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Golden Geek: Going for Platinum

Golden breakthrough: June 2008 photograph from my new cellular phone (click for larger image) I adopted the term Golden Geek to describe my having achieved my 50-years Golden Anniversary as a software developer in May, 2008.

In May, 1958, I was already 19 years old.  By the next Golden Geek anniversary I will be a septuagenarian, someone in the 8th decade of their life, after turning 70 this week. 

This is an exciting occasion and probably the most exciting birthday I can remember (assuming that as a youngster there was considerable now-forgotten excitement too). 

In honor of that I am taking the next few days to indulge some simple pleasures, watch a movie on the IMAX screen, visit an art museum, and write about some of my favorite but neglected topics.  Before I do that, I want to reflect on what I notice, looking back from this week.

If I had a troublesome year, it was after my 39th birthday.  By my 40th I had calmed down and I recall being excited and oddly moved on the eve of that birthday.  Intervening birthdays were not that distinctive as attainments of an age except for the 65th, spent dining in a marvelous sidewalk dining room on the Via Venito in Rome.  The age itself didn’t strike me as particularly special, unless you count little blessing such as eligibility for Medicare.

I do count little blessings.  I am pleased and satisfied with small pleasures at this stage of my life.  I can worry about outliving our savings, being incapacitated in some way, and the new little physical and stamina limitations that show up from time to time.  Yet, on balance, life is satisfying.  I feel settled.

And then there is the constancy of my vocation as a computer and software technologist, my interest in the computing sciences, and the never-ending fascination with computing as a personal activity.  I have had ups and downs in my enthusiasm, yet I find that the current period is one of excitement and accomplishment.

Today I am charting for myself some future anniversaries: 

  • Emerald Geek after 55 years
  • Diamond Geek after 60
  • Sapphire Geek at 65
  • Platinum Geek at 70

Around Platinum time, I will become a nonagenarian and I do suspect my capacities and interests will have been exhausted as far as computing goes.  I relish the idea of becoming a centenarian, but I think I will just keep the Platinum Geek title, emeritus.

Speaking of ups-and-downs, there was no little source of excitement at the front of my birthday week thanks to the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States on January 20.   I think this has been the most exciting and engaging election campaign and inauguration of my life.   That had me look back at all of the presidential campaigns that I remember, preceding my first eligibility to vote in one, 1960, at the then-minimum age of 21:

  • 1948 Truman Campaign.  In the third grade, about to move to Kankakee, Illinois for almost two years, I remember parts of this campaign.  I listened to a radio broadcast of the whistle-stop campaign that might be said to have turned it for him.  On the local broadcast when his train came through Tacoma, Washington, I remember someone calling out the by-then slogan, “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry,” and his response.   I remember opponent Thomas Dewey but it didn’t sink in that he was Governor of New York State until I lived there.  I don’t remember any election before 1948 -- World War II and playing soldier was more memorable, although I do recall my grandmother weeping when Roosevelt’s death was announced. 
  • 1952 Eisenhower Election.  I remember the contest between Stevenson and Eisenhower and even fretting about it as a school student.  My oddest recollection is dreaming about Eisenhower on election night and waking up in the morning satisfied that it would be all right if he won.  I remember watching the inauguration on television and marveling that Eisenhower wore a top hat.  I do remember the use of Univac to predict the election although I can’t say how that might have triggered my later interest in computers.  (It is interesting that we now appare do this quite differently, with considerable reliance on analysts to interpret early election-returns data.)
  • 1960 Nixon-Kennedy Election.  This was the first election in which I could vote.  I voted for Richard Nixon yet I was not dissatisfied when Kennedy won.  I don’t recall his inauguration (unless he wore a top hat too).  My admiration grew as the Kennedy administration progressed.  I remember the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis (and how quiet the streets of New York City became as we worried over what could happen any moment).  I remember exactly where I was on November 22, 1963 when Kennedy’s assassination was reported.  It was at 1290 Avenue of the Americas in what was then the new Sperry Rand building.  Others brought word of the shooting around the office; I was struck by my Catholic coworkers leaving the office to walk over to St. Patrick’s cathedral to pray for our fallen President.  I remember asking Mike O’Grady to light a candle for me too.
  • 1964 Lyndon Johnson Election.   This was an easy election for me (and most of us, based on the results).  The odd part for me was that my wife Bobbi and I had just moved from Manhattan to Mineola on Long Island.  As recent newcomers to Nassau County, we could not vote for that better-known carpet-bagger, Robert Kennedy, to be a U.S. Senator from New York.  There was a new rule that permitted residents of a State to vote in the Presidential race regardless of recent moves, although Bobbi and I had to attest to each-other’s literacy before we could complete the special ballot that was available for that purpose.  Of course there were far more peculiar voting laws in other parts of the country.  We knew that and were surprised just the same.
  • 1968 Richard Nixon Election.  Yes, I voted for him a second time.  This time I was rewarded for my error by his winning.  Actually, I never felt badly about Nixon, but I got to learn where I differed with his policies and approach.  For me, it was about the Supreme Court.   Other matters (though not Watergate) were more complex but the long-term import of Supreme Court appointments struck me as a big deal.  I was single at this time in my life and I recall how excited my girl friend was to see Nixon campaign at King of Prussia Mall near Valley Forge in Pennsylvania.  I thought she was going to jump into the limousine with him, or crawl up on the roof.  She and I are still in touch (and politically and socially extremely far apart), so I should send her the pictures that I have from that event.    This was the last time I voted for the Republican Party’s presidential candidate.  Whenever I am in a room where “All the President’s Men” is showing, I have to sit down and watch again, even though it always turns out the same.
    In the run-up to the Nixon election, I also remember where I was when Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed and then when Bobby Kennedy was also assassinated: ANSI standards-committee meetings, both times.  I had been at a meal with Martin Luther King when I was a college freshman.  I didn’t appreciate who he was at the time, although some students from New York City were completely excited about having him on campus and in the Dabney House dining room.  Vice President Nixon came to campus around the same time, in the aftermath of the Sputnik upset, addressing the students assembled on the football field.  That was a bigger event, but I remember that closer appearance of King far more, including its lasting reminder of how clueless I was, at 18, of issues of race and civil rights in our society.  That’s more significant to me than my skipping all of Feynman’s “Physics X” lectures, something my wife Vicki will not let me forget though.
  • 1976 Jimmy Carter Election.   I don’t feel righteous about not voting for Nixon in 1972.  The peculiar events of his near-impeachment, resignation, and the presidency of Gerald Ford was too much drama as I was pre-occupied in my first career at Xerox Corporation in Rochester, New York.  When Jimmy Carter came through the Rochester Midtown Mall, I was in a group of well-wishers waiting to greet his passage.  I remember that he was walking with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who I had come to admire.  When I had an opportunity to shake candidate Carter’s hand, I was flustered, dropped a flyer on the floor, and jammed my palm against his fingers rather than giving him a simple hand-shake.  I always wondered if I had hurt his little finger and can be embarrassed about it, even now.  (Not quite 20 years later, I had occasion to write to President Carter.  I did not mention this incident.)
  • 1980 Ronald Reagan Election.  In this election, I actively campaigned for, and voted for, candidate John Anderson.  I encountered a lot of recriminations for that from Democrat friends, but that is what I did.  The oddest experience was manning a campaign table at a July 4th event in Penfield, New York, where I was living then.  That was the first time I ran into binary thinking and the “if you’re not for it, your against it.”  This time it was about abortion and Anderson’s support for Roe vs. Wade.  In this context, if he wasn’t for banning abortion, he was promoting abortion, and that was that.  For me there is a great difference between what we make illegal and how we deal with complicated moral choices that individuals may face.  And, as a male, I had the feeling that it was not my business to legislate something so intimate and serious for women.  That perspective has not changed for me.
  • 1992 Bill Clinton Election.  I didn’t follow this election all that closely, but I had the sense that it was Clinton’s to win.  I had moved to Sunnyvale, California, and my at-last arrival in Silicon Valley.  I had the strange experience of noticing how Democrats and Republicans seemed to be living out the roles of their stereotypes, something that I had not witnessed in Upstate New York with its fascinating Liberal and Conservative cross-endorsements.  (Checking into the Rochester-area campaigning during the 2004 election, it seemed true to say that as California goes, the nation eventually goes.  I guess it is a soap-opera-becomes-life thing.)  As a California newcomer, I managed to pick every winner on my ballot except for a school-district election where I had no clue about the candidates.   It was also a pleasure to vote for Barbara Boxer becoming the second woman Senator from California, along with my being able to vote for Clinton, confident in his election.
  • 2008 Barack Obama Election.  The Clinton impeachment effort and all of the divisiveness preceding it was appalling to me.  The 2000 and 2004 elections, and the growing red-state, blue-state divisiveness in our civil discourse was one of the most discouraging periods I have ever witnessed.  I associate the nastiness going all the way back to the Willie Horton business.  I realize that historically there have been truly terrible election campaigns; it is useful for me to remember how much Thomas Jefferson was vilified as a candidate.   But this was in my world and time and I didn’t like it.  I was also not that keen about the Democrat demonization of the Republican, as well as vice versa.  Now back in Washington State and living in Seattle, I live in a district so blue that the only Republican candidates are terrible stereotypes of extremes, so I dare not even use them as a protest vote against the equally self-satirizing and virtually unopposed incumbent.
    That all changed this year (except for the local district, which thrived in the Democratic wave of victory).  As far as I am concerned, the Democratic presidential contenders were remarkable in conducting civil campaigns and debating at a sportsmanlike level.  I understand that it wasn’t all roses, but it was light-years better than what we had come to cynically expect.  The determination of Obama-Biden in taking that to the general election is remarkable, as was the generally honorable approach of Senator McCain.  I was excited about Sarah Palin’s candidacy but not about her becoming the Vice President.  Although Vicki and I supported John Edwards until his withdrawal, and I felt that Edwards had also set a very strong example for others, Obama’s campaign was increasingly impressive.  I knew I would support either him or Senator Clinton as the candidate.  It was thrilling to see the Obama momentum build beyond clinching the nomination and moving through the election to the transition.  What I wanted most was to be able to go to sleep election night knowing that I would wake up to a decisive result.  To know the outcome the moment polls closed here on the West Coast was a welcome delight, as has every new moment leading up through the beginning of the Obama-Biden administration this week.  I know for certain that I had never wept at an inauguration before.  (This time, my score-card at the State and local level was mixed, although I had no doubt that Washington State Governor Gregoire would be re-elected that night.)

Golden Geek as Life 2.0 Guru (click for larger image) There you have it, my geek version of a Forrest Gump journey through life.  I credit the recent increased sense of engagement not only to my advancing years but to the blossoming technological connections that bring public participation to us in the amazing ways that we have seen in the latest campaign season.

I have no idea what the future will bring.  Every time I see a presidential motorcade or see President Obama in the open in public, I am apprehensive.  We’ve been taught that by an accumulation of tragedies.  Somehow the greatest fear is that our leader won’t be the real deal.  Then as we begin to realize that we have been blessed by a powerful leader who speaks to the best in us, there is the fear that we will be denied the benefit of his full terms.  I look forward to that apprehension being displaced by how we join together in continuing the story that is the promise of America.

With all of the challenges that we face, I am hopeful.  And I look forward to what the next years bring as I march on toward Platinum Geekness as far as I am permitted to proceed in this life. 

[update 2009-01-23T22:09Z: I forgot to put categories on this post.  That gave me the excuse I need to correct some typos.  I supposed when typos originate with the author, they should be writos?  gaffos?  slippos?]

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great post, Dennis. And congratulations on your 70th!
Dennis, this is awesome!

I love the OpenXML meditation avatar - just goes to show that you may be 70, but you are as in tune with technology as you ever could be!

It is a great honor to know you..

Happy 70th Birthday!!!

Be well!
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