notebook

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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16 Responses to notebook

  1. Blaise’s “Geek: It Gets Bet­ter” Project! Love it!

  2. Thank you for shar­ing. This is pre­cious and beau­ti­ful and inspiring.

  3. Delight­ful and sweet and poignant! Grad­u­ate stu­dents after years of doing research don’t keep notes of such qual­ity (and whimsy). I find myself actu­ally a bit jeal­ous of the lit­tle cham­ber that was your mind at a ten­der 10 years of age.

  4. Paul R. Nash says:

    Pretty awe­some Blaise! I’m inspired to dig up my own mem­o­ries, though I can’t say I was design­ing Ship­stones at 8 or any­thing. :P

  5. I imme­di­ately recog­nised the C64 pallete.

  6. Heidi Flora says:

    Yes, thanks for shar­ing this, Blaise! I loved the thought that goes into the choice of jour­nal as well (I need the struc­ture of grid lines how­ever!). The whole post is inspir­ing for the sci­en­tist and artist in all of us :)

  7. such lovely responses, thank you! :)

  8. Henrik says:

    On page one it looks a bit like you’ve done the early con­cept of the google chrome logo design at the top of the phone!

    I am sure that’s why they hired you :) It’s already been in your erly blood!

    Wish you a good time there!

  9. After a few acci­dents, I was leery of draw­ing power from wall sock­ets.....” That explains a lot ;-).

  10. ditto on all that was said. You, Blaise, are a rare bird — stay that way! All the best of luck to you!

  11. Lynn Ellis Brooks says:

    Blaise, thank your for shar­ing. Looks like your par­ents and
    teach­ers had their hands full!

  12. Lynn Ellis Brooks says:

    Thank you for sharing!

  13. Lior Ron says:

    Blaise Aguera y Arcas I’m sure it was a tough choice, but wel­come to Google! ping me when around, would love to catch up, good luck on the new adventure!

  14. A lovely read Blaise. I rec­og­nize snip­pets of a shared child­hood, espe­cially in the muck­ing around with electrics, con­struct­ing and decon­struct­ing and a spirit of adven­ture but they depth and focus you had is far more than I expe­ri­enced. An inspi­ra­tion to think about for the lit­tle ones in my life too. Good luck on the new ven­ture by the way and keep in touch! Adam.

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