1991, April 13: Letter from Jed to G&H

Four page computer-printed letter from me. By this point I had access to a laser printer, so this letter looks much nicer than my previous computer-printed ones.

I was 23 at the time of this letter. I had graduated from Swarthmore a year earlier, but stayed in town, working for a math professor.

13 April 1991

Dear Grandma and Grandpa,

Thank you for the birthday cake! I’m sorry to take so long to get this note to you—I wanted to sit down at some time when I’d be able to write lots of overdue thank-you notes and letters at once, but if I’d just taken a few minutes for each of them over the last couple of weeks, instead of trying to find one large block of time for all of them, I’d probably be done by now.

At any rate, better late than never, I suppose. Things have been going pretty well here—nothing particularly exciting has happened lately, but nothing particularly bad either. I’m not sure whether I’ve told you what I’ve been up to of late, so a brief update:

I’m still working for Professor GName redacted by Jed in the math department at Swarthmore. (By the way, I’m not sure whether you have my address here or not—the mail room is sometimes a little slow about getting things to me if they’re sent c/o the College, and I think the mail room would prefer that I not get personal mail at the College. My address is Address redacted by Jed, Swarthmore, PA 19081; and just in case you don’t have it, my telephone number at the apartment is Redacted by Jed. My work number is Redacted by Jed. We have an answering machine at the apartment (it belongs to my apartmentmate Jim, and often has kind of odd messages on it) which is usually pretty reliable; that’s probably the easiest way to contact me if you need to.) I am, as I have been for something like four years now (on and off), writing programs to display computer-generated frames of movies; after displaying each frame on the computer screen, we tell the computer to send the frame to a high-quality videotape machine, and hundreds of those frames put together make movies. The movies demonstrate concepts in solid geometry, for use in high school math classes along with the workbooks that other people in the lab write. I also wrote a lot of the documentation for a computer program that we’ve just released which allows students (and professional researchers, for that matter) to explore concepts in two-dimensional geometry interactively on a Macintosh computer. (I won’t bore you with the details—it’s a long story—but a Professional Technical Writer from California was eventually hired to re-write what I’d written, and she did a really horrible job of it. In general technical writing tends to be incredibly bad, so I had hoped that I’d be raising the overall average quality of computer program instruction manuals; but alas, it was not to be. So it goes.) (My friend Arthur, currently living in the Palo Alto area, says that technical writers are generally paid little (at least compared to programmers) and treated poorly; perhaps there’s a connection. But I think the problem is mostly just that few people who know anything about writing are interested in science (and especially computers), while few technically-oriented people know how to put together a decent sentence.)

GName redacted by Jed (my boss) recently told me that he has enough money to pay me through the end of the summer, when the project officially ends (it’s funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation—Redacted by Jed). A couple of my co-workers are then embarking on a new project (the current one is called the Visual Geometry Project, or VGP; the new one will be called the Visual Algebra Project. Before this, GName redacted by Jed did a Visual Trigonometry Project—there seems to be a sort of theme running through his research grants . . .), which looks interesting, but I really want to move back to California. Whenever I’m not there I tell myself that I’m just idealizing various things about the place—such as the weather—but whenever I go back, I enjoy it just as much. Just the sight of the sun out the airplane window when I’m arriving in San Francisco is enough to put a grin on my face.

But the situation is complicated by the fact that I’ve applied to a science fiction writing workshop (Clarion West) in Seattle for this summer. It’s a six-week program (mid-June through the end of July), and I won’t find out whether I’ve gotten in for at least another two weeks. In the mean time, Jim and I have already given the required three months’ notice on this apartment, telling the real estate company that we’ll be moving out at the end of June. I have no idea whether it’d be possible for me to extend that by a couple of months then; if not, I’ll have to look pretty frantically for a place to live for the summer. There are friends whom I’d like to spend more time with staying here for the summer; but there are others who’ll be in the San Francisco area for the summer. And to top it all off, I don’t have a job lined up in the Bay Area yet. I think if I don’t get into Clarion, I’ll probably end up staying here just ’cause it’s a job handed to me on a platter, and it’ll give me more time to search for another one to start in September; and if I do get into Clarion, I’ll probably move directly to Palo Alto (or environs) in early August and take my chances on finding employment. Either way, I should (I hope) have enough money saved up to tide me over ’til I find a new job; but if I don’t have one by the beginning of the summer, I’ll have to cut back on planned luxuries (such as buying a computer and printer). At any rate, I’m sure it’ll all work out eventually. If money gets really tight, I can always start paying back my college loans at a slower rate—I’ve been paying back the College at $200 per month instead of the $90/month required, and Redacted by Jed But I don’t think I’ll need to. It feels good to be making more money than I need for once, and even saving some up (though I expect most of what I’m saving will end up going for Clarion, moving expenses, security deposit and rent on a place in California, and/or a computer—but just the fact that I can consider buying a computer shows that I have some extra money around). Ideally, if I get a job working with computers, I should be able to pay back all my loans much faster (I’ve got ten years to pay back the loans from the College; I hope to be able to do it in five at the most, and preferably more like two or three).

Anyway, enough about that. As an employee of the College, I get to take one credit per semester for free (at Swarthmore, each normal class is a credit, with some extra-hard ones counting as two credits); this semester my one credit is a class on computer graphics, in which I’m learning stuff that I should’ve learned years ago (especially considering that computer graphics is my job), but never quite got around to. It’s a pass/fail class, and I have no doubts that I can pass it, so I don’t need to worry about grades at all (and for that matter, it’s no big deal if I fail it—though prospective employers might not look kindly on that). I’m also auditing a class on Chaucer (which means I go to class and do all the work, and just don’t get a grade)—I feel a little guilty for doing so, ’cause the professor said that no more than 17 students have ever signedup for the class in one semester before (and it’s usually about 12), but this semester there are something like 35 of us. But when I asked him about it, he said he’d only let me be in the class if I’d agree to write at least one of the two papers and take the final, so I guess he doesn’t mind the extra work. I certainly wouldn’t be taking the class if I were depriving another student of a place in it, but everyone who wanted to be in it got in . . . . Anyway, I’ve read probably half of what we’re reading in three previous classes relating to Old and Middle English, so it’s not much work for me. And I’m actually doing most of the work for both classes—I think I would’ve enjoyed college a lot more if I’d taken only two credits a semester instead of the standard four (not that that’s allowed at Swarthmore; but it sure would’ve helped).

There isn’t much else going on in my life, I guess. I don’t cook for myself as often as I’d like—I’ve got lots of cookbooks and such, but I rarely seem to get around to choosing a recipe, buying the materials for it, and actually making it. I tend to stick to variations on three or four dishes that I know how to make, and few other “real” dinners. I haven’t done any baking at all yet. Part of the problem is that our kitchen isn’t very big and the counter space is almost nonexistent; but we do have a big table, so I think the main problem is laziness on my part. Ah, well. I keep telling myself that I’ll do more cooking when I get settled in California (there’s a lot of things I plan to do “when I get settled in California”: buy bookcases so I can unpack my books (I don’t want to deal with having to get rid of bookcases when I leave here); get more involved in political activism; write more fiction, and more regularly; and so on. I guess I’ll see when I get there how much of that I actually follow through on).

I seem to be well into a fourth page, so I think I’ll close here. Once again, thank you for the cake (and for that matter, for the Valentine’s Day card—I don’t think I ever replied to that). I hope you’re doing well and would love to hear from you if you get a chance to write—but I should warn you that I’m even worse at responding to correspondence in a timely fashion than I am at sending out thank-you notes. I think I’ve still got a couple of letters from friends from last summer that I never replied to . . . .




making geometry movies
In particular, we were making a video about the stella octangula, or stellated octahedron. Rendering one frame at a time was a slow way to make videos. By a few years later, a graphics workstation could render the whole animated video in realtime.
that other tech writer
I feel bad now that I used such vehement language about this situation. I don’t remember whether the documentation that the other tech writer wrote was really that awful, or whether I was just annoyed that they threw away the docs I had written. I also don’t know whether the docs that I had written were all that great—I had no experience as a tech writer at the time, though I was occasionally editing other people’s words.
Relatedly, I feel like I was overstating my case by saying that “technical writing tends to be incredibly bad,” and it was rather arrogant of me to value the document that I had written so highly as to suggest that it would increase the average quality of all tech writing. Apologies to anyone who might be reading this who was writing perfectly good documentation at the time.
Clarion West
I did indeed end up attending that summer, and moving back to California afterward.
computer graphics class
This was the class in which we collectively created a graphics library. I already knew some stuff about graphics, but I didn’t know what a “library” was.
Chaucer class
That was the class for which I eventually wrote “The Parsee’s Tale,” revisiting Kipling as a Canterbury Tale.
I’m surprised that I emphasized cooking so much—I don’t remember planning to cook more.

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