Old Fashioned Reading and New Fangled Computers The Chemist/Painter and the Software Engineer
by Cynthia Overbeck Bix, Ashby Village Volunteer
It all started with a pile of magazines. One Tuesday a couple of years ago, Ashby Village volunteer Daniel Sabsay decide to attend a luncheon given at the North Berkeley home of member Dr. Danute Nitecki. Known by all as Dee, she had recently begun hosting lunches for Ashby Village members. Up to ten people gathered around her long dining table for conversation over a delicious home cooked meal.
After lunch, Daniel wandered into the living room and spied a stack of Science News Journal magazines. “I was particularly attracted to the magazines,” says Daniel, a software engineer and lover of all things scientific. “I don’t subscribe to anything anymore, but I just try to catch up.” He commented on the magazines to Dee.
Dee, a research chemist whose distinguished career spanned decades, revealed that, sadly, she was no longer able to read her favorite journal. Since 2000, her vision has been increasingly limited by macular degeneration. “Now I cannot read books,” she says in her soft Lithuanian accent. “I have to use very large magnification, which means a very small magnifier. I have to magnify word by word to read a sentence.”
Right away, recalls Daniel, “I said I was interested, and she said maybe I could read to her sometime.” And thus began a mutually satisfying relationship. He continues, “We would read the headlines and negotiate on what articles to read. I would read one article, then we’d decide on one or two more. Sometimes that was after the lunch, and sometimes I’d come over independently of the lunch.” Coming over wasn’t a simple matter. Oakland resident Daniel doesn’t have a car, so it took him about an hour each way, using several forms of public transportation. But he and Dee enjoyed their get-togethers so much that it was well worth it.
The two are a study in contrasts, yet they have much in common. Both are strong minded individuals, both have scientific backgrounds, and both are eternally curious about learning. Daniel, originally from Los Angeles, has a degree from UCLA in math and physics. He’s had a long career as a computer programmer, consultant, and information systems and project manager. In addition he has been instrumental in setting up and maintaining the website for Ashby Village.
Daniel is also president of the East Bay Skeptics Society, an organization that, among other causes, advocates that psychics be regulated the same way as drug manufacturers. Dee shares his views. She says, “I don’t belong to the organization, but I’m a skeptic. I sympathize and agree with it.”
Dee, a native of Lithuania, fled the second Soviet occupation at the end of World War II. She and her family spent the next six years as Displaced Persons in Austria and Germany. Dee graduated from art school in Freiburg im Breigau, Germany. She recalls, “I studied Northern European folk art—basically textiles like embroidery and weaving, as well as folk art painting, ceramics, that kind of thing.”
In 1950 the family emigrated to the United States, where she attended the University of Chicago and received her Ph.D. in chemistry in 1961. “My basic background is in chemistry,” Dee tells me. “I worked at UCSF Medical Center for 20 years and did a lot of research in basic immunology—trying to understand how the immune system works. We did some very interesting research.
Then I worked in biotechnology when it started—on GMO research, for one part. The other part was pharmaceutical and such like, researching micro-organisms so that we could produce human growth hormone quickly and cleanly without having to isolate it in people’s brains, which was the only way to get it until that time. I also worked in MRI imaging. So I have over a hundred papers on these topics. I was in research all my life.”
She also holds more than forty patents related to biochemistry and biotechnology. Daniel adds, “Dee has forty patents and I have only one. My patent was on card key door locks that you use in hotels. It wasn’t huge in terms of money, but I’m proud of it.”
So—invention, skepticism, and science in general are meeting grounds for this pair. As is reading together. “I was happy with reading the science magazines,” recalls Daniel, “but then along came an assignment from Dee’s Chicago book club to read this 650-page tome.” “I’m in two book clubs in Chicago,” Dee explains. “I have belonged to both of them over 30 years.”
The book was The Physician, a novel by Noah Gordon. It’s a colorful historical novel that centers on 11th century practice of medicine. Daniel admits, “I would never have picked a book that long. I only read science and science fiction.” But Dee told him, “I have this as a priority, to read this book.” And Dee is a person who, once decided on a course of action, seldom wavers. So Daniel would take the bus over around 2:00 in the afternoon, and read between 50 and 80 pages aloud. He’d read until dinnertime.
“To tell you the truth,” he admits, “I loved that book—it was fascinating. And Dee has treated me to lots of nice dinners, too!”
While all this was going on, Dee and Daniel embarked on a separate project that Daniel was particularly well qualified to direct. He explains, “She had this old PC that wasn’t really functioning. So I said, ‘Look, what about getting rid of this and getting a new Macintosh?’ She said, ‘Oh, I used to use a Mac, I like that.’ So I spec’d out a system that would work for her, and we got a new Mac going.” There was a training period that went on for quite a while.
With two such strong personalities, it wasn’t always a smooth road. Daniel says, “We’ve probably had one or two arguments on just about every topic! The arguments I recall were around whether or not she should be patient, and learn one or two things about what’s on the way toward getting to her computer goals—like sending email.”
Dee smiles. “I certainly was not in principle against sending email, but it was our two approaches. He’s essentially a button man and I'm essentially an arrow. He wants to teach every step, but I want to go right to the task. We had some fierce arguments.” “Moments!” Daniel amends with a chuckle. “But,” he says, “We got the email going.”
Much of what Daniel did was to adapt the computer so Dee could use it with her failing vision. Daniel was uniquely qualified to help Dee – for several years he worked for the Disabled Students Program at the University of California, Berkeley, providing assistive technology support. “We did the setup for just about everything—voice recognition, audio playback. I can also dial in and take control of the machine and help her solve problems.” He adds, “There is such great satisfaction in seeing the empowerment that comes with knowing how to operate the computer.” There is one very important pursuit of Dee’s that—although he doesn’t participate—Daniel supports and admires. That is Dee’s painting.