Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Steve Wozniak

A Fuller Life

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I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally figured out the subject of my next book, which will be a biography of the architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know how much Fuller means to me, and I’m looking forward to giving him the comprehensive portrait that he deserves. (Honestly, that’s putting it mildly. I’ve known for over a week that I’ll have a chance to tackle this project, and I still can’t quite believe that it’s really happening. And I’m especially happy that my current publisher has agreed to give me a shot at it.) At first glance, this might seem like a departure from my previous work, but it presents an opportunity to explore some of the same themes from a different angle, and to explore how they might play out in the real world. The timelines of the two projects largely coincide, with a group of subjects who were affected by the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the social upheavals of the sixties. All of them had highly personal notions about the fate of America, and Fuller used physical artifacts much as Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein employed science fiction—to prepare their readers for survival in an era of perpetual change. Fuller’s wife, Anne, played an unsung role in his career that recalls many of the women in Astounding. Like Campbell, he approached psychology as a category of physics, and he hoped to turn the prediction of future trends into a science in itself. His skepticism of governments led him to conclude that society should be changed through design, not political institutions, and like many science fiction writers, he acted as if all disciplines could be reduced to subsets of engineering. And for most of his life, he insisted that complicated social problems could be solved through technology.

Most of his ideas were expressed through the geodesic dome, the iconic work of structural design that made him famous—and I hope that this book will be as much about the dome as about Fuller himself. It became a universal symbol of the space age, and his reputation as a futurist may have been founded largely on the fact that his most recognizable achievement instantly evoked the landscape of science fiction. From the beginning, the dome was both an elegant architectural conceit and a potent metaphor. The concept of a hemispherical shelter that used triangular elements to enclose the maximum amount of space had been explored by others, but Fuller was the first to see it as a vehicle for social change. With design principles that could be scaled up or down without limitation, it could function as a massive commercial pavilion or as a house for hippies. (Ken Kesey dreamed of building a geodesic dome to hold one of his acid tests.) It could be made out of plywood, steel, or cardboard. A dome could be cheaply assembled by hand by amateur builders, which encouraged experimentation, and its specifications could be laid out in a few pages and shared for free, like the modern blueprints for printable houses. It was a hackable, open-source machine for living that reflected a set of tools that spoke to the same men and women who were teaching themselves how to code. As I noted here recently, a teenager named Jaron Lanier, who was living in a tent with his father on an acre of desert in New Mexico, used nothing but the formulas in Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook to design and build a house that he called “Earth Station Lanier.” Lanier, who became renowned years later as the founder of virtual reality, never got over the experience. He recalled decades later: “I loved the place; dreamt about it while sleeping inside it.”

During his lifetime, Fuller was one of the most famous men in America, and he managed to become an idol to both the establishment and the counterculture. In the three decades since his death, his reputation has faded, but his legacy is visible everywhere. The influence of his geodesic structures can be seen in the Houston Astrodome, at Epcot Center, on thousands of playgrounds, in the dome tents favored by backpackers, and in the emergency shelters used after Hurricane Katrina. Fuller had a lasting impact on environmentalism and design, and his interest in unconventional forms of architecture laid the foundation for the alternative housing movement. His homegrown system of geometry led to insights into the biological structure of viruses and the logic of communications networks, and after he died, he was honored by the discoverers of a revolutionary form of carbon that resembled a geodesic sphere, which became known as fullerene, or the buckyball. And I’m particularly intrigued by his parallels to the later generation of startup founders. During the seventies, he was a hero to the likes of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who later featured him prominently in the first “Think Different” commercial, and he was the prototype of the Silicon Valley types who followed. He was a Harvard dropout who had been passed over by the college’s exclusive social clubs, and despite his lack of formal training, he turned himself into an entrepreneur who believed in changing society through innovative products and environmental design. Fuller wore the same outfit to all his public appearances, and his personal habits amounted to an early form of biohacking. (Fuller slept each day for just a few hours, taking a nap whenever he felt tired, and survived mostly on steak and tea.) His closest equivalent today may well be Elon Musk, which tells us a lot about both men.

And this project is personally significant to me. I first encountered Fuller through The Whole Earth Catalog, which opened its first edition with two pages dedicated to his work, preceded by a statement from editor Stewart Brand: “The insights of Buckminster Fuller initiated this catalog.” I was three years old when he died, and I grew up in the shadow of his influence in the Bay Area. The week before my freshman year in high school, I bought a used copy of his book Critical Path, and I tried unsuccessfully to plow through Synergetics. (At the time, this all felt kind of normal, and it’s only when I look back that it seems strange—which tells you a lot about me, too.) Above all else, I was drawn to his reputation as the ultimate generalist, which reflected my idea of what my life should be, and I’m hugely excited by the prospect of returning to him now. Fuller has been the subject of countless other works, but never a truly authoritative biography, which is a project that meets both Susan Sontag’s admonition that a writer should try to be useful and the test that I stole from Lin-Manuel Miranda: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?” Best of all, the process looks to be tremendously interesting for its own sake—I think it’s going to rewire my brain. It also requires an unbelievable amount of research. To apply the same balanced, fully sourced, narrative approach to his life that I tried to take for Campbell, I’ll need to work through all of Fuller’s published work, a mountain of primary sources, and what might literally be the largest single archive for any private individual in history. I know from experience that I can’t do it alone, and I’m looking forward to seeking help from the same kind of brain trust that I was lucky to have for Astounding. Those of you who have stuck with this blog should be prepared to hear a lot more about Fuller over the next three years, but I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I didn’t think that you might find it interesting. And who knows? He might change your life, too.

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

Coding at midnight

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Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs

I remember once that I designed a PC board for our disk interface. I did a rare thing for an engineer: I laid out the board myself. At Apple, we had departments that usually did that. But I came in many nights in a row, working very, very late. I laid out the whole board, and then I got an idea to save one feedthrough. So I took the board apart, I trashed maybe a week’s worth of work, and then I started over.

And I did it another way that saved another feedthrough. No big deal. Nobody in the world would ever know that I laid it out to have very few feedthroughs—three instead of maybe fifty. None of this would ever be seen, but for some reason it seemed important in an artistic sense. You can have a feeling that all these things are important, but you can’t necessarily justify them logically. The effort comes from being so close to your art…

I feel that I do my best work at night. But even though I’ve had a few all-nighters in the last couple of years at this company, some of them I spent wishing that this piece of code had been written at midnight like it should have been. The all-nighters I like aren’t the ones when you stay up solving a problem because it needs to be solved, but when you stay, after everything’s been solved, to put a little extra quality in, to add something here or there. Sometimes I wanted a code to be so perfect before I released it that I put in whole sections of code that were not even planned for the program and that nobody would even notice—so that it would be good and right. When something inside motivates you like that, you don’t even notice time. You can go without sleep and not even sleep the next day.

Steve Wozniak, to Kenneth A. Brown in Inventors at Work

Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2015 at 9:00 am

“You are a Tetris master.”

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I’m a decent writer. At least, I’d like to think so. I’m not nearly as good as I want to be, of course, but I write nice, clean prose, know how to structure a short story, chapter, or novel, and occasionally get paid for it. And yet it’s really hard work. I write fewer drafts than I once did, but every paragraph is still the result of endless revision, and the process can leave me feeling pretty drained. As a result, there are times, when I’m struggling with yet another intractable sentence, when I look back fondly on the only talent that seemed to come to me naturally. That’s right: years ago, in my more youthful days, I was a Tetris master.

Looking back, I suspect that there must have been a painful apprenticeship somewhere along the way, after I first got Tetris for the beloved Nintendo Entertainment System, but if there was, I don’t remember it. All I know is that I was really good at Tetris. To this day—and it’s embarrassing to admit this—it remains the only thing in the world I can do well without trying. And there was even one afternoon, when I was probably eleven or twelve, when I made my parents take a blurry Polaroid photo of a high score and send it to Nintendo Power. I never knew what happened next, until one day, about a year ago, I stumbled across this astonishing page from the 1998 edition of the Twin Galaxies Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records:

Yep, that’s me, with a score of 446,166. And a few lines above, yep, that’s Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computer, making this the only time Wozniak and I have been mentioned in the same context. (At least to my knowledge.) Which is why it pains me to confess that I’m in the Twin Galaxies record book under false pretenses: my high score was achieved on the home NES console, but it was somehow misfiled under Game Boy, which means that I’m ranked significantly higher than I should have been. (If I’d been classified correctly, I still would have made the Twin Galaxies book, but several dozen spots lower down—and I wouldn’t have been anywhere near the Woz, who takes his Tetris very seriously.)

Anyway, I’ve long since retired from Tetris, but the allure remains. A few Thanksgivings ago, at my in-laws’ house, I picked up a controller for the first time in maybe a decade, and racked up a decent score of 351,499.  Afterward, I wanted to bring the console home, but my wife nixed the idea, probably for good reason. (Having an NES console in the house would quickly bring my writing career to an ignominious close.) Yet there are times when I can’t help but wonder what might have been. And while I’ll never be as good as this guy, I still feel nostalgic for the one pursuit at which I was, for one brief, shining moment, a natural. If only I could do it for a living…

Written by nevalalee

April 15, 2011 at 9:51 am

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