In Memoriam

I wrote this a week ago as a tribute to John Riedl who was barely hanging on after a severe stroke. And yet, even then I didn’t post this. I think that I felt like posting this was too final. John died earlier today and I’m posting this now, but I’m not changing the tense. John will be missed by many.

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In the spring of 2007, I made one of the best decisions of my life. Reid Priedhorsky asked if I’d be interested in working on a research project (and subsequent paper) with him and a group of others and I said yes. The group was Reid, Jilin Chen, Tony Lam, and myself with professors Loren Terveen and John Riedl. At the time, I was trying to figure out how (and if) I fit in GroupLens. I wasn’t interested in recommender systems, so GroupLens wasn’t a perfect fit for me. I wasn’t working on research projects outside of class and I was still thinking of research as the means to the end. Where the end was a Ph.D. and a professorship at a liberal arts college. My path changed course while I was in grad school and I think that this project played a big role in that.

The project was to try to get a better, quantitative, understanding of value on Wikipedia. During the month of May, we met, all of us, every day for one hour. Some days we’d have two of these meetings. We worked as a team. Reid was the leader and the rest of us did what was needed, with the professors guiding as needed, but mostly working as team members for Reid. Before this, I’d only worked independently from professors or under the direct instruction of professors.

While our daily meetings could have been a grind, I remember them fondly. Even in tense times, the meetings never felt like a burden. They were a time of mind melding and group brainstorming. They were a way for us to learn from others and bring everything up to the next level. The paper we had at the end of the month was completely different from the one we started working on at the beginning of the month.

We all showed up on Memorial Day, to work until the evening deadline. Even the professors. And this sticks in my mind. The project was a collaboration of the best kind, allowing professors and students to work as peers and learn from each other.

I’ve been thinking about this because John has cancer. Melanoma. He fought it in 2010 and won. But in spring 2012, it came back. He’s fought it as hard as he could, with as much knowledge as he could seek. He consulted with a number of doctors and chose the most effective treatments as possible. Except a few weeks ago they discovered that he had 18 brain tumors. And yesterday morning he had a stroke. Things are not looking good. He’s now lost consciousness and is unlikely to regain it. There’s a gathering next week in MN to celebrate his life that I’m not able to make it too. But I wanted to celebrate him somehow, hence this post.

He’s got a wife and three kids a little younger than me. He’s an avid windsurfer, squash player, and cyclist. He’s the only professor I know who loves coding AND still makes an effort to code. I’m fairly integrated into the Facebook culture now, and I think that John would fit in brilliantly. He is, in many ways, the epitome of a hacker, always interested in new tools and figuring out the optimal path. His face lights up when tricky problems are discussed and he’s always interested in debate. He’s constantly taking care of others. In a recent update he let people know that his two priorities (other than cancer treatment) were his family and his Ph.D. students. Most people I know wouldn’t have the ability to make that commitment, let alone keep it. And yet I’m sure that all of his students have a plan and a support system set up so that they will be able to continue their lines of research and graduate.

I feel, in some ways, like I missed out because I only took one course with John, only wrote one paper with him, and he isn’t on my committee. Reading the stories on his Caringbridge guestbook, it’s amazing to see how many people have been impacted by him and what a power he was in the field of HCI. And his net is wider than that, because his students are out in the world, teaching, conducting research, and spreading the infectious joy for learning that John conveyed.

If you’re interested in reading the paper, check it out here: http://reidster.net/pubs/group282-priedhorsky.pdf