Friday, May 27, 2011

Mr. Thiel's Offer

Young folks, Peter Thiel will pay you $100,000 not to go to college. Well, may pay you $100,000. First you have to be under 20 years old. Then you have offer up an idea in competition with others, and agree to accept Mr. Thiel's mentorship. And then you have to agree to drop out of college for two years (or not go in the first place).

Before I launch into the reasons why I am dubious, let me acknowledge that this is not a terrible idea on the face of it. A "gap year" off before starting college is fairly normal now; why not 2 years plus $100,000 to do something a lot more worthwhile than climbing in Andes? Any number of people take 2 years off while they are in college (pretty much every Mormon I've ever met, for starters, and also a lot of students from Korea, Israel, and Singapore). Doing this does not mean never getting a college degree, and if you've got the bug and are fortunate enough to win one of these prizes, I'm not opposed.

On the other hand it should not be a life plan. Most businesses fail. The nice thing about the age restriction on this program, as I see it, is that while it does lure the young and unsophisticated to likely failure with small odds of huge success, it lures them at the time of their lives when they have the least to lose.

Let me add a couple of thoughts about Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, since they are held out as examples of what is possible. If you want to generalize on those examples, you need to look at them closely. First, they were both well-educated students from well-to-do backgrounds before they ever set foot in Harvard Yard. They graduated from two of America's best independent secondary schools. Their fathers were both professionals. They grew up in worldly households. They had energy and ambition as young people but also had a family safety net underneath them. And they were so well educated before college that they needed college less than the average joe.

I also think they both got something out of being at Harvard. Not from my computer science theory courses! But from learning enough about the state of the art to be skeptical about it. I remember Gates being told in his operating systems class about the sophistication of mainframe OSes, all the tuning that had been done to optimize performance of their file systems and so on. A microcomputer that didn't even have a disk drive? Just a toy, said the professor. What some students would dutifully write down in their notebooks, Gates took as a challenge. If you are going to shoot, you need to know something about targets.

And their timing was really good in both cases--which is what made dropping out a good strategy. Gates was not the first guy to write application or systems software for a microcomputer (CP/M antedated DOS) and Zuckerberg was not the first guy to conceive of an online social network. Both spotted windows that were open just a crack and recognized that someone else was going to pry them wide open and jump through. The Social Network, for all its exaggerations (and there are some), correctly alludes to Friendster and skepticism about whether social networking hadn't already been "done." And Gates and Allen were afraid that they had already missed their shot at being the first guys through the window (see various versions of that tale here).

Personal bias note: I like it when people take time off from college. The most foolish thing students can say after some reversal is that they "want to get back on the horse that threw them." No, go away. Grow up. Think about why you are going to college. If you have an itch, scratch it. The worst that can happen is that you will have the crushing mortgage at age 45 that you would otherwise have had when you were 43. My wife took 3 years off from college between her sophomore and junior years. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, and there IS something wrong with spending $50,000 a year to go to college and wasting your time because your mind is elsewhere.

Part of the reason I feel so strongly about this is that my generation of men did not have the luxury. During the Vietnam War draft, if you took a year off to pursue an idea or to deal with a personal demon, they gave you a gun and sent you to the rice paddies. College became a sanctuary that was also a prison. A number of my friends lost, I believe, a good deal of their potential because of this sense of entrapment, and I hate seeing people who have the freedom to be adventurous fail to take advantage of it for fear they will lose a step up on some endless ladder of personal progress.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Remembering Peter Gomes

The Commencement issue of the Crimson has several pieces, including one I wrote, about Harvard's beloved minister.

If you wonder what I was thinking about when I described Peter's engagement with Harvard's moral mission, you could read the story, also in the Commencement Crimson, about Harvard and Libya.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Revolving Door at the FCC

On page 287 of Blown to Bits, we discuss the incestuous relationships between the regulators and the regulated in the world of information flows.

And then there is the revolving door. Most communications jobs are in the private sector. FCC employees know that their future lies in the commercial use of the spectrum. Hundreds of FCC staff and officials, including all eight past FCC chairmen, have gone to work for or represented the businesses they regulated. These movements from government to private employment violate no government ethics rules. But FCC officials can be faced with a choice between angering a large incumbent that is a potential employer, and disap- pointing a marginal start-up or a public interest non-profit. It is not surprising that they remember that they will have to earn a living after leaving the FCC.
Even by historical standards, today's news is appalling. FCC Commissioner Attwell Baker is leaving the FCC to become a lobbyist for Comcast, just four months after voting to approve the controversial merger of Comcast with NBC United. We are, once again, going down the path to information monopoly. We have been there before, indeed we were there already in the late 19th century.

A few years ago a man started a news bureau in Cincinnati. A correspondent in New-York filed the market reports each morning and the Cincinnati gentleman sold the information to customers. The Western Union asked him to sell out to them and he refused; thereupon his messages were taken away from the “through” wire and sent by a “way” wire. The difference in time was an hour, and the man was ruined. (New York Times, February 8, 1883)

Information monopolies are dangerous to democracy. Where is the outrage about these people pretending to serve the public interest and then jumping ship to the industries? Or indeed, is that really the order in which these events happened?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Monitor and Libya, once again

On Friday the Boston Globe reported that Monitor had decided it should have registered as a foreign lobbyist for some of its Libya work, and will do so now. The reporter contacted me for a comment, but I couldn't come up with anything newsworthy to say, since I don't know anything about the Foreign Agents Registration Act or the like. So my only presence in that story is a vague "some have called on president Drew Faust to warn professors that their outside work must adhere to standards of truthfulness," and I think that "some" would be me. That is a fair paraphrase of part of my question to the PresidentWhen the Crimson contacted me a couple of days later, I found something quotable to say, namely "It does seem to me that with all the Harvard connections that are in these news stories about Monitor, it’s time for the University to say something about it." Which seems to me the truth. How many stories have to appear in the papers about the problematic activities of how many Harvard professors before some Harvard official acknowledges that we are not proud of those activities?

The Crimson, alas, does me one better and states, "Lewis … encourag[ed] University President Drew G. Faust to publicly censure Porter." No, not "censure." Not even sure just what that would mean -- it is an official act in some institutions, and even if it is taken less literally, it sounds a lot like "censor," which I surely would not want the President to do. It just seems to me that there is something more that she could say other than that she stands for Porter's right to speak and my right to criticize what he says. Harvard itself, in her persona, could say that selling the term "democracy" to Gaddafi was inconsistent with Harvard's values. 

Other sites have started to pick up the Crimson's "censure" language, which the Crimson has not fixed though I informed the editors that this was a poor paraphrase.

I am surprised how many times I have had to explain that I do not want rules against foreign consulting, and I don't want Porter reprimanded. It does not seem that hard to me: Harvard spends so much time congratulating its members for their good works off-campus that it seems perfectly logical to note when somebody's off-campus activities do not represent Harvard at its best. Such criticism would not chill the speech of a tenured faculty member. A University Professor could take it, for sure.

I think I do understand what the President is hoping to avoid. She does not want to be dragged into any political controversies. Doubtless she fears that someone would, if she criticizes anyone for Libyan consulting, want a reprimand for somebody else's activities in Israel or Palestine. But the Libya case seems black and white to me; saying something about this would set no precedent that would require commenting on grayer issues.

Indeed, not to say something under these circumstances seems to me civic irresponsibility on Harvard's part. And what I fear is that civics have become so polluted with politics that the university has withdrawn utterly from making judgments about matters of civic importance. That surely cannot be a good thing. What peace and safety it brings us today we may pay dearly for later on.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Allen and Gates redux

The New York Times reviews Idea Man, Paul Allen's autobiography. (Such a nuisance that these links now disappear behind a paywall.) The reviewer states,
Allen had the original idea for Microsoft. The two worked the same breakneck schedule in those feverish weeks when the company was born. Yet Gates wrote the program that served as Microsoft’s first product, whereas Allen did the less glamorous work of creating the tools Gates needed to do his job.
I am not sure what that means. As I blogged earlier, the listing states which parts of the code for the 8080 Basic interpreter were written by Gates, Allen, and Monte Davidoff. I'd say roughly a third each, and if not an even division, Allen wrote less. But to be sure there was tool-building. The cross-assembler for the 8080 to run on the PDP-10 would not be much work -- basically just defining op codes as UUOs (Undefined User Operations). But the UUOs would trap at run time, and somebody wrote the 8080 emulator code so that the PDP-10 would at runtime do whatever the 8080 would have done. This emulator made it possible to use the PDP-10 debugger (DDT) to debug the Basic interpreter. Moreover the emulator would have been an important and delicate piece of code -- it really needed to handle arithmetic overflows and the like exactly as the 8080 would handle such exceptions. So who wrote that? This sentence suggests Allen did. But the listing states that "Paul Allen wrote the non-runtime stuff." That is in reference to the interpreter itself, not the emulator code, which I don't have. But the emulator would certainly be runtime stuff if the pattern were consistent.

Now that Allen has made a fuss over this, I think there is a nice little project for somebody to figure this out.

Blown to Bits in Chinese

Blown to Bits has been published in Chinese. Even without being able to read Mandarin, I conclude this is a bowdlerized edition, as the screen shots on pp. 154-155 of the original seem not to appear in the Chinese edition, and in fact Chapter 4 seems to have been truncated. Those screen shots are the results of Google searches for "Falun Gong" using and

Friday, May 6, 2011

Didn't Osama Know Enough to Encrypt his Laptop?

All kinds of cool information has been pulled off the thumb drives and laptops that the SEALs seized during their raids. And it was translated very quickly from (presumably) Arabic. Which leads me to suspect that his laptops were not encrypted, or at least not using any very strong protection system. Ah well, even Sony made that mistake.