Steve: Corey, welcome to the show.
Corey: Steve, welcome to the show.
Steve: This is something we’ve been meaning to do for a long time, but as we head into the Christmas season, we got a little free time and we finally have a time to sit down and record one of our conversations, which I think hopefully the listeners will be happy to hear about. We’re just going to talk about a few topics that we find interesting.
Corey: That’s right. Stuff that we think has been in the news quite a bit.
Steve: I think what we agreed to do is I’m going to introduce you to the viewers, and then you’re going to introduce me. And we can ask each other a few questions just so they get to know about us a little bit, who’s actually on the show. I’m going to start with your sort of CV bio kind of information, and if I get something wrong, you just correct me, okay? I’m going to start from your childhood all the way through today.
Corey: Parts that you know it.
Steve: Grew up Amherst, Massachusetts?
Corey: That’s right.
Steve: Age 16, started Amherst.
Steve: 15 started Amherst. Math major for a while.
Corey: Math major throughout the whole time.
Steve: Throughout the whole time.
Corey: Physics major for a while.
Steve: Okay. That’s awesome.
Corey: Steve’s a physicist.
Steve: Yes. Then it was off to MIT.
Corey: That’s right.
Steve: Where you studied linguistics.
Corey: That’s correct.
Steve: Okay. Then from MIT it was to Stanford, PhD in philosophy, and is it correct to say philosophy of language?
Corey: That’s right.
Steve: Okay. Philosophy of language. Then you became a professional philosopher. Faculty appointments, University of Washington, University of Maryland. Then you realized something. Now, is it too strong to say you realized what you had been doing maybe was BS or you weren’t happy with… You didn’t think you were going to make progress on the questions that you were interested in through purely philosophical means? Is that fair?
Corey: I guess I began to lose faith in what I was doing is a probably better way.
Steve: I would just say you found out it was BS or you… No, I’m kidding.
Corey: It wasn’t for me.
Steve: It wasn’t for you, okay. Then you did something really heroic, which when I tell my other friends about you, I always say this about you, that fairly well into your adult life you made a career change where you said, to understand the mind… I think your whole purpose this whole time was to understand the human mind, right? So to understand the mind better, you decided you really wanted to understand the workings of it, the neuroscience of it, and so you somehow got admitted to the lab of a Nobel Prize winner at Columbia in neuroscience where you did your second PhD. Am I correct?
Corey: That’s right. That’s right.
Steve: Okay. You are one of the world’s experts on color vision in drosophila. Is that correct?
Corey: Yeah. I think I know a fair amount about, I guess I’d say chromatic vision.
Steve: Chromatic vision.
Corey: Because it’s actually not clear they have color vision. They’ve got something on the borderline.
Steve: Got it, got it, okay. But you lovingly caressed in a dark room hundreds of fruit flies.
Corey: Hundreds of thousands.
Steve: Hundreds of thousands of fruit flies.
Corey: I spent five years in a windowless room counting fruit flies.
Steve: Okay. And all in the service of understanding the human mind.
Corey: Yeah. My view is you want to start with something you could actually understand, a simple system, and that may be the best way to get a window into a very complex system like humans. That’s what attracted me to flies, and the idea is the flies would be an almost mechanistic way of understanding something that’s very not mechanistic when you get the complexity of humans.
Steve: Excellent. I just went through that to establish your scientific and humanistic chops. I’ll just mention briefly that you spent some time at McKinsey as a consultant, so you’ve seen the inner workings of the business world as well?
Corey: That’s right.
Steve: And you’ve also been involved in technology startups, so you’ve seen a lot about technological innovation, business model innovation, things like that. Okay. In a sense, I would say you have one of the broadest backgrounds, intellectual backgrounds of anybody I know.
Corey: You can call it broad, you could call it random.
Steve: I want to be positive. Now, a couple random things about you that I know is that when you were an undergraduate you were close friends with David Foster Wallace, one of the, I would say, leading writers of the late 20th century in America.
Corey: That’s right. Yeah. Dave was a good friend in college. That’s right.
Steve: Hopefully in a later podcast or video cast, we’ll come back and talk more about Foster Wallace. Would you like that?
Corey: Sure. I’d be glad to, actually.
Steve: By coincidence, I have a good friend when I was at the University of Oregon who did his PhD in English at Berkeley when I was there, and he’s writing a huge, monumental scholarly work on Wallace.
Steve: And has already many hundreds of pages.
Steve: Yeah. I’ve read a little bit of Wallace, but I’m not the huge fan.
Corey: You’ve actually, you forgot to mention this really strange quirk of history of how I ended up here.
Steve: Yeah, before we get into that, I just want to say something about how we know each other. We’ve known each other since…
Steve: 1990. The fall of ’90.
Steve: Okay, so almost 20 years, 18-plus years.
Corey: Steve, Steve.
Corey: Almost 30 years.
Steve: Oh, almost 30 years. Sorry, I can’t do math. Anyway, almost 30 years we’ve known each other. We met on an airplane.
Corey: That’s right.
Steve: Headed from San Francisco to Boston, and we were both being interviewed by the Society of Fellows at Harvard.
Corey: Fellows, that’s right.
Steve: And the lady, this wonderful lady secretary, Diana Morris, who was a secretary of the Society of Fellows, just decided that since we were both coming from West Coast universities, you were coming from Stanford, I was coming from Berkeley, that she wanted to seat us together on the plane so we could chat on the way to our interview.
Corey: That’s right.
Steve: That’s how we first met, and we talked the whole flight.
Corey: That’s right. It was great.
Steve: Since that, after that-
Corey: And you got in and I didn’t. That was-
Steve: I don’t want to talk about that. But subsequently though hanging out in the Bay Area because we still had time left before we finished our degrees and when off to where we went off, you went to Seattle and I went to Cambridge. I remember whole days where I think you thought the Stanford area was kind of boring, so you would always come up to Berkeley.
Corey: Palo Alto was not hip back then.
Steve: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s hip now, but if you like startups, it’s the place to be. I remember whole days where we would walk around Berkeley, and there were so many big, beautiful bookstores at the time. This is pre-internet days basically, and the only way to get information into your brain was to walk into Cody’s Books or Shakespeare’s Books.
Corey: That’s right. Those were fantastic.
Steve: And just spend hours reading. The humble book clerk at one of these bookstores had impeccable taste, and so the books that were on display were brilliant, leading edge books. A huge part of my education as a grad student was actually just hanging out at these bookstores. I remember hanging out with you and just walking through Berkeley on bright sunny days and just talking the whole time.
Corey: It was fantastic. Yeah, those were some of the best times.
Steve: Yeah. That’s what I hope to reproduce on this podcast is us talking with the occasional guest about the same types of things. Some of these questions are still unresolved about consciousness and how the brain works and what’s fundamental physics, so hopefully we can have those kinds of discussions but now share them with a broader audience. Then I just want to say I also remember I think we met in Madrid and Paris also.
Corey: That’s correct. That’s correct.
Steve: And also wandered around there as well, so I have very fond memories of you. Anyway, I’ll stop here with my introduction of you, but anyway, I hope to recapture those conversations here but on video and podcast format.
Corey: Fabulous. That’s astonishing memory, Steve. Let me give me your biography as I recall it. You grew up in Iowa.
Steve: Ames, Iowa.
Corey: Ames, Iowa. It’s interesting, you took an interest in science very, very early as I recall, and your father was a physicist. Is that right?
Steve: Father was an engineer.
Corey: Engineer, okay.
Steve: Professor of engineering, aerospace engineering. I was always interested in science a little bit, but actually when I was a kid my parents always used to say that I was going to be a lawyer because I was very argumentative. So every discussion at the dinner table Steve would have to make his point or something like this, so they used to kid me that I was going to be lawyer.
Corey: I remember you describing your father as Spock at various points.
Steve: My dad was a very Confucian guy. We could get into that whole colorful history of how he got to the United States. He came to the US in 1948, so before the Communists took over. He was a very serious scholar. His life philosophy was very Confucian. Interestingly, my mother comes from a line of devout Christians, and her family were converted to Christianity by a missionary hundreds of years ago actually in China, so I think 1800s. So pretty interesting mix of my mom was a very outgoing Christian person, and my dad was this very stoic Confucian professor very on the nerdy side, so interesting family.
Corey: Yeah. I’d like to talk about Iowa because I grew up on the East Coast, and for people in the East Coast, the Midwest was and still is this incredible mystery.
Steve: Although you live here now.
Corey: I live here now. Yeah. I’m actually from the Midwest because I was born in Urbana, Illinois, but our understanding of the Midwest was very different. I do remember that Iowa had the highest readership of newspapers in the country.
Steve: Yeah. Iowa’s an interesting state, and I would say that this is another topic for another podcast, but the Midwest for me is a very high trust… You can see this Northern European influence here, so Germanic or in Iowa it would be very Scandinavian, Iowa and Minnesota, Wisconsin. It was very high trust, and for us the East Coast was very strange.
Steve: For me when I went to Cambridge and started spending time in New York and places like that, I was like, “Wow, this place is kind of a low trust dystopia.” You can’t go up to a random person and expect that you could rely on what they’re telling you or that they’ll do what they say, whereas in Iowa you could. Many times my drunk friends and I would get our cars stuck in the snow or something on a Saturday night, and a farm guy would tow us out or something or just do really highly altruistic things, which I think on the East Coast you’d think the guy would rob you or kill you or whatever.
Corey: We just had that experience four years ago in the highway in Michigan.
Steve: Yeah, see. There you go. There you go.
Corey: Yeah. We’d talk about other things, about also the size of people in the upper Midwest.
Steve: Yeah. And people are big in Iowa and Minnesota and probably here in Michigan too.
Corey: You were struck by how short people were in the East Coast.
Steve: When I went to LA and went for college, which I guess you’re going to talk about, but when I went off to the coast for college and for work, yeah, I was amazed that people were a lot smaller than in Iowa.
Corey: So you went to Caltech for college?
Steve: I went to a very strange place for college.
Corey: Which is famous. If you’re in physics or in math, these kind of places as an undergraduate or anywhere else, Caltech is in some ways as much of a mecca as MIT. I recall there’s something people say, and I don’t know if you told me this or not, but you start off in orientation, and they say, “Look around you.”
Corey: There are four people around you, and one of these four people will not be there at graduation. Is that something that happened?
Steve: Yeah. My friends like to say that I was a Feynman idolater because my hero was this guy called Richard Feynman. I went to Caltech largely because of him because I learned about Caltech largely because of him. Caltech is actually now even more so than before a very unusual university because they’re super committed to meritocracy, so it’s basically we want to know your test scores and your grades and whether you won some science or physics competition at a national level or something. That’s the kind of thing they care about, and we’re going to admit our students just based on that. It’s a very small class. My graduating class was 186 kids, so it’s half the size of my high school.
Steve: It’s incredibly intense, so everybody there has to take two years of advanced mathematics, two years of physics, including quantum mechanics. Even the biology majors, neuroscience majors, have to take quantum mechanics. You could say that’s not wise, but on the other hand you could say, wow, the people who get through that are going to be potentially pretty dynamite scientists. If you do a study of the ratio of Nobel Prize winners and you could even include literature prize or economics prize, the number of Nobel Prizes won divided by the size of the alumni population, Caltech for a US university is number one by a large margin. Amherst actually does very well.
Corey: They’re number eight, I think.
Steve: Yeah. Amherst does very well. Harvard is I think number two.
Corey: Two. I think Amherst, I think we have three. Is it, we have…
Steve: One’s a physicist, actually.
Corey: It’s a physicist. It’s Carl Woese, and we’ll go into this at some point in time.
Steve: Anyway, I went to a weird school.
Corey: I think you graduated in three years, right?
Steve: I graduated in three years because there were no girls there. The male to female ratio was-
Corey: This is something you didn’t tell me.
Steve: Male to female ratio was five to one.
Steve: I thought being a naïve Iowan, I thought oh, in LA, no problem, there’ll be plenty of social life in LA. I didn’t realize until I got there that no, I’m stuck on this little campus, which is almost all male, and we’re working all the time. By the end of my freshman year, I was like, “I have two choices, I either have to transfer or I have to get out of here as soon as possible.” That’s part of the reason I got out in three years.
Corey: I thought it was just purely intellectual, that you had…
Steve: I had done a lot of college coursework at Iowa State University where my father was a professor before I went to college, so I was very advanced, so I could get out in three years. But had that not been a possibility, I probably would’ve transferred. I would’ve probably transferred to somewhere like Stanford or Princeton, so those were the two other schools that I was thinking of when I went to college.
Corey: Now is it right that there’s a week at the end of the year at Caltech where crazy stuff happens?
Steve: There is a day called Ditch Day.
Corey: Ditch Day.
Steve: Which is very famous. The seniors barricade their rooms, and the underclassmen try to break into their rooms. Then if you break into somebody’s room, then you can do what’s called a counter stack. People have done counter stacks, like take apart the guy’s motorcycle and put it together or a car even and put it together in his room running, really crazy stuff. The stacks come in different varieties. Some are brute force stacks where you’re literally pounding on… A guy bricks up his door or something.
Steve: Those are actually pretty stupid, actually, but then there are finesse stacks where you assign a task to the underclassmen. They have to perform these tasks. We have an honor code at Caltech. If you successfully perform the tasks, then you get into the room, so it’s all honor code. A famous stack was a math problem that was solvable, but it was so hard that nobody could solve it for the whole entire day. The day lasts like 12 hours or something. My stack was a finesse stack, and it was for the underclassmen to go to the Hollywood sign in the Hollywood Hills and change it to read Caltech.
Steve: A bunch of underclassmen, because I was a well-known senior, so a lot of underclassmen were going to work on this project. They had bed sheets and stuff ready to go and do this, and the press, the LA press, the TV stations cover Ditch Day sometimes. One of them just said to a reporter, they said, “Oh, what stack are you working on?” They’re like, “We’re going to go and change the Hollywood sign to say Caltech.” This lady reporter called the Hollywood Police Department and said, “Hey, what do you think of these Caltech kids coming up?” The cop said, “Well, they’re going to meet a police car when they go up there.” They were foiled. They never got into my room.
Steve: The next year the same kids, who some of them were now seniors, managed to change the sign. When I was a first-year grad student at Berkeley, I got this postcard, and on the postcard was a picture of the Hollywood sign, but it had been changed to read Caltech.
Corey: Oh, that’s fabulous.
Steve: They executed on my stack, but they didn’t get to trash my room. I had the best outcome.
Corey: There’s a similar practice at MIT towards the end of the year. They have some sort of prank, I remember. I think it’s just before I got there, but someone arranged to dissemble a car, assemble on top of the MIT building.
Steve: Police car. I think it was even a police car.
Corey: Police car with two stuffed police and they’re eating donuts.
Corey: It was fabulous.
Steve: That’s the kind of thing that goes on at Caltech.
Corey: After Caltech, you leave and you go to Berkeley for graduate school.
Steve: Yep, that’s right.
Corey: And there you were studying theoretical physics for your PhD.
Corey: Tell me a little bit about that time.
Steve: That was a great time in my life because I was still very young. I finished my undergrad degree when I was 19, so I was a kid. I deliberately wanted to go to Berkeley because I felt like okay, I’ve been cooped up here at Caltech for three years, and I want to go the, first, it’s got to be a top physics department. But then I want to go to the biggest, craziest school that I can find, and that was Berkeley, which is why we were always walking around Berkeley, not walking around Palo Alto. I ended up there, and I had a great time.
Steve: Really, intellectually it was fantastic because they have great faculty there. Lawrence Berkeley Lab is there. It’s on the larger side for physics graduate schools, so there were a lot of really good classmates that I’m still friends with today or still even professionally interact with because a lot of them are professional physicists now. I think those were definitely among the happiest days of my life for sure.
Corey: It’s funny. I mean, I would sense that you were at Berkeley but not quite of Berkeley. You don’t really see yourself as bohemian. In fact, you describe me as a bohemian, and I’m not a bohemian, especially if you think how little bohemian you actually are.
Steve: You’re more bohemian than I am.
Corey: There’s no doubt about that.
Steve: You got to put yourself back into late 80s America. I had never had an espresso. In fact, this is pre-Starbucks, I think even pre… Peet’s Coffee was just getting going, which was the inspiration for Starbucks for Howard Schultz in Berkeley. I remember going there in these big, beautiful cafes that were open late at night and the bookstores. It was a bohemian aspect of Berkeley that attracted me, which actually to be honest did not exist anywhere else in the US at that time, I would say. That is what I loved about it, plus the weather was perfect and the light. Even the light off the Bay I’ll always remember.
Corey: Always phenomenal.
Steve: Yeah. People don’t realize that, but if you drive around the East Bay late in the day, you’re always getting this kind of reflected sunlight off the Bay. Everything is just beautiful. There’s a guy called Paul Graham who’s one of the founders of Y Combinator. He’s a famous startup guy, and he has this characterization of what is the nature of particular cities. He says, “Okay, if you’re walking around New York or Manhattan, the number one message you’re getting constantly beamed into your head is you should be richer, because everything is so expensive here. There’s no way you can survive here in Manhattan without a lot of money.”
Corey: That’s funny.
Steve: So you should be richer.
Corey: That’s also right.
Steve: If you walk around D.C., he says, “Number one message for you is you should be more powerful because D.C. is all about power hierarchy.” It’s like, are you in a motorcade going through town or are you some schlub who has to go through security to get… In Boston or Cambridge, in particular, you should know more because the focus in Cambridge is really on pure knowledge.
Corey: That’s right.
Steve: Scholarly achievement. He says, “In Berkeley, the message is you should live better. This is the most beautiful aesthetic experience that you can have, and you should go to… ” I forgot, who’s the famous chef just north of campus? Well, anyway, there’s a very famous chef. Chez Panisse is the restaurant, but anyway, all kinds of things got started in Berkeley, culinary movement.
Corey: That’s right.
Steve: Cafes in America, good coffee, European culture, all those.
Corey: I’d add to that, you should also be more open, experimental, all these sorts of things.
Steve: Exactly, yeah. So I loved that. At the time it seemed like the 80s were very distant from the 60s and 70s, but now when I look back it wasn’t that separate.
Corey: Not at all.
Steve: That culture was still around and there were co-ops and food co-ops.
Corey: That’s right. And there were eccentric characters. Remember the basketball man?
Corey: Remember the polka dot lady?
Corey: The large gatherings of people with a guy playing guitar in front of Sproul Plaza.
Steve: After we graduated, there was a guy called the Naked Man.
Corey: That’s right, that’s right.
Steve: He was an undergrad who would actually go to class naked.
Corey: Yeah. He gave a talk at Stanford.
Corey: Headline was “Andrew Martinez has a small penis.”
Steve: Oh, that’s nice.
Corey: He was quite open about the fact he wasn’t showing off.
Steve: Okay. I never saw. But anyway, I definitely enjoyed my time there.
Corey: He would go to class naked in the winter.
Corey: It was pretty astonishing.
Steve: I think I wore shorts. The time I was in California, I think I basically wore shorts every day.
Corey: It’s funny because it’s reminding me… I don’t know if this is true for Santa Cruz, but Santa Cruz actually had a clothing optional college around that time.
Corey: I don’t know if that’s still around, but it does show how far things have maintained. I remember in the early 80s at University of Massachusetts my dad taught. There’s still these kind of radical left organizations which were really much more popular. They’ve come back a little bit. These were full-on Trotskyist organizations, some teaching revolution, and it really was a part of the 60s that continued. I mean, parallel to a lot of the conservatism that was arriving, they still subsisted.
Steve: Yeah. We lived through an era where, well, you and I lived through Ronald Reagan and all of that. Now finally people are openly talking again about socialism in America. It’s an interesting time. It’s another thing we’re going to talk about more, I think, where we think America is going and where it’s been.
Corey: That’s one of the fabulous things about getting old is you can look back at things.
Steve: Yeah. You have a well of experience that you can draw back on, and some situations I think we’re seeing now we’ve seen before. We know how it’s going to play out. Whereas if you’re a young person, you’re seeing it for the first time, you have no idea how this is going to play out.
Corey: It was interesting, I had a conversation with a friend of mine. This was when Hugo Chavez first came to power in Venezuela. His response was, “I’ve seen this movie before.”
Corey: And this was like 13 years ago. After Berkeley, we go on the plane flight.
Steve: We go on the plane flight to be interviewed by these senior fellows at Harvard.
Corey: I have a disastrous interview with the Society of Fellows. We’ll describe it at some point in time, but anyway, you had a very good interview. It was pretty clear even by the dinner that night that you were likely to get admitted to the Fellows. Describe that dinner. Do you remember that dinner?
Steve: It’s funny, I don’t remember the dinner that well.
Corey: Oh, interesting.
Steve: What I really remember strongly is being in my apartment at Berkeley and getting a phone call from them saying that I was going to be admitted to the Society of Fellows. That was a big moment.
Corey: You’re placed at the center of this very large, almost…
Steve: A huge oak table.
Corey: A huge oak table, exactly, and people coming up and talking to you. I was pushed over to the corner.
Steve: I guess I didn’t notice that.
Corey: Yeah. I was actually sitting with a very famous philosopher, Kline, but I think-
Steve: He was like a tree.
Corey: Yeah, exactly. I think my answers, I was almost on the way out of philosophy at that point in time. But it was clear at that time, and I was very happy when you got the call. You were there in Cambridge for, is it three or four years?
Steve: I was actually there for a little over three years because I had this other fellowship from the super collider.
Corey: That’s right.
Steve: At the same time they were building this super collider thing, and they gave me a fellowship. I actually got what very few… Most junior fellows don’t want to leave because you have no responsibilities. You have a travel budget, no responsibilities, and you can do whatever you want. It’s like heaven. It’s like being at the Institute for Advanced Studies or something.
Steve: You’re right in the middle of Harvard. Instead, you might become an assistant professor at some godforsaken Midwestern university. That would be where you’re leaving for, so people don’t want to leave. I got to stay a little bit longer because I had this extra fellowship, and I lived in Dunster House, which is one of the river houses. I had an apartment there, and it was mostly undergrads. But Harvard has this tutorial system, so there were a lot of older people as well, the tutors who lived in the house. It was really a very vibrant social situation, and I really got to see what does the world look like to a Harvard undergrad.
Steve: Which gave me I think a lot of insight about elite culture in America and what is the path into Goldman Sachs or the path into McKinsey, all these things. I think you would never understand those things if you hadn’t had that experience.
Corey: That’s fascinating.
Steve: Even at Stanford, I think even at Caltech or Stanford or MIT, you don’t understand these things, but if you spend time at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, you get a sense of what the track looks like.
Corey: It’s interesting because at that time Stanford hadn’t actually come up as far as it has now.
Steve: Exactly. Now it’s different.
Corey: Yeah. Things were still dominated by those East Coast Ivies.
Corey: After the time at junior fellows, you went to Texas for the-
Steve: No. They killed the super collider.
Corey: You never went there yet?
Steve: No, I’ve never actually visited it.
Corey: Oh, really?
Steve: Because Congress defunded it.
Corey: That’s right.
Steve: I had this fellowship to do research related to the super collider, and then the US just backed out. There was this huge tunnel, partially dug tunnel under the ground, and they actually filled it in.
Corey: Remember that.
Steve: It was actually a very bad time to be in particle physics because of that.
Corey: I think there were a couple complex things happening at that time. They killed the super collider. At that time the Soviet Union collapsed, right?
Corey: We can talk about that. I was actually there during that week in Moscow, but-
Steve: I was here to receive the hordes of world-class physicists-
Corey: I was going to say that, exactly.
Steve: Who left the Soviet Union and all took jobs in the United States at exactly the time when I was applying for jobs.
Corey: It was a boon for US mathematics and physics.
Steve: No question.
Corey: But it was very difficult if you’re on the job market there.
Steve: No question. The only thing that rivaled that was when all the Jews escaped Europe under Hitler and staffed all our universities. What brought the US from total backwater scientifically to world leadership was those emigres.
Steve: And it happened again. The Soviet Union had, if anything, a bigger scientific infrastructure being a socialist state.
Corey: Of course.
Steve: Scientists are cheap. They had, if anything, a bigger scientific infrastructure, especially in physical science and engineering, than the United States, and they all came here. It was tough for a young physicist at that time. That’s why I’m very sensitive about immigration.
Corey: No, I can-
Steve: When people say, “Immigration doesn’t hurt native-born people or people who are from the United States,” it’s not true. It’s a hundred percent not true.
Corey: What’s interesting about your case is people I think often view it as having an effect on people who are lower income or they say jobs Americans don’t want, but you’re actually describing something happened to you-
Steve: High-end stuff.
Corey: About as high end as you get.
Steve: High-end stuff. But when we’re now coupled pretty tightly to a billion people in India, a billion people in China, and their intellectual elite are all trying to come here, tell me that does not affect the prospects of a bright kid from Amherst trying to get a top faculty job. Of course it affects that kid.
Corey: But also can say it also positively affects the US economy since we have an incredible talent pool.
Steve: Yes. It’s a double-edged sword. Helps the US economy, hurts certain classes of Americans.
Corey: Sure. This is going to a consistent theme. We both see that many, many issues and many phenomena are doubled-edged swords. Often people on one side of the spectrum will only view one side of the sword and not see the other side of the sword.
Steve: Correct. I would say my biggest disappointment about academia is actually how not particularly rational and balanced is the reasoning that we find in our colleagues, so they’re not often aware of the best arguments against their positions and will just fall into line and adopt some party line kind of view.
Corey: I think that’s not different than many people, right? I think many of us exist in cultures where the people around us and our interests, for example, align with one particular point of view, and there’s not a lot of pressure to adopt the other point of view. I have to say people tend to adopt the other point of view when it’s absolutely critical to be accurate.
Steve: Right, correct.
Corey: When truth really matters, people will often see both things. We’ll talk about this a little bit. One of my favorite anecdotes about Einstein was, it was really partly what made him so great, is Einstein loved to argue a lot of intellectually active people. You’d be arguing with Einstein. It’s funny, you’d be arguing with him and about some topic very passionately, and then they’d realized halfway through the argument he’d switch sides. He was arguing the other side.
Steve: Yep. I absolutely think if, I think, was it Goethe? I think Mills said something about this. If you don’t understand the other side’s arguments, you know little about your own argument.
Corey: That’s right.
Steve: I totally agree. I think one of the topics that we’re both interested in is rationality or epistemology. How do people come to the views and the confidence levels they have in those views.
Corey: That’s right.
Steve: And what is the right way to do it, and what is the wrong way to do it.
Corey: That’s the best way probably to get truth in a very uncertain world.
Steve: Right. And what kinds of systems force people to use good epistemology as opposed to bad epistemology.
Corey: What’s interesting is you find people, Einstein, who he had this view, which was he wasn’t committed to anything. He would simply argue every perspective he could until he’d just adopt the strongest one, which is often some combination. It’s that flexibility I think that often allowed him to be as creative as he could because he simply could get outside of an existing paradigm and view it from a very different way.
Steve: Yep, like Spock.
Corey: Like Spock, yeah. A little like Spock. Exactly, exactly. Let’s finish your bio. After the super collider collapsed or it imploded, then you’re off to Yale.
Steve: That’s right. My first faculty job was at Yale as an assistant professor, and that looks good. You were at Harvard and then you went to Yale, so that’s pretty good. I always viewed it as being sent down because Yale is a, no offense to Yalies out there in the world, but Yale is kind of a pale imitation of Harvard. Let’s just be honest.
Corey: I didn’t say that Yalies. This is Steve.
Steve: Yes, yes.
Corey: We’ll be saying this a lot. I’ll be saying this a lot.
Steve: I will take the heat for what I say.
Corey: I should just have a sign which says basically, not me.
Steve: No. Yeah, I’m not attributing it to you, but I did spend I think slightly longer. Did I spend slightly longer at Yale? About the same time, so I was a professor there for about three and a half years. I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed living in New Haven, and I had a lot of good friends there, but definitely there was a difference between Harvard and Yale, I feel. It’s true to say that Yale has more of a humanities focus, a little bit less of a science focus. Anyway, I enjoyed my time there. Yeah.
Corey: This is actually one of the active debates in academia this time about Yale’s trajectory over the past 20 years or so.
Corey: Well, many schools have made a big bet on science to a large degree, and Harvard in fact has built an engineering college.
Corey: Stanford’s built itself up through technology primarily, and Yale took a very different path.
Steve: Yep. They’re paying for it.
Corey: I think even schools like small liberal arts colleges where I’m from, I think people really realize it’s extremely important to have both, for anyone who graduates, have both a technical and a humanities background. I think that’s where that power actually comes, and we share this. It’s good to have a humanist perspective and a scientific perspective.
Steve: I agree.
Corey: So you were at Yale for a couple years. Now it’s interesting, it’s funny, we’d lost touch for a little bit, but I think… I can’t think of when I first was listening to you on the radio. This was after you left Yale, and I’m listening on the radio. I’m hearing about Triangle Boy, and you’re on NPR.
Steve: Yes, okay. Good.
Corey: Am I aware that this started at Yale?
Steve: One of my PhD students at Yale and I started a company.
Corey: What year was this?
Steve: This was about the end of the 20th century, so late 90s, and it was when the internet thing was happening. We were setting up some inexpensive Linux workstations. At the time that was a new thing. They were immediately broken into. They were scanned and broken into by a hacker probably halfway across the world, and we discovered this.
Corey: They stole all this valuable physics or all these physics-
Steve: They just scan everything. In those days there were no firewalls. People were just scanning constantly networks, and if they saw that oh, hey, this particular distribution of Linux has this vulnerability, I’ll just attack it right away. It’s automated. The hacker had installed a packet sniffer, so he could see all of the internet traffic within the physics building. We were playing with the packet sniffer, and I could see what the grad students in the lab downstairs were looking at Playboy magazine or something. I could actually sniff their packets and see what they were doing.
Steve: My student and I realized, wow, we both thought the internet was going to be huge. We realized security is basically completely nascent. It’s not been developed. All these technologies that are common now like firewalls and things like this had not been developed then. Encryption wasn’t really well understood. So we decided we would start a company, and that was partially why I left Yale to go to the West Coast. I took a job at the University of Oregon. Eugene, which is another kind of hippie town actually, it’s like a small college hippie town in the woods, in the forest. It’s an hour flight from Silicon Valley, and so you could conceivably be a professor but also run a startup in Silicon Valley.
Steve: There were five flights a day. The bubble was huge at that time, so I think there were five or six flights a day from Eugene Airport to San Francisco. I moved west. My student and I did a startup, and the startup, first it was in Berkeley and then we moved it to Emeryville. It was staffed by, I think there were a dozen PhDs in physics in that startup.
Corey: It’s interesting, the product I heard about was fascinating because it wasn’t pure security. You were actually helping people in China hide their tracks from the Chinese government by bouncing their signals off a third party.
Steve: Yes. We built all kinds of fancy tools, and one of our early investors was this CIA venture fund called In-Q-Tel. A lot of these technologies went into the CIA, but we built a very lightweight piece of code that anybody could run on their computer. It would allow packets to be rerouted through that machine. The Chinese government was just setting up its firewall, and you could make it look to the Chinese government like this person in China was just communicating with a computer in your house or maybe at some university, but it was reflecting the packet so that it could then load the New York Times or BBC or whatever banned content they couldn’t get in China.
Steve: We had this thing called Triangle Boy which would route the packets in a triangular path. It’s funny that you still remember that because in the hacker world there’s still some people who remember that as being one of the coolest things developed in the early internet days, but most people now have no idea what that is.
Corey: Did that get also absorbed into the CIA?
Corey: Interesting. It’s funny because my college roommate, he’s a very interesting character, Miller Maley. He started Amherst at 12, graduated at 16, and went to MIT. Actually, he got two PhDs, one in comp sci and then at Princeton he got one in math. Miller disappeared into the NSA at some point in time, not just his code but actually the physical Miller. If you googled him around, you…
Steve: There’s no trace.
Corey: Well, there’s this obscure institute, and then you can find this weird, it’s like a laundry list of emails. It’s like a webpage sort of circa. They were really primitive webpages. Anyway, you can find his email on there, and that’s when I last had touch with him.
Steve: Yeah. NSA, at least at one time, it may still be the single largest employer of mathematicians, and so there are a ton. There’s a huge accumulation of really smart guys at the NSA, and they’re extremely strong. At the CIA not so much, but CIA’s better now. But at the time they were really behind.
Corey: They’re being rivaled. I think Microsoft was making a similar claim that they…
Steve: It could be. It could be.
Corey: This startup, you eventually sold it to Symantec?
Steve: That’s right.
Corey: For 20 million?
Steve: $26 million in cash.
Corey: Dollars, wow. You had some interesting claim. I remember, I think I ran into you or just afterwards we were talking about the stress you had towards the end of the sale because you were saying people’s interests start diverging.
Steve: Yes. Yeah, it’s very interesting. If you’ve ever done a startup, you quickly get educated in a whole bunch of things like microeconomics or game theory. This is a game theory observation that for the founders and the people in the startup, while the startup is running, everybody’s interests are mostly aligned. You have these almost worthless shares in the company, which only become worthwhile if the company becomes really successful. You’re paying yourself below market salary. Everybody’s interests are aligned. The team has to win. The company has to win, otherwise none of us win.
Steve: The moment your company is acquired by, say, a public company, then everyone’s going to cash out. Somebody’s going to get the plum job within Symantec and somebody’s going to get kicked out, et cetera, et cetera. Now, I wasn’t really involved in that because I wanted to go back to being a professor. Actually, I was actually back already at the university when the company got acquired, so I wasn’t involved in that. But I saw the guys on my team all instantaneously stab each other in the back the moment the incentives became dis-aligned. That happened. It’s a cliché. It happens at every startup.
Corey: I think you also talked about having to fire somebody, which is not something that many professors… and how difficult this was for you.
Steve: The most emotionally difficult thing maybe I’ve ever had to do in my professional life, I won’t talk about my personal life, well, we can talk about it, was there was a point in time when the NASDAQ bubble really popped. It was actually soon after our startup was funded, and we realized we were going to have to conserve cash. We had bulked up. We had a lot of employees, some of whom were actually people that I’d known for many years who were physicists that I had hired, one guy from Los Alamos. He had been at Los Alamos, and he wanted to leave Los Alamos. We brought him into the startup, a bunch of guys like that. We had to downsize. We had to fire about 10 people. I remember it was a beautiful sunny day right on the bay, because our offices were overlooking the bay from Emeryville.
Steve: It’s funny, when you’re a startup guy, it’s so much more high degree of complexity and more difficult than being a university administrator because you never have to do anything like this as a university administrator. We had to fire a pretty good chunk of our team, and how do you do that? Because if you start calling people in one at a time to a conference room, because the firing process is quite complicated. You have to get them to sign a noncompete, a release and all these other things. There are a bunch of legal things that have to be hashed out. If you start doing it one at a time and people in the office see what’s happening, all hell can break loose. We actually took these guys out of the office, and we fired them out in the sunshine under some palm trees near the entry of the building.
Steve: I’ll never forget that because one of the guys, who was an older guy who actually had kids and I’d pulled him out of physics to do this startup, he started crying. This guy’s now a successful person in the IT industry, but at the time his future was very uncertain because he had left physics and this was his first tech-related job. I just said to the guy, I said, “Hey, Anupam, it’s going to be okay, but I take full responsibility for this because I brought you here. But for the good of this startup, I have to let you go because you’re not part of the crucial core that we need to keep.” To do that to a friend of yours, it’s extremely hard.
Corey: After that, so you sold this startup to Symantec. You’ve stayed involved in technology since then, but after that you were at University of Oregon, right? You started a blog. That’s part of the backstory. You started a blog.
Steve: I started a blog. 2004 I started a blog.
Corey: 2004. At some point in time after University of Oregon, you get a phone call from a headhunter.
Steve: Yeah. The thing that brought me to Michigan State, I was actually at a physics conference on black holes and quantum information. Doesn’t sound like those two are related, but they’re actually related. I get a phone call from a headhunter.
Corey: You think it’s a mistake.
Steve: I thought it was a mistake. They said, “I’m calling on behalf of Michigan State University. They’re searching for a vice president for research. We’re wondering if you’d be interested in the job.” I said, “I think you have the wrong Steve Hsu.” Because there was another guy, there’s another guy called Steve Chu who was a Stanford professor and won a Nobel Prize. He was the Secretary of Energy under Obama. I thought, are you calling the right guy? You want me to do this administrative job at a university?
Steve: It turns out I was the person they actually wanted to talk to because they had been looking. They had two sets, and they were looking for the overlap in the Venn diagram between strong research background and knew something about startups because they were trying to build up their tech transfer capability here at Michigan State. Believe it or not, in that little intersection of those two sets, there were not that many people. That’s how I ended up here, actually.
Corey: So you’re back to the Midwest.
Steve: Back to the Midwest.
Corey: Back where things are normal, comfortable.
Steve: I have kids now, and so for me I feel like the biggest thing is that they’re getting the same kind of, I think what was for my brother and myself, super positive childhood. Youth, childhood, no tension, no stress, no driving an hour to go to your soccer game in LA traffic. None of that stuff. They’re really just enjoying it, and I think it’s a very positive environment for them. For me, coming back to the Midwest was not a problem.
Corey: This is the point, tell me exactly when. When was it you began to move out of physics and you got interested in genomics?
Steve: I was on sabbatical in Taiwan in 2009 or ’10, and I was reading an article in the Economist. I guess I was writing my blog at the time, so I had read this article in the Economist I think that showed the decline of cost of genotyping. It was a super exponential kind of Moore’s Law curve. I had been interested in evolution and molecular biology and stuff like that when I was at Caltech, but I realized after taking a few courses, I realized these guys, the technology is so weak that they’re so far from answering the fundamental questions that I’m interested in. I’m going to stick to physics.
Steve: But after I saw that curve, I said, “Well, let me just extrapolate this 10 years. I’ve got 10 more good years in me. Let’s extrapolate 10 years, and if this curve continues, what will we be able to do?” I realized, oh my god, all these interesting problems that I never dreamed we would be able to solve in my lifetime we’re going to be able to solve. That’s how I got interested in genomics.
Steve: I actually reached out to this big lab in China, which at the time had the most sequencing power of any lab. It’s called BGI. Because I was in Taiwan, they said, “Oh, come over.” So I came over and gave some lectures on the math behind what would show that certain things were going to be possible once we had enough data. I went over there and gave those lectures, and that’s how I got involved.
Corey: That’s really interesting you’d say that you looked at those curves because I think it’s a very important way to begin to try to see the future. Many of us are surprised at how technology has advanced over the years. But you look at Moore’s Law going back even to 70s and 80s, you could just see the way computing power is improving and how miniaturization was going to be possible. I think a lot of the things that we may be surprised by today, you can’t say they’re predictable because they’re not particularly predictable, but at least the possibilities are there.
Steve: The main assumption was whether that curve was going to continue, and then you have to look at the core technologies and say, is it plausible that they can keep pushing it down, or is it they’re going to hit some brick wall? Moore’s Law has ended now.
Corey: Exactly. I was going to say that, actually. Yeah.
Steve: I didn’t know for sure that the sequencing, super Moore’s Law was going to continue, but it actually has. Now there are millions of genotypes stored around the world that can be analyzed. What I had anticipated has actually come true.
Corey: It’s funny, I think way back to my time at MIT when my roommate was there doing computer science, that’s when they really began to at least design chips in three dimensions. Because Moore’s Law and two dimensions was beginning to run up against a wall, but three dimensions gave them some space. I think we can see nowadays they’re running up against other limits that may bring it to an end. It’s not a bad run for a theory.
Steve: No, it’s fantastic. Actually, if you actually ask yourself about the deep reasons why society is different today than when, say, we were in high school, most of it is Moore’s Law. All of this internet stuff, the cellphone, all that stuff is Moore’s Law.
Corey: In addition, it’s Moore’s Law and it’s the applications that come out of there, including the issues we’re about to begin talking about today.
Steve: But I just want to say, if you think about it like okay, cars are better than when we were in school. In high school, my car would break down all the time, and I had to actually learn how to do stuff. Nowadays your car doesn’t really break down, but it’s not that much better. You’re driving the same speed. When we fly abroad to Paris, like when you went on your school trip to Paris, you fly at the same speed as we did 40 years ago, but it’s all this compute and information technology that is orders of magnitude different.
Corey: I’d say, and sadly, we have very similar emissions. I like to fly to Paris quite a lot. The problem is we’re sadly pumping out enormous amounts of greenhouse gas. That hasn’t radically changed.
Steve: No question.
Corey: I feel bad-
Steve: Well, now we’re aware of it.
Corey: Yeah. I keep saying, many of my friends and I are real advocates of good environmental stewardship, but almost everyone I know takes trips to Taiwan. They take trips to Bangkok. They take trips to Africa. They take trips to Paris. It’s hard to find something that’s…
Steve: In my day-to-day life I’m super green. I drive a Honda Fit, for God’s sake, and it’s the cheapest Honda you can buy and the smallest Honda. I recycle everything. I don’t even use plastic bottles. But travel overwhelms all that. If you actually look at my environmental footprint, it sucks because every time you get on a plane, you actually generate as much carbon flying from A to B as if you got in your one ton car and drove from A to B.
Corey: Yeah, that’s bad.
Steve: Most people are not aware of that.
Corey: Yeah. Something I think we have to look at, people like you and me who fly a lot.
Steve: Well, I think telepresence will eventually get to the point where you can have the interaction. At least for business purposes, you can have this kind of connection and interaction through VR. When we reach that tipping point-
Corey: That’s interesting.
Steve: Then a lot of business travel will go away.
Corey: It’s funny, one of our sayings in this office is that big primates like to interact face to face.
Corey: We have in-person meetings. We talk directly. We’re in the same room right now, but maybe VR may get to the point where you can almost simulate that experience.
Steve: That tipping point. In the startup world we often say, “Apes have to sniff each other before they’ll sign a deal, basically.” I mean, there’s something about our wiring that you feel like you know the person better if you had a face-to-face meeting, maybe had a drink with them or something. I don’t know that it’s actually true, but psychologically it’s true. Can you really predict their behavior better after a one or two hour face-to-face interaction compared to three hours of Skype?
Corey: Yeah, it’s a good question. Yeah.
Steve: It’s not clear to me, but we think that’s true. We feel that’s true.
Corey: We’ll hopefully find out about it in a few years.
Steve: Is that enough about us?