Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Peter Thiel talks to Glenn Beck

Peter Thiel is arguably the world's most ingenious venture capitalist. He is a co-founder of PayPal, the first major Facebook investor, a hedge fund boss, a libertarian, an excellent chess player, and one of the most influential folks in Silicon Valley.

He believes that there is an education bubble and he actively (by significant felllowships) encourages smart kids to escape from the conventional, left-wing-politics-dominated academic system, and become builders of an independent, competing, more pro-freedom framework for the elite.

I admit that my discussions with him in Nice may make me a bit biased. As far as I remember, no other dollar billionaire has ever invited me to a luxurious place for a week and no other billionaire has asked me so many good questions about the expectations at the LHC etc. (Those 4 years ago, I happened to have a "flu" over there which, I became almost certain later, was always caused by Candida, not by viruses or bacteria. I have pretty much chased those "flus" from my life.)

Well, even though I am less corruptible than 99.9% of the mankind, I am still a realist. So I do admit that it's possible that if George Soros had ever done anything for me, maybe he wouldn't be quite the same kind of a jerk and artificially inflated bubble of hot air relatively to Peter Thiel that he is today. ;-)

At any rate, Peter Thiel was interviewed by Glenn Beck a few days ago. Beck had to wait for 6 years; I had waited for 6 minutes. ;-)

The discussion is very interesting. Thiel believes that the progress could be much better and faster than it is. We could cure many diseases and do other wonderful things. (He has been funding quite a few "truly science-fiction-like" projects like swimming cities etc.) But unlike Ray "Singularity" Kurzweil, he stresses that the future is open-ended. It is not something predetermined we may watch while eating popcorn. The future will depend on our acts, too. Defeatism is undesirable. Self-fulfilling prophesies may fulfill themselves but one may also do things because of which they will not be fulfilled.

Back in Nice, there were numerous very interesting (world's top) defenders of the Intelligent Design and I feel that he is close to that culture – despite the fact that he's been actually trained as a biologist in the college. I guess that his (heterodox evangelical) religion is behind this inclination, much like in many other cases. But even if you counted Thiel as a softcore ID guy, and Richard Lindzen, for that matter ;-), I wasn't the only evolution believer over there. An Indian chap with a Czech name – due to his Sudetenland German paternal ancestry – was a real biologist on the evolution side. It still worked.

This part is about Thiel-inspired technology that helped to kill Osama, Snowden, NSA, the government's efforts to regulate the Silicon Valley, and related things about the Internet privacy. Thiel also points out that most (not only!) U.S. lawmakers are science-illiterate.

I would talk about the multiverse issues – obviously I must have been expected to be much more critical towards the well-known experts' opinion about these matters, and I am not critical because I am confident that the experts are much more rational than the non-experts in those matters. Richard Lindzen would give an overview of the climate debate. And of course that we would notice that Thiel's pre-existing beliefs would be "climate skeptical", too.

In the Glenn Beck interview, Thiel effectively says that he is skeptical because he feels that the advocates have turned the climate debate into a taboo that can't be debated – and such a situation is a sign of a problem. Well, most of the time. If you want to be right 80% of the time, Thiel's rule-of-thumb is very good. I still feel that similar sociological observations are somewhat unreliable methods to decide about an intrinsically scientific or technical problem.

The interview also covers some comparisons of the Silicon Valley and Washington D.C., debt of students, financing and regulation of new drugs, and other things. We would learn that Apple lost most of the innovative edge and became as stagnant, bureaucratic, and problematic as pretty much all companies with an easy enough way to make profit become. A part of the problem is that companies often depend on the founders.

Some month ago, Thiel would argue in WSJ that competition is for losers, wise chaps manage to create monopolies. For example, Glenn Beck has a monopoly on the Glenn Beck-like shows LOL; it is not like the 1,438th restaurant in Dallas. Things that are one of a kind are most important. (Of course I mostly agree. But, hoping that I won't sound like a Marxist with their ideas about quality and quantity, I also think that many qualitative breakthroughs occur "largely" because of the accumulation of smaller, less radical and just evolutionary advances.) He also mentioned these things in the interview. It's only bad if monopolies become static, but if that's so, it's mostly the government regulation's fault. And in technology, monopolies aren't forever, anyway.


  1. Frank Zappa - "If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want to learn something, go to the library."

  2. The greatest companies have never been innovative technically; Apple is simply following a long tradition. These companies simply combine available methods together in order to provide goods and services that customers will buy. No one has ever done it better than Apple, which is currently running at a revenue rate of about $250 billion per year.

    They have openings in Cupertino, California, for 800 software engineers and are rapidly developing automated assembly for the iPhone and other products. Much of their manufacturing will be leaving China and returning to the US.

  3. I went to college without getting laid and I think I learned a bit, Cynthia.

  4. "Hoping that I won't seem like a Marxist..."
    Hmm, I don't think that any of us were worried about that,...
    ever. :)

    It was possible to be intelligent and to support intelligent design in William Paley's time. Now, it is just a delusion invented to support religious beliefs. The theories of Behe and others in that group to explain flagellae, the immune system, the clotting system, etc all have been demolished...time to move on.

  5. Hmmm, you must have gone to a different University than I did---our math/physics honors class of 17 seemed to have a Kryptonite effect on pretty girls, who, given the times, seemed to seek refuge with dreadlocked Jamaican philosophy agitators :)

  6. I find it obvious that it's ultimately the "priority of religion" in these people's minds, and not a different attitude to scientific evidence and thinking, that leads them to believe such things.

    Concerning Marxism, funny - but you may still somewhere find people who would say that I am a Stalinist, or something like that. ;-) They're just popular expletives in many bizarre contexts.

  7. Nah, not a Stalinist, but maybe someone who has read Machiavelli's "The Prince" a few times....

  8. LOL, I've actually never read anything by Machiavelli. Or... anyone else resembling him, for that matter.

  9. ...don't really agree, Gene. Bell labs, IBM research, etc... at least until recently. As long as they maintain active research centres that allow for quasi--independent work...Google is a good example with Deep Mind and others.

  10. There's also Microsoft Research, and so on. But I think that the point is that with this big size, even research tends to become mediocre bureaucracy to a large extent.

    In other words, I think that Thiel's point is that big advances are done by special people like Jobs who only make a big difference until their influence is diluted. When it's diluted, the company and even its research center inevitably converges to the average. So it's still innovation but it ultimately becomes the generic gradual small-step evolution like everywhere.

  11. Too many people go to college, Gordon. We need more plumbers and fewer graduates in psychology.

    "The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."

    -John W. Gardner

  12. Gene -- Each new student a college tries to rope in today is basically a piggy-bank with potentially $120k+ of Fed loans, all the school needs to do is lie and cajole the kid into going to their school. This is a race-to-the-bottom type mentality where schools are competing for the most free federal money and so are focused entirely on sports teams, huge administrations, all kinds of diversity crap and marketing. Actually providing young adults with skills is a subsidiary concern if its not completely irrelevant to the colleges' administrations. As a student, you're nothing but a temporary cash-cow, harvested of your potential loan-money and destined for debt-slavery.

    On top of that, student loans aren't designed to be paid back. The originators know and calculate this beforehand.

    They only need a certain percentage of them to be paid back. The key is volume -- you have to create a ton of them. And what better way to do that than to have them guaranteed by the federal government.

    And if the scheme goes bad, you get a bailout.

    I'm begging anybody out there to realize that our system is the most extensive Ponzi scheme ever constructed. The blowup is going be shocking.

    In the long run, most Americans will be as impoverished as Latin American peasants -- count on it.

  13. --preaching to the choir, cynthia :) I respect talent in all its forms, and crafts in particular.
    It is remarkable just how many young people seem to be taking psych degrees.

  14. I would have been clearer if I had said that great companies never, never become great because of internal innovation. This is true of IBM, ATT (Bell Labs) Xerox, Microsoft, Apple and every other one including Google. All of these companies had innovative laboratories but their work blossomed elsewhere. I was professionally active during the heyday of all but Google and I followed the work of many others as yet unmentioned. As in all good work, none of it was secret and I was fully aware of everything going on.
    I was actually an employee of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) where many innovations arose, including:
    -The first practical personal computer, usable without specialized knowledge.
    -Windows software.
    -Ethernet networking.
    -Laser printing.
    -Page description software (Adobe)
    -The computer mouse.

    Like every other company, Xerox dropped the ball on every one of its earth-changing developments. I do remember the day that Steve Jobs visited PARC and saw windows software for the first time. Microsoft got it from Apple but Xerox was first.

    The actual creative work is done by others and picked up by promoters like Steve Jobs. There is a mantra in the engineering profession:
    “You can get credit or you can get it done; you cannot do both”.
    I do not know of a single exception to this rule.
    This is not to belittle the contribution of people like Steve Jobs. they do make the world go ‘round.

  15. People have been waiting for Apple to fall victim to bureaucratic inertia for years but their forward inertia seems unstoppable. Maybe Apple Pay will stumble. We will see.

  16. Canaan Partners, a newer venture capital firm in Silicon Valley just announced a new, $675 M, fund for not-yet-profitable startups. Considering that there are about thirty VC firms in Silicon Valley, we haven’t yet seen the beginning, apparently. Of course silicon now has little to do with it and medical innovations comprise about half the investments.

  17. The idea that the student loan bubble is unsustainable is just wishful thinking by people like Peter Thiel and other paleoconservatives, who long for the good-old-days when the government didn't back-stop everything and money printing was taboo. The government will just pay off the bad loans and add that debt to the national debt. People will work until they die, paying the interest via their taxes, as long as the TV stays on, the cheap beer is on the store shelves, and the pizza gets delivered. This is the Matrix, folks!

    The time when it collapses on its own is so far out, it can't be predicted. It will take some kind of epic ecological disaster or massive computer sabotage to kill the system. There is plenty of fuel and grease to keep this machine running. Only a monkey wrench in the works will stop it.

  18. Thiel and Beck seem unnecessarily paranoid about NSA and other government secret organizations. They completely ignore congressional oversight, which has been pretty effective at protecting our freedoms. Of course, such oversight is absolutely vital and there is no guarantee that it will continue to be as effective in the future.
    Protecting us agains terrorism while preserving our freedoms is a delicate balancing act and, perhaps we have erred a bit on the protection side but, as Thiel warns, a serious attack would shift the balance dangerously in the protection direction. We live in a dangerous world but are managing pretty well, I think.

  19. Then those peasants can look forward to a much improved future!