Remembering Randy Pausch

Hey there peoples,

I don’t know if you heard about this or not — apparently it became something of a major boom in the States — but this professor from CMU was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and just recently died.  But the reason it became a boom was because of the lecture he gave, which you can see on YouTube here: http://youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo .  Apparently over 10 million people have watched it.  It’s a great video, you should watch it too.

Apparently the news of this video peaked around April, when ABC news did an hour-long show all about him and his life (you also can find that on YouTube, split into 5 parts: [part1, part2, part3, part4, part5]).  He also turned it into a book “The Last Lecture” that apparently became pretty popular.

Anyway, I knew him.  Not well, but he came to UNC to give a talk while I was there and I think I gave him a demo of my painting system Ph.D. work.  He probably wouldn’t have remembered me, though he might have remembered my demo.  “The rest of the story” that you won’t learn from watching the YouTube videos or ABC special is that while at UNC, his visit was arranged by our then “Demo Coordinator”  Jai Glasgow (though she preferred the title “Demo Queen”).  She was also the one who arranged my giving him a demo (and the other demos that were shown during his visit too.)  After that first visit, Dr. Pausch came back a few times, and I think most of us didn’t really know why — he didn’t give any talks or anything on the follow-up visits.  But it wasn’t long before the news came out that we were going to be losing our “Demo Queen” because she decided to marry Dr. Pausch and go with him back to Pittsburgh.  You can see her briefly in the YouTube video above, and more in the ABC special.  We were sad to lose her because she was great at her job and always very energetic and positive.  And as I remember it the coordinator right before her had been horrible.  This one was the “Wicked Demo Witch of the West”.  She was famous for ringing this horribly loud bell to signal the time to switch to the next demos, and one time she sent an email to all the graduate students saying that she was disappointed in our performance, requiring that we all fill out a self-evaluation form — including a mini-essay question about what we could do to improve our demo giving in the future.  If you failed to turn in your self-evaluation form in 1 week you were to be reported!  Eek!  I think no one did it.  (I’ll be reported to whom exactly??)  When Jai came in and took her place there was much rejoicing.

So that’s interesting back-story #1.   The other interesting back-story is that Dr. Pausch is was one of the main guys behind the short-lived Aladdin virtual reality ride at Disney World.  We had the luck of stumbling upon the trial run of the system when we went to Disney as a family in the early 90′s.  I recall there was an inconspicuous sign up somewhere in the middle of the pavilions at Epcot.  One of us noticed it so we went to check it out.  It was so cool.  You put on a VR helmet and sat on something shaped sort of like a motorcycle, and then suddenly it was like you were riding a magic carpet through the Aladdin movie.  My computer I had at college at the time was an IBM 386 XT clone with 4-color graphics, so I was blown away by how perfect the cartoony Aladdin world looked in this VR ride.  I had never seen anything like it.  I was in college then, but I remember thinking “man this is the kind of stuff I want to do when I grow up”.  I think I even asked them how to apply for a job.

When it did come time to graduate I searched for a job in the video game industry, which was the only kind of job I could think of that would let me do computer graphics for a living.  I even got one offer (amidst numerous rejections).  The offer was from a company in Boston that made NASCAR video games.  But the salary was like half of what I was offered at another place, Visix in Virginia.  The whole operation in Virginia just seemed to have a lot more going for it.  The NASCAR guys themselves were kind of underwhelming, and the impression I got was that their plan was to just keep cranking out more of the same NASCAR game as long as they could.  I was much more impressed by the folks at Visix.  Both their vision and the intelligence of the developers I met there.  It was a very talented bunch of folks, even if they weren’t doing graphics.  And they took me out to a fancy lunch and put me in a fancy hotel.  That certainly didn’t hurt. :-)   None of that from the NASCAR folks.  So I went with Visix.

But Randy Pausch’s Aladdin demo defnitely stayed in my subconscious.   That was the kind of thing I really wanted to do, but it seemed impossible to get from being an electrical engineering grad with no real knowledge about computer graphics to being a Disney Imagineer inventing new and cool graphics technologies.  (I don’t recall but I’m pretty sure I did send them my resume and got rejected as one would expect.) The NASCAR game place was the closest thing it seemed I could manage, but it was a far cry from Disney Imagineering.  So I forgot about the whole computer graphics thing for a while.

Till one day I had a chance to meet with my friend Leo Chan.  Leo and I had been dorm buddies in Shinkoyasu, and we were the best damn buskers Yokohama has probably ever seen.  (The former is completely true, and the latter is almost completely true in my dreams)  The odd thing is, I think I met up with Leo in Pittsburgh.  I don’t recall how that came about, since Leo lived in Canada, and I lived in Virginia, but for some reason we met up in Pennsylvania.   And it was there, next to the very campus where the man behind the Aladdin demo was professoring, that Leo told me about the job he was doing at SideFX software, a computer graphics company.  SideFX made (and still makes) some software called Houdini that’s used to make 3D graphics effects for movies.  He told me about the cool things he had worked on like an “inverse kinematics solver”.  And I heard that and thought — whoa!  For two reasons:  Wow–there are graphics jobs that aren’t games?!  and also Hey! Inverse kinematics?!  I know something about that — that’s stuff I did in my electrical engineering studies!  It turns out most of what you learn studying robotics in the electrical engineering department is useful for doing 3D graphics too.   And I had liked that stuff a lot.  So that nailed it for me.  I could see the path.  And after three years in the non-graphics world I had pretty much learned the ropes and was getting a little bored with it.  So I would go to grad school to learn what I didn’t learn in college, then I’d go find a cool job like Leo’s.

So that’s pretty much what I did.  And it’s worked out pretty well so far.

And that’s my Randy Pausch story.  That Aladdin ride for me was a critical point in my life, I think.  Nothing happened right at the moment, but because it was a sort of “behind the curtain” event, it really stuck with me.  The demo was being staffed by technical folks directly involved with the project, so I was able to ask them a few quick questions and see that the people making these things are real, and maybe not so different from me.  It wasn’t till much later when I was in grad school that I heard of Randy, and it was even later still that I learned he had been a big part of that Aladdin ride.  But knowing a bit about Randy (and Disney) I’m pretty sure that without him there never would have been such a public demo.

Research-wise, I can’t say I’ve actually read a single paper of his.  I’m actually not that interested in the area he was most expert in (nor am I really sure exactly what it was that he was expert in other than “VR”).  But he was always, ALWAYS enthusiastic about what he was doing, just like you can see in the video.  And that enthusiasm was truly infectious.   It affected my life in ways that I didn’t find out about till much later, and as you can see from the video, he’s had a much more direct impact on many many more folks.  I think it’s a great lesson that it’s not necessarily what you’re supposed to be doing that matters but what you manage to do along the way.  I mean nominally he’s a resarcher, so he’s supposed to be famous for his research.  But I don’t think that’s why he’ll be remembered.  It’s what he did along the way.  I think his whole career was sort of a “head-fake,” to use his terminology.

I’m at a bit of a life cross-roads, now.  The current job will end in another year and Elly and I are trying to decide what to do next.  The one thing I find unsatisfying about my current job is that I don’t feel like what I do is helping anyone.  But watching Randy really makes me think that maybe I should try to become a professor.  I had pretty much decided that all the scraping for grants in the academic life was too much trouble just to get the freedom to research what you want (I have that freedom now pretty much).  It never occurred to me for some reason, but watching his video I see that helping people is a big part of the job description for professors.  The job is not to pour knowledge into people’s heads, it’s to help them achieve their dreams.  At least if you’re doing it right.  :-)

Anyway, go watch Randy’s video if you haven’t seen it yet.  It’s well worth the 90 minutes of your time.

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7 Responses to “Remembering Randy Pausch”

  1. Hey Bill! Welcome to the blog world.

    Enthusiasm, and a passion for doing what you’re doing …. that’s it… that’s the reason to get up and smile every day. ;)

    It was great working with you at UNC, and since you’ve got this fancy blog, I’d like to suggest some content review the work you’ve been doing recently. It’d be great to hear about.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks Vince! I could sure use a collaborator like you on the current job. I guess I will have to write about all fun stuff I’m doing to try to convince you to move the family to Tokyo. … of course on second thought I may go off to become Professor Bill, so maybe you should stay put for now. :-)

  3. Amy Baxter says:

    Gee, and just this week I was inducted to the “Sing Along Blog” of Dr. Horrible. Blogmania!

    Thanks for those really cool stories. In addition to being au courant social currency, they do reinforce how small pebbles make wide divergences downstream. I remember the Aladdin display at Disney, and how taken you were by it. Knowing YOUR backstory makes that tale so cool!

    As you muddle out your Purpose, I would toss in that you don’t have to be a professor to be a mentor. In any scientific field, you will be helping and teaching and guiding people who don’t know as you do about your niche. The key is being the example, perhaps not exactly enabling them to fulfill their dreams but modeling HOW to dream. I don’t know about your Yale experience, you were more of an acknowledged brain in high school than I was, but for me Yale made me say, “well, if that person can do X, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to.” Just as you said Leo inspired you, and gave you a broader scope of the possible because you identified with your friend.

    Also, your technology can be used in ways you never imagined. Just because an algorighm is used in a video game doesn’t mean a corollary won’t be used to model immunoglobulins or something down the pike. Perhaps even a scale to rate cancer patients’ nausea! If you’re passionate about it, go with that….you’ll make the difference you seek one way or another.

    Love you,
    Amy

  4. Suzanne Baxter says:

    I loved reading your blog. Just like Amy I remember so vividly walking past the VR site at Disney and being so happy and amazed that the line was not very long. You were so excited about it. Remember how the VR made you dad feel motion sickness. Did you feel a bit unsettled too, or was it just him? Anyway, it was really cool to be flying the magic carpet around shops and narrow streets and such. I Did not know how that VR got to Disney and where it went. Now I know. It was research project for a paper and I thought it was going to be a new feature we could enjoy every year at Disney!

    I listened to anout 30 minutes of the Last Lecture today. I caught some of Randy’s lecture a couple of times surfing the TV, and also saw him on Oprah….or some such show. I was impressed with his determination to see the good and enjoy the life he was given. A remarkable person for sure. How wonderful that you knew him and his wife from UNC and that you liked them both back then. He obviously loved his family very much .

    I know you will impact others for good no matter what you do. Helping others and caring for them is where a lot of soul satidfaction is, I believe. Whether it is as a professor, a researcher, a husband, a dad , a son, a brother, a friend or stranger. You have a kind, loving and giving nature and while it is not the kind of help you may yearn to give through your life’s work, it makes a difference. Just look at our friend who always has such wonderful things to say about you…year in and year out! You made a big difference in his life….probably more than we will ever know. I know he is not the only one. Amy is right, you will make a difference for good, no matter what you do.

    Love,

    Mom

  5. It’s nice to know someone else from UNC remembered his visits there. So, what are you up to now? I think you said you were back in the states now?

  6. admin says:

    Gee mom, this is a public blog you know! Don’t embarrass me!

    But a great comment. Sorry for taking so long to thank you for it. :-)

  7. admin says:

    A little late on the reply … but yep, we’re in the Seattle area now.

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