Cary Lu

Steve Manes[hidden]

I still find it hard to organize my thoughts about my great friend Cary Lu. There's always more to say.

A couple of weeks before he died, Cary asked my wife Susan and me what should be done about a memorial event. For those of us who aren't religious--and Cary emphatically wasn't--there are no rules about such things, but we promised we would help figure it out. We decided to call it a gathering rather than a service or ceremony. And we decided to do it at the auditorium of the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle for several reasons, not the least of which was that Cary had given his last public talk in Seattle in that very room.

This is what I came up with on that occasion. But there's always more to say.


As important as this day is to all of us, in the long run of the years I think it will be most important for Meredith and Nathaniel, Cary's children. And the message I want to state clearly here to them is this: Meredith and Nathaniel, your father was a remarkable man. Probably even more important, he was a good man. In my experience, that combination of remarkableness and goodness is extremely rare.

Because he was so remarkable and so good in so many different ways, I feel confident that in speaking first I won't spoil it for those who speak after me. With Cary, there's a lot of remarkableness and goodness to go around.

I first met Cary on a riverboat on the Mississippi in New Orleans, where we were both attending a big software convention. We hit it off instantly, and we talked for most of the trip, and I remember we were both struck by the way you look down into the town below the levees.

And that evening, I learned three things about Cary. First, his frugality. Cary often said, "Hey, I'm cheap," and in the great tradition of journalists, he was eager to attend events that offered the promise of free food. Second, he didn't suffer fools gladly; as I recall the moment, we basically ran into each other out on the deck because we were both desperately trying to escape some insufferable corporate presentation being delivered in the ballroom.

And third, he was thoroughly quirky and yet thoroughly rational about being able to defend his quirks. At the time, he was using a word processor called Superwriter. This stunned me, because from that day to this I have never met a single person other than Cary who ever used that program. We got into a spirited argument about it and other software, and I still remember Cary's very rational defense of why it was really the best one around for his particular needs--in part because Cary had almost certainly tested them all.

Over the years, as got to know Cary better, I saw those qualities again and again. And they've come in handy. Cheapness? When Susan and I first moved to Seattle, it was Cary who informed us about that most essential part of Northwestern life: Costco. Rationality and research? We took Cary's advice on buying the same electric piano he did, because we knew he had to have researched the subject exhaustively and found the best deal possible. Costco again.

Cary was intellectually fearless. He loved learning new things, and he was so good at it in part because he wasn't afraid to ask silly questions or reveal his ignorance about a particular subject. He was able to draw people out and learn more because he usually knew at least enough about a subject to make people comfortable talking about it with him. I've learned more in elevator rides where Cary bearded some unsuspecting expert than I did in entire college courses. I loved hanging out with him at conventions, because he inevitably could walk up to a person in a booth and ask exactly the right question to get the person to open up and reveal things most journalists wouldn't even understand.

Cary had amazing intellectual range. I've never known anyone who knew more about visual displays, from monitors to cameras to binoculars. He was fascinated by electronics of all sorts. He loved classical music and opera. He knew the histories of countries and industries. He read widely in other fields. And it got to the point where one day a couple of years ago, I discovered in one of our long phone conversations that I actually happened to know a particular fact that Cary didn't. I was elated for days just knowing that I knew something Cary didn't know. That didn't happen often.

Cary had blind spots. A few months ago, we were talking about pop music, and he admitted that he could not recall hearing a single song by the Rolling Stones. But Cary could surprise you: He loved the music of Judy Collins.

Though Cary saw himself as a technologist, he was a humanist first and a technologist second. He always saw technology not as something in itself, but as a tool for people to use. And the people came first. Again and again, he'd dismiss products for being hard to use or not enough better than what was already available. Cary never used a word like "breakthrough" for some minor improvement. And he would sardonically chastise people who overrated lame products and ideas. I remember a couple of years ago, when a new computer magazine began rating CD-ROM's on a hundred-point scale, and every product got an 80 or better. "Those products that got a 90 really did deserve it," Cary would say in that low-key way of his. "On a scale of one thousand."

Cary knew about that from his own experience. He initially moved from Boston to Seattle to help found a company called General Information and design a software program called Hot Line. The program was a model of intelligent design, and it got rave reviews. But it was ahead of its time and never quite caught on, and the company eventually folded. Some people were bitter, but as with most things, Cary looked on his one step into corporate life as an experience to learn from.

Cary never talked down or wrote down to anyone. He treated everyone as his intellectual equal, even though not many people came close. Often he assumed that you knew as much as he did. Sometimes he assumed people had the same skills at fixing things and making things as he did; I remember getting recommendations from him about carpentry that assumed I had a workshop as well-equipped as his, not to mention his skills. To Cary, recommending a project like running wires for a local area network in your house or building your own computer was no big deal, because for him it wasn't. For the rest of us, it was usually a different story.

Cary had an uncanny ability, both in print and in person, to explain things in a way that made you understand them. It's why so many of us came to pick up the phone and call Cary when we needed answers to complex questions on a wide variety of subjects. The other reason was that Cary almost always picked up his phone and almost always had time to make sure you really got the information you needed. Cary may have been cheap when it came to money, but when it came to time, he was a spendthrift.

Some people found Cary forbidding. Many of us knew how much he loved to laugh. His sense of humor was so sly at times that people actually took him seriously. When he circulated a Swiftian modest proposal suggesting that people stop using graphics on the Internet one day a week--I think it was Tuesday--to keep things from bogging down that day so that people could actually get work done, he got tons of e-mail both supporting and attacking this proposal. Writing with tongue in cheek, he assumed everyone would realize the idea was a total absurdity.

After a fairly traditional education, Cary made his own path in life. It was a many-faceted career, full of unexpected twists and turns, because Cary was ultimately an intellectual explorer and he went where his curiosity took him. And where that might be was something even he could not predict. In succession, Cary was an academic, a filmmaker, an educator, an editor, an author, a software developer, an executive, and a journalist. Sometimes he was three or four of those things at once. He loved to travel, and his curiosity took him around the world to jobs in Australia and Africa and Boston. One of the reasons we loved Cary so much was his ability to get excited about new things to learn.

This happened with his book on bandwidth, which he had been working on over the past year. The lecture he gave here in May, when he talked and answered questions for two hours, hinted at how important the book will be. He did not quite finish it, but several of his friends have committed to helping complete it. And that book helped keep him going through his long ordeal. Right up until a few days before he died, he was dictating notes to improve it.

Cary was a realist, but he was as positive as any realist I have known. He rarely said a negative word about anyone. He looked for the good in people and in things. He had an exquisite sense of what was important and what was not. When he was diagnosed with cancer in January, he told me through his tears that he had lived a wonderful life and that his one regret was that he would not be around to see his children grow up.

Our regret now is that Cary is no longer here to explain the things we don't know and that his humor and brilliance will no longer greet us at the other end of the phone line. We won't be able to ask him those questions we depended on him to answer. We won't be about to joke about the computer industry or argue the merits of the Macintosh or talk about performances of Beethoven symphonies. It's a loss that's hard to bear.

Meredith and Nathaniel, your father was a remarkable man. And a good one. We miss him terribly.