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  • Chance Conversations

    Posted by David Foster on November 17th, 2012 (All posts by )

    Joel Runyon was working on his Mac at a coffee shop in Portland, when an older man sitting next to him asked him how he liked Apple. Resisting the temptation to politely return to his work, Joel engaged the guy in conversation…it turned out he was Russell Kirsch, who was lead designer of the first American stored-program computer (the SEAC) and was also a pioneer of computer image processing. Read about Joel’s conversation with Mr Kirsch at the link, and then read his followup post 7 things I learned from my encounter with Russell Kirsch.

    Conversations with strangers can of course expose you to boringness (yes, it’s a word, I checked) and/or weirdness, but they can also often be interested or at least revealing. I was on an Air France flight back from Paris once…the aircraft had to be changed at the last minute and the new plane was not configured with First Class, so those who had reserved FC seats had to be satisfied with Business Class (which, in my experience at least, is nothing to complain about on Air France.) The guy sitting next to me was very, very upset that he didn’t get the First Class seating he had been counting on. In an attempt to get him to talk about something else, I asked him what he did for a living.

    Turned out the guy was a professional Communist, on his way back from some kind of Communist meeting.

    Here’s another interesting story about a chance conversation. In 2009, an American neurosurgeon overheard a conversation between two former Israel Air Force officers who were talking about flight simulation. He joined the conversation, and the eventual result was a collaboration that led to the founding of this company, which develops systems for surgery rehearsal.

    Another interesting story of a chance conversation: see the second comment on this post at Tom Peters’ blog.

    For those interested in the history of technology: Russell Kirsch’s SEAC, completed in early 1950, was built by the National Bureau of Standards for use of researchers and engineers who were chomping at the bit for computer capacity and were tired of waiting for more-ambitious planned machines such as EDVAC and UNIVAC. SEAC’s memory capacity was only 512 words (numbers or instructions), but it was applied to a wide range of problems, including lens design, tables for navigation, and design calculations for the hydrogen bomb. The computer also supported early digital imaging work, with the first digital image being a picture of Kirsch’s son.

    More about the SEAC project here.


    4 Responses to “Chance Conversations”

    1. Bill Brandt Says:

      While waiting in lines I have had a habit of starting conversations with strangers – only rarely have I regretted it.

      Love the professional communist lamenting his lost of the First Class seat; must have been member of the Nomenklatura. Some obviously have more needs than others ;-)

      Talked with a woman who – in the 70s – while waiting in the airport in Iowa – started a conversation with – it turned out – Rod Serling. Now that would have been a conversation I would have liked to have.

      When I used to fly – the fellow that I rented the planes from – owner of an FBO – Fix Base Operations – short, stocky, unassuming – turns out he had a PhD from MiT – developed some of the first compilers for Honeywell, learned that the real money was in sales – leasing those mainframes and getting a recurring commission on them – first love was flying and bought this FBO – selling Beechcrafts and charter were his main business…

    2. Cris Says:

      I used to wander around out West a lot in the 80s. One day, I stopped for gas just outside of Moab, Utah. the station wasn’t much-white washed cinderblock with pumps dating back to the 50s.
      A grizzled desert rat came out to pump the gas. Greasy coveralls, leathered face and a squint. I told him I had no cash, but had traveler’s checks, and could show him some ID.
      He replied, “No need to do that, sonny. If you ain’t who you say are, you ain’t nobody at all.”

    3. Michael Kennedy Says:

      I liked the SEAC story. In 1959, I was programming an IBM 650. The storage capacity for programs was 2000 ten digit words. All the data was on punched cards. Computer science, like biology, was so primitive that I could not see a career there. Surgery was late 19th century technology with the addition of a few drugs. I wrote my book on history of medicine largely so medical students could see where we came from. Very few of them know any history of the profession.

    4. David Foster Says:

      “Very few of them know any history of the profession”…I wonder if this is pretty much true for *all* professions today…possible exception for law??

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