Best of 2011: Allen takes a close look at himself and others

"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.

Crosscut archive image.

"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.

Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut is sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today we are looking at some of our coverage of human effort and achievement. This story first appeared in April.

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.

He also has absorbed the middle-class dedication to self-improvement inculcated in boomers by their Greatest Generation parents (Allen's father, a WWII vet who never talked much about the war, was a library administrator at the University of Washington, his mother a school teacher and inveterate reader). Allen calls himself just a "boy from North Seattle" — Wedgwood to be exact — and his memoir reveals that his life has been steered by earnest PBS programming. It was Carl Sagan, whose "Cosmos" Allen loved, who convinced him to financially support the search for extraterrestrial life by monitoring galactic radio signals with what is now the Allen Array of satellite dishes. His love of scuba diving and personal deep-sea exploration came courtesy, he says, of Jacques Cousteau's documentaries.

Pop culture, too, plays a big role in shaping Allen's pursuits: His boyhood love of science fiction led to an interest in rocketry and the Allen-backed Space Ship One, not to mention a science-fiction museum. His love of rock produced EMP and an obsession with Hendrix. He was delighted to pay $750,000 for Hendrix's Woodstock Stratocaster in 1991, and Great Recession hindsight doesn't seem to have changed his view. Allen's passion for music and his eclecticism come from a genuine excitement ignited by art, science, movies, and TV programming we all encountered, but Allen has had the resources to follow up, to embrace them personally, to fund research that can take ideas to the next level.

EMP, for example, is justified as not simply a tribute to music and the creative spirit, but as a place that just might inspire the next Hendrix through exposure to sounds and instruments. Allen also donated millions to the UW for the Allen Library. He has a great interest in the future of teaching science, and his Halo Project is trying to program a machine to teach college-level biology, an extremely complex programming challenge. It's nothing less, he says, than a Digital Aristotle. I hear in Allen the echo of my own parents, of the same generation and class as his, of having the obligation to use one's mind and creativity to "make the world a better place," in part by improving yourself in secular, non-material ways, especially through science and art.

Allen's greatest indulgence, it seems to me, is commendable: giving free reign to his intellectual curiosity. Sometimes it seems like he's channeling a combination of Carl Sagan and Jules Verne, but the point is he's out there putting his money where his interests are, and his book is largely devoted to telling us what those are.

Having now read the entire book, I am struck by a couple of things. One is that while much attention has focused on the hard things he said about Bill Gates, the book is more nuanced. Not that Allen is backing off any claims of Gates' cruelty and greed along the way. He told the Town Hall audience that no one has challenged any of his facts though they might have a different opinion about them. He and Gates hadn't talked yet by then, but Allen and Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer have been talking. Allen recognizes that his partnership with Gates, forged in their early teens, was unique and formed a strong bond.

Allen has never been married, and in his memoir only talks about two love interests, his first girlfriend and a French beauty who opened him up to the pleasures of life on the Riviera in his younger, post-Microsoft years. But his relationship with Gates was a kind of marriage, their break-up, he writes, like a divorce. Or, at least the break-up of a seminal band.

While Allen is glad to have moved on, bitter about some things, nostalgic about others (e.g. the junk-food-fueled, nerdy camaraderie of world-changing programming jags), they're connected forever. Allen says that without Gates, Allen's business life has been less successful. Allen believes he has the better long-range vision, but that Gates knew when the Idea Man was onto something that could make money — and competitive enough to make it happen. Allen misses the practical discipline Gates brought, the foil he could be. He admires Gates' smarts and dedication, his determination to attack global health and to devote his fortune to the cause. Allen has signed a Gates-inspired pledge to bequeath his fortune to worthy causes.

Allen thinks Microsoft itself has missed his knack for seeing around corners, and one of the most compelling sections of his book is Allen's critique of the company in a chapter called "Hellhounds." He thinks the Ballmer-led Microsoft is slow, no longer a great follower nor great leader, possibly slipping into the kind of slow-to-change mode that is a giant-killer. The release of the slogging dinosaur operating system Vista is but one example. Microsoft needs to be faster, more nimble, and has missed hugely by being slow to set standards for mobile platforms. Allen doesn't write the company off, but his report card is tough.

Another thing lost in the publicity about the book is that if Allen is critical of Gates, Ballmer and Microsoft, he doesn't spare others either. Apple's Steve Jobs is portrayed as an arrogant ass whose bullying of staffers in public bothered even Gates. There's fired Seahawks executive Bob Whitsett, who Allen says cost him tens of millions of dollars through poor contract and personnel decisions, and former Allen investment manager Bill Savoy, who is said to have spread Allen's portfolio way too thin.

Allen admits to his own failings too: sometimes a poor judge of talent, times when he sold investments too early, or too late. He made rookie mistakes, too, as the owner of the Portland Trailblazers, aka the Jailblazers, such as getting too close to player Clyde Drexler, which he says clouded his judgment and caused him to nix a trade for Hakeem Olajuwon, hurting the franchise. He also thinks he was too indulgent in overseeing his Silicon Valley venture Interval Research, where thinkers and artists ran riot.

But Allen says failure is necessary, and that he's learned from his. He's trying to become more focused, to stick to his passions. He's learned that there's also great satisfaction in being able to see the results of doing good. That's how Allen sees local charity, real estate development, and other ventures like buying the Seahawks and building Qwest Field. He bought the Trailblazers out of a passion for basketball; he bought the Hawks because Seattle asked him to do a civic good by helping to keep the team in town. The revitalization of South Lake Union and SoDo, saving football for Seattle (and owning a piece of the hot new soccer team), seeing neighborhoods growing, receiving accolades from urbanists and sports fans — those are ways of making money and feeling good about what you've done.

If Allen lost, well, not his shirt but a drawer full of expensive socks, on investments like SkyPix, he also learned you can invest some money in ventures for the common good that you might never see come to fruition.

The chapter on the Allen Institute for Brain Science, "Mapping the Brain," covers one of the most interesting of Allen's long-term investments in basic scientific research. The idea is, like mapping the genome, to create an atlas of the brain, about which much is still unknown. This includes not only connecting brains to genes, but to understanding the basic terrain of what's inside our skulls. Important structural elements are still being identified. Making the findings available free to other researchers is part of the public benefit. Allen says the real results might not be seen for 50 years, but only his kind of deep pockets and vision could launch such a thing, at least outside the government. There's poignancy too: Allen's mother has Alzheimer's and won't see the benefits of this research, but future mothers might.

You can feel the snap in Allen's fingers more in some parts of Idea Man than others. The first nearly 200 pages are the most compelling, telling the story of his upbringing, Lakeside education, relationship with Gates, the founding of Microsoft, and his critique of the company. It's a great read with lots of telling detail. And Allen is a man of detail, as he makes it known that his personal archives contain just about everything, from private diary entries to letters to report cards: beware challenging him on the facts. This is a guy who obviously saves everything.

Other chapters are less fulfilling. Personally, being a Seattle guy, I could care less about the Trailblazers, but I'm sure sports commentators could find a column or two in his assessments of his experiences as a sport franchise owner. Also, there is a fair amount of celebrity name-dropping, and his trips on safari with people like Dan Aykroyd or tales of jamming with rock icons, while they might have been compelling experiences for Allen, lose something on the page. You search for signs of actual intimacy and friendship outside of Gates and the Allen family circle that must, you hope, exist. But his celebrity friendships come off as associations and access of the kind a rich guy can buy. His private life remain private. As the title suggests, the idea of the book is ideas.

If Allen has rarely paraded himself in the flesh, in public, his appearances do not go unrewarded. He has heard the roars of approval from the Qwest Field crowds. At Town Hall, the audience was full, engaged, and many gave him a standing ovation at the end. Allen was articulate, witty, low-key, and has a knack for explaining complex things for a smart, lay audience of the Town Hall type. 

Seattle loves to see its hometown boys and girls do good; Gates has been received as almost a guru at public events, and he has never been as criticized locally as he has been in the national or European press. The fact is, Allen is somewhat unknown to us, like the typical Seattle neighbor you never have over to dinner but see occasionally digging in the yard. A friendly wave suffices.

Even so, he is a kind of favorite son whose life embodies much of our community values: the belief that technology, education, high-purpose, PBS, and an upbringing by good folks in Wedgwood can produce the best kind of future.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.