I came to Hawaii to learn more about packet radio. Really.
The fact that I spent most of my time on the beach drinking Mai Tais was an accident.
Honolulu is the home of Torben Nielsen, a man who has played an important role in helping to spread the Internet into the Pacific Rim. The University of Hawaii provides the Internet link for several Asian countries, particularly Korea and Japan.
He is also known for starting up the University of Hawaii network. Networking was not originally considered to be a high priority at the University. In fact, it was such a low priority that nothing was happening. Torben enlisted a few of his colleagues (including four department chairmen), rented power tools, and started digging trenches.
For a total of U.S. $1,500, lots of hard work, and the extreme displeasure of the facilities management group, the renegade professors managed to get four buildings linked together in a network. The project was done so cheaply that they even salvaged refueling lines from military aircraft to use as conduit.
Nielsen’s laboratory is a windowless room lined with foam padding and absolutely stuffed with computers. The Blue Book, Sun documentation, and various other books line the wall. Sitting inside this room, it is hard to imagine that nearby is a world of beaches and drinks decorated with paper umbrellas.
I arrived at 8:30 A.M. and Torben had already been there for two and a half hours. When he mentioned this, I made the appropriate polite noises of amazement. Torben looked at me like some shirker. “I’ll be here till 9:00 tonight and we do this seven days a week,” he patiently explained to me.
Needless to say, a leisurely lunch was probably not going to be in the works here. I realized that my time slot in Torben’s scheduling algorithm was going to be limited, so I tried to learn quickly what I could about his work.
Getting lines up and running is what Torben is best known for, but he is rapidly tiring of keeping pipes open and bits flowing. Instead, his interests are higher up the stack in areas like videoconferencing, the Andrew File System (AFS), interactive books, and a wide variety of other applications.
The topic of the day appeared to be SGML and ODA, so we talked about revisable form document architectures. In Torben’s view, the Office Document Architecture is basically useless. To him, SGML tagging is the appropriate internal format for a document.
As evidence he cites a commercial program that uses SGML as the internal representation of documents. The SGML document is then moved through TeX, which processes the tags. TeX is thus a formatting engine for SGML, which in turn produces output in a language such as PostScript for final form representation.
In Torben’s view, ODA fills the same intermediate role as TeX. You can use SGML source and use it to produce ODA, which is then sent to some ODA reader for display on the screen or the printer.
After this brief flurry of discussion on revisable form formats, Torben dismissed me and switched context to some other work. I borrowed a terminal to read my mail.
When I left the cocoon of Nielsen’s lab, it was still only 10 A.M., much too early to return to the Waikiki tourist ghetto. I swung my car over the mountains to the other side of the island.
After driving around the sugar plantations, I arrived in the little town of Haleiwa. There, I spotted a sign saying “Best Lunch in Haleiwa.” Afraid that this might also well be the only lunch in Haleiwa, I pulled onto the back lawn of the building, almost ran over a dozen cats and parked next to the outhouse.