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Chapter One, The First 20 Million

1. The Shiny Shoes

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Oh, God. No sooner had Francis Benoit started explaining to this reporter the difference between the ISA and PCI electrical standard when the reporter’s head nods—customary cues that implied "go on, I’m with you,"—were replaced by this high tempo bobbing and rocking motion which signalled that the reporter’s 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 wasn’t going to say it for her. Forget it. He hated having to translate his work into dumbed-down metaphors for the shiny shoe set—the 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 she’d been invited to chronicle the design of a next-generation chip for one of La Honda Research’s sponsors, Omega Logic. Francis was the lead designer. The reporter’s name was Nell Kirkham. She sat with her legs crossed and her head tilted back so her hair fell behind her shoulders. She didn’t 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 didn’t wear the kind of cheap makeup that needed reapplying after every meal. She was a woman who wanted it both ways—she 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 wasn’t going to let her go in that direction. "What’s your question?"

"What’s this project’s code name?"

"The 686."

She looked disappointed. "Most code names … are … more metaphorical than that. More … inspiring."

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 don’t just want my stories to be about how you’re packing ten million transistors on a wafer. I’m 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 won’t be ten million transistors. We’re getting the specs from Omega’s fabrication team. It might be four million."

"Whatever!"

Francis pinched his forehead with the fingers of his right hand. He blew out some air. "Ms. Kirkham, with all respect, if Omega’s 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 Omega’s 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 you feel."

Francis agonized over this. He’d spent the past ten years of his life devoted to designing more powerful computers. But after all that time, computers didn’t 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 Honda’s 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. He’d agreed to take the assignment very reluctantly. But he wasn’t going to tell this story to a reporter who wouldn’t even bother to understand his technology.

He said, "What do you mean, ‘how I feel?’"

"Well, for instance … La Honda is a non-profit research lab. Sponsors pay you to design things, and then you don’t ever see any profit from that. You don’t really even get the credit. So how does that make you feel?"

Ahhh. Reporters always got around to asking this. They couldn’t understand that all Francis wanted to do was to work without intrusions, to create. They couldn’t believe that he wasn’t 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?"

"Jealous?"

"Naw …" 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 bullshit—chasing venture capital money, writing technical documentation, hiring people—and 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 didn’t 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 prove—you know what it comes from? It comes from when somebody doesn’t believe you, doesn’t believe in you. And the only person in the past month who’s questioned me, the only person who doubts me … is you, Ms. Kirkham. I told you. I’m happy with the way it works around here. You think all that matters is money, and magazine covers? Fine. But don’t presume that’s all that I think matters. Now, if you excuse me … I’ve got 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 Workware.

Some Italian conglomerate had built up sufficient internal consensus to approve their ad agency’s 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 van’s owner uneasy—he was in the rear seat, turned backwards, trying to keep his lighting equipment from crashing into the van’s walls; then the canopy of forest overhanging the road began scraping the metal roof, and naturally they started thinking they’d missed a turnoff, this couldn’t be it, no way, something was wrong here, this couldn’t 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 wasn’t about to pull his scooter over into somebody’s 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 hadn’t been told much, but one of the things he’d 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 wasn’t some renowned science lab at all—it might still be a school for the dumb. Coming from New York, where power is expressed in huge buildings rocketing skyward—where power is expressed, above all, in concrete and glass—well, 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 about appearances.

They unpacked the van; it took all of them to move the gear indoors—lights, 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. They’d never seen Hank Menzinger, didn’t 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. Nobody’d even checked his size, for god’s sakes—the 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 they’d 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 Benoit.

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 wasn’t 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 …

"You’re looking for Hank, huh?… Who are you guys, some photo crew, rack of clothes, huh … wait—this for an ad?"

The producer introduced himself, and then introduced Adriano Paschetta. "The photographer," he added, after Paschetta’s 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."

"That’s bad?" the producer asked.

"Yes, bad." He pulled the loafers out and set them on the carpet. "You know what shiny shoes mean, don’t you?"

The producer’s 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 pair—for no more money, mind you—that don’t 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, dust-free sheen."

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. Thanks."

"It would have undermined your credibility," Francis added. "People in this town, they love to sniff out a fake."

"Thanks, thanks. Authenticity is important to us. Do you mind …" The representative’s 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, that’s good, that’s excellent. Now that’s authentic. Can we take a polaroid? I don’t want to forget the words. Tommy, get a polaroid of this right here. You don’t mind, do you buddy?"

You don’t mind, do you buddy? Francis 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 reality—oh, please. Francis couldn’t 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 life’s work to help sell some t-shirts! You don’t 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. It’s in the opposing wing of the building … the other end of the main lobby. Big red-haired guy. Can’t 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 Menzinger’s 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 habitat—he 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 Menzinger either.

"Who told you that I was?"

"Well, this guy in Room 211, he seemed very helpful at the time …" the producer’s 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 master’s 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t afraid of saying the wrong thing around Francis; Ronny was the one guy who could laugh it off after Francis ridiculed him. Ronny’s 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, won’t you tell us where to find Hank Menzinger?" the producer asked.

"Oh, sure, sure. He’s in the administration building, across the Quad—that’s the grass patch. First door on the right after you go in. I’ll call ahead to make sure he’s there."

"Would you do that?"

"Sure, I just said I would, didn’t I?"

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, Tiny?"

"Compiling …"

"Look it, you gotta go right now to the conference room in the South building. Take the tunnel—don’t 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 wouldn’t 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 didn’t want to know, and he didn’t want to ask, because it would only distract him from pondering the lines of code he’d 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 didn’t 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 position—a 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 he’d brought, a terrycloth bathrobe embossed across the back with the phrase "SPROCKETS & COGS," it was here somewhere….

Tiny barely noticed them.

"Excuse us," the producer said, stepping forward.

Tiny said, "I’ve been waiting."

"We’re very sorry we’re late," the producer said. "We’ve had a little trouble finding you. You are Hank Menzinger, right?"

"No."

"You’re not?"

"No."

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 comments—to 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 pop.

The producer felt an urge to make Tiny suffer bodily injury. "Will you say anything other than yes or no?"

"No."

He took revenge on Tiny with an old schoolyard trick. "Is this your first time being stupid?"

"No, I mean yes, … wait… I’m 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. He’d 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 … did you know that you are still wearing your bicycle helmet?"

Tiny put his hand on his head. Sure enough, the guy was right—he’d 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 didn’t 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 lesson—a 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 wouldn’t get frustrated or exasperated. It would just follow the orders stored in Room 211—leave 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 time—with no idea it’s caught in a loop! It won’t respond to keystrokes because it’s not done with the last request; it still hasn’t found Hank Menzinger, but it believes he’s 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 they’re 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 didn’t 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 cards—these were the people who’s 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 years … but the Mercedes cost a little more than they could afford, so they worked even harder … 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 Lady’s 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 high … 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 Valley—a 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 "I’m trying to amplify wireless signals in the Ka band spectrum," or "I’m 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 clues—if you had been duped into one of Francis Benoit’s infinite loop pranks, and you had hung out with the scientists for weeks on end—you 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 languages—and 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. Ironmen—they 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 wasn’t 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 Honda—not one person in thirty years—but 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 saying—hell, 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 weren’t 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 "I’m your slave, work me" tactic—which a newcomer to a commercial company might employ to climb a few rungs—just didn’t cut it here. La Honda wasn’t 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 weren’t.

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 fifth—but 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 couldn’t 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 one’s own future—to 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 "that’s it—that’s the cutoff." Lobbying was considered unnecessary—the brightness of your mind was supposed to be self-evident, and if it didn’t 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 Hank’s 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 Hank’s 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 Crisco’d 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 Center’s 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 he’d been applying his mind—jolt society out of its infinite loop!

"Jolt" was Hank’s word, too. Although it couldn’t 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 hump, … 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 hadn’t been reinvited. He said, "Some key people still haven’t been reinvited. So, naturally, those of us who count on those key personnel are wondering what’s going through Hank’s head … the count is 85, it’s been three days since you added to it … four days … naturally we begin to wonder if maybe you’re 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 you’re asking whether I’m going to invite any more people back, Francis, then my answer is ‘yes.’"

Francis didn’t say anything. Typically he’d 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 … I don’t have to explain to you, that the defense industry isn’t 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 don’t have spare spots to dole out."

Francis said, "You need people who’ve proved their worth."

"Exactly."

Francis nodded, as if with appreciation. "People who you can count on to get results."

"I’m 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 cafeteria?"

"Right."

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 chemistry—it 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, he’d 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 possible—testing just wasn’t a way to demonstrate you had it, it wasn’t a challenge to their prowess.

"Well hell," Francis said. He brought his feet down and leaned forward onto the desk. "This kid Caspar here, he’s just a tester! He hasn’t proven himself!"

"Francis—"

"But you said you had no spare spots to dole out, and here you’ve got a mere tester on your list who’s 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 Hank’s desk.

Hank shook his head. "Forget it. You do your job, I’ll do mine."

Francis couldn’t 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" here—in the form of reinviting Ronny Banks—would go a long way.

"Uh-oh," Hank said.

"What?"

"You’ve gotten all quiet on me."

"So?"

"I can’t read your thoughts, Francis, but I can tell when you’re unhappy, and one of the signs is you clam up."

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 Kirkham’s going to divide the team! She’s going to ask someone working on the memory module ‘don’t you think you deserve to work on the math unit.’ Then she’s going to ask someone working on the math unit ‘don’t you think you deserve to be working on the memory module.’"

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 Honda’s biggest sponsors, Lloyd also served as President of the Board of Regents of La Honda.

"Sure he likes the idea, he’ll have every mutual fund manager from Newport Beach to London reading that Omega’s 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 don’t run this place. Sorry we didn’t consult your majesty before bringing in Nell Kirkham."

"Oh, now hold on there— Woah. I don’t 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? That’s time, that’s energy that I don’t devote to the chip."

Hank let a moment pass, then said, "What is this little display about, Francis?"

"I want Ronny Banks to be reinvited."

Hank Menzinger slid his chair back from the desk and turned to his gun-metal file cabinet. He pulled out Caspar’s 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 Honda—even if they had only worked in Omega’s 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 that’s where you really were, wasn’t 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 he’d come to La Honda, he hadn’t 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 didn’t 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 Andy’s attempts to give input were rebuffed.

"How the hell can you possibly appreciate the intricacies of our problem?" they said to him. "You’re just a tester."

So Andy resolved himself, if I’m just gonna be a tester, then I’m 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 he’d never been there. He walked upstairs and entered Menzinger’s office. Francis Benoit was also there. Menzinger pointed to a swivel armchair. Menzinger’s office was so cool; it wasn’t presumptuous at all. He didn’t have cheesy slogans on the walls. He had some bookcases, but not every book he’d ever read. He didn’t have a humidifier. There was no CD player piping out ambient music. His desk wasn’t anally organized. Andy couldn’t believe it—here 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 I’m 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 say—I 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, I’m not a conventional engineer," he started out, "I didn’t even study engineering in college, but maybe that makes me … different." He was just saying something, but Francis Benoit leapt at it.

"Different? Now that’s an interesting theorem. How do you think it would make you different?"

"Well, I might approach a problem differently."

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 hadn’t 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 wait—Andrews? 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 didn’t even know his name!

"Uh, it’s 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 don’t 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 couldn’t avoid the truth, even if Omega was a big sponsor for La Honda. "In that environment, programmers have to make so many compromises … it’s 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 he’d said something right.

Hank interrupted them. "Okay, Francis, we’ve 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 didn’t 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 Caspar—you had to please the sponsors, they were the source of money, you couldn’t be impractical about this thing. But Francis just didn’t want Andy to see his name on that list tomorrow and get stoned on the euphoria, thinking he’s hot shit, calling his parents and bragging and all that. He didn’t 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. He’d heard rumors about Francis Benoit’s supposedly simple quizzes; he’d 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 microprocessors.

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? That’s all? Well, hell, let’s see, big hand on four is twenty, little hand on eleven, that’s too easy, there must be some trick, what? Oh, shit—was the big hand the hour hand? It had been so long since Andy had looked at a clock that wasn’t 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 wasn’t a test at all—the 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 Caspar’s 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 didn’t feel the pressure, as long as nothing got in your way. But a man in a panic, he could get anything wrong … Brains could be as sharp as quartz or as dull as Jello, depending on the way a man handled pressure.

Andy said, "This isn’t a real test. What the hell’s going on?"

"Oh I assure you," Francis said. "If you get the question correct, you will be reinvited. Or are you stalling, because you’re 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?

"Time’s 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 Hank’s 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 couldn’t hide his excitement that Hank Menzinger turned out to be a good-looking guy. He stood up and thrust out his hand.

"Mister Menzinger … hi, hi, wow, … I can’t tell you how much of a pleasure it is to meet you." The producer watched a big smile come over Mister Menzinger’s face. He even had great teeth! Those boys in New York had done their homework after all!

Andy instinctively shook this man’s 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, don’t be stupid—why risk Hank’s 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.

"So, … where should we go?" Andy said. "My office … it’s too small of course. There’s a lab down one floor, a big room, plenty of outlets for your lights."

"That’ll be fine," the producer said. "We’ll just follow you down there."

Andy led them into the hall and—taking bold strides he thought appropriate for the Executive Director of La Honda—down 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 door’s porthole, so nobody passing by would notice the camera flashes.

Finally having something to do, the crew broke into action. One man covered the lab’s 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.

"Don’t forget to check batteries!" the producer called out. He took Andy by the arm and guided him to the rack of clothes. "We’ll feed you clothes to change in to as we go," he said. "But why don’t 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 weren’t 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 … these shoes … Don’t you guys have any sneakers?"