Saturday, January 31, 2009

Day Four: The Nerds dinner

The final day for me ends with an event I always look forward to, the nerds’ dinner, but more on that later. Before I get down to today, I forgot something from last night that was very interesting. At the Accel party I met Hugh Herr from the Media Lab, who had been on a panel on human enhancement. He is among the first enhanced human beings. He lost both legs beneath the knee in a climbing accident. Hugh has increasingly high tech prostheses, which he showed me. He is just now working to electronically link his nervous and muscular system with his prostheses. He had the most elegant and personal formulation of the human future. He observed that the upper part of his body deteriorates as he ages, but the lower part continues to improve. In fact due to a rapid innovation cycle, his lower legs get better every three months.

The day began with a great conversation with David Ignatius who was still reeling a bit from the international incident yesterday. Some people were still blaming him for the walk out of the Turkish Prime Minister. He is very energized about the new administration. He recently wrote a book with Brent Scowcroft and Zbignew Berzinski about the challenges facing Obama. We talked abut the complexity of these challenges, but that the team moving into place seems likely to be able to at least understand them and perhaps even manage them.
This was followed by an interview with a Danish journalist in preparation for my speeches in Copenhagen in May. As we finished Nellie Krose and her aid came over and joined me. Nellie is the Competition Minister of the European Union. Before taking up this post a few years ago she had been an advisor to Monitor and I had met her then. I also met her again recently at a small dinner at the home of the Dutch Prince Friggo in Brussels. We talked mostly about what it would it take to manage the need for rapid and collaborative action among the large number and disparate group of nations in the G20. Like the others she agreed that she and her fellow Ministers in the EU were making it up as they went along and were not at all confident in the outcome. And that managing the complexity of relationships and interests was going to be so complex that it would slow things down. She and I then went off to catch the end of the Martin Wolf panel and to hear Gordon Brown, the British PM.
Martin’s panel was a group of high-level economists, central bankers, and Ministers. The conclusion was basically the same, but Martin put a positive spin on it. The consensus was that indeed they did not know what they were doing, but at least that was less likely to produce bad outcomes than believing that you do when you don’t.

That was followed by a surprisingly interesting interview of Gordon Brown by Christiane Amanpour. He argued that this was really the first truly global financial crisis. The globally interconnected markets that allowed spreading the risk around also allowed the spreading of the contagion. It has become a crisis of trust and confidence. There are three key things that need to happen, stop the collapse, manage the macroeconomic policies right and enable the expansion of lending. We need to be careful to avoid financial protectionism. He also said, which attracted a great deal of attention, that our set of global economic institutions like the IMF and the World Bank and we need to reinvent the architecture of the system. But importantly he said that it was not like the 30s because there was a good climate for international collaboration to deal with the crisis. Indeed many leaders had taken the opportunity of being in Davos to enable conversations of the right sort to take place. As for the future, Brown had three suggestions. We need some form of international financial regulation, perhaps, a council of regulators from a number of countries acting in concert. We need some form of early warning system to enable prompt action. And we need some mechanism to assure access to capital for the emerging economies. I had the opportunity to ask a question from the floor and I asked, “How we would rebalance the imbalanced trade and capital flows, especially between China and the US.” I think he gave a waffely answer.

The Japanese Prime Minister came on next with mainly a PR presentation….boring, boring, boring . Missed the mark altogether. I left during the irrelevant Q&A.

In mid afternoon there was a good panel on the politics of water, which included Peter Gleick and Jakob Ibrahim. In the end it was a discussion of the politics of the pricing of water. The contrast between India where water is subsidized not priced and Singapore where the reverse is true was clear with the latter far better off in every way. The right price helped manage supply and demand. No price or the wrong price messed up both. At the end of that panel I ran in to Tony Tan, the Deputy PM of Singapore, also a friend and had a chance to do a bit of planning for my work ahead in his country.
Over the course of the day had a wonderful conversation with EO Wilson about our mutual friend Isabella Kirkland’s amazing biological paintings. Also Rich Muller, UC Berkeley physicist and author of Science for Presidents. We talked at length about what the quality of the public debate in science and the advice given to policy makers. He bemoaned both. Just before I returned to the hotel to get ready for the Nerd’s dinner I ran into Nick Kristoff of the times and talked about his columns on the sex trade in SE Asia and the impact they were having. The issue was beginning to get on the agenda. I wrote the above in the early evening and then it was out into the cold.

Well I just returned from the Nerd’s dinner and it is one AM…remarkable evening. Tonight the wine was even better than last night thanks once again to Joe Schoendorf. The evening is about amazing conversations at the table punctuated by brief remarks, especially from the first timers and we had some astonishing ones tonight. At our table there was Frances Collins head of he Human Genome Project and likely next head of NIH, Sir Martin Rees the Astronomer Royal, Rich Muller the Berkeley physicist and Dan Sperling who is driving the transformation of California auto emissions rules. Larry page joined us part soon after we started.
Paul Romer provided an insightful analysis of both the long and short-term analysis of the crisis. He had one original idea. The government should not bail out the old bank. Rather use the money to create new ones, “good banks.” Francis described the consequences of our new genetic knowledge in terms how it will impact human health moving more from cure the disease and is impacts to highly targeted prevention. Tom Insell the head of NIMH talked about the research moving us from a soft concept of mental disorders to a problem of crossed neural wiring. Martin described the new tools that will soon be available to see earthlike planets around distant stars, where life was likely to be common. Mark Zuckerbeg described his vision for Facebook in terms of the explosion of human interconnection that has been achieved by the software he created. Frances Beinicke, head of NRDC and Dan Sperling spoke about the politics of climate change and how difficult but vital both the Copenhagen talks and the implementation of California’s new laws on CO2 reduction. Mike Gazzaniga who was one of he discoverers of the right brain left brain phenomenon, challenged us with the legal and ethical implications of the new neurology. If we are controlled by our biology what does responsibility mean? Paul Jacobs the CEO of Qualcomm described the dramatic changes coming in the cell phone platform over the next 18 months. Larry Page regaled us with the struggle the various parts of the information services industry have against each other. And I ended up with a short talk on why the Long Boom is back…why the crisis is saving it and not killing it. We are accelerating technological innovation and defending globalization, both of which were weakening. The crisis creates room to grow. When growth returns after the reset we may be surprised at just how high it is. The evening ended with our usual contest. Last year we were asked to make predictions for this year. Question one was the price of Gold at the end of the year which Sergay Brin got closest to. The second question was the Google stock price at the end of the year. I won it with a guess of the $325 when the right answer was S330. And the prize was one of those great bottles of wine.
Tonight’s dinner was one of the best. The quality of the conversation is what Davos is about. And while it is true that a fair number came from my neighborhood in Berkeley, the range and depth of the participants could only happen at Davos.

I ill wait until I get home to reflect back on Davos. But overall two things dominated Davos this year. You could not talk about anything without linking ether to the CRISIS or to Obama or to both. It was the Crisis/Obama Davos.

1 comment:

  1. Regarding "...We talked mostly about what it would it take to manage the need for rapid and collaborative action among the large number and disparate group of nations in the G20. Like the others she agreed that she and her fellow Ministers in the EU were making it up as they went along and were not at all confident in the outcome. And that managing the complexity of relationships and interests was going to be so complex that it would slow things down." I have some ideas that may prove helpful to the group. Please contact me at if interested. Thank you!