People say, “Oh, that Henry is a crazy type.” But they don’t mean it in a bad way. Because MicroUnity’s Henry Massalin is not just crazy – he may be the ultimate nerd genius.
We’re sitting in a coffee shop in Sunnyvale, California. It’s late. I’ve had a few beers, and my dinner date has downed a few plum wines. I peer deep into his eyes, trying to figure out why so many people throughout the high tech universe think Henry Massalin could be the Einstein of our time.
Massalin’s hands are together, as if praying. He looks at me, eyes widening, and yells: “Qua!”
What does that mean? Is he trying to communicate with a higher life form? You feel kind of stupid when you don’t understand a genius.
At first glance, Massalin is simply one strange dude. He wears a koala T-shirt and babyGap-sized running shorts pulled up tight, like he’s giving himself a wedgie. He likes to be called Qua!, which he says is the sound koalas make. Spend any time with him and you’re bombarded with jokes that would make a ninth-grader cringe.
But the weirdest part of the Massalin experience is that he’s always hinting – like every four minutes! – about giving me a piggyback ride. It’s his “hobby.” Massalin rattles off a list of people who’ve hoisted themselves onto his back, gripped those waifish shoulders, and gone for a bouncy spin: Unix creators Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson, artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, 200-pound Perot Systems chair Mort Meyerson, Teller (of the comedy team Penn & Teller). Massalin makes another plea for a late-night, sweaty-summer ride. I’m just not ready for it. I must admit I’m slightly Henryphobic.
An hour later we’re in his Motel 6-like apartment. It’s around midnight. We’re alone, except for his straight-out-of-nerd-central-casting tools: an X station, a LEGO set, a synthesizer, an oscillator, a soldering iron, an air purifier (because of his allergies), and his so-called “Qua! Machine” – a homemade 68030-based workstation. The apartment is devoid of photographs of people.
Massalin is holding a stuffed koala named Quincy. He looks at it lovingly, then passes the fuzzy marsupial to me. “Hold my koala?” he asks, hopefully. If these are the ways of genius, who am I to resist?
I squeeze his koala and look it right in the eye. “Er … uh … hi!”
“Say hi, Quincy!”
Am I the only person who thinks this behavior is odd?
Later, after kissing Quincy goodbye, I’m feeling a little weird. It would be easy to write off Massalin as just another high tech eccentric who holds two groundbreaking patents. But geniuses nowadays are supposed to be strange, and I recall the words of people who adulate Massalin:
“He’s a bright and sensible guy who’s really not nutty,” says Stephen Wolfram, creator of the scientific software Mathematica and the youngest recipient, at the time, of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.
“Henry is the most creative person I’ve ever met,” says Ken Phillips, a phone phreak/hacker/Jungian professor of the psychology of creativity at New York University.
“If someone can harness him and direct him, then it’s boundless what he can do,” says Chris Arnone, an old college buddy and a distinguished member of the technical staff at AT&T.
Adds John Moussouris, Massalin’s boss and a former Rhodes scholar: “I wish the rest of the world was more like Henry.”
Henry Massalin is a 34-year-old research scientist at MicroUnity Systems Engineering, a mysterious Sunnyvale firm that is creating chips for smart set-top boxes. MicroUnity’s MediaProcessor will facilitate broadband processing, simultaneously handling radio, video, cellular, and network sources. It would serve thousands of people wanting to do the same thing at once, such as accessing the same movie on an interactive TV network.
MicroUnity hopes MediaProcessors will someday be ubiquitous throughout communications networks, serving as the universal processing engine both at central head-end facilities and in end-user equipment. Moussouris, the company’s CEO and chair, believes that combining all these functions in a single, programmable chip will significantly reduce the cost of systems ranging from cable modems and interactive set-top boxes to cellular base stations. Instead of requiring a jumble of special-purpose ASICs, DSPs, and microcontrollers – each with its own private memory – all functions will be performed by the MediaProcessor. The result should be a dramatic decrease in chip count, and potentially in price. MicroUnity hopes to sell MediaProcessors for less than US$100 each.
It’s an enormously tall order. Creating a brand-new microprocessor architecture and an operating system to go with it is no stroll in the park. The MediaProcessor will deliver not just a few times the performance of today’s high-end chips, but hundreds of times their performance. This is much more than a souped-up digital signal processor. And that’s where Massalin comes in. He rattles off his skills: “Heavy-duty signal processing. Working with cable modems, demodulating, decoding, filters, filter design. A lot of mathematics. A lot of optimization. Trying to come up with methods to solve these problems, many of which aren’t even yet known.”
Massalin joined MicroUnity because he was attracted to this fusion of so much technology – audio, video, microprocessors, algorithms, operating system design – into one product. And MicroUnity has a lot riding on Massalin, who by all accounts is the best in the business. Says Michael Hawley, a member of the faculty at MIT: “I’ve had the good fortune to work with extraordinary, brilliant people at places like Lucasfilm, NeXT, Bell Labs, and MIT. No one holds a candle to Henry.”
Creative gurus are always imploring people to act like a child and ask stupid questions. Massalin does this 24 hours a day. Coming from an adult, this can be either enchanting or immature and bothersome. Often both. Numerous times, he tells me to stop “starting your sentences with non sequiturs.” Are you serious? I ask. Each time, he shoots back: “No, I’m Henry.”
But Massalin also has a childlike ability to see through complex computational problems. For example, several years ago he wanted a workstation with good sound. This was when the SPARCstation II was the cutting edge; it wasn’t good enough, so Massalin built his own. “The Sun barely did telephone-quality audio mono! Why didn’t they go all the way?” he asks. “I didn’t need my own silicon fab – you could put the CD chips on the same board as the computer. Somehow it never dawned on anyone.” Still, Massalin is not the kind of guy to brag, and the genius talk can wear thin. “A lot of what I do seems to be common sense,” he says, matter-of-factly. “It feels good to be regarded highly, but why is everything so often a win/lose competition? I love talking with smart people.”
Massalin’s special skills – à la Netscape’s Marc Andreessen – had the potential to turn MicroUnity into one of 1995’s techno-out-of-control IPOs, in which everyone becomes a zillionaire overnight. All the pieces seemed to be in place. At the head of the privately held company was Moussouris, cofounder of MIPS Technologies Inc. Moussouris was able to raise more than $120 million from several prominent players including Microsoft, Tele-Communications Inc., Hewlett-Packard, and Time Warner. That May, Richard Doherty, an analyst with the Envisioneering consulting firm in Seabrook, New York, noted: “MicroUnity could change the whole ball game and give a big shock to Intel and a lot of other companies.”
Bad prediction. MicroUnity has been hobbled by slow demand in several target markets (read: the Web has muted the cable industry’s initial foray into interactive TV). The MediaProcessor was supposed to begin shipping in volume by the end of 1996, but that’s just not going to happen. In some ways, MicroUnity has suffered from the Steve Jobs Syndrome: a visionary leader (in this case, Moussouris) inspires his employees, the media, and investors into believing in a really cool product – which gets developed before the market exists.
“MicroUnity never had a good business plan,” says Linley Gwennap, editor of the newsletter Microprocessor Report. “They had some really good ideas, but the set-top box industry never happened.” Indeed, in July MicroUnity dismissed at least 100 of its 259 employees and put its semiconductor manufacturing facility up for sale.
Since the company started skidding, recruiters have called Massalin nearly every day. But jumping ship isn’t his style. Still, it’s sad to him, and Massalin tries to get off the subject of MicroUnity. So for the past 55 minutes he’s been talking about his girlfriend, Renate.
“She gives great snuggles,” he says.
Snuggles? Meaning sex?
“Not necessarily – just snuggles. More than a hug. Snuggly.”
Do you only give snuggles to women?
Massalin responds with a wry smile. “A friend of mine best described me as bi-snuggly.”
Massalin makes me drive him to Safeway to get some milk. (His salary is “around $100,000” a year, but he doesn’t own a car.) At the store, he skips – his ponytail flopping behind him – then jumps over a flowerbed and screams “Wheeeee!” as if he were a 6-year-old. On the way back to his apartment, he explains how stressful it is to pay bills. “They all come at different times … and … it’s confusing,” he says, in his nasally New Yawk accent.
Brains aside, it’s clearly not easy being Henry Massalin. “It takes me a long time to make friends,” he says. “I’ve been at MicroUnity four years, but I don’t have any close friends. If you’re in front of a terminal all day, nothing much happens. People say, ‘Oh, that Henry is a crazy type.’ But they don’t mean it in a bad way.”
Massalin seems forever to be inventing ways to soften the hard edge of the world around him. His parents were Croatian refugees who moved to a row house in Astoria, Queens, in the 1940s. His dad became a construction worker, his mother a housewife, and they raised three children – Henry was the oldest. The kids had a difficult time expressing emotions in the hyperstrict Catholic household, recalls Henry’s sister, Lucy. “We communicated through our stuffed animals,” she says. “When Henry gave me a heart pendant for my 16th birthday, his teddy bear gave it to me.”
Mom and Dad didn’t like Henry to leave the house, so interaction with other children was limited. Result: “He’s been slow growing up,” says Lucy. At school, Massalin was teased relentlessly. The only consolation his father offered for being beaten consistently by schoolmates was “It’ll all work out in heaven.” Physically, Massalin was a wimp. He weighed 80 pounds and was so weak that he couldn’t hit the hoop with a basketball. He had no girlfriends or boyfriends or, for that matter, friends. “I was scared of everything,” he says. “Scared of heights, scared of falling, scared of this, scared of that, scared of the other thing.”
He wasn’t afraid of creating things, however. Little Henry was the type of kid who made a device that set off an alarm in his room whenever his father came up the stairs. He had a telephone in his treehouse. He also had an impish side; Lucy remembers him playing practical jokes on her – with such gut-busters as filling the television screen with static. He once built a radio frequency device that took over control of boomboxes. If someone was blasting the Beastie Boys on the subway, Henry could remotely turn down the volume.
His interest in electronics paid off when he was given a scholarship to the Cooper Union School of Engineering in Manhattan. It was there that his genius began to shine. For instance: Massalin wanted to make his own bicycle to get in better shape. He found junked bikes and parts in the city and began to create a Frankenstein two-wheeler. In his lab at home, he and his brother Peter built a blast furnace – two coffee cans, one inside the other, wound with toaster wire, thus electronically and thermally insulated. “Apply 240 volts and 15 amps and it melted aluminum quite nicely,” recalls Henry Massalin. With a mill and a lathe operating under computer control, he and Peter put together the bike.
Massalin wanted his bike to be special – an “optimal bike” suited to his build. To figure out his leg power curve, he carried people up stairs. He timed how long it took and then calibrated the gear ratios to fit his particular strength – or lack thereof. He had such an “outburst of fun” giving piggyback rides that it became his hobby, which in turn fueled his self-identity. He was no longer just a smart guy, or a wimpy guy, or a weird guy. At Cooper Union, he became The Piggyback Guy. “Whenever I gave someone a ride,” he says, “there was an overwhelming feeling of Wheeeee!“
Massalin received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Cooper Union in 1984. He was 21 but looked 16. He went for his PhD at Columbia University, where he started to come out socially. One could find Massalin not just in the computer science lab, but playing hearts until 5 a.m. in the lounge, or giving and receiving piggyback rides.
It was at Columbia that Massalin created his first breakthrough product. He decided to build a kernel, the essential part of any operating system, responsible for resource allocation, low-level hardware interfaces, and security. Massalin’s kernel, called Synthesis, also created executable machine code to improve performance.
Massalin provided a critical insight. “Henry wanted to use run-time information to optimize critical operating system code,” says Calton Pu, Massalin’s adviser at Columbia. “This was a departure from the old wisdom, since compiler optimizations at that time primarily used static information. People thought that the compilation overhead was too high for run-time code generation and optimization. Henry showed that by using a variety of tricks you could do it efficiently.”
Massalin also wanted Synthesis to be accessible using a C-language interface. That meant the system needed to be able to compile C code on the fly. He couldn’t find a satisfactory C compiler. So he wrote one. From scratch. Now, a compiler is an extremely complex bit of programming. It converts source language (or programming code) to machine language (object code). When Massalin wrote the compiler, 200 lines per second was considered extremely fast. Massalin’s ran at about 10,000 lines per second. Ten thousand lines is about 150 pages – say, a Shakespeare play.
During all this research he also wrote the superoptimizer. It was built to find the shortest sequence of assembly language instructions that took you from beginning to end. Assembly language instructions are lines of code that transform memory and register it from one state to another. Each line is like a decision branch. The superoptimizer wrote a program that wrote a program, uncovering superoptimal idioms that no human mind would think up. Then Massalin discovered that he could turn it around and use the superoptimizer to discover and design better machine languages. Simple, right?
Massalin speaks of his work with a reserved pride. “A lot of research is grandiose – but a lot of the insight comes from grunt work,” he says. “After you’ve done it 50 times, you figure out a better way. But I like to do the neat implementations that circumvent the classical problems. Like in operating systems – a lot of people optimized the hell out of remote procedure calls. My tack was: can’t you avoid remote procedure calls?”
Chris Arnone, a former schoolmate now at AT&T, says he still uses programs written by Massalin when he was a grad student. “Even 10 years later he’s ahead of his time,” Arnone says.
While at Columbia, Massalin also hooked up with Mort Meyerson, or “my friend Mort,” as Massalin calls him. “He was one of the most unusual people I had met,” says Meyerson. “He had a childlike enthusiasm and yet was so technically competent he astounded me. I really liked him and thought: Here is an authentic ‘somebody’ who is willing to be himself and not some caricature.”
Columbia was a long haul for Massalin. Each day, he weathered a two-hour commute from his parents’ home in Queens to the university on the border of Harlem. He went through three different thesis advisers. Most people finish their PhD in five years; Massalin took eight.
He even finally found his first girlfriend, when he was 28 years old. Renate Valencia was an administrator at Columbia’s computer science department when she started seeing Massalin. “I like big, strong women,” says Massalin. “I adore how physically they can be so much better than me.” When Valencia first touched him, she says, “he jumped about 20 feet. He wasn’t used to affection, or, for that matter, much human contact.”
While he found human love, Massalin also began his obsession with koalas both real and stuffed. “Koalas are so warm, cuddly, and affectionate,” he says. “I own many stuffed koalas now. I rescue them from street vendors. I give them to friends. Sometimes I sleep with my koala bears. Mostly in the winter. You know, toys were considered frills in our house.”
By the time Massalin received his doctorate in computer science in 1992, the buzz around Synthesis had already made him a national reputation. Massalin was like an engineering first-round draft choice, and every A-list company and university wanted to sign him, including Digital Equipment, AT&T Bell Labs, Microsoft, Silicon Graphics, Apple, the University of Washington, MIT. Even the University of Utah. “I was not interested,” he says, eyes flickering. “I didn’t think the piggyback situation would be very good in Utah.”
Family members encouraged him to take one of the $200,000-a-year computer networking jobs that Wall Street firms were dangling in front of him. But he didn’t concern himself with money as much as how interesting and intellectually satisfying the work would be.
Massalin had met John Moussouris at a conference and liked him. Moussouris is a personable guy. He understands the nuances of the technology. He read Massalin’s thesis and was impressed; he also knew Massalin by reputation in the small community of computer science intelligentsia. The challenge of developing new stuff excited Massalin; he went out to Sunnyvale and liked the atmosphere. Moussouris further promised a “signing bonus piggyback ride.”
How could he resist?
A dream deferred
For the last four years, Massalin has been developing stuff that might never see the light of day. Original microprocessor architectures don’t come along often, and it’s easy to understand why. After seven years of hard work, the MediaProcessor is still months away from volume production, with years more before it can reach its potential. MicroUnity pulls in some money from technology licensing, but it will probably need additional equity investments to help fund the production ramp.
Despite the heady allure of interactive TV, MicroUnity is anything but a flashy Silicon Valley start-up. The company is located in an office park, next to a basketball court without any shoe skid marks; the staff has no time to play b-ball on lunch breaks. MicroUnity doesn’t let outsiders into its office building, which has no sign indicating its presence.
Fact is, the act of creating machinery that will make interactive TV happen is far less glamorous than the final product. Massalin’s days bear a certain grinding similarity to each other. “I tend to come in at around 11:30 or 12:30. I start answering questions. Check email. I’ll keep working until 9 or 10 at night. I come home, log in, and work. Lots of work. Lots of work.”
After countless 15-plus-hour days slaving over a computer, Massalin says he has no regrets. “I have no idea what will happen,” he says. “I’m just really hoping the architecture can make it one way or the other.”
So does Mathematica creator Wolfram. He compares Massalin’s work to Adobe’s creation of the graphics language PostScript. “Before PostScript, there were just a bunch of hacks for graphics,” Wolfram says. “Henry’s doing the signal processing equivalent. There are a lot of people who could build a career around Henry’s ideas. But in terms of success, the significance of the idea doesn’t always matter. Maybe Henry’s at the right place at the wrong time.”
Outside Ebisu Restaurant,
San Francisco, 9:38 p.m.
We’re on Irving, a busy San Francisco street full of coffeehouses, bars, and restaurants. It’s a foggy night. I can remember it well. You never forget the first time.
Friends had warned me. “Isn’t that kinky? Are you sure you want to do that? Are you really going to do that?”
After a sushi dinner with Massalin, his sister, and her husband, we’re walking, and I’m thinking about something Massalin told me: “My mom thinks I’m strange. The piggybacks got on my father’s nerves. Do something useful. Another power supply? Why don’t you become a doctor or a lawyer? We didn’t get along. You’re not a kid anymore! Yeah, but can’t I still have some fun?” The scrawny genius seems so alone.
I get up my nerve and jump on. “Relax,” he says, soothingly. “Relax your legs and hold on tight.” He twirls me around and laughs. People passing by look at us as if we are strange. I don’t disagree. We walk about a block. I’m praying that no one sees me, especially my wife. Massalin weighs 120 pounds but barely breathes hard. He’s experienced.
Then he gets on my back. He forces his legs against me tightly. He’s light. I spin him around because he told me he liked it when his sister danced while he was on her back. I don’t think I’m really very good at it. First-time jitters, I guess. I walk a block and feel odd and tired. I don’t care if anyone sees us.
Most people have pretty bourgeois desires. But Massalin? “It’s not Will they be thinking of me 20 years from now?” – he pauses, smiles – “but Will there still be a piggyback 20 years from now?” He laughs. “People move on. They buy houses. They have kids. I’m not sure if I’m delayed, or if I’m mentally stuck and moving from adventure to adventure. Skipping and hopping as I go.”
Massalin digs in his heels, and I begin to walk a little faster. The fog has moved in. We turn down a quiet side street. The buildings in the distance disappear in the gray mist. On this damp and chilly night, the city has begun to slow down. All except Massalin. “Let’s go,” he says. “Wheeeee!”
The Mighty Piggybacker
Marvin Minsky Lofty pioneer in artificial intelligence. “Great view! I could almost touch the bottoms of the traffic lights!”
__Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie __Creators of Unix. “I looked up to them as an undergrad at Cooper Union. Who would have imagined I’d actually get to meet them, let alone offer piggybacks! And afterward I got to fly with Ken in his plane!”
Zvi Galil Dean, School of Engineering, Columbia University. “Very fit. Jogs umpteen miles a day. Carries well.”
__Penn & Teller __Comedians. “I carried Teller. But Penn (the big one) could not be persuaded that his weight was not an issue.”
Calton Pu Massalin’s PhD adviser. “Excellent piggybacks. Carried me 30 city blocks once! That’s my longest piggyback ever from a single person.”
__Neil Reynolds __Fellow grad student at Columbia. “At 6′ 6″, 350-plus pounds, the heaviest person I’ve carried. His rides are spectacular. He hardly notices it when I jump on.”
__Renate Valencia __Massalin’s girlfriend. “Much more than piggyback rides: also in-her-arms carries, over-her-shoulder carries, assorted spins and tosses. She can grab me by my armpits and twirl me round in the air!”
__Mort Meyerson __CEO, Perot Systems. “Not only accepted my offer, but did so with much enthusiasm. Restored my faith in humanity.”
Richard Stallman Founder of the Free Software Foundation. “Impolite shrug; I did not even finish offering the piggyback when it became clear that further conversation would not have been appreciated.”
__Douglas Adams __Author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “Unceremoniously ignored an offer of a piggyback, as if I was crazy or something :-)”
__Nicholas Negroponte __Director of the MIT Media Lab. “Very politely declined several offers.”
Adapted from Massalin’s homepage henry](http://www.cs.columbia.edu/[www.cs.columbia.edu/henry](http://www.cs.columbia.edu/henry/).