I've been taking part in the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference (aka TED) this week, being held for the first time in Long Beach, California after many years in Monterey.
I've been struck by how different the mood is here than it was last week in Davos. Much more upbeat. Maybe it's because TED is brimming with innovators, people less interested in figuring out how to prop up the collapsed economy of the last century than in creating an economy for the 21st century.
You also run into more quirky and interesting people per square inch than anywhere I've ever been. For instance, last night I found myself chatting with a stranger (this happens, of course, all the time at TED). When I asked him what he did, he told me that he owned The Kitchen in Boulder, Colorado, "America's greenest restaurant"... and is CEO of an Internet software company... and sits on the boards of Tesla Motors, SpaceX Corp., and ProgressNow.org. He turned out to be Kimbal Musk, the younger polymath brother of Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal and CEO of Tesla Motors.
I also spent some time with perhaps the world's most maniacal polymath: Bill Gates. Gates played a big role at Davos, as he has here -- but here the conference and the crowd fit him to a T.
And he's been a real presence here, starting with delivering a much talked about keynote address, during which he drove home the importance of investing in malaria prevention by releasing a swarm of mosquitoes on the crowd, saying, "There is no reason only poor people should be infected." The stunt caused quite a bit of buzz (sorry!) around the blogosphere. "The mosquitoes had been irradiated," he reassured me. Okay, so all they could do was suck a little blood.
I asked him if he'd had any favorite speakers at TED. "I loved the lecture by Louise Fresco on food, agriculture, and sustainability," he told me. And Hans Rosling's talk on AIDS. The crowds' favorite -- and mine too, I think - was Elizabeth Gilbert."
Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, spoke on the nature of genius (and how we ruin it) and her personal tale of taking a year off to travel and reconnect with herself. She got a standing ovation, tapping into the mood at the conference - not to mention the zeitgeist - to unplug and recharge as we call it here at HuffPost.
So I asked Gates how he unplugs and recharges.
"I watch lectures on teach12.com," he told me. "I just listened to a series on Modern Economics by Robert Whaples, it was really great. They also have a great series on global warming."
Do you get enough sleep?, I asked, since sleep is my favorite obsession.
Gates smiled. "I try to get at least seven hours a night," he replied. "If I don't, my IQ gets lower."
As all conversations do these days, ours turned to the economy and his take on the stimulus debate.
After telling me that when it comes to the economy, he takes his lead from Warren Buffett, he added, "We have to be careful with how we deal with things, so we don't produce nonlinear consequences. I don't think, for example, the government should try to manage CEO behavior via the embarrassing headlines approach." He was also concerned that "free trade might be part of the collateral damage of the meltdown" and that once the government takes a more involved role in things it "might be hard to pull back."
Since education is one of the main domestic focuses of his Foundation, he expressed hope that the education portions of the stimulus package would survive in the final bill.
I asked him whether he thought the stimulus package is bold enough and big enough. "The problem," he told me, "is that anytime you talk about doing Big Things, there are thousands of ideas about what those Big Things should be. 'Let's cancel capitalism' is somebody's Big Idea. 'Let's introduce the flat tax' is somebody else's Big Idea. There are many people waiting for an opportunity to do a Big Thing -- and a crisis such as ours brings them all out."
Gates' biggest ideas these days are focused on the work being done by The Gates Foundation, which he has "maniacally" thrown himself into since removing himself from his full-time commitment to Microsoft this summer. He is devoting his considerable passion, intellect, and finances to global health initiatives (in particular the eradication of malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea diseases such as rotavirus; combined, these three cause over half the childhood deaths in the world), and to improving the U.S. educational system.
He recently released a lengthy letter in which he talks about his work at the foundation. It is a remarkable document (read it here) - both in its candor (he talks about what hasn't worked with his philanthropy as forthrightly as what has) and in the peek it offers at his conviction that if you apply all the IQ you can to a problem, you'll solve it.
It is especially intriguing to see how he applies the scientific and mathematical approach he used at Microsoft to problems such as feeding the world, attacking childhood diseases, and figuring out how to improve educational opportunities for all Americans.
The most important leit motif of our conversation was the need for all of us to step up and give whatever we can of our money and time. He's certainly setting an example for that. Even though his foundation's assets lost 20 percent of their value in 2008, Gates has decided to increase the amount they will spend this year -- going from $3.3 billion in 2008 to $3.8 billion in 2009.
"I believe that the wealthy have a responsibility to invest in addressing inequity even in these difficult times," he said. "Otherwise, we will come out of the economic downturn in a world that is even more unequal, with greater inequities in health and education, and fewer opportunities for people to improve their lives. There is no reason to accept that, when we know how to make huge gains over the long term."
According to Gates, it isn't a question of scale. It's a question of intent.
"I would encourage people to give or volunteer at whatever level they can," he told me. "I can't tell you how much joy it has given me to see the results at some of the schools we have worked with here at home or at some of the most faraway places devastated by malaria. It's hard not to be affected."
Indeed, Gates ends his foundation letter with a moving example about how making a difference doesn't have to mean developing a vaccine for malaria -- it can boil down to changing one person's life:
At Lee High School in Houston, we met a principal named Cesar Alvarez. Cesar told us about a student who had come to school as a freshman three years before and was in a gang. He was far behind in school, and he wouldn't even talk in class. Cesar got very involved with this student and worked with him every day. Today the student is a senior, on course to graduate, and planning to go to college. When Cesar came to this part of the story, he broke down and cried, because he had worked so hard and practically worn himself out for that student. Melinda and I see this kind of dedication around the world and in every issue the foundation works on. It inspires us to help people do great work, and we feel very lucky to be able to support them.
He has clearly been leading by example in changing both the business world and the world of philanthropy. But when it comes to sleep, all I can say is that when I left a dinner given by EDGE's John Brockman after midnight last night, Gates was still there talking away with X Prize's Peter Diamandis about providing big rewards for scientific breakthroughs.