Deep Shift

July 18th, 2002 | Category: Essays, Me

I have often been asked how I came to be interested in science and media after so many years as a BMX/skateboard/indie-rock/zine kid. It’s kind of a long story that I will do my damnedest to shorten here.

Roy Christopher circa 1988 After years and years immersed in the underground of zine-making, BMX, skateboarding and music, I found myself running a regional music magazine. As Editor of Tacoma, Washington’s Pandemonium, I really thought I’d found my way into the career path of ‘Music Journalist’ for which I’d longed for many years. Of course, three months after I got that job, the magazine folded.

Contacts in the music underground (John Mohr from Chicago band Tar, who’d since moved to Seattle and worked at an Internet startup) landed me in the working world of the Web. Though I didn’t feel connected to my work there and still did freelance music writing, I embraced the Web and the working environment.

This might sound silly, but this is where the deep shift started. One evening, I happened to catch a PBS special on the PC revolution. Robert X. Cringely’s The Triumph of the Nerds (based on his book Accidental Empires) had me hooked. I knew a lot of the story, having been involved with PCs since sixth grade (Apple IIs, TRS-80s, Commodores, etc.), but I was mesmerized by the tale of these guys sleepwalking into the future of technology. It was all the talk the next day at work.

The next piece of the puzzle was another PBS special: one on Fractal Geometry. Again, I was mesmerized by Benoit Mandlebrot, Michael Barnsley and even Arthur C. Clarke’s slow narration. The next day at work, I asked co-worker Steve McCann if he knew anything about Fractal Geometry. He brought me James Gleick’s Chaos. I felt like I was definitely onto something.

Yadda, yadda, yadda… The company was shut down, I moved to San Francisco to give music journalism another try. As Music Editor of SLAP Skateboard Magazine, I felt I’d gotten there too late. If I’d gotten that job a few years before, I probably would’ve been okay, but new seeds were sprouting in my head. I finished reading Chaos and started Paul Davies’ God and the New Physics. I was hooked.

One day in the SLAP office, after a barrage of new skate videos, most of the staffers cleared out and returned to their work. SLAP‘s Editor Lance Dawes fumbled through some tapes and said, “I’ve got something you should watch.” He popped in a tape of four films by Charles and Ray Eames. Unbeknownst to him, he’d hammered the last nail in the coffin of my brief tenure at SLAP. That was it. I had to be doing more. I left a week or so later determined to go back to school.

The school plan involved my moving back to my parents’ house in Alabama, saving up some money, picking a school and applying to a graduate program. I settled on the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence program (the only terminal masters program in the country). It took two tries, but I finally got in and got stoked.

I soon found myself in over my head. The minutia of AI programming is based on formal logic to which I’d had no previous exposure. My introduction was a class called ‘Deductive Systems,’ a graduate course in advanced sentential and modal logic. With everything in the program based on something that I was just learning, I reached a breaking point halfway through the first semester.

Poor me, huh? Well, not really. My expensive and stressful return to school helped me realign my interests, gave me the opportunity to meet some great professors, attend lectures, use a massive science library and meet some great friends. I’d also gained enough knowledge ‘preparing’ (what I thought at the time was preparing) for the program, to pass for a science journalist. This is where frontwheeldrive (my old BMX/Skateboarding/music zine) started becoming the web site it is today. It’s also where my pendulum settled between the extremes of underground subculture and the fringes of new science and new media.

Okay, I tried to make that brief. I guess it’s a long story no matter how you cut it. I think the main points I’d like to make in all of this are that it’s never too late to make a change, and that there are no deadlines.

Me: “You know, Mom, growing up is weird…”
My Moms: “Oh, you think you might do it some day?”

[photo by Matt Bailie]