— rat king 🐀 (@MikeIsaac) June 1, 2023
A good time is always tasteless, as Jean Redpath once said during a Prairie Home Companion Show, back in the 80s. I don’t think this is a hoax — the statues are listed on Roadside America, and there are previous news reports about the controversy — but I’m not at all sure about Newton Howard. Anyone so precisely situated between a John Le Carre spy novel and The Thursday Murder Club seems too good for coarse Mundanity… Gift link, so y’all can be sure I’m not hallucinating:
The thing about putting a pair of 10-foot metal Transformers statues outside your townhouse in the most picturesque district of the nation’s capital is that the neighbors are going to have opinions.
And on Prospect Street in Georgetown, they were not pleased.
The statues — Bumblebee and Optimus Prime, two of the good guys from the long-running “Transformers” movie franchise — appeared in January 2021 outside the white-brick home of Newton Howard, a cognitive scientist and machine-learning expert with ties to the intelligence community.
He had ordered them from a factory in Taiwan to the tune of more than $25,000 each. Where large brick planters had once blended in with the local aesthetic, there was now something akin to outsider art by way of an anonymous welder and Hollywood’s reinterpretation of 1980s toys.
Plenty of people love the statues, which resemble invaders from the future, in a neighborhood that does its best to hang on to its cobblestone past. Students at nearby Georgetown University can’t get enough. Neither can tourists: The Transformers statues have their own entry on Google Maps as a place of interest, with 4.9 stars. “The best part of visiting Georgetown,” one reviewer declared…
Dr. Howard, a bald man with an unplaceable accent, wears dark round eyeglasses that come equipped with a camera and a microprocessor that allows him to translate languages on the spot, he said.
He paid $3.75 million for the townhouse and moved in during the pandemic. In 2021, he snapped up the one next door for $4.8 million. The homes lie close to his job at Georgetown University School of Medicine, where he is a research professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology. (He added to his real estate holdings in 2022, when he bought a $3.6 million home in Potomac, Md. It has 14 bathrooms and a bocce court.)…
Sally Quinn, the author and longtime Georgetown resident, said she was firmly in the anti-Transformers camp. “I think they’re really ugly,” she said. “Some people may like them. You know, everybody’s taste in art is different. But that’s not the point.”
The point, she continued, was historical preservation: “People come to Georgetown because it’s Georgetown. It’s a beautiful, quaint village.”
But the author Kitty Kelley, who said she has lived in the neighborhood for “two husbands,” or since 1977, sent Dr. Howard a handwritten card in support of his sidewalk flair…
In any dispute between Sally Quinn (They trashed the place, and it wasn’t *their* place) and Kitty Kelley, I am of course firmly on Team Kelley.
The interior of Dr. Howard’s home, which he said he decorated himself, resembled a lair. The glassy back of the townhouse overlooks the Potomac, where the buzz of jets headed into and out of Reagan National Airport adds to the techno-paradise vibe. Motorcycles were parked in the living areas as objets, and five more Transformer statues stood guard. There was also a giant model of Iron Man, a Marvel superhero dear to Dr. Howard.
“A lot of people used to call me the real Tony Stark,” he said, referring to Iron Man’s alter ego.
The memorabilia on display included his concealed carry permit, as well as framed photographs of him with Bill Clinton and Tim Tebow, the former N.F.L. quarterback who became known for kneeling in prayer on the field. Dr. Howard, who said he is a follower of Messianic Judaism, a religion sometimes referred to colloquially as Jews for Jesus, said that he and Mr. Tebow belong to the same fellowship group. (Mr. Tebow couldn’t be reached for comment.)…
Dr. Howard has gone through several transformations himself. He was born in the Sinai Peninsula when Israel controlled it. His family — Egyptian Jews who ended up living in France, he said — moved to the United States when he was 11.
He said he joined the Army at 18, then worked as a linguist in Michigan “across various agencies,” specializing in Arabic, Farsi and Dari. He changed his name around that time because, he said, “it was offered by an agency.” He declined to provide more detail.
“There’s a lot of things during that phase of my career that should be kept secret,” he said.
Dr. Howard — whose doctorates include concentrations in mathematics and neuroscience, and who holds an appointment at the University of Oxford alongside the one at Georgetown — is a curious mix of limelight-seeking and discreet. After college, he said, he worked in military intelligence. He later did work for InQTel, which is functionally the C.I.A.’s venture capital fund.
What precisely he did to get rich is unclear. He said his wealth resulted from selling various businesses, some of which he could not talk about. The walls of his townhouse are filled with commemorative plaques of his patents, many of which have defense industry applications, including “Wireless Network for Routing a Signal Without Using a Tower” and “System and Method for Automated Detection of Situational Awareness.”
He said he suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2000 while delivering medical supplies, though he declined to offer more detail. After his recovery, he decided to focus on applying the principles of machine learning to the human brain, and turned to neuroscience. “I figured instead of sitting and getting my brain worked on, I would work on it myself by studying it,” he said…
And now he is making the brains of some of his neighbors explode. To study, no doubt!