LowEndBox - Cheap VPS, Hosting and Dedicated Server Deals

I Was the Third Person to Inquire About the Ted Kaczynski's PhD Dissertation, Plus Why the Author of the vi Editor Quoted His Writings and the Horrific Psychological Experiments That Created the Unabomber

The Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski) died today, at the age of 81.

He’d been in prison since 1996 for a multi-decade terrorist campaign in the United States.  Beginning in 1978 and continuing for 17 years, Kaczynski mailed sixteen package bombs to scientists, businessmen, and professors around the United States, killing three and injuring 23 others.

Although the FBI began tracking him early on and noticed that most of his bombs contained references to wood, as well as often using wood in their construction, his motives were a mystery until he contacted authorities in 1995.  He made a famous bargain: if his manifesto was published in a prominent newspaper, he would cease his activities.

There was tremendous controversy about taking this step, since it meant negotiating with a terrorist and giving in to his demands.  However, the FBI felt it was the best way to finally catch him, and so in 1995 the Washington Post published Industrial Society and Its Future, a 35,000-word screed against the dangers of technology and how it had destroyed humanity.  It urged people to reject modern life and return to a primitive way of living.

Kaczynski’s brother immediately recognized the writing style and contacted authorities.  Kacyznski was soon arrested in his cabin in a remote Montana forest and later sentence to prison.

University of MichiganHis Earlier, Less Popular Work

In 1996 I was a staff member at my alma mater, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI.  When news of Kacynzki’s arrest broke, it rocketed around campus on email because of his connections to the University.  One of his bombs had seriously injured psychology professor James McConnell, as well as a graduate associate when the latter opened a package at the professor’s home in 1985.

The initial reporting mentioned his name but the full details of his life took some time to emerge.  That day at lunch in the IT department where I worked, someone said they’d heard he was a former UM student.  It was simply a matter of making an inquiry on our homegrown mainframe operating system to pull up his records, and discover he had earned his Master’s and PhD in Mathematics at U-M.

It was only a few minutes before the inevitable question emerged: if he got a PhD, then he had a dissertation.  On what?

Today you’d google it.  In 1996, it took a call to a friend of a friend who worked at the Graduate Library.

And she revealed that according to library records, we were only the third inquiry about his dissertation since it had been published in 1967.  According to records, one was not long after publication – likely someone in the field reading others’ work.

The only other?

A pair of FBI agents who’d shown up shortly before his arrest.  They made a copy and left with a polite thank-you.

Kaczynski’s dissertation – “On a Boundary Property of Continuous Functions” – is a dense work not intended for mere mortals.  That’s not surprising.  Imagine picking up a random dissertation on physics or biology.  Unless you’ve had years of graduate training in the field, you’re unlikely to even understand the vocabulary, much less the ideas.

A UM math professor was interviewed not long after and asked if anything in it could be used to make bombs.  He laughed.  “It’s the purest of pure mathematics,” he said.  One of Kaczynski’s advisors later said “Probably only 10 to 12 men in the country could understand or appreciate it.”

Part of the reason there’s been so little interest in the dissertation is that this field soon closed after Kaczynski’s work was done.  I certainly can’t begin to understand it, but the article linked above states that the relevant theories were proven out in the era when Kaczynski worked on them.

Harvard UniversityTed was the Victim of a Horrific, Unethical Psychology Experiment

Before attending Michigan as a grad student, Kaczynski had done his undergrad work at Harvard.  In his second year, he participated in “a series of psychologically damaging and purposefully abusive experiments on minors and undergraduate students” conducted by Henry Murray.

Murray – who had been part of the World War II team that performed a psychological analysis of Adolph Hitler – designed the experiments to be “vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive”.  Student guinea pigs were asked to write extensive and deeply personal essays about their lives.  These essays were then turned over to individuals who had been trained to humiliate and demean their subjects.

Not only did these tormentors repeatedly mock the students, but they also played back recordings of test subjects’ earlier reactions and mocked those reactions as well.  There were no bounds on what verbal techniques the attackers could use. they could bully, harass, ridicule, and taunt the subjects.  Anything was on the table and they weren’t just slinging random insults: they had plenty of ammunition from the personal essays.  Henry Murray prepared lines of attack for each session, and was able to continuously tune these psychic assaults to make them ever more effective.

And this abuse continued in weekly sessions for three years!

Kaczynski was subjected to 200 hours of this treatment.  And unlike many of his fellow guinea pigs, Kaczynski was significantly younger than other students.  He was also a victim of past bullying.  He’d skipped 6th and 11th grade due to his intellectual brilliance and felt ostracized from he peers.  He later commented on how emotionally unprepared he was to be packed off to Harvard at an adolescent age.  He’d been admitted to Harvard at the age of 16 and underwent these experiments when he was only 17 years old.

Today it’s well known that teenagers who are the victims of bullying are prone to depression, suicide, and asocial behaviors.  The lives of school shooters are filled with abuse and rejection.

That kind of bullying is done by immature peers.  Imagine instead it’s done by trained professionals, and the victim starts by exhaustively documenting personal thoughts and fears to arm a team of psychologists, whose leader is able to review the abuse on a weekly basis to make it more efficient.

It’s almost a perfect environment to breed a bitter terrorist.

Kaczynski later insisted that these experiments had no effect on him.  But that is documented to be untrue.  He later had intense episodes of depression.  Within a few years, he was grappling with intense gender dysphoria and once sought out psychiatric counseling, only to storm out of the doctor’s office before beginning any treatment.  It’s obvious he had a lot going on, so heaping intense criticism and abusive attacks on his young mind could not be anything other than incredibly damaging, no matter how much he tried to shrug if off.  And of course, his terror campaign and manifesto were centered around a bitter opposition to science.

Why You Have to Wait in Line at the Post Office

Kaczynski was diabolically clever, lacing his bombs with tiny nonsense clues that burned up police time.  He’d include little bits of paper “accidentally” stuck to the package, odd items, and other curiosities.  He also fastidiously avoided fingerprints and other identifying information.  The FBI never pulled anything off a bomb that lead them in his direction.

Part of the problem was that in his day, you could simply put a package of any size in a mailbox.  I myself did this often.  Why wait in line at the post office?  You could measure the package, weigh it at home, affix sufficient postage, and drop it in any blue box.  It was massively easier than standing in line at the post office just so you could hand your package across the counter to a clerk.

Due to Ted’s reign of terror, the US Postal Service changed their rules.  Today if you want to mail a package weighing more than a pound, you have to take it to the post office.  While you’re there, you’ll be caught on lobby cameras.  If a couple days later a bomb blows up, you can bet the FBI will start reviewing film from that post office.  It’s hardly a fingerprint but at least it’s something to go on.

So next time you’re waiting in line with a couple dozen of your fellow citizens so a surly clerk can point at you and say “NEXT!”, thank Ted Kaczynski.

Was Kaczynski Also a Poisoner?

In 1982, seven individuals in the Chicago area died as a result of consuming cyanide-laced Tylenol.  They’d purchased bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol in normal retail channels and died upon taking the medication.  This was in an era before tamper-resistant and tamper-evident packaging were mandated and police theorized that someone had purchased bottles, introduced the poison, and then replaced them on store shelves, especially since they had different lot numbers and had originated from different factories.

Extra Strength TylenolJohnson and Johnson, the manufacturer, swiftly recalled all bottles of Tylenol nation-wide at enormous cost (estimated at $300 million in 2023 dollars) and launched a massive consumer warning campaign.  This was later held up as a textbook case of how to effectively respond to a crisis (we referred to it in a provider advice article in 2020).

No one was ever caught, but word leaked in 2011 that the Kaczynski could be a suspect.  The FBI questioned him in prison, and he refused to discuss the matter and attempt to leverage the discussion into some of his demands.  The FBI applied for a court order for DNA testing but even this would not be conclusive.  DNA and evidence preservation in 1982 was in its pre-infancy and there may not be sufficient material for a completely definitive match.

At first glance, it’s a radically different modus operandi then his later bombings.  Part of Kaczynski’s “success” was the lengths he went to in order to remain hidden – testing bombs in remote areas, working in completely solitude, and mailing his packages in ways that were impossible to trace.  In these murders, he would have had to visit at least six different stores in the Chicago area and risk being seen placing packages on shelves.

However, he was raised in Chicago, and the first Unabomber attacks (1978-1980) took place in Chicago.  He occasionally stayed with his parents in Chicago at this time, and an attack on J&J’s pharmaceutical products would be in line with his other views.  We will probably never know without new evidence.

The Author of vi was a Fan of Ted’s Writings

If you were asked what kind of person is most likely to agree with Ted Kaczynski writings, who would you picture in your mind?  Not necessarily someone who agrees with his violent methods, but someone who’d be sympathetic to the views expressed in Industrial Society and its Future?

You’d probably think of an anarcho-primitivist, or a Luddite.  Someone who also rejects technology and might live off-grid themselves.

You probably wouldn’t think of the author of the vi editor and one of the first implementers of TCP/IP in the Unix operating system.

In his 2000 essay, Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us, Unix legend Bill Joy argues that the 20th century’s main threats to human existence were nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare (NBC).  In the 21st century, the threats we face are GNR: genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (including AI).  These technologies are fundamentally different and NBC threats because each has the potential to escape humanity’s control.

In the essay, Joy relates an experience he had while reading futurist Ted Kurzweil’s book, The Age of Spiritual Machines.  The book quotes a long passage from an essay in which the author argues that in the future, either machines will advance to a point where they control humans, or humans will become so adapted to machines that humanity will no longer be recognizable.  Combined with genetic engineering, we will reach a state where humans are adapted to meet the needs of the social system, rather than vice-versa.

Joy writes:

In the book, you don’t discover until you turn the page that the author of this passage is Theodore Kaczynski—the Unabomber.

He is clearly a Luddite, but simply saying this does not dismiss his argument; as difficult as it is for me to acknowledge, I saw some merit in the reasoning in this single passage.

Bill Joy is no Luddite, much less a terrorist, but his essay points out that while we can deplore Kaczynski’s methods, his critique of modern life and our technological society is not completely unfounded.

How Will History Treat Kaczynski?

The tragedy of Kaczynski is twofold.  First, he had no ethical boundaries and ultimately, his grudge led him to murder innocent people.  To wit: even if he could justify murdering scientists, what excuse could there be for placing a bomb on an airliner?  Was everyone on the the plane a geneticist?  Of course not.

Second, it’s easy to criticize the world.  Indeed, it’s impossible not to.  There’s not a human on the planet who thinks the world is as it should be.  All of us deplore human nature and wish things were different.

But the criticism is the easy part.  It’s finding solutions that takes work.  Industrial Society and Its Future provides a lot of anger but no recipes for change.  Murdering everyone who doesn’t think like you leads to an empty planet, and it’s sad that Kaczynski the mathematical genius never graphed out his own function, or applied his genius to solving problems instead of just complaining about them.



1 Comment

  1. Susan:

    Holy shit, I did not know this about Ted. I do not condone what he did but now I wonder…

    Lifelong teacher married to a US military lifer. See people daily that has their head scrambled. All I can say is everyone needs a hug:)

    I love my Country and always will.

    June 10, 2023 @ 9:58 pm | Reply

Leave a Reply

Some notes on commenting on LowEndBox:

  • Do not use LowEndBox for support issues. Go to your hosting provider and issue a ticket there. Coming here saying "my VPS is down, what do I do?!" will only have your comments removed.
  • Akismet is used for spam detection. Some comments may be held temporarily for manual approval.
  • Use <pre>...</pre> to quote the output from your terminal/console, or consider using a pastebin service.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *