For a long time, I’ve been dreading writing this blog post about one of the most amazing persons I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, Daniel Stephen Foster. For years, he had been suffering from a host of health issues and it all caught up with him early Sunday morning, June 10, 2012. To paraphrase William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Dan had “beared the whips and scorns of time and has gone over to the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”
It has taken a few days to collect myself and with great difficulty I have accepted the grand finality that Dan is no longer around. No more can I send off an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and expect a response within a few hours. One of the reasons why I dread writing this blog post is because how does one sit down to distill the essence of a bond spanning two decades and put into words something that gives it sufficient justice?
I first met Dan Foster when we entered NTID/RIT as green freshmen in the fall of 1992. We quickly discovered that we loved all things that pushed bits and bytes. Our friendship took off right away.
During student orientation, when I was introduced to RIT’s DEC VAX/VMS cluster, it took me a while to warm up to the platform while Dan immediately took to the system, like a fish to water. At that time, I had prided myself on the fact I already had experience with C programming as a high school senior working at University of Washington. So, I thought I already had a head start on other freshmen at RIT. After meeting with Dan, I quickly came to the realization that he was a rare breed after he told me about how he sneaked into networked computer labs at Gallaudet while a high school student at MSSD.
Clearly, his technical superiority and prowess far outstripped mine.
[Dan Foster and I during a moment of levity at RIT after several packs of beer]
I told myself, “Damn, this guy really knows what he’s doing! I must find a way to room with him! He’ll teach me 10x what I’ll learn in the classroom.” Eventually, we were able to move into a large dorm room that could fit three people. So began my two years as Dan’s college roommate. One of my fondest memories with Dan was when our dorm room was supercharged with palpable excitement about a new release of then little-known OS called Linux. After installing Linux from 24 floppy disks and performing a few sleight-of-hand tricks to get X Windowing system running (and managing to do it without blowing out the CRT monitor!), we were taken aback when it all finally came together on the screen with several X terminal consoles with flashing prompts. We celebrated with a few beers that day.
Shortly afterwards, I vividly recall how he had to show me this interesting software he compiled, NCSA Moasic (which was the first graphical web browser) for something mysteriously called the “World Wide Web.” We visited about 20 websites which made up all of the WWW at the time. How much has changed since then!
During our second year as roommates, I watched him start his ascendency to a system administrator of the highest order. He never finished his RIT degree but instead started working at a local dial-up Internet provider and ultimately ending up with an international networking company, Global Crossing (now Level 3). The breadth and depth of his knowledge about networking and system administration seemed to be boundless. If he wasn’t sure of something, he would research the hell out of it and come back with a great answer or solution. Like many others, he was my go-to guy when I was utterly stuck on getting something to work on a server. He would guide me through configuration changes and went on to explain in depth why the changes were needed.
By the time I graduated from RIT with a BS in Information Technology, Dan had already worked on high-end systems worth millions of dollars, similar to IBM’s famous Deep Blue- the first supercomputer to beat world champion chess player, Garry Kasparov! I will always remember him taking me on a very special visit to get a rare glimpse of the Internet Exchange Point in New York City. For the layperson, the location is one of the major crossroads on the Internet superhighway through which billions of emails or video traffic can get from one place to other. He also gave me my very first networking installation job for a client of his, in which I patched ethernet ports for new offices.
It is safe to say that I would not be where I am today without Dan Foster.
At first glance, he seems to be this completely unassuming human being but once you get to know him, you begin to see the sheer brilliance hidden inside his soul and mind. If you’ve been lucky enough to get an email from him then you know the excruciating details he can get into when he’s passionate about something. For example, we both share a love of aviation and Dan himself is one of only 100 deaf licensed pilots in USA. His emails about the minute details of piloting planes are legendary: you had better strap yourself down for a hour just for the fun of reading his email.
One of his gifts was the ability to masterfully come up with great analogies to simplify and explain complicated concepts. His ability to help others better understand things didn’t go unnoticed.
In fact, the authors of UNIX and Linux System Administration Handbook (4th Edition) asked Dan to contribute some material about IBM’s OS, AIX for the book. This was a huge honor considering how it’s one of the standard books used for modern systems administration.
Here’s a snapshot of what he wrote in the book:
Despite his mastery at bending any systems to his will, I once observed in quiet amazement how he gently treated a complete Linux newbie who was trying to transfer a file using SCP, which is one of the most basic operations. This seasoned veteran who operated at the highest level of network administration could have so easily disregarded the newbie and told him to go RTFM (Read The F*#!&%$ Manual), but instead took the time to guide him through the steps to transfer the file.
That was the quintessential Dan Foster: always patient and willing to help others, no matter what they need from him.
One thing was certain: he was a creature in an online world where there are no barriers in communication. As his health declined, it became more difficult to see him in person. I will be forever grateful that our emails and chats kept on flowing until the day he could no longer physically handle a laptop.
We had a special understanding and bond that came not just from our similar fields of interest, but that we were both deaf, unable to clearly speak a single word, and our communication relied chiefly on written notes and sign language interpreters. We faced the same challenges as we found our own way through life and to excel in our chosen field. That shared experience brought us closer together.
All I can say now to Dan: What you have accomplished in the short span of time you had here on Earth, is more than most will do in their entire lives. Despite the long battle with your health, you never gave up when it would have been so easy to say, “Screw all this!” Your example has shown us the true meaning of persistence and fortitude.
Godspeed, Dan! Go and live it up in the Cosmos but avoid the black holes! I hear they are real drainers.
My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends
It gives a lovely light!
-Edna St. Vincent Millay
Dan is now on the Smithsonian National Aviation and Space Exploration Wall of Honor http://airandspace.si.edu/wallofhonor/profiledetail.cfm?id=34651