The Palo Alto System

Courtesy of the Review – subscribe and invest in media, whatever it is you read. The NYRB works for me – a review/discussion of two new books about the history of Silicon Valley. You’ll never guess the rationale behind the creation of Stanford the University. Wait – yes, sure you will:

Stanford wanted to breed stronger horses, faster. There was a clear business rationale: at the time, horses were essential for transportation, agriculture, and war. He proposed transforming horse production in the same way that the production of so many other commodities was being transformed during the second industrial revolution: with modern techniques and technologies. This modernizing mentality, as Harris demonstrates, was visible everywhere in California, which has been “a high-technology zone from the beginning of Anglo colonization.” Because there were never enough wage workers, the state relied particularly heavily on “labor-saving machinery” in agriculture, which by the 1860s had overtaken mining as its main economic driver.

The Palo Alto Stock Farm turned out to be a big success. The principal innovation was the Palo Alto System, which involved teaching horses to trot when they were young. That way, Stanford and his operatives could identify the promising ones early, train them intensively, and then use them as studs to produce more promising colts, thereby transmitting talent via superior genes. “Instead of optimizing for adult speed, they optimized for visible potential,” Harris writes.

The Palo Alto System didn’t stop with horses. It became the guiding philosophy of the university that Stanford carved out of his estate in 1885. Harris focuses in particular on David Starr Jordan, the university’s first president, whom Harris credits with bringing the Palo Alto System “out of the barn and into the classroom.” Like many self-styled modernizers of the period, Jordan loved eugenics. Under his direction, Harris argues, “the small, young university became a national center for controlled evolution.” Young white people with potential would be identified and intensively trained, in the hope of staving off racial decay.

One of the features of the Palo Alto System as it applied to horses was an obsession with quantification. As the system migrated to humans, this quantifying impulse turned toward intelligence testing. Lewis Terman, a psychologist who joined Stanford University in 1910, helped popularize the notion that intelligence could be expressed in a single number, such as an IQ score. He was especially interested in high-IQ children. “Budding geniuses needed to be identified and elevated,” Harris writes, “while young degenerates needed to be corralled where they couldn’t dilute the national race or turn their underachievement into social problems.”

And… once again, here we are. Racism continues to be our fundamental foundation, regardless of region. There is no realm in which the wealthy can’t channel their profits into their hatred. Great job, everybody.

Image: Palo Alto Stock Farm (Photos: Stanford Archives)


It being Green and all, I meant to put up something for St. Patrick’s Day (I know, so sentimental). But I didn’t and now the last Friday of the month already and so, okay, we’ll settle for an Irish writer. But of course, not just any.

From Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, the sucking stone sequence…

I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of
sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones. Yes, on
this occasion I laid in a considerable store. I distributed them
equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn
about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following
way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these
being the two pockets of my trousers an
d the two pockets of my
greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and
putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my
greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I
replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had
finished sucking it. Thus there were still four stones in each of my
four pockets, but not quite the same stones. And when the desire to
suck took hold of me again, I drew again on the right pocket of my
greatcoat, certain of not taking the same stone as the last time.
And while I sucked it I rearranged the other stones in the way I
have just described. And so on. But this solution did not satisfy me
fully. For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the
four stones circulating thus might always be the same four. In which
case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was
really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about. But
I shuffled them well in my pockets, before I began to suck, and
again, while I sucked, before transferring them, in the hope of
obtaining a more general circulation of the stones from pocket to
pocket. But this was only a makeshift that could not long content a
man like me. So I began to look for something else …

I might do better to transfer the stones four by four, instead of one
by one, that is to say, during the sucking, to take the three stones remaining
in the right pocket of my greatcoat and replace them by the four in the
right pocket of my trousers , and these by the four in the left pocket
of my trousers, and these by the four in the left pocket of my greatcoat,
and finally these by the three from the right pocket of my greatcoat,
plus the one, as soon as I had finished sucking it, which was in my mouth.
Yes, it seemed to me at first that by so doing I would arrive at a better
result. But onfurther reflection I had to change my mind and confess that
the circulation of the stones four by four came to exactly the same thing
as their circulation one by one. For if I was certain of finding each
time, in the right pocket of my greatcoat, four stones totally different
from their immediate predecessors, the possibility nevertheless remained
of my always chancing on the same stone, within each group of four, and
consequently of my sucking, not the sixteen turn and turn about as I wished,
but in fact four only, always the same, turn and turn about. So I had
to seek elswhere than in the mode of circulation. For no matter how I
caused the stones to circulate, I always ran the same risk. It was obvious
that by increasing the number of my pockets I was bound to increase my
chances of enjoying my stones in the way I planned, that is to say one
after the other until their number was exhausted. Had I had eight pockets,
for example, instead of the four I did have, then even the most diabolical
hazard could not have prevented me from sucking at least eight of my sixteen
stones, turn and turn about. The truth is I should have needed sixteen
pockets in order to be quite easy in my mind. And for a long time I could
see no other conclusion than this, that short of having sixteen pockets,
each with its stone, I could never reach the goal I had set myself, short
of an extraordinary hazard. And if at a pinch I could double the number
of my pockets, were it only by dividing each pocket in two, with the help
of a few safety-pins let us say, to quadruple them seemed to be more than
I could manage. And I did not feel inclined to take all that trouble for
a half-measure. For I was beginning to lose all sense of measure, after
all this wrestling and wrangling, and to say, All or nothing. And if I
was tempted for an instant to establish a more equitable proportion between
my stones and my pockets , by reducing the former to the number of the
latter, it was only for an instant. For it would have been an admission
of defeat. And sitting on the shore, before the sea, the sixteen stones
spread out before my eyes, I gazed at them in anger and perplexity …

There was something more than a principle I abandoned, when I
abandoned the equal distribution, it was a bodily need. But to suck
the stones in the way I have described, not haphazard, but with
method, was also I think a bodily need. Here then were two
incompatible bodily needs, at loggerheads. Such things happen. But
deep down I didn’t give a tinker’s curse about being off my
balance, dragged to the right hand and the left, backwards and
forewards. And deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked
a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end
of time. For they all tasted exactly the same. And if I had
collected sixteen, it was not in order to ballast myself in such and
such a way, or to suck them turn about, but simply to have a little
store, so as never to be without. But deep down I didn’t give a
fiddler’s curse about being without, when they were all gone they
would be all gone, I wouldn’t be any the worse off, or hardly any.
And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all
the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another,
and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or
swallowed …

One day suddenly it dawned on me, dimly, that I might perhaps achieve
my purpose without increasing the number of my pockets, or reducing the
number of my stones, but simply by sacrificing the principle of trim.
The meaning of this illumination, which suddenly began to sing within
me, like a verse of Isaiah, or of Jeremiah, I did not penetrate at once,
and notably the word trim, which I had never met with, in this sense,
long remained obscure. Finally I seemed to grasp that this word trim could
not here mean anything else, anything better, than the distribution of
the sixteen stones in four groups of four, one group in each pocket, and
that it was my refusal to consider any distribution other than this that
had vitiated my calculations until then and rendered the problem literally
insoluble. And it was on the basis of this interpretation, whether right
or wrong, that I finally reached a solution, inelegant assuredly, but
sound, sound. Now I am willing to believe, indeed I firmly believe, that
other solutions to this problem might have been found and indeed may still
be found, no less sound, but much more elegant than the one I shall now
describe, if I can …

Good. Now I can begin to suck. Watch me closely. I take a stone from
the right pocket of my greatcoat , suck it, stop sucking it, put it
in the left pocket of my greatcoat, the one empty (of stones). I take a second stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, suck it put it in the left pocket of my greatcoat. And so on until the right pocket of my greatcoat is empty (apart from its usual and casual contents) and the six stones I have just sucked, one after the other, are all in the left pocket of my greatcoat. Pausing then, and concentrating, so as not to make a balls of it, I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, in which there are no stones left, the five stones in the right pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the five stones in the left pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the six stones in the left pocket of my greatcoat. At this stage then the left pocket of my greatcoat is again empty of stones, while the right pocket of my greatcoat is again supplied, and in the right way, that is to say with other stones than those I have just sucked. These other stones I then begin to suck, one after the other, and to transfer as I go along to the left pocket of my greatcoat, being absolutely certain, as far as one can be in an affair of this kind, that I am not sucking the same stones as a moment before, but others. And when the right pocket of my greatcoat is again empty (of stones), and the five I have just sucked are all without exception in the left pocket of my greatcoat, then I proceed to the same redistribution as a moment before, or a similar redistribution, that is to say I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, now again available, the five stones in the right pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the six stones in the left pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the five stones in the left pocket of my greatcoat. And there I am ready to begin again. Do I have to go on?