Site Index
Home
Life History

What

War Baby

I was born to Lee and Albert Halff on November 26, 1942 in the penitentiary town of McAlester, Oklahoma. I was supposed to be born in Dallas, but God must have decided that McAlester was a more appropriate place. So He arranged for a premature birth while my father was working (not incarcerated) there during the war.

I spent the rest of the war in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, at an Army-Air Force base that has since been replaced, no doubt, by condos. After the war my family moved to Dallas, where we lived, at least part of the time on the farm that my grandfather bought.

back to top

School Daze

In 1948, my father got the bright idea that he should get a Ph.D. in engineering, so we moved to Baltimore while he studied at Johns Hopkins. I got my first taste of education at the Roland Park Elementary School. I learned to read, write, and add; and to shake my milk bottle before opening it. This last skill is now obsolete.

My father, degree in hand, moved us all back to Dallas, or rather to Highland Park. We had a house on Rhiems Place that was conveniently located right next to the railroad tracks. I got my second taste of education at The Greenhill School. By the time I finished eighth grade, Greenhill had provided me with a solid fifth-grade education.

I also spent a fair amount of time at Tex Oddsen's stable where I learned to ride a horse. I was beginning to learn how to control the horse when ...

back to top

Leavin' Home

My parents realized that no one community could tolerate my presence for any length of time, so they packed me off to school at the Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, (which was also where Tyco headquarters was, when there was a Tyco). Towards the end of my four years at Exeter, I mastered the rudiments of reading, writing, and mathematics, and a couple of languages (French and Latin). I also learned how to smoke, but I learned nothing about women or whiskey. So ...

I went off to Stanford University, where I tried to rectify these defects in my education. About women, I learned nothing, despite four years of intense study. About booze, I learned all too much. At the end of my fourth year, it became clear to me that my educational activities were not exactly aligned with the Stanford's degree requirements. However, with a massive last-minute effort on the part of my family, I took an A. B. in Psychology (known, the world over, to be the easiest major outside of Education).

back to top

The Making of a Psychologist

After graduation from Stanford in 1964, I moved back to Dallas, where I futzed around for a half year or so in an experimental psychology lab at the University of Texas Southwest Medical School. A half year is what it took for my boss, Wayne Ludvigson, to realize the horrible error he had made in hiring me and to rectify that error by convincing me to go to graduate school.

With my natural talent for taking multiple-choice tests, I was able to get into graduate school in Psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. I packed up my stuff, and, with my father's help, found a $80/month apartment in Austin. I moved in in February of 1965, in time to start the second semester at UT.

At about this time, some maturational timer turned over and I found that I had an understanding of mathematics that had never been manifest in my four years of undergraduate school or the four years of high school before that. This new-found talent had two effects on my life. First, it made me tremendously popular with all of the graduate students in the department, particularly the clinical psychology students struggling with the required course in statistics. Second, it led me to an association with John Theios, who was then teaching mathematical models of learning.

Now, if you've ever taken Psychology 101, you probably know that there's a standard way that psychologists run experiments. In Psychology 101, it's the part about statistics and control groups that you have to study before you get to the stuff on sex. But mathematical psychologists aren't allowed to use this standard way of doing things. They have to make up their own methods; that's why they're called mathematical psychologists. Why am I telling you all this? Because I was a mathematical psychologist, and, because I had to make up my own ways of doing research, I had to learn how to program computers to analyze my data. And, once I saw a machine spit out a number that would have taken eons for me to compute by hand, I was hooked. I've been messing around with computers ever since.

The computer thing got even worse when Theios got a grant to buy his very own computer, one that could run experiments in the lab on its own. You have to understand that back in those days, the late '60s, everyone on campus used the same computer, one that wasn't nearly as good as the one you're using to look at this web page. So, having one's own computer was really a step up. Theios' machine, a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8, wasn't even as good as the chip in your microwave oven, but for us, it was great. I conned Theios into letting me program the damn thing to run my dissertation research, which involved shocking the s--t out of a bunch of rats and measuring how long it took them to press a bar that turned off the shock.

back to top

True Love

Before I could get started on this cruel and uninformative experiment, Theios announced that he had taken a position at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I arrannged to spend a few months in Madison, running experiments for the dissertaion and to return to Austin to write up the results for Theios' replacement, Peter Polson. A couple of my fellow graduate students, Mel Moy and Peter Smith, moved up to Madison with me in the fall of 1968. One day, I was sitting in a course that Jean-Claude Falmagne was teaching on fundamental measurement theory, when a few female graduate students entered the room. One of them looked kind of cute, so I introduced myself to her. Turns out, she was Nancy Fahlberg, a Californian studying cognitive psychology. She had zero interest in fundamental measurement theory, but she and her friends wanted to see who came up from Austin.

Nancy and I started going out, and it wasn't long before I realized that I was head-over-heels in love with this woman and that she was far better than anything I deserved. So, on my 25th birthday, I got thoroughly plowed and proposed marriage. Nancy was gracious enough to accept, although she said she worried about whether or not she, a mature 26 year-old, should be marrying an immature 25 year-old. Considering my state at the time, I'm not surpirsed that she worried.

So, after dragging her down to Texas to meet my parents, and dragging her parents to Texas to meet me, we dragged ourselves to Los Angeles, where, on June 24, 1968, we were married. I dragged Nancy back to Austin where we both tried to finish our dissertations. I succeeded and graduated in August of that year. (She succeeded a year or two later since two thesis advisors moved on her and she wasn't in Madison.)

back to top

Migrations

August, 1969 found us driving through the midwest on our way to a post-doctoral fellowship with Jim Greeno at the University of Michigan's Human Performance Center. We spent one night in the twin Illinois communities of Champaign and Urbana, towns dominated by restaurants with plastic signs and surrounded by dead flat fields of corn and soybeans as far as the eye could see. Nancy said to me, "Promise me that we'll never move to this god-forsaken place."

We spent a year in Ann Arbor, and it was pretty good. We found ourselves barely able to furnish a one-bedroom appartment: two recliners, a bed, a table made from building blocks and a door. I made a professional transition from doing trivial studies of rat learning to doing trivial studies of human learning. And, I got an introduction to other arcane areas of experimental psychology. Most significantly, we got Nancy pregnant.

I also managed to find a job at, you guessed it, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the fall of 1970, we moved into a two-bedroom town-house in Champaign and lived on the floor for a few weeks because the movers decided to put our furniture into storage. I was not happy about the situation. Nancy was even less happy since living on the floor is something of a challenge when one is eight-months pregnant.

Illinois was, for me, a professional disaster. For, although I knew everything there was to know about mathematical psychology and learning and all that stuff, I had recieved not one jot of training in how to be a professor. So, for six years, I winged it. At some things, I was pretty good. A colleague of mine, Bill Scholz, and I programmed up the department's computer so that it could run six or so experiments independently all at the same time. (Q: Why didn't you just buy six computers. A: This was 1972.) I also managed to use the lab to run a few experiments. But I found it all too difficult to write them up and get them published. My teaching methods were such that half of my students loved me and the other half hated my guts. At the end of six years, the University told me to take a hike. It was a no-brainer on their part.

But, professional life isn't everything. Larry came into our lives on October 8 of 1970. I tried my best at the Mr. Mom business, but I wasn't much better at it than I was at professoring. Fortunately, Larry had a great Mrs. Mom so came through his early years with no more than his fair share of broken bones (a hip), ear infections, and wretched pre-school experiences.

Nancy, in addition to being Ms. Mom, managed to find herself a job in the University's internal R&D unit, where she found a certain amount of professional fulfillment and time away from being mom. Between Nancy's job and mine, we formed a few close friendships, the Scholzs, Charlie and Mary Lewis, Jill and Andrew Ortony, Dave and Carolyn Frisbee, to name a few. Somewhere along the way one of my grad students unloaded a dog named Wilson on us. We got comfortable with the notion that Champaign-Urbana was our home.

After a year in the town house, we sold some stock and bought a small ranch-style house. In the winter of 75-76, in addition to looking for a job, still trying to be Mr. Mom, and still trying to get published, our furnace went out. The furnace was old enough that its broken heat-exchanger had to be specially made and we were poor enough that we could not afford a new furnace. So we went through the winter without heat. We kept warm with a few space heaters and a pretty good fireplace. But we found that the best way to heat a house was to throw a party and let the warm bodies do the job.

In 1974, or thereabouts, I managed to quit smoking, thanks to a pact with Bill Scholz. I had been a pack-a-day guy until then and smoked like a chimney at parties. So, the morning after every party, I found myself coughing my guts out. About a week after quitting, I went off to a convention and spent the first evening at a party. I woke the next morning with the strangest feeling, that of being able to breathe. After that, I never touched another cigarette.

People that quit smoking tend to get fat, and I was no exception. One day, I found myself running for a bus. (We were a one-car family; I bussed to work.) I found that I could not manage the half-block distance without entering a state of terminal exhaustion. I was so alarmed by this experience that I took up a training program and stopped eating. As the result, I lost weight, got in shape, and became addicted to physical activity. This addiction preserved my sanity while the rest of my life was falling apart, but it practically drove the rest of my family nuts. And, although I didn't know it at the time, I had found myself, in running.

back to top

Nancy's Last Migration

In the Spring of '76, a friend, Al Collins, who knew that I was looking for a job, pointed me to an opening at the Office of Naval Research (ONR). ONR is in the business of giving out money for basic research that might be of benefit to the Navy. Working for the military as a check-writer was a suck job for a child of the anti-bellum 60's coming from an assistant-professorship at the University of Illinois. (Of course, to an academic, any non-academic job is a suck job.) But, my vita did not put me in line for too many other jobs, so I flew out to Arlington, Virginia for an interview with the folks in ONR's Psychological Science Division. I learned at the interview that the people that work for ONR aren't stupid, and that the office used its money and brains to get thing done that would never be funded in the peer-review competitions where most scientists go for funding.

This ONR job was interesting enough that we decided to take an East Coast vacation that summer and swing through Washington, DC on the way. We drove east through the mid-west, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. As we circled the beltway, we could see the city shimmering under the burden of heat and humidity that oppresses the mid-Atlantic every summer. We found a terrible motel that was only about double the price of the best that Champaign had to offer and were invited to dinner by my prospective boss, Marshall Farr, along with a few other folks from the Office. Nancy learned that people outside academia aren't like those inside, and, at least at first, she figured she preferred the academic types. Her remark at the time: "Promise me that we'll never move to this miserable place."

I was left, for a few days, in something of a pickle, having no other real opportunities. Fortunately, next on our itinerary was a visit to long-time friends of Nancy's, Tamara and Dave Ellis. Tamara, not being an academic, was able to explain matters to Nancy. "You twit, you can't stay in Champaign because there's nothing there for you. Your husband has found a damn good job in Arlington, so, unless you're prepared to move into a refrigerator box, go back to Champaign, pack up your s--t and get your ass to Arlington." And that's what we did.

I made preliminary house-hunting trip to Arlington where I discovered that my house-hunting skills were about as good as my professoring and Mr. Momming skills. I signed a contract on a house that was entangled with contingencies that we could never close on it, and we never did. So, when we moved to Arlington, we had to spend our first weeks in a motel that has fortunately fallen to the forces of urban renewal. Wilson had nicer accomodations at the Great Falls Kennel and Boarding School. Nancy found us another house that we could actually buy once the bank decided that they could give us an outrageous loan. (This was 1976.) We settled down in a suburban neighborhood in north Arlington.

back to top

Inside the Beltway

My professional life turned 180° once I joined ONR. Unlike the university, the people I worked for had enough of a stake in my success that they took the time to work with me. The division chief, Glenn Bryan, taught me what it was possible to do, and my branch head, Marshall Farr taught me how to get it done. Far from being a check writer, the job for me was more that of an über professor who had the brightest guys in his field working for him, and having the travel money to visit them whenever he wanted.Working for the Navy didn't hurt, either. There's nothing that focuses a research program more than putting it in an organization that has to get things done. So, the three of us were able to put together some pretty good research programs on how to use psychology to design computer programs for teaching and learning.

Personally life was not too bad. Things were a little rough at first since Nancy did all the heavy lifting at home while I went gallivanting around the country. And the old farts that worked at ONR were not exactly her choice for close personal friends. But, we made friends with the neighbors, who had kids Larry's age, and particularly with Ward and El Buckler who had two sons, one of whom, Ed, was Larry's age. Washington and its surroundings had a lot more to offer to a family than did Champaign-Urbana, so we tooled around all over the place. Wilson, as was his bent, went tooling around without us one day and, as the result, lost his ability to make little Wilsons. He went into a slow decline and was put down several years later.

In a rare stroke of genius, I hauled Larry down to the Unitarian Church of Arlington one Sunday in the fall of '76. It took about a year to get sucked into the church's society. (Unitarian churches are like that.) But in our second year, the church hired one Norma Veridan to rescue its languishing religious education program. One of Norma's first pronouncements was that no one with a kid in the program could escape working for the program. So we tried our hands at teaching Sunday school. We were such disasters that we were quickly transferred to the Children's Worship Committee. When we had done our bit there, the church decided that the only safe place to put me was on the Religious Education Council. When I finished my three-year stint on the council, there was no place to go but the board of trustees, and after that, they put me out to pasture. By that time, it was about 1991, and we had formed a number of close relationships in the church community, too numerous, in fact to list.

back to top

California Dreamin'

But wait, I need to back up. The bureaucracy at ONR, started acting in a particularly crazy fashion around 1979, and my job, along with everyone else's got to be less and less fun. For relief, I asked the Navy for a year off to go study at the University of California, San Diego and the Navy Personnel R&D Center, both conveniently located near some of the best beaches in the nation. The Navy couldn't find anything better for me to do, so it sent me out to San Diego along with the whole damn family. We rented a house from a friend of ours, Dexter Fletcher, who was living in Vienna, Virginia at the time but had a spare house in San Diego. Looking back, this year in San Diego was one of the most important in my life. Here's why.

Professionally, for me, San Diego was a gas. Don Norman, Dave Rumelhart, and others at UCSD were working what was perhaps the most important development of the '80s in cognitive science. (Cognitive science is the study of, well, cognition. I once heard it said that any field whose last name is "science" isn't one, and I think that's probably true of cognitive science.) This development was a way of thinking of mental functions as being driven by the activity of a bunch of neuron-like thingies hooked up so that they could activate or de-activate each other to varying extents. You might ask why it was that since people's brains are composed of neurons, this idea did not occur to cognitive scientists until the '80s. The answer is that the most important development of the 70's was the notion that cognition is, at its heart, the use of symbols to reason about what the world is like, kind of like Aristotle. So, personally, I was able to get in on these developments as they were happening—quite exciting.

There was one serious problem with UCSD. Our offices were in the same building as the UCSD Cognitive Science labs, which were equipped with a raft of computers. These computers had be kept cool, but the architects failed to put in a separate cooling system for the computer room. As the result, the computer room was the only room in the building that was kept at a reasonable temperature. The rest of the building was suitable only for hanging meat.

Fortunately, half of my work was at the Navy Personnel R&D Center (now defunct), located on Point Loma and overlooking San Diego Bay. I got involved there with a project that could take factual knowledge that people had to master and turn it into a bunch of computer games, like a computer version of Jeopardy, that students could use to learn the facts. Cool! More than cool, this notion of automatically converting raw knowledge into interactive learning activities is one that has dominated my professional life ever since.

In addition to UCSD and NPRDC, there was the computer. Nancy was getting antsy about staying out of professional life for so long, and I was getting antsy about not having had my hands on a real computer in so long, so one day, I went out to the local computer store and got a an Apple II (actually, I think it was an Apple II+). Nancy didn't do much with the machine, probably because Larry and I were on it all the time. A couple of neighbor kids taught him about Dungeons and Dragons, and I went out and got a few computer adventure games. (Some of these were pirated, I'm sorry to say, but the notion that one should actually pay for software seemed bizarre at the time.) I used these games as a springboard to teach Larry how to program his own games. I myself put the entire damn set of computer games from NPRDC on the Apple. (Dexter Fletcher says that when he discovered computer programming, his first thought was "And they pay you to do this?" My feelings, exactly.) My dad got me a modem for my birthday, 300 baud, about 1000 times slower than your high-speed connection to the Internet. Still and all, this modem transformed our lives. I programmed the machine so that I could talk to the computers at UCSD and NPRDC. I signed up for an on-line service known as The Source. Sometimes you only know what a gift means to you long after you've gotten it, and this was one of them. Maybe we should write thank-you notes 10 years after we get these gifts.

Running became more and more of my life in San Diego. It's a great place to run. I ran Catalina Avenue out to Cabrillo Point. I ran from our house down to Mission Bay. In fact, I ran all over Mission Bay, and several other places as well.

San Diego is a relaxing place. Many people take off work early to go surfing. As a family, we took a lot of time for ourselves. We visited the desert (good place to run), the zoo and Wild Animal Park, the aquarium, and many other places in the area. Larry took Spanish lessons, but didn't learn much. In fact, school was pretty much a disaster for him since Proposition 13 had devastated California public schools.

For Christmas of '80 we drove to Arizona to visit with Don and Julie Lindholm, classmates of Nancy. It was there, on New Years Eve that I found myself without any new years resolutions. In the past I had always resolved to do something or another, which, of course, I never did. So, in '81, I changed course and resolved not to do something, and in particular, not to let alcohol pass my lips. For the first few weeks, this was a difficult resolution to keep, but I managed to hang onto it for seven years. There were some rewards to abstinence. My weight dropped so I got a lot faster on the run.

back to top

Breaking Away

In the summer of '81, when my year was up, we pulled up stakes, headed North along the coast to Oregon and turned East along the Columbia, eventually returning to Arlington. I returned to ONR owing them nothing more than three years of service in return for the one-year vacation. Around the time of our return we decided that ONR would get no more than three years from me, and we started looking for other things to do. Things at ONR were getting no better. Glenn Bryan left and the office was much the worse for it. I looked at a couple of jobs, but in the end, we decided to start our own consultancy. Halff Resources, Inc. was founded in the summer of '84, quite literally, as a basement business, with an Apple //c and an IBM PC (a gift from my dad). I picked up a job for the Army Research Institute being a futurologist, and Nancy picked up some work from a friend of ours in the training business.

We soon decided that the business would not survive in the basement, and we made plans to build an addition to our house that would serve as an office. And we figured, what the hey, we might as well redo the kitchen as well. We found ourselves an architect who gave us some plans and got us what we considered a pretty good bid for the project. We wrote a check, and pretty soon, some workers showed up and started digging and pounding nails and putting up the concrete blocks that were the foundation for our new split-level office. I noticed at this time, that the foundation was not split-level. After looking carefully at the plans, I called the architect. Pretty soon the contractor's foreman showed up, looked at the plans and at the foundation, and then went away, for several weeks. When we eventually complained to the architect, a couple of guys showed up and rebuilt the foundation. As it turned out, this was how the contractor worked. His guys would show up, do a little work, and then disappear for a period of time. Our problem was that the periods of time kept getting longer and longer. Eventually, they got so long that we had to call in another contractor. As it turned out, our first contractor went bankrupt, and, in fact, was in the habit of going bankrupt whenever he got in trouble.

The business was, quite unexpectedly, a success. Nancy kept getting jobs in training development. I had a number of those jobs, but my most interesting work was with computers. The army got interested in using a second-generation version of NPRDC's computer games to teach helicopter pilots about enemy missiles and other bad things that they might encounter in a war with Russia. We put a bunch of photos and video (much of it from Russian TV) on a videodisc and hooked it up to the games. To my great surprise, the thing kind of worked.

Around the time that the game-videodisc job ended, I got a call from a colleague, Wally Wulfeck who worked at NPRDC. Wally asked if I would be interested in making a computer game to teach principles of electricity and electronics. He even offered to pay me to do this. He was looking for a game that covered all 14 weeks of the Navy's Basic Electricity and Electronics course, and he figured I could do the job with the help of a couple of grad students. Ha! The University of Central Florida's Institute for Simulation and Training (IST) was also interested in the job so Wally sent them a bunch of money and they hired me as an instructional designer. I found myself on a team that had a project manager, a herd of programmers (mainly grad students) and a gaggle of artists. We also had a consultant from San Jose, Howie Delman, who knew electricity and electronics and who had some experience in game design. We were not exactly the model of an efficient design and development team, but we eventually produced a game, known as Electro Adventure, that covered two days of the Navy's existing training. We tried it out in a Navy classroom and it actually worked. The students got through the game in about 12 hours and did about as well as students who got 16 hours of regular training. You would think that the Navy would be elated, but by that time, politics had turned against the game, so the Navy figured out a way to make the project look like a failure. The project director for the Navy was a crazy guy named Dan Christinaz. He's about six feet tall, is built like a weight lifter, and has the personality to match. His two great talents are getting things (often impossible things) done and pissing people off by telling them the truth.

While I was deeply involved in Electro Adventure, I got a call from Scott Newcomb, who was working at the Air Force Human Resources Lab at Brooks AFB in San Antonio, Texas. He wanted me to help him with this daft idea of programming a computer that would make it easy to design and develop computer-based training. At the time, it took 300–1000 hours of development time to make one hour of computer-based training; I doubt that these numbers have changed all that much in the intervening years. I didn't give this project much of a chance, but Scott promised me travel to San Antonio where I knew that I could get good Mexican food, so I signed up. I found myself in the company of some really famous guys in the field of instructional design—guys like Dave Merrill and Bob Gagné—and some old friends in cognitive psychology—like Martha Polson, the wife of my thesis advisor at the University of Texas. I spent something like three years trying to convince these guys that they were working on a fundamentally dumb idea. The Air Force, however, kept throwing money at it, and that practice made a big difference in my life.

But first, a bit about personal matters. Larry made life interesting for us during this period. One day in the Summer of 1987 he announced quite casually to us that he was gay. His mother and I, of course, freaked out, and we remained freaked out for a number of years. Fortunately, Larry handled the development with the utmost maturity and so handles it to this day. Looking back on it, I'm surprised that he did not divorce us.

Not that he did not inflict his share of madness upon us. He threatened for years, week after week to go to the midnight movies. Each threat drove his mother up the wall, and she made me promise to wait up for him. And each time I waited up, he would drift home at about 11:00 PM, announcing, "We decided not to go."

Then there was the free-speech rebellion of '89 at Larry's school, Yorktown High. The word "alcohol" appeared in the draft of the student yearbook. The iron hand of the censors struck it, and the copying machine, Halff Resources' copying machine, went to work, churning out protest leaflets, drafted and disseminated by Larry and his fellow Bolshies. I got a cordial call from the principal, and I recommended, in cordial terms, that he stuff it.

Larry finally got some relief from his parents when he went to Earlham College in Indiana, a stone's throw from the Ohio border. Since most of the folk at Earlham were as radical as he was, the only person he managed to offend was the president of the college. Said president apparently forgave him because he graduated with Honors in 1992.

Starting around 1987, I found myself running more and more, in and around Arlington. I ran every mile of every hike-and-bike trail in Arlington, several times. I also ran everywhere I could when I traveled and eventually developed the attitude that the only way to really see a place is on the run. I still feel that way. I also discovered racing. Since I wasn't drinking, I had no trouble getting up early for weekend races. I tried to do one race every weekend. Sometimes I would do two, if one was short; and one weekend I did three 5Ks. I discovered that 5K was my distance. On my 50th birthday, I ran one in a blistering 21:32. I also began stretching my distances and was pretty comfortable with long runs by the end of '92. I signed up for the October '93 Marine Corps Marathon and started training seriously. I ran 20 miles the Summer of '93, but two weeks after that run my legs decided to stop at 12 miles. For weeks after that my endurance was shot. Five miles was a hard run. Finally, out of desperation, I went to my doctor, who wondered why I hadn't seen him earlier since I tested twice for low blood count three months earlier. I explained to him that his nurse told me that my second test was normal. He spent a few private moments with the nurse, advised me to take iron and set me up for a stem-to-stern gut X-ray. The X-ray showed nothing, the nurse was pissed as hell at me, but the iron worked. Unfortunately, it was too late by that time for me to train for the marathon. Looking for ways to keep myself from running too much, I decided to take up biking late in the Summer of '93 and even did a century in the fall (which it took me 10 hours to complete and 6 months to recover from).

The Summer of '93 will be most remembered by me not for my failed marathon bid or my successful century, but as the Summer when Nancy and I parted company. She was standing on her own in the business world. She had formed a business alliance with Dianne Galloway, then a training consultant in Connecticut. Dianne decided to move to Arlington where she and Nancy founded their own consultancy, Galloway-Halff, Inc. A side effect of this alliance was that Dianne's dog, Cady, made our place her home-away-from-home so that Dianne could travel freely. Since Nancy also traveled freely, Cady and I, left on our own, became soulmates. Larry, by that time, had moved to Vancouver and was in graduate school at the University of British Columbia. He was studying to be a video ethnogapher. (He has since found out that the world is both ignorant of and unappreciative of folks in this line of work.) So Nancy was looking to be altogether on her own. She moved out of our house to a condo, leaving me with Cady. After a stab at counseling, we got ourselves an amicable divorce. We're still very good friends, although we don't see each other all that much any more. Cady has since "stepped on a rainbow and gone to Jesus," to quote Kinky Friedman.

back to top

Down the Trail to San Antone

After Nancy left, I sat around the house not doing much of anything except running, swimming, and bike riding. One day in August of '93, I got a call from Al Hickey. Al worked for Mei Technology, the civilian contractor running my little Air Force Project. (The observant reader will notice that the name of the firm is "Mei," as in "May," not "MEI," as in "M E I." It is named for the founder who happened to be Chinese.) He told me that the project was moving to a new phase, would be managed out of Mei's San Antonio office, and that Mei's project manager had resigned on the eve of the new phase's startup. They want me to take over. I went to San Antonio and met with Dr. Peng Siu Mei (founder of the firm) and Bill Walsh, who worked in the San Antonio office. They persuaded me that I really did need a change and that I should accept the position; "Take the job, Henry, and no one gets hurt." That was in September of '93. In October I made a house-hunting trip to San Antonio and bought a house. On November 23, I moved in. The day after that, I flew to San Diego for Thanksgiving and my 51st birthday with my brother and parents.

I spent the month of December thinking very hard about my project. What I had to do was to develop this computer system that could take raw knowledge from, say, an Air Force technician on, say, how to change a tire on an airplane, and make that knowledge into super-cool computer lesson, kind of like the computer games that I worked on at NPRDC in '80-'81. Then I had to try the program out in real instruction. And, as if that weren't enough, I had to come up with some sort of guidelines about when to use audio and video in instruction. By the time January rolled around, I had figured out that it was impossible to do all that with the time and money available.

I did what I could. I had a small, but talented staff. Pat Hsieh, a brilliant instructional designer, Elizabeth Gibson, a wonderful psychologist, and Darryl Song, a technogeek from Mei's home office in Lexington, who had created a first version of what I was supposed to develop. We started to work, but very quickly ran into double trouble.

Trouble 1. In March of '94 (March 19, to be precise), I was riding my bike up a hill when the machine started to wobble and then dumped me off on the shoulder of the road. The fall knocked my thigh-bone into my hip-bone and shattered the socket. I was scraped of the highway by the EMS people, dumped in a hospital bed, pumped full of drugs, and put into traction for eight weeks. I had to stay in the hospital for a couple of weeks after that so that I could learn how to walk again, if only using a walker.

Now, being in traction for a couple of months is pretty bad, but tolerable. After all, I really didn't have a choice. Besides, my parents, bless their souls, came to San Antonio from Dallas, moved into my house and took care of me. They brought me my mail. They got my lawn mowed. They got me what they thought I was missing in the way of furniture. They even unpacked the boxes that I had left unpacked from the move. (Whenever I've moved, I've always had unpacked boxes from the previous move.)

But I digress. Trouble 1was that the project manager, moi, was lying in bed for two months and would never during that time have been able to pass a urinalysis test.

Trouble 2.I returned from the hospital, toted up the work to be done, counted the number of people available to do it and found out that we were understaffed. So I brought on a three new people—Tom Chudanov, a programmer, Brenda Wenzel, a research psychologist, and the infamous Dan Christinaz.

We had more troubles, but we managed to work through them. At the end we had developed and field tested a system called XAIDA (don't ask) that let ordinary folk, like community-college teachers, make really great computer lessons in very short order.

The Great Bike Crash of '94 also took it's toll on my personal life. I had been dating a wonderful woman and talented actress, Magda Porter, but it's rather hard to maintain a relationship when one is flat on one's back or even on crutches, so Magda and I shortly passed into the "friend" stage.

Another young lady appeared in my life in mid July of '94. She looked like someone had beat her with an ugly stick when I first came across her in my neighbor's front lawn. At the time, she was about 8" long and weighed perhaps 3 pounds. She had black hair, her tail wagged, and she appeared to be looking for a home. My father, who was with me at the time did not want to invite her in, but my mother did, and she remains here to this day. The vet gave her a scrub, told me she was about 6 weeks old, and asked me for a name. I chose the first name that came to mind, Cady. "Trouble" would have been a more appropriate choice.

After Magda and I moved to the friend stage, I began dating another wonderful woman, Joan Raab, who did two wonderful things for me. First, she introduced me to the Community Unitarian Universalist Church (CUUC) of San Antonio, an organization that has come to take up all my time and not a little of my money. She also had the wisdom to see that our relationship was going no place, and she let me know. Her timing was perfect since, the very next week, I met Jean Watson, the second love of my life, at a book discussion group, at CUUC. Unfortunately, the second love of my life left the premises while is was cleaning up, and I did not have the foggiest idea of how to contact her.

Luckily, on one evening in July of '95 we both showed up at an Urban Campfires house concert at which Ken Gaines was playing. On this occasion, I had enough sense to not let her get away. And she has not, to this day, gotten away. In 1996 she unwisely decided that I would be a better landlord than the one she had at the time; free rent may have had something to do with the decision. It was a great deal for me. The only downsided was that Jean was a nurse in the newborn nursery at a local hospital and, on occasion had to wake up at 5:00 and abandon me to go take care of babies. However, it was such a good deal on balance that, in April of '97 we made the whole deal permanent by taking vows.

Although my social life recovered from the great bike crash of '94, I cannot claim the same success for my athletic life. Despite eight weeks of traction, the hip did not heal quite right and my thigh bone is permanently stuck up in its socket in my hip, where it grinds away at the latter. As the result, I was forced to give up running, except in memories. As the result, I formed an unholy alliance with my bike the devilish machine that put me in this fix. On a good week I could put in 100 miles, but it was never the same as running. I kept swimming laps too and even participated in a couple of triathlons with teammates from work.

Off the Treadmill

Business at Mei was going well in 1998. The XAIDA project was winding down and the Air Force decided to undertake a follow-on project. Mei won the contract for this follow-on in a walk.But towards the end of the year, things took a turn for the worse. The Air Force let their follow-on die a slow and painful death from funding cuts and political intrigue. We lost a number of other small contracts and proposals. By 1999, I was looking at a large number of unoccupied psychologists and techs. In addition, Dr. Mei decided to retire and sell his firm to another corporation. The new owners did not take long to assess the economic viability of a bunch of research psychologists in San Antonio, Texas, and they downsized us all in April 1999. I started looking for a job. I had one feeler from Chicago. "No way, José" said Jean. I was otherwise unsuccessful and had pretty much concluded that I was unemployable. Nancy, my ex, gave me some good advice, "Henry, get off the treadmill," which I took.

I stopped looking for a job and took up consulting again. One job came my way immediately. What was left at Mei wanted me to put together a breifing for a proposal that I had written for them.

Soon after that, the Navy contacted me about a project to turn all of the Navy's training in Basic Electricity and Electronics (BE&E) into interactive computer based instruction, but (sigh) not a game like Electro Adventure. I came to the project in mid-stream. I did a careful evaluation of what the Navy should be doing to make the project work and what they were doing. Comparing these two assessments led me to believe that the project was doomed—just my kind of job.

I stayed with the project for a couple of years, mainly working with Allem Munro at the University of Southern California's Behavioral Technology Labs. We were trying to put together a system that would put students in a virtual electicity lab on steroids, some reference materials, and a bunch of tasks, exercises, and puzzles. Students were to learn by working their way through the exercises. Alas, we were unable to complete the work with the time and money that we had left when I signed on. I'm sure that I pissed off a bunch of people, but I had good time playing around with some interesting ideas. Maybe the Navy will pick up on them someday.

Since that time I was in on a couple of abortive attempts to bring back XAIDA in the context of medical training, but, for a number of reasons, they have come to naught. None of the reasons were technical, and the notion of turning knowledge into instruction on the spot is still, in my mind, one with a good deal of potential.

Jean, about that time was also having problems at work, like supervisors that wanted to put her to work in places where she was not supposed to work and got no support. One day she told one of these supervisors to take the job and shove it, to the silent applause of the rest of the ward staff. I applauded also since it meant more attention for me.

With free time on my hands, I became more and more a slave of CUUC. I was first conned into serving on the board of trustees, then into being the president of the church. After two years as president, I figured that I would drop back to an easier job, member services facilitator. I discovered that it was not an easier job.

I also began to notice things about biking. It is a time-consuming form of exercise that, done long enough, causes intense pain in all parts that touch the bike—hands, feet, and butt. Done often enough it will kill you. I have since switched to competitive swimming, an activity in which one only feels like one is dying.

Footloose

Life's complications began to catch up with me in 2004. In a vain attempt to jump start my professional life and to rid myself of mountain of paperwork that dominates my life, I rented an office and hired a part-time secretary. Barbara Johnson is currently in that position. Between the two of us we can barely keep up with the paperwork.

My parents, well into their 80s began to feel the effects of age in 2004. I decided to visit them monthly at their home in San Diego, and I maintained this practice until 2006, when Mom decided to move to heaven, and Dad decided to move to Hawaii.

In the Spring of 2005, Mom fell and suffered a stroke, or vice-versa, that landed her in the hospital for a week and left her pretty much immobile, not that she was all that good on her feet beforehand. In August of that year Dad fell (while he was dancing down the hall of his house) and broke a hip. The hospital, as hospitals are wont to do, stretched out his stay for a couple of weeks while they checked out his gut, put in a pacemaker, and finally put a screw in his hip. In November of that year, Mom decided that she'd had enough of us and passed on to wherever moms pass on to.

Dad was recovering nicely from both the hip and the loss of his wife of 63 years, when he convinced my brother to take him along on a cruise to Northern Europe. They were cruising the English channel when my father again fell and broke his other hip. He spent three weeks in a hospital in Bruges Belgium (read all about it here) before we could "repatriate" him. He was allowed a year of recuperation before my brother grabbed him and shipped him off to Hawaii. His consent to the move was reluctant, to put it mildly, but his new home seems to suit him and he's found opportunities to get back to work--on a tidal energy project of all things.

All of these incidents were important to me because of the frequent call-ups for aged-parent duty: Mom's fall, Dad's fall #1, Mom's death, and Dad's fall #2. The last was particularly onerous because I was called away from the National Senior Games swim meet, for which I had been training for two years.

In the Spring of 2007, after another shot at a Northern European cruise, this one disaster free, Dad plopped himself down in San Antonio. He arrived just in time to knock me out of National Senior Games once again. He moved into a house four doors down from us. There, for six months, he spent his mornings bothering the staff at Halff Associates' San Antonio office, his afternoons seeing the Texas Hill Country (or his doctors), and his evenings partying with us. He would go anywhere for a party, Fredericksburg, Gruene, Dallas. In January, we ran out of parties, so he went back to Kauai. He still rotates between Kauai and San Antonio, spending six months on each rotation.

In a desperate third try to make National Senior Games, I put Dad in the pool at the 2008 Hawaii Senior Olympics. He swam three events (men's 50 yard backstroke, men's 50 yard freestyle, and men's 100 yard backstroke). He won all three races (being the only contestant in the 90–94 age group), and thereby qualified himself for the 2009 Nationals in Palo Alto. My guess is that we'll be the only father-son pair at the meet. The important thing is that if he's at the meet, he can't call me away from it.

Not all of my travel has been on aged-parent duty. I also have a wife that loves to go places. You can keep up with our travels by looking at our travel photo collections on the photo sharing site, Flickr and at my Dopplr page.

Church still consumes an inordinate amount of my time. I'm now co-chair of the Programs Committee, and it's no less work than Member Services. I also made the mistake of joining a Toastmasters club and find myself speaking or listening to speeches on those weeks when I am in town. In July of 2006, the club made the mistake of turning to me as president, a post that I fulfilled with my typical lassitude and lack of attention to detail. I left the club in 2007 to have more time to party with Dad.

I am still a devoted Masters swimmer with an embarassingly large number of medals. It turns out that at my age, Woody Allen is right. Showing up is 80% of success. Outliving the competition is a sure-fire way to take gold. Unfortunately Jean has cut back seriously on my competition by scheduling weddings to conflict with swim meets. I'm also the webmaster for our team's web site. In September 2007 and 2008, I swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco and aftr each crossing spent three days celebrating the event with family. As far as I know, the authorities are still trying to hunt me down.

Fun and Games

In 2008, I got the most amazing opportunity. An acquaintance, now friend, of mine, Stephan Samuelson, walked into my office and said, "Let's start a company to games for science education." Now I had been thinking about doing something like this ever since my Electro Adventure days, and even made several runs at the idea. All my tries ended failure for one reason or another.

It didn't take long for Stephan to convince me to give games for science education another shot. I was already looking for a way to get back into the business. So, we formed Twist Education, LLC. Now, in the Spring of 2009, we are staffing up, moving into a new office, and have started making games, or rather making tools that we will use to make games. Stephan does the work. I have the fun.

back to top