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Allen takes a hard look at himself and others, not just Bill Gates

'Idea Man' is more nuanced than its publicity would have you think, revealing an intense but eclectic thinker who attacks his passions, admits his failures, and hopes to change the future.


The portrait of Paul Allen on the cover of his new memoir, Idea Man, captures the Allen we know and the Allen we don't. He resembles a Photoshopped version of the real man, a waxen Madame Tussauds figure that embodies the awkwardness of a very private person going public, one eager for recognition yet uncomfortable in the public eye.

Live sightings of Allen are rare: He lives in a private island compound, he travels the world by private jet and mega-yacht (even he, he says, was shocked at the size of his magnificent ship Octopus when he first saw her, seven stories high and much longer than a football field). He's been to the Arctic and Antarctic, and to the depths of the ocean in his private submarine. A favorite haunt seems to be East Africa, with recent trips to Botswana.

He's hard to pin down, in physical space as well as his defining characteristics. That was one reason, I think, that Seattle packed Town Hall on Friday (April 22) to see Allen on stage for an interview with Geekwire blogger Todd Bishop. For many, a globetrotting billionaire Bigfoot had finally agreed to a sit-down.

A first impression: Allen is taller than you think, though he often towered over Bill Gates in old photos from their early years of partnership when Allen looked like a long-haired hippie patriarch with Gates, who well into his 20s resembled a tween nerd from the Disney Channel. Allen is shaven now, slender of face and neck, the middle-age paunchiness has slipped lower down, couch-potato style. He is a remarkably unremarkable-looking man, a bit like you'd imagine the town pharmacist might have looked in his parents' hometown of Anadarko, Oklahoma.

What is striking are his hands, and how he talks with them. They are intense, the fingers long. You can see the young programmer's drive coming through them, as if the points he is making emanate from his fingertips. Allen says that he uses a BlackBerry because he has "really fast thumbs" and his mother trained him to touch-type. But they are also the hands that can finesse a basketball through the hoop playing HORSE with members of the Portland Trailblazers, or that have helped him try to experience what it was like to be Jimi Hendrix by playing his electric guitar late into the night and, later, rocking with Jagger and Bono. The hands reveal a Paul Allen whose soft figure and bland exterior contain no softy. The hands seem to possess his life force.

Which is strong, after two bouts of cancer (both Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma) and a weakened heart (he has a pacemaker). His book Idea Man was driven by his worry that cancer would cut his life short before he'd had a chance to tell his story. He says working on it helped him through a year of chemo and recovery, but it is clear that he was driven to beat the reaper after a middle-age wakeup call. For a man who appears comparatively quiet, he has a lot to talk about.

Allen considers himself a generalist, and also a man of creative powers who "thinks in the future tense." It has been more than a quarter of a century since Allen left Microsoft in the early '80s, though he did later serve on its board. That made his fortune, but his interests in riding the tech wave and plowing his fortune into innovative ventures is really driven by a desire to change the world. More than perhaps anyone, Allen was inspired by the Seattle World's Fair's science exhibits (particularly the Federal Science Pavilion, now the Science Center). And he internalized its message that science and technology were key to progress. Allen loves music, reading, he collects great art, but if his interests are wide-ranging, his true passion is in research and development. Allen is the ultimate progeny of the Sputnik moment.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Apr 26, 8:11 a.m. Inappropriate

I was on page 256 struggling to understand the main character of the story when it struck me... could it be that Paul Allen is the real Forrest Gump?

Posted Tue, Apr 26, 8:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Admiring Skip as I do, its hard to understand how he glosses over one of Allen's major failures, and one that apparently Allen himself is unaware of, and therefore cannot discuss in the book: his lack of urban vision. He may be interested in science and science fiction, and we know he buys art, but apparently he is blind to what he sees when he travels the world. The world's exceptional cities are places where people of wealth build exceptional buildings that will grace their cities for many years, even centuries. They are not places where very rich people have the government overturn their own rules so that mediocre buildings can replace whole neighborhoods, or bodies of water can be hidden from view, except by looking down from one of their buildings. To say that Allen 'saved' Lake Union is absurd- he has buried it in corrugated pastel colored metal, and his Vulcan has done away with all of the older, some historic, buildings in the neighborhood. People who bought into his vision, and bought a condo in one of the new Vulcan Lake Union buildings, are now going to lose their view of Lake Union, if he gets to builds taller buildings close to the Lake. Everywhere else in the city the closer to water one gets, zoning requires a step down in height, not up. But Allen is requesting permission to do the opposite from the Seattle city government, and there has been very little discussion in the press, including Crosscut about this. Why exactly would the city want to hide the lake from us all??

It is commonly known that Frank Gehry was disgusted with his client's lack of vision, even his lack of understanding his own desires when he was commissioned to design EMP. Because Allen had no clear understanding of what he actually intended to do with the building, Gehry smartly refused to design its inside. Allen helped several arts non-profits teeter on and then fall over over the edge by giving them inexpensive space in the older Lake Union buildings which were waiting his 'development' touch. The non-profits invested major money in fixing up the buildings, only to be told a few years later that their leases were being terminated. Does his street car help the city or only his customers? Is Vulcan's pressure to get the city to revamp Mercer going to improve traffic there?

In a city where we over-discuss everything I find it shocking that the press is so unwilling to look at what Allen's touch has really meant to the built environment here. To me it appears that Allen has invested in his building portfolio, not in Seattle. The fact that he is never seen here would suggest that he is never here- he doesn't have to look at or live in what he has created.

thoughts

Posted Tue, Apr 26, 8:57 a.m. Inappropriate

nice piece. i almost didn't read it, figuring it was just another verse of the same song, but Knute did a good job of giving the reader a more nuanced and interesting look at a truly intriguing guy. I was actually kind of charmed when Paul Allen made fish-out-of-water visits to Olympia back when he was looking for support for the stadium referendum. It made me wish he had a passion for public policy in the state and nation, and that he could be seen, and heard, and not cloistered in his estates and mega-yacht. (I supposed those who despise wealth and patriarchy would object to him "throwing his weight around.") His name and passion and money could open a lot of doors to improve the lot of humankind, as with Clinton and Gates and others we could mention.

Ammons

Posted Tue, Apr 26, 9:39 a.m. Inappropriate

I thought about attending the Town Hall event but then realized that my only interest sprang from cupidity--a love of money and fascination with its power. I knew there'd be a mob scene there because lots of people here have nothing but dollar signs in their eyes. (Maybe they thought he'd haphazardly leave a trail of currency while exiting the building..?) So I skipped the event and spent the time reading Proust and Shakespeare ("Timon of Athens").

Posted Thu, Apr 28, 8:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Had Seattle voted for "The Commons" The South Lake Union development mess would have been far better than it has become. We'd have a park running down Westlake instead of a trolley. Now Paul owning over 50% of the buildings had a second chance to just build out to near the original plan but he didn't. Maybe it didn't pencil out but what we now have is a series of medium height office and condos and appts with poor to no transportation.

And I read in the Seattle Times that there are now 7,000 Amazon.com employees in the area. I'm pretty sure that all of them don't live there, even with Tech'es being mostly young professionals.

The SLUT is a joke. You can walk faster than it goes especially if it involves waiting for the next one to arrive.

What I don't understand is that Paul with his science fiction museum in the EMP building didn't build/extend the Monorail into a loop to serve his buildings. Yes Monorails are the future that hasn't arrived here in the USA but it would have been cool. And he would have had the city pay for 1/2 same as he did for the trolley. (via his taxing district financing scheme.)

GaryP

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