Les Earnest is my new favorite person

I just finished What the Dormouse said, which is a great history of the 60s and computing.  Especially if you are interested in how LSD influenced modern computing.  I learned a great deal about LSD and LSD parties from this book; a history of the sixties is incomplete otherwise (or so I’m told).

I recommend this book to the power set of {people who like LSD, people who like computer history, people who like the 60s, people who like counterculture}

Significant attention is given to Doug Engelbart and comparisons to others in the Bay area, like Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL) led by John McCarthy).  This is where Les Earnest worked.

Previously he had worked for a defense contractor and various government agencies.  Les was an “individual with a deeply rooted hacker sensibility [and] was never a perfect fit with a military-intelligence bureaucracy.”  When filing for his security clearance, he listed his race as “mongrel” and to the chagrin of all bureaucrats, he refused to change it.

As a child, he was accused of being a Japanese spy by the FBI for working on a toy-secret code with a friend.  In an Alice’s Restaurant like coincidence, that incident later came to haunt him when he filed his clearance paperwork.

When he handed in the application, the security officer look at the sheet and asked him to explain his answer [he answered yes to: Have you ever been investigated by the FBI]. As he attempted to recount the cryptography episode, the officer became increasingly upset. Finally he tore up the sheet and instructed Earnest never to mention the incident again.

From Les’ My life as a Cog, he has this wonderful quip about his subtle nonconformity:

As an EE student I initially emulated my classmates by carrying a 12 inch slide rule in a leather scabbard hung from my belt.  However, even though most homework and examination problems were set up to be solved with such a device, I preferred digital computation and often worked things out using pencil-and-paper arithmetic.  To speed things up I eventually acquired an abacus at a local Chinese market and slung it from my belt in place of the slide rule, as a show of independence.  This was regarded by my classmates as aberrant behavior and some claimed that they were distracted during exams by my clicking beads.  I figured that they were just jealous.

Les Earnest, I look forward to reading more about you!