About ten years ago I got a call out of the blue from Soren. I’d always published my phone number on my website, and it’s only been used a handful of times. Hardly anyone wants to actually call another person.
Soren had come upon a post of mine about Oberon, an educational object-oriented operating system and programming language. I had used it briefly in school and had a fondness for some of its more novel ideas – but it was obscure and he was excited to find another person in Chicago who was interested in it. He bent my ear about what he was working on. It wasn’t really my thing but he seemed excited and starved for some feedback so I chatted for a while.
I suggested we meet at a local Linux Users Group, which was really just a couple regulars talking shit at a local diner. He showed up late, having come on the bus, and hauling his desktop computer, monitor, and keyboard. He was abrupt with the waitress as he tried to find an outlet he could use and we all relocated to another part of the diner. There was lots of eye rolling from the other guys, like what a weirdo, which was a reasonable assessment but an unfair reaction, as we were all weird and awkward. I was rooting for him, but no one really got what he was trying to show.
It was an exceptionally cold night and I gave him a ride home. I drove a junker without heat, but even that is more dignified than taking the bus. He invited me into his house as there was more he wanted to tell me about what he was doing. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t domestic life – two little blond shirtless children, a hippy aesthetic of mason jars and clutter and strange-smelling foods. His wife seemed exasperated to have an unexpected visitor, but I sensed Soren was a couple years underwater in terms of marital exasperation. We sat on the floor of the bedroom and Soren described what he was working on in greater detail.
I’m not particularly interested in graphics, but I thought what he was doing was interesting. He’d written a kind of real-time object-oriented raytracer. As a ray entered an object the object itself took over control of the next phase of raytracing. It might hold sub-objects, or it might have a it’s own algorithm to determine what the ray would hit, or its own sense of detail. He told me about how he’d corresponded with people in the industry, who thought what he was doing was new and interesting, but nothing really came of it. I suspected they were nodding and agreeing in the same dismissive way that I myself nodded in agreement.
I didn’t see Soren again for some time. A couple years later we got together for coffee, though he would only drink unsweetened cocoa. He told me he was on a zero-carb diet, forcing his brain to fuel itself through ketones instead of glucose. It kept him calm and let him focus, a fairly extreme response to what he implicitly acknowledged was a serious issue for him.
Soren clearly saw himself as a misunderstood genius. Misunderstood by his peers. Deliberately using obscure technologies which he felt both gave him an edge, and which made his work inaccessible. Holding on to a grand idea which he imagined could be tremendously important, if only someone could see the potential in what he was doing.
After a while the topic of politics came up. “Oh, you wouldn’t like my politics” he told me. I thought maybe he was some sort of over-the-top libertarian, or had odd religious views, maybe an anarchist, maybe it was weird or he was just shy. So I encouraged him to go ahead, whatever it is would probably be interesting.
And then, pretty quick, there we were: if everyone has persecuted the Jews forever, then it’s probably them, not us, don’t you think? And who are your people? You should put them ahead of everyone else, shouldn’t you? Your family of course, but after family then race: an obligation to your ancestry. And don’t we deserve to have a homeland of our own? Everyone else has a homeland, and all we’re asking for is the same thing. Where does civilization come from? Who is its protector?
Some of his ideas were strictly tribal. Many were based on a survival-of-the-fittest notion, which felt like an intellectual veneer on tribalism. Some ideas were apocalyptic… he didn’t want a race war, but he was pretty sure it was coming.
I guess I didn’t take these things to seriously at the time. His beliefs were offensive, to be sure, but in a kind of sad and pathetic way. I debated him at the time – not on the details of his belief, but on the axioms that underlie those beliefs. What’s the motivation for splitting people up this particular way? Is the world really so zero-sum? Aren’t our lives larger than race? He had his answers… and he had a lot of answers, he was clearly excited to talk about these things.
Before we left I sensed a kind of desperate regret in Soren. He wished he hadn’t brought this up. First it made him talk faster and more wide-ranging, like we could somehow reach consensus on some other topic and put aside his explicit racism. And then… well, you can’t unsay things. We said goodbye, not see you later.
As we were leaving I told him about my nephew, who was black, and who I loved very dearly, and who was my family. I hadn’t mentioned him before, it felt too personal, and perhaps safer or more comfortable to talk abstractly instead of personally; I would not be as reluctant now. Then we both just took a deep breath and walked our different directions. We did not speak again.