Friday, 1 February 2013

Remembering Andy Haas

I was preparing the morning tea yesterday when I was called in to ascertain the veracity of a facebook post: Could it really be that my grad school housemate of two years was dead from a sudden cerebral aneurysm?

Unfortunately, it is true.

Andy Haas was one of my "littermates" at Rochester.  He was the most eccentric character of the bunch.  He was tall and kind of lanky, but the most distinctive characteristic was his voice.  He had an unusual speaking style and mannerism.

Andy became my housemate in my third year at Rochester.  When I lived in the apartment with him, I became used to his habits.  For example, more than once, I came home to find him happily reading the bible in latin (Andy was a lapsed catholic).  He had a number of specific musical tastes: The Grateful Dead, Steely Dan and Bach organ works.  He adored a recording I had of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor - preferably played loud.

His diet was fairly simple: Meat.  He had numerous broiled steaks.  In fact, when I eventually moved out, I had to use a wire brush to remove as much of the hard carbon from the broiler pan.  He also liked beer, not wine.  In fact, he met his wife Jo-ann when they went to a party and discovered they both liked to drink beer.  A lot.

One Halloween, Andy arrived clean shaven and dressed up in a suit.  He proclaimed "Have you been saved?!?".  Since he didn't look like that the day before, the effect was striking to all present.

Andy left Rochester before I did and wandered through the academic life eventually settling at SUNY Albany.  I didn't know much about his life there except I knew he had a daughter Katie.  I asked him if it was true he named her after the Steely Dan album and he said that no, she was really named after his grandmother ... but that the Steely Dan connection was a bonus.

But this summer, since I was driving right through Albany, I decided to look him up.  As it turned out, it was most convenient to spend the night.  The guest bedroom was filled with books on ancient history and astronomy.  There were very few computer science books to be seen.

Haas was a raconteur extraordinaire - I believe no one would dispute that one iota.  He had a way of spilling out a story and finding a connection to a delightfully obscure fact.  And he had stories to tell, either personal experience (like the time he hitch-hiked to Alaska over the summer) or an anecdote about a person or concept in Computer Science.

If I was to categorize Haas, I would say he was a formalist.  He was extremely fond of set theory and first-order logic.  He was very careful when reading books on the subject, digesting each and every equation and savoring the symbols.

But I remember Haas from the last time I saw him this summer: We had invited him to visit us in the Berkshires where we were staying at a friend's house.  It was an absolutely glorious day, with low humidity and a view over the Hudson to the 'gunks.  Haas was delighted and we sat on the veranda and discussed Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science all the while viewing the shifting light.

I never saw him again.

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