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The Priest and Me
Comments () | Published March 1, 2010

The massive “big iron” IBM 360 had about the same level of computing power as a present-day iPhone, and it used punch cards to process data. But it was thrilling to harness it to my project. It was like being a scientist, a detective, and a historian all at the same time. I never would have expected that using computing power to solve a riddle would fill me with excitement—nor that I would embark on this journey with an aged priest beside me. Boy, was I happy.

My friends thought I was nuts. I think they liked it more when I talked about how the New York Rangers were going to crush the recently formed Washington Capitals, or about politics or rock ’n’ roll. Trying to explain how I was using a mainframe computer to pursue an English project must have seemed too odd for words to these future doctors and lawyers.

I told my parents about it over Christmas vacation, and they couldn’t understand what I was doing. Using computers was so foreign to their experience. For me, it was like conquering a new world. I felt in control of my destiny even as I was relying on the expertise of others and without a precise sense of what we were going to find. Later on, when I was creating a business, I’d recognize that feeling of camaraderie in service to a goal with an unknown outcome. It was a genuinely entrepreneurial moment.

I had to type the first 5,000 words of Hemingway’s book into the computer along with thousands of words from earlier books and articles. Our technical assistant wrote a program that searched through word patterns using punch cards containing the sentences I’d input. Lo and behold, one day the computer “told” us that at least some elements of The Old Man and the Sea had been written before the 1950s.

I’m not sure Father Durkin high-fived me, but I know he was as thrilled as I was. Georgetown is constructed around the concept of interdisciplinary studies, and the fact that my junior-year thesis was a mash-up of literature, history, computer science, and linguistics was a very big deal.

Though Hemingway biographers have never warmed to our theory, the paper I wrote was published in an academic newsletter dedicated to computing and the humanities. Most important to me in the short run was that I won an award for the best junior thesis.

In the long run, what was important was that the journey I’d gone on with Father Durkin created a lifelong interest in the power and practical application of computers. Everything I was to achieve in the first part of my career stemmed from an unwritten playbook we made up as we went along, infused with the belief that computers would change the world.

I’d witnessed firsthand how you could use computers to make something happen. I can’t tell you that there was a flash of light or a divine inspiration. All I can say is that a Jesuit priest insisted that I read The Old Man and the Sea, and through that I landed something awesome.

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 03/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles