Brian Dennis' Technology Piece


Brian Dennis ( writes:
In the Fall of 1996 I took a class with John Markoff and G Pascal Zachary -- both fairly well known technology writers. The topic of the course was technology reporting and I learned a lot about how the media views the computer industry, how articles get written, and the pressures that journalists are under, especially in the technology field. Of course I also had to do some writing as well. I wrote a small piece on a colleague, Dan Garcia, that was pretty well received. At least it kept Markoff amused for a few minutes.

The Piece

by Brian M. Dennis

Dan Garcia putters about the classroom with the manic energy of a mad scientist tweaking knobs and flipping switches on the classroom audio visual equipment. The simple fact that he can quickly change projection between a Macintosh and a PC display fascinates him. He constantly mutters ``Wow. This is REALLY cool!''. The front of his SIGGRAPH 1996 student volunteer t-shirt reads: ``Imagine It. Celebrate It. Do It. Work It.'' On the back: ``Party It.''

Dan's 1992 debut as an instructor illuminates his passion for teaching. His first discussion section started at four pm on a Friday afternoon. Scheduled to run for an hour, only five students attended. Dan finally wrapped up at 6:45, completely covering the homework and running out of graphics anecdotes from MIT. He expected all five students to bolt for the dining hall, but they stayed and asked him questions for another twenty minutes.

Earning campus wide recognition, Dan was named an Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor in that first semester as a teaching assistant.

A 7th year graduate student in the Computer Science Division at UC Berkeley, Dan Garcia is one of the few teaching assistants in the department who can actually inspire students. Using a combination of intense passion, infectious enthusiam, and inane humor, Dan grabs student's attention and pushes them to the limit.

Dan typically teaches an upper division class on the fundamentals of computer graphics, CS184. Dan has taught 8 consecutive semesters, despite often being on a fellowship. Not content with those duties this semester he is also teaching today's class, CS39A.

CS39A, Introduction to Computer Animation, is a seminar limited to freshmen and sophomores. Besides the novel subject matter, the class composition also makes CS39A stand out in the College of Engineering. The male to female ratio is close to fifty fifty. There are students of all ethnic persuasions. One even sports a mohawk hair cut.

Dan dives into the day's topics: articulated figures, a technique for modeling animated objects, and Infini-D, a popular animation program. The goal of the lecture is to give the students enough knowledge to create an animation and place it on a personal Web page.

The lecture is a well orchestrated performance. Dan sits down at a Macintosh projecting onto a screen and demonstrates Infini-D. However he often jumps to the front row of desks to emphasize how articulated figures work. He prompts the class with little waves and motions of his hands. Dan smiles early and often, and the students, rapt with attention, smile with him. The lecture rushes to an end as he tries to squeeze in a number of hints on how to use Infini-D. As the class closes he proudly announces, ``Any of your old high school classmates will able to see an animation with your face on it! On the Web! IT'LL BE COOL!''

Dan lectures the whole class without any notes.

Befitting someone who uses their Cal photo ID picture as a background for their homepage, Dan ``SPAM'' Garcia's Web site is a goldmine of insight into who he is. The page is a spew of hyperlinks to the important things in his life: graphics research, SPAM links on the Web, puzzles, the Macintosh, juggling, eating SPAM, teaching. A hackneyed Web counter tracks the number of ``hits'' his page has taken, well over one million. Proudly displayed are the seals of two Web awards the page has received : Geek of the Week and Mirsky's Worst of the Web.

A native New Yorker, Dan started out in the Bronx's Public School 94, and received a state Regent's Diploma from Cooperstown Central High. He moved on to MIT where he was an acquaintance of the author. Dan graduated in five years with two degrees. In 1990 he arrived on the Berkeley campus, and has been there ever since. His advisor is Professor Brian Barsky, a prominent figure in the field of computer graphics and the official instructor of CS39A.

For the CS39A students November fifth rolls around, the dog days of the fall semester. Seven weeks have passed since classes started and there haven't been any major holidays. Thanksgiving is in sight but still three weeks away.

As the class starts attendance seems to have taken a big drop. However, students trickle in and only a few miss the entire class. Dan announces that the assigned readings are essentially finished and now students should be turning to their final projects. He's glad that all the students except one have caught up on their assignments and intends to leave some time at the end of class for the project groups to meet.

Dan shows a video which gives new relevance to the apparently frivolous task of computer animation. The tape is a recording of C.Net's computer animated enactment of Nicole Brown-Simpson's murder. The animation was commisioned by the high tech news show during the height of the OJ Simpson trial.

In grisly detail, the computer simulation visualizes a shadowy black figure attacking a virtual Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ron Goldman. The president of Failure Analysis, the production company for the animation, proudly announces that the film was completely generated according to trial evidence. ``Since there were African-American hairs found at the scene, it seemed logical to make the assailant in the animation African-American.''

When the video completes, discussion slowly arises out of a somewhat stunned silence. Professor Barsky brooks the question, ``What's the point of animating this? It could have been done just as easily with professional actors.'' Some students mention that once the simulation has been constructed the scene can easily be viewed from various angles and lighting. Another offers that many people think that information presented on a computer is inherently accurate. No conclusions are reached but the implications of this technology are clear.

After the discussion, Dan delves into different ways to handle camera tracking in Infini-D. He takes a sidebar into how lighting is modeled in such programs, a topic Professor Barsky is particularly adept at. When a difficult point arises Dan has to pause and think for a minute. ``Maybe I should cover this,'' offers Professor Barsky but Dan frantically waves him off. ``No, no, no! I got it.'' he responds just as Barsky is about to take over at the board. Dan completes a sterling explanation and wraps up the lecture while Professor Barsky can be heard to whine, ``He never lets me talk.''

In the next to last class of the semester, a Tuesday early in December, Professor Barsky jokingly introduces Pixar's Ralph Guggenheim as the ``Vice-President of Something or Other'' before letting Guggenheim take over the lecture. Giving a well seasoned talk Guggenheim intersperses clips from the movie Toy Story, footage of the film's production process, and his thoughts on the making of the film. Guggenheim focuses on the fact that Pixar's only goal is to tell good stories. The tools the company uses just happen to be computers. ``First and foremost we're filmmakers. And even before that storytellers.''

The majority of the students make it to class on time but a few sneak in after Guggenheim has started. Even in fragments Toy Story still resonates a year after its release. Typical theater audience reactions arise from the class. Students laugh uproariously at Buzz Lightyear outtakes. A simple storyboard walkthrough draws intense scrutiny. In true Hollywood fashion, Guggenheim's reel ends at a quick cut before the climax of a scene. The audience is left begging for more. ``Before class, I stopped off and robbed a Burger King,'' he jokes, handing out Toy Story action figures to applause.

Unfortunately, Dan has to squash the good feeling a little bit. He announces that he'll be available right after class for office hours. Every group has to present their animations this upcoming Thursday as grades are due Friday. A couple of laggards give each other grim looks knowing how much work they have to do between now and Thursday.

The final class turns out to be a mixture of excitement and dread. There are 4 projects in all. Two are cued up and ready to be presented. Another seems close to coming together while the last is apparently falling apart. As preparations for the final viewing continue, the students furtively pass around a piece of paper, trying to keep it hidden from Dan.

The animations are far from Toy Story but amusing none the less. While others offer more technical tricks, one twisted entry, entitled ``Storyboard Joe'', is hilarious. The tale features a hero constructed out of cubes, spheres, and cylinders. Joe goes through a series of self-inflicted horrible mishaps including strangling himself with his own telephone cord. For his troubles he's rewarded with an interview with Barbara Walters.

Only one group has severe technical difficulties and Dan gives that group a few days extension. Later on I stop by his office to chat a little. ``It's too bad they didn't get their's working,'' he says, ``The lead animator is really good, he just needed a little more help.''

I notice a small sheet of paper with an abundance of scrawled handwriting on it. Amidst a flock of student signatures the hand made thank-you card reads, ``Dan You're Spamalicious!''. Nearby is a gift-wrapped object shaped suspiciously like a can of a certain meat product.

``Isn't that great!'' Dan proclaims as he notices me spying the gift. ``I was really touched when they gave this to me at the end of class. Whenever I get down on teaching things like this are what keep me going.''

Copyright 1997 Brian M. Dennis

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