More Memories of Jos Claerbout (by Matthias Schwab)

Jos was insight, optimism, humor ... on a schedule.

Computers. Jos and I both found ourselves in deep shit when we met: He had just graduated from Pomona in economics, a field he disliked. I was struggling at a thesis in geophysics. With crude oil selling at about $12/barrel, this field was not welcoming mediocre new researchers. Jos had left Pomona. His friends had left for the four corners of the world. My family lived in Germany, my wife in Houston, and most of my Stanford friends had graduated and left as well. Both, Jos and I, got to know each other when we both moved into his parent's house: Jos's father was my advisor at Stanford University. His parents, Diane and Jon had left for the summer.

Jos considered an internet job. Jos maintained the "Culture war" Web site and I maintained the Web site at our research group. He knew HTML quite well and wanted to learn Perl, Java, or Javascript. Soon we sat together regularly and I told him the little I knew about Perl and Java (I also spent considerable time preaching against Javascript, but with little success: Jos learned Javascript as well and really excelled at it). After a day or two of explanations, I returned to my thesis and simply answered questions that turned up. Sometimes I would suggest an exercise or an improved solution. It was great fun to "teach" Jos. He learnt quickly and was pragmatic. But he did not enjoy any form of math. But he loved the spoken and written word: after a few days, he started writing his own introduction to object-oriented programming. It became very obvious that Jos loved programming and considered the internet his oyster.

Jos was a fast and independent learner. Jos's first major object oriented program was a zoo: the class hierarchy somewhat resembling the animal kingdom. A few days later, Jos wrote his own introduction to object-oriented programming. Jos immediately understood the object-oriented concept. He had considerably more difficulties with mathematical details, such as keeping counters for objects. But he sat down and figured it out.

It was remarkable how Jos worked. He would come into my office at a certain time. He would briefly chat, then sit down, unpack his book, and start programming. When getting stuck with a problem, he would ask me for advice. I would walk over from time to time and comment on his programming. Otherwise, he studied entirely independently. After two hours, he took a break for quarter of an hour, returned to his desk and continued. After another two hours, he would stop to chat for a few minutes and then leave. "It is time to go sit in the sun and feed the squirrels!" Or "It is time to go biking and move these old legs!" and off he went. A man with a schedule!

Later, his parents would commend me for having helped Jos: I could never convince them of how little I had actually done.

Movies. But the programming was just the beginning. On Friday evenings we would rent two movies (I would choose a mute Eisenstein movie, Jos would choose a Jackie Chan movie ("Jackiiiiiieeeeeee Chaaaaaaaaaaaan" as Jos would call out at the top of his lungs). But Jos would insist that we exercise and stretch while watching: I have knee problems and his back always hurt.

He tried to introduce me to Buffie, the Vampire Slayer: But that was more Americana than my feeble European stomach could handle.

Discussions. Jos was a wonderful person to converse with: When we agreed we would quickly move on to remind each other of fun details the other had forgotten or we would move on to plan some action that followed from our agreement. When we disagreed we would mock each others opinions and seek surprise angles that would lead to absurd consequences. It was a joy to discuss almost anything under the sun with Jos:

Jos and I shared a similar view about our fellow man. Our view was based on a traditional liberal faith in the competence of the individual and limited by our understanding of evolutionary psychology and the power of the environment. Our favorite topic was evolutionary psychology. Independently, we had both read a few things by Richard Dawkins, Robert Wright, Jarred Diamond, and Edward Wilson. We talked about women and men and their asymmetric relations.

Stanley Milgrim's experiments to obedience and authority. and Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment convinced us of the malleability of the human individual and the power of our environment.

When agreeing on such issues we rapidly would move to suggesting social and governmental changes that would follow from our view. Concretely we talked about an "urban village" or how to run a company based on the insight that human psychology is a product of human evolution.

I would propose regulated shopping hours to protect family life. He volunteered to work a week at the Safeway check out counter. He would argue that US gun laws would have prevented the holocaust. I claimed that cars are the true liberators of women and that guns are merely a bad "penis ersatz".

Another thing was planning an urban "village": a community where the anonymity of modern cities is replaced by the "natural frequent interaction between village inhabitants. We believed the urban village would reduce suicide, crime, and drug usage. We moved on to dream up our own software business along the same lines.

We frequently talked about the holocaust. As a young German Catholic and an even younger American Jew, we pretty much agreed upon the judgment of the events. I emphasized the loss to the German and European people by cutting out the Jewish part of its own cultural and intellectual body.

And if any discussion would become a bit too hot headed, Jos would be the first to suggest "Let's not walk down this path: there is no happiness along that path!".

Another classic point of discussion were his fondness of daily schedules and my concept of defined topical interfaces. Jos was a person who organized his life by his watch. He knew "how long things take" and he controlled himself by how much time he scheduled for a thing. He would get up int He taught me about his scheduling and routines ... something I try to apply to my life every day, but never as successful as he did.

I taught him about "interfacing": the need to decide what 2 people have to exchange on information and emotions and what information and emotions are better not communicated.

The one thing we never discussed (by gentlemen's agreement, I guess) was my thesis difficulties. Nevertheless, did Jos almost make me drop out ... I cannot remember when and why, but Jos suggested that I read "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand. I enjoyed the book greatly. For days we called each other "Howard" or "Howard Roark", the hero of the book who drops out of architecture school because he was not willing to compromise his vision. Dropping out was appealing to me at the time, but I guess, I could have hardly argued that it was because of a compromised vision.

Books. Next we discovered our love of books. Jos loved books and so do I. Ask Jos for the reference for his series of books doing comparisons. He suggested Ayn Rand "The Fountainhead" to me (and we called each other "Howard" or "Roark" whenever we had to muster civil courage) and I suggested Eckstein to him. We both believed in liberalism not because of the perfection of the individual human being, but because of the limitations of the ones who govern. We did not see representative democracy as a wonderful, god-given self-rule by the people, but as a the best pragmatic, compromise. We believed in tiny government, but socialized medicine.

I suggested to him some humorous stuff, which I thought would fit his own writing style: Tom Sharpe (especially his books about South Africa) and the politically questionable but very hilarious P.J. O'Rourke.

We talked much about the "Third Chimpanzee" (Jarred Diamond) and "The Moral Animal" by Robert Wright: both books we had read independently. And there were other books .. I have to check: I kept a list of books Jos suggested and books I had read.

We both loved books that described the same event but came to different conclusions. When we parted I gave him the book "Ordinary man" that discusses the same German police squad that "Hitler's willing executioners" discusses. Both books use the same court materials to argue their case: what made these police man to executioners of Polish Jews? I had looked forward to Jos's take on the issue ... but we never had a chance to discuss it. I left for Germany and he stayed behind.

We could never agree on the importance of "Crime and Punishment" and the "Bathroom Reader": works of literature that I thought Jos overestimated.

Love of his family. Jos was a family man. He loved everyone in his family. He loved talking about Andrew's wit. His wedding and the wealth of friends Andrew and his wife enjoyed. He talked about Martin and his experiences in Japan. But most of all he talked about his parents: Jon and Diane. Jon and Diane are wonderful people: both in their own characteristic way. Jon is a creative individualist with a professional engineering streak. Diane is a warm, caring mother with an interest in the humanities and religion. And Jos appreciated both. He was proud of every aspect of both of his parents. He loved their accomplishments, their philosophies about life ("weltanschaungen"), and even their looks ("Isn't she a babe?" he would frequently acclaim to me about Diane).

The internet was perfect for Jos: it enabled him to combine the two traits he had received from his parents. His father's joy at technical things and his mother's powers of words. In return, he enjoyed the equal encouragement and respect he received from his parents for his success: both greatly appreciated his internet work, since both in their own life use the internet. A memorial web site for Jos is very fitting.

Fun and responsibility. Jos was an unusual combination of fun and responsibility. He drove carefully, exercised daily, watched what he ate. And then Nhat and I walk along Fisherman's wharf in San Francisco and Jos out of the blue suggests that we start a "fan club for small breasted women".

Careful and responsible person: drove careful, exercised, watched what he ate, and while I knew him stayed away from the Ladies.

Jos worked very hard to make me a member of the "small breasted women fan club".

Smuggling into Java convention dinner and he loved it. Trip: scientific museum.

One funny thing. I always thought Jos a little shy in some ways. Maybe I should write about that ...

to Matt's first memories of Jos

to The Life of Jos to Memories of Jos