April 16, 2014
Space elevators, teleportation, hoverboards, and driverless cars: The top-secret Google X innovation lab opens up about what it does--and how it thinks. … X does not employ your typical Silicon Valley types. Google already has a large lab division, Google Research, that is devoted mainly to computer science and Internet technologies. The distinction is sometimes framed this way: Google Research is mostly bits; Google X is mostly atoms. In other words, X is tasked with making actual objects that interact with the physical world, which to a certain extent gives logical coherence to the four main projects that have so far emerged from X: driverless cars, Google Glass, high-altitude Wi-Fi balloons, and glucose-monitoring contact lenses. Mostly, X seeks out people who want to build stuff, and who won't get easily daunted. Inside the lab, now more than 250 employees strong, I met an idiosyncratic troupe of former park rangers, sculptors, philosophers, and machinists; one X scientist has won two Academy Awards for special effects. Teller himself has written a novel, worked in finance, and earned a PhD in artificial intelligence. One recent hire spent five years of his evenings and weekends building a helicopter in his garage. It actually works, and he flew it regularly, which seems insane to me. But his technology skills alone did not get him the job. The helicopter did. "The classic definition of an expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing," says DeVaul. "And people like that can be extremely useful in a very focused way. But these are really not X people. What we want, in a sense, are people who know less and less about more and more." … If there's a master plan behind X, it's that a frictional arrangement of ragtag intellects is the best hope for creating products that can solve the world's most intractable issues. Yet Google X, as Teller describes it, is an experiment in itself--an effort to reconfigure the process by which a corporate lab functions, in this case by taking incredible risks across a wide variety of technological domains, and by not hesitating to stray far from its parent company's business. We don't yet know if this will prove to be genius or folly. There's actually no historical model, no precedent, for what these people are doing.
As the world seems to be struggling back to its feet after the great financial crisis, I want to draw attention to an area we need to be concerned about: the conduct of monetary policy in this integrated world. A good way to describe the current environment is one of extreme monetary easing through unconventional policies. In a world where debt overhangs and the need for structural change constrain domestic demand, a sizeable portion of the effects of such policies spillover across borders, sometimes through a weaker exchange rate. More worryingly, it prompts a reaction. Such competitive easing occurs both simultaneously and sequentially, as I will argue, and both advanced economies and emerging economies engage in it. Aggregate world demand may be weaker and more distorted than it should be, and financial risks higher. To ensure stable and sustainable growth, the international rules of the game need to be revisited. Both advanced economies and emerging economies need to adapt, else I fear we are about to embark on the next leg of a wearisome cycle. … The current non-system in international monetary policy is, in my view, a source of substantial risk, both to sustainable growth as well as to the financial sector. It is not an industrial country problem, nor an emerging market problem, it is a problem of collective action. We are being pushed towards competitive monetary easing.
Penny pinchers will be forgiven for skipping the shrimp scampi this season. … Prices for shrimp have jumped to a 14-year high in recent months, spurred by a disease that’s ravaging the crustacean’s population. At Noodles & Co., a chain with locations across the country, it costs 29 percent more to add the shellfish to pastas this year, and shrimp-heavy dishes at places like the Cheesecake Factory Inc. are going up as well. … Restaurant chains, already struggling with shaky U.S. consumer confidence, are taking a profit hit as prices climb. Even worse, the surge is happening during the season of Lent, when eateries rely on seafood to lure Christian diners who abstain from chicken, beef and pork on certain days. … At Noodles, it now costs $3.34 to add the shellfish to a meal of pasta or pad thai, compared with $2.59 last year.
Clinkle has been the talk of Silicon Valley for the past year, although few of the consumers who will make up its hoped-for user base have even heard of it. That is in part by design. A payment app co-created by Duplan, it has been in “stealth” mode for more than three years, its unique selling proposition a closely-held secret. … A few details have leaked, however. Those who have used Clinkle say it’s an exceptionally well-designed, simple-to-use mobile wallet app that utilizes a high-frequency sound to transmit money between users in close proximity — no phone-bumping, QR code-scanning, texting or dongle-swiping required. … Last June, Clinkle announced a $25 million round of seed financing from a dozen top venture capital firms and angel investors — the largest early investment raised in Silicon Valley history. A few months later, the company raised $5 million more from Stanford’s StartX fund as well as Virgin CEO Richard Branson. Duplan, a first-time founder who was barely of legal drinking age, seemed full of promise. … But nine months later — during which time several rounds of layoffs have been announced and rumors swirled of turmoil inside the company — the app still has yet to launch publicly.
“You have to be cut from a special mold to be a collector that’s successful in getting in-person autographs like this.” … Kaplan has been collecting the signatures of world leaders on baseballs since 1996. He was the one who introduced me to the idea of autographing-as-blood-sport. … Kaplan schmoozed Hamid Karzai’s security detail for his autograph and smooth-talked his way into then-president of Nigeria General Olusegun Obasanjo’s hotel room. He even mastered phonetic Russian well enough to convince Gorbachev’s bodyguards the baseball in his hand wasn’t a bomb. … “You either have it, or you don’t,” Kaplan told me. “You have to plan everything three steps ahead. You have to do all your research. You have find out who their defense secretary is, anyone who’s going to be with them. Most importantly, as a collector, you have to be prepared for the unprepared; I never go anywhere without at least a dozen baseballs on me, at all times. “
Olivia Fox Cabane says she can make anyone more likable—for a price. But can charisma really be taught? … Whether it’s the way someone always remembers your name, seems to care about your life, or notices your new haircut, the draw of charismatic people is almost universal. We don’t just like who they are; we like who we are around them. They make us feel important, and yet we are the ones who end up wanting to please. Popularity and power are the birthright of the naturally charismatic. … But Olivia wasn’t born with it. She is, and has always been, an introvert. As a teenager she was a high-school outcast—the kind of kid who sits silently, then says too much, and at the wrong time. She has an engineer’s mind and an occasionally clumsy grasp of social nuance. It took her years to learn how to be a good host, and to do so she had to seek out the science of charisma. She had to assemble tools and tricks that could transform a shy teenager into a socialite. She had to reverse-engineer the intangible. Now she earns a six-figure salary by teaching others how she did it.