Grammar School

1966 - 1975 (Kindergarten though 8th grade)

My grammar school was public and boring, even in the late 60's and early 70's (in so far as I can tell as an outside observer, things have simply gotten worse). I wish it had been a more stimulating and interesting experience. I hated it.

The worst part was continually hearing the same thing: "He's a bright boy, but he's not working up to his potential." (well, that and wasting a week every year re-learning Set Theory in Math class - like we can't remember it from last year?). I was also one of the "smart" kids that got picked on by the bullies. What fun.

I know that my parents tried to make it work, but the public educational system can't really be fought from within (one potentially effective reform is school vouchers). So, after 8th grade, off I went to private high school.

Three of them.

High School

  1. 1975 - 1976 Marin Country Day School (MCDS)

    I was part of the last 9th grade class they had; MCDS was primarily a K-8 school, but the San Francisco public school system (where MCDS drew most of its students from) had a "middle" school from 6th grade to 9th, and then their high schools were grade 10-12. So, MCDS had K-9, to feed into the San Francisco high schools. When San Francisco public schools changed to a more conventional K-8 grammar school, and 9-12 high school system (eliminating the "middle" schools), MCDS had to adapt, and I was there right on the cusp of the adaptation.

    Our class was tiny: 15 students. I remember being exposed to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut ("Welcome to the Monkey House"), learning B&W photography, a year's worth of Spanish ("Lo siento"), Mathematics, Music, Acting, and Biology. The school even had a TTY model 33 on a leased line to the Data General Eclipse computer running a time shared BASIC system at Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) in the hills above the University of California at Berkeley (UCB). I spent quite a few hours in front of that TTY.

    1976 was the winter when it snowed at sea level in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since my family lived about 1/3rd of the way up Mount Tamalpais (it tops out at about 2,500 feet) we had three inches of snow at our house.

  2. 1976 - 1979 Mount Tamalpais School (now The Branson School)

    The Katherine Branson School for Girls was founded in 1920, the Mount Tamalpais School for Boys in 1972. They were initially separated, but it was decided to try co-education and so MTS was moved on to the KBS campus by the time I got there. Thus, one school, two names, depending on your gender.

    Again, small: the class of 1979 was 78 students, out of a student body of 320 (limited by local city ordinance!). Here I took Algebra, Geometry, History, Art, Acting, German, Chemistry (R.I.P. Dennis Sesock), English (Mr. Hall, I miss talking to you), Physical Education (this really helped my recovery from a car accident in the fall of 1977), and Philosophy with Ray Bizjack (who later left and founded a grammar school in northern Marin).

    KBS/MTS also had a TTY model 33 with a leased line to the very same BASIC system at LHS. Even more hours, along with a cadre of friends, spent in front of this TTY. As is so often the case, it did not take us very long to outstrip the knowledge and understanding of the poor math teacher who was supposed to teach us about it.

  3. 1979 - 1980 Northfield Mount Hermon School

    An extra year of high school ("post-graduate", they called it). I actually was admitted into the University of California at Berkeley for the fall of 1979, but I decided to play "catch-up" in high school for one more year. I'm very happy that I did.

    The school is in the picturesque Connecticut River Valley in western Massachusetts - two campuses on either side of the river: Northfield on the east, formerly a girls school; Mount Hermon on the west, formerly a boys school (it even has a proper USPS Office of its own).

    Founded in 1880 by Dwight L. Moody, a Protestant Evangelist, the school professes a philosophy called "The Head, the Heart, and the Hands." Translation: we teach you, we indoctrinate you in religion, and we work you to keep the school's overhead down (actually, this last is an excellent idea; I worked for a year in the Mount Hermon dining hall kitchen, learning such key life skills like how to cook huge vats of pasta and french fries).

    I was part of the Centennial class. I ate up Physics, Statistics, Economics, English, History, Geometry and Trigonometry, Religious Studies (an entire year of it was required for graduation - this was one of the hangovers of the school's origin, even a century later; fortunately, the last trimester was elective, and I had fun taking a comparative religious studies course, and debating the teacher), and played extensively with their PDP-11/45 computer running RSTS/E V06C and DEC BASIC.

All told, high school was pretty good for me. Graduated three times.

An Interlude

For ten weeks during the Summer of 1978 (between Junior and Senior years at MTS), I went to summer school at Stanford University, lived on campus in Branner Hall, and took just two courses: English and Mathematics. We read Tom Robbins ("Even Cowgirls Get The Blues") and I did OK, though I discovered that I had (at that time) no discipline for self-paced courses in subjects that I didn't really care for.

This is where I got my first look at the ARPANET (a friend I met there demonstrated what could be done with it, using the CS department's TOPS-20 system: SU-SCORE; I was captivated by the notion that there were dozens of powerful computers available on this network). I also got a quick look at SAIL (both the machine and the language).

The best part was discovering that my Stanford Student ID would get me an account on LOTS - the Low Overhead Timesharing System (another DECsystem-20/60 running TOPS-20), and learning to use EMACS - a real, full-screen editor. I wrote large BASIC programs (and kept tripping over differences in the BASIC interpreters between TOPS-20 and LHS), and learned what interesting things could be done on an "intelligent" CRT, over and above what a TTY could do. TOPS-20 even had helpful online documentation - the system would explain itself any time you hit a question mark at an input prompt! The only modern equivalent that I know of is the command line EXEC of the Cisco Systems IOS software - which is no great surprise since Cisco was founded in large measure by TOPS-20 hackers from Stanford.

Then there was Mountain Mike's - a pizza joint on the south east corner of campus that had an "all you can eat" deal on Wednesday nights - you'd come in, pay the flat fee, and they'd keep on bringing around whatever pizzas the kitchen felt like making. One of those nights, I discovered that I like pineapple on pizza (no, not with ham). When last I passed by that place, the building was empty, and for sale/lease.

My most amusing memory of that time was an evening spent at The Coffee House in the Tresidder Union, watching a series of short films. The best one was a two or three minute film, with a different major work of art in every frame! With a little concentration, it became possible for me to recognize some of the pieces, even at the rate they were flying by (a tribute to the brain's incredible pattern-recognition abilities). At the end were the words:

You have just had every major work of art in the world indelibly etched in your brain. You are now cultured.

Anyone know the title of that film? Let me know...


I finally matriculated at the University of California at Berkeley, College of Letters & Science, in the fall of 1980. Lucky me, I also got into the dormitory system - I lived in Bowles Hall (oldest dorm on Campus, and built like a castle!) for two years.

The advantage of a big, public university like Cal is that it has vast resources, and lots of smart people (Nobel Laureates, sharp graduate students, and so on). The disadvantage, for some people, is that no one is going to hold your hand there, and lead you to your education - you have to go out and avail yourself of the opportunities that such an institution provides.

I tried to do just that: Calculus, Computer Science (of course!), Political Science, English, Economics, Meteorology, Astronomy, etc. I treated the L&S breadth requirements as an opportunity to scratch various intellectual itches.

It was here that I discovered UNIX & C on a DEC PDP-11/70 in Cory Hall. It took me almost six months to get my own account on that system to play with (with a whole 100K of storage!) - I joined the Berkeley Computer Club (which reconstituted itself that year as the Computer Science Undergraduate Association (CSUA)) in order to get it. I was appointed Treasurer of the CSUA near the end of the year, and re-elected to that post for the following academic year (the year after that, I became Vice President of Internal Affairs).

The Cory Hall PDP-11/70 is where I first started reading NetNews, back when 100 articles a day was typical for the entire network, there were no more than two dozen computers involved, and everyone used "A news."

The most interesting variant of UNIX - the 4th Berkeley Software Distribution (4BSD), more commonly known as "Berkeley UNIX" - was developed at UCB by the Computer Systems Research Group (CSRG) while I was there. Some of the graduate students who were there at the time are now famous: Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun, and Eric Schmidt, now CEO of Google, to name two.

The work on the Berkeley RISC (which eventually evolved into the Sun SPARC) was being done by Dave Patterson and his graduate students at the time, too. Lots of cool stuff was going on all around me. I wish I'd gotten just a bit more involved in some of it, but as an undergraduate... Still, I was allowed to play a little because the faculty advisor to the CSUA was Professor Robert S. Fabry - also the principal investigator of the CSRG. 'Twas he who gave me my own access to the ARPANET on UCB-ARPA (a DEC VAX-11/780 at the time).

Just as an aside, a commercial version of 4BSD UNIX is now maintained by Berkeley Systems Design, Inc. (BSDI), whose staff is largely made up of ex-CSRG systems programmers, and major 4BSD UNIX contributors from elsewhere. In addition, there are free versions of 4BSD UNIX in NetBSD, and FreeBSD.

I also had far too much fun learning all kinds of stuff outside of the lectures halls at UCB. It's amazing how much you can learn if you put yourself in a place with a whole lot of smart people, pay careful attention to what goes on, and occasionally ask questions.

If you're still in college, ask your professors about their research, attend a talk or seminar or two (even if the subject is apparently beyond you - never hurts to go and listen). In short, take full advantage of the place to learn all you can - that's what it's there for.

Everything After

Education shouldn't stop when you leave school - it's a continuous process throughout life. I keep learning by reading lots of periodicals, and talking to smart people.

I do this on the Internet, by corresponding with people working on projects like NetBSD, and zmailer.

I also attend meetings and professional conferences, e.g. USENIX, and IETF.

I even occasionally attend talks and seminars at places like Xerox PARC, Stanford University, MSRI (on the hill above UCB), and NASA Ames Research Center.

There's always more to learn.

"Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it's always been my good friend."
Erik E. Fair <>
April 8, 2005