An Interview With Dr. Gräper

Dr. Graper in a self-described "rare casual moment", 1995
(Photo courtesy Dr. Graper)

As part of my ongoing PLATO book research, I began an email correspondence with Dr. Graper in late 1996. I asked him what he's currently doing. Here's his reply from 16 December 1996:

I am Director of the Computer Center at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.  We're a communications research department which focuses on studying mass media and its effects on politics, social norms and behavior, etc. etc. etc.

Our most recent work was some stuff on the '96 election, we were studying radio talk show hosts (e.g. Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, etc.), media depictions of political campaigns, etc.  The Dean of our department, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, was on the political talk shows (Face the Nation, McNeil Lehrer, all the evening news shows) a lot this past fall.

I run the computer infrastructure under these projects plus support the 200-user graduate school.

In July 1997 I interviewed Dr. Graper through email. My questions appear in italics.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background, where you were born, where you grew up, what your parents did for a living, etc.?

I was born on Grand Island, N.Y., a small island between the United States and Canada.  It was just across the river from Niagara Falls, N.Y. and upstream from Niagara Falls itself.  According to our science class teacher it would  eventually float down the river and go over the Falls -- the teacher, perhaps a frustrated artist, put in the extra effort to actually paint his own "artist's conception" of this future with our island poised halfway over the Falls and proudly showed it to our second-grade class, pointing out the street our school was on as a reference point.  I can't remember if he actually included the school building in the painting or not, I seem to remember that he did.

His assurance that this future would happen several million years in the future didn't help much since I was pretty sure I'd still be alive then and still going to that elementary school and like many of my chess-club friends I spent the rest of my time eating in the part of the cafeteria that was furthest from the "doomed" end of our school building.

I moved from New York to Delaware in 1970 so that my father, who was a chemical engineer, could move closer to DuPont's corporate headquarters.  There he began working as a computer programmer and eventually moved up to a job running one of the scads of computer centers in the vast bureaucracy of DuPont.

Dan Tripp tells me you both went to Newark High School, and in fact worked in NHS's TV studio.   Dan seems to think you might have actually been on the air for some shows that the school produced, for airing on one of the cable channels or something.   What can you tell me about your high school days and the TV stuff?

I met Dan Tripp in high school in the mid 70's working at the school's small television station. The school had been the recipient of all of the equipment resulting from an abortive attempt to start a Delaware public television station and we had a wealth of expensive, partially- working electronic toys to play with.  This pretty much set the tone for every job I've had since then.

I began as the weatherman for the intra-building morning television program which was the standard lineup of high school crap -- two people behind a counter reading math club meeting announcements, dreary recitations of the girls' field hockey scores, etc.  The position of weatherman was the lowest of the three "talent" positions available (the other two being "anchor" and "sportscaster") and was by far the most stupid position since talking about the weather outside a building to people inside the building who could look out a window to see it for themselves seemed surreal.

Hence the job was perfect for me.  The alloted time was supposed to be filled with mundane chitchat but instead became a forum for me to make strange free-form musings about high school life, to play with the primitive cartoonish weather map they gave me to work with, etc.  For some reason people found this entertaining, assuredly because of its contrast to the boring nature of the material that preceded and followed me, and I became "popular" in a very narrow, cliquish sense.

Dan Tripp and I worked together on several non-news entertainment-style productions, some of which went out on the local cable channel.  There wasn't as much work produced during that period as I wish there had because of my growing interest in intoxication and sex (which took up a significant amount of my time). 

I ask about the high school TV stuff because it seems that you have been interested in media your whole life.   I mean, tv production in high school, then a communications major, and many of your =grapenotes= stories had to do with TV shows or commercials...  could you comment on what is it that fascinates you about media and communications?

For a very brief period at the end of my graduate education I taught a class in communications in which undergraduates felt compelled to come to my office to tell me ad nauseum why they were fascinated by media and communications.  I'd listen and nod sagely and think about reaching slowly for the sawed-off shotgun I imagined to be wired up under the my desk's tabletop and imagine the pleasure in watching the explosion as that open-bore 12 gauge brought a colorful end to their drab little ivy- league lives but all the while kept track of the last fifteen words they said so that when they would say:

"So, what do you think?"

I'd be able to check that scrolling fifteen word buffer of their last few sentences:

pick out a couple words, link them, and echo back:

"Interesting.  But exactly what inspired you about Citizen Kane and Star Wars?"

and off they'd go again for another ten minutes.  These were people who knew why they were interested in communications while I had no real idea, and the ironic thing was that they were coming to me for "advice." 

In short, I have no idea what interests me in this field.  It has permitted me to read comic books and pornography and call it "research" and to temporarily have an easy job doing virtually nothing and get paid for it.  Thank God my friends at PLATO taught me a thing or two about computers so that I could actually get a job in a related trade (related insofar as I can play DOOM and Duke Nukem and call it "benchmarking" and to permanently have a slightly harder job doing slightly more and getting paid for that).

When did you start writing stories?  

I believe I started in 1966 with a story I entered in a contest held by a local department store, something about Medieval heraldry.  The premise was something along the lines of "What's the story behind this Medieval shield?" and the shield had this herald on it with stripes and a castle and some birds doing something.  My mother insisted that I could win it, having heard me tell stories to my brothers and friends, and typed the story out as I recited it to her. 

The contest drew lots of stories about knights, castles, etc.  I won third place in the contest despite my story's being rather bitter and sarcastic.  I can't even remember the story itself -- I know that the teachers in the class thought it was kind of snotty, which I'm sure it was, but the sponsors of the contest and my fellow students seemed to like it and I got my picture (standing behind the first and second prize winners, both girls, both class "brains") in the local paper.

I also remember that that little bit of publicity also drew some unwanted attention from some of my less literary classmates who used it as a pretext for beating me up.  Perhaps an explanation for the ultraviolence in virtually all of my stories. 

Bill Lynch tells me you also did a series of satirical versions of popular comic strips some time in the late 70s.   He says I probably shouldn't put them on the website because I would probably wind up in jail! Do you remember these comics?   Can you tell me anything about them?

I remember them, at least partially.  Bill was an excellent artist, the best I've ever met, but I remember he gave me this comic strip he'd done for this local underground paper and, while the graphics were great, the story sort of dragged in a couple spots. 

So one night, wanting to avoid whatever schoolwork I was supposed to be doing, I whited-out all of the dialog balloons in Bill's comic strip and filled in my own dialog.  I showed them to him and he seemed to enjoy them, so I branched out for a while and began doing the same to the local newspaper's comics, giving some of them to Bill for his evaluation.

In every case I believed that I was actually improving on the work significantly -- Bill Keane's "Family Circus", for example, practically writes itself when you blank out the dialog balloons.  A nauseating Thanksgiving cartoon suddenly makes a lot more sense once you white-out the final thought-balloon and have Daddy standing over the turkey and thinking "... and I'm thankful nobody's discovered those hitchhikers' bodies in the basement yet."  It actually elevates the original cartoon to what I think is the artist's original subconscious intention.

As I continued doing this I found that, per usual, the dialog began involving violence and explicit sex and the standard panels of Lucy on Schroeder's piano or Hagar the Horrible walking thru a field were no longer appropriate.  My brother, a graphic artist, put together more appropriate panels and I believe that's what Bill saw. 

How did you originally find out about PLATO?   Do you remember your first impressions of seeing and using the system?     Both Dan and Bill weren't sure if you were taking a music class or if you just were using a piano in the music building and just by accident stumbled on the PLATO room there.  

I was using a piano in the music building and saw a small dark room with those old glowing-orange touch screens inside.  I walked in and started playing with the system since no one objected, and then I saw someone writing a note to a notesfile and that was it.  I had discovered a new way to waste time, which is my true raison d'etre (just ask my parents, wife, or boss).

What do you remember of the GUIDO lessons on PLATO at Delaware?   Did you ever actually sit down and do them as a student?   You wrote about GUIDO a couple times in your stories.

They were excellent.  The software was truly masterful I thought (and still believe) because it was a perfect application of technology to a specific educational task.  I'm sure you know about it as much or more than I do: it took a truly dreadful, repetitive learning task (learning music intervals) and automated it.  I never had to take a class requiring it but began playing with it because of the videogame-aspect of it, later because I found I was able to use the skills it taught in actually hearing and writing down chords.  I know it sounds facetious but it was actually strange learning something at that University, and that was its appeal.

Was =guidonotes= the first place you started writing your stories and messages on PLATO?   

To my understanding, yes.
Do you have any anecdotes about Bill Lynch or any of the rest of the Delaware PLATO staff (Jessica Weissman, Jim Trueblood, Keith Slaughter, Jim Wilson (who some of us used to call "J Space" after his "j wilson/p" signon), Dan Williams, Ben Williams, Bonnie Seiler, Monica Berrang, Brand Fortner, etc)?  
None that are very interesting or amusing, I'm sorry to say.  I was very fond of all of them and, despite my being there a very short time, remember the time as a golden time which merged technology, entertainment, and employment for me.  I don't think I was an especially good employee, given my age and attitude then, and I'm sure these guys covered for me a lot.

What's interesting to me is that since your original note to me I think that I've recognized that my professional subconscious has remained pretty much fixed at PLATO.  In a University setting you spend a lot of time doing "Human Resources" bullshit -- you know, "position descriptions", "skill-set allocations", endless evaluations, etc. -- and during the latest round of downsizings I was being forced to plow thru personnel notes of hirings, firings, layoffs, etc. that I've been compelled to do during my career.  It quickly became evident that over the course of about 10 years that every person I've hired was hired because they reminded me of one of the cast of characters from PLATO. 

Looking thru the photo ids I can see that I've hired two (and fired one) Bonnie Seilers; hired one Dan Tripp (still working for me); one Dan Williams (gone to INTEL after 6 months); one Ben Williams (stopped showing up for work one day, presumed dead -- damned entertaining when he was there, though); one Bill Lynch (fired after three months because of weird paramilitary fixation, still stares at me when he sees me on the street); one Jim Trueblood (still working for me); one Keith Slaughter (quit when he had a better job, which is practically any job); and a bunch of other characters who seemed like they had parts of Jim Wilson, Monica, or Brand. 

Why was there an umlaut over the 'a' in Graper, as shown in the =grapenotes= notesfile?  

Around the time I was writing stories on PLATO I discovered during a hunt thru the attic that the original spelling of the family name was "Graeper" when the family first came from Germany in the late 1800's.  I learned that "ae" could be spelled as an a with an umlaut and I tried writing it that way for a while.  Grew tired of it, stopped doing it.

What was it about "whiners" that got to you?   In real life were there people at Delaware who whined and got on your nerves?   Is it true you were a director of the =whine= notesfile?   Did you create that notesfile, or did someone else?

I guess if it has to be traced back it would go to something I seem to remember from "Boys' Life" Magazine, a magazine that all cub scouts and boy scouts were automatically subscribed to in the 1960s, that had a feature called "Winners and Whiners."  True to its Aryan superman model it had a "split" cartoon with a matching left column (representing a "Whiner") and a right column (representing a "Winner", i.e. a clean cut blue-eyed boy scout) showing contrasting ways in which "Whiners" and "Winners" approached problems. 

Picture of mother washing dishes looking out window in background, teenage boy on couch in foreground.  Mom looks out window and sees old man shoveling snow off the walk.  Mom says "Old Mr. Peterson looks like he's having trouble.  Maybe you should go help him."

Whiner panel:  "Aww Mom, I'm too busy."  Whiner boy is slovenly, hair is long and greasy, sitting on couch in pile of newspapers and comic books.  Probably drinking a beer and masturbating too.

Winner panel:  "You're right mom.  I'll go give him a hand!"  Winner boy is inexplicably always sitting around in his boy scout uniform, sitting on clean couch with a neatly folded magazine set on the end table next to him.  Oh look, the neatly-folded magazine is an issue of "Boys' Life."  Young Adolf just can't get enough of that magazine.

My boy scout leader used the word "Whiner" all the time (in the linguistic context of "Don't be a ..." or "Real men aren't ...(s)") and it seemed to make us do the volunteer work or show up for the bake sales that he wanted us for.

There were definitely people at Delaware who whined and got on my nerves; as far as I know they're still a-whinin' today, whiners that they are.  Yes, I believe I was director of the =whine= notesfile, a place at the time for "outing" whiners. 

Somebody else definitely created the notesfile, I was pretty non- technical when it came to that.  It was probably Bill Lynch or Dan Tripp, both "Winners."  Ask anyone.

You got a job as a "udps" student programmer at the UD PLATO project in, was it Spring of 79?    Right around that time your signon changed from "graper/newauth" to "graper/udps", and you started writing your notes under "graper/udperuse".   If you remember, Delaware was famous (infamous) for its "developmental" vs. "nondevelopmental" distinctions.  The pinnacle of this kind of policymaking had to have been the splitting of the old "Yippee!" notesfile into =yippee= and =yippend= (the latter for "nondevelopmental yippees").   I was wondering if you had any recollections, anecdotes, etc. about the silly policies and practices of the Delaware PLATO people...  and can you tell me what you did in your "udps" job (was it to process "uddata")?

Since everything I did seemed to be "personal use" I don't think I can tell you too much about the personal use policy.  I know the other folks complained about it but I was such an extraneous thing at that project, sort of like a jester in a royal court or the freak show at a respectable carnival, that I can't really comment on it.

As for what I ostensibly did:  I think I was Bonnie Seiler's assistant, a gopher, a lab assistant, and on-and-off maintenance programmer

One of the famous characters who hung around the Delaware PLATO system was Carl Moore ("cmoore").   You used to tease him in various notesfiles after he would write these insanely stupid or inane or nerdy messages.    I recently tracked down Carl Moore and corresponded with him by email.   He remembered the one story that you did that featured a he-man Carl Moore who gets all the women. . . I was wondering if you might comment on cmoore.   Do you have any recollections, anecdotes, stories, etc. that you recall?

Carl's notes could be read either as bland, lengthy non-sequiters or as weird Zen Koan riddles.

I thought Carl was kind of nuts but, having lived in a city for about 15 years, I recognize that he was only eccentric.  Or, rather, dedicated to his craft, so to speak -- I think he spent all his time transcribing musical arrangements to play over the GUIDO box Bill Lynch had set up over in the music lab.

Since graduating from Delaware, have you continued writing at all?

Nothing that you (or I) would ever care to read.  Besides a so-so thesis ("Kung Fu Movies:  A Narrative of Social Class") and a beyond-boring dissertation ("Computer depiction in class-targeted mass media") I've written nothing but documentation.  Really really dull documentation.

I asked this to Dan Tripp and he roared laughing: "Who is Mark Penner?" Tripp thinks you just made it up out of thin air.  Or that maybe there was someone at Newark High School named Mark Penner.  What's the real story with Mark Penner?

I think Dan was correct, it was made up.  I think.

Can you tell me about the Computer Center you're the director of? What kind of stuff does the Center do?

I'm Director of one of about 10 computer centers at the University of Pennsylvania.  We study various media in various ways and issue reports on it -- if you remember the big flap over the "Violence Profiles" of the 1970's (where Bugs Bunny was given some sort of ultraviolent rating while Sesame Street was "safe") or recent studies on the health care debate, talk radio, children's television, etc. etc. where they cite a study from a "major university" then you can generally depend on that coming from us.
I've asked a lot of former PLATO users for opinions and comments about the Internet and the World Wide Web.  How does using the Net compare to the PLATO experience?   Was there anything about PLATO that you think was better?  different?  worse?  
I like the Web, it has the same free-wheeling feel that PLATO had, but it also has more of a "Times Square, NYC" feel to it too.  While I remember we had some low-level red-light districts in notesfiles, there's nothing compared to the immense porno district on the Web. 

Generally I like it.  It doesn't have the sense of intimacy that notesfiles did (the circle of contributors was much smaller) but by and large it seems to have built on the notesfile model quite well. 

Copyright © 1998 Brian L. Dear. All rights reserved.