Roots and Origins

my_father

This is my father, Captain Robert W. Kennedy. Yes, his first name is my middle name. The reason I worry about my lifespan is that he had a quadruple bypass when he was in his early 60s.

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air boss
My father served on the nuclear aircraft carrier Enterprise CVN-65. He was the Air Boss. If Tom Cruise had really been a naval carrier pilot like in Top Gun, my dad would have been the guy in the tower yelling at him on the radio. He had 20/15 vison, better than normal.

arch_of_swords

The Captain was married to my mother for 54 years. That’s called commitment. Here is one of their wedding photos showing the traditional “arch of swords” for the newliweds. He met her at a dance, cut in on a pimply Plebe, and never let go. They were married 8 months later after June Week of 1949 when he graduated and received those  ensign’s stripes on his shoulderboards.

hypercube

Here they are cutting the cake together. Yes, it was her day. He was a catch and a half, a handsome rascal with a bright future. I have her blue eyes; some of my other brothers look more like him I guess. We were dealt a very lucky hand from fate: good genes and good nurturing by a stable family environment.  Nature and nurture. No, not “good” racial genes. Let’s all grow up. Your computer doesn’t care what color case it comes in. A green car is not better than a blue car. Under the hood is what counts. There are good and bad genes in every gene pool; don’t you know that? For instance, I have a brother with Dupuytrens Contracture, named after Guillaume Dupuytren. It is a genetic condition found in a small percentage people of Scandinavian or Northen European ancestry (called the Viking disease) that cripples the hands by growing extra connective tissue under the skin of the palm and fingers. It makes it hard for him to type. He used to be a touch typist. Now I am faster than him with 2 fingers tapping. He has had two operations already. Me, I show no signs of it. Luck of the draw. No genome is perfect, ok? Let’s not get into genetic superiority bull. I have no time for that, and less patience. All I mean is we were descended from people who gave evidence of good genes by various means (good vision, memory, coordination, musical inclination, etc. That’s all I mean. My father was a crack shot, on the pistol team at the Academy.

If you want to get into differences in population average IQ, there is a new study out that suggests that the strongest factor in limiting the growth of human intelligence may be the presence of infectious diseases in the local area. It takes a lot of nutrients and energy to grow a human brain. Fighting infection drains the body’s resources, whether the body is a pregnant mother or a young child. Wow, what a surprise: in places where diseases ravage people and they spend a lot of metabolic resources trying to stay alive and fight infections, they don’t get to reach their full neural potential. Imagine that.  Me and my brothers were lucky to be born  in the U.S. where encephalitis, sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis, typhus, etc. are much less common than they are in some places. I weep to think of what happens to children born in other places, where they are still trying to build sanitation and water purification centers.

we happy few

Our loaded genetic dice were probably why my oldest brother got his PhD in computer science, specializing in machine learning. Another of us took Aerospace Engineering. With me it was always Physics of course. You know that by now.

My father logged out of the game in 2003. Always missed. I wish you could have known him. Patient. Strong. Gentle. Brilliant. Ten times the man I will ever be. It seemed that half the town showed up at his memorial service.  Imagine the funeral scene from Big Fish. He touched so many lives as a teacher (both NJROTC and math) a Scoutmaster, and a real stand-up guy. Practically a Norman Rockwell painting all by himself. He liked football and Beethoven and Spike Jones and folk music like the New Christy Minstrels and history books and canooing. He remembered fishing with his father and cutting the barbs off the fish hooks because they didn’t want to hurt the fish: catch and release.

enterprise
As far as I know, he never bombed or killed anyone; he didn’t even graduate until 1949, long after WWII was over. But let’s be fair. The Enterprise was involved in Vietnam, even though technically war was never declared. Even if he never personally logged anyone else out of the game, he was in charge of the takeoffs and landings of pilots who probably were doing it. I was so lucky to know him; not everyone knows their father.  He was born in 1926 just before the Great Depression; he’d be right at home in America these days!

In high school he rode a Indian motorcycle (I thought it was a Harley but I have been corrected).  and pumped gas part time. When WWII broke upon the world, he wanted to sign up for a new program that had enlisted pilots and he was in a hurry to do his share. His father told him: “Don’t be an idiot. After the war ends those guys will all be out of a job. Be an officer pilot.”

Wise words. So my father applied and was admitted to USNA at Annapolis Md. and graduated and became an officer and a gentleman. By the time he graduated in the Class of 1949 with a degree in Electrical Engineering (NOT electronic — transistors barely existed back then), the war was over. He stayed in for the long haul, rising up to Air Boss of the Enterprise, until they kicked him upstairs to the Pentagon.

My father’s IQ was once measured at 160. Fellow classmates described him as “smart, with flashes of genius.”  After he had been in the navy for a while they were afraid he was getting bored and asked him what he’d like to do.  He said something like, “How about some graduate school?” What the heck? Who ever heard of a pilot going back to grind the books again? Peering at fine print is rough on eyes, and my father was a pilot. But they sent him to Monterrey for postgraduate school and later, to MIT to do a Master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering, and American University in DC.

I have dim memories of following him to AU to a wall of cubbyholes where stacks of Hollerith punch cards dropped off by students nestled wrapped in the printouts they had produced when they were run. Talk about getting in on the ground floor of computing! It was called batch processing.

He wrote code for the Whirlwind, a computer based on 5000 vacuum tubes that was built at MIT when the Navy (in WWII)  decided a computer could be used to run a flight simulator to train bomber crews. In other words, this is the simple truth: my father was around maybe the first computer planned to be used for Virtual Reality. I’m not making this up! It seems that programming is in my blood, as well as Physics. “I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band.” He and Lloyd Hoover used the Whirlwind I to do the intensive calculations needed to simulate the reactor physics they needed for their Master’s theses. The thesis was on using beryllium  shielding to reflect neutrons back in to the core, to make flux and thus power more uniform, allowing higher output without melting the inner core.

cover page

Here is the first page. I am in contact with Lloyd, who is still alive, and who has scanned part of his copy into a PDF file for me.

cover page
And here is the Abstract. You will see it is as I have described.

You can find the Whirlwind Computer at Wikipedia. According to them, “It is the first computer that operated in real time, used video displays for output, and the first that was not simply an electronic replacement of older mechanical systems. Its development led directly to the United States Air Force’s Semi Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system, and indirectly to almost all business computers and minicomputers in the 1960s.”    Quite a nice project, eh? Without all those minicomputers, do you suppose Jobs and Wozniak would have decided to build the Apple? Whirlwind was — and is – part of computing history.  And my dad got to be there, at MIT, and program on it.  In his quiet way, my dad touched history.

He was the kind of guy who would go into the kitchen and bring you a dish of ice cream or a root beer float without being asked, while you were watching TV. Like he could read minds.  No, he was just that kind of a guy. A man of few words, and every one of them well-chosen. And a handsome devil.

flowchart Lloyd and my father were sent to MIT as a result of plans to develop a nuclear-powered jet airplane. Would have run a long time without refueling, like the Enterprise, but I guess you can understand why I am glad they never built it; imagine all the radioactive contrails! You see, the idea was, suck in air, superheat it in the core of an on-board reactor, and let it spew out the back to get thrust. No gasoline needed, just uranium or plutonium.  Unfortunately the design contemplated was only subsonic and the buzz of the time was supersonic.

fishermenOn my father side I was decended from Irish-American engineers. On my mother’s side I was descended from artists and musicians. I grew up in a house that was like a little museum or art gallery, with my grandfather’s and my mother’s paintings hanging. We weren’t rich (you don’t get rich on a Navy salary) but we had riches: each other. He had 5 sons. We all played musical instruments except my father: piano, flute, guitar,violin. O0ps! *CORRECTION*. My mother reminded me that my father DID play the clarinet, like my Uncle Jim did. Hmm. I have no memories of it. I grew up listening to Beethoven (and the Spike Jones my dad liked).

sailboat
My grandfather on my mother’s side had to wear special shoes because he survived polio and had a club foot and a withered leg. It didn’t stop him from getting work during the depression. He used to go out and buy groceries for friends of his who were jobless. He had a photographic memory. He was afraid to read too much and fill his head up with too much information. He painted these pictures you see here, and many others.


crashing_wave

I have no complaints about my childhood. I was very lucky compared to some; we never starved, and after the Pentagon my father retired to Florida. But he didn’t stop working; he got a job as a NJROTC instructor in the local high school. No, that’s not exactly correct. What he actually did was, he flew down to Florida from Virginia where we were living, interviewed, was offered the job, accepted it, looked at a house, bought it, and then told us about it. My father had no trouble at all making fast decisions. A pilot who hesitates in the clutch is soon a dead pilot. I remember his irritation when he was pulled over for driving 56 MPH in Georgia, his first ticket. I think he could have handled our blue-and-white VW bus safely at any speed it could manage.

my cat

Okay, this is enough for now on this. I have to eat, buy cat food for my weird cat (does anyone have a normal cat?) and work on another article on gaming or something. Back soon. –MRK

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27 Responses to “Roots and Origins”

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    –MRK

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  3. “there are no normal cats.”

    Heh, my brother says the same thing. There are normal dogs; cats are all weird. I think it is because they are more solitary hunter types than run-with-the-pack animals like dogs. –MRK

  4. Jim says:

    there are no normal cats.

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    –MRK

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