August 23, 2005

me and robert moog

several years ago i worked at apple computer as their human interface evangelist ... one of the highest profile positions amongst the lame(r) rank-and-file jobs at the company -- it involved a lot of public speaking and dealing with third party developers ... the gist of all work involved the concept of making software and hardware easier to use -- a surprisingly interesting, subtle and deep concept ... if you excluded the weirdness in supervision that came from the head of our department (a drug-addled 60's casualty who was uncertain of what he was doing) it was fun and interesting work.

fads come and go in computing and the flavor of that time was speech: both speech synthesis (text-to-speech) and speech recognition. speech was the type of software that stood out both in its ability to seem like magic, and its uncanny way of making you want to destroy everything in sight when it didn't work right. it was *just* stable enough that it'd go wrong only after you were pretty convinced that it was now okay to use.

at one point i needed to get some information from kurzweil a.i. -- they were doing cutting edge phonemic work in speech synthesis and i was trying to dig up some information for engineering getting apple's to work better. (just for the record, it wasn't corporate spy stuff, it was collaboration.)

i'd been batted around departments for several days before getting in a l-o-n-g phone conversation with the *perfect* guy at kurzweil. after nearly two hours he'd given me everything i needed to know, as well as some good ideas for further analysis and thought.

in closing i said, "hey, this has been a GREAT conversation. you're exactly the guy i've been wanting to talk to. thanks so much for your time. can i get your name in case i need to call you back for any follow-up stuff."

"sure. it's bob. moog. m-o-o-g."

i'm scribbling the information down half-absent-mindedly in my quadrille notebook and borderline-mumbling back at him, "moog ... hmm ... that's funny ... you have the same last name as the guy that invented the synthesizer ... " and as i'm saying this i'm thinking ... i've been talking to a guy in synthesis ... and where the hell *is* robert moog these days? ... i remember something about him being with some sound companies ... i go on "... only his first name is rober ... JESUS CHRIST, YOU'RE ROBERT MOOG!" ... i'm now red-lining and have lost any sense of cool, head gaskets will blow in under ten seconds.

he laughs, "it's been a long time since i've had that kind of reaction."

i gurgle something about being sorry and how great a man i thought he was and how i knew who he was when i was six and how i was a *huge* fan and how i was sorry and how i loved the song "popcorn" and about another two minutes of high-speed blather that i'm sure only i could understand and then i ended it with being sorry.

he laughed some more, "you can call anytime. we don't have to talk about speech stuff."

now lying on the floor with my feet in the air, taking deep breaths, and watching the ceiling spin, i said, "i'm not sure that's a good idea." i've met a lot of famous people, many of them in very strange situations, and i'm usually very cool with it all, but a couple of times i've lost it. and even though this isn't exactly "meeting" robert moog, it was the worst case of "star struck" i'd ever had.

and though this isn't the point of the story, it doesn't mean it's not worth saying: robert moog was a great man and he helped make this a more interesting world. we all wish we could only do as well.