BBC Report: Silicon Valley Aims To Disrupt Nobels With Breakthrough Prize

BBC Report: Silicon Valley Aims To Disrupt Nobels With Breakthrough Prize

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

The “voice of God” A.K.A. Morgan Freeman came to Silicon Valley this month, with an entourage of stars – including Alicia Keys, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Dev Patel and Vin Diesel – to add some glitz to the tech community’s “Nobel Prize 2.0.” Silicon Valley is not content to impact our lives through driverless cars, tech gadgets and apps; it wants to change the status of scientists too.

Let’s face it, the Nobel Prize is prestigious but the ceremony itself is rather staid and uninspiring. Just days before this year’s Nobel Prize Ceremony in Stockholm, Silicon Valley hosted its own version, called the “Breakthrough Prize.” They gave huge prizes: $3 Million/each (double that of the Nobel Prize) for math and science breakthroughs that they say will change the world. Organizers hope to inspire a new generation of scientists with two disruptive features: big Junior Challenge prizes ($250,000) for young students in math and science; and the “star power” the celebrities bring to the event. Over 6000 teenagers from around the world were inspired to take part and two young students won this year for their remarkable contributions: Deanna See from Singapore and Antonella Masini from Peru (see below). Now in its fifth year, the prize is funded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sergey Brin, 23andme’s Anne Wojcicki and DST Global’s Yuri Milner.

I talked with Jeremy Irons, Sal Khan, and Vin Diesel about why the glitz matters; the power of technology to change the world; and if they have a message for President Elect, Donald Trump. Vin Diesel had an interesting take on the issue of fake news (see below). Check back soon for my report on Jeremy Irons and California’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom’s advice to Trump.

My tech focused report aired on the BBC World Service’s Click Radio on Tuesday. The podcast is available at BBC Click. Here’s a transcript of the report, edited for length and clarity:

Mark Zuckerberg began by explaining the link between science and tech, as he and movie star Vin Diesel presented one of the prizes.

Vin Diesel, Mark Zuckerberg at Breakthrough Prize 2016Mark Zuckerberg: Engineers and scientists share this basic mindset that you can take any system, understand it better, then make it much much better than it is today. Scientists look at a problem, break it down, break it into smaller problems, solve, test your ideas, learn from the results, and iterate until you find a better solution. That’s why progress in science is so fast… You might even call it Fast and Furious.

Movie star Vin Diesel – well known from the Fast and Furious film series – told me he wants to highlight heroism of scientists, something we often overlook in pop culture.

Vin Diesel: I have great faith in my friend Mark Zuckerberg who so brilliantly created this global forum for all of us to communicate and to share ideas, namely Facebook. It has allowed the potential for great change.

Alison van Diggelen: But it’s also allowed the propagation of fake news?

Vin Diesel: I think the internet has allowed for the propagation of fake news, but no more so than the writers in the 50s…the world war, the end of the world, the martians coming down.* This was before the internet, before FB. This was journalists. As long as journalism has existed there’s always been the temptation for clickbait.

Alison van Diggelen: I think he’s referring here* to the “War of the Worlds” radio drama, based on HG Wells book of the same name, which first aired in 1938.

This year over 6000 high school students from around the world competed for the quarter of a million dollar “Junior Challenge” Award, and two made it to the red carpet in Silicon Valley. Deanna See and Antonella Masini told me they were inspired by Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, the free online math and computer science video series.

Deanna See, Antonella Masini Junior Breakthrough Challenge 2016Sal Khan was jubilant on the red carpet:

Sal Khan: This is the third year we’ve been and we look forward to it. It’s the celebration that science has always deserved…and the food is good.

Alison van Diggelen: why does science deserve this big occasion? It’s been compared to the Nobel prize “with glitz” Why is the glitz important?

Sal Khan: The things that these folks have done are going to change civilization …that’s not an overstatement, it’s an understatement. The glitz is the least it deserves. Also it should inspire a whole new generation of folks to realize that it isn’t an unsung profession, it’s something that no only can change the world, but that we all appreciate, which we do.

What are his ambitions for Silicon Valley’s Khan Academy?

Sal Khan: There’s a long way to go. We kind of imagine a world in the next 10-15 years where anyone on the planet should be able to self educate themselves with a smartphone and prove what they know and get a job…But ideally they have access to a classroom that can be used by teachers, administrators to supercharge what goes on…A lot more personalization. And a lot more enjoyment from a student’s point of view.

Alison van Diggelen: After the ceremony, I spoke with Anton Wahlman, a Silicon Valley tech analyst who commented on the awards’ relatively low profile, even here in Silicon Valley.

He’s rather cynical of the Breakthrough Prize and draws parallels with the lavish parties hosted by billionaires in New York’s financial sector and Hollywood’s film industry.

Anton Wahlman: The new very rich entrepreneurs in SV who are worth not just billions, but in some cases tens of billions of dollars. It shouldn’t be all that surprising that they should want to start doing some of the things that these other people in NY and LA have been doing for the better part of the last century: throw really big parties, award prizes to people, have people come up and flatter them and tell them how wonderful they are and how philanthropic they are. They get a reason to dress up in a tux as opposed to walking around in a hoodie and be photographed with people who come in from Hollywood… and to be seen in a different light than their regular nerdish Monday to Friday environment would typically depict.

Check back soon for my report outlining Jeremy Irons and Gavin Newsom’s advice for Donald Trump.

Michael Lewis: Moneyball Prequel Arrives December 2016

Michael Lewis: Moneyball Prequel Arrives December 2016

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Last night, I had the pleasure of meeting the talented and influential author, Michael Lewis. You probably know he wrote Moneyball, The Big Short and The Blind Side and has been compared favorably to literary genius, Tom Wolfe. Lewis revealed that he’s almost finished a prequel to his huge bestseller, Moneyball and it will be published in December 2016. Although his publishing schedule precluded him from accepting an in-depth interview with me last night, he did agree to one in December. So, not a strike out, just a delay in play.

Details of the prequel are under tight wraps, but I did learn this: it’s been eight years in the making, and he’s completed about 45,000 words (about 150 pages). He’ll send his trusty editor at Norton the remaining chunks every six weeks and is on schedule for a September completion. He says “once it’s on track, it’s like a freight train.

The topic? It’s about sports (possibly just football) and analyzes the distribution of pay across teams. As with most of his books, it’s a character driven story, featuring people who surprised him and are in a situation that forces them to reveal their true character. The only other clue he shared was that he had access to the “brain trust” of the San Francisco 49ers.

Here are highlights from the evening’s onstage conversation with Brian Adams at Foothill College Celebrity Forum Series:

On The Big Short Movie: Lewis described it as “a relief” to see how good the movie was and praised the talent and craftsmanship of the production team. He called out Christian Bale for his exceptional performance as Michael Burry, the Silicon Valley financial whiz, whose character “led us through the jungle of complexity.”  Lewis explained that Bale spent a day with Burry and was able to channel his breathing and his awkward mannerisms with incredible accuracy throughout the movie.

Lewis also praised the straight to camera moments, especially Margot Robbie in the bathtub and lamented the production limitations of being a mere writer. He didn’t feel ownership of the movie as he’d sold the rights, and didn’t sit on the set since he considered it “a pointless exercise.” He was, however, involved in promoting the movie with the cast and says they’re really “not that good looking,” with the exception of (gorgeous) Brad Pitt. In Lewis’s opinion, their star appeal is more to do with their force of personality and talent. He added, “I’m not a good judge of male beauty.” That got a huge laugh from the audience.

Michael Lewis with Barack Obama, Photo credit: Vanity Fair On Politics: Lewis considers Donald Trump a bully and that the race would now be between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, if Trump hadn’t bullied him so hard during the early Republican debates. He thinks that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders wouldn’t be candidates today without the financial crisis of 2008 and mass outrage that followed, with the widespread feeling that the financial system is rigged. He asks: “Is this the beginning of something or the end of something?

It’s a very good question indeed. He even alluded to a dystopian future where fame rules supreme and the Kardashians become viable leaders of the modern world. A true horror indeed.

Lewis doesn’t like to make predictions, but when pushed, he admits that he thinks Trump will get the Republican nomination and he’ll lose spectacularly to Hillary because “he does dumb things.

On the Panama Papers: Lewis thinks the biggest leak of the century won’t have big reverberations in the US. He added, “You can go to Delaware to hide money…wait for the Delaware Papers!”

On Upcoming Projects: Lewis is working on a screenplay pilot re Wall Street in the 20’s; a book on President Obama that explores how leaders make decisions (based on the fabulously insightful Vanity Fair profile); and a book for kids about money: how to make it, use it, and the “social power of money.”

Do check back here in December for my interview with Michael Lewis!

Many thanks to Celebrity Forum founder, Dick Henning for the kind invitation backstage.

Update: This afternoon, I’ve been invited to join the BBC World Service show Business Matters to discuss my Michael Lewis encounter. Check back soon at Fresh Dialogues for more news on that.

BBC Dialogues: Steve Jobs Movie – Lisa’s Mother Speaks Out For Single Moms

BBC Dialogues: Steve Jobs Movie – Lisa’s Mother Speaks Out For Single Moms

This week, Steve Jobs, the movie directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, will be released. How will it impact Jobs’ legacy?

Several Steve Jobs allies say the movie portrays him as cruel and inhumane and tried to stop its production. Chrisann Brennan, the mother of Lisa, his first child, witnessed that cruelty. She was marginalized and neglected by Jobs for many years. Last month, she joined me for an intimate Fresh Dialogues interview to share her perspective.

Despite the hardships she endured, Brennan has enormous respect and even forgiveness for Jobs. She says her memoir’s universal message is about the plight of single women and she’d like to see the business world be more family-friendly.

On September 11, I was interviewed by the BBC about my interview with Brennan, who describes herself like this:
“I’m a modern Mary Magdalenethe truth of who I am was blacked out. Steve fancied himself a Christ figure, but hated women.” Chrisann Brennan
Here’s my conversation with Fergus Nicoll, host of the BBC’s Business Matters. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
.

Fergus Nicoll: Whenever a biopic comes out, especially when its subject is not long gone, you better believe there is going to be a noise from those screaming about “Mount Rushmore scale hype” and a counter noise from those complaining that a genius has been traduced. So get ready everybody for Jobs, the Dannie Boyle movie with Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, scheduled for November (US release is Oct 9th).

I’ll toss the ball to Alison, because I know you’ve been talking to somebody with a personal interest in this story – that’s an understatement. Tell us first about expectations for the movie.

van Diggelen: It was shown at the Telluride Film Festival to rave reviews. But I did read a Guardian review that said that you have to be an Apple fan to really enjoy it. So take the reviews with a pinch of salt.

I had the opportunity to interview Chrisann Brennan, Steve Jobs’ first love and the mother of his child Lisa Brennan Jobs…they met in high school in 1972 and they had a very passionate affair. She got pregnant and he denied the paternity and she had a very rough life. He was very miserly about looking after her. She talked to me at length about this very painful time in her life and how he treated her, and yet she does respect him in her way.

Clip airs from Fresh Dialogues interview 

Chrisann Brennan: I was interviewed for five hours, they told me I was the emotional heart of that movie.  I don’t want to judge Steve because he did what he did, it was fabulous… I like the fact that the (movie) spectrum shows we are different people now. We value different things. We will expose these things because we want to have a dialogue in the world about the whole picture…not just the ‘Mount Rushmore picture’ of people who do well.

Alison van Diggelen: So you can contribute that fully faceted perspective?

Chrisann Brennan: Yes, I do feel that.

Alison van Diggelen: You said “I don’t want to paint me as the victim, and Steve as the villain.” Is there an alternate way you’d like to frame it?

Chrisann Brennan: That will continue to evolve. I survived it…I have more than survived it…I survived him…

Alison van Diggelen: And do you feel that is a victory right there?

Chrisann Brennan: I feel it says if you hold onto the truth, it actually starts to amount to something.

Alison van Diggelen: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Chrisann Brennan: Oh, yeah…but I couldn’t have. When I was living with Steve and he was showing me his poetry, I really wish I’d taken it to heart more deeply.

Alison van Diggelen: Was this his Bob Dylan poetry?

Bite in the Apple - Chrisann Brennan and daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs -- Steve Jobs - from book from PR/author

Chrisann Brennan: Mm hmm. When I grew up enough to be an adult and understand that 17-year-old, I felt oh. There’s just so much. If we had a chance to talk now, it’d be great…

Alison van Diggelen: What would you ask him?

Chrisann Brennan: I think I would just express some kind of love…

Alison van Diggelen: You would tell him you loved him?

Chrisann Brennan: In some form…

Alison van Diggelen: That’s beautiful…

One last question: what do you feel was Steve’s greatest legacy?

Chrisann Brennan:  Yes, he made a technological device that freed people up…but mainly the message is to be who you are. Now a lot of people are running around trying to be like Steve Jobs. They miss the point…it is to individuate enough, to understand what you need to go out and do. He was just a fabulous example of it in so many ways.

Fergus Nicoll: Well that seems, Alison, like an amazingly forgiving person… From what I’ve seen of the movie, this is very much part of the story of the movie. There are some explosive scenes related to this. But it’s always difficult…there have been massive tomes about Steve Jobs, some have been less revelatory than some hoped for, but (Jobs is) a man who appears to tower over Silicon Valley, even in his absence?

Alison van Diggelen: He’s absolutely idolized here and around the world, and in fact a documentary just came out here in the United States: Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs, the Man in the Machine. Chrisann was interviewed for five hours for that and she talks at length about just how cruel he was to her and yet, she is incredibly forgiving. She has respect for what he’s done, his visionary powers, but she does describe herself as “a modern day Mary Magdalene…Steve saw himself as a Christ figure,” that’s what she wrote to me this week.

Mary Magdalene Christ sculpture by Rodin

Fergus Nicoll: That’s a pretty powerful image…I’m always amazed that we expect the visionary leaders in tech, in industry, in politics to be good guys. Why should that be necessary?

Alison van Diggelen: Well, I think that’s the ideal. What concerns me about the idolization, almost canonization of Steve Jobs, is the fact that young people might think of him as the perfect role model…i.e. the more “jerk-like” they are, the better. And I think that’s a very dangerous role model. I think it’s important that people like Chrisann Brennan speak up to show the contradictions in his life. She wants to get out this universal message about the plight of single mothers and how Steve Jobs made her peripheral, almost invisible and it plays into this bigger question of business attitudes to families and what are our values?

Fergus Nicoll: Alison, who’s the equivalent now…And are there woman poised to achieve such dominance in Silicon Valley?

Alison van Diggelen: The first person who comes to mind is Elon Musk…Females that I would cite are Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg.

And of course there’s Bill Gates. He’s probably going to be canonized for the second half of his career as a philanthropist, not a tech guy.

Fergus Nicoll: There’s a parallel there with Jimmy Carter, the most famous ex-president probably because of what he’s done…and Bill Gates has done the same: an extraordinary first career and then this amazing philanthropic career with his wife Malinda and their many campaigns….

Do you buy that Silicon Valley is a counterpoint to Wall Street (making giving money away popular)?

Alison van Diggelen: I’m delighted to hear that the message is getting out about the generosity of people in Silicon Valley. It’s so easy to point fingers and say that the wealth isn’t being shared. It is, but I’d say, probably not enough.

On the question of behavior of CEOs, there is growing transparency, thanks to social media, 24/7 news coverage. CEOs can’t get away with what they used to. Steve Jobs, if he was doing what he did to Chrisann Brennan today – denying paternity and saying 10% of the (male) US population could be the father of this child – he just wouldn’t get away with that today. The evidence would be there.

Fergus Nicoll: Alison, thanks so much for bringing in the interview for us on the Steve Jobs story.

Alison van Diggelen: My pleasure indeed. Thank you.

Steve Jobs’ First Love: Why The Whole Truth Matters

Steve Jobs’ First Love: Why The Whole Truth Matters

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Chrisann Brennan has been described as the “emotional heart” of Alex Gibney’s new film, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. She came to the Fresh Dialogues studio for an intimate conversation about her relationship with Steve Jobs and their child, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. In this video clip, we discuss why, despite being burned by other journalists, she chose to take part in Alex Gibney’s documentary. She also shares her unique perspective on why the whole truth matters. As Andrew Ross Sorkin explores, Steve Jobs can be both hero and villain.

Here’s the transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):

Alison van Diggelen: What are you hoping to achieve by contributing so fully in the documentary (Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine)?

Chrisann Brennan: When they first approached me, they said Alex Gibney did not manipulate content and in the spirit of what I intended, he would uphold that. I’ve had a lot of experience, because of Steve, where people…run on their own agenda…but I found that Alex Gibney did uphold what I said.

Alison van Diggelen: What message are you hoping to get over?

Chrisann Brennan: I don’t want to judge Steve because he did what he did, it was fabulous…but I like the fact that the (movie) spectrum shows we are different people now. We value different things. We will expose these things because we want to have a dialogue in the world about the whole picture…not just the ‘Mount Rushmore picture’ of people who do well.

Alison van Diggelen: So you can contribute that fully faceted perspective?

 Chrisann Brennan: Yes, I do feel that.

Alison van Diggelen: You said “I don’t want to paint me as the victim, and Steve as the villain.” Is there an alternate way you’d like to frame it?

Chrisann Brennan: That will continue to evolve. I survived it…I have more than survived it…I survived him…

Alison van Diggelen: And do you feel that is a victory right there?

Chrisann Brennan: I feel it says if you hold onto the truth, it actually starts to amount to something. This was twisted love…we would have done better if we could have.

Alison van Diggelen: Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?

Chrisann Brennan: Oh, yeah…but I couldn’t have. When I was living with Steve and he was showing me his poetry, I really wish I’d taken it to heart more deeply.

Alison van Diggelen: Was this his Bob Dylan poetry?

Bite in the Apple - Chrisann Brennan and daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs -- Steve Jobs - from book from PR/author

Bite in the Apple – Chrisann Brennan and daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs — Steve Jobs – from book from PR/author

Chrisann Brennan: Mm hmm. When I grew up enough to be an adult and understand that 17-year-old, I felt ohhhh. There’s just so much. If we had a chance to talk now, it’d be great…

Alison van Diggelen: What would you ask him?

Chrisann Brennan: I think I would just express some kind of love…

Alison van Diggelen: You would tell him you loved him?

Chrisann Brennan: In some form…

Alison van Diggelen: That’s beautiful…Now I want to find that passage…(that shows) the side of Steve that is not well known: this goofiness.

Chrisann Brennan: (Reading from her memoir, The Bite in the Apple) Running into the kitchen one day, he took the phone off the hook, pressed the # key and told me he’d just blown up the world! (laughter)

Alison van Diggelen: It’s very powerful…

One last question: what do you feel was Steve’s greatest legacy?

Chrisann Brennan: He showed people how to free themselves up…how to be who they were. Yes, he made a technological device…but mainly the message is to be who you are. Now a lot of people are running around trying to be like Steve Jobs. They miss the point…it is to individuate, to understand what you need to go out and do. He was such a fabulous example of it in so many ways.

Alison van Diggelen: Chrisann Brennan, thank you so much.

***

Read more at Fresh Dialogues about Brennan’s perspective: “I am a modern Mary Magdalene, the truth of who I am was blacked out. Steve fancied himself a Christ figure…” 

Check back soon for more video highlights at Fresh Dialogues:

On the profound gift Steve Jobs gave her when they first met

On their experiments with LSD; and what made him wildly fearful

Oh how he changed from the deeply in love teenager to the ruthless businessman who “lost his humanity.”

On their daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs and how Jobs was “wowed” by her, yet denied paternity for many years

Brennan says the universal message in her book “The Bite In The Apple” is the plight of single mothers and why things need to change

Steve Jobs’ First Love & Her Untold Story

Steve Jobs’ First Love & Her Untold Story

I am a modern Mary Magdalene, the truth of who I am was blacked out. Steve fancied himself a Christ figure, but hated women,  was a delusional contemporary business, religious fundamentalist who spread a culture of reality distortion”, Chrisann Brennan 

Brennan and I recently spent a day together in an intimate conversation about her relationship with Steve Jobs. Her story is the least known part of the Apple saga. I will be sharing video highlights of that remarkable dialogue in the next few days. Meantime, if the name Chrisann Brennan doesn’t ring a bell for you, here’s some background.

Story by Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Who is Chrisann Brennan?

Brennan was Steve Jobs’ first love. They met at Homestead High School, Cupertino when they were 17; and had a tumultuous relationship through their college years and the early days of Apple. In 1978, Brennan told Jobs she was pregnant.  He initially denied paternity, aggressively and forcefully. Despite going to meet his daughter when she was three days old, and helping Brennan choose the name Lisa, it was only after a DNA test that he finally acknowledged, and helped support his daughter and her mother. For many years, Brennan was forced to wait tables and clean houses to keep a roof over their heads. You may remember that Lisa was the name of one of Apple’s first computer products, though for some time, Steve Jobs maintained that it stood for “Local Integrated Software Architecture.”

During our conversation, Brennan describes how she first met Jobs and he gave her the profound lyrics of a Bob Dylan song; their experiments with LSD; and his biggest fears. After a lifetime of reflection, she shares her insights on why she thinks he changed from the painfully shy and goofy teenager who was deeply in love, to the ruthless businessman who “lost his humanity.” Brennan says that the universal message in her book “The Bite In The Apple” is about the plight of single mothers.

“There are so many women who’ve gone through what I’ve gone through…The bite out of the apple, it’s a blame on the feminine, the collective unconscious that we live in. Who cares about a woman and a child? I felt so guilty…he (Jobs) tapped into people’s weakest, deepest self doubt and played on it…made me invisible,” Chrisann Brennan.

Bite in the Apple - Chrisann Brennan and daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs -- Steve Jobs - from book from PR/author

Bite in the Apple – Chrisann Brennan and daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs — Steve Jobs – from book from PR/author

Fear Is Not An Option

Fear Is Not An Option

By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues

Diane von Furstenberg says that the greatest gift she’s ever been given was the lesson that fear is not an option.

With 2015 off to a fearful start in Paris and its impact reverberating globally, especially within Jewish communities, it’s a lesson worth exploring.

I sat down with von Furstenberg, Queen of the Wrap Dress and the DVF brand, and found a down-to-earth woman with a powerful story that resonates far beyond the world of fashion.

As a small child, von Furstenberg learned her lesson in a rather brutal way from her mother, a Holocaust survivor.

“She’d lock me in a closet and wait til I stopped being afraid,” says von Furstenberg.

Her mother experienced atrocities at Auschwitz and her challenging life shaped von Furstenberg’s to this day.

“Fear is not an option is everything: fear of flying, living, confronting the truth…fear of anything,” says von Furstenberg, who has made some courageous choices in her personal and business life, as chronicled in her new book “The Woman I Wanted To Be.”

She recounts the many periods of self doubt and challenges she faced as her career soared then flopped, rose again from the ashes, battled to stay relevant and then triumphed in China and globally, ensuring DVF a place in the design history books. She’s done it all: married (and divorced) a prince, been painted by Andy Warhol, made front page of Newsweek, survived cancer, faced bankruptcy and become a doting grandmother.

In a conversation with Maria Shriver the day before our interview, she urged women to be hard on themselves. I asked her what she meant by that. Although some journalists claim she’s impossible to interview, DVF answered my question directly.

“The most important relationship is the one you have with yourself,” says von Furstenberg. “See yourself for what you really are…for the good and the bad, whatever. Once you have accepted that, then you can also begin to like yourself.”

Along with Tina Brown and Sally Field, von Furstenberg is part of Vital Voices, a network that supports female community and business leaders around the world, both politically and financially.

 

The interview took place at The Foreign Cinema in San Francisco on November 20, 2014. Many thanks to Julian Guthrie and Martin Muller for the invitation.

Check out our archives of Fresh Dialogues interviews with inspiring women like Meryl Streep, Maureen Dowd and Belva Davis.