I know I should write something about Robert Jordan, and I will, eventually, but this is about someone slightly more personal to me.
It's an odd feeling, watching someone you've met, die from a distance. Randy Pausch is only forty-six years old and he's dying of pancreatic cancer. I know him from my time at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was a computer science professor quite unlike any other. I never had the opportunity to take his courses--in fact, I don't think I ever exchanged more than two words with him in passing--but nonetheless, he made an indelible impression on students at the university itself.
This is a man who had an office full of giant stuffed animals, the type that you win at amusement parks, hanging from the ceiling of his work space. He combined fun and technology, drama and design, and code and culture. He co-founded the Entertainment Technology Center at CMU, which is one of the only programs in the country that essentially grants you a masters degree in video games. Every year, each semester, it may have been, he taught a course called "Building Virtual Worlds".
"Building Virtual Worlds" was exactly what it seemed; you spent the semester creating virtual reality worlds in collaborative teams with other students. You had to audition for the course, and just being able to code meant bupkis. You needed to be able to work as a team with other students; drama majors, english majors, voice majors, anyone was welcome and eligible to apply, and in fact, was encouraged to do so. You didn't need any prior experience with computer science at all. The course was competitive and time-consuming, all the students always said, but the results at the end were simply stellar. Through interdisciplinary collaboration, the students, undergraduates mostly, had created magic.
And at the end of each course period, there was the show. Tickets were handed out, and you had to wait on line for them, as they were so hard to get. You filed into the auditorium in the UC (University Center), and you sat down to watch. And then the fun would begin. Each team of students would display their virtual reality world, with one member operating the actual virtual reality equipment, and the view of that team member displayed on a large screen for all to see. It was fascinating. You were inside that world, with the person playing the game, and the concepts and worlds they came up with were amazing. I think I went every year that I could, it was that good.
And now he's dying and it's terribly sad. There are a lot of people that die, many of them due to cancer, and other illnesses. But at the same time, no matter how close you were to someone, if you've met them only once... you still don't want them to die. I wouldn't wish death on my worst enemy. In Peter Pan, Captain Hook always goes on about how death is the greatest adventure, but at the end of the story, we find out, it's really not. Because according to Barrie, life is the greatest adventure, and it's worth savoring each and every second of it.
Randy Pausch seems to have done that.
I'll be sorry when he's gone.
Here's a link to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article on his last lecture.
And here's a link to his webpage at CMU.