Editor’s note: This is one installment in a eight-part series on this year’s candidates for Berkeley mayor. Read about the other candidates here.
Any conversation with Bernt Wahl eventually returns to the mathematical concept of fractals.
Such as when he talks about the software company he co-founded in 1987 that allowed users to design fractal patterns or the picture book, “Fractasia,” that he plans to write about the different kinds of fractals in the world or a poem about fractals that he knows of.
A dedicated student of fractals and chaos theory, first while attending college at UC Santa Cruz and later as an entrepreneur, Wahl is enamored with the mathematical concept. Fractals are a neverending pattern in which, no matter the magnification they are viewed at, the image is still the same. In listening to Wahl speak, one starts to view his life through the same lens.
One of eight candidates seeking to win the mayoral seat come Nov. 8, Wahl can define his life thus far by a series of diverse business ventures, educational pursuits and chance encounters with fame. But despite the expanse of these projects and experiences, a closer look reveals the underlying pattern: a desire to always learn, collaborate with others and openly share ideas.
When it comes to the Berkeley mayor’s office, that innovative spirit is readily present in Wahl’s “I solve things like an engineer” slogan. Ideas he has for bettering the city include creating housing for the homeless in the top floor of parking garages, improving governmental transparency and revitalizing economic development Downtown.
As a student at UC Santa Cruz in the 1980s, Wahl rented a garage from an elderly woman, and he cited the benefits of that arrangement — he got cheap rent and his landlady had someone to check in on her regularly. His technology-focused solution to the housing crisis? Create an algorithm to match willing students and young people with senior citizens who have extra room in their house to rent.
In a race where many of the mayoral hopefuls seek to brand themselves as the most progressive, Wahl is not playing along.
“Everybody was arguing over who the most progressive candidate was, and I said, ‘No, I want to give people opportunities.’ ” Wahl said. “Taking money from people who have money and giving it to others is not a productive means.”
An independent, Wahl said he dislikes many of the city’s regulations, which he sees as excessive. In fact, he cited a particular disagreement with the rent board’s rules on tenants’ rights as the catalyst for his first foray into city politics in 2010, when he challenged Jesse Arreguin in the race for District 4. Since then, he ran for city mayor in 2012 — in which he garnered about 4 percent of the vote — and subsequently ran for California state Assembly in 2014.
The scale of his 2016 campaign is not as great as those of front-runners Arreguin and Laurie Capitelli. To date, Wahl has not reported any fundraising, according to campaign finance disclosures filed. For the last month, he was traveling in Europe, where he attended a conference and gave lectures, missing many mayoral forums. In the days remaining before the election, his plan is to keep sharing his message and ideas with people.
“His real talent is making connections with people,” said Peter Van Roy, a computer science and engineering professor at the Catholic University of Louvain who co-founded company Dynamic Software with Wahl. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do it as well as him.”
Likewise, Wahl frequently drops the names of people he’s met and worked with, such as computer pioneers Steve Jobs and Doug Engelbart (whom Wahl considered a father figure), “World’s Greatest Programmer” Donald Knuth and Buckminster Fuller.
Part of that comes from good luck and timing. Wahl said he was on the front lines during several technological revolutions, including the advancement of microcomputing in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“He’s the only person I’ve ever met who had an Apple 1 computer,” said Indiana University Bloomington math professor Michael Larsen, a co-collaborator on Dynamic Software. “He was a member of these computer clubs that are now iconic.”
That Apple 1 computer, one of about 200 sold as a kit to hobbyists, was assembled by Wahl and friends. Wahl went on to become one of the early members of the Berkeley Macintosh Users Group — which had more than 13,000 members at its peak — an experience that led to connections such as Van Roy.
Ultimately, Wahl’s dream of working with Van Roy and Dynamic Software to bringing fractals to the masses isn’t so dissimilar from his dream now of bringing opportunity and ideas to the people of Berkeley. The level of magnification may be different, but the pattern is the same.