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Americans in Prague:
Alan Levy's 1993 Prague Profile of Bruce Damer


Alan Levy at the Prague Post, in 1994

Prague Profile by Alan Levy "Bruce Damer's Vision of a Silicon Castle"
Published in the Prague Post 01/09/1993

[photo from story to be included here soon, photos below were taken by and provided to illustrate the article by Bruce Damer]

I have met the future and it is named Bruce Frederick Damer (rhymes with hall-of-famer). Listen to the language of this 31-year-old Canadian computer engineer who, with Czech partner Rudolf Kryl, has just founded the Prague Foundation for Informatics: “We speak in tongues. We have gurus. We have popes. We have renegades. We build icons on the screen. Our antiques date back to the early 1980s, our relics to the 1970s, our dinosaurs to the ‘60s. And we have this vision of a Silicon Castle - the Czech Republic by the early 21st century as a wellspring of computer creativity comparable to what was pioneered in Silicon Valley, California, in the mid-‘60s. “Yes,“ he concedes, “Silicon Valley took 10 years to put together and generated $200 billion per year revenue. But there, they had to build it all from scratch, whereas here we‘re starting with software only, based on standard computers that already exist. You don‘t have to have a big infrastructure or build factories first.

Bruce Damer and friend at U Zlateho Tigra
(Under the Golden Tiger pub in Prague, 1994)

With the combination of Czech ingenuity and American blue-sky thinking - the belief that anything is possible if you put your mind to it - this is the future for the Czech Republic.“ Punctuating his words with a slightly self-mocking giggle, this blue-eyed, auburn-haired yuppie prophet nevertheless means business. His business is Elixir Technologies, a Ventura, California-based maker of publishing software that he has represented here off-and-on since 1990. Of late, the rest of his life revolves around a former Jesuit college in Mala strana, back to back with St. Nicholas Cathedral. Malostranske nam. 25 now houses Charles University‘s Faculty of Mathematics and Physics. Within this sprawling Baroque complex, Damer stimulates special student projects while engineering the transformation of a fortified Art Deco rotunda - which, in the first Czechoslovak Republic between the two World Wars, served as headquarters of the State Bank - into an avant-garde computer center with both basic-teaching and advanced-research laboratories. “We have dead priests in the cellar, but no gold in the vaults,“ he quips. “That was cleaned out by the Nazis.“

Charles University Faculty of Mathematics and Physics
, 1992-3, Mala Strana, Prague

Nowadays, Damer is shopping not just for gold from Western foundations and corporations, but for hardware and software, videos and textbooks - or, in his language, “direct technology transfer“ and “knowledge education transfer.“ His foundation needs 5 million Kc (about $175,000) -“the figure rises every day“ - to renovate the double-decker rotunda into a geodesic dome enabling everybody to see everybody else and dispensing with a hierarchical corporate structure of bosses and subordinates. So far, he‘s raised enough to finance “just two rooms on the balcony, but we‘re concentrating on grants for the faculty because people are more important than resources.“ With a full professor earning 6,000 Kc to 8,000 Kc (barely $200 to less than $300) a month, Damer says the computer branch of the faculty was experiencing “a loss-of-staff crisis.“ Teachers can earn much more by taking sabbaticals or jobs in industry.

Meanwhile, the school‘s enrollment in computer science has quadrupled since 1989, and teachers‘ workloads are overwhelming. John Linvill, a Silicon Valley founding father and now a professor emeritus at Stanford University, came up with what Damer calls “a simple, brilliant idea: For 20 years, Stanford has videotaped all its lectures and shipped them to companies and other institutions to offer them Stanford theoretical courses. There are plenty of other video courses, too, but Stanford‘s are semi-interactive and tutored in a careful way. Exams are given, and a couple of studies show that students who took Stanford courses this way perform at a level roughly equal to those sitting in the classroom. That they‘re in English is no problem; it‘s a prerequisite here, because all the manuals and textbooks are in English. The Stanford proposal would simultaneously solve the teaching problem and increase the level of education at minimal cost. All videos, textbooks and other handouts would cost only $6,500 (around 185,000 Kc) for two years for each course.“ “But,“ I interject, “wouldn‘t this make some of the professors for whom you‘re seeking grants redundant?“ “We would hope that those teachers would tutor the courses,“ he replies primly, adding that “We could actually expand our curriculum based on Stanford‘s, so it might even create work for them and others. And when Xerox‘s Palo Alto [California] Research Center heard of this, they said they‘d donate videos of all their special seminars by the fathers of the field.“

Comenius Computer Lab
, Charles University/MFF, 1993

On Sept. 27, Damer‘s foundation will co-sponsor (with Charles University, the Czech Technical University and Hewlett-Packard) a three-day series of lectures at the math-physics faculty, by William Newman and five other seminal figures in the field of interfaces - live! Upstairs, the center‘s entire Comenius Computer Laboratory is being packed up to go to the country - to Bozi Dar in northern Bohemia, where some 180 middle-school teachers of computer science attend a fortnight of training every summer. The program is now co-sponsored by the foundation, which has already obtained donations of equipment from Philips and individual benefactors. “The level of students has really come up,“ says Damer . “We‘re expecting a bulge of really high-quality students at the faculty in about two years. They‘ll be better than world-class. Already, the students we have do more than you expect. They think a problem through very completely before they start. The backward technology here might have been a blessing. They took the time to master the discipline of learning before they tackled the real equipment. In North America, when you have everything around you, you start to play with it and you‘re not really learning.“ (His partner Kryl, a professor of software at the faculty, saw his first personal computer in Havana in 1986.) The newborn foundation is granting stipends to some of the more creative of the current crop of university computer students to explore whimsical, but promising, projects such as raising the computer-consciousness of dogs by programming sounds and images to which they can respond in a properly Pavlovian manner. And, for human consumption of electronic mail, using dachshunds as icons (small images on the screen): the longer the dog and the faster it gallops across the E-mail recipient‘s on-screen letterbox, the more prominent the sender and the more urgent the message. Then there are three-dimensional icons like books and cubes that the user could open ...

Icons were what converted Bruce Damer to informatics as an art form in March of 1981, when he had just turned 19. In a computer magazine, he beheld his first image of icons adorning a screen: “When I saw them - tiny folders with names on them, little folders with ‘in‘ and ‘out‘ baskets for mail - it was the neatest thing. It was creative, and I knew this was a new world where I wanted to be. It came out of the Xerox research center at Palo Alto, not Apple Macintosh. Xerox invented everything and capitalized on almost none of it.“ Damer had grown up in the Canadian Rockies, in the British Columbian mining and ranching town of Kamloops, where his parents both were English teachers. Their family bible was the giant Oxford English Dictionary that came with a magnifying glass. This weighty tome was the centerpiece of the Damer dinner table, where it resolved disputes, most of which revolved about word usage. “Growing up in a backwater,“ he says now, “motivated me to build up the momentum of a rocket motor to carry me into some kind of orbit where I wouldn‘t fall back and end up working in a lumberyard or a copper mine.“

First lab of Elixir Technologies Prague
, in Bila Hora, 1992

At the University of Victoria in the provincial capital, he majored in computer science and entered the Co-op Education Program, a North American work-study program that sent him to International Business Machines‘ (IBM‘s) Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. This led to a scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he entered a U.S. Defense Department-funded Star Wars research project and received a master‘s degree in electrical engineering. “Rather than go on for a doctorate and wind up working for General Dynamics in a windowless office,“ he says, “I opted out and joined Elixir to satiate my appetite for building software. That took six years.“ Within days after 1989‘s Velvet Revolution, his boss and mentor, Basit Hamid - a Kashmiri-American who had studied computer science with a Czech emigre in Norway - flew to Prague to check out the local talent: Were Czechs still legendary engineers after two generations of communism? Hamid brought back one of them, Petr Dupal, who performed such wonders in California that Elixir hired nine more Czechs - some of them from the Institute of Mathematical Machines, which was collapsing - and opened a facility at Bila Hora (White Mountain) in Prague 6, with Damer as chief architect. Most of his engineers, however, work at home, converse via E-mail and come in only once a week. “It‘s telecommuting in the Czech Republic,“ says Damer. “Some of them live at the other end of town - two of them as far away as €icany - but they waste very little time sitting on trams.“ Today, a new generation of software created in Prague is already going out to Elixir‘s 6,000 customers - including the Bank of England, several governments, American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) and Xerox - in some 70 countries, to enable clients to print out bills, account statements, tax forms and other documents at a rate of 400 pages per minute. Says Damer: “It‘s perhaps the first large export of original software from the Czech Republic.“

Founders and members of the Nadace pro Informatiku
at a presentation, 1993, left to right:
Pavel Plachky (student of the Faculty and Nadace projects, later to join Elixir), Basit Hamid (founder of Elixir), Bruce Damer, Rudolf Kryll and Peter (?)

Having set it up, Damer was convinced that “all the seeds are here for a major software industry to be born.“ He and Kryl conceived their foundation in late 1991 and formed it officially in March 1993. “Aside from doing our own research,“ says Damer, “our primary goal is to raise grants. We will go to professors and ask them, ‘What do you need? What money? What books? A trip to a conference?‘ And we will write those up in the form of grant proposals with photographs and other details, which not all of them know how to do. And we‘ll participate in community projects. I talked with Mark Baker at the Globe bookstore, and their dream is to create a writers‘ service resource center with personal computers and laser printers - and that absolutely fits within our mandate. I hope to go to Dell Computer in Austin [Texas] in November with a presentation.“ Now he swerves back to creative research: “Another project we‘d like to start this year relates to the place in which we are. If you look at the design of what‘s on the screen - not to mention the physical shape of the computer - you see things that are fairly flat and modernistic, with square windows and dialogue boxes. They represent the world of Silicon Valley, with glass office towers, but we‘re sitting here in the middle of Europe with all this Baroque and Gothic around us. So we‘re looking at a new design that will impart an Old European flavor to what you see on the screen. It may not be cherubs floating around, but why haven‘t Bill Gates [of Microsoft] or Steve Jobs [ex-Apple, now at NEXT] thought of using stained-glass Windows?

(c) Copyright 1993, The Prague Post, reprinted with permissions of The Prague Post.

See also: our pages on Alan Levy here and our pages on the Nadace pro Informatiku and our pages on the Elixir Prague Lab (early years).

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