Saying goodbye to an old friend

Some of Jim’s friends at his memorial gathering

On September 29th, about twenty of Jim Kurck’s friends gathered in Pleasanton to remember him. Jim passed away on August 14th at his home in Fresno; he was 59 years old.

We went around in a circle and told Jim stories. The group included Keith Pretzer and Steve Clark, two of his buddies from high school, and many friends from the Bay Area folkdance community. At least half of us had also performed music with him, either in high school marching band, or for folkdancing. It was a heartwarming gathering and many laughs were shared.

Jim’s high school yearbook photo, 1971

Because of the difficulties in finding his nearest relatives, many weeks passed between Jim’s death and his burial. He was laid to rest on November 6th, next to his parents, at Clovis Cemetery in Clovis, California, northeast of Fresno. Keith Pretzer and Jim Garza, another high school friend, attended. They read a fond remembrance and the Lord’s Prayer.

Jim’s resting place at Clovis Cemetery, next to his parents

Jim Kurck, 1953-2012

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Jim Kurck as best man at my wedding, June 1990

My old friend Jim passed away over the weekend, and I spent much of last night lying awake, thinking about him. Jim was a dancer, musician, computer geek, would-be physicist and a friendly fellow once you got past the initial defenses.

James Maxwell Kurck was born on 1 April 1953 and grew up in Fresno. He attended UC San Diego, then came north to UC Berkeley as a graduate student in physics. (Evidently Jim was named after James Clerk Maxwell, the famous mathematical physicist—no wonder he studied physics himself, though in the end he decided not to finish his Ph.D.) I first met Jim in the early 80s at Friday night international folkdancing. I first heard about Prairie Home Companion via Jim’s “Powdermilk Biscuits” and “Lake Wobegon Whippets” t-shirts. We became friends and eventually started playing music for dancing as well. Jim’s musical specialty was the drum. He played tupan (the large Bulgarian drum in the photo below) and also the dumbek. When he started taking dumbek lessons and was told “everything you’re doing is wrong,” he diligently practiced until he learned to do it right.

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Zagora performing at the Planina dance camp in the Santa Cruz mountains, 4 July 1986. From left: Laurie Edelman, David Reyna, Jim, me.

Spending time with Jim took work: I always spent the first ten minutes getting past his gruff exterior, after which time he lightened up and usually laughed a lot. By the time we said our farewells, I was always glad I had spent time with him.

Jim contracted Type I diabetes when he was nine years old and took insulin for the rest of his life; he used to tell me that if he had been born twenty years earlier he would already be dead. Indeed, he almost did die: one day in his forties he and his then-partner Joann were walking in Golden Gate Park when Jim collapsed. It was “sudden cardiac death with recovery,” a splendid euphemism meaning that Jim’s heart stopped and he was dead, but then his heart started again and he was alive. Two passing nurses helped get Jim to a hospital two blocks away, where he promptly underwent bypass surgery.

The diabetes also caused Jim eye and joint problems, but was usually able to participate in the dance and music he loved. As he grew older, though, he was ill more often and became unable to work full time. By his fifties, the disease wrecked Jim’s body to the point where he could hardly walk.

During his last years, Jim lived in Fresno, in the house where he grew up, all alone and far from his old friends in the Bay Area. I didn’t call him nearly as often as I should have. It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn before: don’t put off talking to a friend because you can call “any time,” because there may not be a next time. I hope Jim’s passing helps me learn the lesson for good.

Shalom chaver. Goodbye, my friend.

Venus in silhouette

A local astronomer's transit viewing station

Transits of Venus are a very rare celestial event: since the invention of the telescope in 1608, there have been just eight of them. The most recent one, of course, was Tuesday; the next one will be on 11 December 2117. Here in Berkeley, there were a number of amateur astronomers setup public transit viewings with their telescopes.

To see some absolutely stunning images of the transit, I recommend Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomer, and the Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Of my transit photos, this one turned out the best. You can see some sunspots as well as Venus.
Some transit watchers on Indian Rock
Later, clouds obscured the transit but made for a beautiful sunset

What does “Big Data” mean?

In an article in yesterday’s New York Times, Dennis Overbye writes about “Big Data”. This is a phrase that I deal with every day: my company, Aspera, writes software that can quickly copy huge amounts of data over the Internet. Many types of businesses generate Big Data: movie studios, where a full-resolution feature movie can consume more than 4TB; bio-tech firms, where DNA sequencing produces TBs of data, and the subsequent genomic analysis even more; web sites like YouTube which receive multiple TBs of video content every day and must store, organize and collate them for easy retrieval; and so on. This is what the computer industry means by “Big Data”.

But that’s not what Dennis Overbye meant in his New York Times article. He used “Big Data” to mean the heaps of data that Facebook, Google, or the Government are using to keep track of us and our buying habits, so that they know more about us than we do ourselves. Overbye meant “Big Data” with a clear allusion to George Orwell’s “Big Brother”. As he wrote, “Big Data is watching us, but who or what is watching Big Data?”

I am very interested in this unexpected usage of “Big Data”, especially as I use the phrase every day when talking with customers. In our Facebook Age, neologisms can go viral within days. If the computer industry loses control of “Big Data” we’ll be obliged to coin a new phrase to avoid the undesirable Orwellian overtones. I’d suggest one, but I haven’t thought it up yet.

The Ring of Fire

The "ring of fire" projected through my binoculars. That's me on the right.

On 11 August 1999 I was standing in the rain in Stuttgart, Germany. Very slowly the light grew dimmer, until for two minutes it was as dark as twilight. Then it suddenly brightened again. Behind the opaque clouds was a total solar eclipse that I had come a long way to see, but instead, nothing but dark clouds. I was very disappointed.

This time was different. On May 20th, my friend Coy and I drove up to Red Bluff to see the annular eclipse. Along for the ride were my two nephews, Josiah and Samuel; Coy’s two daughters, Anne and Emma; and Emma’s friend Kelsey. We had a great time, and seeing the eclipse was a rare delight.

During an annular eclipse, the moon isnt’ close enough to completely block the sun, so the result is the “Ring of Fire” instead. It doesn’t get dark like it does during a total eclipse, but it did get noticeably dimmer, similar to the “Golden Hour” effect just before sunset.

The annular eclipse becomes thousands of little circles when filtered through trees. Note that it's still very light out.
Anne making tiny "pinhole cameras" with her crossed hands
Just after annularity, I caught Emma in profile. Tiny crescents can be seen in many places, including the edges of her lips
Mt Lassen as seen from downtown Red Bluff