My Interview With Sergey Brin

I recently had the remarkable chance to catch Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, doing interview rounds with a number of journalists. He was kind enough to spare me a few minutes, especially when he saw that I brought treats. A slightly edited version of that interview is below.

Kevin Cole: Sergey, it’s a pleasure to have you here and I thank you for being willing to sit down with us for a bit.

Sergey Brin: No problem. Ilm happy to do this, especially since you guys provided such great cookies.

KC: You’re very welcome. I wanted to start with something that I think speaks very highly of Google, and that is its transformation into a verb.

SB: One of my favorite tributes to the company, I have to be honest.

KC: When did you realize this phenomenon and how did you feel about joining the likes of Xerox and Kleenex?

SB: I’d forgotten about Kleenex. I don’t actually use that expression, although I know many other people do. But yes, of course I was very pleased. I don’t remember when I first heard someone say, “just Google it” or whatever, but I imagine it was early 2000s. We already used it, naturally — I mean those of us inside Google. But when you see it in a magazine, or maybe I first heard it on television, there is just this enormous satisfaction. Also a little discomfort too, maybe. It forced me to really consider how large we’d become. Obviously I knew; it’s not like I was unaware of how many employees we now had or God! the crazy dollars we were spending on servers. But this was just another angle on that growth, a side effect that was quite pleasing. It was hard to imagine how we’d gotten all this, I mean two real geeks, had gotten all this out of a garage and a search algorithm.

KC: It seems funny, in retrospect, that none of the early search engines got “verbed” so to speak. What do you remember about your former competitors?


“Literature is a way of (not) telling secrets”

“If I have a taste for the secret, it clearly has to do with not-belonging; I have an impulse of fear or terror in the face of a political space, for example, a public space that makes no room for the secret.”
– Jacques Derrida, A Taste for the Secret (59)

We stumble in, half-drunk already, half-dead already, ready for night and ready for day. Don’t you see there, the Stranger in the back, always in the back? Is he unlike us, more like Derrida when he uncovered the reason, the fear and terror of the public space? Not (mostly) shame and guilt, the secret is undoubtedly more intimate. His secrets are personal – “coextensive with the experience of singularity” – the singularity of self. And these are the secrets: how he crosses his legs, folds his arms, squints his eyes, touches his hair, taps his fingers while reading. Who can tell, who can know? Ritual discontent, on display. Hell is other people, says Sartre, for their unrelenting gaze. The Stranger reading, only aware of self and book, the play of words and words of play. Isn’t this where the fear is introduced, the moment he feels the gaze of the other, our violent on-looking, his self-conscious realization of himself as Stranger alone in the back, yes alone, reading alone? Self as seen by other, either disdained or patronized by other, by us? What other reaction, in the face of the gaze in public, is there but existential terror? Indulge him, despise him, this is not Everyman, his name is Difference. His demand is too great: close your eyes.

Things Overheard In The Only Coffee Shop in Town

I’ve decided to surreptitiously take minutes for a Friday night gathering of college freshmen, recording it for them as a gift so their grandchildren can remember this momentous night. The night they spent twenty minutes discussing Tickle-Me-Elmo. A partial list of things debated, things learned, things better left unsaid:

We, like, watched this amazing dancer for, like, ten minutes in the seediest club EVER.“A History of Violence” is the worst movie EVER. This despite near-universal praise from critics and two Oscar nominations.

Arm Cutting 101: “down the street” versus “across the street”, whereupon we reach the conclusion it is definitely down the street. Their clinical detachment from this discussion is mildly disturbing.

Guys have a higher suicide rate because girls try to overdose and they suck at it, whereas guys shoot themselves and are often quite successful.

Dude: “My pants are American Eagle.” Other dude: “Take them off.” This is, presumably, not an actual directive.

A friend of a friend had to get an IV in his head because they couldn’t find blood in the arm.

How do pants stay up? Are we constantly pulling them up? It’s annoying having to always pull up our jeans. Belts – you know, BELTS – are never mentioned.

“Cho-mo” is, apparently, an accepted and useful term for “child molester.”

Chuck Norris going “dracula” on “that guy” was hilarious. The fuck?

Badminton is/is not an Olympic sport. It is, after which we conclude it’s “never on TV because nobody cares about it.”

“The most famous person I’ve ever met is Joe Lieberman,” says the very lucky bastard picking at his knee.

Two dudes, secretly and slightly attracted to each other, start whispering secrets – presumably because public conversation is too public. Maybe also because they realize there is a stranger in the corner with a laptop who suspiciously only seems to type after they’ve completed an interesting thought (which is not very often as it turns out). The whispering leads to a hearty game of “telephone.” The secret phrase is the very rousing “I liked it.” Which, after going through eight people, mutates into “I licked it.” Which is obviously HYSTERICAL. These people are my new best friends.

As a matter of record, the telephone game goes on for forty minutes. The kids are alright.

Hello Sunshine

Relatively Clean Rivers – Hello Sunshine mp3Phil Pearlman Gadahn circa 2004

“Listen up and I’ll tell a story / about an artist growing old,” sings Daniel Johnston, presumably referring to himself. Tonight these lyrics remind me of Phil Pearlman instead. The two men aren’t even wholly dissimilar: both are outsider musicians, both are legendary figures in certain limited circles, and both have led extreme lives (though in very different ways). In fact, extremes run through the Pearlman story in many ways.

Philip Pearlman was born in 1947 to a Jewish urologist and Protestant housewife, but was apparently raised pretty agnostic. He started playing music early and became your stereotypical Californian hippie: protesting the Vietnam war and playing in various musical “happenings” — groovyspeak for jam sessions. The most famous of these was called Beat of the Earth, a loose collective that recorded epic psychedelia in loose, unorganized gatherings. Their self-titled 1967 debut is essentially just two, 60-minute tracks and is now a prized collector item — if your specialty is obscure 60’s psych-folk of course. Pearlman’s next effort was The Electronic Hole in 1970, an interesting experimental musical grandfather to more modern psychedelic groups like Elephant 6.

Nearer to the mid-seventies, the story takes a slightly more unconventional turn. As the story goes, Pearlman is walking along the beach (maybe high, maybe not) and finds a Bible on a bench. Reading it gives him a spiritual epiphany and he promptly converts to Christianity. It’s just after this, in 1975, that he records Relatively Clean Rivers, celebrating his born again life and new perspective. It’s another album that’s attained cult-like status within a peculiar underground scene. Some have compared it, perhaps oddly, to the Velvet Underground. In retrospect it seems a misguided comparison save for one fact: both groups inspired a lot of other people to make music. It’s through one of these fans, Jeff Tweedy, that I first heard of Relatively Clean Rivers, starting down my Pearlman rabbit hole via Wilco.

Relatively Clean Rivers – Easy Ride mp3

Thing is, after Relatively Clean Rivers, that was pretty much it for Pearlman. He married, settled down, and had four kids. Except Pearlman really took the hippie aesthetic to heart: he moved out to a rural country farm with no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Phil Pearlman changed his name to Phil Gadahn (a play on “Gideon”) and started raising and slaughtering goats. He claims to have invented a “humane” way to kill the goats, which he then sold to the Muslim butchers down the road who appreciated his approach. This is where the story could, maybe should, end. Typical hippie musician shuns our materialistic, consumerist, warmongering society and leads extremely stripped-down existence in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe sell the story this way: tortured artist finds God, records masterpiece, disappears into wilderness and obscurity. I have no doubt that Phil Pearlman would still be remembered in 2007 simply because of his musical legacy. Except in many ways, Phil Pearlman is now most famous, in the mainstream at least, for who he fathered.

The story of families are almost always more interesting than any single, isolated life. It’s why we love Oedipus Rex and One Hundred Years of Solitude. In terms of father-son sagas, it might be hard to beat King David and his murderous, long-haired son Absalom. But lately I’ve preferred the Phil Pearlman and Adam Gadahn story.1 Because as it turns out, one of the four children Pearlman raised on that goat farm in California, one of the four kids who would illicitly crowd around a small battery-powered TV against their hippie father’s wishes, would later end up becoming Azzam al-Amriki: radical Islamic fundamentalist, al-Qaeda operative, and, as of 2004, the first American convicted of treason since 1952.

How do you go from the son of humble Christian goat-farming beatkniks to a top suspect on the FBI’s Most Wanted list? There are no quick quips here, no relatively clean answers. Born in 1978, Gadahn did perhaps have a pretty atypical childhood. Homeschooled out there on the farm with his siblings until 16, he then moved in with relatives in the city where he developed an intense, year-long obsession with death metal music. Like his father, young Gadahn also recorded some epic 60-minute songs, though his feature slightly more screaming and atonal gothic chants.

In 1995 it all ended however, and fairly abruptly. While browsing AOL at his grandparent’s house, he began reading up on Islam and became more and more convinced of its truth. Gadahn undoubtedly remembered the neighborhood butchers his father sold goats to. He would later describe these Muslims as completely unlike the monstrous murderers the media portrayed. He officially converted under Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, then imam at Islamic Society of Orange County. This is the same Dr. Siddiqi who presented President Bush with a Koran after 9/11 and made clear to Bush that the peace-loving religion of Islam in no way condones such brutal attacks. This is tragically ironic in that one of Siddiqi’s former students – the son of a Christian hippie, former death metal obsessive is now an Islamic extremist absolutely convinced that flying planes into buildings is a completely reasonable way to express disagreement. For after staying with the Islamic Society of Orange County, the now-renamed Yahiye Gadahn got involved with followers of a fundamentalist, and violent, strain of Islam.

A trip to Pakistan in 1998 seems to have completely sealed the deal. He married an Afghan refugee and, after starting low, worked his way up the al Qaeda ladder. In more recent years he’s been the face for messages from Osama. Now known as Azzam the American, he’s the bearded white kid you’ve no doubt seen on TV: with finger raised for effect, Azzam’s always condemning us, urging converts, and promising the complete annihilation of the American way of life.

The typical American way of life, it should be noted, is something Azzam/Adam never really had. But you can’t pin his radicalism on that no more than you can tie it to his love of death metal. I think it’s natural to feel a lot of sympathy for his parents. The last time his mother spoke to Adam on the phone, she asked him about his accented English. He flatly informed her that he hadn’t spoken English in 8 months. Neither parent really grants interviews anymore. I don’t blame them.

It seems obvious that to some, Phil Pearlman is a pretty unusual character. He did, after all, homeschool his kids on a goat farm that didn’t have electricity. On the other hand, I can’t help but still see Phil Pearlman as just one more beat dude who lived his ideals. He dropped out to get away, like many of us have desired, to rebel against a lot of what actually is wrong with this world. But unlike his wayward son, Dad never wanted to actually kill all those yuppies in LA with fancy cars and homes, and their slavish pursuit of the almighty dollar. The contrast between peace-loving father and radically violent son couldn’t be starker.

For his sake, I still think of Phil Pearlman as a happenin’ psych-folk musician and not in the ignominious terms of heartbroken father to Azzam al-Amriki, America’s most wanted terrorist traitor. I, for example, really love the groovy Phil Pearlman of Relatively Clean Rivers. An optimist who inscribed the record jacket with these words:

“Here’s a story I hope you’ve all been waiting to hear it’s about
L.A. skies, tsetse flies, alibis,
And a European-Oriental-Asian-Caucasian-Negro-African-American
Soldier, sitting in a ditch somewhere, near a Sigh-Gone city or farm
Somewhere, wanting to drain the malaria out of some
Crocodile infested swamp maybe,
Hoping we can all get together, the Arabs and the Jews,
And melt down weapons into water sprinklers,
Tractors, shovels and hoes,
Irrigation pipes…”

Relatively Clean Rivers – Journey Through the Valley of 0 mp3

As for brothers, lately I’ve also been really intrigued by the story of Edwin Booth, highly-revered Shakespearean actor, and John Wilkes Booth, deluded assassin of our greatest president.


  • Azzam the American
  • Radical Conversion
  • Beat of the Earth
  • Becoming Muslim
  • Peace, Love, and Death Metal
  • Hardships That Did Not Befall Me

    A Partial List of Hardships That Did Not Befall Me During Childhood

    An attempt to abort me in the 3rd trimester

    Ritual binding up of my feet with coarse twine

    An invasion of my village by raging, pillaging warriors on stallions

    Weekly chloroform baths

    Getting locked into my cage every night before the traditional bedtime story

    Selling my sister to afford the train ride out West

    Struggling to harvest my daily quota of field maggots

    Eating my pet hare because the tomatoes had rotted

    The removal of my teeth for purposes of jewelry construction

    Joshua Tree

    I’m almost ashamed to admit that I don’t listen to much of U2, arguably one of the greatest rock bands in the world. I know a bit about the band and can, surprisingly, name members beyond “Bono.” But I essentially just own some singles, Achtung Baby, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Oh, and Joshua Tree.

    Oh Joshua Tree. Really, I’ve only been listening to music for the last four or five years. I mean really listening to music, something not a whole lot of people actually do (hence the popularity of Hinder and radio’s Delilah). But in my admittedly-still-forming musical vocabulary, there is simply no stronger opening to any rock/pop record1 than the mind-altering trifecta of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You.”

    As I’ve said, I’m really not a U2 groupie in the way that my former roommate, a Mexican biology major, was. He could deftly dissect Bono’s vocal range (lamentably dwindling) with some authority. I can’t tell you even the most basic facts about the Zoo TV Tour. I can only sit here and proclaim proudly that I am perpetually enslaved to the power of the auralgasm that is the first three tracks of Joshua Tree. And this, I think, makes some people nervous.

    Maybe this is because it’s an album from 1987 or because some songs have been unfortunately co-opted by such entities as Ross & RachelTM. But it’s probably mostly because of Bono. Guys like me don’t usually like guys like him and it’s essentially because of aesthetics. 98% of the music I listen to does not feature a frontman with large, colored sunglasses and an inability to not wear at least one article of leather clothing at all times. I’m fundamentally trained to despise rock stars who play at the Super Bowl one day and schmooze with politicians the next. But Bono is and does all these things. And he does so just because he fucking wants to. Not to look like a badass (though he is) or because it helps sell records (though it does). I legitimately think it’s simply because it’s natural to him the way wearing Chuck Taylor’s or eating peanut butter & pickle sandwiches is for me. I don’t question it. Bono doesn’t question the “point” of campaigning to end Third World debt. It’s just what should be done and Bono sees no reason he can’t be one to help toward that end (and he’s doing a brilliant job of it, I might add). He’s an authentic guy who realizes that everyone’s “authentic” personality contains arbitrarily manufactured elements. And one who realizes that making money, a shitload of it, off your music is not an evil soulless thing to do.

    But honestly I wish Bono weren’t even relevant. Because even if he were a pretentious asshole sellout or “this generation’s Martin Luther King, Jr” (as my non-black, non-hippie friend once declared), it wouldn’t even matter when you listen to Joshua Tree. Those first three songs are the three best reasons I can think of to shut Nickelback the fuck off and let yourself purposely be transported to a beautiful realm where the streets have no name. A place where the lame can dance and the deaf can hear and Bono can rock out next to a confused unemployed college drop-out living in Suckville, Ohio.

    1Except MAYBE Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But probably not.

    Post-Adderall Binge

    An Adderall binge has opened my eyes to the impracticalities of my previous two life options. I’ve scratched both in favor of the plan I’ve asininely named Life Option C. The new goal is to build a hot air balloon from scratch and stock it full of jellybeans and Calvin and Hobbes comics in preparation for a momentous trip around the world. Construction of the aerial contraption is accomplished solely using knowledge and instructions gleamed from Wikipedia. This turns out to be my undoing, as an unfortunate typo in the online encyclopedia results in a fatally flawed burner system. The whole thing is engulfed in flames somewhere over the Atlantic and I am never heard from again. There is no greater way to seal your awesomeness for all of history than by disappearing in/over a major body of water.

    I hit the jackpot in Barnes & Noble tonight – it was a very productive visit. To me, visiting a bookstore is like an archaeological dig to unearth relics. I just sort of root around looking for nuggets to take home: names, places, events. I don’t so much “read” as “explore,” jotting down everything as I go along. It often leads to wonderful rabbit holes of information — much of the good stuff saved for when I get home to teh internets because that’s when it gets really good. The most actual reading I did was of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. There are actually some pretty shocking images in there. I’m reminded of a past Cedars poll in which a vast number of Cedarville students still believed global warming was a hoax.

    Ok, link dump:

  • Black Friday 2006 – list of ads by store. Except for Best Buy, but you can find theirs here.
  • Flickr set: Michael Hughes’ Souvenirs – cool photos of souvenirs at the tourist site they’re from
  • Photos of people playing video games
  • The Book of Clones and Possessed Children
  • Crazy dice stacking video
  • KFC’s enormous new logo, as seen from space + time lapse construction vid
  • Terrible Paintings – “Take home some really shitty art.”
  • NewsweekDecline and Fall: Where the Republicans Went Astray
  • Why Heroes kicks Lost‘s ass
  • Christopher Stratton has three profiles of Christian artists who don’t suck, namely Sufjan Stevens, David Bazan, and Jeremy Enigk.
  • My life options

    There’s so much going on in the world, so much to talk about, but the only question I ever get asked is this: “What are you going to do with your life?” Let’s settle this once and for all. I really only see two fantastic options:

    In the first, I’m just going to go walking. I’ll sell everything and just walk away and keep walking until I turn 25. At which point I’ll write a book about my experiences traversing America’s highways. It becomes a minor sleeper hit and the New York Times is impressed with my wry observations on the sauntering life and recommends it to everyone looking for insight into the human condition and the state of the American soul. I take my modest profits and buy a small plot of land in the forest wilderness where I can erect a sparse log cabin to live out the rest of my days. It’s got a cozy loft and quaint fireplace, but no plumbing. I only wear Carhartt and never shave so that my beard is inevitably full of saltine cracker crumbs. Unfortunately for my literary career, having failed to buy either shotgun or door lock, I am mauled by a grizzly bear while eating a bowl of blueberries. My death at 26 surprises none of my friends. Book sales double in the first month after the funeral despite The Washington Post misspelling its title in my obituary.

    If things don’t quite work out, I’ll have to revert to my climb-Mount-Everest plan. This one entails spending considerable time acquiring corporate sponsorship so I can afford the costs of training, equipment, climbing license, etc. Converse, once an eager partner, has to back out when they are unable to manufacture Chuck Taylor All-Stars that are suitable for ice hiking. Google is more than happy to take over after they discover that, at the age of 23, I was the thirty-ninth most active user of their popular search engine. It only takes me 10 months to shed my fastfood pounds and become Everest-ready. Google flag in hand, I summit Everest in 12 hours but shock the company by hurtling myself off the top and plummeting down the Tibetan face. My death at 26 surprises none of my friends. Google is not amused and the public backlash against the company creates a marketing nightmare. Google’s stock only recovers upon announcing their acquisition of the Republic of Madagascar.

    Our Walking Habits

    Our Walking Habits
    With Apologies to Stephin Merritt

    When I’m out walking my gargoyle
    during overcast Autumn afternoons,
    we amuse ourselves by lisping
    gothic nursery rhymes.

    When I’m out walking my gargoyle,
    we’ll often stop to loiter
    at Hazel Motes’ rickety porch
    just to lure him into debate
    over self-immolation and papal malfeasance.

    When I’m out walking my gargoyle,
    we’ll often pass by the yellow taxi cab
    in which Tom Waits was born.
    He’ll undoubtedly raise hell, bullhorn in hand
    if he catches us pissing on his taxi

    My Mazda Hates Me

    What is man in a post-Brokeback world? The cowboy is dead, and Ang Lee has killed him. If not the leather-chapped bronco tamers of yore, who now are our all-American men, the ones who ooze masculinity and bleed testosterone?
    I can’t help but pontificate on manhood after a day grunting over the engine of my car, dead on the side of the highway. Indulge my braggadocio for minute: see me bracing against the wind, in the dark, and sopping wet in an all-out thunderstorm; watch me crank levers and wrestle with bolts; look, there’s our hero still covered in oil and grime up to the elbow despite a dozen washings. I am the world’s greatest mechanic, hear me roar.

    This is not, actually, the first time I’ve found myself stranded on a paved vein in America’s heartland, solving the same old problem (damn you alternator). The first time, two years ago, my sister was on-hand and declared my triumph over automobile to be the pinnacle of my existence thus far. I think it was the first day she realized that her childhood playmate, master of Legos, had somehow grown into someone with life skills, with the ability to, like, fix things. These breakdowns inevitably lead to a swelling of pride, momentary and fleeting, but there nonetheless because I actually accomplish something.

    I am the world’s worst mechanic, let’s be honest. I am not the burly, mythic male machine who toils endlessly with his hands. Let the record show: I broke down returning from an art house film; I smoked the cloves of artistes, not the Marlboros of Western television heros; I may or may not have ignored the flashing warning lights on my dashboard for longer than recommended (it was more convenient to believe the wiring in my dash had gone haywire); do real men follow up a day of mechanical tinkering by listening to Schubert and Chopin? And really, I would’ve given up the surge of testosterone if I had the money to pay for a tow. How is it that a five-minute conversation with a beautiful woman makes me sweat more than loosening oil-caked lugs on my engine?

    This is not epic, the reality of it, and there are no grandiose life lessons and character-building maxims here. It’s simple really: today I watched Apocalypse Now (now there’s a real rumination on manhood) and then spent five hours struggling with a mechanical system anybody with any actual know-how could’ve fixed in half the time. On the upside, having a showdown with my burdened and tragic car forces me to expand my tool collection (stocked now with wrenches and ratchets in both metric and standard, thank you very much). I’ve decided the real story here, the real man in all this, is probably my steadfast little brother who picked me up in the first place and who tirelessly held the flashlight in the rain as I bumbled around under the hood. He was there, commiserating and cheering, just there and being himself and that’s probably what really counts at the end of the day. I’m just the sissy boy.