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Cary Lu Remembered

There is little more difficult than to write about a close friend who has died. The words come slowly, and in clumps, with little sense of the whole. And yet, memories and stories surge beneath the surface, along with all sorts of often conflicting feelings. Bear with me as I try to explain what Cary Lu, who died 23-Sep-97 of cancer, meant to me and to so many others both in and out of the Mac community.

Those in the Mac community remember Cary as a contributing editor to Macworld and as author of The Apple Macintosh Book, one of the first Macintosh books. But, many people author popular books and write regularly for Macintosh magazines. Those descriptions don’t do justice to Cary’s depth and breadth.

Tonya and I met Cary at a meeting of dBUG, the Seattle Macintosh Users Group. The Quadras had just been released, and Cary relayed the complete technical details to a rapt audience. He was often interrupted by his then two-year-old son, Nathaniel, and even Cary couldn’t answer detailed questions about new Macs and deal with a toddler; luckily a friend of Tonya’s from Microsoft volunteered to watch Nathaniel, and the meeting proceeded uninterrupted.

Tonya and I bumped into Cary occasionally after that, but since he didn’t do much online, we moved in different circles. At Macworld Expos, though, members of the press tend to meet, and after seeing Cary in Boston and San Francisco several times, we began meeting in our hometown of Seattle as well.

That was the start of our friendship, at first restricted to computer industry topics. Then Cary invited Geoff Duncan and me to drive with him and another friend to Comdex PacRim in Vancouver, Canada. We went along, only realizing later that much of Cary’s motivation was to have dinner at a specific restaurant (though, interestingly given his proximity to Seattle, Cary said he’d never tasted beer or coffee, the smell being too much for him) and to visit used CD stores in his ongoing hunt for rare imports of classical music to add to his thousand-CD collection.

As we became better friends, more details spilled out. Cary had a bachelor’s degree in physics from Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in vision research from Cal Tech. He was at Bell Labs around the time Unix was invented, developed short films for Sesame Street, worked for the Children’s Television Workshop, and was on the team that came up with the Nova television series. He also worked on technology education issues for the governments of Australia, Algeria, and Kenya. He’d done so much, and in talking with him after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 51, he felt he’d lived a full life.

What he did regret was that he wouldn’t see his children, Meredith and Nathaniel, now ten and seven, grow up. Cary was perhaps the most doggedly practical person I’ve ever met, and he loved children. When Tonya and I were discussing the arguments behind having children, I came up with the brilliant idea of asking Cary’s opinion. "After all," I thought, "Cary will certainly have come up with the quintessential rational argument for having children." So I called him and posed the question – Cary always had time to talk. Without the slightest hesitation, he laughed and said that there was no rational argument for children and that you simply had to want them. Although not the answer I expected, it was a perfect example of Cary’s ability to distill the essence of a situation.

Cary deserves credit for two extremely cogent pieces of thinking in regard to hotly debated issues in the computer world. First, in his position of helping decide the computer policies of his daughter’s elementary school, he noted that it made little difference what platform a child used in third grade because the industry moved so quickly that all computers would be completely different by the time that third grader reached college. Second, in regard to the age-old question of what computer platform should you buy, Cary commented accurately that it should be the platform used by your closest technical friend, the kind of person you could call on a Saturday night if you had a problem.

(Cary also told the story of how, many years ago, an annoying neighbor who’d heard that he was a computer expert wanted confirmation of her choice of an Apple II computer. He said that it sounded like an excellent choice, not telling her that his answer was based on the fact that he knew nothing about the Apple II and thus couldn’t be rooked into a lifetime of tech support.)

Although he ducked that particular neighbor, Cary did more to help other individuals with computers than any ten people I could name. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, he had become proficient with electronics and excelled at fixing electronics of all sorts for friends and acquaintances. Once, while soldering a bad connection in my PowerBook 100, he asked if I had done electronics as a kid, sounding slightly confused about how someone could get into computers to my level without a knowledge of electronics. I replied that I’d grown up on a farm and had spent my summers instead fixing farm machinery, for which hammers were more useful than soldering irons.

Cary’s skill with malfunctioning electronics also aided him in one of his favorite pastimes – buying and selling old and used computer equipment. His goal was to acquire all the hardware he wanted without paying a cent in the end, and during our last trip to Boeing Surplus (where you can buy Boeing’s old and extra stuff), Cary commented that he’d come out even in 1996, spending just a little less than he made from selling old equipment. The stories abounded, such as the time he bought a bunch of old monochrome two-page displays, fixed most of them and used others as parts, and resold them, but not before his wife Ellen complained about them taking up the entire garage floor. He also once put together a 486-based PC clone using spare parts and stuff friends gave him, spending only $1 on a clock crystal chip.

Although he seldom bought new computers (he worked on a used IIfx for a long time and only recently upgraded to a used Power Mac 8100), Cary delighted in finding great deals. He once bought an Ethernet card at a scratch-and-dent sale for $7, after the salesperson asked him what he would pay. That was his favorite deal until the time he bought a pallet of stuff at an auction to get a broken stereomicroscope for his kids. He knew he could fix the microscope, and it was well worth the $35 he paid for the whole pallet. As he dug through the rest of the detritus, though, he discovered about 50 power cords and a pair of sealed boxes with DEC written on them – those boxes contained a pair of 2 GB SCSI drives. A friend at DEC helped him get the necessary hardware upgrade so they worked with Macs.

Cary’s friends were a major part of his life, and he had many from his various careers, something that few of us realized until his cancer worsened in the last few months. Suddenly, lots of people wanted to come visit him, both when he was in the hospital for treatments and after, and almost every time we visited him, other friends were there as well.

Cary’s cancer, which was diagnosed just after Macworld San Francisco in January of 1997, had first evidenced itself as back pain when he sat down, and Tonya and I ate a standing lunch with him toward the end of that Macworld. A week later, an MRI scan revealed the tumor in a vertebrae that was causing the pain. From then, the news continued to worsen, though for a while Cary showed few symptoms other than the results of the radiation and chemotherapy. We spent more time than usual with him after that, and became far closer friends than would have happened had he remained healthy.

Others have experienced the same deepening of friendships with Cary, and we and a number of other friends have collaborated to create a Web site to hold thoughts and remembrances from anyone whose life Cary touched. We hope that we can all use the site to express better who Cary was and what he meant to us. More important, we are archiving everything to give to Cary’s wife Ellen and his children for when they’re older. Nathaniel and Meredith will not have Cary in their lives as they continue to grow up, but they’ll be able to read how he was a part of so many other lives.

The site has already had tens of thousands of visitors, and submissions continue to come in from people who’ve known Cary. I encourage you to visit the site, read what others have written, and, if you have anything to share, to send it to <[email protected]>.


We are all the poorer with the loss of Cary. I will miss his knowledge, skill, precision, and fanatical pickiness (he was enthusiastic about very few products, and only recently admitted to the overall utility of the Internet). I will also miss his subtle wit, represented so drily in his writing that those who didn’t know him often failed to see the humor. And finally, I will honor his memory as a friend and role model, for there was great good in Cary to emulate. I wish the same could be said of more of us.

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