Chapter One, The
First 20 Million
1. The Shiny Shoes
Oh, God. No sooner had Francis Benoit
started explaining to this reporter the difference between the ISA and PCI electrical
standard when the reporters head nodscustomary cues that implied "go on,
Im with you,"were replaced by this high tempo bobbing and rocking motion
which signalled that the reporters brain had lost the train of thought and was
spinning idly, frozen like a processor caught in an infinite loop.
He knew what she wanted. She wanted Francis to
say something familiar, something tangible,something like
"Imagine the motherboard is like a fruit tree"to rescue her brain back
into this time and place. But he wasnt going to say it for her. Forget it. He hated
having to translate his work into dumbed-down metaphors for the shiny shoe setthe
meddlesome lawyers, media scribblers, and potential corporate sponsors who came through
wanting to understand without doing the hard work of paying attention.
The reporter was from the San Jose Mercury
News, and shed been invited to chronicle the design of a next-generation chip
for one of La Honda Researchs sponsors, Omega Logic. Francis was the lead designer.
The reporters name was Nell Kirkham. She sat with her legs crossed and her head
tilted back so her hair fell behind her shoulders. She didnt wear earrings or a
necklace or rings on her fingers, but only a tenth of the cost of the gold watch she was
wearing was devoted to telling time. She didnt wear the kind of cheap makeup that
needed reapplying after every meal. She was a woman who wanted it both waysshe
wanted to be considered pretty but be taken seriously for her intellect. She wanted men to
think she was beautiful but not to come on to her. She would never flutter her eyes. She
would never giggle or tell people they were smart or try to make them feel too special.
She said, "Now this project, this
chip. Most projects have code names."
Francis wasnt going to let her go in
that direction. "Whats your question?"
"Whats this projects code
She looked disappointed. "Most code names
more metaphorical than that. More
Francis had given it the name 686 specifically
to avoid any metaphorical simplification. "And your question is
She sighed and put down her pen. "I
dont just want my stories to be about how youre packing ten million
transistors on a wafer. Im really interested in being able to write about the
personal journey you go through. I want to know what this means to you."
"Well, it wont be ten million
transistors. Were getting the specs from Omegas fabrication team. It might be four
Francis pinched his forehead with the fingers
of his right hand. He blew out some air. "Ms. Kirkham, with all respect, if
Omegas plant in Singapore could put ten million transistors on a wafer, we would
produce a radically different circuit design, not need graphics accelerators, math
coprocessors, et cetera. Ten million transistors, Christ. That would put half of
Omegas competitors out of business."
"But you understand my point, right? I
need to know what you think about the project. I want to write about how it makes
Francis agonized over this. Hed spent
the past ten years of his life devoted to designing more powerful computers. But after all
that time, computers didnt actually operate any faster for their users, since the
software programs had grown so huge that it took all the new hardware power just to keep
the status quo. Bigger software required faster hardware, which in turn stimulated demand
for even bigger software. Omega was La Hondas biggest sponsor, and Omega was taking
heat from Wall Street, Chip or Die. The truth was, Francis had a hard time seeing
the point of yet another faster beast. Hed agreed to take the assignment very
reluctantly. But he wasnt going to tell this story to a reporter who wouldnt
even bother to understand his technology.
He said, "What do you mean, how I
"Well, for instance
La Honda is a
non-profit research lab. Sponsors pay you to design things, and then you dont ever
see any profit from that. You dont really even get the credit. So how does that make
Ahhh. Reporters always got around to
asking this. They couldnt understand that all Francis wanted to do was to work
without intrusions, to create. They couldnt believe that he wasnt interested
in being a billionaire.
"I feel fine with that," Francis
said. "I get what I want from it."
"But you watch all these young guys with
uncountable wealth on the cover of magazines
"What about em?"
" Despite all the
roll-up-your-shirtsleeves myths and stereotypes, when you got right down to it working in
a corporate start-up meant you spent eighty percent of your time doing complete bullshitchasing
venture capital money, writing technical documentation, hiring peopleand all of it
involved dumbing down your work. And the meetings! It was inevitable that at some
point the system of for-profit entrepreneurship rewarded engineers who were good at
dumbing down their work. To participate in that game would be a waste of god-given talent,
it would be a crime against Francis very own nature.
When he didnt say anything more, she
tried another. "Well, does it make you feel you have something to prove?"
"Mmmm. This feeling, this feeling of
having something to proveyou know what it comes from? It comes from when somebody
doesnt believe you, doesnt believe in you. And the only person in the
past month whos questioned me, the only person who doubts me
Ms. Kirkham. I told you. Im happy with the way it works around here. You
think all that matters is money, and magazine covers? Fine. But dont
presume thats all that I think matters. Now, if you excuse me
to go talk with Hank."
They were in Francis office. He stood up,
hands on hips. While she gathered her tape recorder and notepad into her shoulder-bag, he
walked to his doorway and stood holding the door open. There was nothing impatient in his
body language but by merely being one step ahead of her, he kept her unsettled. She
dropped a pen on the way out.
About the same time, an air conditioned van
was on its way from San Francisco, an hour north. In the van was a photographer and his
camera crew, intent on shooting an ad for a new line of casual clothing, Lo-Tech
Some Italian conglomerate had built up
sufficient internal consensus to approve their ad agencys recommendation: put
unassuming clothes on semi-famous titans of the American computer industry, take pictures,
and print the pictures alongside the slogan "High tech insiders wear Lo-Tech on the
outside." Their problem was that these supposed titans might be downright physically
grotesque in their appearance. Their solution was to hire the renowned Italian fashion
photographer Adriano Paschetta; these advertisements would present themselves as
"art," avoiding the beauty question altogether. Paschetta was flown out to San
Francisco, given first class treatment for several days to primp his artistic temperament,
and then put in an air-conditioned van for the trip down to Silicon Valley.
The producer had received by fax very specific
directions, but still
they had found the turnoff for Old La Honda Road, passed over
a little gangplank bridge, and ascended into an evergreen forest, where sword ferns
straddled the one-lane road and neon velvet moss circled the tree trunks. Dirt driveways
were marked only by clusters of mailboxes, sprouting like wild mushrooms. Their
instructions had warned them about the serpentine turns and the steep inclines, but about
two miles up the asphalt became all cracked and broken so the wheels of their van started
a drumbeat "rump rump rump" which made the vans owner uneasyhe was
in the rear seat, turned backwards, trying to keep his lighting equipment from crashing
into the vans walls; then the canopy of forest overhanging the road began scraping
the metal roof, and naturally they started thinking theyd missed a turnoff, this
couldnt be it, no way, something was wrong here, this couldnt be the way to
the world-renowned La Honda Research Center.
Right about when their ears popped from the
altitude, they caught up with this fat guy on a frail 50cc pedalscooter, which was whining
and bleeding a trail of oil-tainted blue smoke into the air. A plastic grocery bag dangled
from the elbow of one arm; a diminutive styrofoam helmet adorned his head. He was wearing
cutoff shorts no bigger than a jock strap and a striped, elastic-ribbed t-shirt so small
it cut indents into his shoulders where the sleeves ended.
There was no room to pass, and the fat guy
wasnt about to pull his scooter over into somebodys driveway and lose all his
momentum, so they had no choice but to roll along behind him for the next mile and stare
at the pale smile of flesh between his shorts and shirt.
Adriano Paschetta hadnt been told much,
but one of the things hed been told, when he asked about the location of this
shoot, was that the La Honda Research Center had originally been built as a school for the
dumb, back in the early 50s, by some grand philanthropic matron who thought she
could improve the intelligence of those society left behind by giving them a positive and
encouraging environment of their own. And when the fat guy on the scooter pulled into the
entrance of the Research Center, Paschetta wondered if maybe this was all a prank from the
boys in New York, a wild goose chase, and that the La Honda Research Center wasnt
some renowned science lab at allit might still be a school for the dumb. Coming from
New York, where power is expressed in huge buildings rocketing skywardwhere power is
expressed, above all, in concrete and glasswell, they just expected more than a
converted high school. Two three-story, I-shaped buildings with sloped, Spanish tile roofs
bordered a field of overgrown, trampled grass; cement pathways crisscrossed the field and
led up into the trees behind the buildings. The buildings were brick, but resurfaced with
a thin layer of terra cotta or adobe, which had provided a porous surface for ivy to climb
on. The flower beds, which separated the lawn from the buildings, had blackberry bushes
growing in them. Blackberries! Where the camera crew came from, the blackberry bush was
considered an invasive weed, even in the heat of summer with berries popping up
beside every thorn, yet here it was growing right in the flower beds, trimmed into orderly
four-foot high thickets. The surface of the parking lot suggested it had once been a pair
of tennis courts; the angled stalls were full of skinny-wheeled Colts and four-speed
Mazdas. The fat guy, who had leaned his scooter up against a bike rack in the parking lot
without locking it, waddled along a pathway for several steps, the landing of each foot
initiating a jiggle that tremored up and across the surface of his body. He reached into
his grocery bag, dug around with his fist, and came out with a double-stick fruit
popsicle. With a thumb and forefinger he snipped a hole in the wrapper, then put his mouth
around the end and exhaled sharply, inflating the wrapper. When his mouth came away it had
the wrapper between his teeth. The thought then occured to Adriano Paschetta that the
whole notion implied by this marketing campaign was dangerous, and it might be a terrible
and grave mistake to turn our culture over to a gang of brainiacs who cared not a wit
They unpacked the van; it took all of them to
move the gear indoorslights, makeup kit, several camera bags, backdrops, and a rack
of clothes to be worn by the titan, a man named Hank Menzinger, the Executive Director of
the Center. Theyd never seen Hank Menzinger, didnt even know what he looked
like, and as far as they could tell nobody involved with the advertising campaign
had seen whether or not he looked good in the clothes. Nobodyd even checked his size,
for gods sakesthe clothes might not fit! But according to the boys in New
York, that was okay, that was great even, because the campaign was trying to be
very unpresumptuous, it was trying to convey the message that "beauty is not just
appearance." And so on. All they knew about Hank Menzinger was that he could be found
in Room 211, which was supposed to be upstairs in back, down a long hall.
So they hauled their gear up the stairs and
down the hall and knocked on Room 211 and a man inside said "yup," and so they
went in, banging their equipment on the doorframe. There was something wrong with the
room; this was certainly not the office of any titan theyd ever seen. Where
was the false fireplace, the leather bound books, the regal oil painting of the
officeholder? Where, above all else, was the secretary? Instead, there were two
sleek leather couches opposite each other, and on one of the couches sat a man. His head
was tipped back to the ceiling. He had a shaved but stubbled head atop a lanky frame and
looked pallid, like he might have just been let out of the hospital after a long sickness.
He was wearing a green t-shirt with a line of tiny white lettering across the chest, too
small to read at a distance. His eyes were also green, and Adriano Paschetta mustered all
of his artistic sensibilities to find inspiration in the very greenness of those eyes. Of
course, they assumed this man was Hank Menzinger, and had no idea he was really Francis
Francis Benoit had been waiting ten minutes
for Hank Menzinger to finish his conference call in the inner room; waiting was not one of
Francis strengths, and he wasnt going to let this crew of photographers or
whatever they were keep him from giving Hank a piece of his mind. He took this crew in
with his eyes and started stalling while his brain figured
"Youre looking for Hank, huh?
Who are you guys, some photo crew, rack of clothes, huh
waitthis for an
The producer introduced himself, and then
introduced Adriano Paschetta. "The photographer," he added, after
Paschettas name failed to register even a raised eyebrow on Francis face.
"All the way from New York."
Francis went to the rack of clothes and
shuffled through the hangers, quickly delivering his pronouncement on each article.
"Yes, yes, no, no, yeeesss, no
hey, wait, these shoes
Francis turned to the producer. "These shoes are shiny."
"Thats bad?" the producer
"Yes, bad." He pulled the loafers
out and set them on the carpet. "You know what shiny shoes mean, dont
The producers eyes squinted and his lips
pursed. No words came out.
"Shiny shoes have to be continually reshined.
Now tell me why I would buy a pair of shoes that have to be continously reshined
when I could buy a pairfor no more money, mind youthat dont have
to be reshined?"
The representative from the Italian
conglomerate stepped forward to offer an explanation. "Well, we thought that the
shine, the polish, conveyed a sort of crisp quality, sort of that high-tech,
Francis merely shook his head.
"Crisp?" he said, drawing out the word. "Crisp? No, you see, this place is
not about being crisp. Crisp is not a goal we aspire to. Using our time effectively is a
goal we aspire to. Keeping our brains engaged at all times is a goal we aspire to. Shining
our shoes is not on the list."
"Not on the list," the
representative repeated. He seemed to make some decision. "Okay, no shoes.
"It would have undermined your
credibility," Francis added. "People in this town, they love to sniff out a
"Thanks, thanks. Authenticity is
important to us. Do you mind
" The representatives attention seemed to be
fixed on the block of tiny white lettering on Francis chest. The point size was so
small the representative had to push his face within inches of Francis sternum in
order to read:
WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO LEARN THAT A T-SHIRT
IS NOT A FASHION STATEMENT, NOR A BILLBOARD
FOR ADVERTISING, NOR A FORUM FOR YOUR
POLITICAL IDEALISM, AND IS JUST A SWATCH OF
DYED-COTTON THAT KEEPS ME WARM ON COOL
DAYS AND COOL ON WARM DAYS?
The representative said "Ohh, thats
good, thats excellent. Now thats authentic. Can we take a polaroid? I
dont want to forget the words. Tommy, get a polaroid of this right here. You
dont mind, do you buddy?"
You dont mind, do you buddy?
Benoit believed this intense media interest in the "culture" of silicon
technology was just a cop-out, a way to try to portray the computer without actually
trying to understand the computer itself, an unscientific methodology of falsely reporting
the effects as causes. Cybersex, smart drugs, virtual realityoh, please.
Francis couldnt give a flying fuck for any of it. And the last thing he wanted was
for his t-shirt to become an icon. The last thing Francis wanted was to let some guys from
New York use his lifes work to help sell some t-shirts! You dont
mind, do you buddy?
Francis put his palm over the type on his
chest. "Hank Menzinger moved his office downstairs last week," he said.
"Room 139. Its in the opposing wing of the building
the other end of the
main lobby. Big red-haired guy. Cant miss him."
The producer waved his crew into action, and
they all picked up their gear and filed back out into the hall, clanging and clicking.
When they were gone, Francis Benoit sat back down on the couch, bent over, and began to
untie the laces on his canvas sneakers. He pulled the sneakers off and tossed them in the
trash can at the end of the couch. Then he stood up, slipped his feet into the shiny shoes
left behind by the crew, and marched into Hank Menzingers office.
In Room 139 was a big red-haired guy who
looked like one of
those plots of land allowed to return to its natural habitathe was caveman-ish, his
beard climbing all the way to his eyes and descending right into his flannel shirt. One of
his front teeth was chipped. But as the camera crew eventually found out, he was not Hank
"Who told you that I was?"
"Well, this guy in Room 211, he seemed
very helpful at the time
" the producers voice trailed off.
"Well what did he look like?"
When the producer described the characteristic
bald-head and t-shirt copy, the big red haired guy began to nod appreciatively. The big
red-haired guy was named Ronny Banks, and he was the closest thing Francis Benoit had to a
best friend. Ronny Banks had a masters degree in computer science or physics or
electrical engineering like everybody else at La Honda, but it was well known that when
push came to shove Ronny Banks just didnt have "it""it"
being the one commodity valued around here: brainpower. Ronny was more of a caddy than an
engineer; the one reason Hank Menzinger had kept him on for three consecutive years was
that he kept Francis Benoit happy. Ronny was the one person who wasnt afraid of
saying the wrong thing around Francis; Ronny was the one guy who could laugh it off after
Francis ridiculed him. Ronnys sole purpose at La Honda was to play along with
whatever pranks or riffs Francis was into at the time. So when the producer described
Francis, Ronny knew exactly what was going on.
"Aww, that must have been Francis
Benoit," Ronny explained. "He hates visitors to the Center, they interrupt his
thinking. He was just playing a little prank on you."
"Can you just then, wont you tell
us where to find Hank Menzinger?" the producer asked.
"Oh, sure, sure. Hes in the
administration building, across the Quadthats the grass patch. First door on
the right after you go in. Ill call ahead to make sure hes there."
"Would you do that?"
"Sure, I just said I would, didnt
The men went out. Ronny Banks picked up the
phone and dialed an extension. Tiny Curtis Reese answered the phone. Ronny could hear him
slurping on a popsicle.
"What are you doing right now,
"Look it, you gotta go right now to the
conference room in the South building. Take the tunneldont go across the Quad.
Right now, you hear me?"
"Awright." He hung up the phone.
Tiny was a precise person, and if you told him to go somewhere right now, he
assumed you meant this very second. He wouldnt even pause to ask why he was
supposed to go to the conference room, or why he was supposed to take the tunnel. Tiny
Curtis Reese didnt want to know, and he didnt want to ask, because it would
only distract him from pondering the lines of code hed written that morning. He
could walk through the tunnel without being distracted as long as he kept one lone finger
out at his side running along the wall to keep him from missing a turn, and he could sit
in the conference room patiently as long as he didnt sit in one of those chairs that
made the feeling disappear from his legs. He sat down at the conference table in one of
the safe chairs and leaned forward to put his elbows on the tabletop when he noticed,
almost immediately, that this table was several inches higher than his regular
desk. And it felt good! He noticed that his back was straighter this way, and that his
forearms lay flat. He pushed back the chair and leaned forward to his normal
positiona position he knew exactly, because when he canted his back to the precise
angle, a small pop always occured somewhere in his vertebrae. So he felt for the pop, and
then he shuffled forward to the table and straightened up and put his arms out. He
repeated this, several times, and that was how the camera crew found him when they came
through the door.
The fat guy!
Adriano Paschetta gasped. The producer stopped
in his tracks. The representative from the Italian conglomerate shuffled through his rack
of garments, hunting for the largest item hed brought, a terrycloth bathrobe
embossed across the back with the phrase "SPROCKETS & COGS," it was here
Tiny barely noticed them.
"Excuse us," the producer said,
Tiny said, "Ive been waiting."
"Were very sorry were
late," the producer said. "Weve had a little trouble finding you. You are
Hank Menzinger, right?"
The producer took a deep breath of relief.
Tiny said, "Hank Menzinger, Room
211." Sometimes Tiny failed to use familiar components of speech, preferring an
abbreviated English akin to the code he wrote. He would often repeat words rather than
modify commentsto say a dish of food, for instance, was extremely hot, Tiny would
say "hot hot hot." He was particularly this way with strangers.
"Is that in this building?"
"No." Chair forward, arms out.
"In the other building?"
"Yes." Chair backward, feeling for
The producer felt an urge to make Tiny suffer
bodily injury. "Will you say anything other than yes or no?"
He took revenge on Tiny with an old schoolyard
trick. "Is this your first time being stupid?"
"No, I mean yes,
Im not stupid."
The producer charged out of the room. The crew
followed him, swearing and cursing. Adriano Paschetta stayed behind for a moment. He
watched Tiny push his chair forward and backwards. Hed been waiting all day for
proper inspiration, he was looking for some distinct quality to capture on film, a quality
that spoke to what La Honda was about. Suddenly Adriano Paschetta felt a surge of empathic
energy rush through him, and he understood, he got it. He absolutely had to capture
this, this what? This incredible level of concentration. This focus.
He went up to Tiny.
"Excuse me, but, did you know
you know that you are still wearing your bicycle helmet?"
Tiny put his hand on his head. Sure enough,
the guy was righthed left his trusty styrofoam helmet on his head this whole
time. "What do you know
" he said. Then his hand went back down, and he
fell back into his trance-like thoughts.
He didnt take it off!
Adriano Paschetta ran all the way to Room 211.
This was the favorite kind of prank that
Francis Benoit liked to play, because it was not just cruel, and it was not just revenge
against the indignity of having to dumb-down their work. This particular kind of prank
stored a message, it taught a lessona lesson that would have to be learned by anyone
who wanted to understand the way these computer engineers looked upon the rest of society.
The name of the prank was "the infinite loop," a term borrowed from programming.
An infinite loop is what causes computer programs to apparently stall, or stop working. A
program starts looking for a particular variable, the way the photo crew went looking for
Hank Menzinger. It follows its instructions to go to a particular line of code, just as
they went to Room 211. That line of code performs a function, such as steals their shoes,
then orders the program to now go to another line of code, such as Room 139. Still the
program is looking for the variable, but at Room 139, it is told to try yet another room.
Francis Benoit knew that sooner or later somebody would set the crew straight and send
them back to Room 211, completing the loop. Were this a computer program, though, it
wouldnt get frustrated or exasperated. It would just follow the orders stored in
Room 211leave some shoes and go to Room 139 again. It would continue to go around
and around endlessly, infinitely. When a computer appears to stop responding to
keystrokes, usually it is caught in one of these infinite loops, working just perfectly,
following instructions one at a timewith no idea its caught in a loop! It
wont respond to keystrokes because its not done with the last request; it
still hasnt found Hank Menzinger, but it believes hes in the next room! This
last part was important to the lesson. People can be caught in their own infinite loops and
have no idea theyre caught in a loop. Each step seems logical, while the illogic
of it all evades them. As a necessary part of their work, the engineers at La Honda had
trained themselves to spot infinite loops, where ever they might be.
But they didnt have to look far. They
had no farther to go than the Shell station at the bottom of the hill. Every morning,
middle-aged men and women in hard-worsted suits stood beside their Lexus and
Mercedes, filling up their tanks, quick to honk their horns, easily frustrated if forced
to wait even a minute before handing over their credit cardsthese were the people
whos life had fallen into infinite loops. Consumption as therapy: leasing the
Mercedes was the reward they allowed themselves for having worked so hard for so many
but the Mercedes cost a little more than they could afford, so they worked
and on and on.
But it was not just individual people who had
fallen into infinite loops. When the engineers at La Honda looked at the way society
worked, sometimes all they could see was infinite loops. Just open the newspaper!
Politicians ensure that taxes are always high enough to campaign for reelection on the
pledge to cut taxes. Meanwhile, the public complains that it wants its politicians to
"discuss the real issues", which the politicians would be perfectly willing to
do as soon as the public would just stop caring about the First Ladys haircut. The
cure for this loop is the educational system, but that happens to be caught in its own
loop. Our failed educational systems guarantee that students will graduate uneducated,
thereby creating an even greater demand for more failed educational systems. Education
could get out of its rut if the entertainment industry would just clean up its act, and
the entertainment executives would happily clean up their act if the public would just
stop clamoring for more flesh-n-blood. But flesh-n-blood was the
great pacifier, and we needed it, particularly in hard times like these when taxes are so
From their point of view, up there in their little utopia, tucked in amidst 87
acres of Bishop pine and Douglas fir overlooking the Silicon Valleya vantage point
that they considered, without question, to be outside the "system"society
had some time ago entered into an infinite loop and stopped responding.
If the Lo-Tech producer stopped any one of
these scientists on the footpaths around the Center, and asked what he was doing
with his time at La Honda, he could never get them to say what they really thought, what
they really believed. Instead, he would get as specific an answer as possible, such as
"Im trying to amplify wireless signals in the Ka band spectrum," or
"Im testing the electrical storage capacity of heretofore unconsidered
alloys." This was a way of talking about it by example only; it was just another way
to lay a clue for an outsider. And if you got enough cluesif you had been duped into
one of Francis Benoits infinite loop pranks, and you had hung out with the
scientists for weeks on endyou would finally understand the very big picture of the
La Honda Research Center. Their goal was bigger than any of them ever cared to state
outright, for fear of coming across unrealistic. Oh, you could say the computer is
good for word processing or crunching data or interactive gaming, but you would have
failed to see what those added up to. You could look at specific inventions that had come
out of La Honda, such as plasma-based flat-panel displays, or the zero-insertion force
processor socket, or flash BIOS, or any number of computer languagesand totally miss
the point. They all knew why they worked around the clock, week in and week out: they
wanted to jolt society out of its infinite loop! Nothing less!
But it would take special men to pull this
off. Not just anybody could jolt society out of its infinite loop. It took
"ironmen." "Big iron" was industry slang for the fast, powerful
computers invented at La Honda and elsewhere. Ironmenthey loved that word. No
other word quite fit. Hank had given them that word. Every May, Hank Menzinger had to go
to the 4-drawer, gun-metal file cabinet in the back of his office and comb through the La
Honda personnel files to decide who was special enough to be one of them, and who
wasnt up to the task. And those that he decided were worthy he "reinvited"
for another year. Reinvited! What a choice of words! Nobody was ever fired from La
Hondanot one person in thirty yearsbut plenty had failed to be reinvited.
Because to be fired implied that you had been employed, which itself was to imply a commercial
quality that just didnt exist at La Honda. Scientists had worked at La Honda for
years, and not one of them was paid a decent salary. Most of the live bodies around La
Honda were graduate students on loan from nearby Stanford University, and there were
plenty more where they came from. It didnt matter that they were paid a miserable
wage, perhaps $35,000 a year if they were lucky, because La Honda was not about money!
Money just didnt matter there. That form of currency was just not honored. Because
what young people in America wanted more than anything else, in 1995, was a place to go
during the day where their brain wasnt wasted. And there was no price you could put
on that. For every kid at La Honda there were three at Stanford willing to take his place.
That they put in long hours went without
sayinghell, just to get into the Stanford graduate program you had to have devoted
most of your waking hours to your studies, and once you were at Stanford, it only got more
intense. By the time you got to La Honda, there were no more hours in the day to give. So
merely logging hours was not enough. Falling asleep at your desk, for instance, was
not a sign of devotion. It was a sign you werent taking care of your instrument,
your brain, like failing to change the oil every 4,000 miles. It was a sign of
disrespect, of desperation, and in the front hallway of the South building there
was a gallery of polaroids of ironmen who had fallen asleep on their keyboards. That
"Im your slave, work me" tacticwhich a newcomer to a commercial
company might employ to climb a few rungsjust didnt cut it here. La Honda
wasnt like the commercial sector. There were no semi-annual performance reviews, no
10-rung salary ladder to climb, no job titles to garner, no business cards to hand out to
friends. There was no marketing department to pass off your bloated code as sublime, no
fancy software boxes to put on your bookshelf and say "I did that," no sales
figures to derive pride from. Oh, in a commercial company there were any number of ways to
know where you stood in the grand competition. But at La Honda, there was only one: you
were either reinvited or you werent.
The process of reinvitation was torture on
them. Throughout the year new people had been brought on as needed, so by May the number
of ironmen had usually bloated to 110, maybe 120 people. Hank usually cut that by a
fifthbut sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the success of fundraising and
corporate sponsorships, which was a topic he kept very close to his chest (because it
was not about money!). But he never told any of them how many he would reinvite.
Instead he would occasionally post a list on the cork bulletin board in the foyer of the
North building, right below the bronze relief portrait of Monica Edmunds, the grand matron
who built the place. On this list he might have scribbled ten names, all of them
reinvited. Then, for a few days, nothing. The agony! You couldnt go look for a
summer job, and it was too late even to sign up for summer classes at Stanford. Then
another posting, ten or fifteen more names. The word of a posting spread through the
buildings. The hopefuls rushed to the foyer. Oh, to be one of those with your name on the
list! Officially, you played it cool: merely noted your name (Hey, there I am) and
calmly strolled back to your lab. But inside you were positively beaming. The fuse to your
ego had been lit, and you were soaring like a rocket. It was not uncommon for a young man,
on the night he had been reinvited, to make the kind of moves in life that can only be
done riding a bolt of confidence in ones own futureto propose marriage to his
girlfriend, or to make an offer on a condominium. Technological breakthroughs regularly
came from young ironmen who had recently been reinvited, as if the fire in their brain had
been fed pure oxygen.
When the number of names got to be around 80,
there was always the possibility that Hank would just say "thats
itthats the cutoff." Lobbying was considered unnecessarythe
brightness of your mind was supposed to be self-evident, and if it didnt show then
you must not have it, so what was the point of arguing? You just had to wait. The names
slowed to a trickle; undoubtably, some of the Fellows and Chairs were debating the merits
of a particular student with Hank. And this was exactly why Francis Benoit had been
waiting to see Hank Menzinger, on the day in late May of 1995, when the photographer and
his crew had popped into Hanks anteroom, and Francis had managed to con them out of
a pair of shiny Italian loafers.
Francis Benoit kicked back in an armchair
across from Hank
and put his feet up on Hanks desk, tipping over a jar of green pencils. He made no
apology or effort to gather the pencils. Hank looked at Francis shiny new shoes.
They looked good, sharp. Hank wore a lambskin leather short coat that was as shiny as a
Criscod baking sheet; he had a broad back and a thick gut, a symbol which his
ironmen interpreted as greatness of character rather than weakness for sweets. His arms
were thick and his hands so big that the Centers janitors, who spoke mostly Spanish,
had given him the nickname Manos. He had broad flat lips and long wiry hair that
had once been red and a grin that made other men in its presence feel less alive. Hank
Menzinger had taken over many a cocktail party with his sheer magnanimity. Students
flocked to work for him. Reporters loved him. Companies gave him money. Hank Menzinger had
once been an engineer, a good one, and had worked at Fairchild Semiconductor in the 60s,
when that meant something. But at some point along the road Hank realized that his
greatest gift had not been the power of his brain but the power of his personality. And
that was nothing to be ashamed of, particularly if he applied his energy to the same goal
hed been applying his mindjolt society out of its infinite loop!
"Jolt" was Hanks word, too.
Although it couldnt be logically refuted that the effect of technology was constant
and gradual, Hank had trained the ironmen at La Honda to look at it from the point of view
of world history, where decades are remembered as single moments. As a result, the
prevailing belief was that at some point technology would turn the corner, or get over the
like going through the speed of sound. It might be a single piece of
technology, and it might be the pervasiveness of technology, but it was more likely to be
some combination. A certain amount of power, in the hands of a certain amount of people
The Jolt would happen when 60% of American homes were hooked up to the internet, or
90%, or 75% of the world, or when the cost of a computer was less than a telephone, or
when technology allowed for a single world government, or something. There was no
topic more exciting. Nobody at La Honda assumed his particular project during that year
was going to be what put us over the hump. From the point of view of history, that was
just too unlikely. Short of that, though, they dreamed of having a front row seat when
history was made. La Honda was the front row. However it happened, and whenever it
happened, Hank Menzinger had convinced them that it was mighty important that they be at
La Honda when it did.
Francis was looking out the window. His best
friend, Ronny Banks, still hadnt been reinvited. He said, "Some key people
still havent been reinvited. So, naturally, those of us who count on those key
personnel are wondering whats going through Hanks head
the count is 85,
its been three days since you added to it
naturally we begin
to wonder if maybe youre not going to add to it at all."
As Hank listened, he leaned forward on his
elbows, with his hands flat against each other in a prayer position. When he spoke, his
hands parted, like the wings of a bird. "If youre asking whether Im going
to invite any more people back, Francis, then my answer is yes."
Francis didnt say anything. Typically
hed just let others talk, let them fill the silence until they made a mistake.
Hank went on. "I have to be very
selective this year, Francis. Especially selective. You know already
dont have to explain to you, that the defense industry isnt as capable of
sponsoring research as it used to be. You know the position it puts me in, Francis. I have
to think about picking people who perform, people who produce. I dont have spare
spots to dole out."
Francis said, "You need people
whove proved their worth."
Francis nodded, as if with appreciation.
"People who you can count on to get results."
"Im glad you understand."
"And Ronny Banks
what has he done
in the last year except inject red food coloring into the milk cartons in the
Then Francis added, "And everybody else
you are reinviting meets this criteria."
Hank stopped. "Well
"Do you have a list?"
"Tomorrow, Francis. The combination of
people, the chemistryit has to be right."
Francis said, "But there must be some
names on it today?"
"Well of course."
Francis waited him out. Eventually, Hank
pulled a folder aside and brought up the list. He handed it to Francis, who read over the
six names on it, going "yes, yes, yes" to each name as he considered the talent
of the person. Then Francis got to a name, Caspar Andrews, and had to think about it for a
second before he realized that Hank was talking about Andy Caspar. Andy Caspar was a
pretty new guy, hed been brought on only six weeks before, in April, to test several
software programs that had been written by others during the year. Testing was necessary
but tedious, so much so that the engineers avoided the work if possibletesting just
wasnt a way to demonstrate you had it, it wasnt a challenge to their prowess.
"Well hell," Francis said. He
brought his feet down and leaned forward onto the desk. "This kid Caspar here,
hes just a tester! He hasnt proven himself!"
"But you said you had no spare spots
to dole out, and here youve got a mere tester on your list whos only
been here six weeks! I think this spare spot right here ought to be put up for discussion.
Spot number 91, on the table." Francis slapped the list down on Hanks desk.
Hank shook his head. "Forget it. You do
your job, Ill do mine."
Francis couldnt really believe the flak
he was getting. Francis had agreed, somewhat hesitantly, to design another chip for Omega,
and he expected a little conciliation, a little pat on the back at least. A little
"thank you" herein the form of reinviting Ronny Bankswould go a long
"Uh-oh," Hank said.
"Youve gotten all quiet on
"I cant read your thoughts,
Francis, but I can tell when youre unhappy, and one of the signs is you clam
Francis despised being the subject of
others analysis. His privacy felt violated when they were wrong, but he was even
more uncomfortable when they were right. Hank had been right.
As a way of reminding Hank of all that Francis
had caved in on already, he said, "Nell Kirkhams going to divide the team!
Shes going to ask someone working on the memory module dont you think
you deserve to work on the math unit. Then shes going to ask someone working
on the math unit dont you think you deserve to be working on the memory
Hank said, "Lloyd thinks having a
journalist record the chip is an excellent idea." Lloyd was the CEO of Omega, and
since Omega was one of La Hondas biggest sponsors, Lloyd also served as President of
the Board of Regents of La Honda.
"Sure he likes the idea, hell have
every mutual fund manager from Newport Beach to London reading that Omegas new chip
will burn rubber. His P/E will top 20 by Christmas, just in time for his board to vote a
million dollar bonus."
"Aww, cut us some slack, will you? You
just hate anything that reminds you that you dont run this place. Sorry we
didnt consult your majesty before bringing in Nell Kirkham."
"Oh, now hold on there Woah. I
dont want anything but to work in peace, so you can take you little power-struggle
theory and put it back in its holster
Lookit, this journalist, this reporter
Do I have time to teach a microelectronics lesson every day? Thats time,
thats energy that I dont devote to the chip."
Hank let a moment pass, then said, "What
is this little display about, Francis?"
"I want Ronny Banks to be
Hank Menzinger slid his chair back from the
desk and turned to his gun-metal file cabinet. He pulled out Caspars file. He knew
this was going to happen. "A few years ago, Caspar used to work at Omega Logic."
Every year Lloyd Acheson looked over the list of reinvitees, and he swelled with pride if
someone from Omega was amidst the brethren. Every year Hank Menzinger tried to make sure somebody
who had worked at Omega was on the list at La Hondaeven if they had only worked in
Omegas marketing department, as Caspar had done.
two floors below, in his office in the
basement of the building,
Andy Caspar was staring at something that had been carved into the well of one of his desk
drawers by a previous occupant. It said:
What does it say about a man,
that he spends his days at a gray desk
in a windowless room?
The ironmen were supposed to believe that work
occurred in the mind, and thats where you really were, wasnt it? There was
nothing dry or boring or dim about the mind. What did it matter where you sat? Sure,
right. No amount of psychological justification was going to placate Andy into staying in
the basement of La Honda for long.
Since hed come to La Honda, he
hadnt been given a decent chance to prove himself. He had been brought in to a
small, six-person team which was redesigning part of a chipset for digital satellites.
They were all very anxious to finish because a new annual cycle was beginning, and this
was the best time to sign up for new projects. Because the team was so small, they had a
great deal of pride and ownership over their work, and they didnt want Andy to come
in at the last minute and try to take credit. For the past six weeks, the team had been
almost there, nearly there, or "one or two days away" from finishing. All of
Andys attempts to give input were rebuffed.
"How the hell can you possibly appreciate
the intricacies of our problem?" they said to him. "Youre just a tester."
So Andy resolved himself, if Im just
gonna be a tester, then Im gonna be the best goddamn tester this place has ever
seen. He poured over their code for weaknesses, and then he exposed the weakness by
putting that satellite chipset in a scenario where it froze up. Every day the team thought
they were done, they had solved everything, time to hang up their hats. And every day Andy
yanked them back to their desks with yet another wrinkle they had missed. He wrote
programs that generated random scenarios for the chipset, so it was like having a whole team
of testers in his office. Over the last six weeks, Andy had transformed from the peon the
team looked down their noses at to the gremlin in the basement they feared.
Now, Andy got a call from Hank Menzinger,
requesting him to come by. Andy had to ask for the room number, since hed never been
there. He walked upstairs and entered Menzingers office. Francis Benoit was also
there. Menzinger pointed to a swivel armchair. Menzingers office was so cool;
it wasnt presumptuous at all. He didnt have cheesy slogans on the walls. He
had some bookcases, but not every book hed ever read. He didnt have a
humidifier. There was no CD player piping out ambient music. His desk wasnt anally
organized. Andy couldnt believe ithere he was, sitting in the very same room
with two of just about the hardest ironmen who ever existed.
Menzinger grinned and put Andy at ease
instantly. "Listen, Andrews," Menzinger said to him. "As you know Im
in the process of making reinvitations to personnel. To do this I usually consider the
work accomplished over the past year. But in your case, I have to sayI have only my
instinct to go on."
Benoit chipped in. "I want him to keep my
friend Ronny Banks, but Hank here has been trying to convince me that we should keep you
instead. Maybe you would care to help us."
Andy was caught off guard. What could he
possibly say about himself that would earn their respect? What did they want? "Look,
Im not a conventional engineer," he started out, "I didnt even study
engineering in college, but maybe that makes me
different." He was just saying
something, but Francis Benoit leapt at it.
"Different? Now thats an
interesting theorem. How do you think it would make you different?"
"Well, I might approach a problem
Francis baited him. "Are you saying you
are different because you approach things differently, or you approach things differently
because you are different?"
Now Andy wished he hadnt said anything.
"Sometimes I think I see simpler solutions
" he offered.
"Ahhh, now we have something. You said
before that you approach things differently, therefore you are different. Now you say that
you have simpler solutions, so I am to conclude that you are simple?"
Andy looked to Hank Menzinger for help. He was
still there grinning away, as if we all should be enjoying our merry selves right now!
"Perhaps Andrews would be a little more
comfortable if you asked him some questions," Menzinger offered.
Yes, do that, Andy thought. But waitAndrews?
Plural? Menzinger had said Andrews again. Menzinger thought his name was Caspar
Andrews! Menzinger was his supposed advocate in this debate, the one small chance he had
at being reinvited, and Menzinger didnt even know his name!
"Uh, its Andy
Francis said, "You used to work at Omega,
huh? Did you ever sell the Falcon chip?" Francis had designed the Falcon.
"I left before the Falcon. I was selling
the Eagle, the 486."
"Did you like it there?"
Should he tell the truth? Probably not.
"Yeah, I guess."
"Then why did you leave?"
"Dunno. They dont really let
marketing people become programmers. The usual career path is the other way around,
programmers burn out after five years, move to marketing."
Francis said, "Why do you think they burn
out so fast?"
This was a delicate question, but Andy
couldnt avoid the truth, even if Omega was a big sponsor for La Honda. "In that
environment, programmers have to make so many compromises
its hard to keep
the desire, the will, when half your work gets thrown out every year."
That brought a bit of a smile to Francis
mouth. Andy wondered if maybe hed said something right.
Hank interrupted them. "Okay, Francis,
weve got to come to some decision."
Francis said, "How about this. I will
come up with one simple question. And if you get it right, I will give up my resistance
and let Hank here have his way. If you get it wrong, then Ronny Banks is on my team
another year. How about that?" Francis looked at the kid. He was square-shouldered
and tall but didnt seem proud of it; he sat hunched over. The part to his hair was
high on the crown of his head, with glossy curtains of locks hanging around his face. In
truth, Francis had already agreed with Menzinger that they had to reinvite Andy
Casparyou had to please the sponsors, they were the source of money, you
couldnt be impractical about this thing. But Francis just didnt want Andy to
see his name on that list tomorrow and get stoned on the euphoria, thinking hes hot
shit, calling his parents and bragging and all that. He didnt deserve that
boost, not for just having some marketing job in the right company five years ago!
Francis tried to think of the right question
he looked around the room. On the wall
above Andy was an old school clock
Andy waited in fear. Hed heard rumors
about Francis Benoits supposedly simple quizzes; hed heard Francis liked to
create huge grids composed of hundreds of oh-so-simple little mathematical questions, and
have ironmen race to see who could finish the grid first, testing them like they were two
Francis eyes were closed. When he opened
them, he said "Okay. You have thirty seconds to answer this one question." He
showed no emotion. "What time is it when the big hand is on the four and the little
hand is on the eleven?"
What time is it when the big hand is on the
four and the little hand is on the eleven? That was it? Thats all? Well,
hell, lets see, big hand on four is twenty, little hand on eleven, thats too
easy, there must be some trick, what? Oh, shitwas the big hand the hour hand?
It had been so long since Andy had looked at a clock that wasnt digital. Is the
"big hand" the long hand, or is the "big hand" the fat
hand? Back in school when he was a kid they used the phrases "big hand" and
"little hand" all the time, but that was a long time ago, a real long time ago,
and maybe he had the terms switched in his mind.
Then Andy realized that this kind of
second-guessing was exactly what Francis wanted him to do. Something else was going on.
Francis was playing some sort of joke on him. Why? This wasnt a test at
allthe question was too easy.
Pretty soon Hank Menzinger had to laugh at the
sheer beauty of Francis work. What time is it when the the big hand is on the
four and little hand is on the eleven? Hank could see the clock right behind
Caspars head, saying 11:20 right then and there! Beautiful! And yet just
looking at Caspar you could tell he was in turmoil, his head slightly bowed, his eyes
ascending partly into his eyelids, lost in thought. Simpler solutions! Hah. The kid would
remember this moment for a long time. He would learn the same lesson that old Monica
Edmunds learned when her prized students left her school to assimilate into the
mainstream, a lesson which eventually compelled the lady to board the windows, chain the
doors, and donate the facility to Stanford: The brain worked at the speed of electricity,
the speed of light, as long as you didnt feel the pressure, as long as nothing got
in your way. But a man in a panic, he could get anything wrong
be as sharp as quartz or as dull as Jello, depending on the way a man handled pressure.
Andy said, "This isnt a real test.
What the hells going on?"
"Oh I assure you," Francis said.
"If you get the question correct, you will be reinvited. Or are you stalling, because
youre having trouble with such a simple question."
Andy tried to think ahead. Was he walking in
to some trap? They must have already decided to reinvite him, and now they were just
fucking with him. Why? What had he done to be fucked with?
"Times up," Francis said,
looking at the clock on the wall to keep time. For a moment the tip of Francis
tongue slid out between his closed lips. Then it was sliding around under the surface of
his cheeks, playfully. There was a glint of pleasure in Francis eyes. He said,
"What makes you think you can be an ironman?"
For a moment, Andy considered answering
"midnight," or some such obviously incorrect answer, just to see what would
happen. Then he decided not to risk it. "The time would be twenty minutes after
eleven," he said. He stood up and walked to the door. As he went out, he heard
Francis burst out in laughter at his prank.
The camera crew was crowded into the anteroom
again, waiting for Hank a second time, and here a man came out of Hanks office. What
a relief!he was young and tall with thick hair and good skin. The producer was
ecstatic; after the hospital patient, the mountain man, and the whale-boy, the producer
couldnt hide his excitement that Hank Menzinger turned out to be a good-looking guy.
He stood up and thrust out his hand.
hi, hi, wow,
I cant tell you how much of a pleasure it is to meet you." The
producer watched a big smile come over Mister Menzingers face. He even had great
teeth! Those boys in New York had done their homework after all!
Andy instinctively shook this mans hand.
He held on to it, shaking firmly and warmly, taking in their act, figuring out what was
going on. He was tempted to go along with it. Naw, dont be stupidwhy risk
Hanks wrath? Then he remembered Francis words: What makes you think you can
be an ironman? Well, if Francis Benoit thought he was the only one with audacity
around here, he would learn differently.
where should we go?"
Andy said. "My office
its too small of course. Theres a lab down
one floor, a big room, plenty of outlets for your lights."
"Thatll be fine," the producer
said. "Well just follow you down there."
Andy led them into the hall andtaking
bold strides he thought appropriate for the Executive Director of La Hondadown one
flight of stairs to the Materials Engineering Lab on the second floor. He punched in a
code to the security lock over the door, waited for the bolt to click, and then held the
door open for his entourage to pass. Once inside, he pulled a shade down over the
doors porthole, so nobody passing by would notice the camera flashes.
Finally having something to do, the crew broke
into action. One man covered the labs windows with dark cloth, blocking out natural
light. Another man erected a scaffold and draped a white screen from its front. A third
cranked down the telescopic legs of a tripod, mounted a reflex camera on the top, and
plugged in an air-bulb shutter release cord. He then began playing with lenses, unscrewing
them to insert filters. Done with the windows, the first man began popping flashes and
testing light exposure.
"Dont forget to check
batteries!" the producer called out. He took Andy by the arm and guided him to the
rack of clothes. "Well feed you clothes to change in to as we go," he
said. "But why dont you start with whatever looks comfortable. Go ahead, just
pick some things off the rack and try them on."
Andy stood in front of the rack, browsing
through its selection. The pickings werent horrible. He slipped into a knit shirt
and a pair of knee-length corduroys. He pulled his white socks up. Then he looked at the
shoe selection, all sorts of shoes on pegs at the base of the rack. He turned back to the
producer, who was across the room.
"Hey! Hey, um
Dont you guys have any sneakers?"