11/25/2014 Ashish Valentine, ECE ILLINOIS

ECE ILLINOIS alums are some of the most interesting people we know. To celebrate them, we’ve decided to ask them questions both serious and fun. Here, you’ll find their Ten Answers.

Tom Starr (BSCompE '75, MS Computer Science '76) is a lead member of technical staff working for AT&T Labs. He is one of the original pioneers of DSL, or digital subscriber line technology, which finally took Internet users off the 56k dial-up modem. He continues to work in telecommunications and meets with a UN committee on international telecommunications standards yearly.

In his spare time, Starr writes science fiction and recently wrote a published novel called Virtual Vengeance, set at the Coordinated Science Laboratory at Illinois. In the story, a professor of computer science discovers that people are secretly being brainwashed by the electronic devices they use on a daily basis. The villain behind the plot murders the professor, only to find that the professor had created a new virtual, vengeful entity which proves to be much harder to kill. 

What’s your favorite book? My favorite book at the moment is Daemon by Daniel Suarez. It’s the first of a two-part series that deals with an ultra-genius businessman who has created an empire in online gaming. The best part of the book for an engineer like me is that Suarez gets his facts right. So much sci-fi is sloppy from a technical standpoint and Daemon is an example of a great sci-fi story where the author really knew his stuff.

If you could be any animal, what would you be? I think I’d be a duck. It sounds weird, but think about it: ducks can walk, they can fly, and they can swim and even dive underwater! They can do it all.

If you could go back in time, where would you go? I’d go to Paris around 1900 – it must have been amazing, because all the great landmarks were being built around this time: the Eiffel Tower, the grand palaces, the really cool bridges and museums and the train stations like the Gare de Lyon. I don’t know how they did it all back then but during the span of about 15 years, the town built most of the great landmarks. Financially, logistically, I imagine them having trouble pulling it all off in such a short timespan, and I think it’d be super neat to see the city bustling with all of these amazing architectural feats at that time.

What is your favorite place to visit in the world? I’ve been pretty much everywhere in the industrialized world. I really enjoyed Switzerland because it’s really like the postcards. The really neat thing is that you go and see the scenery and the lake and the mountains and the meadows to get your postcard view. Then, when you turn around, you see the exact same thing and it looks just as utterly beautiful.

What is your favorite historical figure? Isaac Newton. He did so many pretty amazing things: he basically invented calculus, the basic laws of motion, and pretty much the foundation for all classical mechanics and physics. He had his weaknesses, granted: Newton wasted lots of time on alchemy and got really nowhere on that one, but he did some amazing things. I wouldn’t claim that Newton did it all on his own, but that’s another thing I like about him, his famous quote that his accomplishments were because he was able to stand on the shoulders of the giants that preceded him

What frightens you? I’d have to say the more exotic foreign foods. I’ve got some really plain tastes in food, and generally like to go with what I know. I’m not one of those people who explores much in the way of strange foods. When I’ve visited France, for example, they have some really special delicacies that I’m sure taste great, but I’ve never tried them and probably never will.

What’s your favorite technological advance? I would have to say the Internet. What’s so awesome about it is that in my opinion, it had fundamentally increased human intelligence. It has expanded the minds of almost everyone who uses it, enabling them to access a wealth of knowledge. I’d liken it to the arrival of the printing press in Renaissance Europe, and the subsequent explosion of knowledge that followed. The arrival of the Internet is yet another quantum leap in this exact same vein.

What do you miss most about Illinois? I miss living in a dorm and constantly being within literally a few doors’ distance of my friends. Whether it was lunch or dinner or just to hang out and talk, you knew that if you just walked a few feet and knocked on a door you’d have people who were usually available to spend time with.

You have a spare half-hour. What do you do? I’d most likely read a good book. Sci-fi is definitely one of my favorite genres, but I’m not limited to that. I enjoy a good thriller or adventure, or even historical fiction.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be? I don’t know about which one I’d want, but the most interesting power to think about is the ability to predict the future. If you really can predict the future then it messes up a great deal in the present, and lets’ say in this universe, the future is immutable. Once you know something is coming, it’s still coming for you no matter what you do.