Thursday, October 2, 2014


Error-correcting codes are one of the glories of the information age: They’re what guarantee the flawless transmission of digital information over the airwaves or through copper wire, even in the presence of the corrupting influences that engineers call “noise.”

But classical error-correcting codes work best with large chunks of data: The bigger the chunk, the higher the rate at which it can be transmitted error-free. In the Internet age, however, distributed computing is becoming more and more common, with devices repeatedly exchanging small chunks of data over long periods of time.

So for the last 20 years, researchers have been investigating interactive-coding schemes, which address the problem of long sequences of short exchanges. Like classical error-correcting codes, interactive codes are evaluated according to three criteria: How much noise can they tolerate? What’s the maximum transmission rate they afford? And how time-consuming are the encoding and decoding processes?

At the IEEE Symposium on Foundations of Computer Science this month, MIT graduate students past and present will describe the first interactive coding scheme to approach the optimum on all three measures.

“Previous to this work, it was known how to get two out of three of these things to be optimal,” says Mohsen Ghaffari, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and one of the paper’s two co-authors. “This paper achieves all three of them.”

Vicious noise

Moreover, where Claude Shannon’s groundbreaking 1948 analysis of error-correcting codes considered the case of random noise, in which every bit of transmitted data has the same chance of being corrupted, Ghaffari and his collaborator — Bernhard Haeupler, who did his graduate work at MIT and is now an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University — consider the more stringent case of “adversarial noise,” in which an antagonist is trying to interfere with transmission in the most disruptive way possible.

“We don’t know what type of random noise will be the one that actually captures reality,” Ghaffari explains. “If we knew the best one, we would just use that. But generally, we don’t know. So you try to generate a coding that is as general as possible.” A coding scheme that could thwart an active adversary would also thwart any type of random noise.

Error-correcting codes — both classical and interactive — work by adding some extra information to the message to be transmitted. They might, for instance, tack on some bits that describe arithmetic relationships between the message bits. Both the message bits and the extra bits are liable to corruption, so decoding a message — extracting the true sequence of message bits from the sequence that arrives at the receiver — is usually a process of iterating back and forth between the message bits and the extra bits, trying to iron out discrepancies.

In interactive communication, the maximum tolerable error rate is one-fourth: If the adversary can corrupt more than a quarter of the bits sent, perfectly reliable communication is impossible. Some prior interactive-coding schemes, Ghaffari explains, could handle that error rate without requiring too many extra bits. But the decoding process was prohibitively complex.

Making a list

To keep the complexity down, Ghaffari and Haeupler adopted a technique called list decoding. Rather than iterating back and forth between message bits and extra bits until the single most probable interpretation emerges, their algorithm iterates just long enough to create a list of likely candidates. At the end of their mutual computation, each of the interacting devices may have a list with hundreds of entries.

But each device, while it has only imperfect knowledge of the messages sent by the other, has perfect knowledge of the messages it sent. So if, at the computation’s end, the devices simply exchange lists, each has enough additional information to zero in on the optimal decoding.

The maximum tolerable error rate for an interactive-coding scheme — one-fourth — is a theoretical result. The minimum length of an encoded message and the minimum decoding complexity, on the other hand, are surmises based on observation.

But Ghaffari and Haeupler’s decoding algorithm is nearly linear, meaning that its execution time is roughly proportional to the length of the messages exchanged.

“It is optimal in the sense that it is linear,” says Mark Braverman, an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton University who has also worked on interactive coding. “That’s an important benchmark.”

But linear relationships are still defined by constants: y = x is a linear relationship, but so is y = 1,000,000,000x. A linear algorithm that takes an extra second of computation for each additional bit of data it considers isn’t as good as a linear algorithm that takes an extra microsecond.

“We still need to worry a little bit about constants,” Braverman says. “But before you can worry about constants, you have to know that there is a constant-rate scheme. This is very nice progress and a prerequisite to asking those next questions.”


By Jodi J. Schwartz

The Treasury Department and the IRS announced their intention to issue regulations to limit the economic benefits of inversion transactions in the absence of Congressional action. Following the change in U.S. law in 2004 that prevented a U.S. company from inverting simply by re-incorporating in a foreign jurisdiction, but instead required a combination of a U.S. corporation with a foreign partner, typical inversion transactions have generally involved such a combination in which a foreign corporation becomes the new parent of the combined group. In general, as long as shareholders of the foreign corporation own more than 20% of the combined entity, the punitive aspects of existing anti-inversion legislation do not apply. 

Treasury’s new Regulations will significantly affect inversions in three major respects: first, the inverted group’s ability to access low-taxed earnings of foreign affiliates through intercompany loans—which is often a major and up-front benefit of inversions—will be substantially curtailed; second, the rules measuring whether an 80% inversion has occurred will be tightened; and, finally, the Treasury announcement states that further guidance should be expected limiting the ability of inverted groups to reduce their U.S. tax liability by stripping future earnings out of the U.S.

Under the Regulations, loans by foreign subsidiaries of the U.S. group to the new foreign parent (so-called “hopscotch loans”) will generally be treated as a taxable dividend to the former U.S. parent corporation, thus limiting the ability to access cash held by such foreign subsidiaries without incurring U.S. tax. In addition, transactions designed to “de-control” foreign subsidiaries from their U.S. parent (in order to remove such subsidiaries’ foreign earnings from U.S. taxation) will be also targeted by the Regulations.

Certain non-ordinary course distributions made by the U.S. corporation in the 3-year period preceding the transaction that reduced the size of the U.S. corporation will be disregarded for purposes of determining whether the 80% ownership test is satisfied. As well, taxpayers will no longer be able to avail themselves of “diet” dividends as a means of shrinking the size of a U.S. corporation in order to avoid shareholder gain. Finally, the Regulations will prevent foreign companies with excessive amounts of cash or other passive assets from serving as merger partners in an inversion.

One area with respect to which regulatory action has been widely expected was not directly addressed by yesterday’s announcement. Specifically, the announcement does not propose changes to the tax rules affecting deductible interest payments from the U.S. group to the new foreign parent. It indicates, however, that the Treasury Department and IRS are considering guidance to address those issues that would, to the extent applicable to inverted groups, apply to groups that complete inversion transactions on or after September 22, 2014.

It remains to be seen whether these changes, if they slow the pace of inversion transactions, will increase the pressure for reform that squares the circle of a U.S. tax system with relatively high corporate tax rates and essentially permanent deferral of offshore earnings.


The ocean is often depicted as teeming with life, from crustaceans and fish to whales and other mammals, but in fact large swaths of it are virtual deserts, populated only by bacteria and a handful of particularly hardy species.

Prime examples of such bacterial hot spots are oxygen minimum zones, regions that play a key role in biogeochemical cycling, but remain difficult for scientists to study.

In an effort to better understand those cycles, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences David Johnston, Ph.D. student Andrew Masterson, and research assistant Erin Beirne worked with colleagues to develop a tool to measure levels of seawater sulfate in situ, giving researchers a clearer picture of how much sulfur cycling is taking place in oxygen minimum zones. The work is described in a recent paper in Nature.

“In these regions, as soon as the oxygen goes away, it’s all these other biogeochemical cycles that become very interesting,” Johnston said. “The challenge has been in trying to find a way to go in and make a measurement in these environments, or to do indirect experiments to get at the rates of cycling and what is actually happening in terms of the chemistry.”

Until recently, Johnston said, questions of how microorganisms in oxygen minimum zones absorbed and metabolized nitrogen had received the lion’s share of attention among scientists. In recent years, however, a growing number of researchers have begun to suggest that while nitrogen plays a big role in these regions, the sulfur cycle is far more important.

To get at that question, Johnston and colleagues developed a tool that uses oxygen isotopes to indicate how much sulfur cycling is occurring.

“The way the cycle works is sulfate, which consists of one sulfur atom and four oxygen atoms, is reduced to sulfide, which has no oxygen atoms, and can then be fully re-oxidized back to sulfate,” Johnston said. “What we’ve developed is an isotope tool — what we can do is measure the oxygen isotopic composition of seawater sulfate in these regions, and use that as a measurement to assess how much cycling is going on.”

Armed with a data set made up of hundreds of previously published measurements, Johnston and Masterson used the tool to create a simple model outlining how the sulfur cycle works in a water column.

“We came up with a solution that’s both very exciting and points toward the need for additional work,” Johnston said. “The exciting part is it’s a quantifiable signal, it can be measured in situ, and it should be very, very robust. The part that needs more work is that it depends on how long the water sits in that zone, and that’s one of the greatest outstanding questions in these environments.”

“If you have particles sinking at a constant rate, your ability to pick up that signal depends on how long that water spends in contact with those particles,” Masterson said. “If water is cycling through very quickly, it’s not going to have a chance to reduce that sulfate.”

The end result, Johnston said, is that while their tool works, it comes with the caveat that results can vary depending on how long researchers assume water stays in the oxygen minimum zone.

If researchers assume a longer residence time, the tool shows that previous estimates of sulfur cycling were grossly overestimated, he said. Shorter residence times show the estimates could be possible, but other factors suggest that they may still be unlikely.

“Ultimately, the math dictates that it’s all a function of how long the water sits there,” Johnston said. “Going forward, we need to hone in on those bounds, because it’s still possible sulfur is a big player.”


Bahrain has once again arrested the country's leading human rights defender Nabeel Rajab — for his tweets.  Rajab, who arrived in Bahrain last night after a whirlwind tour to present the country's deteriorating human rights situation to lawmakers in the UK and Europe, was summoned by authorities today for a tweet in which he alleged that Bahrain's security apparatus was an “incubator” for ISIS fighters.

Hundred indignants were injured in Bahrain, after police chimps fired birdshot to disperse hundreds of anti-government protesters in several Shiite villages. “We will remove you Hamad,” is the banner slogan issued by the group to rally protesters against the Sunni bloody dictator.

Indignants have repeatedly clashed with security forces since the start of protests against the Sunni dynasty. The demonstrations have not ceased, despite a 2011 crackdown backed by Saudi-led Gulf troops. Three hundred people have been killed in Bahrain since the uprising began.

We condemn the appallingly repressive policies and barbarity of the deranged King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, who suffers from the Xenogiannakopoulou Syndrome. There have been thousand arrests, tortures, and dismissals of journalists. Torture of detainees is widely practiced. Smear campaigns are waged against human rights activists, bloggers, and media owners.  Some of them have died for defending the right to report the news. 

Website filtering has been widened in order to block all content linked to the street demonstrations. Streaming websites that allow video to be streamed in real-time have been blocked. Suppressing photos and video of the unrest has become a question of survival for the brutal regime. It does not want any information about the protests and its brutal crackdown to get out. Nothing must be allowed to alert the international community.

The taming of the shrew is impossible in Bahrain. A Bahraini princess, a supershrew, tortures activists in detention. Since the start of Bahrain's pro-democracy movement, the sadist royal family has tried to control news about the protests and the excesses of police and troops towards the protesters by using a formidable array of weapons. Princess Nora is the greatest weapon of the royal family, a disgusting shrew.

Princess Nora Bint Ebrahim al-Khalifa tortures activists held in detention following pro-democracy rallies against the monarchy. Foreign journalists have been arrested and deported, and others have encountered severe difficulties in obtaining entry visas, and Bahrainis wanting to tell foreign news organizations what is happening have been threatened. As Muslim women have never before been known to take part in interrogations and tortures, Princess Nora stands out as the grossest character of Bahrain.

Two of the princess's victims were Doctors Ghassan Daif and Bassem Daif, who went to help the hundreds wounded when police opened fire with teargas and  birdshot during protests. They were taken into custody and Princess Nora tortured them. Another victim of the shrew, 21-year-old Ayat al-Qurmazi, was arrested for public reading of inflammatory poetry criticizing the royal family. She reveals that her blindfold slipped while she was being tortured and she caught a glimpse of Princess Nora.

Al-Qurmozy was detained by masked men dressed in civilian clothing. On her release, al-Qurmozy told of tortures used on her by both men and women. Princess Nora spat on al-Qurmozy and into her mouth, slapped her in the face repeatedly, administered electric shocks and shouted anti-Shia slurs.

On the eighth day of her arrest, al-Qurmozy was brought blindfolded into a room full of men. They shouted abuse at her and demanded she tell them by whom she was given the verses and how much she was paid for reading them. Al-Qurmozy says: I was surprised by a woman grabbing me and slapping me hard in the face… When she was screaming, cursing and slapping me hard on my face, the blindfold came down off my eyes and I saw her face a bit but they rushed to lift it.

Al-Qurmozy was then brutally beaten, and Princess Nora gave her electric shocks every time she lost consciousness. After that Princess Nora went on torturing al-Qurmozy every night, beating her on the face and spitting on her every time she found her without a blindfold.

Threatened by rape, al-Qurmozy was forced to confess of her pseudoguilt in front of a camera. But her torture continued after al-Qurmozy was thrown into a car.  Princess Nora slapped her on the head, threatened to cut out her tongue, spat, and put a wooden bathroom broom into her mouth and beat her continually. All these abuses were witnessed by another arrested woman, Jalila Salman, who was put in
the same car.

Fatima Haji, one of a group of Bahraini doctors who faced five years in jail but was acquitted, has nightmares of the physical and psychological torture she experienced while in police custody.  Haji was arrested from her own apartment along with 19 other doctors who disappeared from their homes, hospitals, and operating theatres.

None of them were allowed contact with lawyers or their family during interrogation and they were forced to sign false confessions, blindly without being able to read what they were signing.  Haji says: These confessions were extracted under severe torture and I mean physical and psychological torture, we’d been denied sleep for days and had been standing for days. We were not given food or fluids and were hardly allowed to go the toilet.

They were beaten with wooden sticks and pipes, were electrocuted, sexually harassed, and threatened with death and rape in order to get them to sign a confession. The confession they were forced to sign said that they possessed weapons in the hospital where they worked and were trying to overthrow the monarchy.

The current regime has been manipulating the judicial system to use as a political tool. The physicians have been released for political gain, as others, with a similar list of offenses, have been sentenced to lengthy jail terms.

At the beginning of her ordeal, Haji did not know what her charges were, but found herself at a military court where they read out charges that had been fabricated against her that she had stolen 100 bags of blood, which she gave to protesters so that they could spill it on themselves, so that it looked as if they had been assaulted by police!

It was never formally put to Haji that all she did was treat protesters, but instead the fact that the doctors were just doing their job was turned into political accusations that they were trying to overthrow the government, had stolen blood and drugs from the hospital and were participating in an illegal gathering.

The reason behind such detention is that there is no specific independent judiciary system that you can depend onIt is not only a human rights issue but more of political crisis in Bahrain.

Before the electronic crimes unit at the Criminal Investigation Department, Rajab was interrogated on charges of “insulting a public institution” over Twitter. He was then placed under arrest and detained, pending an appearance before the public prosecutor, scheduled to take place on October 2, 2014.

In May 2014, Rajab was released from prison after serving two years for taking part in protests and accused of “disturbing public order.” Massive protests rocked the tiny island kingdom, which neighbors Saudi Arabia, starting on February 14, 2011.  In 2012, the Bahraini government made illegal all forms of public rally and demonstration, citing concerns of national security and public unrest.

Rajab, who heads the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, which was dissolved by the government and declared an illegal entity, was previously sentenced to three months in prison in May 2012 over tweets he had published about the Ministry of Interior. The following month, in June 2012, Rajab was also handed a three-month sentence for different tweets he had written about the country's Prime Minister, who has been in power for 43 years. This sentence was later on overturned on appeal, when Rajab started serving the two-year term for taking part in illegal protests.

Earlier today, the Ministry of Interior announced:

    The General Directorate of Anti-corruption and Economic and Electronic Security summoned Nabeel Ahmed Abdulrasool Rajab on Wednesday to interview him regarding Tweets posted on his Twitter account that denigrated government institutions.  Mr. Rajab acknowledged the charges and the case was referred to the Public Prosecutor.

The tweet in question here concerns a Global Voices article about ISIS‘s Bahraini recruits who appeared in a video threatening the ruling regime in Bahrain. While there is no figure to confirm the exact number of Bahrainis who have joined the ranks of the violent extremist organisation, which has occupied large areas of Iraq and Syria, killing countless of innocent people in its path, four Bahrainis from a family closely affiliated with the ruling regime appear in the footage. The video calls upon Bahrain's Sunni population to take up arms against the government, and the country's Shia population.

In response to the video, which featured Lieutenant Mohamed Isa Al-Binali, who had defected from the army, Rajab commented:  Many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator

This is the third time that Rajab, who commands 239K followers on Twitter, has been nabbed by authorities for his tweets.

Rajab has been very vocal in criticizing the expansion of ISIS's terrorist ideology after reports surfaced of Bahrainis joining the ranks of the group. He also criticized government officials who characterized the occupation of Mosul as a “popular revolution”. In this regard he tweeted: The highest cleric in Saudi describes ISIS and Al Qaeda as the greatest danger facing Islam, but there are politicians in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf who consider ISIS's occupation of Mosul a popular revolution

Rajab also tweeted that the attacks on ISIS should not be used as an excuse for the deteriorating human rights conditions in the Gulf countries: International community has to watch how states like #Bahrain used war in #terrorism to target reformists and #HumanRights defenders #UK #US

Anticipating his arrest earlier today, Nabeel sent a tweet to his followers saying: I will feel no agony if I'm jailed or killed but I will suffer a lot if someone gave up on the rights of people or if anyone yielded to the tyrants

Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB), the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) have jointly expressed concern for Rajab and are calling for his release.

Your government is your #1 enemy.  Brutal police and kangaroo courts are tools to enslave you to your government.  But badges and benches do not grant extra rights. It’s your duty as a citizen to become a popopaparazzo, recording police misconduct. Use your smartphone to unmask cops, kangaroos, marilizards, godzillas, and other bastards of kleptocracy. 


EU practices double standards on civil rights.  It’s freakish for EU to interfere in the civil rights of foreigners, but condone the abuse of my civil rights, a citizen of EU!  EU should get its own house in order before lecturing others. EU should rein in Greece, the most corrupt country of Europe with prisoners of conscience, testilying police, malevolent prosecutors, perjurers, and stupidest jurists.   Basil Venitis,,

Greece is an incivil nation with kangaroo justice, overcriminalization, brutal police, huge political corruption, persecution of dissident bloggers, huge bureaucracy, huge taxation, and 23% VAT.  Freakish Graecokleptocrats use the kangaroo justice as a political tool to gag political opponents. 


I accuse the government of Greece for:

·        Persecuting me for four years

·        Stealing my life

·        Stealing my computer and files

·        Spreading lies about me on all Greek media

·        Using the kangaroo justice as a political tool

·        Postponing my trial eight times

·        Locking me in jail without toilet and pillow for a night

·        Taking away my hypertension pills

·        Making me urinate in a bottle

·        Humiliating me with handcuffs, fingerprints, and mug shots


The political philosopher Edmund Burke once remarked that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good folks to do nothing. A glaring example is my persecution by the government of Greece, which grossly violates my civil rights.


Martin Niemöller said:  First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me!


It’s been now four years since the government of Greece stole my life, my computer, and my files.  Nobody cares, nobody gives a damn!  I have done absolutely nothing, and I am being persecuted by the Greek government without any real reason.  My ordeal is against all rules of civil society and treaties that Greece has signed.  Greece, a country without a functioning justice system, has gone bananas.  Graecokleptocrats use the kangaroo justice as a political tool to gag political opponents.   Graecokleptocrats think the laws exist to give them whatever they want!   Basil Venitis,,




On October 18, 2010, a gang of six brutal cops of the violent Greek Cyber-Crime Unit (CCU), a real godzilla, supervised by a dishonest prosecutor, a disgusting liar, raided my home in Athens and stole my computer, software, files, documents, and personal data.


The policemen locked me in jail for a night, they humiliated me with handcuffs, fingerprints, mug shots, and lies, leaked false information to the media parrots, and the Greek government initiated sham ex-officio court proceedings for a stack of freakish trumped-up charges!


There was neither pillow nor toilet facility in my jail cell. I had to urinate in a bottle!  I, a 69-years-old man with high blood pressure, was not allowed to keep my hypertension pills with me. There was neither toilet paper nor soap in the whole CCU jail.


Greece, a country of infinite political corruption, perjury, injustice, and brutal police, must be revamped.  Ex-officio law suit, αυτεπαγγελτος, the most dreadful word in justice, means the state sues somebody without involvement of the accuser.  This terrible scheme has been used by the Greek government to persecute me. 


Mariliza Xenogiannakopoulou, Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs, sued me, and she wouldn’t show up in court, because the state took over her position! 



At the ex-officio law suit, the accuser just hits and runs!  This hit-and-run justice is the most disgusting kangaroo justice on Earth.  The accused must be in a position to face his accuser eyeball to eyeball. The right to confront and cross-examine one’s accuser is a sign of civility. The malicious accuser slings false accusations against you, the state takes over, the accuser disappears from the court, and the trial is postponed infinite times!  This is penalty of the presumed innocent.  This is penalty without trial.  This is kangaroo justice of Third World countries!  This is barbarity and brutality, pure and simple. Shame, shame, shame on Greece.



Please email appeals to

·        Calling for the immediate stop of the persecution of Basil Venitis.

·        Stating that you believe these trumped-up charges to be politically motivated and intended to prevent him exercising his right to freedom of expression against political corruption.

·        Seeking assurances that the civil rights of Basil Venitis will always be respected.


In many ways, the entire Digital Era can rightly be laid at the courtly foot of Lord Byron’s rebellious daughter, Ada. Lady Lovelace was the poet’s only child born in wedlock, inheriting both her father’s headstrong, Romantic spirit and her mother’s practical respect for mathematics.

As the Industrial Revolution bloomed, her appreciation for the beauty of numbers and invention, an analytical approach she called “poetical science,” led her to write what is now regarded as the first algorithm and to help refine a machine that could be programmed to perform many different tasks, an idea that anticipated the modern computer by a century.

That’s where Walter Isaacson’s latest book, “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution,” steps off. Nominated for a National Book Award, Isaacson takes a sweeping look at the history of the computer and the Internet as seen through the many creative characters who contributed both breakthrough and incremental advances to our technological evolution. It’s a richly told tale of towering figures like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but also of unsung innovators, including a team of women at the University of Pennsylvania who secretly programmed the ENIAC computer during World War II.

Isaacson ’74 is the best-selling author of landmark biographies of Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin. A former journalist who has headed CNN and Time magazine, Isaacson is currently CEO of the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies think tank in Washington, D.C., as well as a Harvard Overseer. He spoke with us about what he learned in his research and how truly lasting innovation is often found where our humanity meets our machinery.

Q: What drew you to a subject as complicated and fluid as the history of the Digital Revolution?

ISAACSON: I was always an electronics geek as a kid. I made ham radios and soldered circuits in the basement. My father and uncles were all electrical engineers. When I was head of digital media for Time Inc. in the early 1990s, as the Web was just being invented, I became interested in how the Internet came to be. When I interviewed Bill Gates, he convinced me that I should do a book not just about the Internet, but its connection to the rise of the personal computer. So I’ve been working on this for about 15 years. I put it aside when Steve Jobs asked me to do his biography, but that convinced me even more there was a need for a history of the Digital Age that explained how Steve Jobs became Steve Jobs.

Q: You’re known for your “Great Man”-style biographies, and yet this is a story about famous, seminal figures and the lesser-knowns who contributed to the Digital Revolution in some way. Can you tell me about that approach?

ISAACSON: The first book I did after college (with a friend) was about six not very famous individuals who worked as a team creating American foreign policy. It was called “The Wise Men.” Ever since then, I’ve done biographies. Those of us who write biographies know that to some extent we distort history. We make it seem like somebody in a garage or in a garret has a “light-bulb moment” and the world changes, when in fact creativity is a collaborative endeavor and a team sport. I wanted to get back to doing a book like “The Wise Men” to show how cultural forces and collaborative teams helped create the Internet and the computer. There’s no one person you can put up there with Thomas Edison and say, “He or she invented the Internet or the computer.” My biography of Henry Kissinger begins with a quote of his in which he said, while flying on one of his shuttle missions to the Middle East in the 1970s, “As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces. But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.” I wanted to look at the interplay between the cultural forces, including wartime government funding as well as the explosion of digital concepts, and to what extent that related to the creativity of individual players.

Q: At a time when the technology sector faces criticism for its lack of gender and racial diversity, you focus on a number of women who played very significant roles in the evolution of technology. Were you surprised at how central women were?

ISAACSON: I think women have been unfairly minimized in the history of technology. Even at Harvard, the great programming work done by Grace Hopper on the Mark I computer that’s in the lobby of the Science Center was instrumental in distinguishing that machine from others at the time that were not reprogrammable. And yet until recently, the panels in front of that machine had no pictures of women, just all of the men who had built it. Even the manual sitting in front of the machine that you can flip through was written by Grace Hopper. Her name’s not on it — it says “by the team” — but she’s the one who wrote it. Now, that display has been revised with pictures of Grace Hopper and some of the other women. I think it’s important to realize that, especially in the area of open-source programming, women including Grace Hopper and the women who programmed the ENIAC at Penn are in the tradition of Ada Lovelace, women who conceived of the power of software programming.

Q: So many people who were instrumental to this history were unconventional and, in some cases, misfits of their era, either by intellect, interest, or temperament. Is it an accident that outsiders drove the evolution of digital technology, and did that outsider status shape the way tech favors openness and less-bureaucratic institutions?

ISAACSON: Yes, I think there’s a glorious geekiness that comes with a lot of the great innovators in the tech revolution. Their imprint is in the DNA of how the Internet and personal computers were developed. In particular, the fact that a whole group of slightly rebellious, anti-authoritarian graduate students created the protocols for connecting host computers to the original ARPANET helped to create the decentralized and distributed nature of that packet-switch network.

Q: Harvard probably doesn’t first come to mind for most people when thinking about the history of computers and the Digital Revolution. Can you talk about role the University played?

ISAACSON: The first programmable electromechanical computer is the Mark I, developed at the Harvard Computation Lab and now in the lobby of the Science Center. The notion that it could be easily reprogrammed was pioneered by Lt. Grace Hopper and an ensign named Richard Bloch, who worked on programming that computer. Also, the combination of Harvard and MIT created companies like BBN Technologies in Cambridge that built the original routers for the Internet. I also think Harvard has remained a cradle for connecting bright, creative people to technology, from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.

Q: One of the book’s foundational themes is the intersection of science and the humanities and how understanding and valuing both has brought us some of the most important innovations. Why is that, and are we in an era right now where the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of valuing S.T.E.M. education and not enough on liberal arts?

ISAACSON: Whenever Steve Jobs had a product to launch, he’d end with a slide showing a street-sign intersection of the liberal arts with technology. And he said, “That’s where the value is — when we can connect our humanity with our machines.” The great theme of the Digital Age is not creating new machines that can think alone, but machines that work in partnership with humans. That ability to connect “that which makes us humans” with machines begins with the interactive graphical displays created for the original air defense systems and goes to Xerox PARC, to Apple Computer, and many other great and beautiful technological innovations. Steve Jobs loved taking calligraphy and dance and art, and the reason he loved a bit-mapped user interface was because he could create beautiful fonts for the original Macintosh. And he had a simple rule, which is that “beauty matters.” It helps make us intimate with our technology.

I think the first phase of the Digital Revolution — the past 50 years — was to some extent engineering-driven. We’re now in a phase in which the connection of creativity to technology is going to drive innovation. I do believe that it’s important for people to have an appreciation for the arts and humanities. But I also think that one problem is people who love the arts and humanities are too often intimidated by science and math, and they don’t appreciate the beauty of science and math. They’d be appalled if somebody didn’t know the difference between Hamlet and Macbeth, but they could happily brag that they don’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, or an integral and differential equation, or a transistor and a capacitor. So as much as I’d like to lecture the engineers that they should appreciate the humanities, I also think that people from the tradition of the humanities should embrace the beauty of engineering and science, as well.


A modest student protest in Hong Kong last week has ballooned into a rare and dramatic public display of political defiance against the Chinese government’s overarching authority.

The unrest began Sept. 22 with a call from the Hong Kong Federation of Students to boycott classes in protest of the government’s plan to limit candidates in Hong Kong’s first leadership election, slated for 2017, to those approved by a panel of presumed Beijing loyalists. The decision was widely viewed as a sharp reversal of a long-held promise to allow Hong Kong voters to select a new leader in open, democratic elections.

The student ranks swelled to tens of thousands earlier this week as activists and supporters of another pro-democracy group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, joined the protest. Demonstrators filled the streets, blocked major thoroughfares and effectively shut down the busy central business district. After some tried to storm the downtown government headquarters, tensions erupted as unarmed protestors and police in riot gear clashed amid pepper spray and tear gas, prompting demonstrators to don goggles and plastic wrap or use umbrellas as shields from the stinging vapors. The humble umbrella has since become a symbol of the movement’s resistance.

China has called the protests illegal, but Hong Kong police dialed back their response. More supporters have taken to the streets, reinvigorating the demonstrations just in time for National Day on Oct. 1, a two-day holiday marking the 65th birthday of Mao Zedong’s formation of the People’s Republic of China — and the deadline set by Occupy Central for Hong Kong’s top leader, Leung Chun-ying, to resign.

Anthony Saich is the Daewoo Professor of International Affairs and director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance at Harvard Kennedy School. He also serves as the faculty chair of the China Public Policy Program. His current research focuses on politics and governance in post-Mao China. Saich spoke with us about what’s happening in Hong Kong.

Q: What’s driving this event, and what makes this protest different from others in Hong Kong?

SAICH: The immediate cause is the fallout from the decision from Beijing that they were going to allow “universal suffrage,” but essentially control the pool of candidates who would be eligible to stand. That has led to the suspicion that only those who have a pro-Beijing orientation would pass muster. I think that it really has been a catalyst for a deeper set of concerns and frustrations among different groups in Hong Kong about where Hong Kong is heading, as we’re now some 17 years into the handover period. It’s actually pulled in a mixture of groups; you’ve got the Occupy Central group, which has had a number of disparate disagreements with the Hong Kong authorities. Then you’ve got the Scholarism group, which is representing the student communities. But there do seem to be quite a number of people joining in the demonstrations who are not affiliated with either of those two groups, which suggests that the dissatisfaction is broader than just a small group of students or activists who’ve been engaged with protests before.

You always have some set of demonstrations related to the June 4, 1989, killings in Beijing, Tiananmen Square, and that has gone up and down over time. What was surprising was this year, with the 25th anniversary, the turnout was larger than many people expected, which speaks to some of the underlying frustrations from many people in Hong Kong toward the mainland. Is it different from other demonstrations? I think the answer to that is yes, because it does seem to have a broader base. It does have quite a focused set of objectives — whether they’re realizable or not, of course, is a different issue — and the fact that they’ve challenged directly the Hong Kong leadership, and then implicitly the directors from Beijing, I think is quite striking.

Q: Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, appears to be a major target of the demonstrators’ ire. Why do they want him to step down?

SAICH: He’s seen as the front person for Beijing, and tactically it would be very problematic for them to criticize Beijing directly, even though there have been some ruffles and comments about that. It would be dangerous for them to take on Beijing. C.Y. Leung has really come to symbolize the problem. He’s not been a popular chief executive from the beginning. In fact, it seems there were even disputes within the small group that chooses the chief executive whether he was the most appropriate or not. I think what has fed into this over the weekend was the police actions where they used tear gas, and there was the thought that perhaps if there was an aggressive response from the police, the demonstrations would fade away. But it seems to have galvanized even more people to come out onto the streets. He’s really seen as a figurehead and for the demonstrators a target that’s achievable to remove — from their perspective, anyway.

Q: What most worries Beijing about this unrest, and how far is the government likely to let this go on before intervening?

SAICH: This is a very tough issue for Beijing. First, I think Beijing was caught off guard, as I think we all were, by the depth of feelings and the strength of the demonstrations. Perhaps they were getting poor intelligence from their own offices in Hong Kong and from the Hong Kong government. What worries them about it is they don’t like any direct challenge. President Xi [Jinping] has amassed considerable power into his own hands and had very much portrayed himself as a can-do leader. And yet now he’s facing significant opposition from parts of his periphery, not just Hong Kong, but there’s been a lot of unrest in Xinjiang in the northwest of China. So from his perspective, any backing down around either of those issues would cause concern and might open up the way for people within China who’ve been opposed to some of his policies to see it as an opening to attack him in other areas.

Then, what most people are focused on is the question of democracy in Hong Kong and what would the consequences of that be for the mainland. The primary objective of the Communist Party is to stay in power, and it’s always been suspicious of anything that provides a challenge within that context. It’s always sought to repress, domestically, people who tried to set up movements or parties that might even in a minimal way compete with the Communist Party. The idea that democracy can be unpredictable and can produce chaos, from their perspective, means that it needs to be controlled. I think they probably felt that people in Hong Kong would go along with the idea that “You’ll still get universal suffrage, but you’ll get it within a cage,” the cage being the limited choice of candidates. So I think there’s that fear of unpredictable democracy and possible consequences of whether that might lead to people on the mainland calling for more effective representation.

Q: Is the protest movement likely to change Beijing’s view, and if not, is there a resolution both sides could live with?

SAICH: I think it’s hard to see what the resolution is. I don’t think Beijing will back down on the decision that was made earlier. The demonstrators say that they have a number of core objectives, one of which is to rescind that decision, but also for [Leung] to step down. I don’t think they’re going to get the first. They may, through some maneuverings, get the second. Because the only tactic for Beijing, short of greater oppression, is to distance themselves and not say their decision was wrong, but to say that [Leung] and the senior Hong Kong leadership have implemented their control around the demonstrations poorly, and that they haven’t explained this sufficiently to the Hong Kong people, that they haven’t allowed sufficient negotiation — that might be one area of wiggle room for them. The only other hope is that if there’s not continued repression of the demonstrations, over time the enthusiasm might just fade away, and that might allow for a calming period where some kind of discussion could take place. But I think it’s very problematic for Beijing. In a sense, they are really losing a generation. You have a group of young people — college students, high school students — who’ve clearly expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the way Hong Kong is being managed. It’s hard to see what Beijing could do that would win back trust from that group, which is not a very promising situation for the future.

Q: Does this have any potential to ignite other protests in mainland China?

SAICH: I don’t really think at the moment there’s much threat of similar kinds of demonstrations in China. The bottom line is the culture, the history, and the situation in Hong Kong is so different from that in the mainland. Despite what people see as some increasing constraints, there is still much greater freedom in Hong Kong. Demonstrations have been consistently allowed in Hong Kong since 1997. So in that sense, it’s a very different environment. [Therefore] it’s hard to see whether it would translate exactly to the situation on the mainland.

Q: Is the erosion of democratic principles in Hong Kong, which were at the heart of the “one country, two systems” formula, a worst-case scenario for those who feared the 1997 handover? Is it evidence that this duality is unworkable under China’s current political regime?

SAICH: The duality has not worked so badly on the whole. There is frustration, there is grumbling in Hong Kong, but there was no democratic system in 1997. What has been mapped out over the transition period is a move to greater democracy. One could argue that the potential candidates for the chief executive will be selected by a small group, but everybody then will be able to vote, so there would be some choice. That is more democracy than Hong Kong has had previously, certainly under the British and certainly to date. So you could argue there’s an extension of democratic voting rights in Hong Kong. And I think the hope was if that was stage one, and Beijing felt comfortable with that, they might relax the issues around who would select the candidates for a subsequent election. It’s a complex issue: It’s not that easy to say, “This is a closing down of democracy in Hong Kong.” There’s still a relatively robust press, there’s still a relatively robust academic community, and there’s a still a set of international connections and ease of access to information that doesn’t exist on the mainland. I think this was a catalyst for a general sense of unease you’re talking about: Is Beijing beginning to take more control in more areas, whether it’s economic, whether it’s social, whether it’s large numbers of mainland Chinese coming down to Hong Kong? That was then sparked by particular events.

Q: If Beijing prevails, what does it mean for Hong Kong’s future as a commercial and artistic center? Are we likely to see a significant “brain drain” as a result?

SAICH: That’s an interesting question, and I think that is the fear. Beijing sees Hong Kong as being an important commercial and trading center. A lot of the leaders’ children make their money out of Hong Kong, and it’s one place where China recognizes proper rule of law as effective in the business community. So I think it’s always kind of hoped that the rule of law within the commercial sector would go ahead, but that they could still control the politics. Although huge numbers of people with money and access are leaving the mainland and settling in Australia, Canada, America, Europe, or wherever, the ease of exit is much better out of Hong Kong. A lot of the elite there speak English well. They’ve often been well integrated into global communities. And so I think there is a fear that, if this turns sour and the atmosphere harshens in Hong Kong, you will have an exodus of the most qualified.