Silicon Graphics’ Jim Clark Understood Disruptive Innovation

There’s a great passage in The New, New Thing about Jim Clark trying to convince Silicon Graphics to produce a PC.  Clark talks about how hard it is for a company to create a product that competes with itself. 

Shades of Clayton Christensen:


Clark thought that Silicon Graphics had to "cannibalize" itself.  For a technology company to succeed, he argued, it needed always to be looking to destroy itself.  If it didn’t, someone else would.  "It’s the hardest thing in business to do," he would say.  "Even creating a lower-cost product runs against the grain, because the low-cost products undercut the high-cost, more profitable products."  Everyone in a successful company, from the CEO on down, has a stake in whatever the company is currently selling.  It does not naturally occur to anyone to find a way to undermine that creative destruction, and he was prepared to do the deed.  He wanted Silicon Graphics to operate in the same self-corrosive spirit.  (p. 66 of hb edition)


The reference to The New, New Thing is:

Lewis, Michael. The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Christensen’s most important book is:

Christensen, Clayton M., and Michael E. Raynor. The Innovator’s Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2003.

“The Referee Should Not Be Too Quick With His Whistle”

I found the following wise comments while reading a short review of an old book by Edgar Monsanto Queeny, who followed his father as CEO of the Monsanto corporation, and who wrote a book called The Spirit of Enterprise which Schumpeter praised in a letter to Queeny.

(The abbreviation T.N.E.C. stands for the Temporary National Economic Committee, which I believe was an ad hoc congressional committee during part of F.D.R.’s presidency.)

Mr. Queeny does not give us a satisfactory analysis of the T.N.E.C. reports but his observations are always commonsensical and suggestive.  What emerges, and what is important, is that the positive Liberal State should not aim at too subtle a plan for freedom.  The referee should not be too quick with his whistle nor too ready to order players off the field.  The rules of the game may well allow for a little hurly-burly.  Economists like Professor Hutt, who are working out the rules of the game of free enterprise, deserve the highest praise.  But they should realize that refinement has its price as well as simplicity, and of the two simplicity costs the less.

Shenfield, A. A. "Review of the Spirit of Enterprise by Edgar M. Queeny." Economica 12, no. 48 (November 1945): 264.


The reference to Queeny’s book is:

Queeny, Edgar M. The Spirit of Enterprise. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943.


Feynman: What Biology Needs is Not More Math, But to See Better at the Atomic Level

A very bright, and very mathematically competent, fellow, grants that math is not the source of all knowledge.  So is economics more like physics, or more like biology? 


(p. 124)  We have friends in other fields–in biology, for instance.  We physicists often look at them and say, "You know the reason you fellows are making so little progress?"  (Actually I don’t know any field where they are making more rapid progress than they are in biology today.)  "You should use more mathematics, like we do."  They could answer us–but they’re so polite, so I’ll answer for them:  "What you should do in order for us to make more rapid progress is to make the electron microscope 100 times better."

What are the most central and fundamental problems of biology today?  They are questions like:  What is the sequence of bases in the DNA?  What happens when you have a mutation?  How is the base order in the DNA connected to the order of amino acids in the protein?  What is the structure of the RNA:  is it a single-chain or double-chain, and how is it related in its order of bases to the DNA?  What is (p. 125) the organization of the microsomes?  How are proteins synthesized?  Where does the RNA go?  How does it sit?  Where do the proteins sit?  Where do the amino acids go in?  In photosynthesis, where is the chlorophyll; how is it arranged; where are the carotenoids involved in this thing?  What is the system of the conversion of light into chemical energy?

It is very easy to answer many of these fundamental biological questions; you just look at the thing!  You will see the order of bases in the chain; you will see the structure of the microsome.  Unfortunately, the present microscope sees at a scale which is just a bit too crude.  Make the microscope one hundred times more powerful, and many problems of biology would be made very much easier.  I exaggerate, of course, but the biologists would surely be very thankful to you–and they would prefer that to the criticism that they should use more mathematics.



Feynman, Richard P.  The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman.  New York:  Perseus Books, 1999.


The Entrepreneur Versus the Government

A great story about Jim Clark, who founded Silicon Graphics:

(p. 46)  Just a few years back, before the Internet boom, Clark’s house in Atherton had been surrounded by empty fields.  Now he was surrounded by new houses, many of them bigger than his own.  One morning he looked up from his kitchen table and saw the neighbors looking (p. 47) back.  He requested, and was denied, a permit to build a fence tall enough to screen them from his view.  The city of Atherton, California, had strict rules about fences, and the fence Clark wanted to build was declared too high.  So Clark built a hill, and put the fence on top of the hill.  It did not occur to him that there was anything unusual about this.

(page numbers above are from the Norton hardback edition; the full quote is on p. 31 of the paperback edition) 


The reference to the hardback edition, is: 

Lewis, Michael.  The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.


Your Tax Dollars at Work: Government Protecting Us from Bling-Bling

DentalGrill.jpg  A dental grill, one form of the hip-hop jewelry sometimes called "bling-bling."  Source of image:


If all you want for Christmas is to gild your front teeth, you may have to buy the bling-bling somewhere other than the Gold Plaza II kiosk at Crossroads Mall.

That’s because an employee of that shop, Bhavin Dalal, faces a felony charge of practicing dentistry without a license.  He’s accused of helping customers fit their teeth for glittering mouthpieces known as grills.

It’s the first such case in Nebraska involving the hot hip-hop fashion accessory.  And Dalal and his attorney, James Martin Davis, plan to fight it tooth and nail.

Dalal entered a not guilty plea Friday in Douglas County Court.  Davis blasted the Nebraska Health and Human Services System for its investigation of Dalal and the charge that resulted.

"It’s overzealousness on the part of a bunch of bureaucrats" who don’t want people to wear grills, Davis said.


For the full story, see:

CHRISTOPHER BURBACH.  "Dental Grill Seller Feels State Law’s Bite."  Omaha World-Herald  (Saturday, December 2, 2006):  1A & 2A. 

(Note:  the slightly different online title for the article is:  "State puts bite on grill seller")



“If Everyone Were Patient, There’d Be No New Companies”

NewNewThingBK.jpg Source of book image:


Michael Lewis’ book provides some interesting stories and insights into the important information technology (IT) entrepreneur, Jim Clark, who founded Silicon Graphics, and had a hand in many other IT startups, such as Netscape.

For example, here is more evidence against Buddhism; dissatisfaction drives improvement:

Impatience might be a social vice but, to Clark, it was a commercial virtue.  "If everyone was patient," he’d say, "there’s be no new companies." (p. 42 of hardback edition; p. 26 of paperback edition)


The reference for the book is: 

Lewis, Michael. The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Bush on Entrepreneurship

Source of book image:


At lunchtime today (11/27/06) I heard part of a C-Span broadcast of a Heritage Foundation event in which Carl J. Schramm gave a presentation based on his new book (see above). It sounded as though Schramm has some useful thoughts about the impact of entrepreneurship, and on how the institutions of higher education are very unentrepreneurial.

I smiled when Schramm mentioned that George W. Bush had once said that: "The problem with the French is that they don’t know the meaning of the word "entrepreneur." To those who don’t "get" the joke: it is another of those Bush-is-stupid jokes, based on the word "entrepreneur" being of French origins.

A web site devoted to "urban legends" identifies the Bush quote as one of these legends:

Yet another "George W. Bush is dumb" story has been taken up by those who like their caricatures drawn in stark, bold lines.  According to scuttlebutt that emerged in the British press in July 2002, President Bush, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, and France’s President Jacques Chirac were discussing economics and, in particular, the decline of the French economy.  "The problem with the French," Bush afterwards confided in Blair, "is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur."  

The source was Shirley Williams, also known as the Baroness Williams of Crosby, who claimed "my good friend Tony Blair" had recently regaled her with this anecdote in Brighton.

Lloyd Grove of The Washington Post was unable to reach Baroness Williams to gain her confirmation of the tale, but he did receive a call from Alastair Campbell, Blair’s director of communications and strategy.  "I can tell you that the prime minister never heard George Bush say that, and he certainly never told Shirley Williams that President Bush did say it," Campbell told The Post.  "If she put this in a speech, it must have been a joke."


The main reference relied on by the Urban Legend web site for this entry, was: 

Grove, Lloyd. "The Reliable Source." The Washington Post. 10 July 2002 (p. C3).


The most obvious interpretation of the joke is that it is ridiculing W.  But, more subtly, it could be taken to be giving just a bit of a jab to the French too.  (Just because the French invented the word, doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have forgotten its meaning, through lack of use.)


The reference on the Schramm book is: 

Schramm, Carl J. The Entrepreneurial Imperative: How America’s Economic Miracle Will Reshape the World (and Change Your Life). New York: Collins, 2006.


“Forgotten not for lack of importance, but for lack of theoretical frame-works”

A paper by current head of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, Ed Lazear, is significant for what it says near the end about economists forgetting facts, because the facts do not fit into current theory.

(p. 260)  Human capital theory is primarily a supply-side approach that focuses on the characteristics and skills of the individual workers.  It pays far less attention to the environments in which workers work.  As such, the human capital framework has led researchers to focus on one class of questions, but to ignore others.  Specifically, little attention has been paid to the jobs in which workers are employed. 

(p. 263) The fact that some jobs and some job characteristics are more likely to lead to promotions than other jobs is not surprising.  But the analysis suggests that other ways of thinking about wage determination, namely, through job selection, may have been unduly ignored in the past. 

. . .

Researchers have begun to make jobs rather than individuals the unit of analysis.  This change of focus can illuminate new issues and provide answers to questions that were once posed and forgotten.  The questions were forgotten not for lack of importance, but for lack of theoretical frame-works.  The theory is now developed and awaits confirmation in the data.


For the full paper, see:

Lazear, Edward P.  "A Jobs-Based Analysis of Labor Markets."  American Economic Review 85, no. 2 (May 1995):  260-265.

(Note:  elipsis added.)


Career Opportunities for Economists

  Econ major, and rap recording artist, Stat Quo.  So who says economists aren’t cool?  Source of photo:


According to Wikipedia, up and coming rap artist Stat Quo earned a 3.54 gpa, while majoring in economics at the University of Florida. How’s that for refuting the stereotypes about economists?



“Smart People Can’t Come Here”

Several years ago, I got up in the middle of the night to call the United States embassy in Beijing, in order to beg an embassy official to issue a visa to our best applicant for our open Research Assistant position.  He did not want to do so, solely on the grounds that she might not return to China.  The woman we wanted to hire had sky-high credentials by every measurable criterion, and based on letters of recommendation, was exceptional by the non-measurable criteria too. 

How bizarre is the immigration policy of the United States when we view it as a problem that such a person might honor us by wanting to stay in the United States?


PALO ALTO, Calif. – Some of technology’s biggest names shared the stage at Stanford University last week to discuss the future of American innovation.

Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers venture capitalist John Doerr were among the members of two panels at a technology summit at the university.

The third annual innovation summit, where industry leaders talked about emerging trends and government technology policy, was organized by TechNet, an advocacy group that lobbies on behalf of tech executives.

. . .  

The executives also lamented government policies limiting student and work visas, warning that this shuts out people like Google co-founder Sergey Brin and former Intel chief executive Andrew Grove.

"We have this crazy policy in the U.S. that says smart people can’t come here. I think we all agree it makes absolutely no sense," Yang said. "Are people going to want to build a company in the U.S. . . . or in the new talent centers?"


For the full story, see: 

SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS.  "Technology summit sees risks for U.S."  Omaha World-Herald  (Sunday, November 19, 2006):  7D.

(Note:  the ellipsis between paragraphs was added; the ellipsis in the Yang quote was in the original article.)