Here it is, folks. The image is a hard drive salvaged from the ruins of the World Trade Center, on which successful data recovery was performed by the Convar group. Cover design is Copyright © 2007 MIT Press. (Please ask before posting elsewhere.)
Roy Rosenzweig was my colleague across town at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason. We saw each other at meetings and conferences four or five times a year; I had gotten to know him more personally when my partner, Kari Kraus, worked at the Center for a while. He was warm and generous, obviously the kind of colleague and mentor we all want to have.
Roy had an impressive career filled with distinguished accomplishments. In 2003 he was the second of only five recipients of the prestigious Lyman Award, for outstanding achievement in the field of digital humanities. Others can (and will) speak to what Roy did as a teacher, a historian, and as a friend. I want to talk about something he built, because even though I never spent much time at CHNM I do have some experience with running a center.
Running a successful center is hard enough, but building one from the ground up is Herculean. And sometimes, it must seem, Sisyphean. Roy told me about CHNM’s history once, how it began in his office in the history department. And then moved to more palatial digs in a leaky trailer on the George Mason campus. Last year, however, the Center for History and New Media was given pride of place in the University’s new Research I building, a state of the art space that finally offered CHNM the facility it so richly deserved. The amount of invisible labor that goes in to something like that is vast, and not the kind of work that is rewarded (or usually even noticed) in the academy. There’s purchasing. For everything, from paper clips to computers to furniture. There’s hiring and personnel. There’s countless meetings with administrators and other stake-holders. There’s budget work. There’s payroll. There are fortuitous but mission-critical conversations with people in hallways. There’s strategic planning. And that’s before we even get to the Center’s research mission, but in order to pursue that mission there first must be funding. That’s where grant writing comes in. Roy wrote lots of grants and was remarkably successful; but grant writing is not glamorous work. Long, detailed narratives are the backbone of any proposal, and these must strike a pitch-perfect balance between precision and rigor and intellectual energy. Budgets have to be meticulous, laid out in advance literally to the last dollar. There’s all sorts of other documentation that must be prepared, collated, and formatted, all just so.
I’m dwelling on these details because I imagine this was a large part of Roy’s days and nights: invisible, often painstaking but essential work whose rewards are apparent only years later, if at all. But here’s the thing: today CHNM has a staff of over forty populating that state of the art research space. Roy has had lots of help along the way, and the Center’s future leadership could not be in better hands, but if I had to say what Roy did in a sentence it would be this: he created a place where forty people now come to do things that are so exciting that I bet, every single one of them, have had nights they couldn’t sleep because what they really wanted was to be back at the Center. This is the pay-off of all the budgets and forms, all the paperwork, all of the long, tedious hours of administrivia: you get to do things so exciting you can’t sleep. Roy created a space where those forty people, and many more in the years to come, will meet, talk, and build things together. Amazing and wonderful and important things. Thanks Roy, I’m only one of many who will miss you greatly.
A Washington Post obituary is here.
As has been widely reported in the media, the two scientists responsible for pioneering the Giant Magneto-Resistive head technology that is used to read data back from modern hard drives were honored with the Nobel Prize for Physics yesterday.
I say “modern” hard drive because basic drive technology has been around since the mid-1950s, when it was developed at IBM. But it wasn’t until the advent of GMR in the late 1980s that the soaring data capacities we take for granted today began their upward climb. (Hard drive storage capacity, in fact, routinely increases at a rate that exceeds Moore’s law for micro-processors.)
Why is this significant to me? Because I write about hard drives in some detail in my forthcoming Mechanisms. (I also have an article online called “Extreme Inscription” [PDF].) The key point I attempt to make is probably this:
[S]tudents of new media [. . .] tend to ascribe “interactivity” to the advent of the screen display, the graphical user interface, and the mouse in a genealogy that runs from the SAGE air defense network through Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad to Douglas Englebart’s 1968 “mother of all demos.” But the advent of random access disk storage goes to the heart of contemporary critical assumptions about new media. . . . [C]omputers could not have expanded in their role from war-time calculators to new media databases without the introduction of a non-volatile, large-volume, inexpensive technology that afforded operators near instantaneous access to stored records. Magnetic disk media, more specifically the hard disk drive, was to become that technology and, as much as bitmapped-GUIs and the mouse, usher in a new era of interactive, real-time computing.
So it’s nice to see contributions to a normally invisible technology—the hard drive is literally a black box, sequestered inside of our computer’s external casing to protect it from dust and other contaminants—recognized, and I hope people enjoy learning something about hard drives as much as I did. They are fascinating machines, exquisitely blending analog and digital functions, and both macro- and nano-scale physics in a desktop technology we all take for granted.