Age Ten: Sorry About Blowing Up Your Car with You in It


69. Mayan Civilization

The Mayans (also known as the Maya) were a group of Mesoamerican people who formed an advanced civilization that flourished from about 250 AD to 900 AD. Living mainly in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, the Mayans made remarkable achievements in architecture, mathematics, and astronomy. Yet near the end of the ninth century, their civilization collapsed in a matter of a few decades, for reasons that archaeologists do not yet understand.

The Mayans were descended from the hunter-gatherer tribes that migrated into the Americas from Siberia over a land bridge that once spanned the Bering Strait. Somewhere between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago, these first people reached Central America, and by 1500 BC had developed agriculture and settled down as farmers. They cultivated four main staple crops: corn (maize), squash, beans, and chili peppers. Their technology was very primitive, though, and they did not form large-scale communities.

Then, around 1200 BC, a more advanced culture called the Olmecs appeared in south-eastern Mexico. The Olmecs were notable for producing rubber and using it to create large round balls that they used in a ballgame with ceremonial religious significance. Archaeologists now believe that the Olmecs also developed the first writing system in the Americas, around 900 BC. In addition, they created a sophisticated calendar system, had a good knowledge of mathematics, and appear to have come up with the concept of zero. Starting around 400 BC, the Olmec civilization rapidly declined, and scholars speculate that climate changes may have caused crop failures and starvation.

Mayan step pyramid at Chichén Itzá

Mayan step pyramid at Chichén Itzá

Yet although the Olmecs faded away, they passed on much of their culture and technology to the peoples around them. In the fourth century AD, the Mayan civilization emerged on the Yucatan peninsula. The Maya people built large and prosperous cities, filled with temples and giant stone monuments. These cities formed a loose network of trading relationships, but were never politically united into a single empire. Each major city was ruled by a king, who served as chief priest of the Mayan religion. This was a belief system that blended shamanistic practices with ritual offerings to a complex web of deities. Human sacrifice was common, and prisoners captured in war were among the preferred victims, although the most common victims were children who were thrown into large natural water filled sinkhole caves called cenotes. It was thought up until recently that these were virgin girls as the remains were found with jade jewelry, but recent research has suggested that they were actually boys.

The most visible legacy of Mayan culture is their architecture. Working only with stone tools, they built huge palaces, pyramids, and platforms for rituals. Many of these are still standing. Unlike the most famous Egyptian pyramids, Mayan pyramids did not have smooth sides. Instead, they were step pyramids—stacked layers of stone platforms, getting smaller with height. Instead of coming to a point, Mayan pyramids frequently had temples at their tops. One of the classic examples of these is the La Danta pyramid, which rises 230 feet high and is one of the world’s largest pyramids by volume.

Even more important than their architectural ability, the Mayans developed an advanced writing system using hieroglyphs. With this system, they could set their thoughts down in reproducible form, making it much easier to share knowledge. Although thousands of stone inscriptions survive from the Mayans, they placed much of their ordinary writing on paper made from tree bark. Because of the humid conditions in that region, almost all of those writings have been lost.

The Mayans also built on Olmec advances in mathematics, including one of the earliest uses of a symbol to explicitly represent the idea of zero. They combined their mathematical knowledge with careful astronomical observations to develop a highly accurate calendar system. The Mayans tracked the movements of stars and planets, and could forecast them far into the future. For example, one inscription successfully predicted to within one day the occurrence of a solar eclipse that happened in 1991.

One version of the Mayan calendar, called the Long Count Calendar, came to pop-culture prominence in the late twentieth century. Archaeologists noted that the inscriptions of the Long Count stopped abruptly on the day that corresponds to December 21, 2012 in our own Gregorian calendar. Some writers suggested that the Mayans prophesied the world would end on that date. Popular conspiracy theories alleged many different methods of apocalypse, from catastrophic floods to a shifting of the earth’s magnetic poles. In reality, the inscription merely reflected the end of the 13th b’ak’tun (144,000-day cycle) in the Long Count. Happily, December 21, 2012 came and went without incident.

Around the year 900 AD, the Mayan civilization began a collapse even more rapid than the decline of the Olmecs. Within the space of a few decades, their kings stopped building great monuments, and their towering cities were largely abandoned. Although small communities remained for several more centuries, the great art and science of the Mayans was concentrated in this roughly 600-year Classical period. Archaeologists disagree about what might have caused the Mayan collapse, with explanations ranging from drought and famine to disease.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, at Danielle’s school, the Stern School, Danielle’s friends Annie and Sam think about the collapse of Mayan civilization for one of their class projects. The Stern School’s motto is “learn by doing,” and while Annie collects 20,000 books to send to schools for native children in Mexico, Sam realizes that they are descended from the Mayans. He forms a thesis that the collapse was caused by a viral infection and finds evidence for this by studying bones in a Mexican museum. He writes a paper about this idea in The American Journal of Archaeology, which generates a record number of letters to the editor.


70. Libya

Libya is a country in North Africa bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north. It has a small population of about six million people, but at 700,000 square miles is the fourth largest land mass in Africa. It ranks number 10 in oil reserves. Its two major cities are the capital Tripoli with a population of one million, and Benghazi.

Libya was part of the Roman Empire and became an early center of Christianity. In the seventh century, it became an Arab colony with the introduction of Islam. In recent centuries, control of the country changed several times until it became an independent nation in 1951 under the control of King Idris. The king was overthrown by a military coup in 1969 by Muammar Qaddafi and a group of conspirators.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Claire organizes a peace conference between the Qaddafi regime and democracy advocates which ends in chairs and desks being thrown out of windows. Ten-year-old Danielle protects Claire and the rebels from her outpost in the Libyan desert using software viruses she has written.

See the entry on Muammar Qaddafi.


71. Muammar Qaddafi

Muammar Qaddafi

Muammar Qaddafi at the 12th Arab Union Summit in Addis Ababa on February 2, 2009

Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Qaddafi (1942–2011), often referred to as Colonel Qaddafi, was the revolutionary leader of Libya from 1969 to 2011. After participating in a coup d’état against King Idris in 1969, he emerged as the primary leader. Ruling largely by decree, he instituted Sharia Law (a strict form of Islamic law that covers a broad set of issues in public and private life). He developed his own idiosyncratic cult of personality, declaring himself the “Brotherly Leader” of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (state of the masses) in 1977. He nationalized the oil industry and used oil revenue to expand the military, implement social programs, and sponsor revolutionary militants around the world. He banned the consumption of alcohol, shut down night clubs and Christian churches, and introduced flogging as a punishment for adultery or homosexual acts. Qaddafi was quoted during this time as saying “I have created a Utopia here in Libya. Not an imaginary one that people write about in books, but a concrete Utopia.”

Qaddafi was accused of brutal suppression of his political enemies, including publicly hanging opponents who spoke out against him and for engaging in terrorist acts. On December 21, 1977, Pan Am Flight 103 from Frankfurt to Detroit was destroyed by a terrorist bomb in what became known as the Lockerbie bombing, killing 243 passengers, 16 crew, and 11 people on the ground.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States, Qaddafi took a series of initiatives to attempt to improve his international respectability and condemned the September 11 attacks. In 2003 Qaddafi accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie bombing and agreed to pay reparations to the families. On December 19, 2003, Qaddafi announced that Libya would destroy its programs to create nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The destruction of its nuclear program was subsequently confirmed. The destruction of its chemical weapons stockpiles took until 2014. In the early 2000 years, he also reversed a number of his earlier socialist ideologies and took some steps to encourage the private sector and to seek improved relations with Western nations.

Following the Arab Spring (a wave of demonstrations, protests, and civil wars in the Arab world that began with a revolution in Tunisia in December of 2010 and spread throughout Arab countries), an uprising against Qaddafi broke out led by an organization called the National Transitional Council (NTC). The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supported the NTC with air strikes resulting in the downfall of Qaddafi and his government. Qaddafi retreated to the Libyan city of Sirte where he was captured by the NTC and killed by rebel soldiers.

Following the downfall of Qaddafi’s government, and as of 2015, two rival governments claim to be the legitimate government of Libya. The Council of Deputies is recognized by foreign governments, but it does not control any part of Libya’s capital city of Tripoli, meeting instead in the city of Tobruk. Another political organization, the New General National Congress, which does control at least part of Tripoli, also claims to be the legitimate government. The United Nations is attempting to hold peace talks between these two factions. Other militias including al-Qaeda (a terrorist organization responsible for the September 11, 2001 attack on the United States) are also operating freely.

Qaddafi’s legacy remains controversial. Supporters point out that life for most Libyans improved after the 1969 revolution that brought Qaddafi to power. Homelessness was reduced while healthcare and education improved. Detractors point out that he created a police state with pervasive violations of civil liberties and human rights and that he engaged in terrorist activities.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, there is a significantly different outcome for Qaddafi and for Libya than that described above as a result of Danielle and Claire’s involvement in the country.


72. Signal interceptor

A signal interceptor is a surreptitious device that can capture signals (such as emails, text messages, phone calls, or electronic communication between electronic devices). It can be used just to listen in and gather data or it can be used to actually insert signals to take control of a device. This type of device can be used for spying or to disrupt military equipment in a conflict.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle sends teams to place signal interceptors as part of her Libyan plan.

See the entry for Local area network.


73. Local area network

A local area network (LAN) is a communications network that connects computers in a limited physical area such as a home, office, or school. With the growing number of computers in the 1960s, there was increasing demand and interest in LANs.

Ethernet was invented at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center between 1973 and 1974 by a team headed by American electrical engineer Robert Metcalfe (born in 1946). The invention is described in a US Patent (number 4,063,220) and in an influential paper, “Ethernet: Distributed Packet Switching for Local Computer Networks.” The key idea behind Ethernet is that the data being transmitted is broken into pieces called “frames.” Each frame contains error checking information so that if information becomes damaged, this situation can be detected and fixed by retransmitting the data. In this way, high accuracy can be maintained. Ethernet quickly became the standard LAN for wired networks.

Wireless LANs emerged in 1997 with the introduction of Wi-Fi.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle realizes that much of the Libyan government communication that she seeks to intercept is not on the Internet and thus not amenable to standard hacking methods, so she needs to place signal interceptors to intercept their LANs.

See the entry for Signal interceptor.


74. Microsoft Kinect motion sensor

Microsoft Kinect motion sensor

Two people using the Microsoft Kinect motion sensor to play Kinect Sport Volleyball through hand and arm gestures

Microsoft Kinect is a series of input devices for Microsoft’s (Xbox 360 and Xbox One) video game consoles and for personal computers running their Windows operating system. It allows users to provide input through physical gestures, such as moving your arm. For example, you can play a virtual game of tennis by seeing yourself (as an avatar) on screen with a virtual tennis racket. As you swing your arm, you see your avatar swinging the racket.

Kinect was released in 2012. It was intended to compete with Nintendo’s Wii controller which used a wand that the users hold in their hand. Wii was conceived of in 2001 and introduced to the market in 2006 pioneering the idea of user gestures as part of computer game play.

Kinect uses a digital camera, a depth sensor, and multiple microphones. Along with specialized software, Kinect is able to track movement of the user’s body using the camera and depth sensor. It is also capable of recognizing faces so that it can distinguish between different players. It is able to distinguish users from other objects such as furniture. Later versions also feature voice recognition.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle uses Kinect motion controllers to control her command station in the Libyan desert, which also includes an array of iPads.


75. Memory leak

It is common for a computer program to obtain blocks of memory to use for temporary storage by making calls to the operating system. When the program is finished using that block of memory, it is supposed to make another call to the operating system “returning” (relinquishing or releasing) that block of memory. Very often there are multiple programs running at the same time on a computer and the operating system keeps track of the available blocks of memory for all of the programs that may make such requests.

If there is a bug in one of the programs, it may make repeated calls to obtain blocks of memory but fail to return them to the operating system. This is called a memory leak and will ultimately cause the program to stop functioning. Depending on how the operating system handles this situation, it may cause the computer to “crash” (which refers to a disorderly ceasing of functioning). Even a slow memory leak will ultimately cause a program to malfunction.

In my own experience as a programmer, memory leaks can be very difficult bugs to find because you don’t know what part of the program is causing the problem.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle encounters a memory leak in her own program that threatens her plans, but Claire is able to help her deal with the problem.


76. Computer worm

A computer worm is a form of malware (a computer program that is intended to cause harm to other computers). It spreads to other computers by replicating itself and using computer networks (such as the Internet) that connect one computer to another. In this regard it is similar to a computer virus, except that a virus generally attaches itself to an existing program or object (such as an email), whereas a computer worm can spread independently.

Some worms are designed just to spread without explicitly causing damage although these “payload free” worms can still be a burden by using up network bandwidth (communications traffic). A simple form of destructive payload is a program that simply deletes user files. A more insidious attack encrypts user files so the user is unable to use them until they pay a ransom to obtain the key to decrypt their own files. Another sinister form of worm creates a virtual computer (a process that acts like a computer) on each computer it infects. The worm author can then direct an entire army of these virtual computers (called zombies) to cause further destruction, ranging from simply sending junk email to conducting “denial of service” attacks (in which a vast number of messages are directed toward a legitimate site to render it inoperative).

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle uses computer worms as part of her Libyan plan.


77. Firewall

A firewall is a computer system (a computer with software or just software) that examines all of the information flowing in and out of a communication network. It only allows information to pass that complies with a set of security rules. Thus it acts as a barrier preventing information from passing that may present a danger, for example computer malware such as viruses and worms.

One example would be a local area network (LAN) (see entry for Local Area Network) connected to the Internet. The Internet is not regarded as secure so a firewall installed on the LAN would prevent any suspicious email, documents, programs, or other malicious data from entering the LAN from the Internet. A firewall may also be installed as a software program to protect a specific computer.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Dad installs a firewall to keep Danielle and Claire safe, but it creates problems for Danielle.


78. Rabbi Schneerson

Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902–1994), called by many of his followers simply as the Rebbe, is widely considered to be one of the most important Jewish leaders of the twentieth century. Born and educated in Russia, he became the religious leader (Rebbe) of the Chabad Lubavitch movement in 1951.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Under Schneerson’s religious and organizational leadership, Chabad went from a small, relatively unknown and inward-looking group to one of the most influential Jewish religious organizations in the world. He built it to include more than 3,000 centers for education and social support including schools, facilities for the elderly and disabled, synagogues, drug rehabilitation centers, teenage social centers, and many other facilities.

His intellectual contributions are equally extensive. His writings span more than 300 books, tens of thousands of letters, and an extensive collection of recorded lectures and sermons.

His influence extended beyond the Jewish community. He was instrumental in establishing the US Department of Education. In recognition of that accomplishment, the US Congress designated his birthday as National Education Day. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for “outstanding and lasting contributions toward improvement in world education, morality and acts of charity” in 1994 (after his death).

Schneerson was an active supporter of girls and women in religious activities. Prior to Schneerson, high-level study of the Torah was limited to boys and men, but Schneerson insisted that study of the Torah and his teachings be open to and engaged in by both genders.

A controversial aspect of his legacy was his passionate proclamation of the impending “coming of the Messiah,” although this is a central tenet of the Hasidic branch of Judaism. The coming of the Messiah, according to Jewish Orthodox views, will gather the Jews back in Israel, and usher in an era of peace and freedom. The Talmud (see the entry for the Talmud) has extensive discussion of the coming of the Messiah and describes it as a time of supreme goodness for Jews and all of humanity. Orthodox Judaism expects that Jews accept the following principle articulated in the Torah (the central holy book of Judaism), “I believe with full faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he tarries, with all that, I await his arrival with every day.”

Hasidic Jews believe that with their good actions, they can hasten the arrival of the Messiah. It is also a tradition in Orthodox Judaism that every generation provides one person who is worthy of being the Messiah. Many of Schneerson’s followers believed him to be that person, although he objected to such talk. Since his death, many members of his Chabad sect still maintain the belief that he is the Messiah, although the group that currently runs Chabad (called Agudas Chasidei Chabad) has criticized what it calls such “Messianic” language as applied to Schneerson, saying that Schneerson had himself rejected the idea.

Another controversy concerned Schneerson’s impact on Israeli politics. For many years, the balance of power in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) was in the hands of small parties giving them an outsized influence. Although Rabbi Schneerson stayed in Brooklyn, many observers believe that he (and his followers in Israel) had a decisive impact on Israeli elections, as just one example depriving Labor Party leader Shimon Peres from achieving a majority in the Knesset in 1990.

A mentee of Rabbi Schneerson is Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, called by Time magazine a “once-in-a-millennium scholar.” I had a public discussion with Rabbi Steinsaltz over dinner at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City in front of a distinguished audience where we discussed both Rabbi Schneerson and Danielle.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Rabbi Schneerson becomes the ten-year-old Danielle’s mentor both philosophically and politically. They discuss the Talmud and he becomes deeply impressed with her insights and wisdom, although he corrects her on one point. She has a role for him also.

See entries for Lubavitch movement, Hasidic movement, Moshiach, and Golden calf.


79. Lubavitch movement

The Lubavitch movement, also known as Chabad, is a Hasidic movement (see entry for Hasidic movement).

It was founded in 1755 by Rabbi Schneur Zalman. “Chabad” means “wisdom, understanding, and knowledge” in Hebrew. The name “Lubavitch” comes from the Yiddish name of the village in Belarus where it was founded and where its rabbis lived for a century. It was founded to provide an intellectual and mystical approach to Jewish life.

With World War II nearly wiping out its leadership and followers, the movement moved to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York in 1940, where it continues to be centered today.

In 1951, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson became the seventh (and last) Rebbe of the movement. He continued its intellectual and mystical traditions but added an organizational and political dimension. Under his leadership, the Lubavitch movement became the most influential and extensive Orthodox Jewish movement and organization in the world.

See the entry for Rabbi Schneerson.


80. Hasidic movement

Hasidic Judaism is a branch of Orthodox Judaism that combines a lifestyle influenced by life in sixteenth century Jewish villages in Eastern Europe, and a philosophy centered on Jewish mysticism. The movement was founded in the eighteenth century by the Eastern European Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. The philosophy combines ideas of the inherent holiness of all members of the community, the value of prayer and deeds of kindness, and an emphasis on study of the Torah and related holy texts.

The Holocaust was devastating to the Hasidic movement with the total destruction of all houses of worship, centers of study, and other facilities and an estimated half million Hasidic Jews killed. Survivors moved to Israel and the United States and started communities based on what they had left behind in Europe.

Although there are distinct differences in beliefs, practices, and dress among the varied Hasidic groups, many aspects of the style of clothing are shared. The garments are essentially recreations of a style of dress of Eastern European Jews from the sixteenth century. Features of the men’s clothing include black hats including fur headdresses, and heavy black suits even in hot weather. Men do not shave the sides of their face and wear long sidelocks called payot, or at least maintain beards.

Hasidic Jews in Jerusalem

Hasidic Jews in Jerusalem

The women follow guidelines to dress modestly including long skirts, sleeves that cover the entire arm, and stockings, often opaque. I recall that when my wife and I walked through a Hasidic community in Israel, my wife was asked to cover her arms. Married women cover their hair with some combination of a wig, scarf, and hat, which is also intended as an act of modesty. In some groups, the women shave their heads which makes their heads easier to cover.

Most Hasidim (members of a Hasidic sect) speak Yiddish among themselves, but will also speak the language of their country, which in Israel is Hebrew.

A source of political and social tension in Israel concerns certain social and financial benefits afforded the Hasidic Jews combined with their growing population. Hasidim do not practice birth control, and large families with 10 or more children is typical. Secular critics complain that Hasidim avoid conventional work preferring instead to study the Torah. Because of the political clout of the growing Hasidic population, the government provides stipends to approximately half of Hasidic Jews who do not work outside of their Torah study. Despite the stipends, which are modest, about 60 percent of Hasidic Jews live below the poverty line. The number of stipends is large enough, however, that the cost is a substantial burden to the Israeli government budget. Many Hasidim also receive exemptions from the otherwise pervasive Israeli military draft.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, the most influential sect of Hasidic Jews is the Lubavitch movement. Danielle develops a unique relationship with its last leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who is arguably the most influential Hasidic Rabbi of the twentieth century.

See the entries for Rabbi Schneerson and Lubavitch movement.


81. Moshiach

The Moshiach or Messiah (literally “anointed one”) in Jewish tradition is a person expected to come only once (except only God knows when) who will achieve certain preordained accomplishments including reunification of all Jews in Israel, the rebuilding of the Temple (that is, the building of a third Jewish Temple) in Jerusalem, and the ushering in of an era of peace and goodness, sometimes referred to as a Messianic Age.

The concept of a Messiah, sometimes referred to as messianism, originated with the Jewish religion. The Jewish concept is, however, different from the Christian one in that the Jewish Messiah is a human leader whereas the Christian messiah is Jesus, the son of God.

Jesus Christ literally means Jesus the Messiah. The early Christians believed Jesus was the Messiah prophesied in the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament).

Some Jews believe Jesus was a messiah, but most do not and are instead still waiting for the one-time future coming of the Messiah. Christians are waiting for the second coming of Jesus the Messiah. There is, nonetheless, a distinct parallel in that both Jews and Christians are waiting for a future visit from the Messiah.

Here is how the Chabad Lubavitch movement describes the coming of the Messiah (Moshiach): “The Messianic Redemption will be ushered in by a person, a human leader, a descendant of Kings David and Solomon, who will reinstate the Davidic royal dynasty. According to tradition, Moshiach will be wiser than Solomon, and a prophet around the level of Moses. Ever since the destruction of the Holy Temple, in every generation there is an individual, a scion of the House of David, who has the potential to be the Moshiach. If at any moment the Jews are worthy of redemption, this person would be directed from Above to assume the role of the redeemer.”

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Rabbi Schneerson corrects Danielle’s understanding of the concept of Moshiach.

See entries for Rabbi Schneerson, Lubavitch movement, and Hasidic movement.


82. Golden calf

Around the year 1446 BC, Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt after a struggle with the Pharaoh of Egypt, as told in the Old Testament of the Bible, including the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Although archeologists are unable to confirm the historical accuracy of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, it continues as the founding story of ancient Israel.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf - Poussin

The Adoration of the Golden Calf, a 1633 painting by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), which hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, DC

Moses led the Jewish people through the desert for forty years, leading to the creation of the ancient nation of Israel. During this pilgrimage, and as told in Exodus 24:12–18, Moses ascended the Biblical Mount Sinai to receive tablets from God containing the Ten Commandments and was separated from the people he led for forty days and forty nights. This mountain has been identified as Mount Horeb in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. The Israelites were concerned that Moses was not coming back and pressured Moses’ older brother Aaron to create gods to guide them. According to Exodus 32:1, Aaron collected golden earrings from the Israelites, melted them and created a golden calf for the people to pray to.

Worship of idols, what the Old Testament refers to as the “worship of false idols,” was common in the world before the establishment of monotheism (worship of one God) as described in the Jewish Bible. Specifically, worship of calves and bulls was common in ancient Egypt.

According to Exodus 32:6, God told Moses that the Israeli people were engaged in worshiping a golden calf in defiance of God’s instructions, as well as other forms of “pagan sin” including public sexual acts. Moses successfully pleaded with God to forgive the people. He came down from the mountain and upon seeing this activity became angry and threw down the tablets he had received from God, breaking them. He burned the golden calf, ground the gold to a powder, and threw the gold dust into the water.

Exodus goes on, “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Cut two tablets of stone like the first ones, and I will write on these tablets the words that were on the first tablets which you broke.’ … So he cut two tablets of stone like the first ones. Then Moses rose early in the morning and went up Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him; and he took in his hand the two tablets of stone.” These replacement tablets containing the Ten Commandments were placed in a gold-plated wooden chest called the Ark of the Covenant for safe keeping.

The golden calf has become a symbol of worship in the pre-monotheism (one God) era.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, ten-year-old Danielle shares her own perspective on the golden calf with Rabbi Schneerson.


83. Fruit of knowledge

As told in Genesis, the first book of the Bible (Genesis 3:6). Adam and Eve ate from the fruit of knowledge in defiance of God’s admonition not to do so (Genesis 2:16–17). In retribution, God banished them from the Garden of Eden.

The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man

The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man painted in 1617 by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625). Rubens painted the figures and landscape; Brueghel painted the animals. The painting hangs in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in the Hague, the Netherlands

This brief story is rich with metaphoric interpretations. One metaphor is simply any indulgence for which we have to pay for later such as a stomach ache after a big meal, or a prison sentence after a crime.

In my view, the story addresses the primary difference between humans and animals. We are uniquely blessed (or cursed) with knowledge of the consequence of our actions, and thereby have moral responsibilities towards others. Thus morality follows from knowledge.

Although other animals gain some knowledge from their own experiences and perhaps from the other animals in the clan with whom they live, modern humans are unique in having an (exponentially) increasing knowledge base which now spans the entire species. The enabling factor for this capability was primarily our large foreheads that evolved two million years ago when we became humanoids.

According to my own thesis (as articulated in my 2012 book, How to Create a Mind) our neocortex (the outer layer of the brain where we do our thinking) is comprised of about 300 million modules, each of which can learn a pattern of information, remember that pattern, recognize that pattern each time it is encountered, and implement that pattern (for example, in physical actions or plans of action).

These pattern modules are organized in an elaborate hierarchy and we create that hierarchy with our own thinking. Humanoids have a large forehead housing the frontal cortex. However, according to my thesis, the algorithms of the frontal cortex are not significantly different from the rest of the neocortex. The frontal cortex that we gained two million years ago is essentially an additional quantity of neocortex.

What we did with this additional neocortical capacity was to add higher levels of the hierarchy. Each level is more abstract than the levels below it. Adding these additional hierarchical levels was the primary enabling factor for humans to invent language, art, science, and technology (and chronicles of ideas!). No other species does any of these things.

The frontal cortex enabled the creation of our species wide knowledge base. This provided us with extensive knowledge about the implications of our actions as well as learning about the consequences of actions of others. We were able, therefore, to devise extensive systems of morality and legal systems based on our notions of morality.

From this evolutionary perspective, our extended neocortex enabled knowledge which in turn gave us the obligation of morality. This is exactly what happens in the Biblical story of the forbidden fruit, hence its metaphorical meaning.

Incidentally, we are going to add to the size and scope of our neocortex once again when we connect our neocortex wirelessly to the Cloud (that is, to all of the computation we can access wirelessly). In my view, this is a 2030s scenario. This is analogous to what we do today by connecting our smartphones wirelessly to the Cloud which enables them to carry out feats they could not otherwise do. Nanobots would travel into the brain through the capillaries to wirelessly connect the neocortex to realistic simulations of neocortical function operating on computers in the Cloud. This will effectively expand the scope of our neocortex. I am currently leading a team at Google to create these sorts of neocortical simulations and applying them to the understanding of natural language.

When we extend our neocortex in this way, we will again add higher levels to the hierarchy. The result will be more profound music, art, science, and technology, and deeper forms of morality.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, ten-year-old Danielle and Rabbi Schneerson discuss the implications of Adam and Eve having eaten the fruit of knowledge.

Danielle refers to the fruit as an apple which is the common belief, but scholars appear to agree that the original reference was probably not to an apple. Other fruits that have been proposed by rabbis and scholars include the grape, fig, citron, pomegranate, pear, and others.


84. Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is a 16.3 acre set of buildings in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Manhattan that has become New York City’s leading venue for music, dance, theater, and other performing arts.

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 2007. The Metropolitan Opera House is on the left and David Geffen Hall is on the right

It was originally conceived as part of the “Lincoln Square Renewal Project,” which was part of a grand program of urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s by Robert Moses (1888–1991), one of the world’s most famous urban planners. The primary buildings in Lincoln Center were opened in the early and mid-1960s. The Center today has 30 indoor and outdoor performance sites.

Prior to the creation of Lincoln Center, the premiere venue for music and dance performance was Carnegie Hall on Seventh Avenue between 56th and 57th Street in Manhattan. I recall as a child going to concerts there of the Bell Symphony Orchestra (the symphony orchestra of the Bell Telephone System) conducted by my father, Fredric Kurzweil.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle performs a jazz concert at Lincoln Center characterized by a novel use of the mathematical concept of prime numbers. She relies on the wisdom of crowds to figure out very quickly what she is doing.

See entries for Wisdom of crowds and Prime numbers.


85. Wisdom of crowds

Wisdom of crowds refers to the idea that decisions by a crowd can be more accurate and wiser than those made by even the smartest and most insightful members of the group.

For example, James Surowiecki cites in his book The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations that the average estimate of the weight of an ox made by a crowd at a country fair was more accurate than the vast majority of individual estimates and more accurate than any made by cattle experts.

Prediction markets, in which individuals place bets on an estimate or the outcome of a future event, can be even more accurate than simply averaging individual estimates. In 2012, a prediction market called Intrade accurately predicted the election results in 49 out of the 50 states. In 2008, it came within one electoral vote of the actual outcome.

Compared to polls, prediction markets are often more accurate but can also be much more volatile (that is predictions gyrating quickly, even within hours) compared to polls which move much more slowly (in part because polls are not taken very often).

Companies have used prediction markets to harness their own employees’ ability to predict actual costs and completion dates of projects rather than relying on estimates by managers who may be influenced by biases and pressures to produce estimates that will please their superiors.

Prediction markets can be good at harnessing all of the information in a group but will fail if the information is simply unavailable.

However, not all crowds are smart. The quintessential example of an unwise crowd is a mob engaged in a violent attack, such as a lynch mob. In this case, the individuals are overly influenced (as well as intimidated) by others in the group and by commonly held biases. Similar forces can also be found in markets in which investors pursue a bubble or, conversely, engage in panic selling.

Surowiecki cites several prerequisites for the wisdom of crowds to work, including the existence of a diversity of opinion and specialized knowledge, the willingness of individuals in the group to maintain independent opinions, and the right mechanisms (such as a well-regulated market) for harnessing diverse opinions. Disagreement among individuals is a good indicator of a wise crowd, whereas too much communication (for example, the strident group communication in a violent mob) can be detrimental.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, the online fans of ten-year-old Danielle attempt to use their wisdom to predict what mathematical technique she is using in her jazz concert at Lincoln Center.

See entry for Prime numbers.

How You Can Be a Danielle and harness the wisdom of crowds.


86. Prime numbers

A prime number is a natural number (positive integer) greater than 1 that has no positive divisors (positive integers that divide into it with no remainder) other than 1 and itself.

The prime numbers under 20 are 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, and 19.

Numbers that are not prime are called composite numbers because they can be composed as products of primes. Thus prime numbers are often referred to as the atoms of the natural numbers. A great deal of number theory concerns prime numbers and their properties.

One key question is how many prime numbers are there? The Greek mathematician Euclid (mid-fourth century BC to mid-third century BC), known as the father of geometry, came up with an elegant proof that there are an infinite number of them.

Here is one version of Euclid’s proof. Consider any list of prime numbers:

P1, P2, P3,….Pn

We can show that there exists another prime number not included in this list.

Take the product of these primes and add 1 to it:

Z = P1 * P2 * P3 ,….* Pn + 1

We know that Z is larger than any of the prime numbers we started with. There are two possibilities. Either Z is prime or it is not.

If Z is prime, then Z is a prime number other than the prime numbers we started with.

If Z is not prime then Z must be divisible by a prime number (because all composite numbers are divisible by a prime number). Yet we know that Z is not divisible by P1 through Pn because if we divide by any of these numbers there would be a remainder of 1. Thus there must be another prime other than these primes.

Thus whether Z is prime or not, we have shown that another prime number exists outside of this list.

If P1 through Pn constitute all of the primes up through Pn, then we have shown that there is a larger prime than Pn. Thus no matter how extensive a list of prime numbers we construct, we have shown that yet another (and larger) prime number exists. Thus there is no limit to the number of prime numbers.

Another famous conjecture concerns twin primes. In the prime numbers between 5 and 20, we see 3 pairs of primes that are only 2 apart: 5 and 7, 11 and 13, and 17 and 19. Pairs that are 2 apart are called twin primes. How many twin primes are there?

Virtually all mathematicians believe that, like prime numbers themselves, there are an infinite number of twin primes. However, this assertion is in the odd category of a universally believed conjecture that has not been proven.

American mathematician Richard Arenstorf (1929–2014) published a purported proof of the twin prime conjecture in 2004 to much acclaim but it was withdrawn when an error was discovered, so the conjecture remains unproven.

A much weaker result was proven in 2013 by Chinese born American mathematician Yitang Zhang (born in 1955) that there are an infinite number of pairs of primes that differ by no more than 70 million (as opposed to 2 in the twin prime conjecture).

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, the ten-year-old Danielle gives a jazz concert at Lincoln Center in which prime numbers play a unique role.


87. Life Bits

Life Bits refers to recording all of one’s life and organizing the information so that it can be retrieved in an efficient manner.

The concept goes back to the memex, an imagined system that American engineer and inventor Vannevar Bush (1890–1945) described in an article in 1945 in The Atlantic Monthly, titled “As We May Think.” During World War II, Bush headed the US Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) which directed all military technology development for the war including the initiation of the Manhattan Project (the development of the atomic bomb).

Bush’s conception of the memex was a hypothetical machine that would organize all of the information pertaining to one’s life as well as of the world. It contained all of its information on microfilm. It included the concept of hyperlinks so that a position on one page could link to any other page. He envisioned that a user would store everything they ever read or wrote, records of all kinds, and all of their communications. He described it as an “enlarged intimate supplement to one’s memory.” The memex was “mechanized so that it could be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.”

Vannevar Bush’s concept of the memex

Vannevar Bush’s concept of the memex in 1945

Although the idea of storing all of this information on reels of microfilm was not practical, and the memex was never built, the idea of linking positions on one page to positions on other pages became the inspiration for the hypertext organization of pages on the World Wide Web. Although based on 1940s technology, Bush’s memex was the earliest description of the goals and hypertext architecture of the World Wide Web.

In addition to its role as a precursor to the World Wide Web, Bush’s memex concept was also the inspiration for projects to store every detail about one’s own life. This idea was picked up by American engineer Gordon Bell (born in 1934) in 1995 when he joined Microsoft Research. The goal of Bell’s “MyLifeBits” project is to log every moment of Bell’s life: everything he has read and written, and all the images and sounds he has seen. All of this information (photos, videos, emails, text messages, recordings of phone calls, and in-person interactions) is automatically recorded and filed. He describes the technology and his experience with it in his book Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything. To record images of his interactions, he carries a digital camera around his neck. A more recent technology that can take pictures and videos from the perspective of your eyes is Google Glass, a Google experimental technology which incorporates cameras in a device that looks like a pair of glasses.

One controversy associated with this idea is people’s expectation of privacy when they meet privately with someone. Many people object to their image and spoken words being recorded. The possibility that users of Google Glass might be doing this became a significant issue for the product. There are also legal implications that all of this information could be subpoenaed in a lawsuit or criminal investigation.

Society is nonetheless moving towards this type of system in that it is typical that all of one’s emails are stored indefinitely and people are increasingly recording the images, sounds, and videos of their lives.

My father had the instinct to save all of the information about his life and kept all his letters (including all the letters to and from my mother), music courses, music compositions, notes for orchestras, photos, music recordings (on vinyl records), (8 mm) movies, and other artifacts. I still have this collection in a couple dozen boxes. I carried on this tradition and have hundreds of boxes of my own, but most of my records in the past decade have been electronic.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, ten-year-old Danielle and eighteen-year-old Claire adopt a Life Bits system with video recording from their contact lenses. They struggle with the privacy and security issues this raises, but Danielle puts a priority on permanently storing all the interactions in her life. She starts out by recording three-dimensional video from her contact lenses. Later on she adds other tiny video cameras away from her body so her own image can be recorded as well. Twelve years later, Danielle finds a unique use for all of this information.

How You Can Be a Danielle and record your life.



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