Monday, December 22, 2008

Reflections of a Student

I came across this site today after I had seen the CCSU Brian O'Connell Fund page on facebook. I had no idea Prof. O'Connell had passed away or had even been sick and I am sad to hear of his passing. I wanted to pass along the message that Prof. O'Connell was a great teacher and a great person.

I took Philosophy of Law with him as a student at CCSU about 10 years ago and it still stands out as my favorite course. His teaching style, demeanor, and enthusiasm made the class exciting, interesting, and fun. Now to make jurisprudence fun is no small feat, but that was Prof. O'Connell. I still have some of the papers I wrote in class along with his insightful notes.

I remember the stories he'd tell us about his previous life as an attorney and all of us thinking and asking amongst ourselves why he would give that all up to teach, and I believe it was because he was a born educator and he knew that he could make a difference in more young people's lives by teaching rather than being stuck in a courtroom. I'm sure he was a great attorney, but I know he was an excellent teacher.

With his assistance, a few other students and myself went onto re-establish the Pre-Law Society at CCSU. He was always ready, willing, and able to help us with anything or meet with us last minute. After I graduated CCSU I stayed in touch with him, I asked his advice on law school, careers, among other things and he was always there. As time went by I lost contact with him, but I know years later if I had a question or needed advice he would answer the phone or reply to an email. He went above and beyond his role as simply an educator, he was an advisor and a friend to his students and there are very few teachers I can say that about.

I feel sorry for all current and future students that they will never be able to learn from him, and I wish that they are lucky enough to have a teacher like him. I'm sure I am just one of hundreds of students that have the same story and can offer the same praise, but I wanted you to know that I am one more life that he affected and one more student he inspired. Godspeed Prof. O'Connell and thank you.


Chris D'Orso
CCSU Class of 2000

Friday, September 12, 2008

Chapter Three - Brian: From a Galaxy Far, Far Away

At one time long ago in a galaxy far, far away there was a crew, traveling on an endless voyage of discovery aboard the starship, “Gengras.” Guiding that ship on its journey into the void of interstellar space were several adults with a crew composed of children.

When I first met Brian he was a “rugrat” crewmember who inhabited the planetarium at the Children’s Museum in West Hartford. I think he lived there behind the dome with the special effects projectors. (At least that how it seems.) Brian was one of about half a dozen other teenagers who were as integral to the planetarium as the Spitz star projector, which was the backbone of the facility. The projector was fondly called Stella.

There was Brian and Ken, Andy, Lenny and John, and two Steves, all were avid astronomy, science and science fiction fans. All of them were members of Starship Gengras which was their “pet” name for the planetarium. They were all part of the Planetarium Club which formed a basic structure for their activities.

When I became a crewmember of the starship, at the invitation of planetarium director Jeff Bouchard the starship was an entity in itself. Originally I had been asked by the museum director, Harry Ryder to run “the Little School.” Harry said, “I want you to just be there and just make your crazy inventions and bring the kids in to build imaginative things.” But before that came to be, Harry ran into some trouble with his board of directors and he headed out to Martha’s Vineyard where, as Harry put it, “Folks were still civilized.”

So I kept my “full time” work at Wesleyan. Instead my part time “job” was to arrive at the planetarium once a week to repair stars, fix the orbits of the planets, adjust electronics and to create new comets, cosmic explosions and, in general to keep the universe in good running order. What I didn’t expect when I signed on was that my crew was composed of “star” explorers ranging in age from 12 to 14 and all knowing they knew more than I did about the place.

I have to admit though that even at the beginning I was charmed by the kids who deluged me with technical questions. Referring to the Spitz Star Projector, or Stella, and associated equipment and special effects gear, they wanted to know how everything worked, or how they could modify it to make it work better. (Sometimes with disastrous results as they experimented, knowing little of the equipment.)

There was little, actually nothing that I could teach them about astronomy, but the mechanics of the star projector and special effects projectors was something else. Brian had more questions than the others: “What’s the theory behind “Stella?” “How does she work?” “How do you make a comet move across the dome?”

As I recall Brian seemed to be the leader, of sorts. Gang leader might be too coarse a word; maybe crew leader would be better. And though Brian seemed to be the leader, each of the group members was an independent entity in himself.

As previously stated the kids knew more about astronomy and science than I’ll ever know. But, I did have an advantage in knowing practical electronics, like how to reconfigure the star lamps and make them work when they wouldn’t fire. I certainly had their respect and interest for that.

As a group, what seemed to hold them together were their intense curiosity and limitless imaginations and their need to know virtually everything about everything. The boys were constantly carrying on conversations about star ship propulsion systems, technology of the future and robotics. Brian, even then, was the expert of the group on artificial intelligence.

Our Wednesday evening gatherings would begin by trying to diagnose the most recent technical problem with the installation. At first it was star bulbs which had become, over time, unstable, sometimes refusing to start at the beginning of a show. Riley, who worked as janitor for the museum did his best to “fix” things but those were only temporary fixes.

When we worked on the star bulb problem the conversation was constantly moving from warp drives to the question of when robots would become household creatures. “It won’t be long before they’re living with us,” said Brian, “Everybody will have a pet robot. You’ll see.” Every technical subject, and some not so technical, remember they were teenagers, were grist for the mill.

Just imagine trying to adjust the complex mechanism of an orrery planet projector with six pairs of eager hands “helping” you. As you can see the word “helping” is in quotes.

To the kids Stella was a “real” personality, who had moods and peculiarities. In other words the star machine was a “living” robot of sorts. Operating the console and giving star shows, whether real or “canned,” was a chief accomplishment and source of pride to all. Joel Gordes tells of how Brian loved to run Stella’s controls during star shows, in the dark, with his bare feet. Of course the audience was totally unaware of such a unique performance.

One day Brian suggested that we construct a model of what we thought Starship Gengras should look like, if it was an interstellar spaceship. There were several major problems, space itself, inner space which was at a premium. Secondly most of us were together for limited times during the week and the whole group hardly ever met as one. So most of the work would have to be done on maintenance night when I was there.

We began designing Starship Gengras on paper and some preliminary models were started but nothing finished. So when I suggested that I might begin construction on a model in my home workshop the boys accepted the offer.

Then, each Wednesday when I arrived at the planetarium they asked how “the ship” was coming. “Very slowly,” was my reply. And, indeed, the ship came together over years, actually, piece by piece, design change by design change. It shifted from rocket engines to ion propulsion to positronic ram jets and then to Bussard drive. .

Each of the planetarium club members held a position in the ship’s log, Brian being the commander of course.

Questions! Questions! And more questions? Will robots of the future have free will? Will they have personalities? When will they begin to appear? How soon? In what form? How long before we actually develop star travel? How can we do it? What kind of engines will we need? What kind of fuel will they use? How? Why? When? What will life be like if we find it out there? How will we react? How will they react to us?

Often our impromptu seminars took us, on coffee break from maintenance, to Pizza West, which undoubtably had the greasiest pizza in the universe. But, the place was close and it was run by “crazy” Nick, who was a pirate-like character, sort of a Zorba the Greek which made him fit in nicely with our “Star Wars” crew. There the conversation continued unabated on the whole range of subjects, carried over from the planetarium dome.

As time went by the director Jeff was replaced by another director. Jamie came on board about then. Soon Joel Gordes, whose imagination paralled that of the kids became director. Joel was full of ideas and eager to try them out. Joel, unlike the kids was more interested in life on Earth than beings from other planets and he was eager to find new ways of making life more hospital for Earthlings. “I want the museum to be more than just a babysitting service for parents,” he said, of the kids who were dropped off for shows.

Joel, with the help of the planetarium club designed and built a solar collector for the roof of the planetarium. When finished and installed the “crazy” device worked much better than expected and when the “new” museum director Barney, tried it out by turning on the tap and running his hand under it, he was unpleasantly surprised by being burned. The kids all thought it was hilarious that he used his hand to check an unknown temperature – very unscientific.

So Joel and the boys went back to the drawing boards and redesigned the collector to be the right size for the liquid they wanted to heat up under a given amount of sunlight. According to Joel the redesigned model worked just fine.

The list of stories that came out of the museum and the planetarium and nature center is endless. Each time I came up I was met with a new tale of how Stella’s spheres were damaged by an overzealous nature director when the planetarium director was away on seminar; or how the beautiful aquarium was demolished to make way for a temporary computer games exhibit. And then there is the little known tale of how the “crew” would enter the planetarium, through the dome roof, after hours, to run their own planetary shows and to design new ones.

Then one by one, as they grew up, the kids faded away, into worlds that were waiting for them. Eventually Steve Ambrosini and I were the only ones left, then only Steve, for a while, after I left, until Lenny took over.

Brian’s vision of the starship, “Starship Gengras” was eventually complete and was installed in the Science Library at Wesleyan University, where it has resided, in full view, for the past 15 years.

I didn’t hear again from Brian or any of the others, besides Joel, and Steve Ambrosini until one day, as I was retiring from 35 years of service, running the University AV center and teaching computer graphics. Out of the blue there was the voice of Brian on the telephone. “We hear you’re retiring from Wesleyan. Why don’t you come to work with us?”

Since all of you know Brian, you can understand how I could not refuse his invitation. And it’s been an interesting seven years, being friends with Brian and Sarah and other members of their extended family, especially those exciting evenings at their home for Superbowl games.

I began this journal with Chapter Three since that’s approximately the time frame when I met him. I don’t know the first two chapters in his life and there are many chapters after chapter three that I missed as well. Hopefully his friends and his wife Sarah can fill in some of those missing pages.

If you are interested in adding your reminiscences of our friend to the “Book of Brian” (a project that I’m working on with Brian’s wife Sarah) please send them on to Sarah .

Rob White dit LeBlanc – Computer Science at CCSU or Tel: 860-685-1435

Monday, September 8, 2008

Press Release

Central Connecticut State University Announces Fund in Honor of Brian M. O’Connell

Central Connecticut State University announced the establishment of a fund in honor of Brian M. O’Connell, a professor in CCSU’s computer science and philosophy departments who died in May 2008. Events planned for September 24, 2008, will help to generate support for the fund.

The Brian M. O’Connell Fund will support an annual lecture series to be given by the “Brian M. O’Connell Fellow,” a recognized scholar-practitioner in computer science, engineering, technology, philosophy, law, music, and other fields of study. The fund would also support the “Brian M. O’Connell Scholarship,” which would be awarded to an undergraduate student who best exemplifies the intellectual passion, curiosity, and accomplishment of O’Connell.

After a successful career as an attorney, O’Connell joined CCSU and expanded his expertise to computer science and philosophy, fields in which his scholarship was acclaimed. He won the Franklyn S. Haiman Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Freedom of Expression from the National Communication Association. O'Connell was a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Among other offices he held within this organization, he served as Vice President, President and Past-President of the Society on the Social Implications of Technology; on the Board of Governors’ of the Computer Society; as Secretary/Treasurer of the Sensors Council; and as Chair of the Connecticut Section.

O’Connell’s incisive mind and natural exuberance inspired his many students. Whether he was teaching about robotics, ethics, or morality and literature, he and his students engaged in the mutual enterprise of education, learning from each other and pushing each other to new understandings, and towards new questions to ask. He strongly believed that students at Central were capable of great things and he dedicated himself toward providing opportunities for them to excel.

The University is working with family and friends of O’Connell to generate support for the fund, and, to that end, will hold several events. The first will take place on Wednesday, September 24, 2008. An afternoon event will feature presentations memorializing O’Connell’s life and scholarly activities. An evening reception will bring together family, friends, and colleagues from the areas that marked O’Connell’s professional life: CCSU, the University of Connecticut Law School, the Connecticut Bar Association, and the IEEE, among others.

Details of these events will be available on the University’s website. To learn more about the afternoon event, please contact Professor David Blitz: 860-832- 2916 or

For more information about the Brian M. O’Connell Fund and evening reception, please contact Laura V. Marchese: 860-832-2554 , email: or log onto:

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

More Pictures

Pictures from Joe Herkert

Segway from ISTAS 2004, Worchester, MASegway from ISTAS 2004, Worchester, MA.


University of Texas University of Texas, SSIT Board of Governor's Meeting, April 2004

Monday, June 16, 2008

Various Images

These are images from various SSIT events provided by Clint Andrews.

Some Remembrances of Brian O’Connell

I knew Brian through a professional society to which we both belonged, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE. Typically, although we both rose to leadership positions, neither of us was an electrical engineer. I want to share just a few recollections of Brian in that context.

A dozen years ago, I ran our annual conference on technology and society, which was at Princeton University in New Jersey that year. Brian was thinking about leaving lawyering for academia, and he somehow found out about the conference and showed up. It was the first time I met him. One of the conference sessions was missing a moderator, and two old geezers on the panel got into a fistfight over who invented the modem (remember modems?). This level of anarchy so impressed Brian that he told me "I’m joining this group, and heading to academia!" He went on to become president of that society, and with his sense of the absurd, he clearly fit right in.

Five years ago, we were at a successor conference in Amsterdam, with a distinguished Superior Court judge in tow. We were determined to get the judge drunk and let him loose on the streets of Amsterdam. We bought him drinks—very expensive ones, it turned out, because he liked the name brand liquors. I soon realized that the judge was drinking me under the table. It was at that moment that I also realized that Brian was drinking seltzer water, and that he didn’t indulge at all in alcohol during the years I knew him. He set some very clear guidelines for himself.

Several years ago, we were at a big board meeting in some U.S. city, maybe San Francisco, or Kansas City, or Minneapolis, or Phoenix—those hotel meeting rooms were all interchangeable. Maybe Sarah remembers. The room was full of 100 bored big shots suffering through the tedium of parliamentary procedure with their laptops open, reading CDs full of documents because WiFi wasn't yet ubiquitous. Although we were sitting on opposite sides of a big room, Brian and I discovered that we had the only Macs in a room of full of Wintel PCs. We further discovered that we were both Bluetooth-enabled (that was cool back then) and could communicate using an instant messaging program (also somewhat novel back then). Brian typed in a description of his recent mission as a mediator between a journal editor and a society president in Bosnia or Serbia, where one was suing another over editorial policy, of all things. Brian had to mediate without having a common language with either party, in a country that was still a war zone. This vision made me snort with laughter, which in turn got Brian laughing, and made the other meeting participants wonder what had gotten into us. They subsequently banned our cool communication technology from all future IEEE board meetings. Brian was irreverent, but always a peacemaker.
Finally, a few years ago, Brian learned of my fondness for Celtic music, and we often talked about it, because of course he was an accomplished musician in exactly that genre. One day a pair of CDs appeared in the mail, ripped from his collection and labeled "Clint’s Scottish" and "Clint’s Irish." I think of them today as "Brian’s Scottish" and "Brian’s Irish" music because shared them so thoughtfully. You and I miss him terribly, of course, but Brian lived a fun-loving, generous, purposeful, engaged, full, and lively life in the years he had.

--Clint Andrews
I first met Brian in the fall of 2003, during my freshmen year at CCSU, in my “Writing and Research” class. Brian spoke enthusiastically and eloquently about the endless and exciting possibilities we, the students, were going to face in life. His tone was so positive and his manner so incredibly convincing that even I found myself believing that a substantial portion of his message was indeed true.

As anyone knowing Brian would reasonably expect, the course was of superior quality and the students walked out of it as individuals better equipped to ask important questions, as better writers, and as better thinkers. After the course had been over, it looked to me that Brian was simply going to stay in my memory as an excellent teacher, someone who, in a relatively short time, left a permanent impression on me by teaching me new skills and by positively influencing my outlook on life.

One rainy evening in 2005, Brian and I bumped into each other in front of a library and we quickly engaged in a delightful conversation, at the end of which we were determined to stay in touch and collaborate academically. And we did. After that seemingly incidental meeting, we enjoyed plenty of fascinating discourse, discussing a wide variety of subjects: medical ethics, lives of famous mathematicians, languages, history, chemistry, travel and sports, just to name a few.

When my days were gloomy, Brian used his enthusiasm and wit to make them brighter and he always succeeded in doing so. In one of our conversations, Brian said, “There are ways to get past a bad result, as long as energy can be kept up.” Brian continued to fill his students, myself included, with this energy even as his own energy levels became depleted when reality had to interject the human dimension of cancer and its negative possibilities. Brian never ceased to impart strength, encouragement, and faith in his students. His legacy will continue through our own hard work and commitment to learning, and most importantly, keeping that critical component, the energy, as high as possible so that we can continue to make Brian, our beloved teacher, mentor, and friend, proud.

-- Anna Gawkowska
You are and will be missed, Scoop.

-- LT (aka Sarah Pfatteicher)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Friday, June 13, 2008

I had the privilege of co-teaching HON 140 with Brian on three occasions. He was a perfect partner for this enterprise. His broad range of interests and expertise inspired our students to view all of knowledge as their domain, to become like Brian, "Renaissance" women and men. Brian chose texts that were provocative and provided a springboard to discussion and debate—from Playing Darts with a Rembrandt by Joseph Saks to the Little Book of Plagiarism by Richard Posner. During this past year as he waged his battle with cancer, he kept up his spirits. On the days he was able to come to class his enthusiasm for teaching and for his students was still evident. We have lost a great teacher and a dear friend.

Tim Craine
Brian was a neighbor who came always forward to help – I was never able to thank him enough for the countless favors over the years. Brian was a colleague, whose professional opinion I sought on so many occasions – he can never be replaced, and his loss will leave a huge gap for all of us, who had the privilege to work with him. Brian was a friend, whose friendly advice I have benefited from so many times. Brian was special -- I will miss his enormously.

Dear Sarah, please accept my deepest sympathy and sincerest condolences.

Neli Zlatareva, CS Dept.

West Hartford Man

Although he was raised in a supremely genteel and civilized household (and city), Brian O'Connell was a wild man in my eyes. The shock of untamed blond hair flowing behind him, the tie (if there was one) dangling like an errant jungle vine, the eager hunt for the next exciting new thing--all these were his distinctive characteristics. Yet in other ways Brian epitomized what was best about civilization, for he had an interest in every important aspect of human endeavor: music, technology, ethics, the law, history, politics, the Red Sox, video games, feline appreciation.

We will miss you, wild man, as you move beyond us to swing through the cosmos.

--Wendy Peek