Max Orhai

the man, the mystique, the resumé, the bio.

Max Pro

For those who may be interested in putting me to work, a CV document in PDF format is available upon email request. That document outlines my marketable skills, employment history, academic achievements, and references. It also includes my home address and phone number. If my email address is not obvious enough, see the bottom of my home page.

Max Lite

But if you’d like a slightly less abbreviated and more colorful introduction, with fewer directly identifying details, read on. This bio sketch is intended to give you some insight into the circumstances which have influenced my public persona, hopefully without being too tediously self-absorbed. It’s about what you (an especially friendly and sympathetic stranger) might get if you were stuck in an elevator with me for 20 minutes. Consider yourself warned.

. . .

I was born near the beginning of 1980, to youthful, loving, rather poor but utterly well-intentioned parents who I’m sure had precious little clue about what they were getting themselves into.

I grew up in a college town way out west, in a neighborhood of such low density that residents could pretend that they lived in the country. Which my folks did, styling themselves “homesteaders” going “back to the land.” You can get away with this sort of thing in the American West if the nearby city is small enough, surrounded by vast enough stretches of wilderness, you can’t see the neighbors in the next little valley, and building inspectors never show up uninvited — which is to say, at all.

Dad was a dreamer by temperament, a “human ecologist” by training, and a carpenter by trade. Mom took care of the home, garden, chickens, goats, and kids (they had three more after me). I liked the woods themselves well enough, but was on balance thoroughly unimpressed with the rural life. Lacking friends my own age to play with or TV to watch, I turned to LEGO and books. I cut my teeth on the Tao Te Ching and Buckminster Fuller to Children of Earth. An early and insatiable reader, I quickly exhausted the children’s and then the young-adult section of the public library, ruining my eyesight while developing a precocious vocabulary and an expansive but tenuous knowledge of all things pop science and science fiction. My early world was shaped by the likes of Douglas Hofstadter, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Scientific American, OMNI magazine, as well as Mother Earth News, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Tom Brown Jr, and the American Boy’s Handy Book. Encouraged by my folks, I took quickly to the Apple II and then the Macintosh.

Largely innocent of expensive commercial software to run on my secondhand machine, I learned to program by typing in BASIC listings in 3-2-1 Contact magazine back issues borrowed from the library. When the Mac Plus came along I discovered HyperCard, which rocked my world. Thanks to a 14.4 kilobaud modem, AOL junk mail diskettes, and the egalitarian architecture of HyperCard, I was able to download any number of “stacks” authored by strangers, read their scripts, and modify them to my heart’s content. It was so much fun!

Homeschooling my way through those elementary years, I was much too socially isolated to think of myself as a “nerd.” I didn’t even know I was lonely. I got to watch TV, swim in chlorinated pools, and read national news magazines during summer visits with my far-away grandparents. Despite the gravel road, I discovered my love for the bicycle, which eventually brought freedom of movement when I could ride it to town.

Eventually, my parents saw fit to send me to public middle school. Nobody noticed that I spent study hall periods playing Conway’s Game of Life with a pencil and graph paper. Still, I immediately learned that I was a nerd by default, as I was too serious and knew too many words. But I was not resigned to my fate, and quickly grew tired of lunchtime role-playing games in my tiny nerd clique at the very bottom of the pecking order. Propelled forward by hormones, but without many social options, I learned to shut up in class, sneer, skateboard around town, smoke pot, and listen to obnoxiously dissonant music. This brought me the respect of a slightly larger clique, and even the attention of some girls. But my parents were not impressed, and soon transferred me to a small private academy that was too new to know whether they were an “alternative” school or a “prep” school. This was an improvement, but I didn’t last long there either. Having discovered Grace Llewellyn’s Teenage Liberation Handbook in the pages of the Whole Earth Review, I petitioned my parents to let me stay home again and “take charge of my own education,” on the grounds that their academy tuition would be better spent on a laptop.

Thus I traded any hope for a normal teenage social life for some genuine autonomy, avoiding both the perils and opportunities of high school. Instead I read constantly, and worked part time as an apprentice to a house painter: a self-educated man with some, let’s say, unorthodox views of history and politics. I spent a lot of time dialed into bulletin board systems. When I discovered that I could use my physics tutor’s account on the college computer system to telnet into the WELL, thereby avoiding long-distance phone bills, I had my first taste of the Internet. Not long afterward, the first commercial dial-up ISPs came to my town, and then NCSA Mosaic brought me the World Wide Web in all its grainy graphical glory. I DJ’d a weekly show at the college radio station, which brought access to a much larger pool of music than anyone I'd ever met listened to. The Fantagraphics catalog revealed that comic books weren’t all about silly spandex power fantasies, broadening my ideas of both literature and literacy. I subscribed to Mondo 2000 magazine. I was fascinated by disturbing new technologies like wearable computing (as seen on the websites of Steve Mann and Thad Starner). It was very clear to me, and even to my parents, that I belonged elsewhere.

I obtained very high marks on the SAT verbal exam, and did pretty good on the math exam too, but college held little appeal. I wanted to see the world, on my own terms. Inspired by Steve Roberts’ adventurous book Computing Across America, and with the bewildered support of my loving parents, an unlicensed copy of an entry-level CAD program for the Mac, technical tips from the IHPVA email list, and the engineering hubris of the irrecoverably naïve, I set about designing and building two recumbent bicycles.

In the late summer of 1997, my brother and I rode these homebuilt contraptions about 800 miles to Grace Llewellyn’s 2nd annual Not Back To School Camp. Suddenly I had genuine peers, of whom the first I met was a very strong young woman who was riding her own (“conventional”) bike all the way from the East Coast by herself, and who accompanied us for part of the trip. After Camp, I had a social life by mail. My parents’ “graduation present” was a semester in the Rocky Mountain wilderness with the National Outdoor Leadership School. My grandparents sponsored another five months in Jerusalem, where I lived alone in a tiny apartment, worked through math textbooks, flirted uneasily with hard religion, and spent a lot of time on the NBTSC email list.

I went to Camp for the second and last time in the fall of 1998, afterwards doing another bike tour, solo this time, down the West Coast from the Olympic Peninsula to the Bay Area. Still not clear what I was to do with myself, I moved into a cottage with an online Camp friend (the geeky one who ran the listserv and IRC channel, in fact) in his Northwestern hometown. He was ready to move out of his parents homestead, but unlike me he had a steady job with the local ISP. I made do with house painting, tech support, and delivering sandwiches by bike, while reading through the sociology, evolutionary biology, and cognitive science sections of the local library. Our rent was low, and our worldly needs were few. We had occasional visits from wandering unschoolers.

Over the next few years, I remained just barely employed enough to survive while attending to my informal education. I spent half a year bumming around the Hawaiian island beaches with an equally diffident and disaffected girlfriend, where I eventually bumbled into a stint as an extra in a laughably mediocre Hollywood movie, which replenished my savings just in time to learn that I was going to be a father. This brought some urgency and focus, if not exactly direction, to my life. Although at that point I knew my way around a linux command line, I lost interest in computers for a while. The high-tech world seemed just too technocratic and inhumane.

I ended up in Eugene, Oregon, where my daughter was born in a shack near the railroad tracks. Her mother and I soon moved into a bigger house with several other early-twenty-something unschool alumni. I dumpster dived for fresh veggies and earned our share of rent in a market research call center dungeon. I read through the awesome stacks of the Eugene Public Library with special attention to the economics, philosophy, and horticulture sections. When I couldn’t stand it anymore I tried to bring my little nuclear family into an “intentional community” in Hawaii, but was far too cynical at that point to thrive in a communitarian environment. I was top-heavy: excessively intellectual, irritable, and overall just thoroughly miserable.

While recovering from an incapacitating 24-hour migraine, right before I left Hawaii to pick rocks for one of my dad’s impractically labor-intensive construction projects, I found a copy of Eckhart Tolle languishing on the community bookshelf next to the big Bill Mollison permaculture bible. I don’t think I even read past the first chapter, but something snapped. It was like a neural circuit breaker had tripped. The world was so beautiful, so meaningful, so vast, so effortlessly serene and expansive! Even the light looked lighter. All the death and pain and monstrosities of existence were somehow transmuted, transfigured. I knew that my whole life, and especially my tiny mind, was too insubstantial to take too seriously, that change was inevitable, and that the quest for absolutes was a hopeless waste of time.

The glow gradually faded over the next few months, but it kept me alive though a particularly dark time as I moved to Portland, gradually failing to find any but the most marginal employment, housing, or friendships. I took up a regular practice of structured self-observation which, while less intense than my sudden stroke of satori, continues to provide much more reliable relief from the pains of existence. My little nuclear family fell apart: my partner and child returned to Eugene, but I wasn’t going to join them. I still didn’t know what I wanted from life, but I had at least some idea of what I didn’t want, and Eugene gave me bad vibes. I sought temporary shelter with my parents, then wandered around for a while, and found a new companion (another unschooler, my equal in existential desperation among other fine qualities). Together we wandered further. As a seasonal contract worker in a Dell factory/warehouse in Austin, Texas, I learned how to relax and enjoy tedious, anonymous, inhumane industrial labor. In my spare time, I read the classic Krazy Kat pages, and all the way through Stephen Wolfram’s lengthy, embarrassingly egotistical, but surprisingly accessible magnum opus.

I eventually returned to Portland, finding stable employment in the building maintenance crew of a retirement community. I scrounged up a linux box from FreeGeek, and began to contemplate engagement with the bureaucracy of formal education. Seeking the lost joy of HyperCard, I discovered Smalltalk. When I saw Jeff Han’s TED talk video, and caught wind of Alan Kay’s five-year plan to reboot personal computing, I figured something interesting was going to happen, and I wanted to be part of it. An employee perk allowed me to attend an object-oriented programming class at Portland State University. Anonymous benefactors among the resident retirees awarded me a substantial scholarship, enabling me to take the plunge into full-time schooling. My grandma chipped in as well. Confident in my basic literacy and seeking a challenge, I walked into the Honors college. They apparently liked my work, because after my freshman year they awarded me a “Laurel scholarship” amounting to a four-year ticket, all expenses paid. My partner and I decided to celebrate by getting married in a rose garden.

Used to choosing my own intellectual adventures, I was determined to make the most of this opportunity. The Honors curriculum gave me a newfound and deep appreciation for intellectual history and tightly reasoned arguments, but I never entertained temptations of becoming a professional historian or philosopher. Still, after completing my calculus prerequisites, the bulk of the computer science curriculum (rooted in C++) seemed distressingly ad-hoc and ahistorical, full of dubious trivia I could easily learn on my own. I started to question whether I was getting my benefactors’ money’s worth.

Encouraged by a tenured rogue who was determined to teach his intro data structures class as a compressed introduction to Haskell, I pushed forward into the CS curriculum, finding that I enjoyed the intro theory course, which seemed somewhat less cluttered with sticky makeshift solutions to obsolete problems. Meanwhile, the more advanced math electives gradually revealed a humane tradition of great beauty and power, though perhaps a bit awkwardly aloof (if not to say alienated) from its fellow sciences. This was the tree on which computer science was a fresh twig! Claims of “purity” weren’t going to impress a newly converted historical thinker like myself, but it sure seemed like there was a surplus of brilliant mathematical work that somehow wasn’t (yet?) “applied.” I figured it would be better to be sucked into the swirling Charybdis of the so-called real numbers than to bash my brains out on the jagged silicate Scylla of the IEEE floating-point spec. All the really good stuff in computing was apparently reserved for graduate students anyway, or stalked the wilderness outside the ivory halls. I’d find it in due time. One undergraduate degree was enough for me, and it would be mathematics.

Alas, the PSU mathematicians implicitly trafficked in formalisms, but those with whom I could chat seemed to have no appreciation for, or even much awareness of, the fundamental results of Gödel, Turing, Church, Kleene, and company: the very stuff I found most fascinating. They seemed kind of obliquely afraid of mathematical logic, and dismissed computing as strictly an engineering discipline. Some clung to their musty Bourbaki bibles. Nobody in the department wanted to talk about Martin-Löf type theory with me or even compare axiom schema of set theories; what they called “constructivism” was treated as a heresy, which fed my suspicions that their culture of “pure” mathematics might be not only dogmatic, but irresponsibly escapist. Oh, anathema! Oh, despair! Casting about for reasoned explanations and stubbornly unwilling to swallow any unarticulated Platonic mysticism, I discovered the work of Reuben Hersh and of Lakoff & Nuñez, from which I could fashion a humane little ideological life-raft that kept me afloat long enough to see the shore of graduation.

And here I am.

(January 2014)