Thursday, November 1, 2007

Remembering Ted Brunner

This summer I read the Washington Post's lengthy obituary of Ted Brunner. Few classical scholars are made the subject of so many column inches in a national paper, so I was surprised this fall to discover that none of my Classics students knew who Ted Brunner was. The same quite serious majors who recognized the authors of eminently forgettable footnotes on Greek or Latin texts had apparently never heard of the director of one of the later twentieth century's most influential digital projects in the humanities. We classicists really have a lot of teaching to undo.
I leave it to others who knew Ted better than I to eulogize or analyze him. I offer only two observations from first-hand experience.
First, he remained always relentlessly focussed on data. The TLG was not about producing software: if you wanted software, Ted's attitude was that you should write your own. (Dinosaurs like myself will recall how far he could take this position. In the early years of the TLG, the project's at best arcane, in many ways bizarre data formats were almost aggressively undocumented: you got a nine-track tape, and if you wanted to understand the data, you were welcome to reverse-engineer the format as best you could.) In his own way, Ted Brunner was an early advocate of separation of concerns, and his view has been validated by the range of software developed over the past two decades for using the TLG's data. Most recently, Peter Heslin's release of version 3.x of Diogenes is a stunning piece of work (and deserves far more recognition than it has received). It integrates the TLG data with output from the Perseus project's morphological parser — a piece of software that in turn would probably never have been developed if the TLG had not existed. What a pity that since Ted's retirement the TLG has turned its back on this principle, and permits access to material digitized since 2000 only through its own, one-size-fits-all web interface.
Second, however sharply he could react to people he saw as threatening the TLG's work, he was extremely generous with his time to anyone interested in the TLG, no matter how unimportant. When I was a very lowly graduate student at Berkeley, I had a chance to visit the TLG project at Irvine, and Ted set aside an entire morning to give me a personal tour and answer my questions. (I am sure that I am not the only visitor to the TLG to come away with a vivid memory of Ted starting the standard pre-recorded TLG slide show and proudly pointing out that the narrator's incredible bass voice was none other than the voice of Tony the Tiger.)
So two small points — he focused on his data, and was generous to people who could not obviously or immediately help him.
I hope someone could remember as much about me after reading my obituary.
The Feast of All Saints, 2007.

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