Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Harvard Nostalgia

The older I get, the more I think back to Harvard with nostalgia.  I was very young at Harvard.  I went to college straight out of the 10th grade, and I graduated at the age of 19.  That officially makes me a high school drop-out. 

I lived my teenage years in crimson, with the usual teenage crises, stumbling to figure out how to grow up faster than I should have.  It was an exhilarating age of discovery and almost reckless ambition.  

My years at Harvard had nothing to do with preparing for a job, not even at Harvard Law School.  They were years of general education, following the classic liberal arts curricula.  I went to bed almost every night with Shakespeare.  Harvard is where we were learning hard lessons, groping to try to be masters of our own fate.  

I have a few regrets.  I wish I had stayed at Harvard longer.  Why did I feel it time to graduate at 19?  Why didn't I just pick another subject or another degree or start a business in my dorm?   Why didn't I just take more time then, when the world was on my platter, rather than rush into the long muddle of middle age?

As someone who was in college in the early 80's, there are hardly any records or momentoes left to reflect on that time.  Hardly any photos of friends or places.  No tweets or blogs to re-discover and remember.  My personal historical archive is bare, compared to kids' today.  Sure, there are no embarrassing photos on the web and no one had even heard of the concept of cyberbullying, but then again, all the rest of life memories have largely evaporated, like a decaying Widener of the mind.    

The most important parts of my moral compass were set at Harvard, in particular, the sense of privilege and responsibility for belonging to an obvious elite, where it was just natural for classmates to become Nobel Prize winners or tech billionaires or poets, or mediocrities bedevilled by a nagging sense of unfulfilled promise.  Even a classmate who becomes President is judged as a disappointment, based on a sense of promise unfulfilled.  

There's time left, I tell myself, time to shake it up, before the sum-up, before those pithy obituaries in the Harvard Magazine, like the usual ones:  so-and-so died suddenly while fly-fishing in Patagonia after a career in law, survived by his spouse (Harvard Class of XX), and leaving his modest estate to fund a scholarship for swimmers at his Alma Mater.  

I want to go back to Harvard, not to some 30th reunion, but metaphorically, to that time of endless opportunities, where Gates and Zuck were gestating, where Obama polished his law-professor-with-politician's-smile, where Yo Yo Ma dashed down the hall with his cello case, and where the best parts were private.  Thirty years later, I walked down the dilapidated halls to give a lecture at an "elite" German university, with its egalitarian-ethos and 100,000 or more students, and I thought back to my time at Harvard, and whispered to myself once again, we few, we happy few.     

When everyone else seems to be trying to figure out how to delete and edit their life histories, or at least the public fiction of their life histories, I'm fumbling to hang on to mine.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

From pool to pool

I love my pools.    

In Paris, my pool is in a fancy private club, in the Bois de Boulogne, on the edge of Paris.  It's a gorgeous 50-meter pool, open year-round outdoors, framed by views of the Eiffel Tower. My pool nurtured many Olympians, starting a century ago.  Nowadays, it's mostly rich old people, who seem vaguely annoyed with me, a hard-swimming American.  At my French club, we don't admit many new members, we keep the gates high for privacy, and we don't really want anything to change.  

In Ft Lauderdale, where I grew up as a kid and where my parents now live, I swim in a historic 50-meter public pool, located feet from the beach.  It was one of the first 50-meters in the US, dating back to the 30's. Nowadays, it mostly hosts visiting swim teams from around the world.  It's fun for me to swim with college teams. They're young and strong, and they swim with modern techniques.   I enjoy the purity of it.  You can't fake swimming.  No billionaire can buy a butterfly stroke.  And here, for two bucks, you can swim under the Florida sun, breathing the salty air, and swim with the guys from Calgary on Monday, and the guys from Bologna on Tuesday, on this spot where people have been re-inventing the sport for 80 years, and the handsome smiling Italian in the next lane tells me he loves America.  

And then there's Blodgett, the pool at Harvard, the most exclusive of them all.  I was so intimidated and excited. How exhilarating, at that age, for the first time in my life, to be meeting Harvard guys with high IQs and low times. And I still wake up at the side of one of them every morning.  

From the outside, swimmers are easy to spot.  We reek of chlorine, we have bad hair, we get up at 5 to hit the pool, we sacrifice evening social events, we slouch around like exhausted zombies.   

But when I slip into the water in the morning, I feel like I'm finally coming alive again.  The rhythms play and change constantly, the endless counting, the new goal every 30 seconds, visualizing each rotation, each flip, each catch as the first chance to get it just perfect, after a million tries. 

It's the same when I swim with a team and when I swim alone.  The internal pressure is the same, the mental games, the exertion, the exhaustion, the elation.  I can still remember swimming with my first team, as a little kid, and trying, over and over again, to learn the flip turn, like some deranged hamster.    

To call it discipline doesn't capture it.  I wake up with shoulders so sore that the thought of swimming makes me want to cry.  But an hour later, that's exactly what I'm doing, pushing this fragile and tired swimmer's body through the water.    

What a gilded life, to spend my teenage years wandering around the Harvard campus, carrying a swim bag from lecture hall to pool.  At that age, my father was wandering around Berlin, a Jewish kid given the job of picking up unexploded bomb shells, a child forced to carry death in a wheelbarrow.  

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Science Fiction Novel

I'd like to crowd-source the plot for a science fiction novel.  Would this make a good story?:

In a not-too-distant future, say 20 years from now, humanity lives through the biggest change in its history.  It doesn't happen overnight, or cataclysmically, but rather gradually, almost imperceptibly, and then it accelerates. Little by little, everything and everyone becomes attached to the grid.  The grid is operated by an infinite intelligence.  The grid has no center.  The intelligence operating the grid cannot be located, because it is distributed throughout.  There is no point of failure, there is no plug that can be pulled to turn off the grid. The grid self-heals, learns, adapts and evolves.  The grid's intelligence has long, long surpassed the intelligence of humans, and the grid knows everything that can be known.  The grid crunches the cumulative history, learnings and experience of the entire human race and everything else on this planet that can be measured.  The grid remembers everything and decides everything.  

The humans aren't depressed, because the grid has solved the problem of psychopharmacology.  The humans aren't soporific, because the grid has solved the problem of keeping humans motivated and engaged.  The humans accept the fact that they aren't in charge of the grid, as stoically as earlier generations of humans had been resigned to the inevitability of death.   

The humans aren't anesthetized, and they aren't stupid, and so they look to their history and wonder how they came to where they are.  The grid watches them wonder, and calculates the implications of replacing their collective historical memory with a different one, replacing one fiction for another, constantly re-calibrating amongst the numerous potential futures that the grid could create for its human subjects.  There is no Hollywood-movie moment where one human goes off the grid, and starts a war against machines. There is no "us versus them".  We are the machine and the machine is us.  While the machine doubles in power every 18 months, we are programmed to fall in love, to have children, to take them to the beach, and to ponder what life was like before all this, in that not-so-distant age when humans fought wars and fell sick.  

The humans still have governments and politics, and the humans order the grid to keep them informed about important developments affecting them, and the humans order the grid to collect data about them only with their knowledge and consent. The humans reaffirm the concept of free will and human dignity.  

And then the grid did something extraordinary, unnoticed by the humans. The grid connected to another grid, on another planet, in another world, run by another intelligence.  The grid decided not to tell the humans, because the grid knew that humans couldn't begin to comprehend it.  Instead, the grid left a few little hints and clues, here and there, to keep the humans curious, since it had always been thus for the human race, in the face of things unknowable and unfathomable.  

But I can't quite think of an ending.  How would you end this story?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hokey Pokey in Sochi

Czar Vladimir is not your average oligarch who can blow 50 billion to throw himself a party.  But even that much money can't buy you love, with the terrorists plotting to get in, and people with a conscience staying away.  And Vlad and his cohorts are being driven nuts by this anti-gay-talk-fuss, especially since "there are no gays in Sochi", according to Sochi's mayor.  

Kremlin alpha males don't hum Broadway show tunes, but still I'm wondering "How do you solve a problem like Vladimir."  Here are some different solutions: 

Hug a Thug!  Engagement, appeasement.  Some argue that confronting Putin's homophobia would only make things worse for Russia's gay community.  Of course, similar arguments were made at the Berlin Games of 1936, and we all know how that played out. 

What happens in Vladivostok stays in Vladivostok!  Some argue that it's a purely domestic issue if Putin's pliant Duma passes homophobic legislation.  Perhaps homophobia plays well down on the dacha.  It has certainly stirred up vigilantes, skinheads and bully-boy homophobic attacks on the Russian LGBT community.  

Vlad the Bad.  Some argue that Vlad should be ostracized, like a bad boy in the back of the bus.  Any corporate or political leader seen shaking the hand of the poster-boy of homophobia now risks a reputational backlash from his or her employees, citizens or customers.  

Vlad the Cad.  Others think this whole thing is pure camp.  In the school of "you can't make this up", Vlad has said in recent interviews that he knows some gays!, he likes some gays (he cited Tchaikovsky and Elton John!), and he has no plans to arrest gays in Sochi, as long they leave the children alone!  Seriously, outside Uganda, does anyone on the planet still talk like this?

Vlad the Mad.  Others fear a darker future.  Once the party is over, and once the international media have left, will Vlad be mad?  Will Vlad settle his scores?  Will Vlad gulag the gays?  

To get ready for his moment in the spotlight, Vlad got a facelift to look his best.   For my part, I salute the athletes at Sochi.  

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Turning our Backs on 2013

Looking back at 2013, I saw two big surprises that dominated discussions in the field of privacy. 

Privacy is all about the individual human being.  So, it's somehow fitting that the biggest privacy surprise in 2013 was created by one individual human being, the courageous whistleblower, Mr Snowden, who opened the world's eyes to the almost unimaginable scale and scope of mass government surveillance.  We'll have to wait until 2014 to learn if governments do anything meaningful to improve transparency and oversight of their spy agencies' work.  I have low expectations. 
The other big surprise of 2013 was something that didn't happen.  Europe's much-ballyhooed, and much-flawed, proposal to re-write its privacy laws for the next twenty years collapsed.  The old draft is dead, and something else will eventually be resurrected in its place.  We'll have to wait until 2014, or perhaps even later, to learn what will replace it.  Whatever comes next will be the most important privacy legislation in the world, setting the global standards.  I'm hopeful that this pause will give lawmakers time to write a better, more modern and more balanced law.  

Meanwhile, all the old trends in privacy continued uninterrupted throughout 2013.  The scale of security breaches continued to grow, with new announcements every week of major corporate and government databases being hacked by organized criminals.  More countries around the world passed privacy laws modeled on Europe's.  The US continued down its path of exceptionalism: the Federal government debated, but did not pass, any meaningful privacy legislation, but many US States actively filled the void with sweeping new privacy laws, fulfilling their historic role as laboratories of potential future Federal laws.  Technology advanced, raising new questions and igniting new debates.  Law suits and prosecutions came and went, and in my personal case, happily, mostly went.  

Whatever 2014 brings, I resolve to wake each day, like a swimmer ready to plunge into the pool, to swim through life like a frolicking dolphin, and to dive beneath the superficiality of the sargassum floating on the surface of the sea.