“It lets us travel the way a child travels…round and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

—Don Draper, pitching the Kodak Carousel on Mad Men.

I remember playing with the yellow plastic boxes, and my father saying, “Don’t put your paws all over the slides.” I used to hold the squares up to the bedroom window to see tiny pictures of monkeys and babies. They weren’t that exciting, but in those days telly didn’t start until 3 o’clock.

Zambia was mine. My younger sisters were born in Limerick, but I was born in the town of Mansa, Luapula Province, Zambia, Africa, The World, The Universe. I had no memories of the place, and no real curiosity about it, but it was a thrilling claim, in a lions-and-tigers kind of way, and at eight you’ll use whatever might make you special. I liked to tell people I was born in Africa, in that hair-twirling way of small girls who want your attention.

“And I was on an aeroplane, and on the way home from Africa I got sick out the window,” I remember announcing in class one day. One of the boys said that the windows on aeroplanes didn’t open, so it wasn’t true.

I would be 14 before I got on a plane again, and none of the other kids had yet been on one at all, but his challenge put a stop to my boasting. It still stings. (Not long ago my mother told me that yes, I’d had some bad water on a stopover in Addis, and vomited the whole way back—but not out the window.)

My mother was 20 and my father 24, and they were a few days married when they went from Ireland to Zambia to start their teaching careers. It wasn’t an unusual choice at that time. The Irish had gained independence fewer than fifty years earlier, and had started free secondary schooling just within the previous decade. Ireland felt a kinship with African countries through a shared colonial history, and through decades of Catholic mission and relief work.

In the late 60s and 70s, newly-independent African nations were offering contracts for foreign engineers, doctors, and teachers, just at the time that the first Irish generation to get free secondary schooling were coming out of college with their first-in-the-family degrees. The bolder ones were glad to sign up for a three-year adventure.

Those fresh Irish graduates were neither priests or Peace Corps warriors.  They didn’t go to save souls or save lives. They came from a small rock in the Atlantic, and I like to think that they knew what it felt like to be young, far from the center, and thirsty to learn and better themselves. They went to share their brief head start with others like them, while earning a bit of money to send home.

Rural Zambia’s rickety generators, rationed water, and monotonous mealie-meal weren’t hardships for my parents. The cottage in which my father was reared didn’t get electricity until he was ten, and never had plumbing. If he had been born a year or two earlier, he would have left school at 14 to cut bog turf or lay bricks on London construction sites.

My parents weren’t the only young couple on that long journey heading out on one of those contracts. They watched the other passengers to see who stayed with them past Rome, past Addis Ababa, past Nairobi, and onward to Lusaka. A girl with a shiny new wedding ring turned to my mother on the last leg, weeping, and asked her “Do you miss your mammy too?” They are still friends with Esther today.

Esther’s baby, Danielle, was born a month before me. She was Town Mouse and I was Bush Mouse. I was the first white baby born in the Mansa clinic, 18 months after they arrived, and my mother didn’t see a doctor until late in her labour, when we were both troubled. Afterwards, she washed in a pitch-dark bathroom and then discovered next morning that it was thick with flies and filthy; she became infected and very sick. She remembers the other mothers laughing at her mottled, red-faced baby, but says she didn’t mind.

Mary and Dervala

We didn’t have many photos from Zambia in our house in Limerick—a few square, white-bordered prints of leopards, my christening, and the gleaming young men on the football team at St. Clement’s Secondary School, where my father taught. But there were dozens and dozens of photos of my younger sisters, born six and nine years later, and I decided—with more logic than bitterness—that this was because they were so clearly cute, while I had brown hair and glasses.

It wasn’t until a trip home last September that I remembered the yellow boxes of slides. My parents hadn’t owned a slide projector, and we had never seen them properly. Over the years their pictures had faded first into mystery and then into oblivion. At some point they had been shunted up to the attic. My mother wasn’t sure about letting me have them—I’m known to lose things—but I persuaded my sister to climb up to the attic and pass them down to me, in a precarious operation that had the three of us yelping “Oh Jesus! Watch it!”

I brought the slides back to San Francisco and eventually got round to shipping them to a scanning service down the road in Burlingame. They sent them on to Mumbai, where Indian workers would scan each slide by hand and color-correct them for my digital approval, then return them to San Francisco along with a DVD copy of their contents.

We are moving, says my friend Richard, from a world of things to a world of flows. The Zambia slides had a long journey in years and miles. They were carried across four continents and three decades, encased in yellow plastic boxes, in suitcases, in bubble wrap and styrofoam peanuts, in cardboard boxes and packing tape, until one day their atoms were reborn as bits and their hidden stories began to flow.

I opened the links on my computer at work. There was the baby that was once me—smiling, pondering, sleeping, bawling, floating. There were my parents, hip and beautiful and improbably young, wearing bright colors. And there was Zambia, dusty, sunny, with new brick buildings and vivid red bushes.

Sean, Mary, Dervala

These were my blurred stories but not my memories, and I wished that I were discovering them with my mother and father instead of sitting alone 5,000 miles away. Digital photos don’t live anywhere. There’s no ritual of setting up the projector and dimming the lights. You’re not passing loose photos across a kitchen table, or squeezing in beside someone to turn the pages of an album. Loosed on the web, these photos seemed ephemeral and indestructible, detached and yet achingly intimate, years ago and yesterday.

I sent the links to my sister in Canada and to my friends at work, because I wanted the photos seen. How can you not bite your lip at the sight of a tiny baby, wet and kicking after a basin-bath, even if that baby is—somehow—yourself?

As I said, I was six when my sister was born, and as an almost-only child I believed myself to be self-sufficient. I remember vividly the night I learned to read, some time before I was four. My mother was re-reading an Enid Blyton story about Santa Claus getting stuck in the chimney of a factory. I was curled under her arm, sucking my thumb and imbibing the bliss of a story, and then there was a moment when the words on the page unscrambled, and I knew by the shape of them what each one said. It was fabulously exciting. From now on, I could read myself a story any time I wanted, forever and ever. It was my emancipation.

That’s what I remember—being a good girl, being the big sister, being able to tie my own shoes and put on my pyjamas, being able to learn off my spellings and read my own bedtime stories. All my life, I have shrunk from needing things from others. Yet these Zambia photos tell a different story, one that makes my throat swell. I wasn’t an independent little creature. I was a baby who was swaddled and held—in the crook of my father’s arm, on my mother’s hip, on their laps and shoulders, in lakes and on land—and I accepted it with grace and satisfaction. My parents didn’t have a Baby Bjorn to keep their hands free for their iPhones. Even though the Zambian babies were carried in wraps, it hadn’t occurred to my parents to do the same. They brought me everywhere—on safari in the back of a friend’s tiny Volkswagen Beetle, to parties with their childless friends, backpacking through Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania. We were a trio.

This year, 2010, my parents will be married forty years, and my mother will turn sixty. I no longer gaze up at them daily with total dependence and devotion, but now I know how much I once did. And through their old photos I’ve learned to read another love story.


If I know aught of myself, no one whose mind is introspective–and mine is painfully so–can have a less respect for his present identity, than I have for the man Elia. I know him to be light, and vain, and humorsome; a notorious ***; addicted to ****: averse from counsel, neither taking it, nor offering it;–*** besides; a stammering buffoon; what you will; lay it on, and spare not; I subscribe to it all, and much more, than thou canst be willing to lay at his door–but for the child Elia–that “other me,” there, in the back-ground–I must take leave to cherish the remembrance of that young master–with as little reference, I protest, to this stupid changeling of five-and-forty, as if it had been a child of some other house, and not of my parents. I can cry over its patient small-pox at five, and rougher medicaments. I can lay its poor fevered head upon the sick pillow at Christ’s, and wake with it in surprise at the gentle posture of maternal tenderness hanging over it, that unknown had watched its sleep. I know how it shrank from any the least colour of falsehood.–God help thee, Elia, how art thou changed! Thou art sophisticated.–I know how honest, how courageous (for a weakling) it was–how religious, how imaginative, how hopeful! From what have I not fallen, if the child I remember was indeed myself,–and not some dissembling guardian, presenting a false identity, to give the rule to my unpractised steps, and regulate the tone of my moral being!

That I am fond of indulging, beyond a hope of sympathy, in such retrospection, may be the symptom of some sickly idiosyncrasy. Or is it owing to another cause; simply, that being without wife or family, I have not learned to project myself enough out of myself; and having no offspring of my own to dally with, I turn back upon memory and adopt my own early idea, as my heir and favourite?

—Charles Lamb, ”New Year’s Eve,” 1821

Making Something New

Most consumer technology companies are founded by young or youngish men. They’re funded by men who live in the same world.

They do best when making stuff for themselves. Take Vindigo. The original service, a Palm-based city guide, was made by smart dorks who didn’t like not knowing where to go in the big city. With Vindigo in hand, that tribe still wouldn’t know the latest underground bars, clubs, and restaurants, but they’d have directions (and, crucially, reviews to parrot) for the places that had already surfaced. Creators and audience understood one another, and it’s still one of the best mobile phone applications available in the US, though little known, and underused these days.

Juno, like Vindigo, hired the kind of people who later graduated to jobs at Google. Juno’s requirements were strict, but not sensible. Unbelievably, SAT scores counted. Experience didn’t. Ivy League GPAs were verified, but common sense wasn’t. This would have worked if the service were based on spotting tiny arbitrage opportunities, like their hedge-fund parent company. Instead, Juno provided free, dial-up email to millions of people who had never before used the Internet. The idea was audacious, and in theory the numbers worked.

However, Juno employees worked in a glass tower 26 floors above Times Square–opposite MTV, and in the same office as P. Diddy, back when he was Puff Daddy, and _Every Breath You Take_ played in every elevator. Those microscopic glitches our hedge fund brothers searched for? That was about the scale of our intimacy with customers. All we knew was, we were doing them a favor–hey, it was free–and that the product they bought most often from our daily bombardment of direct-sales ads was religious clip art.

This was just proof that they were weird. And most likely hadn’t gone to Yale.

A switched-on French colleague railed shortly before he left that it seemed everyone wanted to “do strategy,” and nobody wanted to go to the warehouse to figure out the best way to get these people the religious clip art they had paid for. Solving the technical challenges of serving ten million people was (rightly) valued, but learning about their lives was not. We spent our energy on odd things–getting fervent about serial commas in intranet articles, or designing “error message” advertisements to trick people into upgrading to paid services. Or “doing strategy.” (As Joel says, “no one at Juno owned anything. They just _worked_ on it.”)

Well, that was extreme, and that was ten years ago. Still, it’s left me with an interest in figuring out how people make things for people who aren’t like them. Walking around the Yahoo! offices in Sunnyvale last spring, it was clear that, though they still call it a campus, that internet generation is older now. The majority are the thirtysomething dorky guys I’ve always liked. And Yahoo!–like Google and others–has done well with the services that matter most to their staff as users: Autos, Finance, Personals, Instant Messenger, Video, Maps…

Where I get interested is in the efforts of tech founders and organizations to move beyond their tribe. In their efforts to hire, or at least get to know, people who are different. The Yahoo team I worked with last spring are little on the margins–“a bunch of moms,” they called themselves, maybe ten years older than the surrounding engineers. They’re designers, in a technologists’ world. And they wanted to work for customers that Yahoo hadn’t yet talked to. So they found some, visited them, and picked their brains. They made prototypes together, big looping sketches that filled walls. They spent time showing them how older services actually worked–even instant messaging is always new to someone. Eventually they gathered a bigger group–sixty representatives–from this tribe that doesn’t surf the web all day. For ten days, they lived at Yahoo!, while the “bunch of moms,” their engineering allies, and some executives with big ideas listened, answered, explained, and asked. There was no fancy method, just people getting to know one another, then sketching, building, and testing ideas together. They produced good work. Also some Princess Leia skits, but that’s another story.

The “just moms” were curious, self-deprecating, and tenacious as Borat. It’s to Yahoo’s credit that passionate entrepreneurs have a place to live, and room for a real life to draw from. I hope they succeed.

If you don’t take the time they took to explore unfamiliar ground, it’s hard to sound real. Here’s what today’s Valleywag pulled from an article on a recent launch–Yahoo’s Food portal, as it happens.

Just Wait Until Forbes Writes About Yahoo! Sex
* “Brown has been working with food for most of the Internet’s history.”
* “Yahoo! media and entertainment head Lloyd Braun hired Brown because ‘[Braun] identified “food” as something he wanted to do.'”
* “‘He saw the food marketplace as under-served.'”

(For the record, this is what real sounds like: Meetup’s Scott Heiferman on his stint at McDonalds.)

Is it fair to say most tech founders think they’re smarter than everyone else? I hope so. They need that shell of arrogance to weather all the doubts and threats and blows to come. (And besides, they’re often right about being smarter.) That belief is probably a necessary condition for facing startup odds.

It’s also a conviction that limits their reach, from what I’ve seen.

What I look for now are the ones who, in action and conversation, can make others feel more smart, valued, and heard, not less. Staff, family, friends, and allies first–they’ll need them, to get through the brutality of birthing something new. Then customers. Mena Trott has that quality, as far as I can tell with an outsider’s eye. That’s why her new blog/community service,, addresses with such warmth and respect people who aren’t visible to the Valley tribe.

Of the six billion people in the world, it’s amazing how many still fall into that category.

Turing’s Cathedral

I’ve been re-reading George Dyson’s wonderful essay on Google, “Turing’s Cathedral“. You should read it.

“It was Turing, in 1936, who showed von Neumann that digital computers are able to solve most — but not all — problems that can be stated in finite, unambiguous terms. They may, however, take a very long time to produce an answer (in which case you build faster computers) or it may take a very long time to ask the question (in which case you hire more programmers). Computers have been getting better and better at providing answers — but only to questions that programmers are able to ask.

We can divide the computational universe into three sectors: computable problems; non-computable problems (that can be given a finite, exact description but have no effective procedure to deliver a definite result); and, finally, questions whose answers are, in principle, computable, but that, in practice, we are unable to ask in unambiguous language that computers can understand.

We do most of our computing in the first sector, but we do most of our living (and thinking) in the third. In the real world, most of the time, finding an answer is easier than defining the question. It’s easier to draw something that looks like a cat, for instance, than to describe what, exactly, makes something look like a cat. A child scribbles indiscriminately, and eventually something appears that resembles a cat. A solution finds the problem, not the other way around. The world starts making sense, and the meaningless scribbles (and a huge number of neurons) are left behind.

This is why Google works so well. All the answers in the known universe are there, and some very ingenious algorithms are in place to map them to questions that people ask.


My visit to Google? Despite the whimsical furniture and other toys, I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral — not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built. Everyone was busy carving one stone here and another stone there, with some invisible architect getting everything to fit. The mood was playful, yet there was a palpable reverence in the air. “We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,” explained one of my hosts after my talk. “We are scanning them to be read by an AI.”

When I returned to highway 101, I found myself recollecting the words of Alan Turing, in his seminal paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence, a founding document in the quest for true AI. “In attempting to construct such machines we should not be irreverently usurping His power of creating souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children,” Turing had advised. “Rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls that He creates.”

Google is Turing’s cathedral, awaiting its soul. We hope. In the words of an unusually perceptive friend: “When I was there, just before the IPO, I thought the coziness to be almost overwhelming. Happy Golden Retrievers running in slow motion through water sprinklers on the lawn. People waving and smiling, toys everywhere. I immediately suspected that unimaginable evil was happening somewhere in the dark corners. If the devil would come to earth, what place would be better to hide?” ”

Full essay.

Few know how to ask good questions–of computers or of each other. And fewer still know how to listen, in a culture that babbles or sits slack-jawed. John Battelle has some free advice on the subject for the MacArthur Foundation.

“…we suffer – in the US, certainly, and I imagine abroad as well – from a significant lack of what I might call 21st century literacy. By this I do not mean technological literacy, though that is certainly part of it. Instead, what I find seems to be missing, and in fact, is in serious retreat at least in our public schools, is what we often call “critical thinking” – the ability to look at all the available facts and, based on reason and a sense of fairness, determine a best course of action.

Our schools are instead focused on a testing regime which requires that students focus not on solving problems or determining best courses of action, but rather regurgitating answers. But as many wiser than I have noted through the course of history, the most creative act a human can engage in is not repeating an answer, it is forming a good question.

In an age where the knowledge of mankind is increasingly at our fingertips through the services of Internet search, we must teach our children critical thinking. One can never have all the answers, but if prepared, one can always ask the right question, and from that creative act, learn to find his or her own answer.

Instead, we have leaders that believe that questions have one answer, and they already know what it is. Their mission, then, is to evangelize that answer. That, to me, is a dangerous course. Reversing it by teaching our children to learn, rather than to answer, seems to me to be a noble cause.

I then later added:

Developing a framework in our schools for “search literacy” – how to use and think about using a search engine – might be just the kind of thing you could do with a modest investment….”

Bank of America: “Corporate doesn’t listen to us.”

I’m a new customer at Bank of America. Though Citibank has bought billboards all over San Francisco to advertise their unsettling belief that money isn’t important, they have only one or two actual branches. This forces me to use other banks’ ATM machines, for which I get charged two dollars. Still, I stayed loyal until they turned me down for a small overdraft facility with a form letter that said, in block capitals, ‘YOU ARE NOT A PERMANENT LEGAL RESIDENT.’ Yes, I’d noticed. It hadn’t stopped them giving me an automatic overdraft for years, which I’d never even used.

Feeling rejected, I walked across the street from my office and opened an account at Bank of America. This branch exuded ugliness, from the low, dark building, to the ancient, grubby Windows terminals, to the tacky welcome kit. Though I missed Citibank’s shiny ATMs, pride kept me there even as the terminal crashed three times on the young Relationship Manager who was setting up my account. “Your first check will take three weeks to clear,” she said. That seemed fair enough.

Then I tried to confirm receipt of the credit card and debit card that arrived two weeks later.(They are almost identical, and butt-ugly. I’m not sure how customers with poor eyesight are supposed to manage.) On two separate calls, I had to sit through a six-minute pitch for an identity theft protection ‘service,’ which I didn’t want. There was no indication that my card had been confirmed until right at the end, so each time I was trapped with a robot huckster. “Welcome to Bank of America,” she lied.

Then I went to the branch and deposited a pair of checks. Since I was a new customer, the teller told me, they were going to place a ‘Hold’ on them for three weeks. I asked how long this policy would apply, and he consulted a more senior employee. I’d be on ‘probation’ for six months, she explained.

Probation? These people are getting automatic delivery of my paycheck.

I told the poor young clerks that these experiences were not what I’d hoped for as a new customer. They looked stricken. ‘We can’t do anything. Corporate doesn’t listen to us. Maybe if customers told them they’d do something, but we have no way to tell them. Maybe you should try to find out who to complain to.’ They had no idea who that might be. “Corporate?” they bleated.

Bank of America, are you listening? You’re toast. A Love Letter

Ten years ago, I experienced the internet only through paper. It was reverently capitalized back then, like the Electric or the Motor-Car, and for those who visit but don’t yet live there, it still is.

I was working at Hodges Figgis bookshop in Dublin while my future ex-husband finished his thesis on delivering video through noisy channels. I’d had little chance to use computers, and was hazy about his post-graduate research. When I found the first issue of _Wired_, it didn’t occur to me it might have any connection to his work. _Wired_ burbled with the promise of this World Wide Web, and I pored over it with the fizz of discovery, even though the typography was maddening. More than once I had to trace with my finger some distressed fuschia font as it wobbled from a lime-green background to the purple overleaf. I felt like a dyslexic with a treasure map.
Continue reading “ A Love Letter”