Witnesses to the revolution

When Tom Arons and Gabe Unda signed on, campus tech was what we'd now call primitive. The new retirees are two of the many people who helped change all that.

To fully understand the spread, use and influence of computing technology at UC Davis, you could hardly do better than to talk with people like Gabriel Unda and Tom Arons. They have seen most of the changes since the mid-1970s, and helped shape more than a few.

Unda is a professional photographer. He started as a medical photographer for the UC Davis Medical Center in 1973, has fielded assignments for the campus in diverse areas since then, was an early proponent of using computers to improve photography, and has become expert in digital imaging. Arons is a programmer and tech supervisor who started working for the Electrical Engineering Department in 1978, using a computer with a tiny 64K address space. He departs Davis this year as campus infrastructure architect.

They have worked for various campus units along the way. Unda's area has been restructured several times, sometimes over his objection--high-end campus photography will suffer, he says, if the campus lacks a strong photo unit led by a photographer who keeps pace with the state of the art.

Now each is winding down his campus career as they retire from Information and Educational Technology: Unda from the Mediaworks unit, Arons from the vice provost's office. Unda will return as a part-timer, but Arons is headed for Texas, where he has family.

IET senior writer Bill Buchanan interviewed them together in IET's Chiles Road offices in February.

Tom, how did you come to work for what became IET?

In 1994, there was a unit on campus formed called Distributive Computing Analysis and Support, and they were looking for someone to do securi ty. Joan Gargano, the director, asked me if I wanted to work there. I said, well, I'll do part there. But I like working for the department. Departments can move a whole lot quicker than central units.

That's still true. Trying to deploy something on an enterprise scale is a whole lot harder, a whole lot slower. In the Electrical and Computer Engineering department at that time, we had on the order of 100, 150 work stations that were sort of centrally managed. And the IT department didn't.

So I started working for Joan half-time. It's only 2003 that I went to IET 90 percent time. I wanted to maintain my departmental roots. Because that has really served to keep me honest.

Keep you honest?

Yeah, it helps you know what's going on.

And I think people working for a central organization think everything ought to be centralized. It's funny, it's sort of like the first rule of bureaucracy is that people want everything centralized below them, distributed above them.

But now you're infrastructure architect. A fairly central job.

I see the role of the central organization, and the role of infrastructure in particular, is to build enabling technology that allows people in departments to go explore and do what they want to do, and not be dictated to that 'this is the way it's going to be.'

What do you do, as infrastructure architect?

I design and help deploy underlying technologies, specifically things like authentication, so that not every application on campus has to have a separate user-name password, and so there can be central service for doing things like account maintenance.

The point is to build a basic foundation that the rest of the campus can use.

To build tools that the rest of the campus can use. There's a crossover, because we build some applications too. There's middleware; basically, middleware is any program that talks to another program.

Digitizing the view from a roving truck

Gabe, please talk a little about photo assignments you've had, one or two that were really special.

The one that stands out in my mind is the Eastman Collection (donated to the University Library in 1994). It was the first time that anyone tried to digitize a large collection and put it on the Web. I did the approval concept on that and trained the people at the library who essentially made that happen.

What is the Eastman Collection?

Jervie Eastman, no relation to George (of Kodak fame), was a postcard photographer up in Susanville. He'd take his little truck and tour California and photograph basically everything that might work as a postcard. That's anything of historic importance that existed at that time. But he also bought other studios as they went out of business, and so accumulated a collection of something like 12,000 glass plates and negatives that are this incredible record of California (from about 1890 to 1960).

One of the best examples of photography and technology working together is the Eastman. The library is very, very good at metadata, and with the Eastman Collection, once they had the digital images, they built a metadata structure behind those images that makes it possible to find almost anything very quickly. It's still evolving.

Did you digitize that collection?

The first 100 images, and created the structure for doing it, which is essentially what I'm going to be doing next.

I've' done so many assignments that it's a blur. I really enjoy the medical work, the surgeries at the Med Center, the day-to-day stuff here on campus.

Probably the thing I'm proudest of, though, is bringing digital photography onto this campus. It's been a passion of mine from the very beginning. I worked very, very hard at creating a structure at Illustration Services (a predecessor to Mediaworks) that was digital, including the color management, trying to train people how to use color management, creating structures where what you saw in the computer is basically what you get out of the printer. That's a fairly major accomplishment.

You only have one window into our data, and that's our monitors. If they aren't giving us accurate visualization of what that data represents, then it's hopeless from the beginning.

Present at the birth of the first campus network

Tom, what's your best or most interesting accomplishment at UC Davis?

Probably something to do with networking. Building the first Ethernet on campus . . . There's a plaque in what's now (IET Vice Provost) Pete Siegel's office that talks about the first Unix system and so on, and that's all IT. OK, the first Unix system that I know of on campus was in Electrical Engineering in 1978. Unix version 6.

And you had a hand in that.

Yeah. Also, I'm proud of a unified name space. The fact that you have a Kerberos ID that's used all over campus in different departments. That was a big deal, and enabled a lot of other stuff.

And the other thing, in terms of networking, was working with a bunch of emerging technologies. Working in the ECE department, we had a relatively understanding group of users who would tolerate down time, which we couldn't do on the campus. So there were technologies we were able to experiment with, switching technologies, which are now used all over the place. We worked with the first c ompany to do Ethernet switching.

What's the biggest change you've seen in campus technology?

Probably the advent of networking, and moving from mainframe to distributed computing, in general. And the Internet too, both on campus and interconnected to the outside world.

Our first (Web) connection to the outside world was through Berkeley, through UUCP, which was basically a phone-line connection, 1200-baud connection to Berkeley. And with UUCP, you had to give an explicit path, so one computer would phone another computer . . . you'd have a 'bang' (exclamation mark) in between and you'd see the entire path, so if you wanted to get to Stanford, the address would be 'UCBvax,' bang, 'Stanford,' bang, some computer at Stanford--

What year was that?

UUCP probably went away in the mid-'80s. In the early to mid-'80s we joined CSNet, a 4800-baud connection to Berkeley. It would pick up the mail several times a day.

Don't let excellent photography slip away

Gabe, someone 30 years from now will be doing some version of your job. What will the job be like?

I'm a little worried. There are probably five photographers who have retired in the last three or four years, some of them world-class, people like Jack Clark, just remarkable. None of them has been replaced. And the perception is, well, we really don't need them anymore, we can do our own. There are places like public affairs that have replaced photographers.

Will there be photographers on campus 30 years from now?

I don't know. I?m hoping it's a cycle. Because I think they need them. I've seen a publication on this campus that was just an atrocious piece of rag, because they all tried to do their own stuff and had no concept of photography or page layout or anything else. Now you've got professionals doing that, and t he quality is much, much higher. Why? It's not being done by amateurs.

You'll continue to see photographers in places like publications. But the scientific community needs them too. That's what Illustration Services did. They were really research photographers and scientific photographers.

If the photographers on this campus are viewed as part of the infrastructure, you're going to have a very, very high level of photography on this campus. Otherwise you're going to lose that over the next couple of years.

Only the hair would change

Tom, what's campus educational technology going to be like in 30 years?

Thirty years? I have no idea. I mean, direct neural contact with computer, a better interface, you wear a little headband that controls something that has a speaker in your ear, you look something like the Borg guy (a computer/humanoid hybrid in the 'Star Trek' TV/movie series).

My first job, I worked with . . . the world's first desktop calculator, and a desktop is about what it took. It weighed about 100 pounds, cost about $4,000 to $5,000. You could spend millions of dollars back then and couldn't get what you can have now. Thirty years from now? I don't know. If we continue on the same path with miniaturization and computational speed, then it'd be bigger.

On the other hand, there's a joke that if the automobile industry had progressed at the same rate as tech, cars would go a million miles an hour, cost a penny, and twice a year blow up, killing everyone inside.

Gabe: It strikes me, how much difference there is between our two areas. Because if you were to take a picture of photographers at a sporting event 30 years ago, and you took a picture today, you wouldn't see any difference. The technology would be light years apart. But the lenses, the equipment would be the same. The photographers would l ook exactly the same. Their hair would be different.

Today's visualization technology lets people walk into a 3-D image, in 'caves'. Is tech going to continue to develop in these strange and wonderful ways?

Tom: I'm sure. The underlying technology will advance to be able to support new and different things.

It used to depress me, but I've learned several sets of skills that are totally obsolete. I spent two or three years learning how to fit programs into 16-bit address space, and how to do image processing efficiently when you could only fit this much of the image into memory at one time, so you had to address it in ways that were clever. I wrote lots of clever things for bringing images from disk into memory in the most efficient way.

Now you just suck the whole thing into memory, do whatever you want to do on it, and put it out. There's a whole set of skills like that which have become meaningless. I don't know what I'm doing today that will become meaningless in the future.

SmartSite buzz seems real

What's the most important thing about educational technology that you think faculty or staffers don't understand?

Tom: I don't know. I'm probably a bad person to ask that. Because I just assume they know everything.

No trends, no themes?

Gabe: I think so. One of the things Mediaworks has been very involved in is SmartSite, Sakai. There have been attempts with faculty in the past to kind of get them in the fold, because the campus is very committed to this idea, correct me if I'm wrong, of trying to move a lot of teaching online. It's met some resistance in the past. But I'll go into the Silo and get a cup of coffee, and there are professors talking about how cool this SmartSite thing is. The buzz among the faculty righ t now is, 'This is a really cool thing, and we're going to use this.' So I think there's a willingness among the faculty to accept stuff that they weren't quite so willing to accept before.

Tom: I can tell you what people want: They want something that's easy to use, that they don't have to learn anything, that they can press the button and it's all done.

That's human nature. I want more, faster, cheaper.

Tom: And easier.

Gabe: Almagest could be an incredibly cool teaching and research program. But it takes too much work. They don't want to put the work in to build the databases that will make it useful. So will it ever take off? Maybe if they get some grad student somewhere who could do it for them.

One path to Texas, one path back here

Tom, you're moving to Austin. What's next for you? Are you going to keep up with new technology?

Tom: I will probably keep up with new technology. But I don't even know what I'm doing as far as this place goes, in terms of when I retire officially. It'll be this year, unless they want me to telecommute from Texas. At some point, it'll end here, and I'd like to do consulting, you know, take the generous retirement package from the university, and then augment that with something else.

Consulting in educational technology?

Tom: I don't know. Probably not. They don't have as much money as other people (laughs). . . in infrastructure, in large-scale infrastructure deployments, wireless infrastructure. I could see doing that for other organizations. That, and repairing my house.

Gabe, what about you?

I'm actually coming back (part-time), in March or April, depends on the whole retirement process. There's 40 years of negative files that Illustration Services/Creative Communications/Mediaworks has accumulated . . . I'll help di gitize that.