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tv   Book TV  CSPAN  August 29, 2012 1:15am-2:00am EDT

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>> i hope so. i mean, our energy secretary was from bell labs, a bell labs alum, and he knows that process better than anyone. i think -- i think the reality is that the world is different and that those sort of larger principles are the most valuable things to learn there opposed to specific kinds of ingredients or innovation that are in another time and place, but larger truths of thinking longer term and attacking big problems are essential, and i think, yes, i personally think the great leaps are in energy, biotechnology, and maybe not in information technology at the moment. >> well, jack, thank you for taking us back to the time and place and engaging us in our version of time travel back to bell labs, the idea factory in the great age of american innovation.
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john, thank you. >> oh, thanks so much. [applause]
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[no audio] >> when i hit the age of when you ask yourself, who am i, and why am i here, 16 or 17, and all
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my friends claimed to be desen didn't the of -- descendents of robert e. lee or something like that. i didn't hear around the family house that we had many famous relatives, and i began to ask my mother about it. my mother grew exhausted with my pestering and sent me to see mary, a cousin in amateur genealogist. primed with curiosity, i arrived at her home on a hot summer day. after iced tea, i was presented with a large piece of paper bearing a set of circles. in the center, mary wrote my name. in the immediate outer circle divided in half, she wrote my parents' names, and the next circle in fourths, my four grandparents. we fill out as far as we could in every direction. in the area where her family and mine converged, her life's work. a seemingly unbound wedge flew backwards to scott land and
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england until they were hob knobbing with william shakespeare. this line, mary says, pointing to an ancient british earl we could claim, is a direct line to chalamane. it was too much past to absorb and process. i wanted to ask her what the holy roman emperor left me in the will, but her tone was solemn, almost religious. understand you are the direct descendent of the king, she murmured. the room was still as the rest of the universe wielded about on its guy around me, just like on the piece of paper. well, needless to say, i got quite a swath through charleston after that. i became quite adepth of dropping this enormous chunk of self-esteem into any passing
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conversation almost as good as some folks normt of here are -- north of here are so good at saying things k like, oh, yeah, i lived in cambridge for awhile. [laughter] you know, history matters to all of us. we're all sort of amateur genealogists, personal history matters. when bill fries was elevated to majority leaders of the senate in 2003, he had just self-published a book. its title cries out with anxiety and pride. this is the book's title, "good people beget good people: a genealogy of the frist family." [laughter] three years after i had tea with her, i was in a college class when the teacher made a point about factoring large numbers and decided to dramatize it using an example from the real world how redundancy affected
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genealogy in a process called pedigree collapse and if you run back to ad800, the number of an sees sores on average is about 562 trillion. that's half a quadrillion people, half the times of number of all the people who existed on the planet. how could this be? when one goes back in time, the number expands, two grandparents, four great grandparents, eight great, great grandparents. pretty soon, they asome duplicate positions on the tree. the number of an ancestors one s by ad1200 is just over 268 million people, roughly the total population of all humans on the planet at that time. beyond that year, of course, the whole things collapses inward. then it rapidly implods in super redundancy into the smaller populations that existed then. the upshot, the teacher e
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plained, is that nearly everyone on the planet can claim, and he paused for emphasis, to be the direct descendant of chalamane. [laughter] the room felt still. [laughter] if not absurd as the rest of the universe creeped about me on its gire laughing. the distinction, the teacher added, would be not to have him as your direct ancestor. [laughter] when i first started looking into this, this story led me to a host of anxieties about identity and history, and i stumbled into, through this, through the story of kenny wickman. you may remember we found a skeleton on the banks of a river in washington. a local amateur archaeologist
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was the first to get it. put it on the table, and to the first person within an earshot of him, he announced the skeleton had quote "cockazoid-like features," and this rolled into modern media and turned into a great snowball of amateur genealogy in history. every magazine that you probably ever heard of wrote a story about how there now appeared to be a pre-native american population on the planet, a group that predated. they show the spearheads that date back 12,000 years, around the time that we think that asian populations crossed through alaska, the straits, and arrived here and eventually became native americans. these people are arguing, or
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this word seems to suggest that there was a population already here when they arrived, and that some of them lived overlapped and died, the skellton that's 8,000 years old, lived to be a few thousand years into the new era before being wiped out by native americans. this concept took so much -- got so much traction that the new yorker had an article about this, time, newsweek, everybody did one. all of them sort of playing off of this claim that there was this earlier population. i -- when i started looking into this -- by the way, okay, it turned into an enormous hoopla. the native american indians under law have the right to claim any skeleton in the earth over a few hundred years old. the scientists claim, no, no, we want to look at this because of the features. this might not be a native american indian.
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this fight, as you may know, went all the way -- it was rejected by the supreme court, but the appellate courts at least and resolved on the side of the scientists. they took the skeleton ten years ago, and i believe you find it in a box that indiana jones has at the end of that movie because we never heard from them again. after all 6 that stink, i tried to call wanting to know what we learned about the features, i got no reply, no answer. the truth is that with this single word -- i asked an an -- an trough polings, and a yale professor said it's a sciencey sounding word for caucasian. understand this one guy said
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caucizoid-features, and i understand from that a lot of mistakes happened from the last ten years. i start with the story because i don't -- i want to make -- i want to be frank, which is that most amateurs are fools, and most amateurs make mistakes. amateurism is extremely amateurish, but some amateurism, and i couldn't quantify them. in fact, the book i wanted to write was a book about creativity, a book about innovation, and i wanted to unlock all of the keys and write that book so that i could, you know, unpack this word, put it all back together, and then that would be, oh, boy, my publishers really wanted that book. [laughter] but i couldn't write that book. i mean, first of all, some professor writes that book every six months; right? you know, it's about intrerp nearlyism, --
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entrepreneurism and innovation, and what i found was that sort of luck, random chance, a playfulness is the only common denominator we have. jefferson's line, a great believer in luck. the harder i work, the more i have of it. i started following the stories, and i realize in this country, especially, amateurism exists everywhere in the world, but here, i think it possesses a special quality in part because we are such an amateur -- we are a nation that began in a kind of amateurism. i'll get to that in a minute. i found instead of breaking down what creativity was, what i found was a bunch of stories, and the stories led one way or another in rabbit holes that i found absolutely thrilling. for example, i was researching synthetic biology, the fancy word for fiddling around with dna, life.
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i was on a message boards, and a couple of the folks were talking about this amateur biologist in san fransisco trying to insert the glow in the dark plasma from a jelly fish into bacteria she would then cultivate into glow in the dark yogurt. okay. [laughter] i called around a little bit. i found her. she's a 30-something woman, she wears glasses slightly pinched at the tips like cats eyes to finish the look with a nice hint of 50's girl nerd. on the way to trader's joes to get plain yogurt, we talked about the tattoos, relating to the sense of herself as an off the grid scientists. on one arm is the sword of the favorite story, revolutionary girl, down the arm is atlas holding up the heavens. keeping the burden tight in
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company is the card figure signifying the eternal student and officially described as a young man alone in a field of freshly blossoming flowers unaware of everything around him other than the coin floating in the hands. she shows me the plasma next to the frozen chicken wings. i thought it would be cool, she said, she imagined how great it would be to go to a rave with glow sticks you could eat. [laughter] to insert the gene, she said, we need a device, exposing a sample of bacteria to a high voltage post electrical field. in this case? 2500 volts, a standard wall socket is 120 volts. essentially, she said, we're going to taser them. her lab is on a table right in the front room.
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her first center fig was a salad spinner and a pressure cooker. she has a sharper image tailgater's fridge bought at a yard sale. she tells me it comes from astro glide, the sex lube. [laughter] when i visited others, they use store bought depositories for theirs. there's a brilliant cultural observation made about bay area amateurs improvising with sex lube and east coast horses around with enemas. [laughter] i'm not sure i want to ponder the distinctions long enough to find out what it is. so later on, by the way, in the experiment, we blew out fuses and shut off the lights in half of the building as i recall, but these -- one of the things i found out was that her and others that i interview around the country are part of a
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biohacking phenomena that are turning up in various cities and forming sort of clubs and one just opened in new york. there was a piece about it in the "new york times" with the first one in boston that i visited in san fransisco, but now they are popping up in all of these cities. the club thing, you know, i looked at hobbyist clubs issue and, of course, there's a great rich american tradition of the clubs going back almost to the beginning. you'll remember just recently, we learned about steven jobs and his career with the home brew computer club. that was the club in the 70s everybody joins. 80s and 90s, it was the robotics club. i spent time with hartford robotics club. they raided clubs for years for good talent; right? before computers, there were remote control clubs. i don't know if you remember -- when i was a kid, there was a
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crank out at the lake with a remote control sailboat or plane, and before there, combustion engine clubs, and before that, amateur radio. amateur clubbing has been this great tradition in american history. right now, we are watching one emerge. it's the synthetic biology. it's tinkering with life the way we have tinkered with robots, computers, and radios. already, you'll get wind of the controversy that will come. it's not happened yeting but you know it's on the way. there's going to be a story that sets off some kind of panic among people who know very little about synthetic biology, and probably these clubs will be targeted in some way. here's the kids trying to do it right. they are creating rules of the road. they are creating ways of doing things, sharing common equipment, creating their own set of ethics; right? i remember 25 years ago when i first started writing, i covered
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a lot of computer hacking, and i don't know if you remember this, but there was a huge panic that grew out of that. computer hackers will be able to crash the phone systems and take over the pentagon. many of my sources, 16-year-old kids from new york city were arrested and imprisoned. of course, these were the ones trying to do it right, those stealing were credit cards, the law never touchedded them; right? the low hanging fruit is easier to go after. my fear is we have a wonderful sort of moment in american history where the amateurs are sort of convening in their weekend clubs, forming a kind of 4-h if you will of biohacking, but in the post-9/11 tsa bedwetting era we're in, i fear the best intelligences of -- intentions coming together will
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be con trued by an overambitious prosecutor. any, so in each of the chapters, what i found was that amateurism sort of, like i say, it sort of gathers around some sense of playfulness. i don't really know how else to describe it. it's a term that came up whenever i talk to these people. there was just something kind of charming and lovely about going out into a garage and being by yourself and just pursuing some idea without any effort to produce anything other than what you were sort of ultimately dreaming of. they've even done studies where -- and certainly many managers are trying to bottle this, but, you know, sort of not feeling the pressure of business concern or not feeling even the threat of a paycheck or lack of one, creates a certain kind of higher creativity than being
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paid. this playfulness is something that everybody's tried to bottle. i think here in this country, it's always had a kind of a special quality to it because in part, from the very beginning, looking at history, we were thought of amateur everythings. amateur politicians obviously by europeans, and even amateur people. i was stunned to find out that the common sort of scientific attitude in europe about americans is that the vapors of our atmosphere here made us smaller, weaker, made the men less sort of verile, women less fertile, animals smaller and skinnier and produce less milk. it was a known fact in the 1780s in france that the way a snake fed in north america was was to
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lie back on the ground unhinge its jaw and wait for one ofous squirrels to just fall into its mouth. [laughter] there's a famous event at a dinner where franklin was there with a bunch of other american, and this came up. this was the conversation. the french were making fun of us, and franklin, who was a tall man, asked all the americans to stand up. it just so happened every american there was six feet tall. of course, all the men were smaller people. that didn't end the conversation. we've always had that sense that i think the immigrant narrative reenforces this idea that, you know, we start from scratch, part of the cultural dna. one of the other characters in the book is a woman named claude anne lopez. i don't know if you know her, but she escaped nazi germany and came to america in the 30s,
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married a yale professor, and came to new haven in the 50 #s. the only job she could get was as a secretary. was not even as a secretary. she was going to be the transcriber at the ben franklin papers, and in the 50s, president truman started these slow scholarship works for, you know, for all the presidential papers. we had ben franklin at yale. obviously, jefferson at uva. hamilton at columbia and that stuff. the yale one is still going on since the 50s going through each paper that franklin wrote on. claude ann was a transcriber who sat in the corner, ignored for 20 years, not listed in the books as being part of the team, but after 20 years, she realized she had different opinions about him than all the fancy
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historians, and she wrote great books. everyone in the room, i could guess, will tell you ben franklin was a great womanizer, a sexual appetite, and basically wasted half a year in france instead of getting money for the revolution sort of, you know, playing chess with naked women in bathtubs. that's the story you always hear. that was true. [laughter] claude makes a compelling case that that's all over interpretation by a bunch of men. ben was kind of a dopey guy around women so a lot of that is interpreted as kind of his repatienceness. she became a great scholar, a self-invented scholar, one of our great franklin scholars. i come to that at the end because there's a number of images that i like about franklin and about this veried idea of amateurism. we know when jefferson was writing the declaration, he came
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up with that common phrase, life, liberty, and property. that's the praise to ring in the ear in the 18th century. we don't know for sure, but we know franklin edited jefferson's declaration. so it adams for legal terms, but ben went through it for stylistic tweaks, and i like to think he put that in there. we don't know for sure, but he wrote about happiness and the playful randomness that comes with creativity. the other image that franklin loved to invoke was the kite. he wrote about how has a child in boston he'd lie on the back on the surface of the hair harbor being pulled along by the kite. almost certainly fiction, but that image is so compelling, a wonderful sense of a child at play drifting about pulled here and there by a kite. his other usage is of that image is ad good bit more famous. the most famous image, flying a kite proving electricity existed
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in clouds, the source of lightning. several believe that story, the kite and key on a string is also a probably fabrication. i'm one of those people. the fact is franklin gave away the theory of electricity by publishing the ideas and letting others, europeans, prove his theory by setting up electrical rods. the experiment was just to put one's knuckle near the rod in a overcat thunderstorm afternoon, and if it was charged, then you would feel a kick of intense electricity, and that was proven in europe. proven too well in st. petersberg where a swedish scientist put his knuckle near the rod when a bolt of lightning struck, and he was killed. the famous kite story was one franklin told many years later, not at the time he allegedly performed the experiment. the only witness was his son. franklin's account is unusually vague. my own suspicion is that
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franklin feared the discovery of electricity was his greatest achievement, which it was, so he tried to retrofit the story of the experiments so the history books gave him proper credit. he laid claim to the achievement not by setting up details of the experiment, like i said, the account is vague. no, rather he put in the minds of us an image indell jabble improvising his own rewriting of history in other words by conjuring the world's first data test version of what we now call a photo op. he did it by invoking an image that's playful and profound, the logo of the amateur childish spirit of liberty, of leisure, the likeness of being where creativity thieves. it can be american. it is american. not out of a nationalistic prize, but that it's our founding and inhair tans of anybody born or coming here.
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we have the speech, assembly, due process, trial by jury, the one that goes unstated almost presumed is the revolutionary decision to abandon one's past and one's self, culture, tradition, and history, walk away from everything one is whether it's fleeing a repressive nation for the new place or out the back door for the garage of. that's real freedom. it's what everyone recognizes in their gut is true that the amateur's dream is the american dream. thank you. [applause] >> so i'll take questions. [laughter] >> andre has a microphone so -- and, of course, if for some reason you don't want to be a part of this the c-span program, then just, you know, make that known, and --
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>> patrol officers don't watch c-span, so i think you'll be all right. >> you'll be good. please, questions. [laughter] >> if anyone has one, go ahead. yes, young map. [laughter] >> okay. nice suit, first of all. >> it's just a sports jacket, but thank you. >> writers are amateurs too in a sense which is they have come up with ideas, and they don't work, and your acknowledgement to talk about how just the book started as something else, go down these byways, come back, and there's new topics. i'm curious, it's been how many years between your last book and this one? >> i think decades is the time frame. [laughter] >> decades, okay, better than years. i'm curious what book ideas you came up with and just started between that book and this book. >> you mean just in this --
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>> no, no, i mean i'm guessing you have other book ideas that you didn't -- i'm curious with a writer what other book ideas did you make? >> well, i would tell you except that i'm going to do some of them. [laughter] i don't know -- [laughter] i will say that somebody said, you know, this whole book is just really an autobiography; right? a massive self-justification for a lifetime of freelancing and not really working for a living. yeah, i'll plead guilty to that. yes? >> i am very interested in the lack of correlation or the opposite of correlation you found between sort of creativity and being paid for it or how being an amateur gives rise above creativity, and i wonder if you have ideas about how judgment and criticism plays
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into all of that? when people are paid for something when it's their job, more subject to being criticized, their work criticized, or that their work is more ready judged, and, you know, there's a lot of talk about how creativity blossoms in the absence of judgment. do you have any comments on that? >> one thing when i was with meredith, what i noticed, everything in her lab she invented, created, bought, improvised in a way, and even like cultivating the bacteria, she had gone back to a 1956 dairy magazine article on how to make that stuff, like, from the very beginning. she was not spending a ton of money going to labs to buy it. the thing is because everything she -- everything she had on the table was hers. when anything would go wrong, it was not even -- she didn't perceive it as failure, just another step towards success. we must have failed 25 times
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inserting plasma into the bacteria. i spent a week there with her, we stayed up 36 hours straight at one point. she was never phased by this. i think the nice thing about not being under the gun of a paycheck is that there is no since of failure or you're liberated from that. obviously, in a workplace, if you fail, you are fired or you can be. that threat is there. there's a famous experiment, and i'll ask paul to tell me what the e peermt is because -- experiment is because he'll know it, but there's a famous one, i'll describe it broadly, but they gave an assignment to children to draw something, and somehow, i can't remember the details, but creativity was an assumption of the assignment. children got stars indicating they had done well. on the second round of the experiment, those who got stars did worse because somehow like
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now it had a direction, the point that -- the action had a point and had a, you know, a cause an effect, and somehow that lowered their enthusiasm to be as inventive as the kids who were not burdened by that. like i say, there's edward dessy i think his name is pronounced, did work on intrinsic motivation, all about how we get people to do something we want them to do. you probably read about it, corporate tricks they tried to do. have you seen the bicycle with six seats? there used to have it on times square to rent it. it was a bicycle, a circular bicycle with six seats on it invented by a european ceo trying to get the vice presidents out of the building in a sort of weird new space to be creative. that whole thing was about trying to have a sense of playfulness out of a bunch of exhaustive and weary vice
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presidentings. you probably know about dress down fridays that companies have where you can come in, use their facilities, invent stuff, and not necessarily give results to the company. the idea to try to create that garage sense, you know, in a workplace. there's a zillion schemes to do this. there are some schemes, unguided amateurism guided by professionalism is the catastrophe i talked about. you see amateurs work well when there's an interaction with like a professional cohort. there's a whole chapter on astronomy, and i show you how -- there's like several century's long relationship between backyard astronomers and the university. that's been insanely productive for everybody.
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as long as -- if you go into the garage and have no connection to anyone outside, you tend towards motion machines and the kind of -- you are the neighborhood crank who has, like, the invention that gm stole; right? the lek trick car, the fuel that gets, you know, 300 miles to the gallon, but if you stay connected to reality in some way, which is increasingly difficult these days, i realize, then it can be a good bit more productive. anyway, anybody else? yes? two people, john? >> yes. when do you think, money aside, like the jim thorp thing, professional because he won ten bucks for winning a race, but money aside, one does one cease to become an amateur, and who is that decided by? i imagine you later op going on television and being, you know,
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the amateur expert; right? because you've written the book, but, you know, you mentioned debunking the woodpecker. >> hardly an amateur. a cornell dropout. yeah, the word is a complete mess of contradictions. it's one of the gnarliest words. in fact, one of the difficulties i have is trying to figure out what the damn word means. it means to love. it comes from latin, you know, from the french version; right? it means to do something out of love, not out for money. that's the most basic. in europe, it has a very specific and narrowceps of just being -- sense of just being a non-professional; right? here, if you look it up in the dictionary, we say -- if i said to you they are an amateur art collector, you would not think they are a bad art collector,
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but a good one. if they were a rank amateur, you know that person is bad at something. if i say somebody's, you know, amateurish, that means they are novice. it can mean greenhorn, boob, or connoisseur here. part of the reason the word has some conflicting meaning is precisely because americans feel conflicted about our real amateur status. there's a riff in there why we love awards, grants, and we love to be sort of recognized because we really -- we don't have this sort of -- the -- other than the university, we don't have the institutions that europe enjoys of singling out somebody. we have awards. in fact, i don't know whatever professor you're in, but in mine, we have lots of awards. [laughter] lots and lots of awards. in fact, if you get to be my age, and you have not won one, you might want to try another
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field. i do think the gnarlist of the word really speaks to our own anxiety about being amateurs. in fact, there's a riff in there about how one of the first acts of success that happens after someone has made it past amateurism is to completely erase their amateur past. i notice one of the figures i talk about in there is a guy who discovered the viking ruins in newfoundland and set back the time of european arrival by 500 years. you know, he was a crank, a total crack pot. he thought that the jews had sailed to mexico 2,000 years ago, and he was there looking for ed of that, and -- evidence of that, and he had a number of crack pot theories, but he was right about this one. he was a lawyer from norway originally. when he died, you would not know this. he was the greatest archaeologist of our time, and
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he had all these degrees. what you lack, young man, is a credential. [laughter] anyway, i think the complexity -- i don't know where one passes from amateurism to professionalism. but -- but -- and the word can mean so many things. obviously, no one considers david an amateur anything. he's one of the great -- one of the great -- he's thee great bird painter alive right now, but in that particular fight about the cornell sighting of the woodpecker, he was an outsider. he spent all the time in the field looking at birds and painting them; right? that made him in some ways more of an expert than the official experts. all of the ph.d.'s got caught
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up in mass hysteria of the moment seeing something they desperately wanted to see, and they saw it. they even videotaped it, but, you know, now that it's over, we now see, even in this most expert occasion, that a kind of big foot phenomena happened; right? you -- you now almost list the parts of every one of these big foot sort of lochness moments. there's always a fuzzy picture. the bird picture? blurred. big foot? blurry. lochness, fuzzy. there's vague foot prints or whatever. in the case of the woodpecker, it was the acoustic sound recordings of the tin horn squeak it makes. anything can make that noise; right? you had this mass hysteria.
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you had seven credentialed experts from cornell in the woods together on a secret mission because no one knew about it when they were out there, on the bubble, on a secret mission to see a bird we think exists, and then they all saw it in a couple week period. after that, no one saw it again. it took three years of outsiders led by david and also by a three year blog spot, tom kneel sense of -- nelson's blog spot undid the findings of cornell, and most people know, cornell is in denial, but most of us now know that no one saw the woodpecker. it was an amazing that the reason i wrote that is it was amazing to see how officials could construct an entire fortress of a new truth and how the screaming amateurs could get a rise later, and in this case, rightfully tear it down. did you have a question? >> yeah, almost piggy backing on
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the one that proceeded it, but, one thought of the amateurs of their -- the packards, the jobs, and then you have the tinker who just wants to do that. what fills in the spectrum of what people want to get out of this? >> well, i think they all start with the tinkerer; right? i came upon a wonderful story of a 22-year-old woman at penn who is, like, a paleo biologist who is annoyed she didn't bring the computer plug and the computer is draining. she's like why don't we have wireless battery rechargers? we have wireless everything else. she's meredith perry. she went to expert engineering known as wikipedia and started looking at how would you beam
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electricity through the air. that turns out to be very difficult, but you can send sound through the air easily. you can send sown -- sound through the air we cannot hear or sense. there's cells that you could create, and she's now done this and is the ceo of a new company called u-beam. she's got a host of engineers working for her. she's 22 years old. it's now, i think, that is now attracting venture capital. if she does that, i mean, basically every engineer she went to said, oh, you can't be done. what's the reason? because they had not done it. that's why. i mean, if that company goes public, i suspect in a year, her name will be around with the name of mark zuckerberg. amateurism comes in sierk --
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cycle like in economic depression. that garage was restored to cost of millions of dollars by packard and to the original state it was when he and hewlitt first went in there. it's the great temple of american ingenuity, where we go to dream, away from the spouse, the kids, the dog, the bills, and so it's not a coincidence. i don't think either that jobs went into the cooper garage in 1976 at the height of the inflation, stagflation years of gerald ford, and now here we are. amateurs are popping up. patents are spiking. patents are a bunch of -- it's largely a con game filled by trolls. hard to say patent indicates anything other than thieves trying to steal money from apple computer or something, but there are other indications that
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there's more startups now. look at the jobs numbers from april, we had 119,000 jobs, by the way, created in april according to the government. how many of those 119,000 jobs were created by big firms, the ones that are funded by wall street investors, the ones funded by what we now flatter bankers with the term "job creators"? 4,000. 4,000 came from large firms. 58,000 came from startups and small businesses. you know, it used to be a common belief among democrats and republicans that main street, small businesses was the engine of american creativity or at least that's why jobs got created. we now, both parties ad hoc to wall street that we have to flatter them with a ridiculous term of "job creators". they are bankers. they fund things. they are no more job creators than i am a farmer for


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