Microsoft Research NYC logoNow that I’ve said my goodbyes, I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve joined Microsoft Research, an organization with going-on twenty-one years of commitment to basic and applied research, employing 850 Ph.D. scientists around the globe including Turing Award winners, Fields Medalists, and many long-time colleagues that I hugely respect. If that were all, I would be over-the-top happy right now.

But that’s not all. Together with fourteen other founding members (seven of whom I can name: Duncan Watts, John Langford, David Rothschild, Sharad Goel, Dan Goldstein, Jake Hofman, and Sid Suri), we are cutting the ribbon on a new outpost for Microsoft Research in New York City. We will report to Jennifer Chayes, the founder and director of Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, MA. It’s been amazing to watch her up close pursue a goal relentlessly with boundless positive energy. I get the feeling it’s how she approaches everything she does, a realization that played no small part in my decision. The New England Lab, like us, is an interdisciplinary research group that blends computer science, social science, and machine learning, yet from different enough perspectives to make this an almost perfect marriage. It’s no exaggeration to say that helping to found and lead a new research group amid the bursting tech scene in New York City, with the resources of Microsoft behind us, is — as Duncan says — a once-in-a-career opportunity.

The press coverage Thursday was gratifying, including nice pieces in PCMag (source of the sweet logo above), NYTimes.com, AllThingsD, and dozens more. Here is the official press release. For science perspectives, see John Langford’s, Lance Fortnow’s, Dan Goldstein’s, and Jennifer Chayes’s blog posts. One of the coolest moments came when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tweeted about us.

Note that, despite the attrition, Yahoo! Labs lives on, probably more applied but not solely so. Ron Brachman, the new head of Yahoo! Labs, is terrific and may be able to do something special there. The Barcelona group remains largely intact and just got 7 (!) papers into SIGIR. Other groups remain intact as well.

The reception within Microsoft research and product orgs has been swift and very warm. The breadth and scope of the place can be daunting at first but invigorating. The ability to impact products that touch hundreds of millions of people’s lives is, as always, a rewarding draw of corporate research. Yet one of the deciding factors for many of us in joining Microsoft is the freedom to interact with universities in research, service, teaching, hosting visitors, hiring interns and postdocs, etc. In addition, we’d like to play our part in the New York City tech scene, including the startup, venture-capitalist, and hack/make communities, plus the new Cornell-Technion campus, contributing to Mayor Bloomberg’s vision of New York City as a tech hub.

An interesting side note that bodes well for my two daughters ages 7 and 4 is that my primary decision boiled down to working for one of two brilliant and accomplished women: Jennifer Chayes at Microsoft, or Corinna Cortes at Google, who is absolutely terrific. Google is a incredible place, a model of efficiency, innovation, and ambition, with an impressive roster of people, and the company is in a very strong position. But this opportunity at Microsoft simply proved to be too good to pass up. I can’t believe how perfectly everything fell into place. I’m beyond thrilled at the outcome and excited to begin this next chapter of my career.

Last day: Turning in my Yahoo! badge after 8 or 10 years, depending how you countOn Thursday April 26, 2012, I resigned from Yahoo! after nearly 10 without actively changing jobs. Here is the full text of the goodbye letter(s) I sent. It’s the kind of long-winded last salvo that few people actually read, and now I’m foisting it upon you, dear reader, but I can’t help myself. Writing it brought back many wonderful memories and a tinge of sadness at the end of a truly amazing work environment for me, but I found the exercise rewarding. I really appreciate the many kind words and well wishes: some were poignant and immensely gratifying. The feeling is mutual. If nothing else, throughout my career I have had the great fortune of working with amazing people who are equal parts brilliant, effective, and nice, including my bosses, peers, reports, and students.

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: last Yodle (and last corny Yodle joke)
Date: Wed, 25 Apr 2012 16:44:31 -0400
From: David Pennock

After 8 wonderful years (almost 10 if you include Overture), it is with
very mixed emotions that I leave Yahoo!. My last day is tomorrow,
Thursday April 2526. You can reach me in plenty of ways and I hope you do:

[my email address]
+1-732-XXX-XXXX
Y!IM pennockd | facebook pennockd | twitter pennockd | linkedin
http://dpennock.com | http://blog.oddhead.com

I’ve grown to love this company (purple blood, yada yada) and one of the
deep ironies is that I have a feeling Scott Thompson may actually know
what he is doing and that maybe just maybe Yahoo!’s return to revenue
growth and good public perception will finally come (note I didn’t say
return to profitability — a steady $1 billion in cashmoney profit in
our pocket every year is very far from shabby). I plan to hold on to
some of my stock.

In the early 2000s Google was an amazing Bem+Wom story yet almost no one
(me included) had a clue how they would make money. In 2002, Gary Flake
introduced me to Overture, a company already making hundreds of millions
on search, and suddenly it was clear. I joined Gary in what became
Overture Research and later, under Usama Fayyad’s protective wing, the
inception of “Yahoo! Research Labs”. When Gary left, we hired Prabhakar
and Ron. The rest is history. Andrei, Andrew, Raghu, Ravi, Ricardo,
Preston, Duncan. An absolutely amazing place that was my pleasure to
watch grow and mature. I still remember the excitement of our first
offsite at Half Moon Bay to map out the future of the place.* I remember
a fateful week when Preston, Duncan, and David Reiley simultaneously
gave up their tenure to stay at Yahoo!.

From the beginning Prabhakar saw the importance of including social
science research in the mix for online media. In my little corner, where
we mixed computer science and economics (“algorithmic economics” we
called it), I believe we had enormous effect both internally and
externally. In 2007, Jeff MacKie-Mason, one of our Big Thinker lecturers
and now Dean of the School of Information at the University of Michigan,
wrote (ok, informally to me in email) that our group was “the most
exciting and successful group I’ve seen crossing the CS/Econ boundary”.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I believe we had a
significant positive impact on the growth in hiring in the social
sciences and in algorithmic economics at both Google and Microsoft. In
our group alone, we published more than 70 papers including at least two
award winners (Arpita just this year). We literally wrote the book
(chapters) on sponsored search and prediction markets. We co-founded the
Ad Auctions Workshop and NYCE Day. People who left often did
fantastically well, including Yiling Chen to Harvard, Mohammad Mahdian
to Google, and Dan Reeves to found his own successful startup Beeminder.
We filed dozens of patents (take that fb!). Former intern Nicolas
Lambert who is now a Stanford professor once told me he hoped to one day
say “it all started at Yahoo!”. I just left a Ph.D. student’s defense
whose three (!) weeks at Yahoo! were good for two chapters in his
thesis. We’ve had academic visitors leave after a week here and follow
up that they wanted to apply for a job — the environment was that great.

Inside Yahoo!, we worked on sponsored search (“squashing” and so much
more by the incomparable Sebastien Lahaie, who we recently discovered is
the central hub of research in New York), display ads, and UGC among
many topics. My passion has been in prediction (markets), and some of my
best memories have been trying to play product manager for a day (or a
couple months) for Predictalot and The Signal. Often it felt more like
operating a startup but with incredible advantages in resources, people,
and of course access to that monster traffic firehose. This was Yahoo!
at it’s best — marshaling talent from all over the globe in many
divisions and specialties to produce a product that no one had ever seen
before, and that no one including us even knew would work. One of the
saddest parts of departing now is leaving The Signal behind, an
incredible effort and in many ways our biggest and best, led by David
“force-of-nature” Rothschild and so many people behind it. Sadly, some
were let go and others are leaving on the own accord, and we’ll never
know what could have been in a counterfactual universe. Yet I believe
The Signal will live on in the good hands of those who remain, including
Chris Wilson, Alex, Ingemar, and the absolutely phenomenal Bangalore team.

By far the best part of working at Yahoo! was the people. It’s been my
pleasure to work with so many fantastic colleagues in Labs and
throughout the company. In the recent turmoil many in Labs have been, as
Preston said, “evaluated by the market”, and came out looking pretty
darn good, with calls, interviews, and offers from the best companies
(Facebook, Google, Microsoft) and universities. Early on we set a goal
to always hire above the mean, and I truly believe we did that. (Having
been here from the beginning, you can see where that leaves me in this
incredible crowd.) It’s a cliche but a true one: I am only as good as
the people working with me, and I’ve truly been blessed with amazing
colleagues, bosses, employees, postdocs, and interns. To Sebastien,
Arpita, Giro, and David Rothschild, plus Mridul, Navneet, Sudar, Arun,
Shrikant, Kim, Chris, Janet, Ron, Michael and dozens more and everyone
who has come before, from Preston & Prabhakar on down, I can’t thank you
enough and I owe you almost everything.

Goodbye for now,
Dave

* For history buffs, these were the people at the initial Yahoo!
Research offsite: Prabhakar Raghavan, Dennis DeCoste, David Pennock,
Omid Madani, Shyam Kapur, Andrew Tomkins, Winton Davies, Ravi Kumar,
Bernard Mangold, Ron Brachman, Marc Davis, Michael Mahoney, Kevin Lang,
Seung-Taek Park, and Dan Fain.

** I also remember the first few days of Yahoo! Research New York in
2005, with just Ron, John, and I. It’s amazing to see what we have
become since.

*** An even more arcane note of history: the Overture control room made
a cameo as NASA Mission Control in James Cameron’s 2003 movie Ghosts of
the Abyss. I am on somewhere on the cutting room floor trying to muster
that awestruck look one gets upon seeing alien life for the first time.

——– Original Message ——–
Subject: one more thing
Date: Thu, 26 Apr 2012 11:20:01 -0400
From: David Pennock

I’ll abuse my final act of spam to add one more thing. For those of you
remaining, you’re in good hands with Ron. I believe he can do something
special with Labs. In case you’re not familiar with his background, Ron
is frighteningly smart (Princeton undergrad, Harvard Ph.D.), was a
pioneer in artificial intelligence, wrote a seminal book on Knowledge
Representation, served as President of AAAI, the main AI society, ran
research groups at Bell Labs & AT&T, and is a highly organized, fair,
diligent manager who listens actively, gets things done, and, in
addition is a genuinely nice person. Best of luck to everyone.

Next post: A dream job come true.

Small Apple tribute logo, created by Mak Long

10 Print "Hello"

That line typed on an Apple II computer in my Dad’s office in the fourth grade got me hooked on computer programming, an addiction I never outgrew.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of owning, using, or programming on many of Steve Jobs’s creations, including Apple II+, Macintosh IIcx, Power Mac 7100, Newton, NeXT, Powerbook, Macbook Pro, and iPhone. I’ve been a consistent Mac in the Mac-vs-PC battle since 1984 (though I admit to a brief affair in 1998: it didn’t mean anything, Steve, I swear!). Jobs himself ignited an us-versus-them fire, which smolders on today in Apple’s John Hodgman-as-PC ads, back in 1985 with one of his best quotes:

Playboy: Are you saying that the people who made PCjr don’t have … pride in [their] product?

[Jobs:] “If they did, they wouldn’t have made the PCjr.” [Playboy, Feb. 1, 1985]

Around that time, my friends and I had a running joke: “I got a PCjr,” one of us would say; “you’re going straight to hell, kid,” the other would shoot back.

Old Apple II and Power Macintosh computers
Buried treasure: Old Apple II and Power Macintosh computers, waiting to be dusted off… someday



My wife and kids (ages 7 and 4) are more recent converts, owning a Duo, an iPhone, an iPad, and two iPod Touches among them.

I’ve owned Apple stock since about 1997, my single best investment, increasing 4,460 percent. (Priceline is my second best, gaining 3,990%.)

Like Lance, I’ll never forget where I was when I learned that Steve Jobs had died. Steven Colbert told me. Live. After a hilarious taping of the Colbert Report and four performances by the artist formerly known as Mos Def (apparently a perfectionist: who knew?), Colbert ended by balancing his iPhone on his desk, letting it fall over, then telling us, “Steve Jobs died. Sorry to be the one to tell you.” To say the mood of the audience changed instantly would be an understatement. Smiling faces turned down. Cries of anguish and “oh no!” rang out from nearly everyone in the audience, a mark of how Jobs’s influence and name recognition has grown from tech hero to global cultural icon. (Colbert gave Jobs a proper tribute the next day.)

There’s a thread in our office about the extent to which perceived success or failure at the CEO level is a fooled-by-randomness trick of the mind. But there are some examples where even the strongest skeptic must admit that an organization’s success is almost surely owed to the exceptional greatness of a single individual. Warren Buffet and Coach K come to (my) mind. But Steve Jobs must be the prime example. As if ushering in the era of personal computing and computer-animated movies was not enough, Jobs continued to outdo himself year after year, with iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and, barely a year ago, iPad. Sadly, or maybe purposefully, Jobs seemed to hit his stride just as he died. As a long-time disciple of Jobs, I’m amazed at the amount of focus in his obituaries spent on gadgets he created in the last ten years.

Jobs famously advised not to spend too much time celebrating success.

I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.
—NBC Nightly News, 2006

Those were not empty words for Jobs: it’s how he lived his own life and how he squeezed so much out of the 56 short years he was given. The early storyline of Apple pegged Steve Wozniak as the brains and Jobs as the lucky business-minded sidekick. It turns out that Jobs was way more exceptional than the 1990s nerderati — who like me relate more to Woz — gave him credit for. Jobs had the brains, the vision, and the charisma in a combination so rare I’m not the only one who can’t think of another human alive who compares. To get a taste, read or watch Jobs’s Stanford commencement speech: it’s truly brilliant, inspiring, and one of the best ways you can spend the next few minutes of your time.

To the ultimate hacker painter, the first last analog, the nerdiest salesman, the studliest genius, the most productive perfectionist, the most detail-oriented visionary, and a personal hero:

20 Print "Goodbye"

My geek CEO was fired. If you’re wondering whether she deserved it, or Yahoo! is better off for it, or Roy Bostock is a doofus or dorfus, I don’t really know.* But I do have a personal story about Carol Bartz that’s indicative of the kind of CEO she was and the kind of person she is, perfect for Ada Lovelace day, a day to blog about women in science and technology who inspire you.

In May 2010, my wife Lauren was diagnosed with breast cancer. On Sunday, May 9, 2010—Mother’s Day no less—I received a phone call. “Hello?,” I said. “Hi, this is Carol Bartz,” she said. “Wow!,” I couldn’t help saying. I had never spoken to her before. She proceeded to say how sorry she was for me and Lauren, to reassure us, to ask me questions, and to answer mine.

More than a year, multiple surgeries, and six chemo sessions later, I’m happy to say that Lauren is past the worst part of the treatment and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, cancer free. At the time, we were frightened, bewildered, and angry. To me, the most overwhelming feeling was disbelief. Was this really happening to us? It was surreal. Lauren’s strength and sheer will to keep our home life as normal as possible, and her ability to turn the ordeal into a positive is amazing and helped me cope. That my mom and Lauren’s mom went through the same thing also helped. The more we looked into it the more we realized breast cancer was everywhere—shockingly common even at Lauren’s age. (Especially in New Jersey, one of only five states in the top tier for both incidence of and mortality from breast cancer.) The calls to increase the age of first mammogram border on criminal. One silver lining for Lauren has been meeting the amazing support community of breast cancer sufferers, survivors, and their friends. They have inspired her to give back in many ways. My mom, a radiologist and ACR fellow, was herself inspired to specialize in mammography and pursue breast cancer research.

It turns out, Carol Bartz is a survivor herself and, in addition to being one of the fifty most powerful women in business, is just another member of the breast cancer support community who cares deeply. Carol had over twelve thousand employees. To take the time to call one of them on a holiday weekend to address personal problems and pain shows the kind of leader she is. (And shows the kind of bosses Preston and Prabhakar are, who thought enough to bring it to her attention.) It’s a “Yahoo! moment” and a Carol moment that I remember vividly and continues to stick out in my mind. I suspect most stereotypes of corporate and public leaders as conniving powermad ladder climbers are just that: stereotypes. But still, I’m convinced that not all—probably few—CEOs would do what Carol Bartz did. Goodbye, good luck, and, most of all: Thanks, Carol.


* I will say that I respect Carol’s willingness give her blunt assessment of the board, possibly risking $10 million to do so, and to come right out and say “I was fired” rather than hide behind “more time with family” cliches. I’m not surprised that the board gave their full confidence to her in public just two months before firing her—of course a board always has to say that they have confidence in their current CEO. I am surprised and dismayed that, at least judging by her reaction, it seems the board was also giving their confidence to her in private. That’s HR 101: No one who’s fired should be surprised.

A few words on the tragic death last May of John Delaney, the founder and CEO of prediction market company Intrade. John died near the peak of Mount Everest, climbing toward one of his life’s dreams and leaving behind a wife and three children, including one born only days before he died that he never met.

John founded Tradesports, a pre-cursor to Intrade, in 2000. Eventually, the non-sports contracts on Tradesports where spun off as Intrade, and Tradesports was shut down in 2008, in hopes of obtaining U.S. regulatory approval. I remember marveling at the technology, featuring ajax-ian magic like push updates — new bids appeared and filled bids disappeared live in a flash of color — well before its time, before we even knew what to call it.

The prediction market community embraced John, and John them. John was happy to take academics’ quixotic market ideas — like combinatorial markets, decision markets, merger markets, tax markets, or search engine markets — and float them on Tradesports or Intrade, and share back data for academic studies. I remember when we learned a Director at Intrade would speak at the first Prediction Markets Summit in 2005, we were thrilled to hear from a pioneer and innovator: one of the “big guns”. Chris Hibbert asked, “isn’t Tradesports the largest prediction market in the world?” It was hard to say: in a way, yes, it was and still is the largest market widely identified with the adjective ‘prediction’, but of course it depends how you define it: does Betfair count? Vegas? Stock options? If I recall, John himself spoke remotely at the second PM summit in New York.

Intrade became the prototypical example of a prediction market, mentioned in almost every academic paper on the subject. In 2008, Betfair, a goliath to Intrade’s David in terms of revenue and profit, got so annoyed they lashed out and sent the following attack on Intrade and defense of their own service dubbed Betfair Predicts (now shuttered):

InTrade’s election charts are republished frequently—despite continuing
problems with market manipulation.

Betfair is the world’s largest commercial prediction market with $33
Billion per year flowing through its exchange and is well known for
integrity and advanced technology…

I don’t believe I met John in person, but he and I emailed a bit, and beyond being whip smart and a fantastic entrepreneur, John was simply an incredibly nice guy. He kept repeating, at the end of nearly every email, that I must come to London so we could meet and have a beer. Talking to others, it seems I am far from alone in this standing offer from John. On the original prediction market mailing list, John Delaney was always the peacemaker: always diplomatic and rising about some surprisingly testy exchanges. He always spoke to raise the prominence of the field as a whole, ahead of his own interests with Intrade, not only believing but acting on his belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

John didn’t seem like the type to seek out risk for the simple thrill of it; rather, he took calculated risks in business and life to progress. His success at work and at home attest to this. In hindsight, it’s easy to say he calculated wrong in attempting to climb Everest, but especially among prediction market proponents we know that decisions cannot be evaluated in hindsight. Decisions must be judged based on the information available at the time the decision is made. My guess is that John knew the risks and felt the climb was a gamble worth taking in an effort to achieve a long-standing goal and to accomplish a feat few others on the planet can claim.

John, you will be sorely missed, but your legacy lives on at Intrade, in the prediction market community, among your family and friends, and in the business world, sadly and suddenly now missing one of it’s great entrepreneurs with a spirit of adventure.

My dad is an original maker. When I didn’t want to pay $200 to replace a broken car key housing, he sent me this vice made out of quarters he fashioned and all the parts I needed to attach it to the key.

Using quarters as a vice to hold a key

Aa biomedical engineer, he led a study showing that a non-invasive mask can save people from respiratory failure as well as intubation. The technique is now common practice and, fittingly, the device helped saved his own life several years ago. He also invented a piezoelectric band to measure heart rate and breathing during sleep more comfortably than electrodes.

He did his Ph.D. dissertation on, in a sense, protien folding, in the days when cut and paste meant scissors and glue. I have an original copy of his dissertation and it’s a beautiful object to behold.

Bernie Pennock's Ph.D. dissertation 1Bernie Pennock's Ph.D. dissertation 2Bernie Pennock's Ph.D. dissertation 3

And what about that blowtorch fountain?

Bernie Pennock and the Blowtorch Fountain

Read about it in this profile of my dad by Maureen Simpson highlighting both his hacker and painter sides.

In his retirement, Bernie Pennock found a way to turn fire into water.
The former medical research scientist said it was just one of the many problems that needed solving in his home, where art has become the answer.
“It’s really the same idea as what I did as a career,” Pennock said of his hobby. “You see a problem and think of how to solve it. I think of what I want to do and how to do it, and then I do it and see if it works.”
Using old brass blowtorches he has collected over the years from antique shops and friends, Pennock constructed a fountain next to the pathway leading up to his front door…
Instead of spitting flames, Pennock’s structure spouts water. He mounted the old-fashioned tools to a sheet of copper and then rigged a water pump and pipes behind it… Pennock said his friends describe the work of art as “very Rube Goldberg.”…
Inside his home — on lampshades, along walls and attached to windows — guests can see numerous examples of the former scientist’s artistic experiments. His most recent obsession, apart from the fountain, has been working with stained glass.
“It all started with this window that looks out on the pool,” Pennock said. “I wanted something that let in light, but wouldn’t allow you to see into the bathroom. When I got an estimate to find out how much it would cost to have someone do a stained glass window, I decided to make my own.”
The multi colored scene is based on a photograph Pennock took of two people walking on the beach. Since then, he has made at least a dozen more windows that include a copy of a Monet painting, the Talmadge Bridge in Savannah and his interpretation of
12 stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall at the synagogue of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem, Israel.
Pennock said he usually buys the windows from a Habitat for Humanity store and gets his stained glass from a supplier in Charleston. The next project he plans to take on is a bamboo sculpture, because he’s running out of windows.
“I dabble in a lot of things,” Pennock said. “I like to invent. I just start from scratch, get ideas and see what happens.”
Among his rules for living, which Pennock painted on leftover floor tiles that hang next to the blowtorch fountain, is fittingly: “Pay attention.”

Oh, my brother and sister are makers too. And my mom a trailblazer. I’ll leave those for another day.

__________
This more personal post inspired because Robin says Tyler says it’s OK.

Sunday I returned from a trip to Bangalore, India, where I gave a talk on “The Automated Economy” about how computers can and should take over the mechanical aspects of economic activity, optimizing and learning from data in the way people cannot, with detailed case studies in online advertising and prediction markets. You can read the abstract, watch archive video of the talk, view my talk slides, browse the official pictures of the event, or see my personal pictures of the trip.

Some say everything’s bigger in Texas (most vociferously Texans). They haven’t been to India. My talk is part of Yahoo!’s Big Thinkers India series — four talks a year from (so far) Yahoo! Research speakers. If the Thinking isn’t Big, the crowds certainly are — the events can draw close to 1000 attendees from, apparently, all over India. Duncan Watts says its the largest crowd he’s spoken too; me too. This time they disallowed Yahoo! employees to attend the main event and the hotel ballroom still filled to capacity.

Here is a linked-up version of my journal entry for the trip, a kind of windy and winded thank you letter to Bangalore. If you’re not interested in personal details, you might skip to Thoughts on Bangalore.

Getting there

The Philadelphia airport international terminal is dead empty. I breeze through security — the only one in line. I’m inside security two hours early thinking that either the recession is still in full force or traveling internationally on a Monday night out of Philadelphia is the best ever. Maybe not. Get on plane. Wait two hours on tarmac. Apparently a two hour layover isn’t enough leeway on international flights. Miss my connecting flight in Frankfurt by a few minutes. Team up with a fellow passenger in the same boat. We are rebooked via Dubai. Fly directly over Bagdad. Dubai is an impressive airport. Endless terminals lined with upscale shopping. Packed with Asians, Europeans at midnight and beyond. From there, Emerites Air to Bangalore. Only 9 hours behind schedule. Sneezing fits begin after 28 hours of airplane air.

Day 0: Yahoo! internal practice talk

Driver right there outside baggage claim, nice guy. Takes me to hotel. Over an hour. Traffic. Time for shower, NeilMed nasal rinses (bottled water), Sudafed, but not sleep. Call home. Yahoo! Messenger with Voice doesn’t roll off the tongue like ‘Skype’, but it rocks. Super clear and dirt cheap. Lauren and the girls are so sweet. Miss them. To Yahoo! office. Meet Anita, Mani. Time for Yahoo! internal version of Big Thinkers talk. Nose is still running. Drips and wipes during my talk. Talk goes well but I run out of time for prediction market section and this seems what people are most interested in. I’m glad I had the practice run to work out the kinks and rebalanced the talk. Back to hotel. Call home again for a recharging dose of home. I missed Ashley’s graduation from pre-school: she did great: they sang six songs and she knew them all. She was dressed up in a yellow cap and gown. I’m upset I had to miss such an adorable milestone but am proud of my little girl (and dismayed she is rapidly becoming not so little!). More NeilMed. Room service. (Called “private dining” here — sounds illicit.) Sleep! For a few hours at least. Wake up in the middle of the night since it’s NY daytime. Finally get back to sleep again.

Day 1: Meetings

Hard to wake up at 9am = midnight. Shower. Feel 1000% better. Driver takes me to the Yahoo! office. It’s in a complex with Microsoft, Google, Target, Dell, and many other US brands. Once you’re inside it’s like every other Yahoo! office except the food — built essentially to corporate spec. Meet with Anita, Raghu, and Rajeev: go over PR angles and they brief me on the media interviews. These guys and gal are on top of things. Meet with Mani and her team: great group. Skip intern pizza talks because I can’t eat cheese, going for the cafeteria instead. Mistake. Order a veggie grill thinking that since it’s grilled, it’s cooked enough. I only take a few bites of this before thinking it’s too risky. I eat some bread and Indian mixtures. Not sure what the culprit is but something doesn’t sit well in my stomach. Give prediction markets portion of my talk to a few interested people in labs. Very sharp group. Meet with Dinesh and Sachin, their intern, and one other. Interesting work. Meet with Chid and Preeti on Webscope. Back to hotel. Call Lauren. Good to hear her voice. Ashley wants to say hi. She’s so adorable. She finds it hilarious that I am about to have dinner while she is eating breakfast. I can hear her laughing uncontrollably at the thought. Sarah says hi too and even ends our conversation without prompting with a “bye, love you”. I go down to the restaurant for dinner. Have a chicken Indian dish with paratha (is it lachha paratha?) bread. Spicy (sweat inducing) yet so delicious. The bread is fantastic — round white with flaky layers. Back to room. TV. CNN. CNBC. ESPN. Hard to sleep. There is an incredible thunderstorm with torrents of rain. I open my balcony door briefly to catch its power. I find out later that monsoon season is just beginning. I also find out that it rained so hard and so long that the roads flooded to the point of becoming impassible. In fact, Anita, the Bangalore PR lead, had a near-disastrous experience in the rapidly flooding streets on her way home and had to turn back and check into a hotel before going home briefly in the morning and then back to Yahoo! for our am meeting. Finally get to sleep.

Day 2: My talk!

Hard to wake up at 8:30am too. Talk’s today! Nerves begin. Media interviews are first! Even worse. Turns out they went fine. Two nice/sharp reporters, especially the second one who really knows her stuff and spoke to us (Rajeev and I) for 1.5 hours. She’s especially interested in the prediction market stuff since that is something new. She may write two articles (for Business World India). Lunch, then a bit of time to rest and freshen up. Stomach is not doing well. Pepto to the rescue. Back down to lobby. They take my picture in the courtyard. Then into the ballroom. Miked. Soundchecked. They accept a final last minute change to my slides: hooray! Room starts filling. 100 people. 200. 300. Now 500. It’s time to start! Rajeev gives a very nice intro. I walk up the stairs onto the stage. I’m miked, in lights, speaking in front of 500 people expecting a Big Thinker. Here I go! “Four score and seven years…” Ha ha. Actually: “Thanks Rajeev, and thanks everyone for your time and attention. I am happy and honored to be here. I’m going to talk about trends in automation in the economy…”

David Pennock speaking at Yahoo! Big Thinkers India June 2009Audience at Yahoo! Big Thinkers India June 2009

65 minutes later “Thank you very much.” Applause. I think it went well: one of my better talks. I covered everything, including the prediction market stuff. It turns out, like at Yahoo!, and like the journalists, the audience is more interested in prediction markets than advertising. Lots of questions. Some I follow, some I can’t parse the words, others I hear the words but just don’t understand. I do my best. Several people mention they follow my blog: gratifying. After the official Q&A session ends, there is a line up of folks with questions or comments and business cards. It’s the closest I’ll ever be to a rock star. A handful of people wait patiently around me while I try to get to everyone. Eventually the PR folks rescue me and take me to a “high tea” event with Yahoo! Bangalore execs and some recruiting targets. Relief and euphoria kick in. It’s over. I talk with a number of people. I make my exit. Private dining. Call home. Lauren has explained to Ashley that I am on the other side of the world, so when she has the sun, I have the moon. So I can hear Ashley asking in the background, “does Daddy have the moon?” I do. She can’t stop laughing. A repeat of game 6 of the Stanley Cup is on Ten Sports India. I watch it, getting psyched for Game 7. I check online for Ten Sports schedule. Game 7 will be on at 5:30am! I can’t miss that! Set my alarm. Try to sleep. Can’t sleep. Try to sleep. Can’t sleep. Try with TV on. Can’t sleep. Try with TV off. Can’t sleep. Finally fall asleep… Alarm!

Day 3a: Penguins win the Stanley Cup!

Really hard to wake up at 5:30am. Actually maybe not quite as hard since it’s 8pm in my head. Game on! Nerves are racked up. Can’t sit down: bad luck. Pacing. No score first period. Tons of commercials, all for Ten Sports programming: wrestling, cricket, tennis. Every commercial repeats three times. Is period two coming? Yes, it’s back on! Pens score first! Fist pumping and muted cheering. Can they really do this? No sitting rule in full effect. Pacing. Pens score again! Talbot second goal. Wow, is this real? Can it be? Don’t think about it yet. Don’t celebrate to soon. Plenty of time left. Period two end at 2-0. Unbelievable. All the same commercials come back, three times each. Period three begins. Stand up. Pace. Clock ticks. Pens are playing too defensive: not taking shots, just throwing the puck out of their zone. This isn’t good. Detroit is getting tons of chances. Fleury is awesome. Five minutes left. I let myself think about winning the cup. Mistake! Detroit scores! It’s 2-1! Nerves are ratcheted up beyond ratcheting. I think about it all slipping away. How awful that would feel. If Detroit ties it up, imagine the let down, the blown opportunity. Clock ticks. More chances. More saves. More defense. It’s working! Detroit pulls their goalie. Pressure. Final seconds. Faceoff in our zone. Detroit wins control. Shot. Rebound. Right to a Red Wing — Nick Lidstrom — in perfect position. He shoots. Fleury swings around. He saves it! It’s over! Pens win the Cup! Super fist pumping, jumping around, dancing, muted cheering. They did it! How amazing it feels after last year’s loss to the same team. After falling behind 2-0 and 3-2 in the series. They came back! A delicious payback with the same but opposite script as last year: a two goal lead cut in half in the waning minutes, a flurry of attempts at the end including a few-inch miss of the tying goal in the last seconds. These guys are young and have the potential to rule hockey for several years if they’re lucky. Mario Lemieux is on the ice. How sweet. Twice as player, now as owner, the one who saved hockey in Pittsburgh. What a year for Pittsburgh sports! Two nail biter games, two comebacks, two championships. City of Champions again. Too bad the Pirates have no shot to join them in a trifecta. Back to sleep.

Day 3b: Sightseeing

Phone rings at 11am — my driver is here. Off to do some whirlwind sightseeing. Everyone here who finds out I have a day off recommends I leave Bangalore — Bangalore is just not that nice, nothing really to see, they say. They all recommend Mysore, 3.5 hours away, but that is too far for my comfort level given that my flight is late tonight and it’s supposed to thunderstorm. We start with some souvenir shopping on “MG Road”. My driver takes me to a store and waits in the car outside. I walk in an instantly there are people greeting me and showing me things. One aggressive man takes over and remains my “tour guide” through the whole store. The fact that I reward his aggressiveness by following along and eventually buying stuff will only bolster him to do more of the same in the future. Annoying but clearly it works. I do negotiate him down, but I leave still feeling I didn’t bargain hard enough and with a bit of distaste in my mouth that I fueled and validated the pushy tactics. Next we drive past parliament and the courthouse. Impressive, large, old buildings. But I can just gaze and take photos from the car — can’t go inside. Next we drive past Cubbon Park — tree lined paths and flower gardens in center city. Next is ISKCON temple. But it’s closed. So one more round of shopping at a place called Cottage Industries. I’m wary given the last experience, but go anyway. This one is better. Again one person escorts me around but I feel less pressure. Plus I’m more prepared to say no and negotiate harder. I leave with what seems like a fair amount of value in goods. I recommend Cottage Industries to future visitors: more professional, more familiar (items have price tags), lower pressure, greater variety, and higher quality than at least the first shop I visited. Now we’ve killed enough time and the ISKCON temple is open. It’s a giant Hare Krishna temple. The parking lot is full. I tell the driver it’s ok — we don’t need to go. He says “you go, you go”. “Ok” I say. We drive around again to the same full parking lot. The attendant waves at us to leave, blowing a whistle. My driver is talking to him. They are talking quite heatedly. The attendant in his official looking uniform is waving us on vigorously. Although I can’t understand the words, he is clearly telling us the lot is full and we must leave immediately — we are holding up traffic. My driver is getting more insistent. They are yelling back and forth. I have no idea what he says but it works. The guard let’s us in. Meanwhile another car sees our success and tries to argue his way in too but to no avail. I ask my driver what he said: he simply replies “don’t talk”. Indeed once we’re in, there is an empty spot. We put all my bags in my suitcase in the trunk and cover my backpack. We take off our shoes and my driver leads me to the temple. He knows the back entrance and is guiding me to cut in front of lines everywhere. We walk past the main attraction: the altar with some people on the floor worshiping. Then the line weaves past a gift shop of course: I buy a crazy looking book (Easy Journey to Other Planets). We need to kill some time. We go to the gardens again to walk around. We walk into the public library. Most books are in English. Most seem old and worn. The attendant says the library is 110 years old. We start walking through the garden but I am paranoid about mosquitoes/malaria so we turn around early to return to the car. We go to UB City where I meet Rajeev. It’s a thoroughly modern office tower half owned by Kingfisher of Kingfisher Airlines. The building is full of high-end shopping like almost any upscale western mall with all the same brands. Here is the Apple Store. Here is Louis Vuitton. We have dinner at an Italian restaurant that could be anywhere in the western world, owned by an Italian expat. The only seating is outside and I remain worried about mosquitoes but don’t see any. The food is good and the conversation is good.

This place is the closest I’ve seen of the future of Bangalore. In the center of town, a gorgeous building filled with gleaming shops and tantalizing restaurants and bars, with apartments and condos within walking distance, and a palm-tree-lined street leading to the central town circle and the park. As Rajeev says, though, whereas New York has hundreds of similar scenes, Bangalore has one. For now.


Thoughts on Bangalore

Bangalore is a city of jarring contradictions, a hard-to-fathom mix of modernity and poverty. Signs with professional logos and familiar brands are set askew on dilapidated shacks and garages lining the road. While many live on dollars and day and others beg, the majority are smartly dressed (men invariably in button-down shirts), have mobile phones, and are intelligent and friendly. There are gleaming office towers indistinguishable from their western counterparts, yet a strong rain can flood the roads to the point of become impassible for hours and day-long blackouts aren’t uncommon. Many billboards are in English, sporting familiar brands and messages. Others, like sexy stars promoting a Bollywood film, are entirely familiar, English or not. Others are impenetrable. Still another advertises a phone number to learn why Obama quoted the Koran.

BMWs and Toyotas join bikes, motorcycles, pedestrians, aging trucks and buses, and colorful open-air motorized rickshaws in a sea of disorganized line-ignoring sign-ignoring traffic. People drive here the way New Yorkers walk sidewalks: weaving past one another in a noisy self-organized tangle that somehow — mostly — works. You can eat outside in a restaurant bar next to upscale shops, a fountain, and smiling yuppies, yet worry that a malaria-infected mosquito lurks nearby or that a washed vegetable will turn a western-coddled stomach deathly ill. When two people ride a motorcycle, as is common, only the driver wears a helmet — the passenger clinging on behind does not: new and old rules on display atop a single vehicle. And the traffic. Oh, the traffic. Roads are clogged nearly every hour of every day. My Saturday of sightseeing was as bad or worse than weekday rush hour. The extent of congestion itself illustrates Bangalore’s two faces: so many people with youth (India is one of the youngest countries in the world), energy, purpose, and the means and intelligence to accomplish it overtaxing a primitive infrastructure. Buildings are going up according to western specs, but under old-time rules where corruption reins and bribery is an accepted fact of life by even the western-educated aspirational class (about 20% and growing, according to Rajeev).

Thoughts on Yahoo! Labs Bangalore

The folks I met are impressive. Rajeev has done a great job hiring talented, driven folks. Mani‘s group of research engineers is fantastic. One is headed to Berkeley for grad school and asks great questions about CentMail. Another proposes an attack on Pictcha. Another (Rahul Agrawal) has read up deeply on prediction markets, including Hanson’s LMSR.

Thoughts on the Yahoo! Big Thinkers India program

The whole event was organized to precision. Anita, the PR lead, was incredible. I especially appreciated the extra “above and beyond” touches like having someone pick up Yahoo! India schwag for my family and send it to my hotel after I forgot: so nice. Raghu, who arranged the media interviews, is supremely organized and on top of his game. The fact that the event draws such a large crowd shows that there is great thirst for events like this in Bangalore. I’m not sure whose idea it is, but it’s a brilliant one: great marketing and great for recruiting.

Thank you Bangalore

In sum, thanks to the people of Bangalore for a fascinating and rewarding trip. Thanks to Rahul at the travel desk whose instant replies about the driver arrangements calmed my nerves on the stressful day of my departure. Thanks to the Yahoo! folks who arranged and organized my talk, and the Yahoo! Labs members for seeding an exceptional science organization. Thanks to my driver who got me everywhere — including into full parking lots, back entrances, and fronts of lines — with efficiency, safety, and a smile (when I tipped him, I tried to think wwsd and wwdd: what would Sharad or Dan do?). Thanks to those who attending my talk and whom I met afterward: it’s gratifying and invigorating to see your level of interest and enthusiasm (and your numbers). And thanks Bangalore chefs for keeping any stomach upset relatively mild and brief.

At the airport on the way out, the flight is overbooked and they are offering close to US$1000 plus hotel to leave tomorrow. Not a chance. It’s been fun and an adventure but my nerves are on high and I miss my family: it’s time to make the 20+ hour journey home.

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