rape culture

This recent Rolling Stone arti­cle about rape at the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia is pretty upsetting.

It’s just the lat­est in a string of hor­ror sto­ries over the past year about rape cul­ture, lack of empa­thy and denial, both gen­er­ally and on Amer­i­can cam­puses in par­tic­u­lar.  It seems hard to sep­a­rate the bru­tal­ity in the frat house, stu­dents’ misog­y­nis­tic ideas about social hier­ar­chy, neg­li­gence and mis­han­dling of com­plaints by cam­pus secu­rity, and a sweeping-under-the-rug atti­tude by PR-minded admin­is­tra­tors.  This is a per­va­sive val­ues prob­lem. As the arti­cle notes,

UVA’s empha­sis on honor is so pro­nounced that since 1998, 183 peo­ple have been expelled for honor-code vio­la­tions such as cheat­ing on exams. And yet para­dox­i­cally, not a sin­gle stu­dent at UVA has ever been expelled for sex­ual assault.

My first response was to try to pin the hor­ror safely on the South.  The data, how­ever, don’t cooperate.

A search for “rape at Princeton”—my alma mater, safely up north and recently ranked #1 in under­grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion for the nth time by US News and World Report—turns up an offi­cial fig­ure of 5 rapes on cam­pus last year.  Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad; it’s lower than the CDC’s esti­mate of rape inci­dence in the US over­all (about 1/1000 of the pop­u­la­tion per year).  But how real is this fig­ure?  It seems that the same Title IX inves­ti­ga­tion now dig­ging into mis­han­dling of sex­ual vio­lence com­plaints at UVA is also tar­get­ing Prince­ton, along with more than 50 other Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties.  I’ve put the com­plete list at the bot­tom of this post, for the interested.

I don’t know for sure why Prince­ton is on this list, but a piece in Jezebel from ear­lier this year might sup­ply a clue.  It describes a rape sur­vey report con­ducted in 2008, which the Uni­ver­sity tried to bury, con­clud­ing that

One in six female Prince­ton under­grad­u­ates said they expe­ri­enced “non-consensual vagi­nal pen­e­tra­tion” dur­ing their time at the University.

Sounds like rape to me—if nar­rowly defined.  Assum­ing four years at col­lege and a stu­dent body of 5000 with the gen­ders evenly split, that would amount to over 100 rapes per year.  Could this num­ber have gone down by a fac­tor of 20 between 2008 and 2014?  Really?

Despite decades of lip ser­vice, it seems at first glance like noth­ing much has hap­pened for women’s rights since I went to col­lege in the 90s.  But in the next decade, gen­der and sex­ual pol­i­tics may really—finally—start to change.  Let’s be opti­mists.  Per­haps the parade of absur­dist hor­ror we’ve seen in the past year (more cam­pus rapes, the Bill Cosby scan­dal, gamer­gate, Mattel’s Com­puter Engi­neer Bar­bie book, etc., etc.) her­alds a shift in the wind, a col­lec­tive sense that we’ve finally under­stood as a soci­ety that some­thing is very wrong, has been for a long time, and that we’ve had enough.  As The Guardian points out,

[...] it’s no coin­ci­dence that anti-feminist back­lash hap­pens most often when women’s rights are on an upswing.

Maybe we’re finally get­ting it.

The Title IX inves­ti­ga­tion list:

AZ Ari­zona State University
CA Butte-Glen Com­mu­nity Col­lege District
CA Occi­den­tal College
CA Uni­ver­sity of California-Berkeley
CA Uni­ver­sity of South­ern California
CO Regis Uni­ver­sity
CO Uni­ver­sity of Col­orado at Boulder
CO Uni­ver­sity of Col­orado at Denver
CO Uni­ver­sity of Denver
CT Uni­ver­sity of Connecticut
DC Catholic Uni­ver­sity of America
FL Florida State University
GA Emory Uni­ver­sity
HI Uni­ver­sity of Hawaii at Manoa
ID Uni­ver­sity of Idaho
IL Knox Col­lege
IL Uni­ver­sity of Chicago
IN Indi­ana University-Bloomington
IN Vin­cennes University
MA Amherst Col­lege
MA Boston Uni­ver­sity
MA Emer­son College
MA Har­vard College
MA Har­vard University—Law School
MA Uni­ver­sity of Massachusetts-Amherst
MD Frost­burg State University
MI Michi­gan State University
MI Uni­ver­sity of Michigan-Ann Arbor
NC Guil­ford College
NC Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina at Chapel Hill
ND Minot State University
NH Dart­mouth College
NJ Prince­ton University
NY Cuny Hunter College
NY Hobart and William Smith Colleges
NY Sarah Lawrence College
NY Suny at Binghamton
OH Deni­son University
OH Ohio State University
OH Wit­ten­berg University
OK Okla­homa State University
PA Carnegie Mel­lon University
PA Franklin and Mar­shall College
PA Penn­syl­va­nia State University
PA Swarth­more College
PA Tem­ple University
TN Van­der­bilt University
TX South­ern Methodist University
TX The Uni­ver­sity of Texas-Pan American
VA Col­lege of William and Mary
VA Uni­ver­sity of Virginia
WA Wash­ing­ton State University
WI Uni­ver­sity of Wisconsin-Whitewater
WV Bethany Col­lege
WV West Vir­ginia School of Osteo­pathic Medicine

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maria and dave

Maria-Dave-Blaise - by Petra

It’s been a fun week.  On Wednes­day night, our good friend Maria Sem­ple orga­nized an 826 ben­e­fit at Town Hall with Dave Eggers, and invited me onstage to do the read­ing with them and answer ques­tions.  Maria read from Bernadette’s let­ter to her men­tor (both funny and quite beau­ti­ful), and the three of us did an omi­nous tri­a­logue from The Cir­cle– me as bad guy, obviously–

The Circle - our passage

Dave and Maria have entirely dif­fer­ent approaches to writ­ing, and were a vivid con­trast. Notes vs. no notes, com­posed in scenes vs. start to end, per­sonal vs. jour­nal­is­tic (with the excep­tion of A Heart­break­ing Work of Stag­ger­ing Genius), par­al­lel vs. ser­ial pro­duc­tion. There was a healthy dose of mutual respect, and a cer­tain amount of rib­bing (I now know an alter­nate def­i­n­i­tion of “under­writ­ten”, an adjec­tive applied, retracted, and then on provo­ca­tion re-applied by Maria in a very Bernadet­teish moment).

Under­writ­ten or not, Dave’s spon­ta­neous McSweeney’s-style sketches are impressive:

Eggers - HeartbreakingEggers - What is the whatEggers - Zeitoun

Feel­ing pretty happy about our life and friends in Seattle.

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christopher frizzelle interview

Hey, I made it onto Slog last week!  Excit­ing, since this is pretty much my main source of news.  I think life wouldn’t be so bad if The Stranger really were the English-speaking world’s only newspaper.


Christo­pher Frizzelle did this short inter­view with me in advance of my “spe­cial appear­ance”.  I’m copy­ing some of it here in case, you know, the author­i­ties raid The Stranger’s offices, find the drugs, and shut down their Inter­net operations–

In Dave Eggers’s novel The Cir­cle, images uploaded by reg­u­lar peo­ple through social media become ter­ri­fy­ing sur­veil­lance tools—creating a total loss of pri­vacy world­wide. Is it pos­si­ble that innocu­ous, per­sonal images like that—me and my mom at the beach, say—can be mined for data to such ter­ri­fy­ing ends?

The Cir­cle envi­sions a lot of sce­nar­ios far beyond photo shar­ing. The sin­is­ter “clos­ing of the cir­cle” involves a total destruc­tion of pri­vacy by means includ­ing manda­tory sign-up of the whole pop­u­la­tion using real names, embed­ding of track­ing chips in the human body, rad­i­cal pub­lic self-quantification, and ubiq­ui­tous real­time cam­eras stream­ing high-definition video from every­where on Earth. So no, a few pho­tos of you and your mom on the beach posted to a social media site are prob­a­bly about as innocu­ous as they sound.

Of course, given that the web empow­ers us all to be pub­lish­ers with global reach, we have new social respon­si­bil­i­ties. Abuses of these respon­si­bil­i­ties have cre­ated the poten­tial for harm to one­self or to oth­ers. I’m think­ing of revenge porn and online bullying.

Social media aside, I per­son­ally think pri­vacy in the online era is a very real concern—especially given the many ben­e­fits of using the Inter­net and the cloud to store and trans­mit per­sonal data. Pretty much all of us do this—it’s enor­mously empow­er­ing and con­ve­nient. Remem­ber what life was like before email or mes­sag­ing, and when pho­tos lived in shoe­boxes or, even worse, on those exter­nal hard dri­ves that tend to no longer work when left on the shelf for a few years? So I think it’s very impor­tant for us to have an Inter­net we can trust with our stuff, with­out wor­ry­ing that the gov­ern­ment is sur­veilling it with­out a war­rant. That’s one of the rea­sons I’ve found the Snow­den leaks so upset­ting, and why I believe we need strong Fourth Amendment-like pro­tec­tions for our pri­vate data, whether offline or online.

Read­ing The Cir­cle made me ter­ri­fied of the future. What was your reaction?

I’m a cau­tious opti­mist, and I see it as my job to do what I can to influ­ence the future pos­i­tively and mind­fully. I don’t believe in a zero-sum world­view in which we must choose between pri­vacy and self-quantification, for exam­ple, or between intro­spec­tion and social behav­ior. I think that well-made tech­nol­ogy can empower us to be more human, not less.

I lis­ten and read a lot. I picked up a copy of The Cir­cle back when it first came out not only because Dave Eggers is a bril­liant writer, but also because I think he’s an impor­tant thinker. Those of us who are engi­neer­ing new tech­nol­ogy should look closely at both utopian and dystopian futures. We should under­stand some­thing about the bright and dark spots of our his­tory too—these are pow­er­ful inoc­u­lants. By avoid­ing the blithe ahis­tori­cism and anti-intellectualism of char­ac­ters like Mae in The Cir­cle, or Eunice Park in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, we can avoid mak­ing some of the obvi­ous mistakes.

Maria Sem­ple has said you were the inspi­ra­tion for the TED-talking, Microsoft-genius dad in her book Where’d You Go, Bernadette. What did you think of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? What was it like to read about a char­ac­ter loosely based on you?

Of course it was really fun! Maria seemed a lit­tle appre­hen­sive about this when she sent the advance copy. But Elgie and I are only sim­i­lar in some very broad out­lines. The char­ac­ter is devel­oped purely to serve the story’s ends; she didn’t set out to make a por­trait of me. So while it was a funny shock to read those few semi-biographical sen­tences, the feel­ing wore off quickly as the story picked up. I loved the book, and posted a review on my blog. It’s timely, well-written, scorch­ingly funny, and ulti­mately packs quite a punch. I kind of knew it would go big.

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A let­ter to Washington.


The Hon­or­able Eric Holder
Depart­ment of Justice
Robert F. Kennedy Building
Tenth Street and Con­sti­tu­tion Avenue, N.W.
Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 20530

Dear Attor­ney Gen­eral Holder:

I recently attended the TED2014 con­fer­ence, where I had occa­sion to lis­ten to talks by Edward Snow­den and NSA Deputy Direc­tor Richard Ledgett.

I’m a long­time mem­ber of the TED com­mu­nity– it’s my 10th year attend­ing.  I’m a tech­nol­o­gist with a back­ground in applied math and neu­ro­science, cur­rently lead­ing a team work­ing on Machine Intel­li­gence at Google.  In this let­ter I’m speak­ing for myself, not for my employer.

I wanted to take this oppor­tu­nity to share with you my thoughts on the issues around Edward Snowden’s disclosures.

The dis­clo­sures– and the debate they launched– have revi­tal­ized demo­c­ra­tic over­sight. Pres­i­dent Obama him­self has said: “I wel­come this debate.  And I think it’s healthy for our democracy.”

The Pres­i­dent is right. The debate has been healthy for our democ­racy and for democ­ra­cies around the world.  Before the dis­clo­sures, all three branches of the gov­ern­ment had approved these pro­grams in the dark.  Now, all three branches of gov­ern­ment are engaged in a his­toric re-evaluation of the NSA’s sur­veil­lance prac­tices.  And Pres­i­dent Obama has agreed to end the mass track­ing of Amer­i­cans’ phone calls.

As a senior leader in infor­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy (prior to Google I was a Dis­tin­guished Engi­neer at Microsoft work­ing on online ser­vices), I have been espe­cially trou­bled by what I have learned about the NSA’s activ­i­ties– and I am grate­ful to Edward Snow­den for work­ing with jour­nal­ists to edu­cate the pub­lic about them.  The NSA’s drag­net sur­veil­lance activ­i­ties, and its exploita­tion of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works, have under­mined our cyber­se­cu­rity and harmed our busi­ness– espe­cially over­seas.  We are now col­lec­tively per­ceived as hav­ing abused our stew­ard­ship of much of the world’s cloud com­put­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions technology.

The rev­e­la­tions have been shock­ing, and I can only wish they had come out sooner, to allow for an ear­lier course cor­rec­tion.  I believe that show­ing leniency to Edward Snow­den would send a pow­er­ful mes­sage to the world that the US takes these con­cerns seri­ously– and is seri­ous about reform.


Blaise Aguera y Arcas

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30 years of TED

TED2014Through­out most of last week I was wear­ing a giant badge with a metal tag on it announc­ing that this was my 10th TED.  The con­fer­ence itself was in ret­ro­spec­tive mode, cel­e­brat­ing its 30th birth­day.  Nos­tal­gia aside though, in many ways this was my favorite TED yet– lots of strong talks, includ­ing a remark­able inter­view with Edward Snow­den (and response from NSA Deputy Direc­tor Richard Led­gett).  My life has been greatly enriched by the ten weeks I’ve spent in Mon­terey, Long Beach, and now (thank­fully) Van­cou­ver.  Of course not all of the talks are good, but many of the most sur­pris­ing and delight­ful things I’ve seen and heard in the past decade, and many of the most inter­est­ing peo­ple I’ve met, I’ve seen, heard and met there.

A num­ber of us were asked to play futur­ist for the TED blog and write down our pre­dic­tions about the biggest and most sur­pris­ing changes head­ing our way over the next 30 years.  Mine are:

1. Machine Intelligence

I think that just as the Inter­net has been such a great dri­ver of change across so many spheres over the past 20 years, we will see machine intel­li­gence in the same role over the com­ing decades.

Today, we are as an intel­li­gent species essen­tially sin­gu­lar. There are of course some other brainy species, like chim­panzees, dol­phins, crows and octo­puses, but if any­thing they only empha­size our unique posi­tion on Earth— as ani­mals richly gifted with self-awareness, lan­guage, abstract thought, art, math­e­mat­i­cal capa­bil­ity, sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and so on. Many of us have staked our entire self-concept on the idea that to be human is to have a mind, and that minds are the unique province of humans. For those of us who are not reli­gious, this could be inter­preted as the last bas­tion of dual­ism. Our eco­nomic, legal and eth­i­cal sys­tems are also implic­itly built around this idea.

Now, we’re well along the road to really under­stand­ing the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of how a mind can be built, and Moore’s Law will put brain-scale com­put­ing within reach this decade. (We need to put some aster­isks next to Moore’s Law, since we are already run­ning up against cer­tain lim­its in com­pu­ta­tional scale using our present-day approaches, but I’ll stand behind the broader state­ment.) When we reach this point, we will find our­selves no longer alone. It’s dif­fi­cult to over­state the impor­tance that moment will have in our future history.

It may well result in fur­ther non­lin­ear­ity in the “rate” of his­tory too, since minds and what we’ve dreamt up with them have been the engine behind his­tory and its acceleration.

2. Gen­der Selection

For many thou­sands of years we’ve lived in a male-dominated soci­ety. I don’t think that we’re shift­ing toward “female dom­i­nance” so much as I think that the whole idea of dom­i­nance is a male par­a­digm, and that it is this par­a­digm that is being selected against— by increas­ing pop­u­la­tion den­sity in the urban cores, increas­ing edu­ca­tion, larger work­ing groups, increas­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion, ris­ing tech­no­log­i­cal lever­age, global trade and so on. It may be dif­fi­cult to imag­ine this now, when the vast major­ity of the world’s cap­i­tal is still in the hands of men and many of the STEM fields (which are also among the highest-paid) are still over­whelm­ingly male, but I think that men— and espe­cially “manly men” exhibit­ing many of the clas­si­cal cor­re­lates of high testos­terone— will be at a dis­tinct dis­ad­van­tage in 30 years time. This rep­re­sents a pro­found upset of the patri­ar­chal sys­tem that has defined vir­tu­ally all of recorded his­tory, so … it’ll be a big deal.

3. Post-subsistence Economics

As machine intel­li­gence, robot­ics, and tech­no­log­i­cal lever­age in gen­eral increas­ingly decou­ple pro­duc­tiv­ity from labor, we will con­tinue to see unem­ploy­ment rise even in oth­er­wise healthy economies. The end state is one in which most forms of human labor are sim­ply not required. In 30 years, if not sooner, we will be fac­ing this unprece­dented sit­u­a­tion— and whether it’s heaven or hell depends on whether we’re able to let go of cap­i­tal­ism, eco­nomic Dar­win­ism and the Calvin­ist ethics that implic­itly under­lie these sys­tems. With­out a change of course, we will see mass unem­ploy­ment drive a rad­i­cal accel­er­a­tion of the already dra­matic imbal­ance between the very wealthy few and every­one else, lead­ing to ugly con­di­tions in the cities and ulti­mately vio­lent uprising.

On the other hand, if we are able to set aside our Calvin­ism, we will real­ize that given the tech­no­log­i­cal effi­cien­cies we have achieved, every­one can live well, with or with­out a job. Cap­i­tal­ism, entre­pre­neur­ship and other sys­tems of dif­fer­en­tial wealth cre­ation could still func­tion on top of this hor­i­zon­tal base; but every­one must be fed and housed decently, have access to free health care and edu­ca­tion, and be able to live a good life. I assume the nation-state will still be a rel­e­vant legal and eco­nomic con­struct in 30 years (though I’m not sure, as cor­po­ra­tions or pos­si­bly other struc­tures will com­pli­cate the pic­ture); my guess is that we will see both paths taken in dif­fer­ent parts of the world, lead­ing to mis­ery and war in some, where either the ben­e­fits of accel­er­at­ing tech­nol­ogy are slow to pen­e­trate or Dar­win­ian eco­nom­ics are left unchecked.

4. Self-modification

We’re rapidly fig­ur­ing out not only how the brain is engi­neered, but also the body. Of course this implies greater mas­tery over mech­a­nisms of dis­ease, but more broadly, as biol­ogy becomes first under­stood and then engi­neered, Nature becomes open to pro­found and rapid mod­i­fi­ca­tion. I don’t doubt that we will be able to alter aging mech­a­nisms, “fix” var­i­ous bugs in human “design”, make novel organ­isms and ulti­mately mod­ify our own natures. As we reach the end of the 30 year period it’s hard for me to imag­ine that peo­ple won’t begin to explore these capa­bil­i­ties, which seems likely to lead to accel­er­ated spe­ci­a­tion. Machine intel­li­gence and bio­engi­neer­ing will both demand that we rethink our legal and eth­i­cal foun­da­tions in a vari­ety of ways.

5. Space

The world’s space pro­grams have been essen­tially dor­mant for decades, as we’ve focused inward on devel­op­ments like com­put­ers and the Inter­net, biol­ogy and neu­ro­science. But as our fun­da­men­tal tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ties improve, bar­ri­ers to space explo­ration do begin to come down; what was once a heroic effort requir­ing the full brunt of the resources of the rich­est coun­tries on Earth will come within reach of com­pa­nies and (ini­tially, rich) indi­vid­u­als. We’ve seen only the first stir­rings of this with under­tak­ings like SpaceX and Moon Express.

At some point our grasp of mate­ri­als sci­ence and nanofab­ri­ca­tion will become suf­fi­cient to build a space ele­va­tor, at which point our world will expand a great deal as the ener­getic cost of escap­ing Earth’s grav­ity well goes to near zero, as many sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers of the 20th cen­tury imag­ined. While I’m unsure of whether the space ele­va­tor will hap­pen within the 30 year period, I’m con­fi­dent we’ll see this within our lifetimes.

6. Sex­ual and lifestyle freedom

In 30 years, I think that not only will the more pro­gres­sive places in the world have fin­ished rec­on­cil­ing them­selves to the wide spec­trum of sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and expres­sion, but also to a wide vari­ety of life con­fig­u­ra­tions beyond the nuclear fam­ily built around a sin­gle life­long pair-bond. There are many forces con­tribut­ing to this shift, and I sus­pect that an empir­i­cal case can be made for this in much the same way as for the gen­der ideas above. This is the least devel­oped of my six ideas, but one that I think will have pro­found implications.

Bonus: Energy

One thing I’m leav­ing off the list above is the poten­tial avail­abil­ity of very cheap, very abun­dant energy at some point in the future.  Many aspects of our out­look are con­di­tioned on the premise that energy is lim­ited and expen­sive. As a thought exper­i­ment, one can ask, “what if energy in vir­tu­ally any amount were free?” This could imply an end to drought any­where via desali­na­tion of sea­wa­ter; it could allow us to enact cli­mate con­trol­ling inter­ven­tions on a mas­sive scale, engi­neer mate­ri­als that are cur­rently cost-prohibitive, or let us get into space eas­ily even if we con­tinue to do it the hard way.

(Although freely avail­able energy could let us save great ecosys­tems cur­rently under dire threat, with­out great care it could also lead to dis­as­ter through chem­i­cal, ther­mal, bio­log­i­cal and noise pol­lu­tion on an unprece­dented scale.)

We know that in prin­ci­ple vast amounts of energy are avail­able to us through nuclear processes, so in prin­ci­ple an inno­va­tion could come along at any time that lets us tap safely into this energy. That would change every­thing. How­ever, there is no trend or indi­ca­tion that sug­gests a time­line for such a devel­op­ment— it could hap­pen next week, or still be a pipe dream a cen­tury from now.

* * *

As a post­script, one of my col­leagues asked me why cli­mate change didn’t make it onto my list.  I sup­pose it was because the brief was to write about “things that will blow our minds in the next 30 years”, and our cli­mate (and more broadly, envi­ron­men­tal) prob­lem seems likely to be just as bad as every­one intel­li­gent has been say­ing it’s going to be.  I don’t think a sin­gle one of my 10 TEDs so far has failed to include a tightly-argued cli­mate Cas­san­dra– accel­er­at­ing deser­ti­fi­ca­tion, molten tun­dra, drowned cities, a bil­lion dis­placed peo­ple.  So our minds should not be blown when we find out that our mod­els were right.  There are all-too-plausible “mind-blowing” futures in which the prob­lems we’re cre­at­ing for our­selves are so severe that none of my other pre­dic­tions come to pass, and we instead expe­ri­ence global climate-mediated civ­i­liza­tional col­lapse in the Jared Dia­mond sense.  Even in the best sce­nario, there will be dev­as­tat­ing losses.  Let’s hope that we can pull it together enough to mud­dle our way through to the amaz­ing futures on the far side of this bot­tle­neck.  I’m cau­tiously hopeful.

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Nick Wing­field at the New York Times just broke the news that I’m going to Google.  On one hand, of course this is tremen­dously excit­ing; Google is a com­pany of grand ambi­tions and bril­liant peo­ple.  On the other hand it has been hard— very hard— to detach emo­tion­ally from Microsoft.  The company’s lead­er­ship has been con­sis­tently good to me over these past eight years, and it has been a time filled with cre­ativ­ity and growth and good friends.  It’s painful to leave behind so many won­der­ful ongo­ing projects, and even more so to leave behind such a great team.

The hard­est deci­sion of my life.

thank you ellen

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latter day scones

It takes only about 15 min­utes to pro­duce a bas­ket­ful of lovely hot scones, feath­erlight, on the table.”

Thus begins the Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly recipe on p. 76 of the Cook­ing Class Cook­book. Although I’ve put the scone recipe on styleisvi­o­lence before, it was per­haps not in the most digestible form. I’ll adapt it more read­ably here, since this is a recipe that I’m sure we’ll need in a pinch some­where, some­time in the future, per­haps on a driz­zly day in a Scot­tish cas­tle with good WiFi, or to impress expats at the British embassy in Algiers.


  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 tea­spoons bak­ing powder
  • 1 tea­spoon salt
  • 1 tea­spoon sugar
  • 1oz (30g) butter
  • ½ cup milk
  • ¼ cup water

Pre­heat oven to 475 Fahren­heit. Mix the dry ingre­di­ents. Rub in the but­ter with the fin­ger­tips until it resem­bles fine bread­crumbs; do not over-handle. Pour in the milk and water and mix lightly and quickly to form the dough. Turn it out onto a floured sur­face, knead lightly and pat to a 2cm thick­ness. Cut into cylin­ders with a floured cham­pagne flute. Put the cylin­ders on a lightly greased cookie sheet, packed in close, and brush with a bit of milk. Bake about 10 min­utes, or until done. While bak­ing, whip some cream and find the jam.

Make tea.

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This baby has been a long time in ges­tat­ing.  Hats off to Ben, Kai and Tom for cre­at­ing, over I won’t say how many years, the great­est app ever to ren­der a retina dis­play pixel.  Frax is not only the metic­u­lous cul­mi­na­tion of a life­long pas­sion for frac­tal geom­e­try, and a Borges-like infi­nite cab­i­net of won­ders, but also a stun­ning algo­rith­mic achievement.


Those of us who have spent long and lazy evenings at Ben’s place know about his obses­sions.  The beau­ti­ful espresso machine with its many Illy cups in every design, the Bösendor­fer that goes down to 11, the sea kayak­ing, and in recent years, a string of Face­book posts in which he and Jenna are appar­ently break­ing free div­ing records (!?).  Also, the puz­zles.  Dodec­a­he­dral Rubik’s cubes and inter­lock­ing notchy bars and origami impos­si­bil­i­ties.  There are puz­zles every­where at Ben’s, and solv­ing them is his great obses­sion.  Most of them are dis­em­bod­ied: there is no richer, more per­fect lan­guage for pos­ing and solv­ing a puz­zle than the instruc­tion set of a com­puter.  And Frax is the mas­ter­piece.  Nes­tled in the NEON-optimized inner loops of the Frax code are tricks so inge­nious that, if there really is a Book, they must be in there.

Go buy it.

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I began keep­ing note­books at age 7 or 8.  My par­ents must have sent this one in a box a while ago.

00 - notebook

The entries in it date from late 1985 to early 1986, so I would have been 10 at the time: a lit­tle pudgy, with an over­bite, a bowl cut, and a very seri­ous expres­sion.  It’s funny how clearly I remem­ber this object.

02 - notebook open cropped

04 - notebook edge

03 - hecho en mexico croppedI asked my par­ents if we could buy it because I liked its pseudo-Edwardian design— and I liked the idea of a ref­er­ence note­book of this size, with one side a direc­tory of con­tacts and the other a pad of blank paper where I could keep track of the things that really mat­tered to me.  Like resis­tor codes, col­ormaps, note fre­quen­cies, pro­gram­ming key­words and ASCII tables:

05 - computer cropped

In truth this was a the­o­ret­i­cal exer­cise, because I knew all of this stuff like the back of my hand.  It was such a sig­nif­i­cant part of my lit­tle pri­vate uni­verse, as famil­iar as the lay­out of our apart­ment and the graf­fiti scratched into my school desk.

06 - electromagnet cropped 2So in the next pages, ref­er­ence tables quickly give way to notes and inven­tions, real­ized to dif­fer­ent degrees.  I was obsessed with elec­tro­mag­net­ism, which is unsur­pris­ing in ret­ro­spect.  Many of my obses­sions were about the trans­duc­tion of things unseen— usu­ally cur­rent in wires— into the tan­gi­ble, and vice versa.  Any­thing that might medi­ate or inter­con­vert between elec­tric­ity and some­thing that could be seen, felt or heard was interesting.

07 - magnetometer cropped

level meter squareThis was an appli­ca­tion to some­thing like an elec­trom­e­ter or mag­ne­tome­ter— I imag­ined that the com­pass would swing toward north if mag­ne­tized, or the charged nee­dle align with an ambi­ent elec­tric field, and the induc­tors would gen­er­ate cur­rents that would allow the vec­tor to be read out.  It was inspired by the coils in speak­ers, and a volt­meter I took apart.

08 - quad nand croppedI had a 200-in-1 elec­tron­ics kit, and was espe­cially enchanted with the cou­ple of prim­i­tive chips on there— includ­ing such won­ders as a quad NAND gate.  The kit had a book full of cir­cuit designs, which I dis­dained to build as writ­ten (though in frus­tra­tion, when my own designs didn’t work, I would some­times try to appro­pri­ate them by redraw­ing the cir­cuits with­out look­ing at the original).

09 - mystery circuit cropped09a - crystal set radio cropped square

The crys­tal set radio was a main­stay, though the only way I ever got this to work was by string­ing up a giant antenna, and could only ever pick up one station.

09b - initial design for alarm cropped

This was a sim­ple but impor­tant cir­cuit: an alarm designed to go off if my par­ents were in the hall.  I taped the pho­to­tran­sis­tor just above cat height.  For many years I insisted on total pri­vacy while “work­ing”, and hated to be inter­fered with.  Part of the rea­son was that there was gen­er­ally some­thing taken apart in the room that should not have been, per­haps even some­thing not strictly mine.  But I also just really liked to be left alone.

10a - rubber tubing and doped silicon cropped

Mex­ico City’s water was undrink­able.  I wanted to purify it with a still, or maybe by elec­trolyz­ing it and recom­bin­ing the hydro­gen and oxygen.

10b - snorkel water distillation cropped

As some of these designs were solar, this led to think­ing about solar power gen­er­a­tion.  I imag­ined beau­ti­ful glass balls on top of build­ings with spin­ning rotors inside, elim­i­nat­ing the need for a power grid.

11 - pgab solar generator using beta rays cropped

11a - pgab explanation cropped

But in my heart I wor­ried about the effi­ciency of gen­er­at­ing power by knock­ing elec­trons off of the doped selenium.

13 - solar generator with piston cropped

This was a more direct approach, based on some­thing like a Stir­ling engine.  Slowly rec­i­p­ro­cat­ing pis­tons would drive a generator.

14 - perpetual motion with earth magnetic field cropped

14z - perpetual motion reductio ad absurdum croppedAt this point I won­dered why the same couldn’t be done with the Earth’s mag­netic field.  I was very excited by some of these ideas and began talk­ing about them with adults.  At this point the term “per­pet­ual motion machine” entered my vocab­u­lary.  I strug­gled with the dif­fer­ence between force and energy, and remem­ber finally get­ting it— or think­ing I had— with a con­cep­tual dia­gram involv­ing some­thing like a pis­ton in the han­dle of some­thing like a gal­lon milk jug.  Though admit­tedly I’m find­ing the logic a lit­tle unclear now.

15 - shipstone croppedI was frus­trated with bat­ter­ies.  There were no recharge­ables around at the time.  After a few acci­dents, I was leery of draw­ing power from wall sock­ets, and there were always draw­er­fuls of spent bat­ter­ies lying around.  It was waste­ful; and worse, bat­ter­ies seemed to me so clearly just toys, not a real part of the energy infra­struc­ture.  I was read­ing a lot of Hein­lein at the time, and the idea of a super-efficient bat­tery that could power a whole house— the Ship­stone— was impos­si­bly appeal­ing.  I des­per­ately wanted to be Daniel Ship­stone and invent this thing.  Maybe with some kind of semi­con­duc­tor doping?

Those kinds of flights of fan­tasy veered into super-powerful lasers, or anti­grav­ity machines.

15a - new ruby laser design cropped

16 - antigrav cropped

Wish­ful think­ing, in other words.  This made me angry with myself, because it was clearly not “work­ing”, not com­ing up with real stuff.  Which is what I always insisted I was doing, locked up in my room.  Ship­stones and anti­grav­ity machines that couldn’t oper­ate on any prin­ci­ple I knew of were just play, and I was act­ing like a child.  The look of tol­er­ant amuse­ment in the librarian’s eyes when I explained a fan­ci­ful inven­tion drove me into a quiet rage.  I didn’t want to think of myself as a child, and loathed child­ish­ness, and pretty much loathed most other children.

In ret­ro­spect it seems clear that a lot of this was due to other children’s dis­com­fort with me, and my inabil­ity to fit in socially.  I was so odd, so alien, so easy to make fun of— and I was des­per­ate to be the one who did the reject­ing first, rather than risk being the one who was rejected.  This gave me a kind of aloof­ness, hence immu­nity to the hurt of iso­la­tion... but of course it was also a vicious cycle, since this atti­tude hardly helped endear me to my class­mates.  Maybe that’s why the whole phone direc­tory side of this note­book stayed pretty much empty—

97 - not many friends cropped

Well, not totally empty.  There was Luis, who may or may not have been a high school kid in my mom’s art class whom I got on with, and the other ‘L’, a pur­veyor of elec­tronic components.

98 - larry g electronics

There are only one or two other entries in the address­book.  I wrote this “human stuff” in cur­sive, because its inher­ent slop­pi­ness seemed more fit­ting; block let­ter­ing was reserved for real things.

So, bet­ter to be alone, and to be an adult-child.  With grim plea­sure, I’d get back to “work”.  On real things.

17 - conventional half adder cropped

Com­put­ers were more real.  I’d had one in my room since 1981.  Though I still thought there had to be bet­ter ways of imple­ment­ing their build­ing blocks, things like mul­ti­vi­bra­tors and coun­ters.  I imag­ined doing it with tun­nel diodes and spe­cial­ized sil­i­con instead of gates.  Really this was some­thing like a design for base-10 transistors.

17a - attempt to simplify a multivibrator cropped

18 - hundred counter cropped

Vehi­cle design was another pas­sion.  I thought that a “con­vert­ible” meant a car/boat (a James Bond inspired mis­con­cep­tion), and remem­ber being very dis­ap­pointed by how lit­tle was really meant by the word.  The “turbo” in this car could either recover energy from the exhaust or be used to pro­pel it like a squid.

19a - car with turbo cropped19b - hollow airplane design cropped19c - hovercraft cropped

I thought planes might be more effi­cient and make less noise if they were shaped like hol­low tubes, with more slowly rotat­ing fan blades inside.  The pas­sen­gers could sit in the wings.  And what kind of engine could a hov­er­craft have?

But this was again veer­ing toward the uncon­vinc­ing.  I wanted to solve a real prob­lem in a real way, like the unac­cept­able design of the cath­ode ray tube.

20a - oscilloscope cropped20b - flat panel crt cropped

It was essen­tial to flat­ten and minia­tur­ize it.  Why could the elec­tron gun and plates not be arranged on a steep angle?  The point being, of course, wear­able computing.

21 - face wearable computing cropped

22 - watch wearable computing cropped

Toward the end of this note­book, I’m focus­ing on pure physics, try­ing to find good ways to tab­u­late the fun­da­men­tal particles.

70 - particle notes

71 - particle table 1 cropped

72 - particle table 2 cropped 2

One might sup­pose this was because I real­ized that a train­ing in physics would be impor­tant in order to become a real inven­tor.  But actu­ally, some­thing more prob­lem­atic was going on.  I felt that there was a hier­ar­chy of seri­ous­nesses among my inter­ests, and that physics was the most seri­ous thing.  Physics was about the fun­da­men­tal nature of every­thing, not just some tran­sient engi­neer­ing prob­lem or— worse— some­thing merely human.  I imag­ined that things like the elec­tric motor, while not really physics and there­fore far from fun­da­men­tal, were likely to at least be fairly uni­ver­sal devel­op­ments among the uncount­ably many advanced civ­i­liza­tions in the uni­verse.  There­fore not so bad to work on, right?— because if I were an alien I just might be doing the same thing.  This kind of work was sort of species-invariant.  More like physics.  Not that I was able to put it to myself quite that explicitly.

But through­out these years and many that fol­lowed, I was devel­op­ing a secret love of pro­gram­ming.  Many other nerds grow­ing up around the same time will know exactly what I mean when I write that noth­ing else could keep me so relent­lessly, con­tin­u­ously and joy­fully engaged in a prob­lem.  It let me expe­ri­ence flow, for hours and hours, and it was utterly addic­tive.  Invent­ing on paper could pro­duce a state of reverie and even ela­tion for a while, but mak­ing phys­i­cal things was always hard, always ran up against con­straints.  I’d run aground and need to call Larry and see if he had a miss­ing part in stock.  It was stop and go, every­thing always unfin­ished, the idea always real­ized crudely if at all.  Maybe one day 3D print­ing, pro­gram­ma­ble biol­ogy or nanoassem­bly will really bring “mak­ing” into the same space as pro­gram­ming, but this still seems far off.

In any case, my love affair with the com­puter, while it could hardly stay a secret, was some­thing I felt vaguely embar­rassed about— because it was so far removed from the fun­da­men­tals of the uni­verse.  Because it was engi­neer­ing, and worse, engi­neer­ing with things that had them­selves been engi­neered by other peo­ple.  Sec­ond– or third-order.  So not fundamental.

80 - bugsheet cropped

That’s why the very last page of this note­book, writ­ten slop­pily, is a “bugsheet”— my way of track­ing work items and bugs in the pro­grams I was work­ing on at the time.  These were of course ephemeral for me.  I thought the inven­tions were impor­tant to pre­serve, but these work items were more often than not scrib­bled on scratch paper.  There are lots of pages torn out of this note­book, and I have a feel­ing that many of them were sim­i­lar to this one.  Look­ing at the bugs, I vaguely remem­ber work­ing on a win­dow­ing sys­tem at the time.  (I guess this would have been around when Microsoft released Win­dows 1.0, though I didn’t encounter Win­dows until much later.)

For rea­sons I’m not entirely sure of, I wrote at the top of this page “1986 – 1987 – 1988 – 1989 ~ ”.  This might have been a pre­dic­tion about how long it would take me to build this ridicu­lously ambi­tious project, or— maybe I’m read­ing too much in now— a resigned sense that this part of my life was going to stretch out, and on and on, beyond the unimag­in­able future on the far side of puberty.

I’m sorry to say that my hier­ar­chy of val­ues was rein­forced— matched per­fectly, in fact— by many of the physi­cists I met later on, and by the cul­ture of physics in gen­eral.  I still love and respect the field, but with reser­va­tions.  I don’t know of any other pro­fes­sion that embod­ies such casual, unar­tic­u­lated chau­vin­ism for such a broad range of human activ­ity; every­thing else is too spe­cific, too con­tin­gent, too easy, too man­made, too lack­ing in rigor.  And then even within physics the hier­ar­chy repeats in a self-similar man­ner, with this or that field above the other.  Bio­physics?  Too squishy.  Solid state?  Too engineering-y.  Astron­omy?  Stamp collecting.

I’m glad I got out when I did, before things went really wrong in my life.  I’ve recov­ered— mostly.

I’ve been extra­or­di­nar­ily lucky.  First, I was lucky because my par­ents were so deeply sup­port­ive of me when I was young.  They never laughed in the face of my utter, absurd and rather brit­tle seri­ous­ness.  They encour­aged me in every way with­out ever being patron­iz­ing, they drove me to far­away elec­tron­ics sup­pli­ers in search of exotic com­po­nents in the ser­vice of ill-specified projects.  They smug­gled com­put­ers across the bor­der from the US.  They pre­tended not to notice when remote con­trols went miss­ing, and they gave me the space and time to develop in my own odd, lumpy way.  They trusted me.

And in time, It Got Bet­ter: partly because the pas­sions I’ve always had most authen­ti­cally are con­struc­tive and hap­pen to be in high demand.  I can now admit that what I called “work” as a ten year old really was play; and that I still spend much of my life engaged in this kind of imag­i­na­tive play; and that— in a delight­ful twist— I’m now paid to do it.  I work with many peo­ple who had sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences as kids, and who have sim­i­larly found them­selves wel­come and val­ued in soci­ety as adults.  We get to play together, and real­ize really big projects we could never do alone.

99 - egg and sperm cropped

This sketch is the only one in the note­book of any­thing even remotely human or bio­log­i­cal.  I remem­ber a sense of hope­less­ness at the sheer numer­i­cal impos­si­bil­ity of a sper­ma­to­zoon ever find­ing and fer­til­iz­ing the egg.  I wanted there to be more than one winner.

The cur­dled feel­ings that used to lie in wait when I stepped away from the com­puter or the work­bench, the intense sense of alien­ation and alone-ness I would try to pre­emp­tively embrace when I was 10, are mostly gone.  It’s taken quite a few years.  What a joy and relief it is to have close friends, to love and be loved, to be able to con­nect, and to feel, if not exactly nor­mal, at least nor­mal enough.  Human.

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anselm’s puzzle


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