The Weird Sense of Deja Vu

My dad says it’s something that happens naturally after you’ve worked in a field long enough: you start to feel like you’re looping back and forth on yourself. He used to say he’d find himself going to American Historical Association meetings as an “emeritus professor” that he had gone to as a newly-minted professor: some things had changed, some things hadn’t, so the changes and the gaps in the change were what really jumped out.

Back when I was a young puppy, working as a presales support engineer for Digital, I got thrown into a couple of projects with old-school computing gurus who later became my heroes and mentors. And a couple of those projects involved me going out to DEC West in Palo Alto, where (per my boss at the time, Fred Avolio) I used to stay at this lovely bed and breakfast that was within walking distance of the DEC computer room: the Cowper Inn.


I try to stay in interesting bed and breakfasts, instead of chain hotels because they’re less cookie-cutter commercialized. A chain hotel’s going to have the usual corporate wall-hangings, and whatnot, but for the sake of difference, why not spend the night in a craftsman-style late victorian palace?

The “skyscraper” in the background is the building where the DEC West computer room used to be located. Paul Vixie ran the place with an iron hand; it was such a perfect computer room I used to think it said some things about how unhealthy Paul’s mind was. Now, I know that Paul was just 25 years ahead of where most organizations are; his racks looked like Amazon’s racks, 5 years before Jeff Bezos had heard of “http.”

It just feels somehow weird, like you’re going back in time – in the back of a taxi from SFO (which has changed profoundly) to an old victorian building next to a data center for a company that was once a giant of computing that suddenly vanished like a soap bubble. Things feel so different but so similar: I’m chasing an idea – there’s some code I want to see written, products built and shipped, money made and lost – but as I sat in the taxi I realized that the code I was writing back in the days of my early stays at the Cowper – nobody’s running that stuff, at all, any more. I was writing firewalls that only had to gateway FTP, Telnet, rlogin, and USENET News/NNTP. Even those protocols are gone. It all seemed so important at the time.

Meeting with Venture Capitalists is all about what’s important at the time. Thinking back to those days, Adobe Systems had just graduated from being a start-up. Page Mill Software (on Page Mill Rd, right in what is now the heart of Venture Capital Country) was a start-up trying to invent desktop publishing. Sun Microsystems was three or four buildings on the other side of El Camino, and if you were lucky you might pass John Gilmore bicycling to work on his way to Cygnus systems. It was all important to the venture capitalists of that time, they were intensely focused on the big opportunities which are now gone, irrelevant, forgotten.

Musee Des Arts Et Metiers (wikipedia)

Musee Des Arts Et Metiers (wikipedia)

As a kid, one of my favorite magical places in the world was the Musee Des Arts et Metiers in Paris: that’s the “science and technology” museum. In the 60s, it housed all of the miniature models that the French patent system required an inventor to make: you had to submit paper description of your new machine-loom, as well as a functional miniature model. Software like I experience it didn’t exist, yet, but Jacquard’s looms were part of the inspiration for John Von Neumann’s idea of internally meta-programmed devices. None of that mattered, either: incremental improvements to steam engines, who cares? The museum has changed, too, but some of it is the same. Page Mill Rd has changed, too: what used to be a sushi restaurant I ate in in the Digital days is now a Starbucks. Starbucks hadn’t been invented, yet. But I’m sure that venture capitalists were pretty much the same back then.

Detail of model of Le Soleil Royale, Musee De La Marine, Paris

Detail of model of Le Soleil Royale, Musee De La Marine, Paris

My other favorite museum was the Musee De La Marine – the naval museum. Because, starting under Louis XIV, who built out a huge military, ship builders proposing a new ship of the line were required to submit a scale model first, so that royal naval engineers and acquisition specialists could assess it and think about whether it looked OK. Those ship builders were like today’s entrepreneurs: going around, hat in hand, “hey would you be interested in this new idea we have for a ship?”*

Today, we carry a laptop and some powerpoint, and we paint our dreams in air, like some kind of interpretive dance.

This is all in my mind because the Cowper inn hasn’t changed a bit, and, in one of the venture capitalists’ office, there was a 2u high rack-mount box stuffed full of 512mb flash drives, that was the first server of what later went on to become a multi-billion dollar storage company. The name of the engineer who designed Le Soleil Royal is still known. And Jacquard’s loom-technique still bears his name. Some stuff changes, some stuff doesn’t, and we remember some pieces and other pieces are lost in time. It’s kind of beautiful, really. For one thing, it means that most of our mistakes are erased and forgotten in the deluge of subsequent improvements that follow success. People may talk about the glorious early days of the internet, but I remember a great deal of frustration with /usr/ucb/mail.

The last time I went to Arts Et Metiers and Musee De La Marine, all I could think was that behind every single piece of every thing I saw, were forgotten deeply personal stories of passionate invention, incremental improvement, frustration, flashes of triumph. The endless grind of culture and technology.


(* “Look at this cool scale model for a new jet we want to build! It’s called the F-35! Give us $600 billion, please!”)


  1. says

    These days they can’t even build a full scale functional model. But I totally want a tiny F35 and would definitely give them 600 billion of your dollars for one

  2. kestrel says

    Oh my. Those scale models are just stunning. And… is that a train track in the middle of the floor there?

    This reminds me of the Peter Gabriel song, “Mercy Street”:

    Looking down on empty streets all she can see
    Are the dreams all made solid
    Are the dreams made real

    All of the buildings, all of the cars
    Were once just a dream
    In somebody’s head

  3. brucegee1962 says

    I’m not sure if this is OT or not, but I’m getting grumpy about how each and every computer advance that is supposed to make interfaces more user-friendly have the opposite effect. Back in the MSDOS days, once I learned the basic commands, it seemed perfectly intuitive how everything was structured. When Windows came along, that represented another layer to dig through to figure out where my files were. Then the basic structure seemed to get more and more scrambled, and things that used to be easy to use kept getting harder and harder to find.

    Maybe I’m just grumpy because, after hearing so much about the wonders of cloud storage, I transferred a bunch of stuff to OneDrive, and then spent a couple of hours last night trying to get the stupid thing to sync the way it’s supposed to. I got almost frustrated enough to give up on the whole concept. I don’t know — maybe I was just as frustrated back in 1988, and it just seems like a golden age in my memory. Golden ages have a tendency to do that.

  4. says

    Andrew Molitor#@1:
    The thing is, the model’s only $600 billion, while I’m holding it. When I transfer it to someone else’s hand, the costs go up a bit. Maybe another $50 billion. The beauty of anything F-35 related is that you can never actually afford it! Its price is always $10 billion more than you have available.

  5. says

    This whole post is rambling and OT, so I don’t think it’s actually possible to be OT on an OT thread.

    I’m getting grumpy about how each and every computer advance that is supposed to make interfaces more user-friendly have the opposite effect

    I have also felt the same way. But I’m not sure why. One possibility is that I am set in my ways. Another possibility is that the new U/I stuff sucks. Another possibility is that I am so experienced and expert with the old stuff that the new stuff is a step backwards for me, but a step forward for others. Or, it could be something else entirely, or a combination of some or all of those factors. I like to think it’s that I am so cunning and wise that I have perfected my processes to the point where changes are all for the worse.

    Maybe I’m just grumpy because, after hearing so much about the wonders of cloud storage, I transferred a bunch of stuff to OneDrive, and then spent a couple of hours last night trying to get the stupid thing to sync the way it’s supposed to

    The cloud giveth, the cloud taketh away. If you haven’t seen my earlier commentary on cloud computing, I did a “hitler learns about cloud security” retread:

    I’ve had my cloud drive experiences, too. I helped a friend lose most of her digital assets thanks to a WD cloud drive that sync’d to the cloud, reset, then sync’d the reset state. The cloud stuff is getting better – it’s almost ready for prime time. It definitely wasn’t, when everyone started rushing up to it.

    Maybe they’re all golden ages!?!?!?

    In 1988, I was at Digital, and I had an arrangement with some of the sales guys who did buybacks from Sun customers: I got the Sun workstations. So, my desk at home was sporting a sun 3/60 with a 17″ tube, running SunOS 3.2, and a DECStation 3100 running Ultrix 3.5D. I felt like I could do anything with those machines, and I did. My thenwife’s cat Strummer would perch on the edge of the VR219 monitor, with a lazy paw dangling over the screen, where he was warm. And there was always an infinity of coffee.

    The systems then were simpler and more comprehensible but I think it was more an effect of my energy levels and memory. I’m 54, now, and I don’t learn as fast or remember as well as I did when I was 26. I suspect that if I had the energy and focus I had when I was 26, again, I’d burn a hole through this crap we’re forced to work with nowadays.

    I went to a talk George Dyson did about growing up around Von Neumann and the team and Princeton who were inventing computing. Apparently there was one italian scientist in the group who got so comfortable with punch cards and an old paper teletype terminal that he insisted on working with it until well past its “junk by-” date. I sympathize.

    My dad still uses his old Smith-Corona.

  6. says

    is that a train track in the middle of the floor there?

    Yup!! They used to have these rail-carts for moving around exhibit stuff. The museum has had on display some pretty big and heavy stuff, in its day. Right now it’s much much less cluttered than it used to be, which is kind of unfortunate.

    I’ll plan to do a post on that museum, and the naval museum – I have some pictures I’ve taken that might be fun to push into the light of day.

    Both museums capture the French Empire from the era of Napoleon until the late “Belle Epoque” – so there’s a great deal of imperial hubris on display. It’s quite something. I hope that when the US finally steps off the world stage there’s enough left to build some good museums with. If I were a trillionaire I’d already be thinking about lining up the “Musee De Fail, a History of the F-35, the plane that ended the empire.”

  7. says

    It’s pretty amazing place. Right down the hall from Foucault’s pendulum is a fairly unimposing wooden box in a glass case: Dauguerre’s camera. And there’s Cugnot’s steam car, and Jacquard’s loom… Little stuff like that.

  8. Johnny Vector says

    Ah, DEC. I wrote my first program on a PDP-11. It counted down from 20 and then printed “liftoff!” or something. I kinda wish I’d kept the fanfold paper tape it was saved on. I was 9 or so, and my dad had the machine for taking astrometric data I think. Or maybe spectrographic. Or both! Those computers could do anything!

    Also, one of my favorite jokes from the early 80s, around the time when the company I was working for got a new VAX: How can you tell the DEC repair person on the side of the road? He’s the one swapping tires to figure out which one is flat.

  9. says

    Johnny Vector@#8:
    As someone who worked at DEC, I had a huge list of DEC repair person jokes. Since I was in the Ultrix wing of the company, I probably was one of the jokes.

    Q: What does the DEC repair person do when he figures out which tire is flat?
    A: Replaces the carburetor.

    Q: How long does it take a DEC repair person to figure out which tire is flat?
    A: It depends on how many spare flat tires they brought.


    Nyaa nyaa I still have my punchtapes from the lunar lander simulator I wrote (in 3k of memory…)