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Here’s a post that’s been sitting in my “Drafts” folder for far too long. I meant to post it after my trip to attend the Big Omaha conference, but it ended up languishing unfinished for too long. I’ve since finished it and present it here for your consideration.
At Big Omaha
About this time last year, I was at Big Omaha, a single-track, single-room conference aimed right at entrepreneurial technologists/technological entrepreneurs with a TED-like feel (or at least whatever feel TED had before it got cultish and less well-curated). While sitting and waiting for the next speaker, Mena Trott, whom we all knew as the co-founder of Six Apart and its flagship product, Movable Type, I got into a conversation with a couple of people beside me and the row behind me. I’d joined in because they were talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.
“I don’t ‘buy’ that story in the opening of Blink,” said the guy sitting beside me. “The Greek statue story.”
The Greek Statue Story
That story is about a kouros — an ancient Greek statue of a nude young man in a certain pose — that the Getty Museum in California had set out to purchase from an art dealer who provided solid credentials proving its authenticity. Tests performed on a core sample taken from the kouros showed that calcification of the marble on the surface was consistent with other marble statues of that era. With both paperwork in order and scientific evidence in hand, the Getty was ready to buy.
However, when the kouros was shown to experts on kouroi and other art from that place and era, many took one look at it and instantly deduced that something was wrong. One reported that he felt a wave of “intuitive repulsion” as soon as he saw it. Another’s first thought upon seeing the statue for the first time was “fresh”, which is exactly the wrong reaction for a two millennia-old work. One expert’s response, upon hearing that the Getty was about to buy the piece, instinctively said “I’m sorry to hear that.”
The experts’ gut reactions turned out to be correct. The papers for the kouros were found out to be forged, and it was discovered that you can “age” marble to a state similar to being centuries old using potato mold. The records-checkers and mineral analysis were fooled, but the trickery didn’t work on the experts or their instincts.
Back to Big Omaha
“It’s too Star Trek,” the guy continued. “You know, how the computer, which has the sum total of human and other knowledge, can’t solve a problem, and neither can the super-smart, super-logical character, whether it’s Mr. Spock or Data. But the human character that we’re supposed to relate to? The one that they always point out is intellectually limited next to a Vulcan, or an android, or some computer built by the smartest aliens in the universe? He just goes on pure gut instinct and wins in the end. That’s what that opening chapter of Blink feels like to me: some English major’s take on what ‘smart’ is.”
“But it did happen,” I said. “The statue was proven to be a fake in the end.”
“Lots of writers get all mystical about instinct,” piped in a guy behind us, who then introduced himself. He turned out to be a guy who loved reading up on neuroscience. “The evidence says that instinct is parallel processing. It’s your brain piecing together stuff from incomplete evidence.”
“I heard about that,” said Star Trek guy, “but I really want to see it in action.”
Around that time, the audience chatter began to quiet down as the speaker introduced Mena and her presentation began. You can watch it in the video below:
Watch the first few minutes of the video and see if you notice something. There was a moment in the presentation — it’s at the 4:32 mark in the video — where she pauses to catch her breath. At that point, I whispered to the guy beside me — the Blink doubter — “I can’t put my finger on it, but something is wrong.”
From that point on, that feeling only grew stronger.
It hit me when she said “This talk? It gets worse. It gets a lot worse.” (it’s at 6:50 on the video).
“Holy crap, she and Ben broke up!” I whispered. (Ben is the other co-founder of Six Apart, and he and Mena were known in blogging and tech circles as the “incredibly cute couple behind Movable Type”.)
The people in the Blink conversation stared at me in great disbelief.
Moments afterward, Mena took a swig from what looked like a metal canister, which she revealed to the audience contained wine. She said she needed it to help her pause, “because you can’t drink wine fast.”
“I’ve always been known as a goal-oriented person,” she continued (it’s at 7:23 in the video), “When I was in high school, I made it the goal to marry the shyest and smartest person in my class.”
She teared up a little at her next statement: “And we were married in ’99.”
That’s when Star Trek guy elbowed me — a little too hard, in fact. “Sorry, dude,” he said, followed by “You might be right. I’m getting a bad feeling.”
She then talked about the goals she set out for herself, and how she crushed them all. It was a beautiful laundry list of Mena’s string of successes, and under normal circumstances, would’ve been quite inspirational and even envy-inducing. I’d love to have that sort of history. But at that moment, it rang a little hollow.
The point got driven home when she said that her number one goal for 2012 was much simpler than her previous, loftier aspirations. It was to simply get out of bed (10:07 on the video). At 10:20, she says that this is “where things get really personal” and says that she’s about to announce something that wasn’t public knowledge yet. Then she put up a slide of her and her family. That’s when I knew for sure:
At about 10:35, she announced that she and Ben separated in December of 2011.
That got me right where I lived. The ex-Missus and I separated about a year before Ben and Mena did.
Star Trek guy elbowed me again, even harder this time.
“Ow!” I said. “I need those ribs!”
How I Knew
After the presentation, Star Trek guy and the others in the Blink conversation turned to me.
“That was weird!”
“How did you know?” asked Star Trek guy. “That was just like…like…”
And then it dawned on him.
“It was like Blink. It was like fucking Blink.” He threw his hands up in the air, looked up at the ceiling and said “Okay, Gladwell. You win.”
He walked off and said “I’m gonna go get some coffee.”
A woman who’d been sitting behind us and who’d heard our conversation said “What was the clue? When did you figure it out?”
“Some of it was in her voice,” I said. “But it was mostly the expression on her face. I’ve seen that expression before. In the mirror, for the first few months after I got separated.“