For a reader who doesn't know me, it is important to realize that in many ways I am the complete opposite of a typical MSR visitor. I am 57 instead of 27; I own neither cell phone nor laptop; I like to work on topics no-one else in the world is working on; and I'm a Mac dude. So, for young people in particular, your experience at MSR would likely be quite different from mine.
Of course, as in any large organization the systems may be less than perfect. The story I tell, to illustrate a complete opposite from academia, involves moving office (to 3 offices down the hall). In academia there would be no alternative to physically moving stuff oneself; at MSR we were explicitly forbidden to move stuff ourselves, so instead of taking 5 minutes to move my few books/folders myself, it occupied a couple of hours of filling in online forms, having empty boxes delivered, packing and labeling two boxes, waiting for them to be moved, and then unpacking.
1. Would-be best sellers on technology and business/management,
of the genre one finds in airport bookstores.
The most polite descriptive phrase I can devise for these is "overwhelming hype around some trite catch phrase", as illustrated by the following example.
ABSTRACT: The world has changed profoundly, and the old tools that led to success in the world of "push" won't work anymore. "Pull" helps us to understand the shift we are experiencing and provides us with a new understanding of the implications of how our digital world really works. What can we do to thrive in the environment dominated by the forces of pull. With pioneering research we can show how to access people and resources when you need them, attract resources you didn't even know existed and achieve potential with less time and more impact. Few of us are systematic in how we use the tools available to us, and no institutions are effectively dealing with the startling changes wrought by new technologies and the attitudes they encourage: pull will change everything.
OK, so this talk was, like Wagner's music, "not as bad as it sounds" - cute stories, but without any coherent intellectual theme beyond phrases like "instititional innovation" and "scalable capability building".
2. Fortunately, there were also genuinely interesting and less commercially-oriented talks, for instance by
Paul Davies, the Chair of the SETI Post-Detection Taskgroup, on The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence
Shane Harris on The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State
and Greg Bear, one of my favorite SF authors.
Elsewhere I have written a rant theory is not a product which is aimed as those of us interested in theory -- do not treat it as product development! Now there's an obverse meaning: "if you're interested in product development, don't treat it as theory". And indeed MSR management has been saying things like ....[let's make] an effort to capitalize on the intellect and abilities we have brought together in MSR to take on problems that are not just "difficult" but which some people might call "impossible" having in mind some actual product, not mere theory.
The general ethos is that the multi-millionaires of early MS seek to do something substantial, a prime example being Nathan Myhrvold's founding of Intellectual Ventures. For reasons unconnected with my MSR stay I took a tour of their Intellectual ventures lab which is an amazing place -- where Edison would be working if he were active today. At an opposite end of some spectrum, for some reason I don't recall we got a briefing from Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu on their (progressive) True Patriot project.