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e-Briefing | Celebrity Setup

Net's Father Knows Best

Thanks to technology, pioneer Vint Cerf is ready to conquer new worlds.

January 03, 2002

Vint Cerf is best known as one of the fathers of the Internet. But he's not just another geek with transistor envy. Technology literally made him the man he is. Cerf, 58 years old, has worn hearing aids since he was 13.

His day job is senior vice president for Internet architecture and technology with WorldCom, but he continues working as an Internet evangelist, holding top positions with some of the key groups that keep the worldwide network of networks together. And in his spare time, he holds down an appointment at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he's working on a design to expand Internet connectivity to outer space and even other planets.

Cerf lives in Northern Virginia, with his wife of 35 years, Sigrid, who also is hearing impaired. They have two grown sons.

DESKTOP: We have a lot. I was actually amused the other day when I went down to the basement and found three machines running, which made a total of five going in the house. And this is a house where two people are living.

Question: Why so many boxes?

Answer: Before the boys moved out, it was either get everybody their own computer or schedule time on the machine. And I didn't want to take the 3 a.m.-to-5 a.m. slot, so everybody got one, and then the kids left their equipment behind. What surprises me is that sometimes all these computers are in use.

Q: That does seem a little odd, now that you mention it.

A: Yeah, but when you have all those systems, you find yourself dedicating machines to single tasks. We use one just to do our finances, for example.

Q: How about laptops?

A: I carry an IBM Thinkpad. My wife has a Titanium Mac, which I like, but which gets pretty hot. My initial reaction was, gee, I wanted a laptop, not a weenie roast.

Q: Ouch. Any operating system preferences?

A: No, we try to be as eclectic as possible. The only thing missing is a Linux server, which I just haven't done yet because I haven't made the time.

HAND-HELD: I have a Palm. I use it mostly for scheduling. Mostly the calendar and address book. I haven't found it really comfortable to do Web surfing, since it's such a small, limited display. I do take short notes on it.... I wonder what future archeologists are going to think when they notice how, all of a sudden, our handwriting changed because so many of us use Graffiti with our Palms now.

Q: Is portability important to you?

A: Tremendously important, but it's funny, things are less portable than I'd like. When I travel I have to lug around a black bag with wheels. It's filled with power converters, batteries, adaptors for telephone systems, coax cable, radio transceivers.

Q: So you've still got to carry around a ton of stuff to make sure your "portable" equipment interacts with things like the indigenous power supply.

A: Plus there's a large number of devices such as the Palm and cell phone that I have to carry. I keep thinking that I need to get a Batman belt to carry all this. But things are getting better. You see a Palm with a GPS, Palm with a telephone attachment.

Q: What other stuff do you wear on your belt?

A: Two-way pagers. My favorite is a Motorola that I've tailored to pick up news items and things like that. It turned out to be quite useful when things were so awful on Sept. 11. I was stuck in a basement in Chicago and couldn't dial out, but I could stay in touch with people using instant messaging and e-mail. Thinking about how well that worked afterward actually got me excited, because the Internet seemed to play this vital role in linking everything together. My pet fantasy is that virtually all communications technology should interlink in some fashion. Why can't you send e-mail from the phone, if that's the best way to get the message?

HOME THEATER/ STEREO SYSTEM: It's nothing fancy, especially compared with some of the systems my friends have. We're not big home theater fan folks, we have a few big-screen TVs and DVD players.

Q: How has technology changed your life?

A: Technology is my life. My hearing has degraded steadily over the years, but fortunately the technology has improved along with it, so I haven't lost any ground.

Q: I remember calling you late at night at your home a few years ago and being absolutely stunned when Sigrid answered the phone.

A: (Laughter) Yeah, that was right after she got her first cochlear implant. That first one had electronics that clipped on the belt. She literally just got back from Johns Hopkins yesterday with a new one that hangs behind the ear. This technology means people with significant hearing loss can talk on the telephone. It's truly life altering.

And the most important thing apart from Sigrid's implant is the Internet. It's changed things for me in a significant way. My ability to get information in a hurry really astonishes me. It's been incredibly exciting and satisfying to see all these new applications pop up.

I do worry about an increasingly complex society, worry about things becoming so complex that the future becomes fragile. But basically, technology has improved our lives, and I'm grateful to have it.

*

As told to Dave Wilson

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