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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||University of California-Berkeley|
|CA||University of Southern California|
|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|
|HI||University of Hawaii at Manoa|
|ID||University of Idaho|
|IL||University of Chicago|
|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||University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill|
|ND||Minot State University|
|NY||Cuny Hunter College|
|NY||Hobart and William Smith Colleges|
|NY||Sarah Lawrence College|
|NY||Suny at Binghamton|
|OH||Ohio State University|
|OK||Oklahoma State University|
|PA||Carnegie Mellon University|
|PA||Franklin and Marshall College|
|PA||Pennsylvania State 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||West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine|
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–
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:
Feeling pretty happy about our life and friends in Seattle.
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.
A letter to Washington.
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
Throughout 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
I began keeping notebooks at age 7 or 8. My parents must have sent this one in a box a while ago.
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.
I 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:
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.
So 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.
This 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.
I 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
But in my heart I worried about the efficiency of generating power by knocking electrons off of the doped selenium.
This was a more direct approach, based on something like a Stirling engine. Slowly reciprocating pistons would drive a generator.
At 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.
I 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.
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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Toward the end of this notebook, I’m focusing on pure physics, trying to find good ways to tabulate the fundamental particles.
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.
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.
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.