A podcast exploring the intersection of government, technology, and the future.

Ramez Naam

Session 1

Winner of @Phillip K Dick Award, Author @Nexus trilogy, Author @The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet., Teacher @Singularity U., Energy innovation advocate

Hosted by: Chris McCoy  


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:00 [data4america theme]
:09 Chris McCoy: Hi! This is Chris McCoy, the executive director at Data4America. Welcome to Unplugged—where we sit down with interesting people with interesting ideas at the intersection of data, technology, the government, and the future. Today's session is with Ramez Naam - author of Nexus, winner of the Philip K. Dick award, previously at Microsoft for 13 years in machine learning and artificial intelligence, lecturer at Singularity University, leader of a clean energy syndicate on AngelList, and all-around one of America’s smartest optimists on the future of... Well, you’re gonna find out. Let's get it started. Good to chat with you, Ramez.
0:50 Ramez Naam: Hey Chris, great to be here.
0:53 CM: You emigrated from Cairo when you were three. What do you remember about your time in Cairo? How did it feel different than the US?
1:01 RN: I remember very little. I have only scattered memories of when I actually lived there, though I’ve visited many times. It was fascinating being an immigrant kid in the US. I came at that age when kids just start to get pretty good language skills down, and I had to start all over again in English. I did the thing kids are not supposed to do: I sat in front of the television for 5, 6, 7 hours a day, and just absorbed English and American culture.
1:34 CM: What first piqued your interest in technology? How old were you, where were you, and when did you discover it?
1:40 RN: I was probably ten years old. I was an immigrant kid in St. Louis, going to a Catholic elementary school. I don’t know when it was, exactly, 3rd grade or 4th grade, when my school got a Commodore Vic 20. One of the teachers got me some time on it. I’m not sure why, exactly, I was a little geeky kid, with more brains than social skills. Technology quickly proved to be this amazing palette that you could do anything with.
2:17 CM: I can relate to that. In 2nd or 3rd grade, I was in an advanced program. They put an Apple IIe in front of us, they taught us how to code, and it changed my life.

Sidepoint: do you have any thoughts on this movement to push computer science into public schools?
2:38 RN: I’m a huge fan of it. I worked with Hadi Partovi, who founded, a little bit at Microsoft. His view, and President Obama’s view, that we should be teaching computer programming in all public schools at the elementary level, is something I completely agree with. It’s the new form of literacy - numeracy. You can use it at any job, in any hobby, in any application. I’m 100% behind that.
3:09 CM: I love it, as well. I’ve thought a little about how to execute it right. It’s tough to change education, but what if instead of writing assignments in Microsoft Word, they were written in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript for extra credit, and teachers didn’t have to do the grading of the code? An application could.
3:31 RN: I think HTML and CSS are a gateway drug to programming. Before long, you do a little bit of JavaScript, and suddenly you’re writing code. That’s a great way in.
3:42 CM: You went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and also the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. What did you take away from your academic experiences?
3:53 RN: I went to two very good schools. The Illinois Math and Science Academy, IMSA, is a public magnet school for kids gifted in math and science, and it’s totally free. It was an amazing experience. I went and lived at this place with other kids who were smart, and where intelligence was valued. That’s the thing that I think was most a revelation to me: having other kids who are your peers really respect your intelligence. That changed things so much, even more so than the academic environment.
4:32 CM: The currency was not to be cool, but to be smart. [laughs]
4:38 RN: Yeah! Smart was cool. I think that was a little bit of a shift in American culture brought on by the geeks and the rise of computer companies, actually.
4:48 CM: It’s a net win for humanity from my perspective. So you’re in college - what were the projects you did?
4:58 RN: In college I studied computer science. It’s an amazing CS school. Marc Andreessen was there a year ahead of me. He worked at NCSA and worked on Mosaic, the first real commercial web browser. They had really good computer science chops there. It was also a little cookie-cutter. The idea that students direct their own education and that it’s tightly coupled to visible outcomes they can see still hasn’t been incorporated in most learning institutions in the US.
5:34 CM: How would you change that if you were directing education at the undergraduate level?
5:46 RN: I might have some ideas, but I think the most important thing is to experiment - to try more new things, and more new styles of what classrooms and curricula are like and - and measure the outcomes. The scientific process is to try experiments, see if they’re repeatable, and see what the numbers and data say. I think we do too little of that in the US. In college we do more of it, but in K-12 we do very little experimentation, really.
6:19 CM: Specifically, what would you like to see change in computer science education?
6:23 RN: I think computer science education is actually pretty good. The thing that was starting to happen that could still go further is learning to work in teams, to work on large code bases, actually producing applications that people could use.
6:42 CM: Moving on to Microsoft. How did you come to Redmond?
6:47 RN: They hired me straight out of college. A recruiter who was a U of I alum came to my school, I signed up for an interview, and that led me to Redmond for an on-campus interview. When they made the offer, I just said yes.
7:01 CM: What were the first projects you worked on?
7:03 RN: I started working on the Microsoft Exchange email client that shipped in Windows 95. I arrived in January of 1995, and that shipped in August. Then I was part of the email team. I worked on Outlook for many years.
7:22 CM: Were you there before the launch of Windows 95 or after?
7:27 RN: I got there about eight months before Windows 95 launched. It was a very exciting time for Microsoft.
7:34 CM: What was it like there? Those were the legendary days.
7:37 RN: Oh my gosh. Before then was even more legendary in some ways. There was a sense of excitement, really a sense that you could change the world.
7:49 CM: I went to school in Seattle and felt the Microsoft culture and innovation hubs around campus. When I was growing up, Windows 95 was when computers became real. It shifted from my experience with the Apple IIe over to a true graphical user interface that all of a sudden made sense to me and my buddies. We could do fun things like chat with random people across the country.
8:20 RN: That’s right. It was a sea change.
8:22 CM: At what point did you start to focus on search at Microsoft? In turn, what are some of the aspects that defined your post-Microsoft career? How did you sort of get into search, machine learning, large scale services, artificial intelligence? Tell us about that.
8:39 RN: Well, I quit Microsoft, actually. I did a startup, wrote a book, and then I was looking for a job again. I did not want to go to Microsoft, but they had the most interesting jobs. That’s what led me back to search. It seemed like a very horizontal application; everyone uses it, it can affect billions of people. That’s what was exciting. Machine learning, big data, all of that, I learned on the job, frankly.
9:07 CM: You were at Microsoft for 13 years. In what ways did the company change while you were there?
9:16 RN: The company grew bigger. The projects grew bigger. Microsoft was always a place where the general managers who owned a product really were the locus of power. Things got so big that Windows had multiple general managers: one for the the networking, one for the shell, one for the filestore, and so on. That started to slow things down, I think.
9:39 CM: Tell us about Apex Nanotechnologies, your company.
9:42 RN: That was an attempt to take software that can model interactions at the atomic and molecular scale, of which quite a bit exists, and make it easy to use. I think we were just a little ahead of the market. That company no longer exists.
10:01 CM: Did you take on some nanotechnology projects while there?
10:06 RN: We did. We were on the modeling side, so we looked at a lot of academic software that can model different systems. Some of it works only in water, some of it only dry, some of it is faster and less accurate, some of it is slower but more accurate. We wanted to unify that into one UI, sort of like Windows 95, to run all these different things in the background.
10:30 CM: That makes a lot of sense to me, thinking back to where technology was then. If you were to restart that company today, in theory, what would you do?
10:41 RN: I would focus more on a single application to start with. The place that you really see molecular modeling make sense today is in biology - in drug development. Two, I would probably look at machine learning and big data. Most of these models are not machine-learned, and there’s probably a whole lot you could do through the application of deep learning.
11:06 CM: So, writing. At what point did you foresee yours transition out of Microsoft and into writing, speaking, and now investing?
11:17 RN: I had left once to found a startup, so I really left a second time. The first thing that drew me out was actually clean tech and climate change - environmental issues. I had been thinking pretty hard about those since 2006, and in 2008 I left Microsoft with the intent to write the book that became The Infinite Resource. That kind of paved the way for other things.
11:48 CM: What sort of excites you about writing? You’ve gone from fiction to nonfiction - you do a lot of nonfiction writing now in addition to your work on your book series - what gets you excited about writing fiction?
12:06 RN: Fiction has this incredible power to affect people emotionally, to get under their skin and through their barriers, and influence them in a way that nonfiction can’t. My nonfiction has been awesome - it’s made me smarter. With fiction, you get people who come up to you and say, “I was up until 3 AM reading your book.” That’s a whole other class of feedback and experience.
12:32 CM: Kind of like being a software developer and having people tell you they were up til 3 AM using your app.
12:37 RN: Maybe if you’re a game developer you get that. I don’t know. [laughs]
12:42 CM: So Nexus. What was the process of thinking up, dreaming up, and actually writing Nexus? Tell us about the series.
12:55 RN: The technological conceit in Nexus is that there’s a drug called Nexus. You swallow it, it gets into your brain, and it basically connects your brain to the outside world via something like wi-fi. So if two people have Nexus, they sort of get a telepathic link. I’d written a lot about that sort of technology in my first book, More Than Human, and when I decided to try my hand at writing a science fiction short story, that was the tech that I thought would be cool to experiment with. What if we have this very easy to install brain tech? What are the ramifications for society?
13:31 CM: You’ve described Nexus as a war on drugs and war on terror parable.
13:41 RN: Indeed. In Nexus, the core technology - this drug you swallow - is illegal. I use that as a lens to look at what prohibition does. The people that use Nexus are almost branded as terrorists, as enemies of the state, and I use that to show some of the failings of that, to talk about how a little bit more freedom could actually make us safer and better-off.
14:04 CM: Real quick: what’s your hot take on Ready Player One?
14:08 RN: Honestly, I have not read it. I feel terrible on this score. I’ve heard great things.
14:14 CM: I think it’s right up your alley. [laughs] Are there things you think fiction can achieve? You really blend your writing; when you talk about technology in your fictional writing, there’s a lot of futuristic themes that are seemingly coming true on a daily basis. Are there things you think fiction can achieve that nonfiction can’t, in terms of setting the agenda for the future of technology and how entrepreneurs think about building products?
14:48 RN: I think fiction has an edge in being inspirational. I think nonfiction can also be inspirational, or it can be scary, but it has less permission to do so. With nonfiction you tend to keep it more grounded, or if you’re talking big picture, you get a little more abstract. With fiction - with a novel - I can make this story up that’s 25 years in the future, which is very far, actually, and I can paint this vivid story with emotions and people’s lives in the balance and real characters you care about. That’s either way more inspirational, or scary, or persuasive, than most nonfiction treatments of the same topic would be.
15:30 CM: You wrote More Than Human and received a great deal of praise. As you wrote Nexus, were you prepared for the response?
15:42 RN: Nexus was a sensation compared to More Than Human, for sure. It penetrated a certain sector of society. It’s big with geeks, with people who go to Burning Man, with people into civil liberties. I don’t think I was prepared for that, and it’s been great to see.
16:01 CM: Apex won the Philip K. Dick award this year. Congratulations. I can’t think of a better honor for your book. You’ve cited Dick as an influence and said he wrote about topics you care about - identity, memory, surveillance, the inner workings of the mind and the structure of society - how and when did you discover Philip K. Dick?
16:30 RN: I was a teenager probably when I first saw Blade Runner, so I’ve just grown up with Philip K. Dick all around. First in movies, then I gravitated toward his books. He’s been part of my life for well over 20 years, maybe pushing up on 30. I can’t imagine a universe without him.
16:56 CM: What do you think has made his work so enduring, even though technology has changed so much since his death?
17:04 RN: I think Dick was really concerned about the personal in this landscape where technology can alter communication, memory, and identity. When we look at modernity, what we have with everything from cell phones to virtual reality to the sort of tech I talk about with Nexus, it really has deep implications with who you are as a person.
17:33 CM: Ready Player One aside, how much contemporary science fiction do you get a chance to read?
17:40 RN: I read as much as I can. I’m behind on my reading, but there’s a lot of great sci-fi over the last decade or so that I’ve absolutely loved.
17:50 CM: Are you a Kindle person or a paperback person?
17:53 RN: I read entirely in ebook, but if a friend of mine or an author I really like puts out a book and I really like it, I’ll get it in hardcover if I can.
18:07 CM: Do you get to spend much time with the Philip K. Dick Trust?
18:11 RN: No, they’re pretty hands-off. The award comes from them and that’s it.
18:18 CM: You’ve said a lot of positive things about the other nominees. Which of their books should we drop everything and read right now?
18:26 RN: Oh my gosh, that’s a great question. I’d say Adam Rakunas’ book Windswept, is utterly unlike most science fiction. It’s really a story of a labor organizer and labor politics set in space. I thought it was really fantastic. Brenda Cooper’s book Edge of Dark is a space opera dealing with transhumanism and brain/computer interfaces as well as who is human and what’s the relationship is like between baseline humans and those who are heavily upgraded. Those are two that I’d recommend.
19:04 CM: What’s the status of the film adaptation of the book?
19:08 GF: Paramount who had the film adaptation let it drop, but it was optioned again quite quickly for TV. These things are sort of like venture capital and owning a startup. The final show is like your IPO, and there’s lots and lots of rounds you have to go through before you get there. Let’s say we’re at Series A right now.
19:27 CM: How involved are you in that?
19:30 RN: I’m a little bit involved, but really it’s the studio and the producers who do the hard work.
19:36 CM: When they adapt your screenplay, can they rewrite elements of it to show on TV, or do they stick directly to the book you wrote?
19:50 RN: They can adapt elements. They will and they should. The screen is not the same medium as print, so some things will work better done a slightly different way onscreen.
20:06 CM: If I can watch Nexus over a series of 10 to 12 episodes, that’ll be a wonderful month for me.
20:12 RN: I agree. I’m looking forward to that.
20:15 CM: We’re in a golden age of film in bite-sized series. It’s a wonderful way to spend a Thursday (or Friday) night. [laughs] Shifting over to business and investing, you’ve recently launched a Syndicate for Clean Energy on AngelList, and you’ve written at length about what you’re looking for in clean energy investments. What mistakes do you see startups making in this field?
20:44 RN: I think you ultimately need a few different things to actually succeed. Often you need a new technology. You need a business model that actually makes sense, that’s plausible. How is it that you provide value to your customers and also produce value for you and your company? You need some sort of competitive barrier to entry - a moat. What stops someone from just copying what you’re doing and sucking away all of your profits? Finally, you need the humility, the smarts, and the agility to pivot. They say no planet survives contact with the enemy. Whatever a startup has on paper - and I do pay a lot of attention to what their current plans are, their techs are, and so on - when they get into the market something is going to happen. They’re going to learn something doesn’t quite work the way they think it does, that customers won’t pay what they can, or that there’s another new opportunity - or a competitor - and they have to pivot. That’s what really separates the successes and the breakout hits from those that don’t get there.
21:57 CM: I’m on Team Mez. I consider myself an unofficial scout of the Ramez Naam AngelList Syndicate. I don’t know a lot about clean energy as it relates to the early stages, so I enjoy following what you invest in and write about. This is kind of combining your experiences in technology - and this may not be applicable on any level - but do you see machine learning and artificial intelligence playing a role in clean energy? If so, what does it look like?
22:29 RN: There’s definitely a huge role for software in clean tech. Some of that might be called AI and some of it might use machine learning. We see it in lots of places. Energy producers, like wind farms, are variable. Smarter forecasting software can triple the wind power you can use in some cases. One of the companies I’ve invested in, SmartFund, does for energy efficiency what SolarCity did for solar. If you’re going to buy efficiency, you get a payback - it pays for itself in 3, 4, 5 years - but nobody has that money in their pocket. Their software makes it really easy to make it zero money down to make your building more efficient, to save money, and to make a profit for the company. That’s just a use of straightforward software in their business. Nest is another example, which really can shave the peak of power demand on utilities and make your home smarter with how it uses energy. There’s a lot of companies in that space, and some of that is learning. Some of that is the device learning from data about you - what your patterns are and how to optimize them.
23:44 CM: I was in Dublin, Ireland, and also the countryside about a month and a half ago. We were out in farmland, where my fiancée’s family’s from, and we learned that farmers get 10,000 Euros for each windmill they put on their property. It pays out much better than cows.
24:10 RN: And it doesn’t compete, because the land under those wind turbines is still being farmed or grazed. Farmers love wind power because they’re harvesting wind like a crop.
24:27 CM: It was fun having those conversations with the farmers and getting their views. At the end of the day, purely economically, it’s a pretty good business model. Diving into clean energy a bit more, there are huge interests in keeping fossil fuels dominant. How do you see clean energy meaningfully disrupting - in the classic Clay Christensen sense - and creating change up against one of the largest industries in the world?
25:05 RN: Historically, the prices of energy have fluctuated. The prices of oil, coal, and natural gas goes up and down. What direction does the price of technology go? Tech just gets cheaper. We’re coupling the cost of energy to this ever-dropping cost of technology, and that means that it might be like the case of the digital camera versus Kodak. When Kodak had the film camera business, their film cameras were the equivalent of a 10 megapixel digital camera. When digital cameras first arrived, there was no such thing. The first digital cameras were like 600,000 pixels, something like that. They were toys. They were trivial, they were expensive and their batteries didn’t last. Then, bit by bit, the digital technology got better and better. They had more pixels, a longer battery life, and lower prices. Suddenly, they were better and more convenient than film. In a way, that’s what’s happening in energy. The cheapest solar contract in Dubai just last month was 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is less than half the price of coal or natural gas. This is highly disruptive.
26:26 CM: Moving over to what Elon Musk is doing with his companies, what do you see happening in the next 5-10 years with the battery network that Tesla’s building, or the solar network that Solar City’s building. Where do you see his portfolio of innovation at in 10 years?
26:47 RN: Well, Tesla’s been a breakout. I didn’t think that electric cars were going to go anywhere near this fast, nor did anyone else. The US EIA forecasted that in 2040 we would be selling 1000 EVs with a 200 mile range per year, and Tesla just took 300,000 orders for electric vehicles in a one-week period. What’s happening is a virtuous cycle. The battery technology has plunged in price. That allows you to make cheaper electric vehicles and sell them, and as you sell them, you get more volume. The batteries go down in price more, which makes the EVs cheaper, which sells even more of them, and the cycle just takes off. I think electric vehicles are highly disruptive.
27:37 CM: It feels like Tesla is building the Netscape of energy and storage.
27:42 RN: Something like that. You don’t get the same network effect in physical goods that you get in electronics, so we shouldn’t overplay it. It won’t be a Facebook type valuation or relationship between how little is spent to build such a big network, but compared to General Motors, it’s absolutely phenomenal. It’s stunning how fast the growth is.
28:06 CM: It gets interesting with these technologies when we’re able to share our battery power with each other.
28:12 RN: The grid is still not architected for that. It’s pretty hub and spoke. But I think you’ll see changes happening for sure.
28:23 CM: Beyond clean energy, what else could you see merit in investing and developing?
24:30 RN: There’s lots of areas. I’m a mission-based investor - meaning I look for a triple bottom line. I want something that helps the planet, helps people, and makes a profit. So really clean energy is where I’m focused. More than anything else, I’m focused on software and applications that accelerate clean energy. But if I were to look outside of that, I’d look at what’s happening in AI and deep learning. I think that’s a phenomenal space right now that can be applied to almost anything.
24:56 CM: With water desalination in California and just the general water shortage, where do you see innovation fitting in to solve that problem?
29:06 RN: Well, we’ve already had huge innovation in desalination. If you go back to the 1970s, we basically boiled water to desalinate it. Now we use 90% less energy to desalinate a gallon of water. In Dubai, there’s a desalination plant that uses 8 gigawatts of power, which is huge, but it desalinates 500 million liters of water a day. Israel, a big desalinator, is now an exporter of water to the rest of the Middle East, so I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to do more of it in the US.
29:42 CM: Diving into politics and government in the future, you’ve been an outspoken advocate for carbon tax bills. You’ve addressed the Washington state legislature in support of I-732 and worked to turn citizen interest into legislative action. What have you learned from this?
30:16 RN: I’ve learned that politics is hard. In Washington state, we have the first ever opportunity, on the 2016 November ballot, to vote yes or no on putting a price on carbon pollution. The way the bill is structured, it puts a price per ton on carbon pollution that polluters have to pay. It would also lower the sales tax and other taxes, so the average consumer would feel no net change to their pocketbooks. It’s a really simple idea, and no one has done the work to get the signatures to put it in front of voters before. We hope that we’re not just doing a state level change, but igniting a national wave.
31:04 CM: I was at a Commonwealth Club event a few months back with the governor of Michigan and Bill Ford. I asked him about carbon taxes in Michigan, and he said no. He said what they’re doing is solving the same problem. He didn’t get into specifics, but it didn’t pass my sniff test. Given the influence of the energy lobby, what routes do you see to make this happen outside of the state of Washington - and on a national level?
31:47 RN: I think that people just need inspiration on some level to do it in other states. If you look at the history of marriage equality, for instance ... Ten years ago we thought that marriage equality was effectively impossible. People didn’t even try because they thought there was no way it could ever happen. Suddenly, bam - it’s the law of the land. Marijuana decriminalization hasn’t gone as fast, but in 2012 it became legal to smoke marijuana in two states around the country. Now we’re up to five states, plus DC, and we’ll probably get more in 2016. These things are dominoes: when one state has a big push and shows that it’s doable, even if they don’t pass it, suddenly activists in other states start trying, whether through the ballot process or their legislature, and then it suddenly becomes a national policy change in progress.
32:51 CM: What’s been the response so far?
32:54 RN: The response has been pretty good! We know that we have to do one thing to win in November: we have to make sure that everybody in the state knows that our ballot initiative, I-732, is about fighting climate change. When people know that this fights climate change by putting a tax on polluters and refunds the money to voters, they vote for it. It’s really that simple.
33:24 CM: What are the next steps between now and November?
33:27 RN: We’re running a campaign right now. We’re fundraising, so if anyone reading this wants to support the first and best carbon policy in the nation, talk to us. We’re building a volunteer organization. We’re putting out door knockers, ringing doorbells, and talking to the state.
33:48 CM: : I was at an event last week here in San Francisco with a senior-level White House staffer discussing climate change. It was alarming when he spoke about Zika and the threat it poses, especially as temperatures get warmer. It travels further north, yet people aren’t thinking along those lines.
34:16 RN: Climate and health is a real issue. It’s not just Zika; it’s malaria, it’s dengue, it's all these things constrained to very hot places that start spreading from the Equator out. You see cases starting to pop up in Texas, and they’ll spread north from there.
34:38 CM: It felt like there was real concern from the White House around the issue, especially in regards to climate change and temperatures getting warmer. Diving back into I-732, how realistic is it that it gets passed?
34:58 RN: I think we’ve got a very solid chance. We’re polling better than marriage equality and marijuana at this point in their cycles and they both passed in 2012. The 2016 election is a presidential election, which tilts the electorate heavily towards younger and more progressive voters. We think Donald Trump is going to do the same. He’s going to suppress Republican voters and have more people coming out to make sure they vote against him. All of that is good for us.
35:28 CM: Do you see a future in policy for yourself?
35:36 RN: Maybe, I think I might take a long nap after we finish this campaign, to be honest. [laughs]
35:44 CM: You got Dave Roberts involved. What are Dave’s takes on carbon taxes, generally?
35:58 RN: Dave’s a heck of a guy. He’s a super-smart analyst - he writes for Vox. He does not think a carbon tax is a sort of uber alles, if you will. He sees it as part of the overall toolkit of policy that we’ve got. Frankly, I agree. We don’t see the carbon tax as the first step in climate policy, nor do we see it as the final step, but it’s an important one that’s been proven effective.
36:25 CM: The Washington tax is framed around revenue neutrality. Roberts reports that even Republicans prefer the money to be spent to fund clean energy. What are your thoughts on that?
36:36 RN: Everybody loves clean energy. If you lead with, “Hey, we’re going to do a ballot initiative that boosts clean energy,” then put in the small text after that, “And we’re going to raise a carbon tax to do it,” you poll quite well. But really, what’s happening is that the clean energy is sort of pulling along the carbon tax with it. At the end of the day, it comes down to one thing: if we communicate to people that this is a measure about climate change, and frankly that it boosts clean energy by making dirty energy more expensive, they like it. That’s the high level.
37:16 CM: It needs a simple and viral statement. I think you’ve simplified it to extremes so people can understand it. Last question on the bill: what do you think about the need to use revenue and regulations to build up political clout, and to sort of counteract the fossil fuel industry?
37:45 RN: I think the fossil fuel industry has a pretty bad rep, to be totally honest. When we tell people, “This makes polluters pay,” we see in our data that this resonates with them. Most people, in Washington state anyway, think that polluters should pay. They understand that we mean oil companies, coal companies, utilities that are burning coal, and so on. I think that there’s a different phenomena at the level of voters than there is at the level of politicians. For politicians, there’s still a lot of expenditure of lobbying dollars that gets access. Frankly, the money is there in clean energy, too, but I think that people just don’t know to use it.
38:32 CM: Seattle, since you’ve been there, has changed dramatically since the 90s, and a lot in the last 8-10 years. How do you feel about the city’s growth?
38:42 RN: The city is handling it much better than the Bay Area. It’s a tech city with Microsoft and Amazon headquartered here, Boeing here, Google building a skyscraper, Facebook, and so on. But, we actually build housing. We’ve managed to keep housing prices from soaring in the same way the Bay Area’s have, but we could do a lot more.
39:14 CM: You’ve addressed the government on a number of levels including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States Military. What have those experiences been like?
39:25 RN: I would say that in general, I’ve always been impressed by the intelligence and integrity of the people I’ve spoken with. I’ve spoken with people at senior levels in the military, in DARPA, with people in our legislature, and in the US Congress. While it’s easy to get cynical and flip about government, or to malign motives, what I have found almost every time is person of high intelligence, of high integrity, with a strong devotion to the job doing what they think is right. It may not always be what I think is right, but I’ve uniformly been impressed by the people.
40:05 CM: What experiences that you’ve had personally shaped your worldview when it comes to government?
40:11 RN: I’m an immigrant kid. Growing up, I was just fortunate to know that the US existed as part of the world and not as an island itself. That always influenced me to think that the role of government should not just be to do the best thing for Americans. The role of the US government should be to do the best thing for the world as much as we can, and that’s a pretty unpopular view these days, but that’s what I vote for: the president or congressperson who I think will do the best things for the world, not necessarily for me.
40:45 CM: If you could change anything about how our government functions right now, what would it be?
40:51 RN: I’d like to see less polarization. I don’t think that’s about government. I think that’s about the people and about tribalism. We like to find someone that is the enemy, that is the other - that’s wired into our genes. Democrats and Republicans view the others more unfavorably along the lines of political party than they do race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. All of those are less strong predictors of hatred than what party another person belongs to. That’s the biggest issue I see in America right now.
41:31 CM: One final question: what’s your one big policy idea that’s not the carbon tax that if you were the President of the United States, you would introduce?
41:45 RN: I’ll riff off the last one: end political primaries, or run primaries by taking a random sample of people who voted in the last presidential election.
41:59 CM: Next time I’m in Seattle, I’m going to send an email and hopefully get a chance to grab a coffee with you, pick your brain further, and update you on all the cool things we’re doing at Data4America. I think you’re one of the most interesting people in the world - definitely in America - and us here in Silicon Valley really enjoy reading your thoughts, your retweets, and your Facebook posts. You’re kind of educating us all in an industry that has a bright future, but needs a champion to get behind, and believe in. For that, you’re my person. It’s a real honor to chat with you, and thanks for your friendship.
42:48 RN: Chris, the honor is mine. I love what Data4America is doing and I’m looking forward to seeing more.
42:58 CM: I massively enjoyed that interview with Ramez. When I started Data4America last July, Ramez was one of the first people I reached out to to help build it. One of my favorite stories is that in evaluating a simulation model for energy, I looped in Ramez, who was flying out from Europe. As soon as he boards the plane, he’s on email, and for two days it’s almost like a heavyweight fight between him and the writers of the simulation model. It turned out that it wasn’t quite Data4America ready, and in that conversation thread I learned more about energy and climate than I had in 33 years. I love Ramez. I think he’s a true treasure to America, and as time will tell, the world. We have a number of guests lined up. It’s an honor to have Ramez. I’m obviously a huge fan. I hope you enjoyed the interview as much as I did. If you did, we’d love it if you shared this podcast with your friends. Email it, share it on messaging platforms, push it to Twitter, push it on Facebook. It means a lot when you share. To make it easy, you can send your friends to As I’ve said, we have more folks lined up, and if there’s someone you’d like to see on the show to discuss interesting ideas at the intersection of technology, government, and the future, just send me an email at chris at data4america dot org. We’ll be in touch. I want to give a special shout out to our donors, our board of directors, and the many people who have built Data4America from the ground up. It’s still the first inning. It’s a very inspiring mission. Until next time.


Fuel us with Bitcoin
Greg Ferenstein
Unplugged: Episode #1