From Princeton Back to Portland

From a Memoir in Progress

Kirby Urner
8 min readOct 20, 2023

When I first got to Princeton, I was not only an east coast newbie, but relatively innocent of USA culture in general, having stayed with my family (obviously) when they moved from Portland, Oregon, to Rome, Italy. That was after 2nd grade, meaning I’d been exposed to the New Math ala what was famously spoofed in That Was The Year That Was (1965), per this YouTube.

Now, years later (1976), as a young adult, I’m back in the USA full time. I arrived at my dorm early (Princeton Inn) and proceeded to sample spam sandwiches (with mustard) available at the local Wawa (the convenience store right next to the dinky (see below for more about the dinky)). My roommates were amused. I had many familiar ethnic traits but with large gaps in my knowledge base. I’d never heard of King Crimson.

We’re talking mid 1970s, the beginning of the Star Wars franchise, me coming to the USA from the Philippines, for a last hurrah get together with a few in my high school cohort, all heading for college — we had been invited to cohabitate in a house on Long Island belonging to one of our number, before parting ways, strangers in a strange land (a few of us Filipino, or Chinese)).

How I came to be in the Philippines: dad was a PhD regional planner, with in-demand skills.

Computers were not yet available to ordinary civilians in those years, and yet my cohort was enthralled by pictures of big ones (“mainframes”) in glossy magazines, like Time and Newsweek, that took up entire rooms. These mags were sensitive to business trends and helped make those B2B sales.

[ B2B means business to business in marketing speak, as when an insurance company buys an IBM 360/370. B2C is “business to the end consumer”, such as me yesterday buying a replacement charger, having left one behind at the farm. ]

Princeton’s computer center had just such an IBM 360 / 370. I could press my nose against the window and see it in the big room, a lot of interconnected boxes. I had studied computers through the Time / Life series at my middle school, and during high school by programming an HP-65 calculator, owned by my friend’s dad.

High priests with a sense of purpose were mounting tapes and pushing buttons. The whole scene was somewhat enthralling. Viewers like me watched a “jobs queue” on a monitor, which showed what computing jobs were lined up, ready to run.

If I had a job in the queue (and soon I did, quite a few), it’d be part of a batch, of student programming. Some of us were writing in FORTRAN, others in PL/1. We wrote lines of code we punched on punch cards, and fed as decks in some engineering room. I’d read in the library about what I was doing hands on, go to lectures. I was naturally curious.

Being something of an autodidact, I not only took the requisite courses, but I’d take up topics on my own, such as APL, a programming language named A Programming Language (APL). Kenneth Iverson designed it and it persists to this day, abetted by others (such as BQN).

One thing odd about APL is the character set it needed were not on any standard keyboard. You needed a special APL keyboard or some other way of entering its geeky greek-looking stuff (which I thought and still think was pretty cool-looking).

Princeton had scattered terminals with APL keyboards around the campus and invited students to use them. I found out about their utility when writing formatted academic papers on a computer, saved (or failing to save) in what amounted to the cloud.

This was before the days of the personal computer (PC). Terminals provided the illusion to each user of operating a whole computer. In reality they were all sharing the one IBM 360 / 370. I absorbed this “virtual machine” metaphor, as in “we each carry around an internalized model of how the government works” (or whatever the institution). The line between public and private is a focus of any operating system (OS). Later, I would learn about how UNIX was doing it, or maybe Windows (all examples of OSes).

Wandering the Princeton Campus (including the basement of my Princeton Inn) I also found out about APL and the world of interactive computing, where you wrote expressions at a prompt, and these got evaluated, there and then.

Enter 2 + 2 and get back 4. No punch cards. No waiting for a batch program to makes its way through the jobs queue. Like many, I was sold on this experience. However I would continue using punch cards in my formal classes, exploring one language after another. I have no complaints about my teachers.

The same IBM 360 / 370 that was running the punch card jobs, was also dialoging with users via the scattered APL-aware terminals. As I’ve already said, clearly the terminal way, coding in a text editor on screen, was the way of the future.

I got into that stuff and never looked back, even through I ended up majoring in Philosophy and studying Nietzsche with Walter Kaufmann, other philosophers with Richard Rorty, theological matters with Malcom Diamond, Victor Preller, and later stumbling into Erhard’s est, and then later a philosophical work entitled Synergetics, by some guy Erhard admired (see below).

To some readers that might seem an odd veering-away from what might have been a more promising degree in computer science (I would continue on to study unicode and think about internationalization), but what I left out of my telling was my deep interest, early on, in the Freudian psychology of the early 1900s.

Looking back, I could be accused of being a member of the Vienna Circle, even though I was born way too late for that (1958). I ended up reading the Ludwig Wittgenstein corpus (famous philosophy in two parts, with a transition), which pointed back to anthropology and psychology again (humanities subjects).

With all that as background, leading into later high school teaching not only mathematics, it’s less surprising that I got plunged into the commercialized “self help” business. What’s a poor philosopher to do if not explore in that area?

The guy that Werner Erhard admired (and was sharing the stage with around then), you may not know, if you haven’t been reading lots of biographies (who does anymore right?), was of course Richard Buckminster Fuller, an important figure on the world stage since before I tuned him in in 8th grade. I was at the Overseas School of Rome, and I must have come through town around then as my teachers suddenly started talking about him, saying they’d been to a talk (that’s what I’m recalling decades later).

Just to tie off loose ends: I continued with the computer programming, finding other languages that emphasized an interactive prompt (not C in other words), starting with dBase and “ending” with Python (I’m still tackling some others in, in my autodidactic — self-teaching — capacity).

I made a living coding custom applications for Greater Portland nonprofits especially, culminating in work for a for-profit hospital-based heart surgery practice that wanted some cutting edge GUI-based software in the cath labs and open heart surgery theaters. How fun was that? Pretty fun.

If you’re curious about est, I recommend est: The Steersmans Handbook Charts of the Coming Decades of Conflict, by Leslie Stevens (1970), which isn’t actually about the aforementioned training, but which came out soon after the book was published and was a two weekend experience, a trainer-led philosophy workshop, open to the general public for a fixed tuition charge.

That book circles Buckminster Fuller as paradigmatic of what an “est person” is and was: someone still possessing “old world” discursive skills, and yet conversant with the emergent more instantaneous and visually-based world of popular culture (radio-TV based in those days, now also internet-based).

A generational divide had opened up between the two modes of consciousness, the linear book-minded versus the TV-minded, and so-called “est people” (the author’s coin) were needed to bridge that gap. That’s my reading anyway. Fuller writes an enthusiastic blurb for the book’s cover.

Fuller, in the meantime, was concerned with another gap opening up in our consciousness and culture: the one identified by C.P. Snow between the math-embracing and math-avoiding subcultures.

The “not using much math” category includes many great communicators, including philosophers, who do not express themselves using any kind of computational notation or calculus beyond some kind of prose, perhaps abetted by diagrams. One might speak of a spectrum.

Based on his university and navy experiences, Fuller had by then become distrustful of specialization. His Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth was all about how overspecialization had come to be, and had by now become a core problem. Preserving our humanity meant preserving a sense of responsibility for the whole. Were we losing that capability with the explosion of science? The book was a bestseller given how he told the story in terms of Great Pirates.

His Synergetics was along the lines of an invented language, based more on the repurposing of existing words than on neologisms (new words), although it has a few of the latter, for example “tensegrity” and “dymaxion” if not “synergetics” itself.

As is probably obvious by now, the head of steam I built up reading philosophy at Princeton carried forward into my investigation of the Fuller corpus, which included some correspondence with the man himself, and a gradual introduction to many of his peers.

At this point, I consider myself inducted (or abducted) whatever that means in this context.

I’ve provided some of the curriculum materials associated with Synergetics going forward.

I often use Python (the computer language) in that context, although my first published implementation of Quadrays was in Visual FoxPro.

I mentioned living in Rome and the Philippines prior to sampling spam in New Jersey, studying computers and philosophy, teaching high school. I stuck around on the east coast for quite awhile, learning its ways, even living in Brooklyn and Queens (memory fading), before moving back to Portland in the mid 1980s.

I worked for Americans for Civic Participation in 1984, based in Washington, DC. We encouraged more Americans nationwide to exercise their voting rights. That’s not as easy a process as you might think, on top of all the apathy. We’re talking Reagan versus Mondale, in terms of timeline. I had my BA from Princeton by then. My parents continued to move about the globe (Egypt, Bangladesh, Bhutan…). My sister moved to Greater LA.

After the election, which Reagan won, I had a corporate job (rather briefly) on Avenue of the Americas, in Rockefeller Center, my thanks to Ray Simon. Bucky Fuller was already a central figure in my curriculum writings by then, which I started publishing online as a big believer in hypertext. Books were not my natural medium. Later, I’d branch into television, via YouTube.

The dinky (loose end) is a shuttle train that connects Princeton, the town and university campus, to the main east coast passenger line running parallel to Route One, along which Amtrak trains fly, and along which every station is named Penn (I exaggerate).