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Retirement Speech

My career at NU seems to gave gone by in a blur. There's one day I still remember vividly, though. It was the late summer of 1976. I had just gotten married, and I was a fourth year grad student and lecturer in mathematics at the University of Chicago. I had just finished teaching a terrific class on automata theory to a group of high school students attending an NSF summer program. In my spare time, I was avoiding work on my dissertation. I was supposed to be trying to prove the undecidability of the elementary theory of the lattice of recursively enumerable sets. Instead, I was writing an SLR(1) parser constructor in IBM 370 assembly languarge and applying it to the regular grammar of the new Pascal programming language, as a preliminary to writing a Pascal compiler. I finally realized the obvious - my true calling wasn't research in mathematical logic, it was programming computers. I quit school and went in search of a real job.

I knew of NU because of its famous world-championship chess program. I had heard of the authors, Dave Slate and Larry Atkin, and I knew that they used CDC mainframes, the same kind I had worked with as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. So I hopped on the L and went up to NU, with a stop at Great Expectations to pick up some math and philosophy books. I found the Vogelback building and asked a secretary if there might be a job opening. She said there was, and I should go see a fellow named Albert Steiner.

Albert interviewed me on the spot. He asked me if I had any experience with CDC computers. I told him how I'd worked with Jim Mundstock and Larry Liddiard on the Minnesota Fortran compiler, and how I'd worked with Greg Mansfield, the lead operating system architect at Control Data of their new Kronos time-sharing system. Albert gave me a funny look and said "You know we're going to check your references, don't you?" I gave him Thea Hodge as a reference. She was my boss at Minnesota and came from Northwestern. Albert knew her well.

Everything must have checked out, because I got an offer at a starting salary of $14,500, a fortune to me at the time. My first day at the new job was October 1, exactly 35 years ago from this coming Saturday. A few days later, I met the famous Dave Slate himself. I looked up at the top of his bookcase and saw a pair of precariously perched boxes of punch cards labeled "Ruy Lopez 1 of 2" and "Ruy Lopez 2 of 2". It kind of defined "geeky". I realized that I'd come to the right place to work.

So that was the beginning. This is the end. While I have good memories of all the technologies I've worked with over the years, my best memories are of the people - the staff, the faculty, and the students.

The staff. What can I say? I've had a chance to work for several decades with the famous Pib, of whom there is and always will be only one. I thank him and all of you for the exciting work we've done together over the years and all of the good times we've had doing it.

When I think of the faculty, lots of adjectives come to mind: brilliant, eccentric, challenging and frustrating are just a few.

I remember when Tim Feddersen used our new program AyeWare for the first time to teach his "Online Democracy" class. We held every third session using our software, not in the classroom. Before the first session we were in his office getting ready. I mentioned that it was ballsy of him to use untested software to teach entire class sessions online. He said "I don't care - I've got tenure." I liked his attitude, and I enjoyed every minute of my collaboration with him and Dan Diermeir on that project.

I also must tell you a story about our good friend Martin Mueller. I was working on getting the Early Greek Epic corpus into WordHoard. Polytonic Greek uses many strange diacritical marks, and I was deep in the weeds of obscure Unicode character sets and font issues. Martin and I were working on the problem one day. He paused and got a bit wistful and said that the accent marks really didn't add much, and this had bothered him since he was a small child. This left an indelible image in my brain of a little kid version of Martin hiding under his covers with a flashlight reading Homer in the original Greek. Working with Martin has been one of the high points of my career.

One of the best things about working at a university is working with the students. I haven't had the opportunity to do much of this in recent years, but in the old days I worked closely with herds of them. Many of them told us that they went to their classes because they had to, at least some of the time, but they got their real education hanging out at Vogelback and hacking all night. Many of them went on to have great careers of their own, including one who has a dorm named after him.

This has all been great fun, but it's time to leave and start a new exciting phase of my life. I wish all of you the very best.

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