Tales from the jar side: My friend Albert Tam, MIT wants cash but I have better alternatives, OpenAI chaos, and the usual tweets, toots, and skeets
My wife told me sex is better on vacation. Unfortunately, she said it on a postcard from the Bahamas. (rimshot)
Welcome, fellow jarheads, to Tales from the jar side, the Kousen IT newsletter, for the week of November 12 - 19, 2023. This week I taught my Deep Dive Into Spring course as an NFJS Virtual Workshop, and my regular Software Design course at Trinity College in Hartford, CT.
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My friend, Albert Tam
This Thursday morning I got an email from MIT, asking me to activate my account in their new online community. I hadn’t thought much about MIT in a while, but next year is my 40th (!) reunion, so I figured I might as well click the button.
After I registered and updated my info, I saw an alumni search page. I was in the middle of a short break during my Deep Dive Into Spring course, but I figured, what the heck, I’ll do a random search for an old friend I hadn’t spoken to in literally decades. So I searched for Albert Tam and came up with nothing.
Not exactly nothing. I got back three names, but two of them with last names that started with the letters T-A-M, and one with the correct name (middle initial and all) from the class of 2026. I was very confused.
Then I noticed a check box in the upper corner:
Uh oh. I checked the box, and there he was:
With all that information, I was able to find his obituary, only to discover he’d passed away less than a month ago.
Yeah, that’s the goofy grin I remember. Amazing how little his appearance changed since I last saw him back in 1984.
My feelings are, shall we say, complicated. The least I can do is tell you a few stories about our time together.
I met Albert because he lived in the dorm next door, sort of. By that I mean we both lived in a dorm called New House, which was composed of six separate, connected buildings labeled 1 through 6. I lived in New House 5, which was called Desmond House, named after Thomas C. Desmond '09. Albert lived in New House 6, known as German House, because the residents there were supposedly learning German and tried to use it at least at meals. I knew just enough German to develop a strange dialect we called Deutsch-ish, which usually made Albert laugh.
We started to hang out my first semester sophomore year. After a brief dalliance with majoring in Nuclear Engineering (I wanted fusion, not fission, but the idea of getting a physics degree without majoring in physics was a running theme), I joined the Mechanical Engineering department (Course 2 for MIT nerds). Albert was already in that department. That meant we took a lot of classes together, and starting that semester we finished our Friday class at the same time, right around lunch time. We decided to go out to lunch together, looking for a lunch special somewhere.
I was a rather picky eater, even at the time, which I know will come as a shock to many of you. That week we went to a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, at which point Albert informed me that this wasn’t real Chinese food at all, but some Americanized version. He wanted to expand my education in that area, and over the rest of the semester and beyond, we found a different lunch special to go to every Friday. We hit all the major inexpensive (hey, we were poor college students) restaurants in Cambridge, then he took me around Boston, down to Chinatown for dim sum and other parts of the city for pizzas and more. I remember one time we had lunch at the bar that was the basis for the TV show Cheers, which was nothing like the place on the show (nobody knew our name). We also visited Harvard Square, Copley Square, and many other points between, until eventually our schedules diverged. By then, however, we knew where to go and what to order at most of the major cheap restaurants in the area, which was a lot.
The thing about Albert was that he was among the best students in the place. He had straight A’s when I met him, and he kept that going the entire time. At a place like MIT, that’s no mean feat. I, on the other hand, had an incredible knack of figuring out where the A/B cut-off line was and slipping under it for a B rather than an A. We were lab partners in more than one class, and I can’t tell you how many times we would do our labs together and write up our lab reports separately, using the exact same data and exact same analysis, and somehow he got an A and I got a B. He was just that good.
I should mention, though, that you’d never know how bright he was just by talking to him. He was always friendly and easy going and as unassuming as he could be. It’s just that he knew pretty much everything, and could figure out whatever else he needed.
In the common room in German House they had a ping-pong table, and we played together a lot. He was, of course, fantastic at it. I was good enough to give him a decent game, but not really at his level. He gave me a hard time — correctly — about my grip, but I was unable and/or unwilling to change it, so I lost to him a lot. We kept up running conversations during the games, though, and he brought a boombox with him that played loudly as we played, so the overall experience was really fun.
He often made fun of my taste in music. The Paul McCartney album Pipes of Peace came out our junior year and featured a song called So Bad. I liked it, but for weeks he kept telling me that song was so bad, like I didn’t get the joke the first time. On the other hand, he liked Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf, so I think that made us even.
One day he let me know that the basement of the student center had a bowling alley. It was really small (I remember only two lanes, but there may have been four). Albert had his own ball, of course, and his own shoes, of course, and he beat me regularly, of course. But it was fun anyway. I remember a habit he had that I found interesting. If he had a couple of bad frames, he would draw a vertical line between that frame and the next one, as though mentally starting again fresh. Sometimes that worked and sometimes not, but either way I thought it was clever.
While he was better at playing sports (not exactly a high bar, given my special combination of being small and making up for it by being slow), I knew lots more about spectator sports like football, baseball, and basketball. Occasionally when the guys got together to watch a playoff game, I’d have to let him know what was going on.
My favorite sports story with him wasn’t really a sports story, but more of a games story. Several of us were playing Trivial Pursuit (remember that?) and he and I happened to be a team. A question came up that said something like, “What two games include a grand slam?” I immediately thought of baseball and he immediately thought of bridge, so we won that round. :)
My junior year I decided to run a very limited football pool, where everybody kicked in $5 and picked the games every week (not against the spread), with the pot going to the winner at the end of the season. I put up a sheet on my door each week with the upcoming games so everyone could pick their winners. I used to refer to that as the one problem set every week I knew I could do.
One week Albert, who of course had no intention of playing, was standing at the door while we were talking. He decided to just arbitrarily pick the games that week, mostly looking to lose them all but more or less at random. As it happened he went 1 - 13, meaning he was only one win away from getting them all wrong. The rest of the season he kept pointing out to me that if I’d just picked opposite him on all of his choices, I’d be running away with the league championship.
While he was better academically than me at everything, I was more socially adept. I always had a girlfriend, or at least went on dates now and then. He was rather awkward and inhibited around girls, totally unnecessarily in my opinion. I’m sure it was just an uncertain stage he was going through that I knew he would inevitably outgrow (as evidenced by the family mentioned in the obituary), but it didn’t happen before we both graduated.
Speaking of that, with his grade point average, I knew he would get in anywhere he wanted for grad school. Albert applied to stay at MIT, which I thought was a mistake. MIT was (and maybe still is) a rather depressing place*, much better to be from than to be at, and it wore on both of us.
*I should explain that: MIT took what they called “the firehose approach” to education, meaning that the best way to get you to break bad study habits was to hit you with more than you could possibly handle. That meant you always, always, always felt like you were behind, and there was never time enough to celebrate any victories before moving on to the next assignment. That’s very wearying, and late in the semester we often sat around in the lounge wondering how different it would have been to go to a “real” school, where people had time for anything else without feeling massively guilty. It was tough, but again, a good place to be from.
I decided just for the heck of it to apply to MIT for graduate school (I had about a 3.3 average, in case you’re wondering) and was very surprised to get in. I knew I had to leave the place, though, for my own mental health. I applied to Princeton mostly because they turned me down as an undergrad (how many life-changing events occur for silly reasons like that?), and when I got in, I visited my potential advisor and hit it off with him, and attended an undergraduate class where I found, to my astonishment, the students were happy and enthusiastic. I hadn’t seen enthusiastic in a classroom in years.
Albert, however, stayed at MIT. From his obituary I see that he remained there for another six years, picking up every degree he could along the way. This occurred at least a decade before the rise of the web, though there was a shell of an internet at the time. For example, while we were still undergrads we played and won the text-based game Zork. The lack of an actual world-wide web after graduation, however, meant we quickly lost track of each other.
I tried searching for Albert online every now and then, but that wasn’t easy. Both “Albert” and “Tam” are very common names, and not everybody in my generation has a public profile that’s easy to find. He certainly didn’t. Now, however, I’m very disappointed I stopped trying. I feel terrible knowing he was in Philadelphia, which is a place I actually go occasionally, and I had no idea. We probably could have reconnected any time in the last twenty years, but we never did. I think I feel worse about that, and the fact that we ran out of time only three weeks ago, than anything else.
We knew each other for a brief time several decades ago, but he was my best friend for those formative years of my life. I miss him now much more knowing he’s gone than I did before I did that search. Still, at least I have this opportunity to tell you all about him, and I’m surprised how many stories I remember from so long ago. I hope you find them interesting and at least somewhat entertaining.
Any proper condolences should go to his family. I only wish I’d had a chance to get to know them as well.
MIT Wants $$$
Updating my contact info at MIT triggered something, because that night I received a phone call from a freshman there begging for money.
That’s too harsh. The kid was very friendly, even though it was obvious he had bullet-point script he was supposed to use. He asked questions to establish a rapport, seemed enthusiastic about the future, mentioned that he was lucky enough to be funded by the general scholarship money given by people like me, and so on. I let him talk, even though I find it highly manipulative of MIT to make their own students do this.
In the end, I pointed out my own positions on gifts to universities:
All these schools claim it costs tens of thousands of dollars a year to educate a single student, but I don’t believe them. Sure, they can cook the books to make it look that expensive, but there’s simply no reason for tuition to rise at double the rate of inflation every year for as long as I can remember, other than they believe they can get away with it.
When pressed, schools will blame research programs, or faculty salaries, or infrastructure costs, or anything other than their own bloated administrations for the absurd amounts they want.
I already paid for my education (or, more honestly, my parents did). Why should I pay for it again? Comedian John Mulaney has a good riff on that.
There are suffering people in this world who need my support a lot more than a school whose endowment is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Are they seriously suggesting that instead of giving money to my local food bank, or helping to pay off medical debt, or supporting victims of sexual violence, I should give my money to MIT? Just because they want it?
I have multiple degrees from multiple universities, and am proud to say I have never wasted a dollar on a “gift” to any of them, ever. I believe they should take those massive endowments and make tuition free for all their students, which I firmly believe they could do for the next hundred years and still be fine.
I considered telling the kid I was going to make a contribution to RIP Medical Debt in MIT’s name and hope they appreciated it. But no. Again, it’s not the kid’s fault they’re forcing him to make these calls. Instead I told him that he did fine and it was nothing personal at all, but no, I was not going to give MIT any money just because I was “grateful” to have given them money years ago when I paid for my education.
I just realized that the best way to tie this section into the previous one is to make a contribution to each of those charities in Albert’s name. Here are direct links to each, in case you want them:
Those aren’t the charities mentioned in Albert’s obituary, but I don’t think he’d mind.
If you have any connection at all to the AI world, your news sources were probably saturated with the coverage of the drama out of OpenAI. OpenAI is the non-profit organization behind ChatGPT and related products. They had what most people considered to be a very successful conference (OpenAI DevDay) a couple weeks ago, where they talked about their current and upcoming products, including the ability to easily create GPTs customized with your own data.
I was going to make a video about that when all hell broke loose on Friday. To sum up:
Sam Altman, the CEO and basically the face of the company, was fired in a 15-minute Google Meet call. The president also had his position reduced and subsequently resigned.
Several of their major researchers resigned in solidarity.
These actions took everyone, including all the company’s major investors, by complete surprise. Microsoft in particular has invested many billions of dollars in OpenAI and was informed about this about a minute before it happened.
The pushback was enormous, and, to make a long story short, the company is now in negotiations to try to bring Altman back.
Social media lit up like a supernova. The basic issues appeared to be a schism between the board members who believe in their ultimate mission (doing research to create a “safe” implementation of AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) for the betterment of all mankind, and don’t care about the commercial applications) and those who feel turning a start-up into a $90 billion company in about a year means everybody is going to be rich and yay, money!
I’m not surprised to find that you can’t make that many billionaires or potential billionaires angry by taking a stand on principle, without suffering some serious negative consequences.
The best gag I saw so far:
I obviously have no idea how this will all work out, but it’s hard to bet against rich people who smell money. As a spectator sport, it ought to be somewhat interesting, but wow, so much drama.
I’ll put together my video next week.
Tweets, Toots, Skeets, etc
This week in Elon
I had enough non-Elon-related drama this week without getting into Elon’s latest attempt to shoot himself in the foot and blame everyone else for it. Screw that guy. I will echo this, however:
John Scalzi, sf writer and one of my favorite people to follow on social media, said goodbye. Yeah, I’m just about there as well. All I do on Twitter is follow a couple of people I like (and I’m seriously tempted to ask them why they’re still posting) and I normally post my newsletter there. Maybe starting today I’ll stop doing that, too.
Or maybe after the first class. As it happens, I will be teaching another course at Trinity College in Hartford next semester. I’ll have more to say about it as we get closer to the start, but I’ll try to do so more than 45 minutes before the start of the first class. Don’t hold me to that, though.
Surely you’re joking
A seriously dated joke, but I laughed.
Speaking of dated movie references…
Nobody ever makes the first jump
Maybe that explains my attitude
I basically know all those movies (except Meatballs) by heart, and yeah, I totally agree.
Too early, but nice anyway
Normally I’d complain that we can’t do any Xmas jokes before Thanksgiving, but I’m happy to make an exception in this case.
It’s a good habit to get in to
That, most definitely, is an age check. I doubt anyone under the age of, say, 40, will get that joke at all. Please prove me wrong in the comments.
More Unix Epoch Time
Last week I mentioned the Year 2038 bug, which is when the Unix epoch overflows an unsigned integer. This week we had a different milestone, when the number of seconds since midnight, January 1, 1970 GMT rolled over to 1.7 billion. Hooray for round numbers!
I’d watch that
Does that make Archie the Beast at Tanagra?
Riverdale, when the walls fell
Jughead, his mouth wide
That’s enough. Have a great Thanksgiving week everybody!
The video version of this newsletter will be on the Tales from the jar side YouTube channel tomorrow.
Deep Dive into Spring, an NFJS Virtual Workshop
Software Design, my course for undergrads at Trinity College
Managing Your Manager, on the O’Reilly Learning Platform
Software Design, my course for undergrads at Trinity College
Thanksgiving 🦃 🏈