An Apocalyptic Visit!
(Or A Surf Behind CyberSpace)

In May of 1996, I happened to be visiting my parents, who live in a quiet residential area east of Providence RI. It was an unusually hectic 10 days there, but I managed to squeeze in a day away. My nephew, Matthew, who was at this time a graduate student at Fordham University also happened to be in the area visiting his folks. As we'd both been given an invitation to drive up and see the "digs" in the Boston area, we took advantage of the opportunity on a sunny, warm afternoon.
John Romkey maintains a place, actually two, in Cambridge (besides his main country home in New Hempshire.) One is a charming city residence, but the other, which everyone calls "The Ranch" is a pretty amazing location. But you wouldn't know that just to look at it. You'd have to be invited inside...
The structure is a beautiful and imposing Victorian house, with several floors, and gables and a large, inviting front porch. The kitchen is fully modernized, and worthy of a chef in a fine restaurant. There are many rooms for collaborators and compatriots in John's several businesses or just friends and guests, and lots of privacy when you need it. And when you don't there's a communal main floor with kitchen, living room, and a nifty modern audio-video system.
The "gang" was watching the X-Files the first time we arrived, so I followed Elmer Fudd's advice, to "Be vewy, vewy qwiet!" My nephew and I were given a compact edition cook's tour, including the extremely impressive basement facilities, with hot tub, plunge bath, and several other items that could be considered decadent, if it were not for the refined taste in every detail.
Just beside it I was shown a modest size room which contained a lot of computer and networking equipment. John gave me a brief description, and let me take some home video and snapshots. For those of you who've seen this kind of setup, most of this will be familiar territory. Around the room are several floor to ceiling (only about 7' in this room) shelf racks, with a maze of different boxes all carefully placed and wired together.

(Note: as usual, click any thumbnail photo for a larger view.)

Here's a November 1998 photo of the unassuming, yet gorgeous large house that John Romkey named "The Ranch", where many computer friends and other similarly intelligent associates rent apartments to live in and often to work in, (the house has many net connections, EtherNet, T1, a lot.) As it so happens, my nephew Matthew is among them at the moment (so he must have been impressed when we had that first "cook's tour" here in May of 1996...!) The basement also houses a lot of Net equipment, including the very server that this page is stored on. Check out the computer room's contents in pix and words below.

J. Romkey

And here we have a shot of our good host during your visit, John Romkey. Like many of us, John is not too enusiastic about having his picture taken. But this one came out quite decently, and I hope he'll be a little pleased. He used to live and work in this house, but now has a quiet home across the street there in Cambridge MA, while his main residence is in New Hampshire. He's kind of a private person, so we'll leave it at that!

Wire board

The wires from the "outside world" come in on a large plywood panel. This is a shot of the central portion. Connections are routed in the center and right, and interfaced within the box on the left. I live with a lotta wires in my studio, but this batch looked pretty impressive in 1996. It has since been added to, and organized better, too.

Linking Rack

To the right of that board is this rack, which contains the actual linking equipment, for T1 and other high-speed lines. A few computers have the mundane task of filtering unwanted data even before it gets sent on to the actual host machines. John explains that this saves a lot of other hassles. I could only wince at the thought of all those blocks of software that have to remain booted and functioning without error, along with the computers they reside within. And I thought MIDI Hell was scary!

Server Rack

This view shows John's hand on the far right, indicating that this rack, which is to the left of the big board, has the Apocalypse computer sitting toward the wall. The room is clearly not in a deep basement, as the drawn venetian blinds over a half-window indicate. But I saw it only after dark, which gives a different perspective to these things.

Old Cmptr

New Cmptr

And this is the actual computer that holds all of apocalypse, with many gigs of HD space, a fail-safe power source when live voltage goes down, a backup system for the gargantuan data, and a spare monitor for servicing and maintenance. Not very intimidating, but then, what did I expect, a Hal 9000 in a red and black cathedral of microcircuits? The upper image is the way the server looked in May of 1996; the lower is the server's much newer current computer, with many more of those "gigs and megs and MHz", taken in November of 1998 (the cover was off and to the left for maintenance when this photo was taken.)
What does all of this mean? To me it was rather exciting to see where my Cyber-Self is stored, for feeding out to anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day. Perhaps there'll be "mirror sites" eventually, which like any redundant system will help assure that things continue even when there's a system crash or worse. But it's gratifying on a human scale to discover, once more, that the most sterile and techno-appearing concepts in the end get realized as human sized boxes and wires and flashing LEDs. But don't ask me to explain any more of it than I've done. Or give me another year or six to catch up with more of the realities of this rapidly expanding field. Hell, I just got here myself!!

We hope you enjoyed your behind-the-scenes visit inside CyberSpace. Please watch your links on the way out, and surf in again sometime!

--Wendy Carlos

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Wendy Carlos, Apoc Cyber Visit
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