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June 08, 2005

A Bright Light Winks Out

Yesterday I learned that Bruce Toback died. He was a leading light among HP 3000 experts, but it takes far more than that accomplishment to catalogue his genius. I got to know him at first when we worked together on a project in the 1980s; I edited The HP Chronicle back then, and he agreed to contribute a column on languages, if I remember correctly. What stands out much better after all these years was Bruce's sense of humor and scope of intelligence. He and his wife Vicki founded a software company, Office Products Technology, first out of the LA area and then from Phoenix, where they relocated to start their family together.

Bruce was about my age when he died, so the news of his death by heart attack was sudden and sad and of course, a little scary. For the last several years we were both members of a virtual community of HP 3000 veterans — so I got to enjoy his writing, thinking and research even more for the past three years than during those few months when I was lucky enough to call him "one of my writers." He wrote more than 800 messages during the three years since I'd joined this community. He posted on a range of subjects as vast as ice skating, digital photography, real estate transactions, Mac OS X programming, percussion instruments and their science — the list of what he was interested in seemed endless.

The tributes poured in about from the HP community during this week. People told stories about his attention to detail (what kind of light bulb contacts are used in the UK, in preparation for a presentation there) or his devotion to accuracy in education (he and Vicki took their kids down the home schooling path, went one story, because the school was teaching electromagnetism in error, and Bruce couldn't get them to correct their cirriculum.) Many of his colleagues said they wished they knew him better. Through the writing he left behind on the Internet (just type "toback" into the address field on the HP 3000 newsgroup search engine), he won't be gone completely.

His programming lies at the heart of Formation, a ROC Software product which Bruce created as a product for Tymlabs, an extraordinary HP software company here in Austin during 1980s and early 90s. He could also demonstrate a sharp wit as well as trenchant insight. From a couple of his messages:

HP engineer [about a Webcast to encourage migration]: During the program, we will discuss the value and benefits of Transitioning from the HP e3000 platform to Microsoft's .NET.

Bruce: Oh... a very short program, then.

After PFC Jessica Lynch became a media celebrity for being rescued during the Iraq invasion, then celebrated in a song:
I have to wonder if all this attention would have been lavished on, say, a PFC James Lynch. My guess is that if the rescued POW had not been a comely female of prime reproductive age, we might have learned more about the folks who actually did the rescuing.

-- Bruce (who's not saying whether he's pro- or anti-war, but who's definitely anti-coverage-of-war-as-sporting-event)

A fellow of wry humor, Bruce was a realist and optimist all at once. He wrote a fabulous Web-based summary of the 3000 newsgroup traffic for many years during the 90s for the HP user group Interex, entries often full of wit. He kept up; just from reading his more than 800 posts in that community in the years since I joined, I find he was interested in new colorization algorithms, wrote a QCShow player for the Mac, developed a demo server for RETS (an open standard for exchanging real estate transaction) -- and yet he had squirreled away an HP Journal article on HP EGS, a 20-year-old graphics system run on the HP 3000. His last posting to the Internet noted the revival of assembly language programming.

Through it all, Bruce seemed to be having fun. He once noted a study which reported about 10 percent of all tech gifts would be damaged after the year-end holidays by enraged low-tech users, then added, "Go team!" And I could always feel a kindred spirit in his passion for the Mac's rebirth. He was compiling a list of books "at arm's reach" by HP 3000 technical community members in the weeks before his death, a great idea that was as inclusive as it was incisive. Perhaps his lesson as he left us was to keep your mind open about the relative value of past wisdom and future knowledge. He certainly displayed his gifts for both in the HP community.

He leaves behind a wife and two children, the part of his life that I suspect shone the brightest for him. He told this story on himself in a message about his courtship with Vicki:

Well, as long as we’re confessing, I did take my wife Vicki to HP CSY (or whatever it was called in January, 1978) while on our honeymoon. We had a romantic lunch in the company cafeteria, after which we picked up the full HP3000 manual set I had ordered (all 11 volumes). We then set out on a drive through the redwoods in the mountains south of Santa Clara. I drove while Vicki read selected passages from the Instruction Set and Intrinsics manuals.

N.B., for newlywed techies: I have been paying for this ever since.

For any of us in the HP 3000 community who knew him, even a little bit, we'll miss Bruce's light, always reflected in his humor.

03:30 PM in Newsmakers | Permalink

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