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Helping Launch the NetGain Challenge

This morning, I’m at the Ford Foundation in New York City as part of the launch event for NetGain. NetGain is a new effort launched by the Mozilla, Ford, Open Society, Macarthur and Knight Foundations, to bring the philanthropic community together to tackle the greatest obstacles to digital rights, online equality and the use of the internet to promote social justice.

The event is livestreamed here – in a moment, you can head Tim Berners-Lee and Susan Crawford in conversation about the future of the web.

For the past six months, I’ve been working with Jenny Toomey and Darren Walker at Ford, John Palfrey at Phillips Andover, and friends at these different foundations to launch the NetGain challenges. We’re asking people around the world to propose difficult problems about the open internet that they think governments and companies have not been able to solve. We’re collecting these challenges at, and asking participating foundations to take the lead on one or more challenges, coordinating a new set of investments in tackling that problem.

I had the privilege of introducing a session at this morning’s event about these challenges. It was an Ignite talk, which means I probably didn’t manage to say all the words I have listed below. But this is what I was trying to say:

45 years ago, the first message was sent over the internet, between a computer at UCLA and one at Stanford University.

25 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee turned the internet from a tool for academics into something most of us use every day, by making it easy to publish and read online – he created the World Wide Web.

What’s followed on Sir Tim’s invention is a transformation of the ways we work, play, shop, argue, protest, give, learn and love.

Given the amazing transformations we’ve seen, it’s easy to forget that the internet is a long, ongoing experiment. The internet as we know it is the result of trying new things, seeing how they break, and working to fix them.

The first message sent on the internet was “login”, as Charley Kline and Len Kleinrock at UCLA were trying to log into a machine at Stanford. They only managed to transmit the letters “lo”, then the system crashed. An hour later, they had it up again and managed to transmit the whole message.

On the internet, we have a long tradition of trying things out, screwing up, fixing what’s broken and moving forward.

Twenty five years into the life of the World Wide Web, there are amazing successes to celebrate: a free encyclopedia in hundreds of world languages, powerful tools for sharing breaking news and connecting with old friends, platforms that help us organize, agitate and push for social justice.

But alongside our accomplishments, there’s still lots that’s broken.

In building an internet where most content and services are free, we’ve also adopted a business model that puts us under perpetual surveillance by advertisers. Worse, our communications are aggregated, analyzed and surveilled by governments around the world.
The amazing tools we’ve built for learning and for sharing ideas are far easier and cheaper to access in the developed world than in the developing world – we’re still far from the dream of a worldwide web.

We’ve built new public spaces online to discuss the issues of the day, but those discussions are too rarely civil and productive. Speaking online often generates torrents abuse, especially when women speak online.

Despite Sir Tim’s vision of a decentralized web, there’s a huge concentration of control with a few companies that control the key platforms for online speech. And as we use the web to share, opine and learn, quickly losing our legacy, erasing this vast new library as fast as we write it.

These problems may well be unsolveable. But it’s possible that we’ve been waiting for the wrong people to solve them.

In 1889, Andrew Carnegie gave money to build a public library in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the first of 1,689 libraries he funded in the US. These were not just spaces that allowed people to feed their minds, but in many towns, the only spaces open to men, women, children and people of all races.

Newspapers and the publishing houses made knowledge available to those who could afford it, but Carnegie made it available to everyone.

As television became a fixture in the nation’s homes in the 1950s, the Ford Foundation worked with other philanthropists to build a public television system in the US, ensuring that this powerful new medium was used to educate and enlighten as well as to entertain

The foundations here aren’t going to be able to put internet into every home the way Carnegie brought libraries to every town. But there are problems philanthropy can tackle in unique ways that provide solutions that go beyond what corporations or governments can do on their own.
That’s what led us to the idea of the grand challenge. We’re drawing inspiration here from Google’s moonshots and from the XPrize Foundation. More importantly, we’re taking guidance from the people we work with everyday, on the front lines of social innovation, to identify the challenges we need to overcome to for the internet to be a true tool for justice and social inclusion

The speakers you’re about to hear aren’t here with solutions: they’re going share with us the thorny problems they’re working to solve. We’re asking each foundation that’s a member of Netgain to take the lead on one of these and other challenges, convening the smartest people in the field, our partners, our grantees, our beneficiaries to understand what we can do together to tackle these deep and persistent problems.

These aren’t the only challenges we need to tackle. We need to hear from you about what problems we can take on and what brilliant guides – like nine speakers we’re about to hear from – can help us navigate our way through these challenges.

We’re taking this high-risk strategy of aiming at the toughest problems because even if we fall short of our goals, we think we’ll make enormous progress by working together. Every six months, we plan to bring our community together, convene around a grand challenge and start a process of collaboration and experimentation. We may only get to “lo” before we crash, restart and rebuild. But every time we do, we’ll be moving towards a web that’s more open, more just, more able to transform our world for the better.

Please join us at and help us identify the challenges we should be taking on.

Schneier and Zittrain on digital security and the power of metaphors

Bruce Schneier is one of the world’s leading cryptographers and theorists of security. Jonathan Zittrain is a celebrated law professor, theorist of digital technology and wonderfully performative lecturer. The two share a stage at Harvard Law School’s Langdell Hall. JZ introduces Bruce as the inventor of the phrase “security theatre”, author of a leading textbook on cryptography and subject of a wonderful internet meme.

The last time the two met on stage, they were arguing different sides of an issue – threats of cyberwar are grossly exaggerated – in an Oxford-style debate. Schneier was baffled that, after the debate, his side lost. He found it hard to believe that more people thought that cyberwar was a real threat than an exaggeration, and realized that there is a definitional problem that makes discussing cyberwar challenging.

Schneier continues, “It used to be, in the real world, you judged the weaponry. If you saw a tank driving at you, you know it was a real war because only a government could buy a tank.” In cyberwar, everyone uses the same tools and tactics – DDoS, exploits. It’s hard to tell if attackers are governments, criminals or individuals. You could call almost anyone to defend you – the police, the government, the lawyers. You never know who you’re fighting against, which makes it extremely hard to know what to defend. “And that’s why I lost”, Schneier explains – if you use a very narrow definition of cyberwar, as Schneier did, cyberwar threats are almost always exaggerated.

Zittrain explains that we’re not debating tonight, but notes that Schneier appears already to be conceding some ground in using the word “weapon” to explore digital security issues. Schneier’s new book is not yet named, but Zittrain suggests it might be called “Be afraid, be very afraid,” as it focuses on asymmetric threats, where reasonably technically savvy people may not be able to defend themselves.

Schneier explains that we, as humans, accept a certain amount of bad action in society. We accept some bad behavior, like crime, in exchange for some flexibility in terms of law enforcement. If we worked for a zero murder rate, we’d have too many false arrests, too much intrusive security – we accept some harm in exchange for some freedom. But Bruce explains that in the digital world, it’s possible for bad actors to do asymmetric amounts of harm – one person can cause a whole lot of damage. As the amount of damage a bad actor can create, our tolerance for bad actors decreases. This, Bruce explains, is the weapon of mass destruction debate – if a terrorist can access a truly deadly bioweapon, perhaps we change our laws to radically ratchet up enforcement.

JZ offers a summary: we can face doom from terrorism or doom from a police state. Bruce riffs on this: if we reach a point where a single bad actor can destroy society – and Bruce believes this may be possible – what are the chances society can get past that moment. “We tend to run a pretty wide-tail bell curve around our species.”

Schneier considers the idea that attackers often have a first-mover advantage. While the police do a study of the potentials of the motorcar, the bank robbers are using them as getaway vehicles. There may be a temporal gap when the bad actors can outpace the cops, and we might imagine that gap being profoundly destructive at some point in the near future.

JZ wonders whether we’re attributing too much power to bad actors, implicitly believing they are as powerful as governments. But governments have the ability to bring massive multiplier effects into play. Bruce concedes that his is true in policing – radios have been the most powerful tool for policing, bringing more police into situations where the bad guys have the upper hand.

Bruce explains that he’s usually an optimist, so it’s odd to have this deeply pessimistic essay out in the world. JZ notes that there are other topics to consider: digital feudalism, the topic of Bruce’s last book, in which corporate actors have profound power over our digital lives, a subject JZ is also deeply interested in.

Expanding on the idea of digital feudalism, Bruce explains that if you pledge you allegiance to an internet giant like Apple, your life is easy, and they pledge to protect you. Many of us pledge allegiance to Facebook, Amazon, Google. These platforms control our data and our devices – Amazon controls what can be in your Kindle, and if they don’t like your copy of 1984, they can remove it. When these feudal lords fight, we all suffer – Google Maps disappear from the iPad. Feudalism ended as nation-states rose and the former peasants began to demand rights.

JZ suggests some of the objections libertarians usually offer to this set of concerns. Isn’t there a Chicken Little quality to this? Not being able to get Google Maps on your iPad seems like a “glass half empty” view given how much technological process we’ve recently experienced. Bruce offers his fear that sites like Google will likely be able to identify gun owners soon, based on search term history. Are we entering an age where the government doesn’t need to watch you because corporations are already watching so closely? What happens if the IRS can decide who to audit based on checking what they think you should make in a year and what credit agencies know you’ve made? We need to think this through before this becomes a reality.

JZ leads the audience through a set of hand-raising exercises: who’s on Facebook, who’s queasy about Facebook’s data policies, and who would pay $5 a month for a Facebook that doesn’t store your behavioral data? Bruce explains that the question is the wrong one; it should be “Who would pay $5 a month for a secure Facebook where all your friends are over on the insecure one – if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t hear about parties, you don’t see your friends, you don’t get laid.”

Why would Schneier believe governments would regulate this space in a helpful way, JZ asks? Schneier quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. – the arc of history is long but bends towards justice. It will take a long time for governments to figure out how to act justly in this space, perhaps a generation or two, Schneier argues that we need some form of regulation to protect against these feudal barons. As JZ translates, you believe there needs to be a regulatory function that corrects market failures, like the failure to create a non-intrusive social network… but you don’t think our current screwed-up government can write these laws. So what do we do now?

Schneier has no easy answer, noting that it’s hard to trust a government that breaks its own laws, surveilling its own population without warrant or even clear reason. But he quotes a recent Glenn Greenwald piece on marriage equality, which notes that the struggle for marriage equality seemed impossible until about three months ago, and now seems almost inevitable. In other words, don’t lose hope.

JZ notes that Greenwald is one of the people who’s been identified as an ally/conspirator to Wikileaks, and one of the targets of a possible “dirty tricks” campaign by H.B. Gary, a “be afraid, be very afraid” security firm that got p0wned by Anonymous. Schneier is on record as being excited about leaking – JZ wonders how he feels about Anonymous.

Schneier notes how remarkable it is that a group of individuals started making threats against NATO. JZ finds it hard to believe that Schneier would take those threats seriously, noting that Anon has had civil wars where one group will apologize that their servers have been compromised and should be ignored as they’re being hacked by another faction – how can we take threats from a group like that seriously? Schneier notes that a non-state, decentralized actor is something we need to take very seriously.

The conversation shifts to civil disobedience in the internet age. JZ wonders whether Schneier believes that DDoS can be a form of protest, like a sit in or a picket line. Schneier explains that you used to be able to tell by the weaponry – if you were sitting in, it was a protest. But there’s DDoS extortion, there’s DDoS for damage, for protest, and because school’s out and we’re bored. Anonymous, he argues, was engaged in civil disobedience and intentions matter.

JZ notes that Anonymous, in their very name, wants civil disobedience without the threat of jail. But, to be fair, he notes that you don’t get sentenced to 40 years in jail for sitting at a lunch counter. Schneier notes that we tend to misclassify cyber protest cases so badly, he’d want to protest anonymously too. But he suggests that intentions are at the heart of understanding these actions. It makes little sense, he argues, that we prosecute murder and attempted murder with different penalties – if the intention was to kill, does it matter that you are a poor shot?

A questioner in the audience asks about user education: is the answer to security problems for users to learn a security skillset in full? Zittrain notes that some are starting to suggest internet driver’s licenses before letting users online. Schneier argues that user education is a cop-out. Security is interconnected – in a very real way, “my security is a function of my mother remembering to turn the firewall back on”. These security holes open because we design crap security. We can’t pop up incomprehensible warnings that people will click through. We need systems that are robust enough to deal with uneducated users.

Another questioner asks what metaphors we should use to understand internet security – War? Public health? Schneier argues against the war metaphor, because in wars we sacrifice anything in exchange to win. Police might be a better metaphor, as we put checks on their power and seek a balance between freedom and control of crime. Biological metaphors might be even stronger – we are starting to see thinking about computer viruses influencing what we know about biological viruses. Zittrain suggests that an appropriate metaphor is mutual aid: we need to look for ways we can help each other out under attack, which might mean building mobile phones that are two way radios which can route traffic independent of phone towers. Schneier notes that internet as infrastructure is another helpful metaphor – a vital service like power or water we try to keep accessible and always flowing.

A questioner wonders whether Schneier’s dissatisfaction with the “cyberwar” metaphor comes from the idea that groups like anonymous are roughly organized groups, not states. Schneier notes that individuals are capable of great damage – the assassination of a Texas prosecutor, possibly by the Aryan Brotherhood – but we treat these acts as crime. Wars, on the other hand, are nation versus nation. We responded to 9/11 by invading a country – it’s not what the FBI would have done if they were responding to it. Metaphors matter.

I had the pleasure of sitting with Willow Brugh, who did a lovely Prezi visualization of the talk – take a look!

DARPA director Regina Dugan at MIT: “Just Make It”

This afternoon, MIT’s Political Science distinguished speakers series hosts Regina Dugan and Kaigham Gabriel, director and deputy director of DARPA, the US defense advanced research project agency, who are here to speak about advanced manufacturing in America. The title for their talk is “Just Make It”, a response Dugan offers to people who ask her to predict the future. “Visionaries aren’t oracles – they are builders.”

She shows a five minute video of nerd porn, a montage of dismissive predictions about technologies (like Lord Kelvin’s statement about the impossibility of heavier than air flight, followed by footage of the Wright Brothers, and then from Top Gun. The video ends with observations about the time to 50 million users for different technologies is rapidly shrinking, pointing to Facebook’s sprint to 100 million users, and offers images of protesters holding banners celebrating the internet. “Still think social media is a fad?” the video asks. The video ends with a challenge for the engineers in the room – “just make it”.

Dugan tells us that the decline in America’s ability to build things is a national challenge, if not a crisis. Americans consume an increasing percentage of goods made overseas, and are less likely to be employed making things. Perhaps this reflects on productivity increases, or on currency manipulations, but it has implications, she warns, for national defense. Adam Smith warned that if an industry was critical to defense, it is not always prudent to rely on neighbors for supply.

There have been many years of debate around the inefficiency of America’s design and building of defense systems, Dugan tells us. One extrapolation of increase in airline design cost – sometimes referred to as “Augustine’s Laws” – suggests that by 2054, a single military aircraft will cost as much as the entire military budget at that time. Obviously, it’s dangerous to extrapolate linearly from current data… but if you do, the cost of military systems is growing much more rapidly than defense budgets. “Quite obviously, this is not sustainable”.

When we design aircraft, she tells us, we’re often designing ten years out. That means we’re trying to understand the threat environment ten years out. That’s risky. “Lack of adaptability is a vulnerability.”

What’s worse is that it’s really expensive. She shows a graph of production costs for the F-22 fighter. The price per unit keeps increasing, and the volume required keeps dropping. This might be because we need to amortize design costs over fewer units. Or it might be because the costs get so high, we simply can’t afford as many units as we wanted. This isn’t just true of the F-22 – it’s true for the Marine EFV project and the Comanche helicopter as well.

This difficulty in building complex systems has implications for defense and for the economy as a whole, she tells us.
“To innovate, we must make. To protect, we must produce.” DARPA is not a policy organization, she tells us, but pushing from “a buy to make strategy” is of strategic importance to the US Department of Defense.

There’s $200 million a year being invested in innovation, looking for ways to change the calculus of cost increase. Can we turn a long problem like vaccine design into one we can solve in weeks? Could we permit the participation of tens of thousands of designers into a process and harness their ideas? She suggests that the future of innovation is around increased speed of production and number and diversity of designs. The rise of electronic design aides revolutionized the semiconductor industry – could this shift in speed and diversity bring a similar paradigm shift?

Dugan tells us that the systems we have to manage complexity are inherited from 1969-era systems engineering. We take complex systems and split them along functional lines – power system, control system, thermal system – then try to put them back together. What happens is that we experience emergent behaviors that weren’t predictable. As a result, we end up with a design, build and test system that we iterate through, trying to solve those emergent problems.

This isn’t the only way to design complex systems. She shows a graph that measures time to design, integrate and test, versus a measure of product complexity, which includes part count and lines of source code. There’s a linear increase in time to build to complexity for aerospace defense systems. Another piece of the graph shows a flat design and test time cycle with increasing complexity – that’s the semiconductor industry. And a third industry – the best in class automotive manufacturers – show a decrease in time with an increase in complexity! How are they pulling this off?

Gabriel tags in here, to explain how the semiconductor industry achieved gains in complexity without extending the timeframe necessary to design and test their products. The key factor was a decision to control for time. “If we aren’t out there with new chips in 18-24 months, we’ll miss the next generation of PCs.” So the principles of VLSI design were optimized around producing new product on a timecycle as tight as that for less complex integrated circuits.

Two major design innovations characterize the VLSI shift, Gabriel tells us. First, it’s critical to decouple design and fabrication, a shift that was comparatively easy for circuit designers to accept. The second was initially heresy: you needed to stop optimizing each transistor, and sacrifice component performance for ease of system design and reliability.

We’ve seen a similar move in computer programming, a shift away from assembler, which produces very efficient code that’s hard to test, to higher level programming languages. Those languages abstract operations, which leads to a decrease in performance efficiency, but since we’re no longer as limited by how many operations a computer can perform, the design speed benefits outweigh the performance compromises. He hints that we may be seeing some similar shifts in biological sciences as well.

How does this work in terms of DARPA projects? Dugan retrieves the mic to speak about the Adaptive Vehicle Make program, designed to build a new infantry vehicle in two years instead of ten. A first step is developing a language to describe and design mechano-electric systems so they can integrate more smoothly. The vehicle, she tell us, will be flexibly manufactured through a “bitstream-configurable foundry-like manufacturing capability for defense systems” capable of “mass production in quantities of one”.

With facilities that can accept a design and custom-forge parts, she believes we can move to an increasingly democratized design system, which enables the participation of many more people to design and submit systems to foundry-like fabrication facilities. We’ll design vehicles “using the most modern techniques of crowd infrastructure and open source development,” in a program called (While a valid URL, there’s no webserver at that address. Just wanted to save you a Google search or two.)

Critics tell her this approach won’t work. But Dassault recently designed the Falcon 7x aircraft using “digital master models, by tail number, for aircraft” – i.e., building extremely complex individual models for each aircraft they build. The models only do geometric interference (i.e., they test whether the parts fit together), but they’ve halved the time needed to produce a new plane. Critics claim that the analogy between integrated circuits and military vehicles is an inept one. But in terms of part count, ICs are much more complex than vehicles. What’s complex is the diversity of components used in the combat vehicle.

A new experiment, conducted in cooperation with Local Motors, a small-scale vehicle fabrication company (see my notes on the founder’s Pop!Tech talk in 2009) invites designers to compete to design a combat support vehicle, the XC2V. $10,000 in prizes were offered, and instead of getting the 3 designs they get in an invitation-only design scenario, they received 159, 100 of which the judges deemed “high calibre”. It wasn’t a clean sheet of paper design – the chassis and drivetrain were designed by Local Motors – but it was effective at expanding the idea pool, and led to a functioning design within four weeks.

The power of the crowd may be even greater in a field like protein folding, where humans are still able to solve some problems better than algorithms. Foldit is the brainchild of a biochemist, a computer scientist and a gamer, who decided to turn protein folding into a game, building “a Tetris-like environment for folding”. 240,000 people have signed up to play, but what’s really cool is “the emergence of 5 sigma savants for protein folding, some of whom have very little biochemistry training.” Recently, Foldit solved a key protein – a retroviral protease SIV for the rhesus monkeys – which had been unsolved for 15 years. The community folded it in 10 days. Projects like this, she tells us, make her a believer that bringing many diverse minds to a problem and increasing the pace of building will increase the speed and diversity of innovation.

Gabriel offers three other examples where massive innovations are possible through new methods.

Optics are the dominant cost in many imaging and sensor systems. It turns out that making light do something different – bending, focusing, diffusing – requires materials and systems that are heavy, complex and expensive. M-GRIN – manufacturable gradient index optics – moves beyond lenses that are made out of a single material with a single index of refraction. Instead, they use a stack of multiple layers and films, combined via heat and pressure, to make lenses that are smaller and lighter. A test around a shortwave infrared lens produced a device that was 3.5x smaller and 7.5x lighter. That’s a breakthrough… but the real innovation is creation of a set of design rules that let you go from an application to a recipe for combining materials into the lens you need.

In telling us about maskless nanolithography, Gabriel tells us “Moore’s law is dead in circuit design, though the corpse doesn’t know it yet.” The culprit is heat – we can make tighter and smaller circuits, but they’re getting very difficult to cool. As critical is cost. Working at ultra-small line width is prohibitively expensive. It’s hard to spend tens of millions on a set of 45 nanometer masks to create a few hundred chips for a defense system, when building those masks costs tens of millions of dollars.

We know how to do lithography without masks, but it’s traditionally been very slow. So now designers have built a system that creates and bends an electron beam, then splits it into millions of beamlets, controlled by a “dynamic pattern generator”. Program that pattern generator, and it allows millions of writing operations to happen at the same time, leading to a current working speed of 10-15 wafers per hour, the minimum required to produce custom ICs for military applications.

His third example is the accelerated manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, a strategy he tells us was Plan B in 2009-2010 if the H1N1 flu virus had resurfaced. It’s very hard to produce vaccines quickly – egg-based strategies require a piece of virus and many thousands of chicken eggs. These methods work, but can require 6-9 months to build up a stockpile. A new method uses tobacco plants to produce custom proteins, working from strands of DNA in the virus. Envision a football-field sized building filled with lights and trays of tobacco plants. A facility like that can now produce a million doses a month of a novel vaccine. In scaling up capacity to 100 million doses per month, the key problem turned out to be lighting – it was impossible to light everything without switching to LED bulbs. Once they made the switch, they had a new opportunity – tuning the spectrum to optimize production. Using an experiment of “high school science complexity”, they grew plants under different lighting conditions for a few weeks, and determined a mix of blue and red frequencies that doubles protein production.

Gabriel ends with a slide quoting MIT scientist Tom Knight:

“The 19th century was about energy.
The 20th century was about information.
The 21st century is about matter.”

If we embrace this challenge, Gabriel tells us, we will be able to make things at the cost we used to produce and stockpile them in bulk, and this change will change how we innovate.

Above this line are my notes, below, my reaction:

I thought the DARPA folks gave an impressive talk, inasmuch as they got me thinking about a problem I’d not considered – the insane cost and time frame of producing military equipment. But for a talk sponsored by the political science department, it seemed woefully lacking of discussions of politics or markets. If I were trying to explain the difference in production processes between military vehicles, consumer automobiles and integrated circuits, I suspect I might look at the power of markets. IC manufacturers needed to build chips quickly because customers wanted to buy newer, faster chips… and would buy other chips if the manufacturer wasn’t fast enough. Ditto for automobile companies.

The defense industry is different. It’s very hard to terminate a weapons system, even if it’s massively over time and over budget. The competition happens well before a product is built. Discovering that the F-22 production isn’t going well doesn’t create a market opportunity for another company to produce a better product faster – the company producing the F-22 is going to get paid, even if they take an absurd time to produce the product.

I admire the approach Dugan and Gabriel are putting forward, and certainly appreciate that it plays well to a room full of engineers. But I was very surprised not to hear questions (and I only caught the first five or six) about whether the DoD purchasing process can be reformed so long as military budgets are sacrosanct. We’re currently facing mandatory budget cuts with the failure of the budget supercommmittee, and conventional political wisdom suggests that the social service cuts will go through, while the defense ones will not. How do you encourage companies to innovate when they’re currently amply rewarded for dragging design and production out over decades? How do you innovate without market pressures?

My homogeneously left-wing family was talking politics over the Thanksgiving dinner table and realized the solution to America’s current social problems was to simply adopt the Egyptian political system – let the military run everything. The right doesn’t like cutting military budgets, but is okay when the military provides state-sponsored healthcare and subsidizes education. All we need to do is ensure all Americans are employed by the US military and we can build a thriving, successful welfare state. The same absurdity behind that suggestion is what makes DARPA’s ideas so hard to implement – if there’s no pressure to cut military budgets, anything is possible… except real innovation around cost and efficiency.

The science of food… and of resetting your expectations

This is one of the more surreal weeks of my recent life. On Sunday, I took possession of an adorable and small apartment near Inman Square in Cambridge, fought my way through Ikea and spent the first night of my new itinerant academic existence in Cambridge. Monday, I moved into my office in the Media Lab, using a borrowed ID from a student as my ID card isn’t turned on yet. Tuesday, I met with my new masters students and other colleagues at the Center for Civic Media, then retreated to the Berkman Center to be part of their iLaw series. And then I found myself in a lecture hall in the Harvard Science Center, attending a lecture on cooking, given in part by David Arnold, one of the leading minds in haute cuisine… and a guy I used to hang out with more than twenty years ago. It feels like a very strange compression of history into a single (very long) weekend. But it was a great talk, so I thought I’d share it with you as well. (And that I’m not posting until two days later helps show how crazed the week has been…)

The lecture is a public talk associated with a Harvard class called “Science and Cooking – From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science“, taught by David Weitz. It’s a science class focused on the chemical and physical changes associated with cooking. The text for the class is “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee, the opening speaker. McGee wrote the book in Cambridge and tells us “In late 1970s, I never dreamed Harvard would give a course on cooking – I can make a living now.”

McGee is accompanied by Arnold, who he introduces as the director of culinary technologies at French Culinary Institute in NYC and “the one guy in the world who knows the most about cutting edge tech in the modern kitchen.” Arnold insisted that the class needed a definition of cooking, and so we’re working with this definition: “The preparation of food for eating, especially by means of heat”. The term comes from the Latin coquere, “to cook, prepare food, ripen, digest”. Cooking is the application of energy and ingenuity to change foods so they’re easier, safer and more pleasurable to eat.

McGee quotes Arnold as observing that if a peach is perfectly right, the best thing you can do with it is put it on a plate with a knife. Nature, McGee argues, wants us to eat peaches so that we’ll carry seeds far and wide. What we do in cooking is, in part, trying to approach the complexity and the balance of the perfectly ripe piece of fruit.

The first stop on a history of cooking has to be fire. McGee references Richard Wrangham’s “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human”. Cooking allows us to turn raw starch into something digestible. We needed these calories, Wrangham argued, to build our big brains. In that sense, learning to cook may literally have helped us become human. For us to tell if Wrangham is right, we need to see evidence of cooking much further back in history. We currently see evidence of 100,000 years ago, while Wrangham speculates we should see evidence 1 million years back.

By the Middle Ages, cooks had figured out how to make gelatins and clarify them, and how to do very complex decorative work for the courts. They’d also invented food as entertainment. We see a recipe from the 15th century titled “To Make a Chicken Sing when it is dead and roasted”. It involves stuffing a chicken with sulfur and mercury and sounds like a very bad idea… but it is amusing, and that notion of food as amusement is returning to modern kitchens today.

By 1681, we see the introduction of a very different way of cooking – the pressure cooker. In 1681, Denys Papin was a member of the Royal Society, working with Boyle on gases. He figured out that you could cook food using pressurized water and speed cooking processes. Because the Royal Society are mostly bachelors, there’s a wonderful set of literature of dinner parties where scientists brought ingredients and Papin cooked and served them.

Arnold jumps into explain that pressure cookers allow us to cook at temperatures other than what we could normally achieve. This leads to some fun discoveries. He read an influential book on pressure cooking that advised increasing use of onions in pressure cookers because the onion flavor dissipates. So he pressure cooked other similar foods, and discovered that foods like garlic lose their stink when pressure cooked. “The sulfur compounds in horseradish get totally knocked out so you can eat it by the bushel.” Mustard seeds cooked with vinegar puff up like caviar. And other effects can’t be replicated any other reasonable ways. “Pressure cookers speed up Maillard reactions – you can pressure cook an egg for an hour and get browning that you otherwise wouldn’t get without cooking for several days.”

McGee notes that Arnold hasn’t mentioned his durian experiments. Arnold sheepishly explains that this is a lesson in the importance of repetition. Durian smells bad (or wonderful, if you grew up in certain corners of Asia) because of sulfur compounds, and so you should be able to knock out the smell in a pressure cooker. “So I threw some stuff with durian into a pressure cooker and got the most incredible Durian caramel.” But he’s never been able to replicate it, with more than a month’s worth of attempts. “Don’t be a schmuck,” he tells us – document your work so you can replicate.

Replicability is, of course, the essence of experimental science. In 1770, McGee tells us, Ben Franklin was spending a huge amount of time on ships, traveling between the US and France. He noticed that when the cooks threw out the waste from cooking, the wake behind the ship calmed. He later tried an experiment in Clapham Pond in London, putting a teaspoon of oil onto a pond on a windy day. The water calmed over an area of half an acre. Had Franklin made a further leap, he could have pretty easily calculated the size of a molecule based on the experiment, assuming that the layer of oil eventually was a single molecule thick.

To get a sense for the molecular scale, Arnold gives us a demonstration of Dragon’s Beard candy, a preparation seen in China, Turkey and Iran. Cook sugar to a particular hardness and you can stretch and fold it at will. Arnold takes a centimeter-thick piece of sugar, turns it into a loop, and stretches it. Folding it once, it’s now two loops. He repeats until we have over 15,000 strands, each about a micron thick. It’s flavored with cocoa, but Arnold likes to serve it with vinegar and mustard powder, with peanuts wrapped inside.

McGee would like us to take Count Rumford as seriously as we tend to take Franklin. Rumford was a Colonial New Englander who was on the wrong side of the war, so he spent much of his career in England. Amongst his many discoveries, Rumford discovered that slow cooked meat is delicious, a discovery that’s come into fashion recently with sous vide cooking. Rumford accidentally discovered the technique by trying to cook a leg of mutton in his potato drier, and left it overnight. In the morning, he encountered an “amazing aroma”. And because was scientifically minded, he replicated the experiment and tried an objective taste test. At a cocktail party, he cooked one leg of mutton over a fire and another using the slow technique and put them at opposite sides of the room, and weighed the remnants – the slow-cooked mutton was far more popular.

The opposite of Rumford was Justus Liebig, a German chemist who was a theoretician, not an experimentalist. Working only from his own “brilliance”, not from experiments, Liebig introduced a new way of cooking meat – searing it to seal in the juices. It’s revolutionary, but also really bad. Apparently he never actually tasted it.

In 1969, the British scientist Nicholas Kurti suggested that we bring scientific methods back to ordinary, everyday phenomenon. “I think it is a sad reflection on our society that while we can and do measure the temperature in the atmosphere of Venus, we do not know what goes on inside our soufflés”. His investigations were part of a movement towards “soft matter science”, a study of phenomena like soap bubbles that led to a 1991 Nobel prize.

McGee found himself investigating these phenomena in 1984 when he wrote his book on the history of food. In collaboration with scientists, he began testing a Julia Child assertion about whipping egg whites in a copper bowl – Child advocated always whipping in copper. Experiments testing whipping in copper demonstrated that it took a much longer time, but led to lighter whites. The paper was eventually accepted by Nature, though one reviewer commented, “The science is good, but the subject is fluffy.”

While much of what’s emerged in science in the kitchen, like molecular gastronomy, is fairly recent, nouvelle cuisine is very old. In 1759, a poem was published that read:

Every year nouvelle cuisine
Because every year tastes change;
And every day there are new stews:
So be a chemist, Justine.

French cooking, historically, has been far from experimental. Classic French cooking as compiled by Escoffier and others codified cuisine to the point where it was difficult to innovate, since the classic textbook offers 100 “correct” recipes for beef tenderloin. McGee cites Michael Bras as helping invert these dynamics with the melting chocolate cake, an inversion of the “correct” idea that a cake is surrounded by a sauce – instead, a cake contains a ganache. A later dish, the Gargouillou, recreated a salad as a walk through a garden, whatever ingredients were most appropriate on the given day.

Chef Jacques Maximin was influenced by these experiments and observed, ” To be really creative means not copying.” His maxim struck a chord especially with Ferran Adria, who recreated the gargouillou as an endlessly surprising salad – nothing is quite what it seems. Adria went on to thoroughly revolutionize cuisine as we know it, with techniques like flavored foams and the spherification of ingredients like melon into texturally odd balls of flavor.

He’s had many followers. Joan and Jordi Roca use rotary evaporators to separate aromas from ingredients – this makes possible a dish of foods that are shades of white which have flavors usually associated with visually dark ingredients. Jose Andres experimented with a chemical most often used to make cough drops, offering a bonbon of liquid olive oil within a clear shell. Wylie Dufresne uses an enzyme called “meat glue” to offer a chicken nugget that’s white meat wrapped in dark, wrapped in skin. And now the field has been exhaustively documented by Nathan Myrvold, who’s published a massive, five-volume book on Modernist cuisine.

At this point, McGee gives the reins to Arnold, who offers a rapid-fire walk through some of his favorite techniques and his creative process. He shows us a Japanese ring that features a wavy woodgrain effect, produced by beating two different metals together. Arnold achieved something similar using fish as a way of persuading Hobart, the cooking machine company, to give him a really badass slicer. Using meat glue and casein, he glues salmon and fluke together and slices them into a thin sheet that looks a little like mortadella and a bit like wood grain. It’s served with creme fraische seasoned with nitrogen-frozen herbs, a fennel apple salad infused with curry and pressure cooked mushroom seeds, a veritable tour of modernist technique on a plate.

(The nitrogen chilled herbs allow fresh herbs to be broken into very small pieces, as you would break up a dried herb, but maintain the fresh flavor and texture. Arnold recommends you blanch your fresh herbs, flash freeze in liquid nitrogen, shatter into tiny pieces and pass through a chinoise, using only the tiny bits that escape the mesh.)

Using agar, a gelling agent made from seaweed, Arnold produces a concord grape jelly, a thick, stiff substance. He points out that it cuts cleanly and can’t be put back together. But if you break it violently – in a blender, say – you get a different effect: a microgel or fluid gel. It looks like a puree on the plate, but tastes like juice in the mouth.

Agar works well as a clarifier too, in lower concentrations. Arnold makes a loose gel of lime juice, then uses a whisk to separate it into “whey and curds”. He passes this through cheesecloth, making rude comments about “gently massaging the sack”, before producing a liquid that looks very much like water, but turns out to have intense lime flavor.

We clarify liquids, he tells us, because then we can infuse them into other foods. “We can make a cucumber better by adding liquor to it… we can make a lot of things better by adding liquor to them.” Injection techniques work better with clear liquids, and Arnold shows us how to infuse a cucumber with lime and sugar in a vacuum machine. The vacuum pulls air out of the cucumber, and rapidly threatens to boil it, as liquids boil at lower temperatures in vacuum. (Arnold recommends you heavily chill your ingredients as you vacuum infuse…) While the air is sucked out, the liquid is incompressible, and as air floods back into the chamber as he turns the vacuum off, liquid infuses into the cucumber in a flash, turning the vegetable into something that looks like stained glass. “It’s one way to get something that looks cooked, but still has crisp, clean lines to it.”

You can rapidly infuse using pressure as well. Arnold puts vodka and coffee into an ISI whipped cream maker, and uses nitrous oxide to force the coffee into the vodka. What results is heavily flavored, but not carbonated – the tingle of carbonation comes from carbon dioxide escaping from solution. Nitrous oxide offers pressure and fluff without carbonation.

Arnold offers his advice on carbonating some of his favorite things. As with infusion, clarified liquids work better. “If you’re going to carbonate liquor – which I highly recommend – you’re going to need more pressure than carbonating water because CO2 is more soluble in alcohol than in water.” You can force carbonate a wine at 30 psi, sake at 35psi, and liquors at about 40 psi.

Why would you infuse vodka with coffee? “The flavors you pull out of a product are dependent on time, temperature, pressure.” You don’t just get yummy coffee vodka – you can get different flavors than you’d ever experience through conventional means.

It must be fun to have a kitchen where liquid nitrogen is as common as hot water. Arnold chills a glass with liquid nitrogen, pointing out that it’s cold only on the inside, and doesn’t generate condensation. He pours himself a carbonated gin and lime concoction as the audience is served marshmallows frozen with liquid nitrogen. McGee returns to explain the history of the marshmallows – they were served at The Fat Duck as both a palate and “mind cleanser”. The chef responsible wanted to reset his diners’ expectations, so he served them a marshmallow flavored with lime, tea and vodka and frozen. The heat of your mouth melts the treat and you find yourself with vapors pouring from your mouth and nose. We have a similar experience with the frozen marshmallows, and like the Fat Duck diners, find ourselves laughing, our expectations reset. – sharing how you want to be contacted

Hugo Van Vuuren, Berkman Fellow and graduate student at Harvard’s Graduate School for Design and Gregg Elliott, researcher at MIT’s Media Lab, tell us that we’re experiencing a global communications “crisis”, one that we can address through better communications protocols.

Hugo sets the stage at today’s Berkman Center lunch talk, showing us the beginning of this video from design firm JESS3:

JESS3™ / The State of The Internet from JESS3 on Vimeo.

He summarizes the crisis, as he sees it, with a quote from Swiss designer Tina Roth Eisenberg: “Too many channels. Too many messages. Too much noise. Too much guilt.”

Lots of people are trying to build tools to cope with this flood of information. (Google’s priority inbox is one possible example of a tool to manage an overload of messages.) There’s less effort focused on overcoming the guilt. When we see people talking about reaching “inbox zero” or declaring “email bankruptcy“, they are looking for ways to deal with the guilt.

Even in an age of social media, mail and phone contact are massive in relation to new forms of communication. Russell Munroe’s legendary Online Communities map from 2005 has been updated for 2010, showing that massive social networks like Facebook are dwarfed by SMS, phonecalls and email.

Some recent articles in the New York Times – “Don’t Call Me, I Won’t Call You“, “Keep Your Thumbs Still When I’m Talking to You” – suggest that we’re seeing a conflict in cultural norms. Some people (me, for one) don’t answer the phone except for scheduled phonecalls, which is deeply confusing for people who consider phones the primary way to contact people. Some people check mobile phones while carrying on conversations, which can feel extremely rude to people who focus on face to face contact. Hugo points out that there can be differences in community protocol from one side of a university to others: “The Media Lab is much more of a phone-centered place than the GSD. At the GSD, email is something you do at your desk…”

We’re starting to see the explicit emergence of communications protocols. danah boyd‘s “email sabbatical” involves discarding all email received during a vacation – if you want to reach her, her autoresponder tells you, email her again once she’s come home. Tim Berners-Lee’s home page includes a complex protocol about what you should and should not email him. Harvard CS professor Harry Lewis suggested to Hugo that one of the massive problems in organizing a conference is figuring out how to contact academics, who tend to hide between different media, letting some emails go to administrative assistants while “real”, direct email addresses are carefully preserved commodities.

Hugo shows, an intriguing attempt to simplify email conversations by declaring that emails will be answered in five sentences or less. The hope is, by declaring a different protocol, it will no longer be considered rude to answer emails compactly and succintly. But this is “a kernel, not a generalized idea” for communications, Hugo offers. We need something broader and more inclusive.

One option is “stop and go signaling”, which we see on tools like instant messenger. But these status messages, which Greg explains used to be expressive, much like Facebook status messages, have turned into their own sort of protocol. “Away usually means that you’re at your keyboard, but busy.” It’s a step in the right direction, but perhaps too limited a vocabulary.

Hugo shows us a code of manners presented by the “Children’s National Guild of Courtesy”, a British organization from early last century. There are no single norms for behavior these days, set by institutions like this one. Norms are now set by individuals, or illustrated by example for leaders within communities.

To address these issues, Greg suggests that we need to:
– Define our rules of engagement
– Organize a system to execute on those rules, and
– Share your rules and expectations is a first pass at defining and sharing these rules of engagement. Coming out of a closed alpha test shortly, it lets you register an account and compactly state the ways in which you’d prefer to be contacted. Greg explains that he dislikes spontaneous phonecalls – his protocol tells people not to call him before noon, and not to expect an answer to unscheduled calls. For emails, he urges correspondents to avoid polite niceties and get to the point. For people unsure of how to contact him, these protocols can make it easier for people to contact him in a way that’s minimally intrusive and maximally effective. (I have a protocol, if you’re interested…)

The goal for the site, Hugo offers, is for the site to become a “social anchor” to help bridge across multiple identities and online presences. In the long term, it could plug into location-based services and offer richer, more targeted information on how to contact people politely. A group could use with voting systems which could help group protocols emerge.

Going forward, might offer suggested protocols based on your identity – if you’re a technophile, you might want to be contacted with email and IM, not phone, for instance. Over time, these might emerge as a small set of cultural norms, rather than purely personal norms.

There’s dozens of questions from the Berkman crowd, as well as many observations phrased as questions. Some of the highlights, to the best of my reporting ability:

Q: Is there a revenue model for
A: Not at present – it’s a research project. In the long run, there might be fun ways to use the data, perhaps the way OKCupid analyzes dating information, in a way that might have financial value.

Q: Protocol-free communication leaves a lot of ambiguity in communications, which can be a good thing. Is someone not answering their email because you contacted them the wrong way, or because they don’t want to talk to you. Is it such a good idea to squeeze out this ambiguity?
A: You’ve got a good degree of freedom with the tool in how explicit you want to be. If you offer promises – “Emails will be answered within 48 hours” – you eliminate ambiguity. But a prioritized list of communication protocols is still pretty ambiguous.

Q: This system is very elegant, but it doesn’t recognize that you might communicate differently with a babysitter calling you about an emergency and an undergrad asking to interview you for a paper. How does the system handle this?
A: Protocols will likely differ for complete strangers versus friends and family. is mostly for people outside your circle of trust.

Q (David Weinberger): How many users do you need for this to be an effective research project and how will you get them?
A: There are about 500 users thus far. Having a few thousand may let us run bigger experiments. We’ll get more by embedding the tool into webpages and social networks.

Q (David Abrahms): I might want to be contacted via phone, but if I’m in Beijing, I’d like the system to accomodate that.
A: Great idea.

Q: (David Weinberger) There’s certainly a need for more metadata about your norms when you communicate with people outside your community. We need it for IP issues as well – Creative Commons helps us communicate what you can do with your content. Maybe this is a model for getting people to adopt this protocol?
A: Figuring out how to embed this well is going to help us work through these issues.

David took notes, too…

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