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Current time:0:00Total duration:48:53

Walter Isaacson - President and CEO of the Aspen Institute

Video transcript

it's always fun to talk to you I think you know the team here is super excited about it I mean there's there's like 10 different things we can talk about with you although I'll start with kind of who you are and your background just so to get everyone on the same page you know you're fundamentally a writer what you know right when you came out of college you worked for you want to be a writer in London and then in New Orleans which is where both of us grew up what was it early on in your life that kind of convinced you that you wanted to be a writer that you this is something that you would kind of find meaning in so when I both grew up in New Orleans and I had a sort of an uncle in New Orleans my uncle by marriage and we never knew what uncle Walker did because he was always at home you know drinking bourbon and eating hog head cheese north of Lake Pontchartrain on the boga fly and we say Ann what does your dad do and say well he's a writer and I was like 9 or 10 years old and it was only after you know about I think I was age 11 or so the movie goer comes out by Walker Percy and he's a great but was a great southern novelist and I realized that being a writer was something you could do just like being an engineer or a fisherman or a doctor or whatever and like you could actually be a writer and you got to sit home all day and drink bourbon which seemed up upside to the whole writing gig and so I would you know grill Walker Percy and say tell me about it how do you do this or whatever and then I read his novel by that point he'd come out with the last gentleman as well a random carefully and they always were about faith and growth as when you were in high school yeah it was when I was about 14 years they were able to track him down and we would go fishing on the boat you know why all right you know Covington and we had a place up there our family and the Percy's did and we're all kind of related so we go waterskiing his daughter Ann was my age and we would water-ski the boat a fly and capture turtles and do whatever you did when you were 14 years old trying to flirt with Ann but we didn't know how to flirt well but we could catch Turtles well and so then you know I would get home and I or get to their house I'd say you know tell me about this thing and I asked him about the novels and the sort of the themes and the philosophical themes and the preaching he said look there are two types of people come out of Louisiana preachers and storytellers he said the godsake be a story tell the world's got far too many preachers and so I realize that storytelling was sort of a way that you could make sense of the world you know make people understand things better and so well that's what I want to do I want to be a writer and I don't want to be an opinion writer I want to be a storyteller a writer and did you have doubts and you're a teenager now it you know did people tell you that hey it's hard to be a writer this is kind of a be a doctor well it wasn't like okay I'm a teenager I'm going to be a writer I was a teenager and then you know I went to college and I actually studied philosophy in college and then went to graduate school and studied philosophy so there was a moment I thought it might be a philosopher although I didn't quite know whether I don't know in this trip here whether somebody says you know philosopher and you go in and they I didn't quite know how you become a philosopher but I was actually thinking of you know being an academic and even showed my undergraduate professors the thesis I'd written in England and they said no you probably be better off being a journalist and so it was at that point that I joined the Sunday Times of London then what is now the Times Picayune of New Orleans and and what was it that first I mean you know and and Walter is extremely humble I mean you were you know to go from a lot not a lot of kids go from Louisiana to Harvard to Rhodes Scholar you did sort of I didn't do the last part you did in my team yeah but the we're not that much of a backwater yes that's right a lot of people come that's right okay that's right Ellen DeGeneres went to my high school really yeah did you go to Harvard I don't think that's but Great Plains high stay away I know which one yeah you went to the Newman fancy school where anyway me and Michael Lewis yeah fewer people from grace King go to anyway I love it when you and I are doing competition on our humble roof and gonna watch I didn't do a lot of turtle camp yeah yeah but but you know so you're kind of a young adult at this point you graduate like what how did you find that first experience you know there's kind of this romantic notion of being a writer and you know when you're in college and you're doing your thesis you're you know you're doing philosophy but then there's this the kind of real world of kind of being on the beat and writing stories about the local whatever it might be I mean what was that a disappointment was it exciting was it a biggest you know I loved it I started off at the peak UHN but I had gotten a summer internship at The Washington Post it was the summer of Watergate right and he's just 74 all about to break Nixon was gonna design and either foolishly or not I decided not to do it and I worked 40 Smith & Sons and stevedores on the Mississippi River at the you know the Napoleon Avenue dwarfs and stuff because I wanted to write a novel about the river so I decided okay I should work the river like Mark Twain did or something and and so I missed all of Watergate I still have the novel I wrote that summer that's excruciatingly ly bad I mean you know it's about the river and all that sort of thing and I realized well gee I will never be a novelist and then went into Johnson you actually you are on a boat well these are called Derrick barges you know if you look at the wars and there's these flatbed barges they have a crane on them and they get pushed around by would look like tugboats when we call them push boats because they actually you know they don't tug the thing they push the thing until you go up and down the river in very lazy way on incredibly hot because these things had creosote metal yeah and you'd have to put the creosote on the metal you had to wear very thick sole shoes because the deck got so hot that would burn your feet and the other thing I remember which I loved was every time the barge started up the you know the crane started up the electricity would go back on we had to percolate or coffee percolator and so it would read purple ate the coffee all day until it's almost the consistency of the creek creosote and I loved that really strong coffee and so were you working on it and you said hey can I work here and also like right oh yeah could you yeah I mean it was a really I mean I don't want to sound too romantic it was also an incredibly high paid job at that time the port in the early 70s was booming the extraction industries oil natural gas sulfur were going really well I don't know why but I mean it was the 70s and so you could make I can't remember the dollars but you also made double time and then two and a half times there's work Sunday's overtime and so I just made enough to last me through college so it's partly for the money and partly for the romanticism of writing a novel and yeah yeah I mean you couldn't sit there on the Derrick barge and type a novel but you'd sort of meet all the people and all the boats coming up and down and there's your unloaded boats you're going inside gather stories and at night I'd go home and write it up and it was really bad I mean you joke about it now but obviously this is something you care deeply about you know this idea of being a writer this idea of being a novelist I mean what was I guess one what made you think that this wasn't cut out for you but also what allowed you to not give up writing altogether well you know I actually liked nonfiction too I mean to be able to tell and when I started working for the pic in it I was on police speed and you get these wonderful wacky stories I mean Jim Garrison was trying Clay Shaw for the murder of the President and President Kennedy I mean I don't know if you remember Chuck Jim Garrison's best friend's was my AP American history teachers father Oh so that's all thank you really close to that story can we just go to the whiteboard and laugh that out so he's kind of yeah well I don't know my friends my teachers father-in-law yeah they're all these wacky people including Jim Garrison it was followed by Harry Connick who son of a cornet and trumpet player so they're all these wonderful tales in New Orleans and there was a rush I don't quite know what it is but the rush which every day almost I would have a story and often on frontpage because if you're covering Crimea get on the front page and there you were you tell these stories and your name would be in the paper and so it wasn't like I was lamenting the fact that I hadn't yet written the Great American Novel of the great novel about the river I kept thinking I would and then eventually after I wrote my first book or two I showed it an updated version of the novel to my agent who was not in any way encouraging and said no but they liked your biography right well they liked the nonfiction was doing well so and you know in some ways if you take Steve Jobs or you take this book I write narratives I mean I don't write analytical nonfiction so these are stories and I tell you if you wrote a novel that was word-for-word that Steve Jobs book people say well that's not you know credible it doesn't feel like it could possibly be true therefore it's not a good novel but in some ways with a piece of narrative nonfiction you know you can try to make it into the same type of tale a novel would be now obviously you know I consider people who are truly creative novelists to be in a quantum orbit you know above ours I was once going to a Writers Conference and Betsy my daughter I think you may have met said dad why are you going to a writer I said well because you know issues well dad you're not a real writer you write nonfiction and so you know we know it's not quite the same but I do think if you're telling a tale and you try to make it a storytelling type thing meaning chronological narrative you can have that excitement of watching people grow ideas forming one thing leading to another and and and so you I mean with that in mind you have this kind of parallel life or maybe it's not so parallel you times-picayune then you go work start working for Time magazine which is kind of you know the big piece of your your career at Time magazine eventually you're the editor-in-chief but at the same time you're this biographer and you and your not you can't take on like these larger-than-life characters Franklin Einstein jobs are those I mean were those two different jobs that you had in your head or were they too or they the similar type of role writing for Time magazine eventually becoming editor-in-chief well I when I started at time I did it with a friend of mine I'd gone to college with a guy named Evan Thomas he never heard of and we were frustrated because at Time magazine you know this isn't a previous century let me remind you there was no website you didn't have to tweet every day you came out once a week usually with like two pages you wrote so it wasn't the hardest job and the heaviest lifting you know in America and in fact it was boring at times like Monday Tuesday Wednesday you're sitting around trying to figure what am I supposed to be doing and then you got frustrated because you'd go out and you'd report this story and you had to keep it to what would be say be 2,000 words and so I was covering the campaign of 1980 Ronald Reagan you know Jimmy Carter Ted Kennedy I mean some larger-than-life dudes and so I said to Evan you know we're not getting this stuff in the magazine I mean we just get to you know we should do a story on the great American establishment and how it created the post-war world and we've never written a book before and it was about six friends that nobody had ever heard of Dean Acheson Averell Harriman Bob loved it and we walked down the street in the place where we had a summer house Sag Harbor and there was an editor Alice Mayhew and we said we want to do this book and she said I've always wanted to do a book like that it's a prequel to the best and the brightest which was Halbert slams book about Vietnam in other words it leads into it and I've always wanted to call it the wise man because it was about these people and so we got to write this book and it was oddly successful I think it was very very long and so people couldn't quite finish it so they had to say it was good you know they couldn't whatever it was it did well and it made me think well this is really great writing narratives about pea but the other thing about Time magazine then and when I was editor we always put a person on the cover it was a Henry Luce who invented the magazine mantra tell the story of our time through people the people make it so myself a year like inventing personality journalism he said no time didn't invent that the Bible did that's how it works you know Adam Eve Moses you do it through people and so that got me interested in a biographical way of looking at the world and and what's your and so I guess it's not really were complementary skills the biographies loud you get to go much deeper than just and what's you know as you go into I was in late 90s you start you transition in I guess time becomes part of Time Warner you become CEO and chairman of CNN which doesn't seem like a natural jump it wasn't and it was a very unnatural jump which I didn't want to make and I shouldn't have made you make mistakes in life and that was a 2-headed mistake for me as you said Time Warner owned both and I had finished my stint as editor of time and they kept pushing me to do it it was a mistake because I didn't like the medium I'm just don't like television I'm not very good at it I don't know how to make TV and I realized I was a pretty good editor of the magazine simply because I knew every detail of how it was done meaning if somebody came back and said you know we can't get there and I'd you know I've been you know in Russia or Poland during the fall of communism I'd covered these things I also had you know design pages so I could say okay no crop the picture this way and you can do it in two thousand words but leave out this part and make it a narrative and there's a billboard graph that will say all of that and get that out of the way or something I mean some people are great and they can be the head of Procter & Gamble and then be the head of United Airlines and then you know be a professor and do all the things me I kind of knew how to do what I knew how to do and I shouldn't have gone into a field where I didn't know it secondly I'm not a great executive manager I'm not somebody likes bossing people around and at time it was quite easy because they're only like 60 or 70 people that I deal with I mean two floors of the building you could walk around at CNN there were like 6,000 people and I was supposed to be this manager and I realized I like it when people have to manage me rather than me having to manage them and so I didn't like that executive role and so that was a three year detour that was not something I enjoyed and then and then you go to your current position which life had a head of the out of my contract was up I well I mean we had unfortunately 9/11 and then the war the first being the the Iraq war I guess the second out of three or whack Wars now and depending on how you count them and so I waited through the end of that my contract was up and it was like I want to write books I want to be involved in you know thought and bringing people together and doing things and the Aspen Institute came on and what's your role Oh what do you see is the role of the Aspen Institute is this really interesting organism yes al is joined our board it's a great organization been around 60 years and it's partly a think-tank we have policy programs and everything from the environment education whatever it's partly a tank that does things I mean we have middle east loan funds we're working with Khan Academy to try to you know put together American civics courses but it's also and I wish our a better word for it it seems like I'm you know a 50 cent word for a 25 cent product which is convenient we bring people together and that's something that you particularly don't have in Washington other places these days we're Democrats Republicans left-right people different persuasions come together sit around tables spend a few days together exchange ideas it's particularly interesting to me that in the digital age when we thought that we could all Skype and you know do things on Google Hangouts and chat rooms and live virtually there is actually more of a hunger for in-person meetings this is why you have a room like this is why people hang out and and it's always Googleplex beats Google Hangouts having a nice environment like this and so the Aspen Institute has grown quite a bit through ideas festivals and many other things which is where people watching things on YouTube doing Khan Academy videos but at the end of which they kind of say okay now let's get together I want to be in flesh and discuss it and and that's I think what's interesting about you I mean you have this you're a historian and now the Aspen Institute you're kind of a convener you're very plugged into kind of the current state of affairs even in Washington but you're also intimately involved in Silicon Valley you know you're this the latest book which isn't even out yet not next month it's a it's a history of Silicon Valley especially and obviously you've done the bar it actually starts at your alma mater MIT with a tech model railway Club and the people creating space war and all the people in the late 40s who come up with both videogames and hands-on computing but then it moves west and it tries to explain why people like yourself move from MIT to the valley and and and that's what's fascinating because it's you know it's a history about kind of something that is defining the future and you also have this kind of this Aspen Institute kind of what's going on in DC and so with this kind of futurists less historian hat I mean where do you think we are like you know it's very easy for us to get caught up in the you know what's going on week by week you know you're on the Apple board Apple announces new iPhone today all this all this craziness but you know 25 years from now 50 years from now 500 years from now how are people going to think about now yeah I think they'll think about it just as they thought a hundred years ago about 1840 and the Industrial Revolution we start having steam engines and mechanized products and it changes the whole way I mean instead of people artisans weaving fabrics it's now done and it changes employment and everything else so I think you have that disruptive I think we're at the stage of the digital revolution what we're just getting out of pouring old wine into new bottles it you know the first 20 30 years of the revolution we had the internet we had online we had computers but we were still taking you know op-ed pieces pouring him online and calling him you know blogs or something oh we were taking Time magazine and putting it on the web and it would be an online your time online but we weren't inventing whole new things there were three or four industries that did not get disrupted which gets back to Khan Academy early on healthcare and medicine did not get disrupted the way it should have and K through 12 education I mean I wrote about Ben Franklin he invented a type of school that he called the Academy for the education of years and what it was was about 24 people kids sitting in a row and a teacher in front and a blackboard and a lecturer and then a test that was you know whatever 1740 and you have flash ahead you know two and a half centuries and we're still doing it that way so the disruption you all in this room are bringing to K through 12 education and the your book the one-room schoolhouse that's beginning to kick in so the next phase is when we quit pouring old wine in new bottles and frankly the first people doing online learning and stuff it was simply taking a camera pointing it in Sanders theater to Mike's and L and he would give a lecture and they would call that an online course I do think especially with EDX you're seeing a platform that does it quite differently now and has a feedback or it's a feedback loop so you say okay that works that doesn't likewise you're doing it much differently you're not just putting a high school course online and that's what I mean about new wine for the new bottles so we're getting into that age I think there's a lot still to be done I mean books have not been disrupted I wanted with Steve Jobs and now I'm a whole book later and still don't have it happen I want to take a book and write it and curate it but I want it to be open source like Wikipedia I want everybody in that book from Wozniak to Bill Gates to a Dan Bricklin or you know Stewart Brand I mean there have to be major characters or even people aren't in the book but have this video I was at this to be able to put stuff up so you write a collaborative book that's multimedia people putting up the code they wrote for the first basic interpreter for the Altair and somebody else is putting up the circuit design for the Altair in the book and somebody else is saying here's the video of Steve's first launch of the Apple to that sort of thing and if you had a collaborative project like that that I think should be curated because I'm a control freak I don't want everybody just to put whatever they want but I want and I was working with EV Williams yesterday and if you know he is but he did Twitter but now it does medium I put some of my chapters on medium and people could put comments and things in but I could reject them or I could include them and so it gives me some curatorial power and then eventually we'll have to have payment systems where especially I mean I'm not trying to do this you know if the money now if my book is written and 40% of it as people have collaborated and crowd-sourced it when people read those sections there should be some metering and the royalty should go just like if a song is played on the radio the original composer that song gets a fraction of a cent royalty we ought to have ways to collaboratively crowdsource things and to allocate royalties based on that that's just one example of where I think things might go I want it always to do a book on our hometown boy Louis Armstrong and I want to do it went and Marsalis and I want wenton to be able to say okay when we do West in blues we see him take this 17 bars and flutter there and you know just rag it and if I wrote that nobody know what I'm talking about but if went in there saying you know here's how kid already did it and now here's how Louis Armstrong did it you'd say okay I get it and so those type of projects we aren't there yet but I keep waiting for those platforms to be built yeah that's that's that's amazing I mean one thing that's fascinating about you I mean even just mentioned it now even with Louis Armstrong is you know the threat of all the people that you you write about and it kind of especially with this book this is kind of a combination of a bunch of folks but whether it's Franklin or Einstein or Louis Armstrong or or Steve Jobs they're all actually innovators and and some degree kind of scientists in their domain absolutely I mean different biographers or writers are interested in different things some people like crimes or something like war heroes you know writing about Eisenhower or d-day some like sports heroes some like you know literary biographies they want to write you know the biography we've all been waiting for for you know Joyce Carol Oates or something I like people who are imaginative and not just smart because you know you're in this room smart people are a dime a dozen what really matters is being imaginative being able to think different to use Steve's parlance and so I sort of say what makes you know Ben Franklin wasn't the smartest of the founders I think Jefferson Madison you got a lot of really sharp cookies in that box but Franklin had a certain ability to think more imaginatively to be more creative what makes for creativity and I don't know that I set out I like to think okay and when people ask me they're not a friend and I'm you know I'm being more honest with you this era I always say yeah I've always tried to write about creativity how it happens how people think differently actually you know I wrote about kissing you was you know believe it's not a very creative thinker in the balance of power he did with Russia and China doing our extrication from Vietnam and then obviously Franklin Einstein but it wasn't like I started out saying let me make a list of people who thought imaginatively it was only you know two or three books into it that said well that's sort of a theme that I keep exploring and and what do you think it is I mean you mentioned this it's not necessarily their kind of raw mental horsepower that's doing it I mean do you think it's just this kind of a like a creativity gene or do you think it's something that they developed and that they cultivate it and then well the good news is there's not a one sentence answer which is why you get to write 600 pages instead of saying here's the answer you don't need to read the book however part of it I do think is being able to connect the Arts or humanities having a real field Beauty let us say with technology engineering and science and if you I'm sure some of you actually worked at Apple I don't know I assume Tim did not do it today but and every one of Steve's launches the last thing on the screen would be that intersection of the streets the liberal arts and the sciences I think it was or technology whatever and he said in a and it's the very first I think pages of my book he says you know when I was a kid I loved the humanities but I was also an electronics geek and then I read something that Edwin land who invented Polaroid said which is if you stand at that intersection of the Arts and the sciences that's where true value is that's you know with Leonardo da Vinci did that's what and so I think that's one of the secrets of true creativity far too often is why the Khan Academy videos are important to me and I think it's great and why your whole learning growth thing is important if you're a humanities person meaning you've studied you know literature the arts maybe history you get intimidated by science and math and it's odd maybe not people you know but people I know would even brag like I don't know math I couldn't tell you an integral from a differential equation or transistor from a resistor or a gene from a chromosome they would never brag about thing I couldn't tell you Hamlet from Macbeth though I couldn't you know and so it's socially acceptable not to know math and science and that should not be the case and that's why I wrote the Einstein book in particular because part of our problem of the cps notes to culture's problem comes from Einstein is not his personal fault but up until then the Newton mechanical universe was something the average person Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson they all could pretty much understand you know the laws of motion the you know equal and opposite reactions balances it you read it in the Constitution the balances that come in with Einstein suddenly you know time is relative and you know gravity bends light and in the quantum you know at the subatomic level and quantum mechanics you know we'd not have a strict deterministic laws that and well all of a sudden science becomes something that the average person can't cope with yeah yeah but that's I but that's part of what you're saying is that in order for some of these folks to the kind of culture is in the wrong place right now it's not favoring more of the creativity innovation because there's a lot of very smart people probably on either side of that right that Venn diagram who are afraid to go into that intersection yeah and I'm trying to say if you look at Ben Franklin the most important scientist of his period even though you're probably not you know we think of him as a doddering dude flying a kite in the rain single fluid theory of electricity that comes from his electricity experiments is up there in that century you know with Newton even I mean it's the best experimental scientist of his time Jefferson you know what I thought you were Philistine if you didn't study botany and everything else nowadays people like a Ben Franklin don't do electricity experiments and even when I was growing up I'm in a slightly different category cuz my dad is an electrical engineer all my uncle's or electrical engineer so I grew up with Heath kits and ham radios and soldering irons and figuring out different transistors and making sure kits but many kids in the 60s did that and there's a problem now too that if your computer kid growing up today you're not even allowed to change the battery in your computer much less you know screw with the circuit board yeah and and you know kind of taking that to this book which is you know as we said it's about kind of the founding of kind of this tech revolution that we're in Silicon Valley I mean when you wrote this book I'm sure this stuff there's something that you've you've been thinking about especially we needed the the Steve Jobs book what do you think is special about either Silicon Valley or that the time we're in now that is it's allowing it to be what it is yeah I mean there are multiple layers of this one is why is the United States tender still even with the 17th best education system in the world meaning we're not the best-educated these days but we still invent more things and get invented in other countries and secondly why was there a migration in Silicon Valley in particular in the 70s lastly I have a whole chapter besides writing about people you also have to write about cultural forces I mean you know history is also cultural forces not just people doing things and in the late 60s and early 70s you had a lot of movements out here one was sort of the hobbyist movement the other was electronics because Westinghouse and all the defense interested come but but also there were two counter cultural movements the hippie movement with a lot of you know personal empowerment and you know and likewise the anti-war movement and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley and they all come together in the Bay Area with a lot of great music you know with this soundtrack by the Grateful Dead and it's rebellious it's personally empowering its defiant of authority all of these and it creates an atmosphere where the computer which had been thought of as a big Orwellian George Orwell type thing that governments and the military and big corporations got to have it's like no there's a wonderful the homebrew Computer Club had a newsletter it's computer power to the people with a mantra and that played off the power to the people mantra of the 60s and 70s in this area so you had that cultural stew that millyar I remember talking to Tim berners-lee obviously the guy who creates the web protocols and he said I'm the exact same age as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates born in 1955 you know my generation he said I was doing the same thing they were every time a new electronic component would come along got new transistors that was really cool and then I figured out okay microchips come along I can make more things a whole microprocessor so I went to Oxford and I was you know there same ages woz and Steve and all and I created my home computer the way they did a circuit board he said and then I got to Oxfordshire and what was I supposed to do with it there was no internet there was no guy driving up like Don Valentine to the Steve Jobs his family garage and saying I'll fund you make this into a company and so he said we didn't have that entrepreneurial stew and that rebellious spirit in England that you had in the valley and where do you think we are now where do you think you think the valley do you think this is you know what what's the next 30 years going to look like you think it's only gaining more momentum it's definitely changed no and I don't want to I mean this we may not all definitely want to hear it because I love the valley but I think when you the next phase as I said is the connection of the creativity industries with technology and it's not as much of an engineer driven game as a creativity driven yet whether you're in fashion or journalism or playwriting or RPGs and warps or whatever it is that makes you creative the tying end of creativity to technology is the creation of a new wine for the engineered bottles that we now have and that's why I think you're seeing San Francisco property values I just came late last night from San Francisco and it was even at the pier 48 area will you just stand outside and watch condos rise and they you know people are bidding wars for them and so I think that's something you and I have talked about Mountain View Palo Alto whatever how are you gonna have a more cultural you know culturally rich life for creative people who want to do things like you know go to talks go to plays go to music go to whatever there is some of that here but not as much as in San Francisco so you want to build up the magnet of creativity and diversity you and I know growing up in New Orleans if you have blacks and Creoles and Vietnamese in Spanish and people coming back to the spanish-american war and the sanctified Church and you know Italians and everything else all in the neighborhood then you're going to get a stew that produces jazz so I think you know one of the things for the next few years would be how do you have the diversity and the creativity everywhere why is Austin doing well others and I think that's a challenge for mountain view in Palo Alto and a challenge that's easily met but and I guess the second big trend is some of the technology that's coming up will be biotech not Infotech and that's harder to do in garages I mean that's wet we're not software and you kind of need the big hospital systems and other things which is why your old haunts of MIT and Harvard may get a second bite of the Apple no pun intended yeah and and and kind of just to kind of put everything together you know we're doing this whole campaign around you know you can learn anything around mindset and we're given all your experience and the people who you have known interviewed studied I mean what would you tell to a young person who may be a person who considers themselves good at writing but is fearful of math or someone who considers himself good at math and is fearful of writing what advice would you have for them well since I'm not a preacher I'm a storyteller I'll tell a story which is that Einstein was no Einstein when he was a kid he was slow in learning how to talk so you know so slow they consulted doctor and the family made calls him to deporte the dopey one in the family and so it takes him a while he doesn't he's not able to do things in a verbal way as easily so he thinks in pictures what he calls thought experiments like what would happen if lightning shot both ends of a moving train would you see it the same if you on the train on the platform all of his great breakthroughs are done through visual thought experiments so you begin by thinking if I'm son was no I'm son when he was a kid I can be anything if I want to learn also it's wild like journalism and I like doing what I do which is everyday I could learn different I could be in Eastern Europe and try to figure out why communism was falling and then I could go to CERN and figure out what they wouldn't do with the Higgs boson particle if they found it I had to learn these things and from me once I got successful enough as a biographer that's when I bit off things like Einstein partly because I wanted to tell people hey you should learn and that you shouldn't be intimidated by science but partly I want to tell myself which is can I understand general relativity I first got turned on to Khan Academy when I had to learn tensor calculus which is not so much in the book but I had to understand the tint of calculus said Einstein uses to show the curvature of the universe and out of the fabric of space and time and I realized well I got to get all my calculus dusted off and I started going to clown Academy and say okay let me boom boom boom and also this was a cool thing which is you can all you're never too old to learn I can now learn not enough of general relativity than I'm going to be able to debate Brian Greene on string theory but enough that I can talk to him about it and learn from him yeah and and I guess just one last question I mean what advice do you have for us you're familiar with the organization Khan Academy and kind of some of our aspirations but you all you know you have you have a historians mind so what advice would you have for us if we really do want to over the next 50 or 100 years become something that can empower billions of folks you know I'm gonna blow smoke for a moment which is I actually think what you're doing is so good I mean there's why I've been a fan there's why you know I was felt lucky to get to know you that I you know I watch other people trying to do things pouring on one your bottles Michael Santo making quote you know which is now a good course but it took a while I think what you're doing really is defining it very well how learning can walk I've tried to do one additional angle in our work with you which is my belief that people can learn alone by doing these videos and it's good because they can learn at their own pace but there's something that's probably oldest philosophy around which is our stott else which is man as a social animal that in the end people kind of like getting together that it's a collaborative personal group process of learning and exchanging ideas so I I've pushed a little bit we've been trying to do with the ASP initiative is to combine the online learning with the play space convening which is if you get through this course and you do this essay and you pass it and you you not only do you get a badge and something signed by Sal and everything else but you can apply for scholarships because we'll raise the money and you can come to say we do something as we're doing now on privacy in the Constitution with Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Roberts and a few other people say ok you take that course and if you do well apply for one of these things and we'll pick a hundred scholars from around the country who've finished the course and you got to go to Philadelphia and sit down with Sandra Day O'Connor and have a weekend you come to Washington and you get to hang out of the Supreme Court and get to meet the other people did the course with you so I think combining virtual learning with place-based learning which is obviously something me write about in one-room schoolhouses obviously things that rocket ship have done that's next phase of the revolution is how do you blend it in because we're never going to be something Aristotle wouldn't recognize we're never going to be people who like to learn alone I think it was Franklin and said I know it was Franklin and I think what he said was he that would try to learn alone or drink alone would be like the person who tries to catch his horse alone it's something you have to do with other people you this is why I don't get asked to speak at high school graduations that often or college graduations almost every one of my characters drops out and runs away Einstein you know hate school drops out in Germany you runs away to Switzerland bitte Franklin runs away to Philadelphia Steve Jobs drops out of read and I guess that's all over Franklin and kisses Joe doesn't I mean it's the Nazis take over so it's a different issue but all of them are rebellious in a way they all run away from home and that makes them in some ways more open to learning experiences I think or to think out of the box I mean one way to answer is I go back and forth about writing but current figures and writing historical figures and so I and you know there's a different set of muscles you need if you're going to interview somebody like a Steve Jobs the interesting thing about the innovators is it's both historical you know people like John von Neumann Alan Turing who obviously I never got to meet and do it through archival research but then people like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs you spend hours and hours allowing me to interview them so I try to do the mix there I think you have to always put someone in historical context but you also have to judge them by how history turned out the best example is slavery in the end I don't think Jefferson was a great man in the end he didn't even free his slaves and you say well you have to understand the historical period he was back then and that's what they did no Benjamin Franklin now also at one point at two household slaves and it occurs to him how abhorrent that is and so he becomes the president of the Society for the abolition of slavery so this is the great debate in history which is do you judge people by their period or do you say no history proved them wrong and that's something we judge them by them a little bit in the latter camp even the Churchill is a great man but so against the anti-colonial you know against Gandhi against everything else well you look at history he was on the wrong side of that one so as great as he was doing World War two you say no you know even though a lot of people were racist and anti-semitic and you know Pro colonial and everything else back then not that he was anti-semitic but you know people you don't just say yeah I excused them because that's the way they were at the time you say no these people turned out to be better than these people well two things I would like to invent the new wine for the new bottle I would like to invent a collab what I told you about a collaborative multimedia crowd-sourced yet curated guided new thing that people would say oh yes when Gutenberg did the movable type printing press pretty soon afterwards lots of things happen the Reformation would have but even novels begin to happen you can have novels if you have a printing press I want to say I was in volved in figuring out what type of new narrative nonfiction and it can be fiction but I'm probably leave that to somebody else just like if it's fiction you would say okay let's take role-playing games and LARP Sande blah blah and say how we're going to have interactive storytelling fiction I want to do that with nonfiction and I think that would be cool I've been somewhat involved over the years and not truly inventing the future like the real innovators but I ran a digital media time Inc in the early 90s and we it was right when the web browser was first invented which is I think 93 or 94 when mosaic comes out of the University of Illinois and we said okay let's create websites and even we invented some things that probably weren't good like banner ads and pop-up ads and ways to pay for things we do and I was part of the team that you know invented some of those things I'm not going to take blame or credit for but at least I was in that mix of people who said we will create websites we will take news and journalism and invent you know things like Pathfinder I mean new brand names that would create ways of doing news and blogs and integrate them and we had a lot of failures I mean one of which is we were totally advertising dependent cuz we were making so much money on ads so we didn't become reader dependent and so we began catering to advertisers another is that we took the community that we had created all the web was invented the community you found on the well or America online were people I bulletin boards and chat rooms and every night they'd be discussing issues and we relegated those to comments on the bottom of articles that were stupid anonymous dumb and nobody read them so we went we went from being a community service to being a publishing service online and that was a step backward I'd like to think we did some things that were kind of good though like create beautiful web pages and designs were you integrated words and multimedia and video and pictures and that was sort of a new thing when we created those you know in Pathfinder and Hotwire did it better than we did a lot of the early web sites of 1994 so I would like to say I want one more turn at the wheel on invention and I have a couple of biographies that are just plain old biographies I'm going to write including a historical one about the ultimate guy Leonardo da Vinci who combines art and science like nobody else did well no it's a great note to end on well thank you so much Walter there's a real real honor my honor