It was a privilege, and a ton of fun, to get to interview Paul Allen on stage about his new book, Idea Man, during an event Friday evening at Town Hall Seattle. For me, at least, it was a side of the Microsoft co-founder I hadn’t experienced before.
Of course, Allen addressed plenty of serious topics and questions related to his life in technology, philanthropy, and science, his latest struggle with cancer, and the controversies caused by the book’s behind-the-scenes stories about Bill Gates. But the normally reserved billionaire also peppered his remarks with colorful anecdotes and funny one-liners.
There was even surprise cameo by Allen’s childhood sweetheart, in the video above.
Continue reading for highlights.
Why he wrote the book the way he did: You are faced with a decision when you do something like this. Are you going to make it unvarnished, warts and all? Are you going to tell things as best as you could recollect them. And that was the decision that I made, but it was an easy one, based on who I am and how I’ve been brought up. That’s just what you do. I wanted something of substance, something that was accurate, something that was honest, and I believe we achieved something like that.
Whether the book has jeopardized his friendship with Bill Gates: I don’t think so, but I’m sure there are things in the book that Bill wants to discuss, and he’ll have a different slant about them. Bill and I have had many intense discussions over the years. We haven’t had a chance to talk about the book since it was published. I gave him a copy months ahead of publication. So he had a head start on it. That discussion will be very, very intense, and he’ll be very direct, as will I.
On his recent discussion with Steve Ballmer about the book: No one has disagreed or contradicted any fact or any memory to me. … Steve said, “Yeah, those things did happen, some of those things did happen,” like I recount. I think obviously if you’re in a leadership position at Microsoft, and I’m giving my critique of the future, or the challenges for the future, I guess I should say, those are areas that Steve’s focused on, and is sensitive about, and he talked a little bit about that.
How his second bout with cancer made him both more and less patient: Whenever you go through one of these treatment regimens there are many things that are completely out of your control. You just have to be patient and hope things work out for the best, and be optimistic. Take a positive attitude. On the other hand, realize that if there isn’t a positive outcome, your time may be limited so it makes you that much more focused on realizing your dreams and hopes, because all of our time on this planet are limited.
Why he’s so interested in the brain: We’re just starting to understand the outlines of how things work. … It’s so completely different than the way a computer works, and as someone who programs computers, that fascinates me. The brain was designed by evolution, so each part of it is optimized for what it does, and it’s incredibly, incredibly complex. … Then there’s trying to understand, at a chemical level, at a biological level, how the different parts of the brain work, and if you understood that, and those aspects of the brain, then you could possibly bring forward treatments to neurodegenerative diseases.
On his yachts: They’re too big, and there are too many of them. Do I need to say anything else? … No, I grew up seeing films like “Silent World,” the Jacques Cousteau movie about his wonderful diving saucer and all these adventures they had underwater. The biggest yacht that I have accommodates a submarine. What they do, what these guys do, these captains, they’ll say, Paul, we know you want to build a bigger boat. And here’s a model. It’s about this big, and the submarine goes in the back here, and it’s going to be pretty good size. And then they start building it, and you go to Germany, and you see it and you go, oh my gosh, that’s really big. No, no, it’s enormous.
The appeal of his submarine: It turns out if you go 1,000 feet down in the ocean, it’s really dark, and the animals are really strange, but if you put on some Pink Floyd, it’s fantastic.
Does he use an iPhone, Windows Phone or Android? I’m a little bit old-school, I use a Blackberry. My mother, God bless her, forced me to take touch typing when I was 16. So my thumbs, I’ve got really fast thumbs on the BlackBerry keyboard, and I send quite a few emails every day. I’m sure at some point I’ll convert to a, to a … new platform. (Laughter)
Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows, come on!
Star Wars, Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica? All of them.
On helping to fund the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence: It’s a very, very long shot, and if they do hear something, they’re supposed to call me. But my Blackberry, nothing. It’s not even vibrating. No, imagine how all of our lives would be stimulated and changed if there were other societies out there beyond our solar system. It’s a very, very long shot. But I thought it was worth it.
On his passion for Jimi Hendrix: After 25 years, I could play a half-decent Purple Haze. It was funny to talk to (Jimi’s) bass player, Noel Redding, and I’d say, what was it like? … “Oh, he’d come in after one night, and he’d say, ‘Here’s a song called The Wind Cries Mary, and I wrote it in about a half-hour, here we go, let’s record it.’ ” I’m going, like, it took me 25 years!
On being part of one of the greatest bands ever, Microsoft: We had our hits, we did. A few in the top 10.
On his Twitter account: The other day, I was thinking, I should send out some tweet as kind of a joke, saying, “Bitter billionaire retires, this is my last tweet. Look out Howard Hughes. Going to Vegas today.” But I just don’t like ‘Ice Station Zebra’ that much. That was his favorite movie, he’d just sit there watching it over and over.
On the rise of Facebook: It’s amazing, if you think about it, why wasn’t something like Facebook done years earlier? It could have been. There was nothing stopping that from occurring. It’s just you have to have the idea. So there’s always things that come down the pike, that you don’t expect that suddenly affect all of our lives in a great way, and I think that’s one of the wonderful aspects of technology.
A big thanks to Sarah Stackhouse and Travis Veralrud for their help.