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BOOK EXCERPT

The New New Thing
A Silicon Valley Story

By Michael Lewis

W.W. Norton

(C)2000Michael Lewis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-393-04813-6







CHAPTER ONE

The Boat That Built Netscape


The original plan, which Lord knows didn't mean very much when that plan had been made by Jim Clark, was that we would test the boat quickly in the North Sea and then sail it across the Atlantic Ocean. If nothing went too badly wrong, it would take us six days to sail down to the Canary Islands and another ten to the Caribbean. I had seen Clark in so many different situations that I felt sure I knew him, and the range of behavior he was capable of. But there is nothing like sixteen days on the high seas with a small group of people who have a lot of doubts about each other to test one's assumptions about human character. On the Atlantic crossing Hyperion would carry only the captain and his seven crew members, one or two computer programmers, Clark and me.

    Why Jim Clark was so worthy of study was another matter, and I'll come to that soon enough. For now I'll just say that the quirks in the man's character sent the most fantastic ripples through the world around him. Often starting with the best intentions, or no intentions at all, he turned people's lives upside down and subjected them to the most vicious force a human being can be subjected to, change. Oddly enough, he was forever claiming that what he really wanted to do was put up his feet and relax. He could not do this for more than a minute. Once he'd put up his feet, his mind would spin and his face would redden and he'd be disturbed all over again. He'd thought of something or someone in the world that needed to be changed. His new boat was a case in point.

    For all I knew, Clark would be remembered chiefly as the guy who created Netscape and triggered the Internet boom, which in turn triggered one of the most astonishing grabfests in the history of capitalism. Maybe somewhere in a footnote it would be mentioned that he came from nothing, grew up poor, dropped out of high school, and made himself three or four billion dollars. It might even be said that he had a nose for the new new thing. But to my way of thinking these were only surface details, the least interesting things about him. After all, a lot of people these days have a billion dollars. Four hundred and sixty-five, according to the July 1999 issue of Forbes magazine. And most of them are no more interesting than you or me. You have to trust me on this.

    Along the stretch of canal outside of Amsterdam where the water is deepest, the swollen tankers and stout tugs come to rest. Neither the driver nor I had the slightest idea where in this stand of massive industrial ships one might park a pleasure boat. It was not a place anyone would normally come for fun. The driver finally turned around and asked me exactly what I was looking for, and I told him I was looking for the sailboat that would take me out to sea. He laughed, but in the way people do who want to prove they get the joke. The Dutch do this a lot. They appear to live in terror of being mistaken for Germans, and to compensate by finding a funny side to life where none exists. Tell a Dutchman that your dog just died, and he will pretend that you have just made some impossibly witty remark. This is what the driver did when I told him I was about to go sailing in the North Sea. It was early December, the winds were up around thirty-five miles an hour, and the North Sea—well, the North Sea in winter is not the place to be in any kind of sailboat. The driver roared in the most un-Germanly fashion. "Yachting!" he said, and burst out laughing again, far too loudly, as if he had seen me my one joke and raised me another. "Yes," I said, which only brought forth more peals.

    The great mast rescued us. One moment we were lost; the next we turned a corner and spotted on the horizon the tall, rigid white rod. Its brightly colored pennants flew in relief against the gray sky, and its five spreaders reached up into the clouds like a chain of receding crucifixes. They beckoned everyone within five miles to drop his jaw in wonder. It was then that the driver finally stopped laughing. "Yacht," after all, is a Dutch word.

    Three minutes later we drove onto the dock up near the low white sailboat, next to the name painted in blue cursive on the side: Hyperion. You could tell the driver knew at least a bit about sailboats because he immediately called the boat a "sloop." A sloop is a sailboat with one mast, to distinguish it from a sailboat with two masts, called a "ketch." "How long is this sloop?" he asked me. "One hundred and fifty-five and a half feet," I said. "That is the biggest sloop I have ever heard of," he said. I said that that was because it was the biggest sloop ever built. His eyes moved from the hull to the mast, and from the mast to the boom, and from the boom to the sails, which, unfurled, would cover a football field. "How many men are needed to handle the sails?" he asked. "None," I said, "at least in theory."

    The Dutchman laughed again, but nervously, as if deciding whether it was better to be mistaken for a German or a fool. It wasn't until I told him that the boat did not exactly require a crew, that it could be completely controlled by a computer, that conviction returned to his laughter. The whole thing, after all, had been some foreigner's idea of a joke.

    When I arrived that morning of the first North Sea trial, Wolter Huisman was standing on the deck beneath the mast. Wolter owned the boatyard that had built Hyperion. Wet snow dribbled from his rain gear, and his woolen cap drooped around his ears. His chin sunk glumly into his dark tattered parka, and his old Dutch shoulders sagged like a commuter's at the end of a long day. He seemed to be melting. Coming up from behind, I caught him muttering to himself. Later I learned that Wolter hadn't slept. He'd stared at the ceiling all night, worrying.

    "What's the worst weather you ever tested a sailboat in?" I asked him.

    "Dis wedder," he replied. Then he sighed and said, at once apropos of nothing and everything, "When Yim wants something, Yim gets it."

    In his pessimism Wolter had found a strategy for getting through this life and onto a new and better one: so long as he insisted to himself that tomorrow would be worse than today, it did not matter as much if it was. He still had the Dutch habit of laughing at whatever you told him, just in case it happened to be a joke. But his laugh was harsh and unhappy. Wolter was pushing seventy, and his heart was old and weak, but this gloom of his was young and vital. Who could blame him? His fate was now intertwined with Hyperion's. And Hyperion was at this very moment the most spectacular maritime disaster waiting to happen since the launching of the Titanic.

    Of course, every new yacht that left the Huisman Shipyard was, so far as Wolter was concerned, an accident waiting to happen. It had taken Wolter, and his father before him, and his father's father before him, decades to build their reputation as perhaps the world's finest makers of yachts. Each time Wolter launched a new yacht, that reputation went up for grabs. But this was different. This was new.

    "Where is he?" I asked.

    "Behind duh computer," said Wolter. Pause. "When Yim sits behind duh computer, he is not any more in dis world."

    That was true. He was creating a new one.

    On that bitterly cold December morning Hyperion left its moorings so silently that the programmers didn't notice. The programmers were three young men Jim Clark had flown over from Silicon Valley to the North Sea to help him turn his new yacht into a giant floating computer. Technogeeks. Each was in his early thirties, each possessed a wardrobe that appeared to consist of nothing but T-shirts and blue jeans, and each was a former employee of Clark's first technology start-up, Silicon Graphics. They clambered up on deck from below, where they had been typing away on their keyboards, to see what they'd wrought. It was as if they hadn't quite believed that Hyperion would float.

    The bridge was a technogeek fantasy. Where an experienced sailor would expect to find a familiar row of gadgets—radar, sonar, radio, GPS, and so on—were four large flat-panel computer display screens. The three young men took seats in front of these and started pressing buttons. Soon enough they were making small quivering sounds that suggested all was not right with the computers. On one of the screens was a map of Holland. The map focused on the area immediately around us, perhaps twenty square miles. A miniature Hyperion inched stealthily across it, like a boat in a video game. But according to the computer map we were chugging on top of a farmer's field, and heading toward an airfield. The slender canal we were actually on lay three miles to the east. Any captain using the computer to run the boat would think he was heading full tilt into an aircraft watchtower.

    I walked out onto the deck to find that the same map occupied the computer screen in front of Allan Prior, the man Clark had hired to captain Hyperion. Allan was from the old school. He'd won the Whitbread around-the-world race in a sailboat so stripped down that it looked vandalized. Allan himself looked vandalized; the wind and the sun had ravaged his complexion. Allan did not believe that sailboats should be run by computers. Now he was staring straight ahead, attempting to avoid a large ferry that was making a dash across the canal. "Don't bother me with that," he said when I asked him why his boat was in the middle of a wheat field. "That's a computer problem." Clearly, he was in no mood to consider the undeniable fact that his entire boat was a computer problem.

    I returned to the programmers on the bridge. After a couple of minutes of furious typing, they had the boat back on the water. Yet the head programmer, a fellow named Steve Hague, retained a certain dubiousness. His eyes darted back and forth between the edge of the canal and the map on which Hyperion chugged along. All of the computer's gauges seemed to be either inadequate or inaccurate. A captain steering off them—which Allan Prior at that moment declined to do—would not only think that he was sailing through a wheat field. He'd think he was sailing through a wheat field in the wrong direction. For no apparent reason a red light flashed on one of the screens. It said, DANGER, DANGER, DANGER.

    Steve punched some buttons. According to the computer we'd been grounded. "It is truly unfortunate that we find ourselves in this situation," he said, at length.

    Yes it was. Just a few hours earlier the weatherman had predicted Force 4 sailing conditions. Force 4 implied pleasant winds of twenty knots and seas of perhaps six feet. Even before we left the canal and passed through the locks into the North Sea, the report lost its credibility. The gauges on the boat that measured the speed of the wind had frozen at fifty knots—the computer had not been programmed to register winds any higher.

    As we passed through the lock and into a harbor, we could finally see why Wolter Huisman muttered to himself. Fifteen-foot waves crashed against the seawall and flicked their white foam thirty feet in the air, where it mingled with falling snow. Gusts of wind blew at seventy miles an hour. The boat suddenly began to rock too violently for anyone to stare very long into his computer. The programmers scrambled out from the bridge and onto the deck, where Allan and Wolter stood together in the snow with pretty much everyone else: twelve boatyard workers, seven crew members, two Dutch friends of Clark's, a photographer, and a German television crew present to document the launching of the world's first computerized sailboat. The only person missing was Clark himself, but, then, people who knew Clark knew better than to expect him to be where he was meant to be. Sooner or later he'd turn up, usually when he was not wanted.

    "It's too goddamn windy out there," Wolter Huisman shouted, to no one in particular. "It is wedder to test people, not boats." He shot Allan a meaningful look, who shot it right back to him. They both knew that the weather was the least of their problems.

    When Hyperion left the seawall behind, it put itself at the mercy of a furious North Sea. Instantly, the boat was seized by forces far greater than itself; its magnificence was trivialized. A furious partial corkscrewing motion pulled us up to the right and then down to the left. We'd dip into a trough, experience a brief, false moment of calm, and then be picked up and twisted again. The German television soundman dropped to his knees, crawled over the side of the boat, and vomited. There was no question of his suppressing the urge; it was as if someone had pushed a button on the computer that instructed the man to be sick. There, prone and puking on the violent deck, he lifted his microphone into the air to capture the ambient noise. Room tone. A young Dutch friend of Clark's along for the ride chuckled and said, "The Germans. They will always do the job they are given no matter what."

    But the German soundman was a trend setter. It took about a minute and a half before the first Dutch boatyard worker leaned over the safety ropes and vomited the Saint Nick's cake he'd been served an hour before. A minute later he was joined by two poor colleagues who had been down below monitoring the engines. A few minutes after that the three fellows working on the foredeck came back to join the party. Then came the rest of the German television crew. Hyperion rose and twisted and plunged and settled, then rose and twisted and plunged and settled all over again. Within twenty minutes eight men had gone as lifeless as if they had been unplugged from their sockets. Those who weren't sick pretended to be amused. They clustered around the captain and clung to the rails and smiled crazily at each other.

    Eventually, Allan reduced the engine speed and hoisted the sail. He did this by pushing a button, which told the computer to hoist the sail, which the computer, for once, did. The mast was hatched with crossbars, called spreaders. The sail rose with a great flapping sound past them one by one until at length it reached the second-to-last spreader. Just when you thought there could be no more sail, more sail appeared. The mainsail alone was 5,600 square feet, a bit more than a quarter of a football field. The world's largest sail, as it happened. It was expected to handle up to eleven tons of wind. That is, the force on its ropes was the equivalent of dangling from their ends an eleven ton steel block. Already the ropes were being tested. "The wind is too strong to let it all out," Allan shouted to Wolter. Wolter nodded solemnly.

    Not until you have hoisted a sail and turned off the engine can you fully appreciate the euphoria that accompanied the invention of the steam engine. The boat, now engineless, was subjected to a grosser, more primal force. The waves crashed and the spray came in sheets and the partial corkscrewing motion became a full corkscrewing motion. The eight men in Puker's Alley retched all over again. This time it wasn't so funny to the others. A wave washed over the deck and knocked two of the Dutch shipyard workers on the bow off their feet; they were saved from the sea by their safety ropes, which they alone wore. The three technogeeks clung to the rails and tried not to remember that they didn't belong here. They knew without being told that anyone who went overboard was as good as gone. A person tossed into the North Sea in December would last only a few minutes before freezing to death; and in these conditions it might take an hour to pick up a man overboard, if you could find him. Maybe for this reason no one bothered to don a life jacket.

    It was then I noticed Wolter, his arm wrapped tightly around a rail, trying not to look at everything at once. It was Wolter whose ass was really on the line out here. If a Huisman mast snapped, or a Huisman hull leaked, and a Huisman yacht sank, a long and glorious family tradition bubbled to the bottom of the North Sea floor. That is why Wolter and his three hundred stout and sturdy craftsmen back in their tiny village in the north of Holland resisted change. They did not cling to the past mindlessly. But they were as immune as people can be to the allure of a new way of doing things. Traditional, in a word.

    Wolter had spent the past three years wrestling with a great force that had neither the time nor the taste for tradition. The struggle had turned Wolter into an old man. Before Jim Clark had come to the boatyard at the end of 1995, Wolter had never heard of Silicon Valley, or of the Internet, or, for that matter, of Jim Clark. Yim, as Wolter called him, had sat down amid the exquisite models of ships built centuries before, and the old black-and-white photographs of Wolter and his ancestors at work building them. He had seen a yacht Wolter had just finished building, he said, and wanted one like it. Only bigger. And faster. And newer. He wanted his mast to be the biggest mast ever built. And he wanted to control the whole boat with his computers. Specifically, he wanted to be able to dial into his boat over the Internet from his desk in Silicon Valley and sail it across the San Francisco Bay. It was as if someone had distilled manic late twentieth-century American capitalism into a vial of liquid and poured it down Wolter's throat.

    Only a small part of the discomfort experienced on that wintry, gray December afternoon on the North Sea was physical. Most of it occurred inside of people's minds. Clark pushed people into places they never would have gone willingly. Often the people who'd been pushed assumed, for one reason or another, that Jim Clark, the rich man from Silicon Valley who seemed to know what was about to happen before anyone else, would make sure that it didn't happen to them. The problem with their assumption was that it wasn't true: all Jim Clark ever guaranteed anyone was the chance to adapt. His penchant for disrupting his environment was at the bottom of every new company he created; now he'd used it to transform a sailboat. The many strange deep sensations on board—Wolter's dread, Allan's frustration, the computer geeks' unlikely feelings of responsibility—all were the doing of Clark and his new technology. It was a single great, messy experiment, which, in retrospect, was bound not to end well. And it didn't.

    At the moment when the seas were most fierce, the boat's tiny population huddled together on the stern. Hyperion pitched and rolled; its passengers clung to the rails and to each other. Even Allan, who had sailed around the world three times in boats the size of Clark's bathtubs back in California, was numb as a mummy. "It's not sailing," he hollered to Wolter. "It's more like throwing something into a washing machine to see what breaks."

    It would have occurred to no sane person at this point to crawl along the side and have a look around. But that is what Clark did. He emerged from his cabin, where he'd been fiddling with his computer, and made his way up the safety ropes along the side. Since Hyperion was 157 feet long, and he was six foot three, this took some doing. I should say that he did not look as he was expected to look; his appearance was just another element of surprise in a surprising universe. He was tall and broad in a way computer nerds are not supposed to be. His blond hair was neatly combed. His features were small and delicate: one could easily imagine that he resembled his mother. He was handsome. Unlike most men who make billions of dollars for themselves, he had an expansive, easy manner. At any rate, that's the first impression he made. If you looked closely, you could see that each of the slow and easy gestures was countered by another that was small, tense, almost involuntary. His body language was engaged in a debate with itself. It was as if he had an itch that he was refusing to scratch.

    When he reached the bow, he climbed up toward the world's tallest sailboat mast, which rose to a point 189 feet over the deck. He put his hand on it, to steady himself. There he stood for some long while, a large yellow lump of Gore-Tex, directly beneath the tall, rigid white rod of his ambition. He was looking, it appeared, straight up at the sky. What he was looking for, no one could say. Probably he was thinking about something he might like to change. Possibly he was not thinking at all but groping. That is how his mind worked—the logic always came after the initial, inexplicable, primal impulse. But whatever he was doing he didn't do it for long. Once he'd found his footing, his mast began to sway. At first its movements were barely perceptible; then they became more pronounced; at last they were violent.

    Later someone who had been on the bridge said he had heard a loud crack. The rubber at the base of the world's tallest mast had shattered. The foot-wide seal that kept Clark's 189 feet of carbon fiber standing straight had frozen into a crystal, and then broken to bits. The mast came loose in its socket. Its three and a half tons rocked wildly back and forth, like a broomstick rattling around inside a garbage can. As quickly as he could press a button, Allan Prior lowered the sail, before the mast itself broke and fell over into the sea.

    "Yesus," Wolter Huisman muttered, and looked away.


CONTENTS
Preface 13
1 The Boat That Built Netscape 19
2 The Accelerated Grimace 28
3 The Past in a Box 41
4 Disorganization Man 50
5 Inventing Jim Clark 68
6 The Boom and the Mast 88
7 Throwing Sand in Capitalists' Eyes 101
8 The Great Brain Quake of August 9, 1995 112
9 The Home of the Future? 133
10 God Mode 142
11 How Chickens Become Pork 151
12 New New Money 160
13 Cheese Sandwiches for Breakfast 176
14 Could Go Either Way 189
15 At Sea in the Home of the Future 206
16 Chasing Ghosts 223
17 The Turning Point 238
18 The New New Thing 250
19 The Past outside the Box 262
Epilogue 267
Acknowledgments 269
TABLE OF CONTENTS: "The New New Thing"

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