoing companions. Mark, Will, and their friend wanted to continue on – it was a beautiful day, but I decided to head back to see friends, as originally planned. I left them there, Will to finish a smoke, and rounded the turn onto Hwy 100, but pulled into a gas station at the junction, south of the Loveless Hotel, and waited for my friends to leave from behind the ridge, take the same curve I had, but turn west. I waited, got off and paced, but never saw them take that turn, and left for Nashville after about 15 minutes.

At about Noon, Will’s friend Chris walked into lunch, pulled me aside, and told me that Will had died in a motorcycle wreck about an hour before. I was stunned, disbelieving for hours, until I talked to Mark, who had seen Will’s body pulled from under the van that hit him, through no fault of the van’s driver. I went to see Mark that evening, who was devastated – we talked about my feelings, his feelings, and projected how the driver felt. He explained what had happened, as best he could, for he had been riding ahead of Will. Days later, I met Will’s father at Fido’s coffee house, and he gave me a copy of the accident report. Will’s bike had laid down on a curve; Will, with bike, had slid across the centerline and been hit by an oncoming van; Will had died instantly.

Geoff, Mark, Chris, and I were pallbearers at Will’s funeral at modest St Mark’s, and I doubt that church had ever seen so many people. Will had an ocean of friends and other well-wishers, and they packed the sanctuary and auxiliary rooms to beyond capacity. Will was revered in several communities.

Two weeks after Will died, Mark and I rode to the accident site, coming from the opposite direction. I was surprised that it was a modest, harmless looking curve. I snapped pictures while Mark looked on absently. Before we left I rode down a mile, and then back the way that Will had come. The curve wasn’t banked, somewhat obscured by brush, following a prolonged straightaway. Riding it, I understood how easy it would be to slip in a way that I had not appreciated by looking.

Between White Bluff and Cumberland Furnace, TN. Looking West.

Will was an artist, but he was an engineer too – he was some wonderful melding of both artist and engineer ( When I asked my mother for her old defibrillator and pacemaker (, after her originals had been replaced, it was Will that I had in mind – excitedly we bantered about them as the basis of an artistic work. He asked me about computers too -- what was possible with them. He expressed an interest in adding computer programming and graphics to his artistic tool chest. Will wanted to somehow visualize the way that a computer processed text. He asked me how text was represented in a computer. I told him about ASCII binary codes, where each character (e.g., letter, digit, punctuation) is represented as 8 bits (1's and 0's) or 1 byte. He thought of using a light source to flash on and off, representing 1's and 0's, the ASCII representations of the sequence of characters that made up a text -- I think that we talked about doing this for the dictionary and some novel. We talked about this sequencing of flashing light being analogous to Morse code. I showed him a byte of memory (i.e., enough memory to store just a single CHARACTER of text) from an old, circa-1960 IBM 700-series computer. This REALLY excited him. This one byte was as big as small laptops of today that can store billions of bytes (or characters). It had 8 vacuum-tubes along the top, one for each bit. He imagined installing banks of 8-lights each (each light about the size of a Christmas light) in a dark room, and the banks of lights going off in rapid succession, perhaps with some parallelism, each bank representing a character of text. Perhaps visitors could type in text that would be translated to ASCII, byte representation and displayed. The basic idea of translating between representations or between modalities of perception was behind some of his other projects, like one in which bar codes were translated to audio.

Will and I shared art and engineering, and we were close friends … among that handful of “best” friends for which further ordinal distinctions make no sense. When he died I think I finally grokked that I was mortal.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Van Carpenter of Glendora, California

Vanderbilt moved its blogging platform, deleting the old content, and rather than move with it, I am going with Blogger, convinced that if Google is so committed to collecting all the data there is to collect in the World, they won't throw out their own history of data! I am re-posting some content here, as well as new content. This was originally posted May 31, 2009 -- it seemed the right choice for the inaugural post.


I hiked the National Mall in DC today, taking a weekend break from NSF. I got off the Metro at Foggy Bottom, walked through the southern edge of GW University, past the State Department, to the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials, then the WW II Memorial, and on to the National Galleries. I thought about friends along the way. One of them, Van Carpenter, died during the Summer of 1972. He was 15. Van was not a close friend, but the first of many to precede me. He was on a family fishing trip to Mexico, as I recall. Van and John Kelly, also our age, had taken a car out. They struck an electrical power pole, they were barefoot, the power line had fallen onto the car, and when they stepped out on the driver and passenger sides, each holding the body of the car, they were electrocuted.

I bought my first sports coat, slacks, tie, etc with my mother at the family run clothing store, Andrews, on Glendora Ave – main street in our town, for Van’s funeral. I remember the salesman running suggestions by my mom and I.

I don’t remember the funeral itself – I just have vague impressions. In fact, I have only one rock solid memory of Van’s actual person. He and I were on the 9th grade track team of Sandburg Junior High School – the B team, and we ran the 1320 (feet) or ¾ mile – 3 quarter-mile laps. During the last home race with cross town rival Goddard, about half way through the last lap, with Van ahead of me and a Goddard guy in the lead, I heard Coach (Victor) Hurd (aka “Victor Mature” aka “Give-me-20-Fisher!”) yell from across the field, at the finish line, “GOOOOooooo Fisherrrr!!!”. At the last turn, I kicked, and I passed Van, but he responded and he was in my peripheral vision the rest of the race, and we both passed the Goddard guy. I won by a hair that day, Van was second. It’s certainly a good feeling. But sometime after that race, and as I recall, after Van died, my mother talked with Van’s mother (in fact, I think that they were sitting in the stands together during the race), Van’s mother said that Van told her “If I couldn’t win, then I’m glad Doug did”. I remember taking this as an expression of personal liking rather than as a generic gladness that a teammate had won, and I recall being mildly surprised by it. Anyways, that felt good too.

Van’s mother also told my mom that Van had not gone to see Love Story, a 1970 movie of love and loss, with the family because he was afraid that he would cry (and presumably someone might see him). He would have been 13, maybe 14. Boy, do I understand that. Still, I recall being surprised by his sensitivity and his honesty. Van might have been one of my first lessons on not knowing what was in someone’s heart, though I can’t say that I was conscious of it.

I didn't grok the sentiment of a "young life cut short" when I was 15, but I grok it now. Several years ago I looked for some record of Van on the Web and couldn’t find him. I can’t find him today. I found the “Goddard guy”, later a high school classmate, just now, quite easily.

Van Carpenter of Glendora, California