Being called Hal, spending so much of my life intertwined with computers, and having been born in 1968, the year that the film version of the now late Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in theaters, it was inevitable that people around me would associate me with the fictional HAL9000 computer. I meet a lot of people in my line of work, and it seems that about half of them get a self-satisfied conspiratorial sort of twinkle in their eyes as they suggest the connection – "Oh, Hal … and you work in computers … have you ever seen …?" A few take it a step further, confiding authoritatively the old myth that HAL was so named because he was one (letter) better than IBM, alphabetically speaking. If I don’t like the person, which is pretty rare, I’ll point out that HAL was actually an acronym for "Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer", usually pushing my glasses up the bridge of my nose and spitting a little on the S’s to complete the image of irretrievable geek.
The one connection I’ve found most entertaining is the one that no one has pointed out to me but me: In the mythology of the various books and films, HAL9000 was first activated in 1997 (1992 in the first film) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The very first iteration of what would become Microsoft Flight Simulator was born there, too. Original developer Bruce Artwick graduated from UI in 1976, and his company, SubLOGIC, was based in Urbana-Champaign, releasing the first version of Flight Simulator for the Apple II in 1979.
Maybe that’s too much of a stretch, for most people, and I should simply attribute any connection with my not-quite-namesake to my extraordinarily placid demeanor and my constant stubborn refusal to open any pod bay doors, anywhere, at any time.
Regardless, I’ve been a fan of Clarke’s writing, and, to an even greater extent, an admirer of his mind, for as long as I can remember. He had a permanent spot, now sadly vacant, on my list of people I’d have loved to have met. As it happens, there weren’t that many degrees of separation between us – you can even find both our names on the same page of supporters of the X-Prize Foundation here. (You’ll find mine towards the bottom, due south of the important people.) Last summer I was lucky enough to meet and spend time with Rob Godwin through a close mutual friend. Rob is the CEO of Apogee books, one of my favorite things about Burlington, Ontario. Clarke was a friend of Rob’s family and a supporter of his business. Rob has posted a touching memorial page here.
As Rob said, we have lost far, far more than an inventive and well respected writer, we’ve lost one of the truly great minds of our time. I leave it up to the likes of Kira, Kiersten, Annika, Quentin, Charlotte, Garrett, or any of my other honorary nieces and nephews as yet unmet (or even unborn) to grow up and help fill the gap.