VUW - a photo essay

Amidst the travel restrictions during the first two years of the declared Covid-19 pandemic, a short window opened in June 2021, during which I had a brief visit to New Zealand. Until now, I have not processed many of the captures from that time. On 16 June 2021 I visited my alma mater, where I completed my BSc in Computer Science from 1988-1991. At the time it was called simply “Victoria University of Wellington” and was widely known by the initialism: “VUW.” I believe @damonlynch is also an alumnus.

Nostalgia got me rather powerfully: seeing the traditional Hunter building (boarded up amidst a restoration controversy in my time); the Kirk 301 lecture theatre (I had many classes there - although it had blackboards in my time); the quadrangle between Easterfield (Chemistry) and Rankine Brown (Library) now covered and called “The Hub” - but with an architecturally pleasing retractable glass wall:

There was also some whimsy: another photographer, and the quaint chaplaincy weatherboard house - I was an aged-care chaplain at the time, and it felt like an expression of my chaplaincy vocation: “quaint.”

Having now created my picture-book of memory, it occurred to me to share it here also, for those who may be interested.


Its so great that you got a chance to go back…

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I also have a BSc in Computer Science from VUW, but from 1991-1994 in my case. These days most if not all of the faculty have either retired or teach elsewhere, or in the case of the department chair John Hine, died. I don’t think we ever met you Martin, which wouldn’t surprise me, because (1) the department rarely if ever put on social events (that I can recall), and (2) I was working off campus to support myself financially.

I still remember the sense of awe and fear attending university as a first-year student. I was soon to learn it was strikingly different from high school (thank goodness!). I enjoyed studying computer science very much. I remain grateful to the faculty who supported me when my choice of academic focus evolved as new opportunities opened up.

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I was fortunate to have not gone straight to uni from school - I worked 2+ years for the Bank of New Zealand, then chose to go to uni on my own terms. This was unlike my sister, who went straight from school. However my sister was starting her Honours Year when I entered, and so she helped me find my feet during Orientation Week.

Yes, people move on. I did have part of COMP 103 with John Hine. (When and how did he die?) The most memorable character, however, was “Pondy” - Dr Peter Andrae. He was a genius from MIT wiith an interest in AI, and because of his nerdy, engaging personality, also taught entry-level COMP 102. He famously wore shorts and went in bare feet - throughout the coldest Wellington winter - rushing through the quad on his way to class, notes in one hand and his MIT Beer Stein in the other. He claimed it was water in the Stein, sometimes we suspected vodka. EDIT: he also wore a battered flat cap - he was almost never seen without it.

Brian Boutel is another name I can dredge from my memory, and Gusti Bartfai, although spelling I am unsure of.

My final semester was first half of 1991, and my last and favourite COMP course was a COMP348 Special topic - compiler design. I just can’t remember the lecturer’s name - he was a fun guy who was a doctoral candidate and had spent some time in Canada. I did the subject together with a friend by the name of Friso Dijstelbergen - he’s living in the UK these days - and about 8 other students.

John Hine died because he was old, as far as I know. He died before I returned to New Zealand in 2022.

Pondy retired last year. In the latter part of his academic life he dedicated himself to university administration — that is to say, helping others in the university solve all kinds of problems. About his MIT experience, he said that at MIT he saw the difference between being good there, and being truly great. The gap was big, as he put it. He classified himself as good. The true greats are rare, of course. He took a class at MIT with a true great, Chomksy, and another great whose name I forget. However, Pondy said the actual lectures from them were dull LOL.

Your COMP 348 lecturer may have been Robert Biddle. He was certainly charismatic and great fun! These days he is in Canada. VUW was lucky to have him, I think.

I said in remarks at Pondy’s retirement party that faculty made the department a truly welcoming place for students, from my student perspective. The faculty all got along and worked well together, with the best interests of the department at heart. That is not guaranteed at a university! Sometimes departments can be factitious, with unhappy faculty and a less than ideal student experience. I think Pondy, Biddle, and others like them were why CS worked well at VUW.

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Thanks for the memory prompt - yes, Robert Biddle sounds right.

Wonderful to hear that Pondy stayed at VUW right until retirement.

Regarding the CompSci department as a happy place: what stands in my memory is the move from being effectively an adjunct of Computer Services in Old Kirk, to Cotton Stage 2 and now a distinct department. That took place in 1989, and the sense of renewed identity and pride was palpable. Not all the faculty were as friendly and likeable as Pondy, Hine and Biddle, but the overwhelming majority made it a nice place to be.

It must have been wonderful to go back for Pondy’s party. If you gave remarks there, you obviously got to know him well.

Pondy’s retirement party was pretty cool, yes. I knew him much less than others. Anyone could speak at the event’s formalities — it was pretty much an open-mic.

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I was there a bit before your time 1973-1977. Mostly physics and maths but I did a couple of computer programming courses, although I think it was called Information Science Dept in those days. I think the dept head was Tony Vignaux. They had a Burroughs B6700 mainframe and the Physics dept had a PDP 11. Probably a smart watch would have more computational power these days.


I remember Tony Vignaux - I believe he had me for one subject in my first year, and it was an INFO subject rather than a COMP subject. BY the late 1980s there was an IBM/360 and a cluster of Microvaxes, in addition to a couple of PDP-11s. That was also when individual workstations were coming in - first Macs and PC clones used some of the time as dumb terminals for the bigger computers, as supported by the Computer Services Centre. The Comp Sci department had their own Unix servers with terminals, PC workstations, and a smattering of SUN workstations.

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In 1992, as I recall, one of these fancy Sun workstations even had a colour screen :smiley: