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Community pioneer Wirt Atmar dies

KickButt Wirt Atmar, founder of 3000 software firm AICS Research and an inventive leader of the 3000 community since the computer's inception, died yesterday at age 63. He leaves behind his wife and business partner Valerie, a son Mark, millions of lines of programs and Internet postings, and a legacy of creation — one that flowed from a clear-eyed view of a world where he helped computer science emerge and flourish.

Atmar died of a heart attack in his hometown in Las Cruces, NM early on Feb. 5. It was a place where he invited everyone to enjoy a free enchilada dinner when they visited him. He quipped once that it was interesting to live in a state where the omnipresent question was about enchildala sauce: "Green or red?" He gravitated to new ideas and concepts and products quickly. Less than a month after Apple introduced the iPhone, he bought and tested one, praising its promise even as he exposed its failures, from the unripened state of its software to the signal unavailability.

It will work well if you go stand in the street, however. If I go outside and stand under one specific tree, I can talk to anyone I want. In only one week, I have felt on multiple occasions just heaving the phone as far as I could throw it -- if it weren’t so damnably expensive. The iPhone currently resembles the most beautiful cruise liner you’ve ever seen. It’s only that they haven’t yet installed the bed or the toilet in your stateroom, and you have to go outside to use the “facilities,” and that’s irritating even if the rest of the ship is beautiful. But can you certainly see the promise of what it could become.

The postings were classic Wirt: Funny and insightful, cut precise with honesty, and complete in needed details. A cruise through his postings on the 3000 newsgroup stands as an extraordinary epitaph of his passions, from space exploration to environmental science to politics to evolution and so much more. He was a mensch and a brilliant polymath, an extraordinary combination in any human.

Less than 24 hours before he died, Wirt posted an lively report on migration performance gains he recorded after moving an MPE/iX program to faster hardware running Linux. It was an factual observation only Atmar could have presented, an example of the scientific practice the community loses with his passing.

One of the 3000 founders who was best known by his first name, Wirt was respected in the community for his honest and pragmatic vision of the 3000's history and potential, expressed in his countless e-mails and postings to the 3000 newsgroup. But alongside that calculating drive he carried an ardor for the platform. His was essential in sparking HP's inclusion of SQL support in IMAGE, a feature so integrated that HP renamed the database IMAGE/SQL. In 1996 Wirt led an inspired publicity effort that brimmed with a passion for possibility, conceiving and executing The World's Largest Poster Project (shown above) with the help of hundreds of volunteers on a Southern California football field. He quipped that after printing the hundreds of four-foot rolls of paper needed for the poster, loading them into a van for the trip to California represented "the summer corporate fitness program for AICS Research."

Wirtatmar Wirt's software company survives and perseveres, reports his widow Valerie, who's been AICS general manager since the company's inception, a start in a trailer with New Mexico State graduate students doing the coding in the early 1970s. AICS has evolved across more than three decades, its success and invention maturing and expanding around the HP 3000 user, ones both homesteading and migrating. Evolution has been essential to the company as well as its founder. Wirt lived a life that sprang from his career as an evolutionary biologist and research associate at the Center for Evolutionary and Environmental Biology at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.

Wirt was no stranger to the realities of death, having worked for a time as a scientist calculating the fatalities from various throw weights of nuclear attacks. He saw the 3000's treatment by HP in 2001 as a death of the system, a step he was the first to publicize before HP had released the news, one he abhorred but accepted with an outsized effort to evolve onto a new platform for his company's software. In the process of that evolution AICS gave away one of the most substantial gifts the 3000 community has ever received in QCTerm, terminal emulation software which is still free to anyone who downloads the program.

As news of Wirt's death spread through the community over the past day, tributes and condolences poured in through message on the 3000 newsgroup he enriched with his writing. Words connected Wirt to the life of the community, since he seldom traveled to 3000 user events. His travels were reserved for his pursuits in science. The tone of the online tributes showed that he touched the members with a certainty of opinion white-hot in its passion.

Wirt's work evolved along with his views and beliefs. So AICS' QueryCalc software became QCReports in the years after HP announced its 3000 exit. He told the community in his final public message that he tracked the performance gains of the migration across 25 years, starting with an HP 3000 Series 33 system of the 1980s. He timed the improvement in value of evolving a QCReports process onto a Dell Linux-based system.

The Series 33 report ran in 22 minutes in 1985. The machine cost $165,000 in 1978 dollars, which I'll now estimate to be equivalent to about $500,000. The Dell Linux box cost less than $500 a few months ago.

The same report now runs in 3.1 seconds. That's a 412,000-to-1 improvement in price-performance over our original HP3000. Perhaps more importantly, that's more performance than we could get out of the largest and most modern HP 3000, regardless of price.

To assist in pricing used 3000s, his company created what remains the best performance comparison report on every HP 3000 ever released. The firm's Web site is another testimonial to what he created and what will go on in the years to come. It's a wonderful resource.

Last spring AICS considered its first cross-platform release of QCReports for the HP 3000, bringing the company's software offerings full circle. Wirt suggested in a posting that even though the HP 3000 had "died in 2001," there remained a place for a reporting app in the 3000's new generation as a server scuttled by HP. He made a case for life going on, even after death.

On one hand, you might ask why spend any money on a dead platform, and that’s certainly a reasonable question. But on the other, if you’re intending on staying with MPE for a little while longer, QCReports would be a way to significantly upgrade and modernize your capabilities with the HP 3000. And, if and when you do migrate, if you move to a platform which Eloquence supports, your total migration time for your database and reports will honestly be only a one or two hours. Other than changing the IP address of the new host, you’ll never notice a single difference.

Atmar's departure may follow a similar path for the community. His writing and instruction is spread all around the Internet and will live on beyond his days on the planet. His best memorial is what's captured on the newsgroup, really, and there's just no better way to know what's been lost to us than to read what Wirt had to say about himself and his world. He has such a body of work out there; it's safe to say that he's written 10 million words about the HP 3000 in the past decade and a half.

It might be fitting that one of the most heartfelt testimonies came over that same 3000 newsgroup where he held court for so long. Jim Phillips, a friend and client, reported that he'd enjoyed that complimentary enchilada with Wirt. Phillips shared a portion of a sermon from 19th Century English clergyman Henry Scott Holland, a message that speaks to the continuum of existence in evolving forms.

Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Everything remains as it was.
The old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no sorrow in your tone.
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without  effort
Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was.
There is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner.
All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting, when we meet again.

Phillips proposed that today, "everyone have an enchilada in memory of Wirt."

Like any death that arrives too soon, it makes me consider what I've done this week, and try to do more, believe more, love and enjoy more.

What's too soon? Definitely any week where, like Wirt, you're still pushing out faith, research, teaching or passion. He had all of these on offer this week. And today I regret never having visited him in his hometown to take him up on that enchilada invitation. A great reason to put more friends on your travel list. So death can move a fellow to do more travel, more sharing, and keep fit to enjoy many more years.

All I can add is a moment of silence in memory of a good guy's light winking out, and the hard fact that he can add no more to the bounty of teaching that has enriched the life of the 3000 community. His work lives on in AICS, in the work of his son Mark (a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur), and the emotion and thanks now flowing to Valerie. Our hearts are with his family on this evening, when my own partner Abby and I will enjoy that enchilada in memory of what he created.