Father's remarks at Toessel Tree on Jos's 29th birthday

Father's remarks at Toessel Tree on Jos's 29th birthday

Saturday was the birthday of my son, Jos, who would have been 29. On the morning of August 20, 1999 he worked out at the gym, came to his cubicle at WebTV, began reading his email about WebScissors and then he died, suddenly and unexpectedly.

I'd like to tell you a little about Jos so you'll know why there is an award named after him, why this tree is called a Toessel Tree, and what in the world is Web Scissors.

The Toessel Tree is named after Yossel, Yossel of Yossel's Toessels. That's him, Jos. For those of you who did not know him, I'll explain how this all came together.

Jos = People + ideas

Jos's good friend and boss here at WebTV was Joel Black. At Jos's funeral, Joel summed up Jos in two themes. Jos loved people. And Jos loved to bounce ideas off of people. With each bounce he'd try to make these ideas grow. It was great. People wanted to be in his company.


Perhaps the best example of Jos being creative and loving people is shown by his Toessel web site. Jos lifted weights. To balance the masculinity of muscle building, Jos would knit hats. These were not ordinary hats. While knitting each hat he would be planning a new way to make his next hat. So in time he had a collection of spectacular hats, all different. He called these hats "Toessels." He gave Toessels to his friends. He would take a photo of the friend wearing the toessel.

Somehow he'd get an impression or an idea from the friend. From that simple idea he would imagine an extraordinary character which he would describe in a paragraph to go with the friend's photo on his web site. That's it. He was creative, and he loved people and the two fit together on his Toessel web site. The little stories there make us all smile, and they will make people smile for a long time to come. There were about 40 hats, 40 tall tales of 40 people, most of them were WebTV employees.

Jos stories on the web

Most of us would like to become more creative. All of us would like to be able to relate to people the way that Jos did. If you want to try, look on his web site. I've gathered all the stories that I could. His college application essays are real zingers. There are stories of early days at WebTV. College stories. Stories of his adventures in Alaska. Stories of serious projects and stories of silly projects.

If you are looking for his stories and if you have trouble spelling Toessel, or trouble spelling Jos Claerbout, just go to Google and search for "Jos" spelled J. O. S. In year 2000 google brought him up 3rd but today in 2003 I see his rank has slipped to 13th.

At WebTV

Jos's writings tell us that he especially liked the people at WebTV. On Sunday evenings he would come home to do his laundry and he would regale his mother and me with the fabulous going's on here at WebTV and the wonderful people here.


Jos not only loved the people at WebTV, he loved the product and the customers too. The biggest proof of this was a business he started in the last month of his life. This is the Webscissors story.

WebTV invented the pagebuilder capability for its customers. But the company did not want to invest much money in Pagebuilder. Jos saw a practical way that WebTV customers could copy photos from any web page and put them on their personal page. But the company, I understand, did not want to do it. They didn't want to have to handle the customer care for it.

This is a common situation in Silicon Valley. An employee finds a way to improve on a company product but the company is reluctant to follow up. Then, as here, the company sends the employee off on his own, to take the risks and reap the potential benefits. Jos didn't really want to start a business but he saw that it would not be hard to provide a very useful service to WebTV customers.

So, with his own money, Jos set up an independent web site called "Webscissors" which empowered your customers in this way. Thanks to Jos's friends, Andrew Levin and Ray Hill, his Webscissors site continues to operate after his death, providing free services to your customers. The accounting at Webscissors is getting a little flakey but I believe it still receives somewhere between 300 and 3000 visitors per day.


Then there is the outrageous story of Jos's Grammarbot. His grammar robot would use the web to teach good grammar to everyone out there. His grammar robot would go out onto the web and find bad grammar. Then it would track down the writer and send email. Jos was very shy of offending recipients, so his letter would take the guise of a friendly robot who had read their publications. The robot had tracked them down to help them improve their grammar, with deep (and funny) apologies for troubling them if they didn't care about their grammar. After his first robot was favorably received, he had begun testing a second, even-more-outrageous version. I won't tell you that story now. It's all there on his web site.


Here is another Jos story. A serious one. If you would like to learn the Java programming language, you might check out the Java tutorial that Jos wrote. Web sites everywhere recommend his tutorial. About a hundred sites have links to it. About 100 people per day come to read it. His title says it best. This title is vintage Jos.

"Why coding Java is just like writing a trashy western novel."


Few of us can be as creative as Jos, or be as creative as today's winner of the Jos award. But if you'll look for Jos in cyber space you'll be able to read read about how his charm arose from his enthusiasm for ideas, and his genius came from his willingness to try to carry these ideas into reality.

Thank you for coming.

visit the Life of Jos