BWI International/Marshall Thurgood Airport
He was waiting for her as she deplaned, holding up a cardboard sign with her name scribbled on it. She was on her way to meet with DARPA Special Projects Operations director and he was there to meet her.
“May I ask you a question?” he asked as they waited for her bags at the luggage turnstile.
“Do you find having the same name as the Nobel Peace Prize winning scientist, that people often confuse you with him?”
“He’s my father.” She smiled.
“My problem, working in law enforcement the last thirty-years, makes me ask too many dumb questions.” He held out his hand.
“Agent Bart Needham. On loan to the DOD from the Secret Service. Department of Defense may wield more autonomy but Secret Service pays better. I bear the first name of a contentious and well-known quarterback for the Green Bay Packers for which I have taken my share of ribbing over the years.”
“Abbie Sparf. Daughter of cantankerous, Nobel Peace Prize winning scientist Walter L. Sparf for which I to have taken my share of ribbing over the years.”
“Abbie Sparf? I like you. I think we’re going to be fast friends.”
“You don’t know me yet.”
“Anyway … “she said. “It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind- not a man’s.”
“Abbie- meet “Libby,” a computer-generated avatar that greets travelers at Newark Liberty International Airport. She’s Newark Airport’s newest — and perhaps most chipper — customer service rep. You may have noticed that she’s a bit shallow, and she’s completely two-faced, but she’s always smiling, and she never complains.
“Hello, and welcome to Newark Liberty International Airport. You have arrived at Terminal B,” the avatar said.
“Libby’s presence seems to be catching arriving passengers off-guard. Some love her, some hate her but not everyone is enchanted by her computer-generated smile.
“It’s a little bit freaky when you walk down here. Her body doesn’t look real but her head does,” one passerby said.
“It’s freaky!” another woman said.
“I think it’s weird,” said the first.
“The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey spent $180,000 on Libby and four avatars like her,” Needham told Dr. Sparf. “It may have been a bargain. Some travelers compare it to Leonardo da Vinci’s priceless “Mona Lisa.”
“I think it’s scary. The woman traveler said to her companion. “Its eyes follow you,”.
“It’s really odd the way her eyes follow you. It’s really odd!”
“According to the Port Authority, Libby’s first day went well, but the agency will continue to keep an eye on her performance — and so will her young customers. Needham told the two women travelers who scoffed before hurrying away.
“I talk to her; I don’t know what she means. Everyone’s a critic.”
Settling into the car for the drive to DARPA headquarters in the Virginia Square neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia. Agent Needham turned on the the sleek Sirius Sportster4 including replay, advanced sports features, a large, easy-to-read display and rotary tuning knob as the song 5 O’clock World by Dave Clark Five played in the background.
“You’re an oldies fan? She asked.
“Trading my time for the pay I get…living on money I ain’t made yet.” The song echoed.
“I’m sure glad you’re a scientist,” he said. “My parents were not scientists. They knew almost nothing about science and technology but they instilled in me a healthy sense of skepticism and a sense of wonder, two cohabiting modes of scientific thought.”
And there’s a longhaired girl who waits, I know
to ease my troubled mind,
In the shelter of her arms everything’s okay
“Don’t feel bad,” she said. “Some 95-percent of Americans are scientifically illiterate. Every generation worries that educational standards are decaying. It’s not that they are decaying; it’s that with every generation we are playing catch-up with the latest technology. As adults today are teaching themselves how to surf the web and text-message, the adults of tomorrow who grew up taking these things for granted will be teaching themselves how to interact with robotics, virtual reality, and other things that are quite beyond their abilities today.”
She talks and the world goes slipping away
And I know the reason I can still go on
When every other reason is gone
“We were only one step out of poverty when I announced I wanted to be a Secret-Service agent and guard the president,” he told her. “My parents would laugh but they would give me their unqualified support. They never suggested that all things considered, it might have been better to sell insurance.”
“An ancient Chinese proverb advises, “Better be too credulous than too skeptical,” she said. “Most scientists I believe would say the Chinese had it backwards. They would say, “better be too skeptical than too credulous.”
“I wish I could tell you that in the 1960’s we had inspirational teachers in science, mathematics or other subjects but there were none,” he sighed.
“Public education in the 1960’s consisted of rote memorization about the Periodic Table of Elements, levers, and inclined planes, green plant photosynthesis and the difference between anthracite and bituminous coal. There was no soaring sense of wonder, except perhaps when it came to the space program, no hint of evolutionary perspective, nothing about mistaken ideas of early inventors like Da Vinci, Galileo, and turning metal into gold. In math and high school lab courses, there was just memorization, an answer we were supposed to get and if we didn’t get it we failed. There was no encouragement by teachers to pursue science or technology as a hobby.”
“Radio Shack provided inspiration in the form of crystal-radio kits that kids could buy and put together. Poor families like mine couldn’t even afford the modestly priced kits. No wonder we couldn’t wait for the school year to end. Public schools in the 1960’s were the death of inspiration, wonder, and exploration. All we wanted to do was get as far away from school for the summer as we could. Whatever interest I had in science came from reading magazines like Popular Mechanics or National Geographic and later, Popular Science.”
“My dad Marshall Needham was a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers. He played for two years before being cut. He used to say that two-years on that Vince Lombardi team were like a lifetime on other teams. He named me after his best friend, well-known quarterback Bart Starr. We used to go to Bart Starr’s house for Sunday Dinner. No nambi pambi chicken, it was roast beef, every-time. My dad insisted I get the Bart Starr haircut like all the other boys. Secretly, I was a Packer fan but because my dad loved the Packer’s I wanted to irk him so I rooted for the Chicago Bears. That was back when Mike Ditka was a player.”
“The Bears didn’t play as good as Lombardi’s Packers but once a year the two teams faced off in the annual rivalry game. My dad worked as a railroad engineer. When my mom died, he took a job as care-taker at a large private school driving the large red tractor around mowing the lawn, or repairing this or that. I was in high-school the day that dad died. He was changing the chlorine cylinders at the pool when something went wrong. A valve opened or hadn’t been closed properly and he inhaled a cloud of chlorine gas. By the time the ambulance arrived he had stopped breathing. I worked odd jobs the remainder of high school to help out my step-mom Marilyn and my little sister Laura.
I remember my step-mom, Marilyn worked as a CPA for this guy, worked long hours, come home dead tired, fall asleep at the kitchen table and at the end of the job the guy paid her off in cash. When mom went to the butcher, the cash turned out to be “funny money.” I will never forget how mom came home and sobbed at the kitchen table. We were so poor we could barely keep food on the table and her employer was one of those “wise guys.” Not particularity dangerous- just thought he was so clever. I vowed then and there, that one day, I would work for the secret-service putting wise guys like that behind bars for all the misery they caused people.
“After high school- I was drafted. Got shipped to Vietnam. 101st Airborne. But then, most of the units were 101st Airborne. I was exposed to America’s rock-n-roll/drug war. It made young naïve boys grow up in a hurry. After my two-year hitch, I returned home and inspired by the successful TV show, The FBI with Efrem Cymbalist Junior- a good looking, suave talking agent who dressed well and put sleazy bad guys in jail, I applied to the FBI Academy. I started out a junior-G-man in the counterfeiting section.
“Most counterfeiters were not the sleazy bad guys portrayed on TV, most of them were pathetic. I almost felt sorry for them. They were just “wise guys,” thinking they were so much cleverer than anyone else yet all of them, with few exceptions were tripped up by the littlest thing. The little thing they overlooked. Like a clerk remembering their description, surveillance camera, spending the funny money in the same neighborhood they lived in, or buying their ink and supplies from the same office supply store. Counterfeiting was boring and after two years I had the opportunity to apply to the Secret Service.
“I thought counterfeiting would be more exciting in secret service. It wasn’t. It was the same old thing just on a larger scale. In 1982, Reagan and Brady were gunned down, many secret service agents of the 1960’s and 70’s were old and retired, and there were openings on the presidential detail. I served two presidents, Reagan and Bush senior before the Clinton administration came in and wanted to be surrounded by younger, fresh faces. By then, I was bored with presidential detail. It’s mostly about the show you know. Giving the American public the false sense of security that the president is invulnerable. This obviously wasn’t the case with Reagan. This is why they have agents run alongside an armor-plated presidential limo which could withstand a rocket attack. Or we’re seen on TV talking into our lapel microphones. Half the time when you would see us talking into our microphones we were getting a pro-football score update or ordering dinner from McDonald’s. But it looked cool,” he talked into his shirt collar, “Eh Charlie, Charlie?” She laughed.
“In 1982- many politicians including the president began to realize they knew little or nothing about science and technology.”
“The nations will perish for lack of knowledge. Thomas Ady, 1656,” Sparf said. “He also said that avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly ignorance about us.”
“Most of them. Like self were jocks in high-school not nerds or geeks. IN high school if you’re a straight A student and you show an overt interest in school- you’re a nerd. High school culture hasn’t changed in the 40-odd years since I went to high school. The message to young people is that it is better to be popular, sexy, and cool than to be intelligently accomplished and outspoken and be thought a nerd or geek. Hollywood has made a fortune off parodying geeks and nerds in movies like Revenge of the Nerds. A high school gives recognition to athletes with letters on their jackets rather than nerdy science whizzes. The message in high school is smart kids are looking for the fast buck, they become lawyers not scientists. Popular guys get the pretty girls and become financially successful enough to buy Porsches. Science nerds become Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor, teaching science class to a bunch of kids who would rather be doing something else.
High school, the nerds wore their belts just under their rib cages. Their short sleeved shirts equipped with plastic pocket protector which were arrayed a display of multi-colored pens. A programmable calculator was holstered in a special belt holster. They all wore thick glasses with broken nose pieces that were repaired with Band-Aids. And like the Hollywood movies, they were made to seem bereft of any social skills by the jocks. A laugh came out as a snort just like Jerry Lewis in The Nutty professor. Most nerds I knew had names like Norman or Walter.
There were more boy nerds than girl nerds but they didn’t date- not even within their own construct. Bottom line- if you were a nerd- you couldn’t be cool.
“I imagine you, on the other hand were a jock. I can see you riding in the back seat of a wealthier jocks convertible wearing your maroon and white athletic jacket for which you saved for two years with your football letter and pins attached. I imagine you combed your hair back with a black Ace comb all the time in front of the ladies because you thought that made you look cool. A sort of 1960’s Fonz.
“I imagine you drank Bali High Wine out in a cornfield with fellow teammates and cheerleaders, giggling like small children as the alpha males in your group tried to decide who was going further out in the cornfield with Mary Alice. I imagine your favorite TV show was The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.”
“Guilty as charged.”
“See? The stereotype of a jock is no harder to figure out than that of a nerd.”
“What about you? I imagine it must have been very difficult growing up in the shadow of your famous father.”
“My father, having just won the Nobel prize, patiently explained to me about zero as a placeholder on arithmetic, about the wicked sounding names of big numbers and about how there’s no biggest number. “You can always add one, “Z” he pointed out. Suddenly, I was seized by a childish compulsion to write in sequence all the integers from 1 to 1,000. We had no pads of paper, but my father offered up the stack of gray cardboards he had been saving from when his shirts were sent to the laundry. I started the project eagerly, but was surprised at how slowly it went. When I had gotten no further than the low hundreds, my mother announced that it was time for me to take my bath and go to bed. I was disconsolate. I had to get to a thousand. My father intervened. If I would cheerfully submit to the bath, he would continue the sequence. In was overjoyed. By the time I emerged he was approaching 900 and I was able to reach 1,000 only a little past my ordinary bedtime. The magnitude of large numbers and my father’s love for me has never ceased to impress me.”
“Mystery, obviously, is everywhere. Is there a God? Mystery. What about life after death? Mystery. Excuse me, what material is the Sham Wow made of? Mystery. Stonehenge? Big Foot? Loch Ness? Mystery mystery mystery. McDonald’s Special Sauce? I don’t care how many bottles of Thousand Island dressing you show me, it’s Special Sauce. Mystery.
“And yet: For all that mystery, why does it feel like the world has been ripped open, all parts exposed? Why does so much seem absolutely and thoroughly demystified? These days we can leap, all of us, from a casual curiosity about anything to a sense of satisfying understanding. Instantly. Want to fold origami? There are more than 200,000 Google results on that subject available to you, now. Need to know the capital of Mauritania? A recipe for sticky buns? How to pick a bicycle lock? You could answer all these questions in less time than it will take you to finish reading this article (which, for a second time, I suggest you skip. Remember: You know how it ends, so why are you still here?).
What I’m getting at is hardly news to anyone: We’re smack dab in the middle of the Age of Immediacy. True understanding (or skill or effort) has become bothersome―an unnecessary headache that impedes our ability to get on with our lives (and most likely skip to something else). Earning the endgame seems so yesterday, especially when we can know whatever we need to know whenever we need to know it.
People often ask me how Lost is going to end. But I always ask them do you really want to know? And what if I did tell them? They might have an aha moment, but without context. Especially since the final episode is a year away. That is to say, the experience―the setup for a joke’s punch line, the buildup to a magic trick’s big flourish―is as much of a thrill as the result. There’s discovery to be made and wonder to be had on the journey that not only enrich the ending but in many ways define it.
“Think back, for example, to how we used to buy music. You would have to leave your apartment or house and actually move your ass to another location. You’d get to the store, where music would be playing on the stereo. Music you may not have heard before. Perhaps you’d ask the clerk what it was and she’d send you to a bin―those wooden container holding actual albums or CDs―and you’d look through it, seeing other album covers that might catch your eye. You’d have a chance to discover something.
“But wait, you say, iTunes gives you the chance to browse! To that I nod, concede the point, and say, “Bullshit.” Those little icons you scroll past mean almost nothing to most of us. Why? Because we didn’t get on the train, brave the weather, bump into strangers, and hear music we didn’t choose. In other words, we didn’t earn the right to casually scan those wooden bins. Lately I go to Sound Garden in Baltimore just to watch people flip through albums. It’s a lost art.
Sure, in the days before recorded music, you’d need a live performance to hear music at all. So isn’t technology actually enriching our lives? Well, of course. This is not meant to be an anti-technology diatribe―some clichéd Luddite treatise (in an issue of Wired, no less). On the contrary, I’m a massive fan of most everything electronic. I use, appreciate, and drool over far too many high tech innovations. I’m an embarrassed whore for the stuff. But tech has made us thankless. Back in the day, it would’ve been unthinkable to go to the music store, actually purchase a record, and then get home and not listen to it. But today? How many of us have downloaded albums or songs that are still sitting, months or years later, unplayed in our iTunes library? My hand just slowly went up, too.
“In my profession, this mentality is illustrated by the spoiler: that piece of information meant to be kept secret, like the end of a movie or TV show or novel. Spoilers give fans the answers they want, the resolution they crave. As an avid fan of movies and TV myself, I completely understand the desire to find out behind-the-scenes details in a nanosecond. Which, given technology, is often how long it takes―to the frustration of the storytellers. Efforts to gather this Intel and the attempts to plug leaks create an ongoing battle between filmmakers and the very fans they are dying to entertain and impress. But the real damage isn’t so much that the secret gets out. It’s that the experience is destroyed. The illusion is diminished. This may not matter to some. But then what’s the point of actually seeing that movie or episode? How does knowing the twist before you walk into the theater―or what that island is really about before you watch the finale―make for a richer viewing experience? It’s telling that the very term itself―spoiler―has become synonymous with “cool info you can get before the other guy.” What no one remembers is that it literally means “to damage irreparably; to ruin.” Spoilers make no bone about destroying the intended experience―and somehow that has become, for many, the preferred choice.