Culture at Google: More Authors Plus Miscellaneous
The last post was about the author talks I hosted at Google. These are some more events that I was associated with but didn’t introduce, plus a few that don’t fit neatly into the “book talks” category.
Robert Mankoff, There is No Algorithm for Humor
Book and video links
(I don’t introduce this talk, but I did help out with it, getting his signature on the video release. )
His most famous cartoon, which he said put his daughter through college, was the photo of a businessman on the phone, looking down at his calendar and saying “No, Thursday’s no good. How about never? Is never good for you?” I left that on the wall of my office when I left Oracle.
Bob Mankoff was the cartoon editor of The New Yorker for many years. That means that he’s the person who tells his artists, “Hey, that cartoon you slaved over and you think is funny? It’s not funny.” It’s harsh, but that’s why he was the editor and not you (or me). Many people consider the cartoons the best part of The New Yorker.
For people who think they’re funny (and don’t we all?), Bob ran the “New Yorker caption contest” for years, where they have a cartoon with no caption, and you’re invited to submit your own. Some people obsess over winning the New Yorker caption contest, like Roger Ebert, who finally won after 107 tries.
I only entered it once, with a cartoon of a couple in bed, the man lying on his back in a business suit, with a lectern on his chest and the woman saying something to him. I had her saying, “This time, can you skip the part about ‘not because it is easy, but because it is hard’?”
Well, it made me laugh. It didn’t win.
In his talk, Bob demystifies humor, if that isn’t sacrilegious. He explains why certain things are funny and why computer algorithms just can’t seem to get it.
Daniel Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking
(I didn’t introduce this talk, either, but I helped out.)
When I got Mr. Dennett’s signature on the video release, I told him that his other book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, was one of the few books that, when I got to the end, I wanted to go back and start it again.
He said, “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.”
Yes, it is a good thing. That’s not the book this talk is about, but you really should read that book.
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow
(I didn’t introduce this talk, but as one of the team, I got to attend a private lunch with Dr. Kahneman.)
Daniel Kahneman is one of the founders of the field of Behavioral Economics, for which he won the Nobel Prize. “Economic Man” is an imaginary being beloved by economic theorists. He always acts rationally so as to maximize his monetary returns. Kahneman and his deceased partner Amos Tversky exploded the myth of Economic Man, and showed the psychological biases that operate in real human beings where money is concerned. He demonstrates one bias, “framing,” in real time with the audience in this video, where you see a picture of a drop-dead beautiful hotel room in Tahiti, and half the room is asked “What’s the nightly charge for this room? Is it $300?” and the other half is asked the exact same question, but the quoted amount is way too high. “Framing” means that your estimate is affected by the amount you hear, even though you know it’s wrong.
At lunch, I asked him, “Dr. Kahneman, you’ve been writing about thinking for forty years. Do you think you’ve managed to change how people think at all?”
He said, “No, not even me,” and told a story about how he and his daughter were in a hospital together, and a young, attractive, female doctor explained a disease in a very convincing manner. He said to his daughter, “She’s very articulate!” and his daughter, who’d learned his lessons better than he himself had, said “What counts is how much experience she’s had with this disease.” She was quoting Dr. Kahneman’s own advice back to him: how to judge expertise of someone you don’t know, on a topic you don’t know.
Luigi Zingales, A Capitalism for the People
Book; no video available.
For this one, I was the camera operator myself. That’s part of the reason there’s no video.
The other reason is that Dr. Zingales’ plane was late, so he arrived 40 minutes after the talk was supposed to start, so it was kinda truncated. Fortunately, I had a conference room reserved for lunch for him and eight or so guests, so we still had a great conversation.
As I like to say about his book: there’s something to offend everyone. It offends liberals, of course, because it’s in favor of capitalism and opportunity, but it also offends a lot of conservatives because he draws a distinction between being pro-market and pro-business. In many or even most parts of the world, there is no real conservative party; there’s a business party. It doesn’t even pretend to sympathize with people competing with big business.
A pro-market party believes that if a large company loses out because it can’t compete any more, it doesn’t deserve government protection — it deserves to go bankrupt. In other words, a pro-market party believes in real opportunity, even if it hurts big business.
Phil Rosenthal, Exporting Raymond
This isn’t a book; it’s a movie, which we showed, and then we had Phil on for Q&A.
Phil Rosenthal, the current star of Somebody Feed Phil, is the creator of the hit TV series Everybody Loves Raymond. He was asked to go to Russia (this was long before the Ukraine war, of course) to help the state TV network adapt his series to Russian situations using Russian actors.
The movie is hilarious, and if you’re watching Somebody Feed Phil, you know that Phil is a brilliant comic actor. At first, an “expert” from the Russian network says, “So it’s a show about a working class guy who lives across the street from his parents and his brother. Why would anyone watch this?” Their idea of a TV show is that it features glamorous people, or daring people, or just generally exciting people, and they wear expensive, fashionable clothes. But Raymond? You’ve got to be kidding.
Is there something universally funny about Raymond that translates beyond America? Slapstick translates, of course, but Raymond isn’t mainly slapstick. The issue is very much in doubt for most of the movie. Sometimes, there’s nothing quite as amusing as something that’s intended to be funny, but isn’t (Johnny Carson made a career out of reacting to his jokes falling flat). Russian actors are trained in high art, like Chekhov and Shakespeare; they don’t do this kind of comedy.
There are some priceless scenes with Phil’s parents bickering over technology. Phil is at a Russian’s home and his aged parents talk to Phil’s parents back in New York over Skype. I won’t spoil this for you.
The building we showed it in, 1900, has a slide from the second floor down to the first. We all went down the slide, but Phil went down it twice.
Argo, and the real-life Canadian ambassador
Video of Ken Taylor at Google.
We always wanted to coordinate a movie screening with an in-person appearance of the actor, writer, or director at Google, but it was always impossible to get it all lined up. There was a wine-tasting club, and I thought it’d be great to show Sideways the same week they tasted all the wines featured in that movie. But unfortunately, that wasn’t one of the movies available to us. One co-production (sort of) happened without any effort on our part, when we showed Ratatouille and the cafe served that dish the same night.
Finally, on this one we pulled it off. We showed Argo and the next day the real Canadian Ambassador, who was played in the film by the actor Victor Garber, appeared for a talk.
If you’ve seen Argo, you know it’s based on the true story about how, after the 1979 Iranian Revolution when US Embassy workers were held hostage, a group of Americans were hidden in the Canadian Embassy, an act of enormous courage by Ambassador Ken Taylor. A scheme to smuggle them out of the country was hatched by the CIA, where they posed as a Hollywood film crew, and it succeeded. The film invented a chase scene on the tarmac while the plane took off, which never actually happened, but hey, this is Hollywood. No one wants to watch a bunch of people nervously sitting in an airport waiting room.
Temple Grandin, and TV documentary
For this one, too, we managed to coordinate the screening and the personal appearance, mainly because the documentary is online so we didn’t have to send in the order way in advance.
Temple Grandin is a genuine hero, in my opinion. She was autistic before most people even knew the word, and she managed to convince employers that she had something to contribute, and that couldn’t have been easy. Now her work is used all over the cattle industry, because she knew that animals are visual thinkers, just like she is.
She also mentions the obvious: a lot of techies like the ones in the audience are somewhere on the autistic spectrum.
Live Theater at Google
Google had movies, authors and other celebrities, and live music (Carlos Santana, Tony Bennett, Jake Shimabukuro). But we’d never had live theater! So I set out to solve that problem.
I thought the theater in Building 1900 where we showed our movies would be a great venue. It had elevated theater-style seats, and there was a (very) small waiting area that could be used as a green room or for entrances and exits. The only. problem was that since it was for business presentations, it had a lectern at the front with cables going into the floor which couldn’t easily be disconnected and hidden.
I had an inspiration: let’s just turn it on its side and make it part of the scenery! I got in touch with the Pear Avenue Theater and they loved the idea. Diane Tasca and her assistant Robin Braverman came over and checked it out, and decided it would work. We were on! They would put on “Pear Slices” a collection of very short plays that they were currently showing in their regular theater.
The problem was, they wanted to use the outside door as well as the inside door for actor entrances and exits, and that door is normally closed and you can’t get in from the outside. Propping it open would trigger an alarm. So I had to get Security to give us a special dispensation.
I especially enjoy the recorded announcement in the video before it starts, enjoining the audience to silence their phones and unwrap any candies now, and offering concessions in the lobby.