Tribute to Ed Colaianni

Submitted by Mark Wieder on 2011/10/10 at 8:08 PM

This is the talk I gave at the memorial celebration of Ed’s life in Berkeley, January 2009:

I have no recollection of having met Ed. He was just there in my life. I don’t know if we met through friends, through political work, or just because we both lived in Berkeley.  I don’t know *when* we met; I don’t know *how* we met. I have this problem with a few friends of mine; neither of us can remember meeting, It’s not the occasion of meeting that’s important to us, it’s the relationship. And the relationship with Ed was strong, even though for most of our relationship we were in different countries.

In many ways I found in Ed a kindred spirit. He was the only other person I know who preferred to have the covers off working equipment so that it’s easier to work on.

I think we all know Ed was a polyglot. He delighted in diving into new languages the way any kid would in finding new worlds to explore. Is it any wonder that he gravitated towards translating?

But it wasn’t just delight in new things to learn. Once, when Ed was doing the dishes after dinner, I remarked on something and Ed replied “I like to be thorough”. I have a vivid image of Ed at home in Karlsruhe washing dishes and saying “I like to be thorough”.

And Ed was thorough.
It wasn’t enough simply to learn enough to get by in a new language. Ed had to learn all the nuances, the grammatical rules, the colloquialisms, be completely immersed in a new environment and come out the other end saying “Yes, I can translate that for you” into half a dozen other forms. And this is no mean feat since scientific translating carries with it a vocabulary unto itself in addition to the normal words needed for everyday conversation.

And Ed could carry on fluent conversations in several different languages, often shifting when someone new entered the room so as not to make them feel uncomfortable.

Beyond the language translation, Ed also carried his thoroughness through to other technical fields. He would call on me for some technical consultations once in a while, but I think I learned as much from him in the process. Everything I know about cell phones I learned from Ed. Many years ago I worked designing telephone circuitry, so we shared a common language of tip, ring, and sleeve voltages, switching relays, and DTMF signaling.

Ed also got me to install and use Skype on my computer so that we could talk overseas for free. I had known of Skype before but never bothered to install it, so I didn’t really understand what this was all about. Now, of course, I’m a convert.

And being able to make calls for free, or close to free was the object. I was continually impressed by Ed’s ability to wheel and deal on eBay to arrange for US cell phones for his visits here, and for cell phone minutes at half the price I can ever find. Then at the end of his trip he would place another eBay add and get rid of the cell phone for the same price he bought it for. Absolutely amazing.

Whenever we got together, we would end up working on technical projects together. In late 2006 I had a conference to attend in Malta and we arranged to have a few days in Karlsruhe to visit on the way down to the Mediterranean.

On going to Karlsruhe, the things I knew about it were that it was the site of Charlemagne’s tomb and the site of the first International Chemical Congress where Mendeleyev first presented the periodic table of the elements. So, apart from visiting with the folks, I wanted to visit Charlemagne’s tomb and find where the ICC was held. We never found the ICC site (we’ll have to save that for another time) but we rode our bikes through the city to Karl’s castle and Charlemagne’s tomb. And we spent a day hiking in the Black Forest with Ed and Christa.

While we were in Karlsruhe, of course, Ed and I got down to business designing a simple telephone switching circuit. I don’t know if it ever got built, but it worked fine on paper and on the computer simulation we designed, working through all the logic state diagrams to make sure everything was right.

One of the last consultations Ed brought me in on was when he was translating part of a manual dealing with some C++ code to drive the hardware that his company was working on. He emailed me the lines in question and asked me if they were correct. I assured Ed that, in spite of the weird-looking syntax, the code was correct.

But this wasn’t enough. Ed wanted to dive in and understand what was going on under the hood. Here was a new language to learn. It didn’t matter that he didn’t program in C++ and wasn’t about to turn himself into a C++ programmer, he wanted to know the syntax; he wanted to know the rules. So I explained what was going on, and why the two plus signs in a row were correct, and that this was a shorthand version of a longer expression, and that seemed to do the trick. The mystery was solved, we had gotten to the basic language rules, now everything made sense.

I think having everything make sense was a large part of Ed’s life. His commitment to bicycles was such that riding a bike instead of driving a car didn’t make sense unless a big part of his life was devoted to Bikes Not Bombs, to writing bike manuals, to training others. I can’t recall ever seeing him driving a car. His commitment to his politics ran deep, and it didn’t make sense to him to be involved partway.  Even working at the CENSA, the Center for the Study of the Americas, wasn’t enough; thus, his decision to move to Nicaragua to run the internet node for the country.

On one of Ed’s trips back to the US, in the CENSA office late one night, Ed and I were working on a simple program to monitor a connection to ensure it was working. We submitted the job to the Peacenet computer in San Francisco and then realized we had made a small error, so we needed to change it and resubmit it. The error was easily fixed, but submitting it was another problem altogether. The program was running in such a tight loop that we couldn’t get the computer’s attention to interrupt it. “No problem” we said, “we’ll log off and then log on again and cancel the job”.

In order to ensure that the program was running continuously while nobody was there watching it (that was the point of monitoring the connection in the first place), we had used a Unix command that said “run even if I hang up the phone”.  (These were the days of dialup connections, before DSL or cable).

So we hung up the phone and redialed. “No problem,” we said. The problem was that this simple little program we had written was using up so much of the computer time that we couldn’t even log back in. Which, of course, meant that *nobody* could log in. To Peacenet. At all.

You have to remember that Peacenet was, by this time, a world-wide network. It was the only point of internet contact for many countries, Nicaragua included. And here it was 3 o’clock in the morning and we had brought Peacenet to its knees, with nothing left to do except leave a phone message for the administrator who would be coming into the office at 8AM the next morning, asking him to please reset the computer…

Some of us remember Ed sleeping on the floor of the office in Managua where the Peacenet computer was running. We take email and other forms of instant communications so much for granted these days that it’s a bit hard to think back and remember what things were like in those days. You didn’t just spew out an email and wait for an immediate response. Computer systems (most of them university computers) would store your mail and dial a telephone modem to pass it on to the next nearest system to them until it got to the destination. If the destination was some distance away, and especially if it required a long distance call to transfer the email, the computers would call each other in the middle of the night when calls were cheaper (remember when calls were cheaper late at night?). If they got a busy signal they’d try again, but only during the cheap call times.

If a computer along the way was not working, there were alternate routes, but if the computer that should receive the call wasn’t up, the email wouldn’t get delivered until the next day. Then the recipient would type a response, and the process would be repeated the next night. The result of all this was that it would normally take a day or two to get an email response if things were working properly. So it was vitally important that the computer node in Managua be functioning when it was time to transfer emails. Ed slept in the computer room to ensure that things would go smoothly and it wouldn’t take several days to get these all-important emails and thus pretty much single-handedly kept the solidarity movement in Nicaragua in touch with the rest of the world.

And I can’t leave without mentioning Ed’s dry wit. Often he’d say something and I’d start and look at him and only the wisp of a smile on his face would say “yep, that was a good one, huh?”
One of my favorite memories of Ed is from a Halloween party: Ed dressed as CIA agent in a gray three-piece suit, wrap-around mirrored shades, and a little earpiece dangling from his ear into his coat pocket. Scary stuff.
Ed was thorough.

I’d like to end with some words that our friend Jay Singer sent in about Ed. Jay and David Parkhurst were the Nicaraguan Windmill Project in San Juan del Sur for many years and knew Ed very well.

“As for me, all I can say beyond what’s been said is that Ed exemplified the heart of all we wanted to do in Nicaragua and around the world. He was one in six billion. And he will be missed.”