Last year was the first time The New Yorker magazine organized a conference around innovators. At first, I was a bit skeptical, especially since the whole affair lasted just a day and cost a pretty penny and a half. But over the weeks, as every issue of the magazine teased me with yet another brilliant speaker eager to share presto-neato ideas with the world, I decided to plunk down — to find that it was sold out. I had already bought my plane ticket to New York City, so I flew in anyway and spent some quality time with friends. Of course, not before making a quasi-valiant effort at socially engineering my way into the conference — le système D, as the wily French put it. But pan out it did not, leaving me resolved that this business of being shut out of overpriced conferences will never happen again.
So when the 2008 edition of the conference was announced, I made a big sticky note of the date and time online registration opened, and hopped on it mere seconds after the e-doors opened at 9.00am PST on February 6, 2008. This time the conference cost two pretty pennies, but clearly that was not going to deter this here man on a mission. I was in, baby, in. Later I was informed by one of the kind organizers that I was the very first registrant. Zealotry = results.
Fast forward to the morning of Thursday, May 8. I arrived by cab on a rainy New York morning before the whimsically imposing InterActive Corp (IAC) Headquarters building by the Chelsea Piers. The first impression I got of this building was of a giant wedding cake, with a lot of reflective meringue frosting, if that makes any sense. The swoopy lines and curvilinear facade practically scream “Frank Gehry was here.” And the frosted glass with the transparent bands makes it look like the entire building is wearing sunglasses. And as we all know, people and buildings who wear sunglasses are cool. Even without that, the IAC building is pretty damn cool. Amazing what you can build these days with a spare billion or two.
Keynote address: Malcolm Gladwell and the mismatch problem
The interior was aesthetically pleasing and superbly well laid-out I’m sure, but at this point the 7.50am priorities of my brain had decided to ignore everything except what was on the delectable breakfast spread just inside the front entrance. Afterwards, body sated and lizard brain pacified on bagels, lox, juice and fruit, I stationed myself third row center for the keynote speaker, Malcolm Gladwell, who was to discuss the mismatch problem — a preview of his upcoming book on how to hire the right person for the job.
To motivate his discussion, Malcolm introduced the combine, the recruiting protocol from professional sports. Combines bring together every eligible athlete and the most senior talent scouts from every professional team for a multi-day battery of testing — sprints, endurance tests, intelligence quizzes, cookie baking contests, the usual. As it turns out, the results have a poor correlation with the promise of the athletes it selects. As an example, Malcolm mentioned that in the most recent NBA draft, the top 3 scorers in the combine either didn’t make the NBA or didn’t get to play much at all. Conversely, two of the top three rookies in the NBA this year performed mediocrely (or worse) at the combine — 62/81 for Greg Odin and 21/81 for Al Horford. In the National Football League, the Wunderlich test, an intelligence test administered to all prospective quarterbacks, performs even worse. The 7 worst scorers on this test (amongst whom Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw) outperformed the 7 best scorers by miles (which is thousands of yards).
And so you have the mismatch problem: tests that evaluate the wrong competencies for the task at hand. Malcolm also discussed mismatch issues in credentialing teachers, training cops, politicians, airline pilots and physicians.
From my own experience (see post below on ‘Why you should not go to medical school’), I can tell you that the pre-medical training that undergraduates are obligated to follow has next to no bearing on what they will do in medical school, which in turn has limited bearing upon actual medical practice. What premeds learn in organic chemistry, classical mechanics and advanced mathematics they are likely never to use — not even once — in the course of a non-academic medical career. These take up valuable semesters that a premed could be spending learning something about epidemiology — real diseases requiring real solutions — or even practicing patience and compassion through public service.
But I digress. Malcolm concluded his talk with two reasons why it’s time to get rid of the combine: hard, objective, seemingly clear statistics and numbers don’t seem to account for uncertainty when it comes to hiring people (because even without beards and wool sweaters, people are inherently fuzzy); and with rising standards, the complexity of such decision-making is increasing.
Before I continue with the next speaker, a note about the backdrop of the conference: the 120-ft (36m) by 11ft (3.3m) IAC Video Wall, ‘the largest high-resolution screen in the world’. If Oscar Wilde was correct in his assessment that nothing succeeds like excess — hello success. For all of you guys out there who boast of your 60-inch flatscreen TV or whatnot, allow me to put this into perspective: this is a 1440-inch flatscreen (technically 1446, since it’s measured diagonally). Consider your monitor ego pummeled.
Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, was next. He may be the most charismatic individual I’ve encountered in person. Tall (6’3″ at least) with bright blue eyes, politician-perfect sleek hair and chiseled features, the guy is unreasonably good-looking. The way he holds his body, waves his hands and broadcasts his voice was oratorical in the grand Caeser-like tradition, as if addressing the whole Coliseum, even though we were just a few feet away from him. The man knows how to project, and he has conviction in his voice. Look for him in an upcoming gubernatorial, senatorial or presidential campaign — the boy is good.
Newsom also knows the power of the Big Idea, and he’s had some decent ones so far. He’s taken recycling in San Francisco from 20% to 50% to 72%, and talked about “giving incentive to people to do the right thing.” He’s banned plastic bags in the city, is phasing out plastic bottles, and wants to institute mandatory composting. “More politicians need to screw up,” he exhorted, encouraging his peers to take more risks and “fail forward fast” without letting the fear of media reprisal to hold them back. He talked about the creation of ‘green-collar jobs’, creating the country’s largest alternative fuel fleet in San Francisco (plug-in hybrids?), and replacing the payroll tax with a carbon footprint tax. Altogether, he cuts a visionary, dynamic, yet pragmatic figure who gets real results (and landslide re-election numbers — 72% for his last run). To all his detractors who say he’s full of air or too slick, I present to you Exhibit A, the tires on my Trek road bike: full of air and slick, and also efficient, fast, and pretty much good for you. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Andy Stern, President of SEIU
If you ever want to make me sweat at a speaking engagement, why don’t you schedule me after one of the most eloquent writers of the day, followed by a preposterously telegenic, charismatic politician — and make me speak about labor unions. Well, that’s what Andy Stern did, and the man held his own quite well. He’s the President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and a seriously progressive thinker and doer.
I liked his framework of “3 major economic revolutions.” First, the agrarian one, took 3000 years, taking us from hunter-gatherer societies to settled farming ones. Next came the industrial revolution, which took about 300 years, moving the economic base to cities. And finally came the information revolution, moving the means of production from muscle to mind, from national to international. This one has taken a mere 30 years to change everything.
Since the subtitle of the conference was ‘voices from the near future’, Andy gave us a little preview of coming distractions:
– He declared employee-provided health insurance obsolete. In a global marketplace, you can’t have competitive products if you’re tacking on them the exorbitant price of healthcare when other countries aren’t doing that.
– Job-based pensions need to go. Witness the crippling of the American automotive industry.
–Pay will move to a merit- and performance-based system, especially in executive compensation.
Linda Avey & Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe.com
Here’s a cool idea I’m sure some of you have had ever since the human genome was first sequenced: sequence me! That’s what Linda and Anne have come up with — well, almost. The cost of sequencing all 3 billion base pairs in your no doubt fantastically interesting genome (“Omigod, my DNA spells GAG! And TAG! And GAGA! And my homeobox sequence is so much cooler than yours”) is still prohibitively high (on the order of $30k-$300K, or approximately 8 euro these days), so these cats do not sequence your entire genome. They’re way too smart for that. Instead, they chop up your DNA specimen (sent to them via spit sample in sleek tube) and then run it over a chip with over half a million different DNA sequences on it. A sequence on the chip lights up when one of of your DNA bits sticks to it, and then a scanner can read it and enter the data into a computadora. Voila, now you know one of your SNPs — a single nucleotide polymorphism, which is a fancy way of saying one point at which your DNA is unique (a big deal, since we’re all >99.8% similar).
Okay, so far so good. Any lab monkey can do that. But now these guys have your DNA sequence and they hook it into a continuously updated database of genetic information. So whenever a new gene is discovered, a genetic disease figured out or some random factoid found out about your molecular instruction manual, you get an update. And you can noodle on your own Personal Genome Account and explore your genome, finally figuring out whether to thank mommy or daddy for your genius, charm and premature balding.
Well, not quite, since our genetic knowledge isn’t quite so advanced as to be able to nail down one SNP as responsible for one trait. Moreover, macroscopic traits (e.g. red hair, tall stature, inordinate fondness for pork rinds) tend to be multifactorial, so it’s going to be some more years before we figure out how genotype leads to phenotype. In the meantime, for a mere $1000, this is the ultimate gift for the man who has everything.
Must say that the whole venture seemed a bit far out, with a fuzzy business model at best and dubious sustainable competitive advantage (i.e. relatively easy to duplicate what they do). So how did it get funded? A clue was offered to me by one of my fellow attendees: apparently Anne Wojcicki, the younger of the 23andMe duo, last year married the World’s Most Eligible Bachelor — a certain Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google. I’ll let your unbridled speculation take over from there.
Eric Haseltine on new ways to fight bad guys
From the moment he starts talking, you know this guy’s brilliant — rapid delivery, quick sharp gestures, wide open eyes. Tall, slim, bald and 50ish, Haseltine’s a former Imagineer at Disney, he later became the Director of Research at the slightly less secretive National Security Agency, and then got other jobs about which he couldn’t tell us much. Which may explain why he only gestured and nodded during his talk.
Nah, talk he did. Haseltine opened with a reference to James Bond, that bulwark to all anti-Western baddies: “You know that guy who has all the gadgets in the James Bond movies? What’s his name, ‘Q’? Well, I’m Q.”
With some very clever slides, he demonstrated his point that the US intelligence community is like an elephant trying to fight swarms of mosquitoes. In response to the mosquito threat, the intelligence community decided to become an even better elephant — bigger ears, tusks, snout — whereas what it should have done is become a different kind of organism entirely. Like a mosquito-eating wasp, for example.
Haseltine highlighted the ascendancy of ideas over bits of data, and how outgunned we are in that domain by the likes of Bin Laden who successfully capture the hearts and minds of youth at an impressionable age. He was about to tell us how this approach can be used against the likes of Al Qaeda — and then went strangely silent again. “But get me drunk over lunch, and I’ll spill the beans. Just don’t tell my boss.” Never underestimate the power of Bud Lite.
Yoky Matsuoka: Neurobotics
The young director of the Neurobotics Lab at the University of Washington and a 2007 MacArthur Fellow, Yoky delivered the talk with the highest gee-whiz factor of the conference. I was so rapt that I barely took any notes. As its name implies, neurobotics is the marriage of robotics to neuroscience, allowing you to make prosthetics that are controlled by your own nervous system.
Yoky’s big project is the anatomical hand. Even the best robotic hands have rigid palms, which is not the way the human hand is designed. So she designed a robotic hand that closely mimics all the bones and joints in a real hand. The result is a hand with surprisingly lifelike motion and vast capability. It’s really uncanny to watch it actuated; you may want to go check it out on The New Yorker main site, where all the talks are posted.
The other idea she put forth was that of wearable sensors which track your nerve firing patterns. Say you’re hitting a golf ball, and you shank it. With the sensors, you can figure out the pattern of muscle contractions that led to said shank. That way, next time you’re on the golf course, you know exactly which muscle to blame when you shank it again (“Damn teres minor!”), thereby sparing your 5-iron from being bent into pretzel shape. Told you it was useful.
Amy Smith: Humanitarian engineering
Amy opened her talk with a clever little gambit: “How many of you had breakfast today?” A certain number of hands went up. “Okay, how many of you prepared your own breakfast?” Fewer hands stayed up (and by fewer I mean zero). “How many of you raised the grain that went into your breakfast? Walked 3 miles each way to a waterhole to bring water for your breakfast?” Yes, slackers all of us. We just moseyed over to the buffet. But, BUT — had we been given the option to go into the predawn light and the fresh morning air to gather the ingredients for our breakfast; to thresh the corn with our own hands and boil the well-water with the firewood we ourselves gathered; in short, to commune with nature and feel integrated into the cycle of life — we would probably still have taken the option to attack the bagels and lox at the buffet. Not to mention the grapefruit juice. Damn that stuff was good.
Boorishness aside, Amy showed us some cheap simple gadgets for making the hard life easier. The round plastic corn-thresher was incredibly easy to use and very cheap to produce. The charcoal briquet maker was also a hit, making cooking fuel more accessible and reducing the amount of soot villagers had to inhale. Amy has invented many such low-cost, high-impact devices: a grain-grinding hammermill, an incubator that works without electricity, and a water-purification device amongst them.
The ‘living on $2 a day’ exercise that Amy assigns to her students was also a nice brain-tickle. Even if you only think about it for a few minutes instead of actually trying to live it for 10 days, the tradeoff between time and money in your life becomes immediately obvious. It also becomes easy to understand why poor people tend to stay poor when so much of their time is devoted to sustenance-related activities.
Michael Novogratz, finance honcho
I had never heard of Mr Novogratz before his talk. But let the record show that he is a sharp dresser. Then again, all of these finance moguls are sharp dressers — how can you not be when you can throw thousands of bucks at an outfit?
So allow me this opportunity to digress into a rant on men’s clothing. I don’t care how much you drop on your suit, mister — whatever you do, it’s still just a suit, and it’s still boring. And how are they different from each other anyway? Oh, right — lapel width. Wow. There’s a renegade for ya. Number of buttons. Look, we’ve got a rebel here with four-button suit — everybody take cover! Double-breasted vs. single-breasted — silly nomenclature for a silly style. And all these vestigial, perfectly useless (or at least poorly designed) features: buttons that don’t work (on the cuffs), pockets that are difficult to reach (designed for your daily commute on a horse), vents that don’t vent, buttonholes that aren’t holes (on the lapel), and general discomfort all around. And a shirt collar — what the heck’s that good for besides digging into your flesh and restricting bloodflow to your noggin? And don’t even get me started on ties — the single most ridiculous accessory known to mankind, a self-inflicted noose and interloper into your dinner dish. And the crazy part is that guys wear those ass tails on their necks and actually think they’re cool. Some future generation will see our insistent folly the same way we see those guys in the Rembrandt paintings with the bigass floofy collars around their necks that keep them from seeing their own feet (and other important body parts). Oh, and next time you’re examined by a doc who’s wearing a tie, ask him how many times he’s ever washed it. And how many patients he’s seen while wearing it. The answer should be sobering.
Returning to our esteemed speakers and their ideas. Novogratz is a president of the Fortress Investment Group, “a global alternative-asset firm with over $40 billion of capital under management”, and was at Goldman Sachs for eleven years. He opened with this question about our current state of economic affairs: “Why did we get here?”
He started his story with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He called this the beginning of globalization, with 400 million new economic players joining in the game from Eastern Europe, India and China. In 2003-04, globalization really heats up, and there is an unbroken rise in productivity from March ’03 to August ’07. Such productivity surges “end in revolution”, he remarked, because gains tend to accrue to the top of the pyramid, not to the bottom.
This was the most fascinating part of his talk: US individual incomes by percentile. To be at the 50th percentile of annual income in the US, you have to make $43,000. The 80th percentile is at $75,000. 95th percentile is $175,000, 99th percentile $750,000, 99.9th percentile $2.2m, and 99.99th percentile is $13m of annual income. At the 99.99th percentile — that means, at the level where your income is at the top 0.01% of the population — your wealth is accruing at a rate of 23% annually. To bring that into perspective, consider that the 23% increase equals $3.0 million in numerical terms — or $800,000 more than the piddling 99.9th percentilers make per year. Even at the very top, the wealth disparity is increasing at a fabulous rate.
Finally, Novogratz pointed out a megatrend worth pointing out: the US will become less and less economically relevant every year. This follows fairly logically from the fantastic growth in such places as India, China, Russia and the Gulf States, but as an American, it’s always hard to imagine losing our privileged place in the world. It’s happening now, so we may as well get used to the idea.
Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker
This may have been the most fun talk of them all, partially because of Mankoff’s puckish sense of humor and because of the sample cartoons he put up, which I cannot reproduce for you here. But yes — not only is Mankoff funny in person, but he also takes humor quite seriously, if you know what I mean. He’s been participating in the University of Michigan’s Humor at Michigan program since 2004, exploring the social, cognitive and emotional aspects of humor. And he had the graphs to show for it.
One graph showed four straight lines of increasing slope fanning out from the origin. This was the ‘degrees of humor’ diagram. The lowest slope line was ‘close to normal’. A cartoon along this line would likely not elicit a chuckle, since, well, it’s too close to normal. The next line up is humor, within the realm of reality. Something here is discrepant, but still plausible, so we laugh. The next line up is absurdity (“The cop told me I was driving over 65 miles an hour. I told him I’m not driving that long” — Steven Wright), which can still be funny. And beyond that, we get nonsense (“Mack chop egg bolt dry”), which is no longer funny.
Mankoff also touched upon two central elements of humor. “Humor involves diminishing things,” he said, and to illustrate his point, he showed a picture of Michelangelo’s David (not funny) followed by a cartoon of ‘Fat David’ (funny! — guess you had to be there). The other element of humor is incongruity — setting up the expectations of your audience, then thwarting it. I remember Edward de Bono talking about this in his seminal work Lateral Thinking. Laughter happens when you’re merrily chugging along from Point A, expecting to arrive at Point B any second now — and then you’re yanked via the unseen hand of humor to Point C, clearly not in Kansas anymore, and look back on Point B and have the insight, “Ah, I see how it’s possible to end up here!” Hilarity ensues. Case in point: Man walks into a bar. He says, “Ouch!” Point A is man walking into bar, Point B is to hear some standard bar joke, Point C is ‘ouch’, and the insight is that ‘walking into a bar’ is a pun. Almost any joke can be deconstructed this way, and rendered equally unfunny, so you really don’t have to try this at home. Jokes are like frogs — you dissect them, they die.
Paco Underhill, retail anthropologist
I had never met a black phalarope, xebu or retail anthropologist before, and this conference rectified one of those shortcomings. And it’s quite possible that Paco Underhill is more interesting than that xebu or phalarope. This is because he’s the author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, and he’s studied the habits of Homo shopaholicus well.
Before launching into his rant on how poorly airports are designed, Paco discussed general trends in environmental design. Visual language is evolving faster than verbal language nowadays, and it is being created by the dude in front of the CAD/CAM screen who is under 30 (while most of us are not). The retail environment is also largely owned and designed by men, but women are expected to participate in it. Also a curious point about real vs. perceived time in retail environments: people will inflate by 50% the amount of time they spend in a store. Kind of like they do when they’re hypnotized.
One of the big shortcomings of airports, Paco remarked, was that we tend to build the physical infrastructure first, then overlay the information structure on top of it. In a very information-intensive place like an airport, that can yield frustrating results. For example, how many times have you gotten past security and walked up and down the terminal trying to find out which gate your flight departs from? Clearly the designers of the building did not have in mind that actual travelers would be using this terminal. How about putting gate information right outside so we see it as we drive? Or right at the security checkpoint before getting into the terminal? I have yet to encounter that in my travels.
Paco advocated studying what people actually do in an airport (apparently 50%+ use the bathroom and just about as many shop) and make the design amenable to those activities. Profitability should then be commensurate with amenability. The Underhill formula for good airport design, then, is something like Good Airport = physical design + information structure + operations. He claimed that the new Terminal 3 at Beijing Airport built for the Olympics absolutely nails this. Having flown out of there to Shanghai not too long ago, I can verify that not only is it a visually impressive structure, but my experience there in finding what I needed to find and getting where I needed to get (except for the part where the overly paranoid security automatons put my luggage through X-ray 3 times and confiscated my sunscreen because is was a 125ml container instead of a 100ml one) were quite pleasant.
Jane McGonigal: Saving the world through game design
Jane McGonigal is way cute. With that out of the way, I can now tell you about her completely outrageous, brilliant gaming projects. She opened her talk by positing that the historical function of games has been to solve a social problem and alleviate suffering. For example, Herodotus mentions the 18yr Lydian famine and how people passed the time in the midst of crisis by playing games. This has come all the way to today, where Massively Multiplayer (MMP) games such as World of Warcraft take up on average 24hrs/wk of those with enough cognitive surplus to engage in them.
She also discussed the economics of engagement and four components of happiness: satisfying work to do; experiencing being good at something; spending time with people we like; and being part of something bigger than ourselves. Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) fulfill these criteria. The last one she did was World Without Oil, which had 1500 worldwide participants imagining the first 32 weeks of a global oil crisis, and blogging about it. The result, besides being just fun, was to raise consciousness about a potentially imminent crisis.
Her next project, created in the run-up to the (then) upcoming Beijing Olympics, was The Lost Ring, an elaborate mythopoeic conceit around the origins of the Olympic Games. “The greatest mystery the world has ever known becomes the adventure of a lifetime,” intones the supremely well-produced 2-min trailer on the site, promoting an aura of secrecy and global intrigue. And global it is, with 8 correspondents in multiple languages and an English-accented faux professor of Olympian history leading the participants to clues. The game has wound down as of this post-Beijing writing, but you can still check out the site, which remains mighty cool.
Fareed Zakaria: The Post-American World
Apparently, Fareed’s a lot more popular than I gave him credit for, in part due to his frequent appearances on The Daily Show. Not having a TV, I couldn’t tell ya. What I can tell you is that he’s one suave dude. He discussed some of the ideas in his book, The Post-American World, about how America is becoming less relevant on the planet. Not necessarily because of the oft-cited trope of American decline, but rather because of the rise of so many other peoples: the Middle East (witness Dubai), India, China, and South East Asia. He also had a couple of great lines, which I hope the Democrats put to good use: “John McCain has drunk the Neocon Kool-Aid… He’s doubling down on every bad bet George W. Bush has ever made.”
These were some of the best speakers and most stimulating ideas from the event. If you have the time to make the conference next year, it’s well worth your while, and I hope to catch up with you there.