Culture at Google, Part Two: The Authors
Not "who can I meet who's famous?" but "who can I MAKE famous?"
In the last article, I wrote about the Cinema Club I started at Google. Visit that for some great movie recommendations.
Google’s had famous people visit since it’s existed, almost. Prior to the 2012 elections, almost all Presidential candidates showed up. You can search on YouTube for “barack obama at google” and find a whole set of videos. Hillary Clinton, John McCain, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Al Gore, George Soros, Jimmy Carter, you name it. Eventually Google stopped having active political candidates since that was a little questionable legally, but famous authors and musicians still come to this day.
I hosted some of them! This was the best thing about being at Google for me. Now I’ll tell you about them (Spoiler: none of mine became President).
Interviewing a future President:
Now that’s a sweet gig! How do you get to do that? The short answer is, you first become the CEO of Google, or maybe the VP of Corporate Communications. So that’s not going to happen for most of us.
But someone gets to host the other people I admire, like Daniel Kahneman
By the way, I got to ask Mr. Levy a question. See if you can find it!
Something you could only do at a few places: meet and hang out with famous people, read their book and say something to introduce them… I wanted to do that! But what if I stuttered and froze up in front of the whole Internet? Why would they take a chance on me?
As it turned out, getting in the door just depends on personal contact, like most things. If you’ve been reading this series, you know that I started the Cinema Club at Google, which brought me some contacts in the non-technical community. Without my even having to ask, Cliff Redeker, who ran the speakers program, invited me to be one of the chosen. That was easy!
As it turned out, though, it was still unclear to me how you got to host certain very high-profile guests. I knew, somehow, I wouldn’t have any chance of hosting Lady Gaga, for instance. Somehow those guests were all spoken for by the time I heard about their visits.
Maybe you imagine that we’d think of someone we’d like to host, call their agent, and invite them. That’s not how it works, at least in my experience. I actually did that with Matt Weiner, the creator of Mad Men. I talked a bunch of times to his people, worked out a time he could come, and then when that time was near, they said he couldn’t make it because he was traveling. I never tried that again.
You can complain about this sort of entitled celebrity behavior, but that’s the real world. If they want to come, their agents call Google and ask. When they have a new book or movie to promote, that’s what happens.
There was still the “Book Tour” circuit! Big publishing houses send their authors on tours to build an audience and sell books, and Google had become a standard stop on the tour. And why not? The video goes on YouTube and gets viewed, e.g. the Daniel Kahneman talk I mentioned has 1,769,392 views as of 10/4/2022.
But this creates a supply and demand problem. There are hundreds of authors, but Google can’t host them all. People still have work to do, when they’re not getting massages or working out at the fitness centers or eating lunch. So Cliff would send out catalogs from Penguin, Random House, and the other publishers about their upcoming books, and we would sign up for authors we wanted to host. If I wanted, I could say, “OK, I’ll host that guy!” And that was it! Usually there was no competition for those people.
Now, if you’re strictly celebrity-obsessed, you’d look at these author lists, see a bunch of obscure authors, and say, “Nope, never heard of them.” Possibly you’d think I felt bad, being left with C-list celebrities while the cool kids took all the A-list and B-listers.
There’s another way to look at it, though: “These are interesting people who probably wouldn’t even get to come to Google if I didn’t host them!” Think of that! It’s not “Can I meet someone famous?” but “Can I help to make someone famous?”
So that’s pretty cool. If it’s a person that some Googlers and I have heard of and will appreciate getting to see, even if they’re obscure, that’s even better. Maybe the audience just comes because it sounds interesting. That’s cool, too.
This was super-fun for me, but I fervently hope that, for at least a few of these books, you’ll say, “Wow, I never heard of that book! I’m going to go buy it.” That would be my ideal outcome here.
For each author, I start with links to their book and the YouTube video.
David Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains
I had heard of David Kilcullen, but he wasn’t exactly a household name, unless your household was a military one. He is a guerrilla warfare expert and was one of the chief architects of “the surge”, the 2007 US offensive in Iraq that turned around the war (briefly). This book is about a coming increase in guerrilla warfare in urban areas, not in the mountains or remote areas as it’s classically taken place.
Google isn’t known for being pro-military, so I especially enjoyed bringing David to campus. I managed to get 14 active-duty Marines to attend as my guests, and gave them a shout-out in my introduction. They all got to have lunch as Google’s guests and meet David. A very proud moment for me.
Theodore Gray, Molecules
Molecules is a followup to his best-selling The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe (which has one million copies in print, in 23 languages).
This is an entertaining talk to watch. Theo does some demonstrations which caused me no end of trouble in preparation, because they’re things you’re not supposed to do indoors! Fire, mostly. At 40:33, Theo uses a torch to demonstrate how you tell real silk from fake. At 43:00 he sets steel wool on fire, and explains that this is really just rust, at high speed
I had to get special permission from the Buildings people for him to do this. They wanted a detailed description of the experiment, including his “fire abatement plan.” (His reaction to this was “A ‘fire abatement plan’? I’m going to have a fire extinguisher, ok?”)
Svante Pääbo, Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes
Dr. Pääbo won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for 2022.
His book details the arduous and difficult process he went through in reconstructing the DNA of a Neanderthal. This sort of thing is now done routinely, but as far as I know, he was the first.
He recaps the history of humans, including both modern humans and Neanderthals, and shows graphically how difficult it was to extract DNA from the old samples we have available. The fact that he solved this problem so well that now people talk blithely about we’re all “part Neanderthal” is the reason he’s going to Stockholm for the Nobel ceremony.
Donald Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work
This is a prime example of an author I could champion where no one else would. Military theory is not exactly au courant among Googlers. I was very proud to be able to bring Mr. Stoker to Google, and he brought his wife with him so I think it meant a lot to him, too. We had a small conference room, but there were a good number of people there, maybe 25.
Carl von Clausewitz is best known, if he’s known at all, for the quote “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Yet there was much more to him than that, as Mr. Stoker explains. Clausewitz was not just a theoretician, but a soldier, who fought in or was present at almost 36 battles. He entered the army at age 11, which wasn’t even unusual at the time.
Hugh Sinclair, Confessions of a Microfinance Heretic
“Impoverished Third World mother borrows $50, buys sewing machine, lifts her family out of poverty!” — how many stories like that have you read?
Microfinance is the cure for poverty; everyone says so. Even 60 Minutes. Hey, the Grameen Bank won a Nobel Prize! So for the last two decades at least, money has been flooding into Western charities like Oxfam for microfinance. They’re inundated with funds from people trying to be smarter about their charitable giving.
What happens after they cash your check, though? Did you imagine some earnest young Oxfam staffer flying to Rwanda to disburse those $50 loans? Sorry, that’s not how it works. Actually, your money just goes in one end of a pipeline. Hugh Sinclair spent 10 years at the other end, in Africa and Latin America, dealing with the small agencies that actually disburse those loans, and make sure they’re repaid. He’s paid his dues, in other words.
Do all those borrowers use that money to better themselves? Some do. Some buy a television. Some open a stall at the market to sell tomatoes, which doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that there are only so many tomatoes to sell, and only so many buyers, so they’re probably just taking some income from another tomato seller.
In other words, life is complicated. Watch the video.
Shaun Usher, Letters of Note
Book and video links. I interview Shaun, sort of, in between the letter readings. He reveals that he courted his now-wife entirely by written letter for a long time, and this was long after the advent of email.
At one time before computers, people wrote letters to each other, on paper with a pen or typewriter. Thankfully, many of them have been preserved, and what treasures some of them are! This is an absolutely wonderful book to get someone for Christmas, and fortunately it’s not available for Kindle.
Most of the letters are too long to type out, but you’ll find:
One’s Drop Scones - from Queen Elizabeth II to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, giving the Queen’s recipe for scones
I Hear You Like Tomato Soup - from the Campbell’s product marketing manager to Andy Warhol, sending him a couple cases of tomato soup
Federal Agent at Large - from Elvis Presley to President Nixon, asking to be named a federal agent, saying
I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing, where I can and will do the most good.
Here’s the letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol, about Warhol’s agreeing to design the cover for the album that became Sticky Fingers:
I’m really pleased you can do the art-work for our new hits album. Here are 2 boxes of material which you can use, and the record.
In my short sweet experience, the more complicated the format of the album, e.g. more complex than just pages or fold-out, the more fucked-up the reproduction and agonising the delays. But, having said that, I leave it in your capable hands to do what ever you want……..and please write back saying how much money you would like.
Doubtless a Mr. Al Steckler will contact you in New York, with any further information. He will probably look nervous and say “Hurry up” but take little notice.
Warhol completely ignored the “keep it simple” advice and designed the famous cover with the working zipper, that caused endless problems and even scratched the record itself.
Shaun had just come from an event in LA, where some top-shelf actors read his letters. I did better than that, though — I had actual Googlers reading them, including me! (kidding there, if you missed that)
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
Taleb had probably the biggest audience I had, except for maybe Garry Kasparov (but by July 2017 with him, Googlers could watch from their desks, so there’s no way of knowing how many there actually were). You can see the audience for Taleb's talk at around 16:00 into the video.
Taleb is rather a polarizing figure. “IYI” is one of his acronyms, for “intellectual yet idiot,” and he throws it around freely. IYI’s are usually Ivy League-educated “thinkers” who’ve never actually done anything, but feel free to tell everyone else how to do it. “Lecturing birds on how to fly,” is one of his dismissive summaries. Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman are his prime examples of IYI’s. He’s contemptuous of most of what we’d call “the Establishment.”
Nonetheless, he’s written best-selling books, has 900,000 Twitter followers, and is far richer than you or I will ever be. I found him to be a really nice guy! If you’re not condescending and constantly trying to prove you’re smarter than he is (and you’re not, by the way), he’s not irritated with you at all.
For all my authors but him, I asked “Do you have a bio you want me to read, or shall I just wing it?” All of them said “Just wing it.” For Taleb, though, I didn’t go that way — I showed him a bio that he himself had written, got his approval, and then read it word-for-word. “Don’t mess with this guy,” was my attitude.
“Anti-fragile” is a concept that options traders are familiar with, but almost no one else is. As he says at the start of his talk, if you ask most people “what is the opposite of fragile?” they would say “robust” or “resilient.” But that’s wrong. The effect of randomness on something fragile is a negative number, but for something robust, it’s zero. That leaves the entire set of positive numbers: things that actually benefit from unpredictability.
What are those things? Watch the talk. Read the book.
Edmund Phelps, Mass Flourishing
Edmund Phelps won a Nobel Prize in Economics. How many of you knew this? Be honest now.
His book is about the real roots of prosperity: not macro-economic policies, and certainly not colonialism. My favorite audience member was a Googler from Vietnam whose father worked in the economic development agency in Hanoi, and he was so inspired that he couldn’t wait to tell his dad all about it.
On the day he spoke, Dr. Phelps and his wife arrived an hour early. It was too soon to go to the conference room, so we sat outside in the garden and I regaled them with tales of Google Ads. It was fun.
Trevor Paglen, Blank Spots on the Map
(I didn’t introduce this talk but I hung out with Trevor beforehand.)
Mr. Paglen has an unusual specialty: he photographs places where you can’t go. Clandestine military bases, CIA prisons, black sites, hidden laboratories, and top-secret agencies: he goes there.
Anthony Zuiker, Mr. CSI
How does a guy who’s basically Nobody as far as Hollywood is concerned end up creating a whole genre of TV series (CSI and all its spinoffs)? Find out here.
A.O. Scott, Better Living Through Criticism
A.O. (Tony) Scott is one of the better-known authors I met. He’s the film critic at the New York Times, and appeared on TV with Roger Ebert many times. As I say in the introduction, I think Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic scores are utter garbage. There are only two reviews I look at when deciding whether to see a movie: Tony’s and the Roger Ebert site. The critics’ purpose is not to tell you whether to see a movie; it’s to tell you enough that you can decide for yourself. They also deepen your artistic experience if you do see it.
His book, and his talk, are about the function of criticism in history and in the modern world. If your analysis is “people like what they like, and that’s that” then you need to watch Tony dismantle that theory while paying homage to it. In watching this video, I’m inspired to go back and read the book again.
Greil Marcus, Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations
(By the way, his first name is pronounced to rhyme with “real” not with “style.”)
In the very early days of rock criticism (Rolling Stone, Cream), Greil Marcus was a giant. His books are now taught in colleges, and in fact I discovered that the videography team filming the talk had studied him in school!
That AV crew joined us for lunch. Greil said that he actually liked Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Lester Bangs (RIP) in Almost Famous, even though he looked nothing at all like Bangs. Of course Greil knew Lester Bangs personally, so that’s high praise indeed.
I did get to ask him what bands he really liked now, and he mentioned Tacocat. Meh. I don’t know about that one.
Here’s what I wish I’d said: “Hey, Lester Bangs had his name in the lyrics of a song! I bet that made you jealous.”
Virginia Heffernan, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art
What I liked about this book was that it wasn’t about the technology, business, or sociopolitical impact of the Internet. All of those aspects have been written about, a zillion times.
Instead it’s about computers as art. The author got onto a timesharing machine in the early 80s as a teenager, in an early chat room where she didn’t have to reveal anything about herself. She said that years later when she met some of the participants in person, they said they kinda figured she was a teenage girl. I guess in the end you can’t hide your real personality.
But Wait, There’s More
In the next article, I list some more authors whom I didn’t introduce but helped with their talks, plus some other events that don’t fall neatly into the “author talks” bin.