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Minor Gripe

2019-12-23 -- In memoriam: Michael Blair Dye

Chris Ertel

This post was originally going to be about how I provisioned a 20TB NAS using ZFS and NixOS. At lunch today I got word that my old boss and friend Michael (Mike) had passed a bit over a week ago, so instead I’m going to write about a few good memories of him by way of celebrating his life and my privilege of having been part of it for a few years.

Freshman year at Rice and it’s the fall. I’m in Abercrombie Lab (the haunt of the electrical engineering and chemical engineering departments) and I run into an older skinny dude with wispy hair and a full beard. He seems to be trying to move some heavy box. I offer to help, and in the process of doing so find out that it’s a few large kilowatt-and-a-half vacuum tubes and a mercury rectifier (if memory serves…the tubes were definitely there). He asks if I know about mercury, I say that I do and that I don’t mind helping move it since it’s all safely packed up anyways. After we (I) lug it to the other side of the building and deposit it in a dank, moldy storeroom, he comments that he could use somebody with a strong back and a small brain for summer work. I sign up on the spot, and that’s how I got my first summer job in college.

Ever since that first meeting, I learned to spot The Signs of the Mike. A skinny figure loping and shuffling with a slight hunch and an impish gleam, pulling along a sturdy cart with tools or boxes. If you could spot the heavy rubberized cart waiting in the hall, you were guaranteed to run into Mike not long thereafter.

Mike was an Air Force veteran, a technician whose job among other things was maintaining comms equipment containing finicky germanium diodes in hot, humid, and generally inhospitable parts of the world adjacent to Vietnam. He settled in Houston eventually with his wife Judy, and did Z80 assembly programming and other sorts of work before ending up as the electrical engineering department’s senior tech.

Every summer he’d hire some student as basically a junior tech to organize the electronic supplies for the lab, clean up and move furniture, make coffee in the mornings, and generally do all of the jobs that he didn’t have time for or wasn’t interested in. For me, this meant a lot of heavy desk moving as we provisioned offices for grad students. I also got to clean out the “penthouse” (read: HVAC floor) for the CS building, practice my soldering skills, run through all of the intro electronics labs to check the equipment, and generally just have a hell of a time.

I’d wake up around 0700, train in by 0800 or so, and we’d set about working. Some days we had a lot to do. Some days I just hung out in the lab and surfed SomethingAWful or Wikipedia. Some days I’d circulate and talk to professors and learn about what their research was. It was a pretty sweet gig, and for like ten bucks an hour was some of the best money I’d made. Honest money for hard work, plus the opportunity to get technical books from departing faculty and students and take home whatever neat gear I could scavenge.

Mike taught me how to solder and not make cold joints, and taught me how to use oscilloscopes and crimp and strip wires and a bunch of other neat skills. He put me into spots doing work I wasn’t sure I was qualified to do, trusted me to do it right, and backed me up when things went wrong—as happened when a massive 1.5” coax cable we were moving showed up kinked and a resident professor basically had a meltdown. He introduced me to all kinds of support and technical staff at Rice, including Carlos (bio-engineering), Gary (mechanical engineering), Joe (mechanical engineering), and Dick (chemical engineering). Dick I have whole additional stories about.

His office was a sort of inner sanctum, shared with a graduate student Bruce who had been in limbo for some absurd amount of time working for a PI whose primary export seemed to be the nanojigger research that was core to the press release factory at Rice. It was a tiny cramped office, maybe 20’x15’, with two gigantic desks (proper old battleship bureaus). Bruce’s desk was to your immediate left as you entered, and doubled as a study station when he was away (which was frequent, as his main work was consulting on electron microscopy). Mike’s desk faced the door, and he’d be hunkered down behind it with the key locker and a bunch of shelves and his biggest achievement: a 2x3 stack of monitors (CRTs when I worked for him, later upgraded to LCDs) with all manner of calendars, emails, spreadsheets, and who knows what else.

That office I’d return to throughout my undergraduate career, since he was always happy to have company and wouldn’t mind if I fell asleep in Bruce’s chair when I’d pulled an all-nighter or if I just needed some place to think and brood. He was happy to share his institutional wisdom, with things like:

Chris, I knew I was in trouble here when I saw that the space usage was tracked to the hundreths of a square foot.

He, like I, was a science fiction fan. By a happy coincidence he grew up reading the same books I had, since his age was similar to my own parents and I’d grown up reading the libraries they’d acquired in their younger years. I think this might be why he was a passionate amateur astronomer, and he and his wife would go out stargazing. On retirement he moved out to the middle of central Texas where he could actually go out on his porch with his reflector and actually see everything super easily instead of having to go out of the city.

He wasn’t perfect, of course, but I think that was part of his charm and part of our dynamic.

Mike was from an era where people were somewhat thicker-skinned, for better or worse. He came up through the Air Force and Vietnam, and besides all of that had an impish streak a mile wide. He was a masterful troll, and would dance the line between making you laugh and making you pissed really quite deftly. He very much had a sort of air of the long-suffering about him—his daily read included PHD comics—and would often give unsuspecting students a riot act and a show if they popped into his office asking for something without the right context. That said, I never saw him refuse to give somebody useful help or advice even if that only came in the form of “I can’t help you with this you need to go over here first”.

I think he kind of took a shine to me and in true fashion of men of his era he expressed this by breaking my balls whenever he got the chance. If I had to articulate it the idea is that all young bucks need to get used to taking their licks and dealing with adversity as part of growing up, because later in life the licks come harder and without any safety margin. And so, every day he would decide it was time (usually ungodly early) to get lunch and we’d walk out (in the sweltering Houston heat) and pick up his wife from the astronomy department and get loaded baked potatoes (the best deal at the servery) and convene back at the office, sometimes up to five of us stuffed in there.

He’d tell stories or ask for stories, and would give advice to me about growing up and work and dealing with people and dating, and he’d bust my chops a little to keep me honest. When he got too devilish, his wife would pull rank and put him in his place. It was adorable and even though I was not really good with people then I really enjoyed our lunches together.

One morning I came in late because a cat had fallen asleep on my chest as I was getting up to go to work and kinda tricked me into joining it. I showed up flustered and apologizing profusely and he just said not to sweat it and stay a little longer that day. He was understanding about my family stuff and didn’t pry too much when I got grumpy about things. He tried his best to reassure me when dating was rough. He checked on me when I gained weight, and complimented me when I lost it. He continually checked in on me after I’d graduated, checking to see if my friends and I had gotten jobs yet and if so where.

There are a lot of stories I could tell about Mike. The time he gave me a shoe-box full of resistors to sort and I learned about radix sorting. The time I almost gave his wife a seizure with a rotary camera. The time we helped Dick move out of Houston. The time I helped Mike move out of Houston. The many conversations about insane and erratic powertrips by department profs. He had friends everywhere there and, sadly, more than a few enemies.

Anyways, Mike was a great boss, a good friend, and I hope he’s in a better place.

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