By Michael L. Rozansky
and Dan Stets
INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
Behold Wired Man.
Seated at a table in a funky West Philadelphia restaurant, he is wearing
sandals with dark socks and a
bolo tie. There's a plastic protector in the pocket of his white
short-sleeve shirt, a two-way pager
belted above his right hip, and a tiny cellular telephone hanging by his
left hip. He totes a small zippered
case with a personal digital assistant.
Seeing him here, an electronic pack mule, it's hard to believe that David
J. Farber is a hip icon of the
But he is.
Farber is no ordinary nerd. That's a Mont Blanc pen in his pocket protector
and a $1,000 cellphone on
And he has some of the most technologically savvy thinkers in industry,
academia and government,
from Microsoft to the Central Intelligence Agency, listening to and
discussing his ideas every day.
In fact, this professor of telecommunications at the University of
Pennsylvania, this networking guru and
globe-trotting gadget-lover is one of the most influential nerds in the
In part, it is because of where he has been and what he has done. Farber,
62 and balding, was there at
the birth of what is now called the Internet, and he did more than his
share to help it along. He has
helped devise computer-programming languages, electronic telephone switches
His latest round of celebrity, though, comes from something called his IP
list. IP stands for interesting
persons, and it's an electronic mail list of thousands of people, screened
by Farber, who get his daily
bulletins, articles, gadget reviews and jottings.
Wired magazine, the self-appointed arbiter of all that is hip in
cyberspace, this month lauded Farber for
having "the technical chops and the public spirit to be the Paul Revere of
the Digital Revolution."
In its "who's in/who's out" list, Wired said the New Yorker's media
columnist Ken Auletta, was "tired;"
Farber was "wired."
"They decided it was time to call Dave `wired' because if he isn't, I don't
know who is," says John
Perry Barlow, a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and an occasional
Wired contributor who knows
a thing or two about what's hip.
"It was the personal style of Dave Farber and a very few other people like
him that set the style of the
nerd that we find so common today," Barlow says. "When he first started
wearing a pocket protector,
chances are nobody else was wearing one."
Now, Farber, the self-described "techno-yenta," is hot.
"Fame fleets fast," he says, in what sounds suspiciously like a Farberism,
the deliciously mangled
metaphors and tortured phrases for which he's also known. (Gander your eye
at that! . . . He
deserves a well-rounded hand of applause . . . He has his neck out on a limb.)
Nursing an iced coffee at the White Dog Cafe, Farber pulls his gadgets off
his belt. Lately he has been
musing publicly that he ought to put on weight to gain belt space.
"The fact I have to carry these three things is absolutely absurd," he
says, removing his cellphone. "This
thing should be a message system. It is, in parts of the world." But not
here, yet, so he carries a
two-way Motorola pager to get short e-mail messages and zap back
"I am stuck carrying around a lot of different pieces that should be
integrated," he says. Does he enjoy
testing them? "Yeeaahh," he says, in his native Jersey City accent.
"They're fun. They sometimes get
frustrating. In a sense, it's the only way you know where you want to go."
"Dave has got more gadgets than anybody I know of," says Mitchell Marcus,
chairman of Penn's
computer and information science department. "He has almost a child's
delight in neat ideas and neat
Indeed, Farber exudes childlike enthusiasm for technology and occasionally
shows childish delight in
being "a troublemaker," the kid in the back of the class who revels in
asking the tough questions.
He likes to think big -- very big. As a high school student, he dreamed of
being a cosmologist, studying
the origins of the universe. But a high-school adviser said he couldn't
make a living at it and diverted
him into engineering. Farber headed off to Stevens Institute of Technology
In his sophomore year, he worked with a chemistry professor to build an
automatic chemical analyzer.
"It was the wildest thing, looking back on it," he says. It was programmed
the old-fashioned way, with
computer punch cards.
The next summer he "lucked out" in a Farber-like way. He landed a job in
one of the few
air-conditioned buildings in Washington, doing research on the first
transistor analog computer for the
Navy's nuclear-propulsion program.
"In hindsight, I should have never been in that room because I had no
[security] clearance," he
remembers. Besides getting in on the ground floor in computer research, he
also got to sleep in the
cooled building at night.
After Stevens, he was admitted for graduate study at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. Before
he began, he agreed on a lark to talk with a recruiter for AT&T's Bell
Labs, which was working on the
first electronic telephone switch.
The interview turned into "a violent, actually very crazy argument" because
Farber thought that Bell
Labs was building the switch all wrong. The brash young Farber had nothing
to lose -- he was bound
for MIT -- but the talk turned his career around. He was offered work at
Bell Labs and stayed 11
years. There he met his wife, GG, a computer programmer, and shifted into
programming and math
research, helping to create a popular computer language called SNOBOL. It
was so called because, as
Farber tells it, one day he blurted out in frustration that there wasn't "a
snowball's chance in hell" of
finding a good name for it.
At Bell Labs, he again toyed with the idea of leaving for MIT to study the
emerging world of computer
science, but was asked, why bother when he was already in the center of
some of the most important
computer research in the world. Later he received a master's degree from
Stevens, before moving to
the Rand Corp., where a recruiter had termed him "a national resource."
By the late '70s, Farber had moved to the University of Delaware, where he
helped develop a network
called CSNet that linked computer-science departments at some 500 colleges
and universities. "CSNet
was a project to create the first real community network," said another of
its creators, Peter Denning,
who chairs the computer science department at George Mason University.
One of its central features was an electronic mail system, which let
faculty in small, far-flung
departments swap ideas. "E-mail is the real, underlying binding," Farber
says, "the person-to-person
For Farber, e-mail remains the crucial means of communications.
"If all you gave me was the telephone, I would be out of business," he
says. "I couldn't deal with my
students, I couldn't deal with anybody. I certainly couldn't deal with
people . . . in Japan and Europe.
We'd never find time to talk to each other."
Gregory Farrington, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science
at Penn, refers to the
"virtual Farber in the real world. Sometimes he's here, sometimes he's not,
but if I try to get him
electronically, I can always get him. He's one of the most engaging,
imaginative guys, who sometimes
alternates between great ideas and things that sound nuts. And I love them
both. His life is an
elaboration on both."
Farber worked on other ground-breaking networks with such names as NSFNet
and Bitnet II, which
were eventually absorbed into today's Internet. In 1989, he joined the
University of Pennsylvania.
"Probably the thing that made me make the decision, beside Penn being a
great school, was that I
couldn't resist the thought of a non-Ph.D. being a full professor at an Ivy
League School. It was just too
much," Farber says. The university says it's rare in his field, though he
isn't its only full-time faculty
member without a Ph.D.
At Penn a few years ago, Farber led a project -- the sort of research
needed to build an information
highway -- that shot data from Philadelphia to Boston at2.4 billion bits
per second. That's moving data
fast enough to send the Encyclopedia Britannica in a quarter of a second.
What distinguishes him from many academics, colleagues say, is his penchant
for creative, playful
thinking. "Many academic computer scientists focus on very small technical
advances," says Marcus.
"Dave reliably focuses on the very big picture."
It was that ability and his technological sophistication that Barlow and
Mitchell Kapor to ask Farber to
be one of the first board members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation
(EFF), the premier
civil-liberties organization in cyberspace.
"We just knew that he understood the dimension we were dealing with as well
as anyone could,"
Barlow says. "He had the right instincts and he had a great deal of
personal clout with the old-boy
network that created the Internet."
"He's a very wise person about computers and networks and how they are used
in the real world," said
Kapor, the father of Lotus 1-2-3. He wanted Farber to join EFF not just
because he's "technologically
deep," but also because "he had a sense of how the technology could affect
That sense of technology's real-world usefulness is a recurring thread in
the IP list. Last week Farber
reviewed his two-way pager ("Bottom line, the 2way is damn useful") and
apologized for the "mess"
created by an e-mail program he was testing ("I hate software"). In
between, the IP list featured the
administration's views on the communications revolution, plugged-in Finns,
and Japan's attitudes toward
"It's very useful," says Dorothy Denning, a computer science professor at
Georgetown University and
the wife of Peter Denning. "It's probably the best list that I'm on."
The list began nine years ago when a friend of Farber's asked him to send
along interesting things that
he'd seen. It has since spiraled into a nationally known tip sheet, read by
as many as 25,000 people,
which reflects Farber's interests, prejudices and passions. One story has
it that senior White House
staff members at work on the information highway put out Letterman-esque
list of the Top 10 reasons
to love the Internet.
Among the 10, as Farber himself proudly tells it, was: "`So we can wake up
every morning and get our
marching orders from Dave Farber."
For More Information
David Farber's home page on the Internet can be browsed at:
** History 101** Hiroshima 45 - Chernobyl 86 - Windows 95 ============================================= "The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste, they have absolutely no taste, and what that means is, I don't mean that in a small way I mean that in a big way. I have a problem with the fact that they just make really third rate products."
Steve Jobs, Triumph of the Nerds, PBS Documentary