Saturday, September 07, 2013

Influence Suite

I was at the Plaza Hotel in a suite waiting to interview Bob Miller who then headed MIPS Computers. Late 1980s, I guess.

It was a big press event, with follow up one-on-ones. It seems funny today but, at the time, the MIPS chip was a potential power house semiconductor world changer. This was its release. It was built on architecture of the great John "RISC" Hennessy, and a seeming challenge to Intel.  Microsoft was porting Windows/NT to it.

Big time stuff.  It's inapt for me to say Miller had class, but as I saw it, he had it. He could be jovial. He'd been at Data General, and was a figure in "the Soul of A New Machine" which was myth in that day.  He's at the Plaza, relaxes a bit after the formal public event..

There's a Wall Street Journal. The guys are passing it around. One was Chet Silvestri, the guy I wanted to talk with, a major microprocessor designer. The WSJ lead was a story on John Towers, a former senator who'd been as powerful as any ever, who'd been picked (but later rejected) to be Sec. of Defense. Towers was unpopular in the senate. He "womanized"  (meaning: chased women aggressively?) and he drank heavily. ( His rejection led to Little Richard Cheney's DoD ascension.)

The WSJ story as I recall had him in a capital restaurant, chattering loudly, drunkenly at lunch. The result of the trouble in the papers was that his career was soon pretty much over, at least his ascent. Rather than competitive senators placing carefully the story with the WSJ who researched it and set its timing as in that day, this would have been tweeted to all media in real time.People are dwelling it, cause it is the news of the moment.

"Towers needs a P.R. person," says Miller, and the guys laugh. Oh, I get it, I am thinking. In these corridors, public relations is the lugubrious lotion of ultimate unction! It was true, Towers had to curry influence. I had entered the chamber of ultimate insight, there in that Plaza suite. Obviously, I was in over my head: Mystic keystone alchemical insight – boing! At the time, publications like mine were the prominent influencers in the domain of microprocessor design, a domain then of unimaginable treasure.

So that Plaza – the same, unless my memory has failed me here totally – that was a setting for a major motion picture or two – was where I saw or thought I saw what influence was about.  So much has changed!

The Wall Street Journal today is still the influential journal it ever was. Much still transpires in august surroundings. But so much has receded around it.

For Bob Miller and MIPS, well, they had pr, that day, but influence was fleeting (lucre too). The Intel chip held sway, the Sun Sparc and (later) the IBM Power ICs took the high end, for what it was worth, and a sleeper called Acorn (now ARM) waited in wings.

This is a story about influence from first principles. There was one moment when the world of public relations opened up for me a bit, and I will tell you about it. P.R. is/was a way of greasing the skids of influence, which is still as much mystical elixir as it is social science today.

The story's morale is nothing anyone couldn’t figure out. But I learned it viscerally, so it is embedded in me thus. - Jack Vaughan Sept 2013

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