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Sir David MacKay

Sir David MacKay, 1967 - 2016

Dave MacKay, a club stalwart, polymath and friend, died on Thursday 14th April 2016, age 48, following a diagnosis of stomach cancer.
While his important work on energy policy took him away from regular ultimate in Cambridge over the past few years, his contribution to the club and sport since he joined in 1992 has been huge. He served as our senior treasurer for more than a decade; maintained our original web presence; championed ultimate in schools; and authored a Bayesian team-ranking program to help discussions on Britdisc, to name but a few.
Most important was his commitment to the spirit of the game - he turned up, taught generously and demonstrated how you could play hard and have fun.
Ultimate was but one facet of Dave, among many more prestigious and celebrated. He was a worthy ambassador of our sport and a dear friend to our club. He will be missed.

This picture of him throwing a disc was recently posted on his personal blog - http://itila.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/perhaps-my-last-post-well-see.html

For those of you who don't know Dave or his work, you'll find much of interest starting here and here:
and with ultimate-specific stuff here:


The club has dedicated a permanent college league trophy to Dave, the Dave MacKay Memorial Shield, which is awarded to the winner of Summer Cuppers.


Link to Symposium in honour of his work:



James Strachan:

Very sad things. I read his personal blog occasionally since I first learned he was ill because it was such a typically MacKay way to deal with such badness. It gave me comfort that in the face of unpredictable horrors that threaten to change everything, all the important stuff remains true. I particularly enjoyed his "final post" having appendices, one of which was a letter of protest to the hospital management in his classic style. What a badass.


Nick Wong:

Very sad times indeed, he is perhaps the most amazing person I have ever met and his death is a huge loss.


Miles Hember:

David really was an outstanding contributor - to everything he was involved in. His impact was enormous and achieved entirely through great thinking and hard work, not political cunning.  I've met many great people playing Ultimate, it's a wonderful community, but he stands out professionally as the real deal. He also LOVED Ultimate and the spirit of the game.

I played with him for many years from 1997 onwards and he was the one person, more than any other I remember from that time, who kept the SB spirit going year after year, on the pitch and off (Another was Dora Kemp, who was "Team Mom" for a long time and lost her own fight against leukaemia last year). I knew him well enough earlier to visit him in Girton sometimes and do DIY at his house, but we lost touch once he went to London.

The inference.cam SB website is one visible testament to work he put in, and I hope we will be able to host it somewhere if it has to move.  Other than that, and writing some of our own testimonials, I think we can best remember him by keeping to the Spirit of the Game and spreading the word to as many new young players as possible - very much what you are doing. He wanted to get Ultimate into schools, and maybe that will turn out to be another legacy.


Matt Shannon:

I was so sad to hear the news about David. I somehow hoped he'd miraculously pull through even though it was very unlikely. Just the other day I was passing on the advice he gave me for throwing in the wind when I first started to a new generation of frisbeers (mainly, it's surprisingly effective to just throw flat!)

He's been such a steady indirect influence on my life over the years in so many different spheres (formative frisbee; formative machine learning; he's also partially responsible for the fact I did a master's and PhD in speech; hearing his name (and sometimes name-dropping him, I'm ashamed to admit!) all around the world in connection with climate change). I've written and rewritten this paragraph to try to summarize what he meant to me but it's pretty tricky! I will just say I'm still surprised by how often, when I trace back why I view a problem in some particular way when discussing machine learning, it's ultimately due to his itila book! His thinking had a really profound foundational influence on mine, and I have heard others express similar sentiments. I guess it's probably easier to effect that kind of influence when you're the real deal and aren't setting out with try to achieve it.


Mike Fletcher:

My favourite Dave story is (and forever will be) the Caesarian Sunday when some... overly jocular young chaps stole a disc from practice and proceeded to urinate into it, in the middle of Jesus Green, in some sort of tribalistic display of masculinity

Dave wandered over and after a brief conversation, came back sporting one of the lads' hats on his head and a promise that they would clean the disc before returning it. Ha.


Eliott Moore:

The first time I met David was on Jesus Green playing frisbee. I had just started my PhD, and was enjoying the first sunny Sunday since arriving in wintery January. I was stood on the sideline taking a breather between points, and without realising it, I had been playing against him in the previous point.

It was only a few weeks since I had seen him give an inspiring keynote speech to a packed lecture theatre. I had heard that David also played ultimate, but he was such an eminent scientist that I never imagined he would have time to come along to a Sunday practice. So when he wandered over and introduced himself, I am happy to admit I was star-struck.

He casually asked me about my research, and with my mouth dry from nerves, I babbled about sustainability in the manufacturing industry, largely incoherently as first year researchers have a habit of doing. Nonetheless he listened patiently, asked a few questions, and then gave me a huge confidence boost by telling me my research was not only interesting, but also worthwhile. Coming from such a great academic, that moment will always stay with me. In the final stages of my research, sat despondently in the library struggling with my write-up, I often thought back to that moment. It gave me the boost I needed to keep going.


Hannah Williams:

I remember David Mackay for tirelessly working to make Ultimate in Cambridge welcoming and open to all who wanted to get involved. He providing a guiding hand of stewardship over the club’s committee’s for many years, reminding us that community involvement through regular trainings open to all were the life blood of Cambridge Ultimate and a key feature that made this club very special to so many people including himself.

Tom Cope:

Very sad news this evening that David Mackay passed away today. One of the founding members of Strange Blue, and an extremely inspirational coach to me as I discovered this sport that we love. He will be sadly missed by all who knew him.


Nimrod Gileadi:

Dave was an inspiration to me in many ways. Besides his contributions to engineering and, in later years, his writing and campaigning about global warming, he was just a great guy to have on either side of the field.


Rich Turner:

These are the notes I used when speaking at David’s funeral:

David and Ultimate Frisbee

David was one of the fathers of Ultimate Frisbee in Cambridge and its team, Strange Blue.

I first met David at a frisbee practice. It was clear from that first meeting that David loved Ultimate. He liked the fact that sportsmanship, known as the “spirit of the game” runs deep in its veins. This is partly because Ultimate Frisbee is self-refereed at all levels.

Just as David's enthusiasm for science drew like-minded people into orbit around him, his enthusiasm for Cambridge Ultimate grew the community and drew it closer together. He coached beginners, he was senior treasurer for 10 years, he organised parties, maintained the first club website, attended tournaments, ran them himself, and led visits to high-schools to teach children how to play. Most of all, David was incredibly supportive of the club’s members and with David’s backing it felt like no problem was too big to tackle.

The constitution of Strange Blue, drafted by David, reflected this:

"The Aims of the Society are;

To have fun playing Ultimate

To foster the Spirit of the Game

To promote Ultimate amongst members of the University and Town

World peace through Ultimate.”

No problem too big. In some ways this was a template manifesto for many of David’s endeavours; you could replace the word ‘Ultimate’ with the word ‘Information Engineering’ or ‘Energy and the environment’.

David loved developing new tactics. As you would expect, these were always theoretically sound and principled. However, in practice there was one problem: David operated on the generous assumption that all of the team were as smart as him. On more than a couple of occasions we spent hours on Jesus Green trying to execute his latest complex strategy without success.

David combined his passion for ultimate frisbee with his passion for statistical inference developing a system for ranking teams based upon their results. David even ran a tournament and used the system to calculate the final standings. When he came to announce the result after the final there was controversy and I enjoyed David's explanation:

“[whilst] it is not conventional in ultimate tournaments that a team can lose the 'final' and still win the tournament ... I think that on reflection it makes sense.”

Alas, the British frisbee community was not ready for such radical ideas. But, as usual, David was ahead of his time: 10 years later Microsoft used similar ideas to develop the TrueSkill system for ranking players of Xbox computer games.

David made a huge contribution to Cambridge and the UK's Ultimate community. Many of the people he taught represented their country and helped grow the sport even further.

Thank you David for everything.

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