In memoriam: Tora K. Bikson (Part 2)

By | February 8, 2013

tkI’d like to begin part two of this memorial to Tora with deep appreciation to those of you who commented on part one, sharing some of your own remembrances (I’ve adjusted the settings so that comments now show by default). I’m sure we’ll have a lot more to share at the RAND memorial on Friday, February 22. While you’re here, I hope you have a chance to stick around and read some of the other pieces that I posted here, and perhaps come back again.

I was at my acupuncturist’s a day or so ago, and mentioned Tora’s passing as a source of some strain. Sympathetically, she said “Remember the good times.” A kind observation – but it prompted me to think that with Tora, there never were any bad times. Extraordinarily, over the course of the more than 32 years that we worked and lived through, I cannot recall a single occasion on which we had any significant argument or disagreement. Occasionally, we would have different opinions about some issue in a project or such, but these were always resolved quickly and effectively by simply talking them through. I certainly don’t have any other friends or family about whom I can say that we’ve never argued; I’m usually pretty quick to defend my positions, and verbally dexterous enough to argue rings around almost everyone. But with Tora, I never needed to. Either she was so right that I immediately accepted her point of view, or calm enough that it would simply absurd to raise the emotional temperature to boiling. In short, she was always able to bring out very best in me – and, in my observation, in everyone else with whom she interacted.

Thinking about this, and thinking about Don’s comment regarding the RAND project on which they worked together (I do remember your screenplay, Don!), I realized one other thing. Tora never did a piece of less than top-quality research, and never allowed those working with her to perform at less than top-quality. This can’t be said about most researchers, myself included; there have been a number of my projects that I’m just as happy to see relegated to the bottom drawer. It’s not that we set out to do mediocre research; but circumstances conspire to allow us to get away with things under pressure that in our research heart of hearts we know we shouldn’t do. But Tora was always able to keep her eyes on the prize, plan ahead or adapt on the spot, and ensure that what we did was done well and addressed the issues clearly. The one time that she and I were not able to deliver exactly what we promised was the fascinating project for which we had an NSF grant on user-modifiable interfaces to email systems. That was the occasion on which our great technical research assistant, who had put together all of the programming including the automatic data collection procedures that logged our results into the records at Sun Microsystems (our client) had left RAND for a job at Sun. This would’ve been fine, except that he was most unfortunately killed in an auto accident shortly after arriving in Mountain View. We soon discovered that he had left no record of where in all the Sun systems our results were being logged; thus, we had next to no research data to analyze. Nothing will bring a research project to a screaming halt sooner than no data. Thanks to Tora, we were able to rebound and find enough knowledge in what we had already assembled that we were able to write a responsive report, but the opportunity was lost to do a truly cutting-edge project at the time. The moral of the story is, I suppose, make sure you know where you’re putting your data. Needless to say, I was a shrieking wreck, but Tora’s equanimity soon restored my soul.

I can’t resist one more short anecdote of remembrance. In 1992, Tora and I attended the European Conference on CSCW in Milan. We agreed to arrive a couple of days earlier for a bit of vacation. We met at the train station, and decided to run up to Lago Maggiore for the weekend. It was a delightful occasion, despite having to explain to a somewhat surprised hotel operator why we needed a room with two beds instead of one. The most amusing part was walking into stores – she being blonde and I at the time having fairly light brown hair, all the shopkeepers immediately spoke to her in German. She would promptly respond in French (her fluency always amazed me), and I just stood there looking cute, my German and French being confined to so few effective phrases as to label me terminally American. In that part of Italy, of course, German, French, and Italian are spoken almost interchangeably; blonds, obviously, would be German. This happened so often that we giggled all the way back to Milan. In all our assorted social and professional travels together, I believe this was the only time I was ever mistaken for a German. It should happen to everyone at least once.

By way of conclusion, I’d like to suggest to all her colleagues that that we consider putting together a festschrift in her honor. In case you’re not familiar with this concept, it’s a memorial collection of new research papers written by people who had worked with the honoree and addressing issues on which they had worked together. These are not common, but it’s my opinion that her standing in the research community (or, more properly, communities, since she worked in so many different areas) warrants thinking about this possibility. This could be published either as a RAND report or, equally fittingly, online in what’s called a “webfestschrift”. This doesn’t have to be done immediately, but if you are possibly interested in participating in such an effort, let me know. I’d be more than happy to serve as editor of this effort if we can get enough people interested in contributing. The research reported doesn’t have to be major, but it certainly should be complete and of high quality, reflecting the honoree. At any rate, I’m putting this suggestion out there to see if there is enough interest. Think about it.

Thanks for following my small attempt to honor one of the most truly fabulous people I’ve ever known. She will be with us always.

  • John L. King

    It is now March 5, and I just got the news from this web page of Tora’s death. A month late, I suppose. I was just thinking about her the other day. Tora was timeless, and she lives on in so many ways. Still, it is a huge loss. For me it is yet another in a difficult string over the past decade: Rob Kling in 2003, Leigh Star in 2010, and within a few days of each other this year, Michael D. Cohen and Tora.

    I first met Tora when I was at UC Irvine, part of the Urban Information Systems Research Group (URBIS) there. We all were very interested in the work Tora was doing, and Rob Kling in particular kept telling me I needed to read Tora’s papers. I was a doctoral student then, and although Rob was not on my committee, he was a mentor for me. So I read Tora’s papers. I’m very glad I did. What an interesting and sensible view of the world she had! And so smart — smart, smart, smart! When I finally had a chance to meet Tora, I realized that the person who wrote those smart papers and the person I was talking to really were the same person. I had the feeling that everything Tora looked at she kind of “looked through,” including me. I admired her even more after that.

    I will not belabor the wonderful points of this fine and brilliant person — it has already been said so eloquently here by JD and everyone else.

    John L. King

  • Jolene Galegher


    As you may know, I’ve been out of the tech research field for a while and stopped working at RAND in 2007. But, I happened to go the RAND web site to look something up this afternoon and saw the notice re Tora’s death. I googled to see if I could find out a bit more about what happened and so found your blog.

    Was very sorry to hear this news. I wasn’t as close to her as you were, but Tora was a good friend to me during the time I worked at RAND and a good colleague both before then and during that time.

    My sympathies to you and her other friends. Good luck with the festschrift. Let me know if you need an editor!

    Jolene Galegher

  • Cathy Stasz

    I love the festschrift idea JD. Count me in!