Nathan Myhrvold is our Charles Foster Kane and the projects that he takes on are his Marion Davies. Since leaving Microsoft, he has involved himself in activities that are as spectacular as they are useless. His latest work is this epic: five volumes, 1522 recipes, and 2438 pages of scientific cooking. It took 46 people around 5 years to create, costs $1-10 million dollars, and will set you back $625. Impressive, yes?
You can just see yourself running down to the local book store to get it, yes? You can imagine making it THE reference book in your collection of cookbooks, tossing out those old things currently on your shelves, I’ll bet. Actually, I can imagine a very limited audience for this book, and the influence of it being very minimal.
But never mind that, let’s look at Myhrvold’s recent talk at the TED conference. Myhrold and his team have come up with a way of dealing with malaria. How?
Yes, that’s right: use laser beams! Astounding, for sure! Practical? Not so much.
All of this is in keeping with his current job. Since leaving Microsoft in 1999, he has been the CEO and founder of Intellectual Ventures, “a firm dedicated to creating and investing in inventions”, and according to this (Green Pioneers: Godfather of nutty inventions – Times Online), they have submitted over 30,000 patents. Sounds like a lot, and it is! How many game changing products have they come out with? Well, none. “Intellectual Ventures has earned about $1 billion in licensing revenues and paid out $350m to inventors. It has first refusal on inventions from more than 100 universities worldwide”. Basically they don’t invent anything. They just lock down ideas and piggyback off other companies that actually do the work.
To me all of this is a shame. It’s easy to slam Myhrvold as an egomaniac or a glorified patent troll. What I don’t understand is why a guy that rich and that intelligent does what he does. He should be making the future. Instead he dives into extreme attention-getting activities that amount to little if anything, while people like Ferran Adrià or Bill Gates or Steve Jobs remake the world. He gets alot of slack from people who interview him and write about him. Perhaps they are impressed by his obvious intelligence or the sheer epic quality of the things he takes on. I wish someone who is really making a difference would have a talk with him and get him to focus less on himself and more on a monumental problem that he could not only overcome, but develop some humility in the process. That would benefit us all: certainly much more than a $600 cookbook does.
P.S. If you must, you can go here (Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking) to learn more about his book. If you really want to learn how to cook well, check out this book, The Way to Cook by Julia Child , or get this magazine, Cooks Illustrated, both of which I think are superb.
If you want to see ex-Microsoft employees taking a much more practical and effective approach to malaria, go here: Our Work in Malaria – Overview & Approach – Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Finally, I don’t have to tell you this, but if you want to see people changing the world with technology (and patents), go to Apple or Facebook or Twitter, to name a few.