`Trenton’ Computer Fest

Saturday, May 1

Sunday, May 2

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Nerds Triumph Again & the Internet is Born

This article was published in U.S. 1

Newspaper on April 28, 1999. All rights reserved.

The World Wide Web is changing the world so rapidly that one week in

"Internet time" is comparable to one year. The world is experiencing a

paradigm shift so remarkable that some compare the advent of the

Internet to the invention of the printing press.

Yet the Internet was born and raised in the brief time span it took

NASA to put together the Apollo flight. In "Nerds: a Brief History of

the Internet," Stephen Segaller writes: "By one of those

curious coincidences of history, the ARPA-sponsored geeks designed the

blueprint, wrote the software, and built the computers of the world’s

first digital network at exactly the same time as NASA’s Apollo

program reached its lunar zenith. The irony is that from the

perspective of the late 1990s, the unheralded, low-budget, obscure

venture of wires and bits seems more significant and universal in its

impact upon our daily lives than the heroic, but perhaps

inconsequential, adventures in space."

Segaller’s book is one of the first complete, detailed accounts — if

not the very first — of this amazing period of history. Segaller (his

name rhymes with "gala") wrote, directed, and produced the three-hour

television series on that subject for the Public Broadcasting System

and is now director of news and public affairs programming at

Thirteen/WNET in New York. He moved to Princeton several months ago

and will sign his book at Encore Books & Music on Friday, April 30, at

7 p.m.

Published last year by TV Books (http://www.tvbooks.com), the 400-page book has more than

three-dozen photographs and sells for $27.50. PBS premiered the series

in one three-hour stretch on Thanksgiving Eve and sells the tapes for

$39.98 for the set of three or $62.48 with the book at

http://www.shop.pbs.org

Because Segaller was doing his interviews for television, virtually

all the computer moguls — Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple),

Larry Ellison (Oracle), Marc Andreessen (Netscape), Drew Major

(Novell), Steve Case (America Online), and Scott McNealy (Sun

Microsystems) — queued up to tell their stories for Segaller’s first

series, "Triumph of the Nerds." It aired in 1996 and covered the

personal computer’s invention in the ’70s, its popularization in the

’80s, and the battle between Microsoft and Apple for the graphical

user interface in the ’90s. Segaller used these interviews as a

starting point for his second series on the Internet.

"Once word got out we had unsolicited offers from CEOs of major

corporations, PR people calling to say `our chairman would like to

make himself available to you.’ Our rule: We either interviewed

genuine pioneers who invented something truly and dramatically

important, or the No. 1 pioneer." The only person he didn’t get was

Lou Gerstner, CEO of IBM.

In the face of such research riches Segaller made the tough choices

necessary to keep viewer and reader interest. "In television, given

that the average one-hour script runs fewer than 5,000 words, you have

to make a lot of selection decisions, and you have to decide what are

the key trends or defining characteristics," he says. "Yet one of the

things I try to do early and often is to disclaim the idea that this

book or the series was entirely comprehensive. We told the story that

seemed to make a serious amount of narrative sense. I don’t honestly

think we missed out on major technologies."

Nevertheless Segaller felt it necessary to provide four glossaries: a

timeline, technical terms, acronyms, and thumbnail biographies. "When

I saw that we had interviewed 135 people I knew that no reader could

keep it straight," he says.

The creation of the Internet, Segaller writes, was "one of the 20th

century’s most productive accidents. For a modern medium of

communications and commerce to have been planned, executed, expanded,

and ultimately liberated by an agency of the government seems most

unlikely. Yet this is indeed the story of the almost seamless

evolution of a government-funded efficiency experiment named ARPAnet

into the ubiquitous, commercial, hip media space known as the Web."

Segaller unfolds the drama by pointing out the irony in the undramatic

way that engineers work, step by slow step. They were ready, he

writes, "in their undemonstrative engineers fashion, to change the

world."

"Computer networking began 30 years ago because a Pentagon bureaucrat

wanted to save money. If there was a Eureka! moment that propelled the

network from theory into concrete planning, it occurred in Bob

Taylor’s office at the Pentagon. While he acknowledges that the

ARPAnet was his idea, he makes no more of a claim than to say `I was

in a job that called for it.’"

"I still consider the ARPAnet to have been a relatively easy thing to

start off with," another engineer is quoted as saying. "Genius? No,

this is engineering work. This is an evolutionary process.

Occasionally someone has an insight and you move more of a step. But

genius is a rather strong word."

Whether by genius or good fortune, these engineers accomplished their

feat using a relatively small amount of money but a relatively large

dedication of time. One of the more poignant stories — how Len Bosack

and Sandy Lerner founded Cisco Systems and found themselves booted out

of their jobs by their venture capitalist investors — starts with

110-hour work weeks: "The early days of Cisco resembled psychological

crowding experiments designed to test subjects’ patience to the point

of violence."

At Excite, employees compared the workplace to being inside a washing

machine on the spin cycle. But they had the dream of getting rich. As

Segaller, writes, "This is the Silicon Valley fairytale. There are

thousands more little gangs of dreamers eating burritos, working all

night, and seeking venture capital, to make their fortunes in the

wired world."

Segaller, born in Surrey, England, says that his father’s occupation

— documentary filmmaking — had less to do with his career than his

father’s emphasis on excellence in the use of language. "The thing I

have from him, that I recognize very clearly, is a love and concern

for language and a facility for speaking different languages." When he

was five, his father coached him in the pronunciation of the very

difficult French word for squirrel, "l’ecureuil," promising that this

one word contains all the hard-to-say vowels of that language.

He went to boarding school in Wimbledon and then to Cambridge, where

he studied English literature at Corpus Christi College and graduated

in 1975. Inspired by a friendship with a reporter, his first job was

as a reporter in an industrial town. "I hated it with a passion," says

Segaller. "After the absolutely idyllic three years of Cambridge, one

of the most beautiful places in the world, I was living in

Newcastle-on-Tyne, doing grunt work, and I quit."

The training served him well, however, because it was a prerequisite

for his next job, a researcher position in a broadcasting company in

London. His boss there eventually became director general of the

British Broadcasting Corporation, Sir John Birt. "John did me a double

favor — he gave me a job and 12 months later, he let me go," says

Segaller. Hired as a researcher for Grenada Television’s "World in

Action," the British equivalent of "60 Minutes," he progressed to be a

producer and director for 30-minute documentaries.

Six years later, wanting to make "real" hour-long documentaries and to

freelance, he quit that job to freelance in London for what is now

called, in Great Britain, Channel 4. He had married an American

psychologist, Merrill Berger, and they had a new baby. At one point

they co-wrote and co-produced a series on Carl Jung. By 1989 they had

two children, and they moved to Boston, where Segaller produced two

segments of "Columbus and the Age of Discovery" for the BBC and WGBH,

while Berger had a fellowship at Harvard Medical School. Then it was

his turn to go academic, courtesy of the Benton Fellowship in

Broadcast Journalism at the University of Chicago. He earned a

master’s degree in international relations and economic history; his

thesis was on the opium war of the 1830s, a topic which he says has

real relevance today.

Though he stayed in Boston, he took a job with Oregon Public

Broadcasting, where as executive producer he learned what he terms the

"pleasures of making the deal and putting the package together and

helping other producers do their best work by providing sympathetic

supervision and advice." He won an Emmy for his CNN documentary on

ex-hostage Terry Anderson’s return to the Middle East, "Return to the

Lion’s Den." He also produced "Rain or Ruin: the Bombing of Nagasaki"

and the two "Nerds" series. The first, "Triumph of the Nerds," so

exceeded everyone’s expectations that within a week PBS asked him to

tackle the second.

Last December Segaller and Berger and their two teenagers moved to

Princeton. Berger has made a career change and has opened a garden and

landscape design practice named "Down to Earth" (609-688-1625).

Segaller now commutes to Channel 13 on the train. Princeton, he says,

reminds him very strongly of Cambridge.

Even though he admits that fiction serves to help to explain events in

terms of emotional and political contact, Segaller has no intention of

ever making a fiction film. The facetious reason: "I have never found

any appeal in mingling with actors and actresses."

The real reason: "I think reality is more important and interesting,"

he says. "Teasing out reality and getting to the bottom of fact is

just more important and exciting."

— Barbara Fox

Stephen Segaller, Encore Books, Princeton Shopping

Center, 609-252-0608. WNET-13’s director of news and public affairs

programing talks about public television and his book, "NERDS 2.0.1: A

Brief History of the Internet." Free. Friday, April 30, 7 p.m.

Top Of Page
`Trenton’ Computer Fest

If you’ve ever had the spooky feeling that the Microsoft

Corporation is trying to take over the world, you’ll want to hear

what Mike Elgan, editor of Windows Magazine, has to say. He

will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Trenton Computer Festival

on Saturday and Sunday, May 1 and 2, at the New Jersey Convention

Center in Edison. (Yes, Edison. The Trenton Computer Festival is moving

this year from Mercer County College, where parking was a major problem,

but it is retaining its Trenton name and keeping its options open

— the new Mercer County Arena might be a logical venue in the

future.)

Elgan speaks on Saturday, May 1, at 2:35 p.m. Kendall Park-based KGP

Productions LLC is managing the show this year — with plenty of

volunteer help, nevertheless, from various central New Jersey computer

clubs. For information call 800-631-0062.

Elgan, a graduate of UCLA, Class of 1988, says it was a trip to Brazil

that sparked his interest in writing about the world of PCs. "I

saw some Brazilian newspapers that were using computers, but many

were building plates by hand — 1850s technology," he says.

"I realized then that, while I like journalism, I liked the tools

I used more than the job itself."

Microsoft’s vision of the future is uncannily similar to Brazil —

not the country, but the movie by Terry Gilliam, depicting a

tyrannically uniform future world. "Microsoft wants every computer

in the world running Microsoft software," Elgan says.

While there’s nothing surprising about that, Elgan says we should

keep our eye on the types of computers — not the software —

that Microsoft is behind, products like a palm pilot-cell phone-in-one,

refrigerators and interactive children’s toys. "It’s not technology

visionary, it’s business visionary," he explains. "Microsoft

is a machine that turns consumer demands into products."

Or, more likely, a machine that turns its products into consumer demands.

Microsoft-manufactured Teletubby and Barney dolls, each implanted

with a microchip, represent a bit of forward-thinking on the part

of the company; Microsoft is carefully grooming the next generation

of consumers for advancements in artificial intelligence. Microsoft,

Elgan says, is doing extensive research into 3D virtual reality interfaces

that look and act human. Again, it’s what we want. "People want

to be able to relate to their computers," Elgan says, "much

like they relate to humans." Down the road, adults will get talking

dolls, too.

As for the future of the PC: businesses will always need them, Elgan

says, even if households use another platform. Either way, it will

be Microsoft that makes the dollar.

— Melinda Sherwood

Elgan will be just one of the speakers at two days worth of festival

workshops. Festival founders Sol Libes and Allen Katz

have been adding workshops with more universal appeal to the many

tech-oriented workshops that have drawn hundreds of people to festivals

past. With E-commerce drawing amateur websurfers into the ring, and

Y2K just around the corner, the time couldn’t be more perfect. Programmers,

network administrators, consultants, graphic artists and hobbyists

won’t be disappointed either.

Here is a short-list of workshops.

For the full list visit http://www.tcf-nj.com.

Top Of Page
Saturday, May 1

What do high-schoolers need to know about computing? (10:15

a.m.); Introduction to C++ (10:15 a.m.); C++: Advanced Topics (Saturday

11:20 a.m.); Overcoming Word and Excel annoyances (11:20 a.m.); Computer

Graphics Film Show (12:25); Finding your dream job on the Internet

(1:30 p.m.); Y2K Chaos: Don’t wait until your computer stops working

(1:30 p.m.); Dedicated Game Machines (3:40 p.m.); The Open Source

Revolution (3:40 p.m.).

Top Of Page
Sunday, May 2

Creative Computing for Kids (10:30 a.m.); Future of Display

Technology (10:30 a.m.); Introduction to the Internet (12:25 p.m.);

Online Security and Privacy (2:00); Atari 8-bit Users Forum (2 p.m.);

Lotus Notes R5 (2 p.m.); Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

(2 p.m.).


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