Thursday, September 20, 2007

Randy Pausch

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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this--nicely done.

Lee Ann Ward said...

Life is indeed the greatest adventure; that's why writers create new worlds inside the pages of a book. It's a little piece of immortality for its creator. That's what we all desire.

Thank you for sharing this with us, Jenny. He will be in my thoughts, and you as well. He obviously lived a passionate life, and he shared and awoke that passion in others. Now that's living! It reminds us all to savor and appreciate the gift of each new day.

Ben S. D. said...

Damn...reading that, it almost feels like we gamers are losing one of our own. :(

But I'm 100% positive that what he brought to this world has helped fascinate and encourage a lot of young people, and perhaps even help to legitimize "virtual immersion" (in almost any form) for the American public.

Suddenly, I'm very sorry I never got a chance to talk to someone like this.

kiwi said...

lee ann hits the right note; what separates greatness from mediocrity: 'a passionate life,' a life that gave more than it took. A life that will be remembered ... immortal.

Chumplet said...

My dear friend and neighbour Glenna passed away from pancreatic cancer just two years ago. Her husband Joe will help me develop my writer's website.

I have never know a kinder, more joyous person than Glenna. She was a quiltmaker of great talent, taking orders from as far away as Japan. She always, ALWAYS had a smile on her face. She was just 53.

I wrote a short short about a woman trying to tell her husband she was dying of the same disease. Maybe someday it'll be published, and it will be a tribute to her.

James Dashner said...

Very nice, Jenny.

I've always been terrified of death. Life just has too much to offer, and I want my 90 years.

Even if you believe in an afterlife, I don't think it really makes death any easier.

Anonymous said...

My doctor discovered a chest wall mass and told me it may be a somewhat rare cancer called thymoma. It is only 2.8 by 2.5 centimeters. I heard his lecture and wrote an e-mail to apologize for my self pity.

He told me to go to good places for a second opinion, and even though he didn't win, it maximized his chances.

I am still humbled by that e-mail

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing what you know about Randy. I having much admiration for him, and I still want to learn more about who he is.


Sara Gold said...

Some lessons from Randy Pausch’s last lecture that especially moved me:

1. Brick walls are there for a reason: they let us prove how badly we want things.
2. Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.
3. Never lose the child-like wonder.
4. If we do something which is pioneering, we will get arrows in the back. But at the end of the day, a whole lot of people will have a whole lot of fun.
5. Be good at something; it makes you valuable.
6. If you live your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself, and the dreams will come to you.

Check out the tribute quiz on the lecture at : you can add your own questions at the end of the quiz.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for your touching thoughts about Dr. Pausch.

As someone, who knows him now, only from his LAST LECTURE, I too was moved by its simple brillance.

I remember as a boy, my father saying to me, that "what matters in life, is not what you acquire, or what you write or even say, but what happens when you life touches that person better for the experience."

Dr. Pausch has clearly touched the lives of many, including, mine...and we are all better for it.

Anaconda said...

I wouldn't want to wish death on my worst enemy ....yes you would, but not on someone like Randy Pausch, so special, so revered - with justification, so perfect. But yes, death happens, premature death happens to such people as well. Death is not a bad thing. Its the life, we as individuals, feels we have failed to live up to, that's the bad thing. And we fail, so many of us, so many righteous of us, through bad faith. I'd say, that's one thing the existentialists left us is invaluable - the concept & reality of "bad faith". 'Cause it happens.