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Ionic Column      in exile

by David Parry

Englishman David Parry lived, worked and played in Tokyo from 1980 to 1994 and was a member of TPC from 1986. He was Newsletter Publisher from late 1988 to early 1990 and began the Ionic Column in 1992. This column even won a prize and an honorable mention back in 1992. Currently based in Düsseldorf and working as a translator, he returns to Japan electronically via the Internet.
This month the regular Ionic Column is being replaced by an obituary to Roger Boisvert. Next month I will get back to the usual chatter about bits and the bytes, but this month I pay tribute to a past TPC president, a stalwart of the Tokyo business world, and last but not least, a good friend of many years standing.

Just as we were getting over the huge shock of the events in the USA in September, there came another shock, and closer to home. The TPC list gave the first news about Roger, somewhat tentatively, followed by the confirmation. My first reaction was the same as when I saw the first pictures of the first tower of the WTC in flames; how can that be? But it was true. It was hard to believe that the vibrant and energetic Roger Boisvert that I knew throughout most of my time in Tokyo had gone forever. But he had.

It is always an eerie experience to hear that a contemporary has gone. I knew that Roger and I were around the same age, but I did not know his exact year of birth until I saw his memorial page on the Internet. Then it hit even more, because there is a sense of "there but for the grace of God go I" when you see someone's life demarcated with your own dates, so to speak, and wonder how many more years your own life will run. The memorial page showed Roger in mountaineering gear in the snow, and that is highly appropriate, because I first met him through an interest in mountaineering that we had in common.

Skip back a decade and a half. Human memory is a remarkable thing; seen from a computer point of view; we can instantly flash back over the years and the decades, and the strange thing is that the most distant memories are the strongest and most detailed. The only problem is, sometimes the memories are vivid, but the timing is hazy. Several events can get run together into a seamless whole, or concatenated, as they say in the computer world. But I digress.

The first time we met: I cannot now recall if I had actually met Roger before I got to the station, or whether he was just a voice on the telephone. At any rate, I was keen to do some rock climbing in Japan, having done some already in Wales and Scotland in the three years before I left for Japan. I had been in Japan perhaps four years then, and I had little experience of traveling around. This was a few years before the flurry of books describing hiking trails in Japan had been written, and before I had found some friendly folks to take me around much.

It was a bright and sunny September morning, and I was headed for Hatonosu, just a few stops short of Okutama on the line that dwindles to a single track after Ome. I knew I would arrive an hour late, because I had started out late. This was before I knew from experience how long the train journeys in Japan could be, although I got to know this route very well in the coming years. Would Roger wait for me? Indeed he did. I apologized profusely as we met, and then we were off to the crags.

I got to visit Hatonosu many times after that, and it remains one of my favorite places in Japan. The climbing was spectacular, with a dramatic crag in a deep valley that offered a variety of routes of all levels. I toiled my way up the easiest route, following the ever patient Roger, and wondering why I was so exhausted by the exertion. That evening I learnt that it had been the hottest day of the year, with 39 degrees C in the Kanto.

In the years that followed, I found a number of other people to go climbing with, but I only climbed with Roger on one or two other occasions, most notably the crag outside Hatano that was another very popular training ground. I also saw him once or twice at Yatsugatake, at the winter playground for ice climbers in the middle of the "eight peaks" that are the remnant of an ancient volcanic caldera. The photo of Roger on the memorial page could well have been taken there, although it was probably taken after I left Japan. The area is to the north of Chino at the point where Japan is at its widest, and it is often the coldest place in Honshu in winter. But Roger just said that he found the winters in Japan to be delightful, since they were no colder than a Canadian fall! I assume he was thinking in terms of Tokyo, since the temperatures higher up at Yatsugatake could drop to a very tropical -20 degrees C at night, but nonetheless I was impressed.

Roger told me that he had done some climbing in New York, and that he got the job at McKinsey on the strength of his rock climbing ability, even though he knew next to nothing about computers at that time, because the interviewer reckoned that he had "the right stuff" and could tackle computer problems just as he had conquered the rock faces. And yes, he was a very good climber, although he did not do much more after starting at McKinsey. He was relatively lightly built but very strong, and he had good balance and a cool head. The latter two qualities come in handy in the business world, too.

I think Roger was still teaching at Berlitz when I first knew him, but before long he was at McKinsey as their PC expert and general problem-solver. He was more involved in the business side of things later on, as far as I could tell. I saw him at the various computer club meetings, at the ICA (International Computer Association) dinner meetings and the TPC meetings. He was quite a fixture at the ICA, since he was often the man with the roving microphone when it came to question time after the presentation by the guest speaker. Roger was an excellent chairman or compere for such meetings, and I think he presided over a couple of TPC meetings as well, quite apart from the time that he put in as president of the TPC. I remember him as a very active president in the time that he held that post. If memory serves me right, I was no longer on the executive board by the time that Roger became president, so I don't think we worked together. I do recall that he put in a great deal of time and effort during his stint in the TPC "hot seat" and left a demanding precedent for his successors to follow.

I clearly remember one evening when he came to a TPC meeting, then joined us all at Shakey's afterwards, and finally announced that he was going back to McKinsey's to get some more work done that night - or morning. He always said that he was not a fast worker and he needed time to sort out problems, but he always seemed to come through in the end. His determination and persistence were just incredible. He was the sort of person who always got the job done. I know that he put in some incredibly long hours, and that it caught up with him when he continued working despite some sort of cold and finally ended up in hospital for a week. Roger had certainly adopted the Japanese work ethic, and I wondered if it had affected his family life. That I cannot answer, since I never visited his home or met his wife and children. It would at least have given me a more complete picture of him as a person, even though I knew him well for perhaps a decade, both professionally and personally.

Roger had left McKinsey and set up GOL not long before I left Japan in 1994. Before my departure, I made arrangements with him to continue to have access to the Tokyo BBS through GOL and to ensure that I could transfer text files to and from Japanese clients, but in the event there was no need for either. At that time Roger needed some more telephone lines, and I sold him the two lines that I had. That turned out to be more complicated than I had expected. I had had trouble when one of the lines from transferred to me from a previous owner, who had also been a teacher at the Stanton School of English in Ichigaya, and I had to send off a letter to somewhere in England to get the all- important signature on the form. It turned out that Roger had similar problems with one or both of my lines, and the last time I heard his voice was when he called me from Tokyo about a year after I had arrived in Germany. I also heard his voice, but not literally, for the next few years from online postings on TPC until he ceased contributing.

I followed the news about his work at GOL and elsewhere, and downloaded an interview with him published by a Canadian business magazine in June this year. I was intrigued at the thought of Roger working in the world of venture capital, with an emphasis on high-tech and computer- related companies, but this was evidently something where his experience from McKinsey was so useful. I can only wonder how far he might have gone in this field, since he was always one who relished a challenge. But now we will never know.

I will conclude by saying again how much Roger will be missed, and I add my voice to the chorus of condolences for his family and loved ones.

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Algorithmica Japonica

November, 2001

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor

Tokyo PC Users Group, Post Office Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN