Sex and the City is just fabulous!

I should start by saying that my review is clearly biased. I have seen every episode of Sex and the City in order and absolutely adore the show! I wondered in what direction they were going to take the movie in light of the effective closure in the series finale. My fears were rapidly assuaged. The movie is the logical continuation of the show and brought back everything I loved about it – the characters, the friendships and the relationships.

I am sure many critics will quip that the movie does not do justice to “woman power” given that the four women’s happiness only seemingly comes from men. It’s also highly unrealistic for four busy women juggling careers, families and relationships to meet every day. However, I don’t care. The same criticisms apply to the TV show, but it’s not realism that makes it great, it’s the stories, the writing, the realistic representation of modern day dating in New York and the setting, featuring the true love of my life: New York City.

I cried, I laughed and I loved every minute of it!

Go see it, if you are a fan of the show, you will not be disappointed!

The tyranny of time

I remember vividly that when I was a kid the summers seemed endless. Time seemed to move so slowly that I lamented its slow progression: “Mom, I’m bored!”

I long for those days. Time has accelerated so much that years seem to fly by! I remember my experiences at Princeton, McKinsey, Aucland and Zingy so vividly that they all feel like they happened in the past few weeks. Yet 16 years have elapsed since I started at Princeton!

There are numerous reasons for this to be true. When you are 6, a month is a much larger portion of your life than it is when you are 33. A recent article in New Scientist suggested that the biochemical structure of our brain evolves as we get older accelerating the passage of time.

Despite that, we don’t always perceive the passage of time in the same way. Einstein once remarked: “When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second, but when you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour.”

My “solution” to the tyranny of time comes from the words of Buddha: ““Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” For me, there is no better way to do that than to spend time with a close friend remaking the world and talking about everything and anything.

These moments are magical and exceptional and stretch time by making the stars shine brighter and memories so vivid! Whatever your solution, live in the present, it’s fleeting and fragile, yet so magical.

Carpe Diem!

Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth is fantastic!

I had the privilege of seeing Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth last night at the Lyceum Theater before it closes on May 24. I loved the re-interpretation of the setting with Macbeth playing a Stalin-like figure with a backdrop and effects worthy of George Orwell’s 1984! Patrick Stewart is magnificent in the role and clearly shows how is undoing is really of his own making.

My only quibble was that the first half was a bit slow, but it really picked up after the intermission and ended with a great flourish!

The Black Hat Tax

My friend Auren Hoffman just wrote a very interesting article on the growing cost consumer Internet companies face fighting scamming, phishing, hacking and government requests. He estimates that it’s a tax of around 25% in terms of inherent time, resource and mindshare.

Based on our experience at OLX, I would definitely agree. Every day we delete 40% of the new ads posted. That’s around 25,000 ads deleted per day in addition to the ones caught automatically by our spam/scam software! We also deal with numerous scams. As a result, almost half of our employees are dedicated to dealing with this problem.

You can read the full article at:

Graduating from College: Starting your own business or joining an established company?

I often get asked by college students whether they should start their own businesses right out of college or whether they should join an established company. The reality is that at that stage in your life and career, there are no wrong choices. No matter what you choose, you are going to learn a lot and get valuable experience.

I will relate how I made my choice. By my junior year of Princeton, I knew that my computer export company would not be a long term sustainable play. Moreover, with the IPO of Netscape during the summer of 1995, it was clear that the Internet frenzy was underway. I was at the right time and the right place and had deep computer experience which should have provided a comparative advantage in running an Internet company. I was sorely tempted to start a company then. However, I felt that I lacked two fundamental things:

    1. A good idea:

Like today, I was not particularly creative then. None of the “obvious” ideas came to me, especially since I did not understand the underlying business structure of various markets and could not evaluate which ones might be suitable for the Internet.

It crossed my mind to copy some of the early adopters, but not having a business background, I did not know how to go about choosing amongst the various ideas.

    1. Experience:

I had run a small business, but I had never managed anyone. Moreover, I did not know how to raise money, communicate my ideas clearly and write effective presentations. I felt that I would not be taken seriously as CEO of company and that my inexperience was most likely going to lead to failure.

I reluctantly concluded that I might miss the Internet wave, but that I had to get more experience before becoming an entrepreneur.

I had read about McKinsey in an article in Fortune called “The McKinsey Mystique” during my freshman year and was fascinated by the company. The intellectual elitist in me had to know what it would be like to work with what Fortune described as some of the smartest people in the world.

My positive impression continued during the recruiting process as I was impressed by everyone I met. And so, I decided to join the McKinsey New York office in September 1996. For the first time in my life, I was truly humbled. All of my fellow analysts were so incredibly smart, coming from such diverse backgrounds with so many different skills and interests!

While the work eventually got repetitive, I learned a lot in terms of business analysis, oral and written communication skills and interactions with others. I really took advantage of all McKinsey had to offer in terms of workshops and opportunities to hone your public speaking skills. I vividly remember an oral communications workshop where they video tape you and provide intense constructive criticism.

After two years, I felt I was ready. I knew before joining McKinsey that my goal in life was not to write the perfect Powerpoint presentation (shocking I know :), but rather to be an entrepreneur and I felt I had learned what I needed to learn. McKinsey had essentially been business school for me, except they had paid me.

I also left McKinsey with something invaluable: lifelong friendships. I met most of my dearest and closest friends at McKinsey. It’s hard to relate how much I care about them and how much they mean to me. All I can say is that they are and will always be my best friends despite the fact that many of them live all around the world (Boston, Israel, San Francisco, China) and I am grateful that many of them are in New York.

I was lucky that in 1998, despite having spent two years at McKinsey, the Internet bubble was still inflating. This time, I was at the right time at the right place with the right skills. I came up with the 9 business selection criteria. Rapidly evaluated all the US ideas especially Amazon, eTrade, Expedia and Priceline – and chose to copy eBay. Aucland was born.

I want to reemphasize that there are no fundamentally wrong paths out of college. You can create your company. Fail or succeed, you will learn a lot. You can go into management consulting. Another alternative I did not discuss is to join a startup, especially an early stage startup. In startups there is so much work, that if you step up to the plate you will be given opportunities you might never have in a larger company despite your youth and inexperience. It’s a great way to learn hands on execution, which is something I did not learn at McKinsey. McKinsey taught me strategic and analytical thinking, but not operating or Internet experience. As a result, I made countless execution and tactical mistakes which partly explain why Aucland failed.

The one notion I want to dispel is that opportunities are disappearing and that as a result you have to go after whichever opportunity is available now. I truly believed that when I went to McKinsey I might miss out on the Internet bubble. I also believed that after Aucland, it was going to be hard to find new ideas because everything had been done. I was wrong. Some ideas are time sensitive and if you don’t go after them someone else will, but the reality is that new opportunities keep appearing all the time, especially in dynamic and competitive industries like the Internet. In a previous post (Internet: we are still at the beginning!), I analyzed the top 50 sites by attention in August 2001 versus August 2007. Only 5 sites increased their market share, with Google increasing the most. Many have completely fallen off the map and the most successful sites of the past few years did not even exist in August 2001: MySpace, Facebook, Youtube…

Conclusion: Do whatever feels right, you can do no wrong!

21 is tons of fun!

I had an opening between my various meetings today down in Buenos Aires and took the opportunity to watch 21. You will not be surprised that it did not provide profound insights on the meaning of life, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I left the movie with a huge grin on my face and ready for the battles that lay ahead.

Go watch it you will enjoy it, besides Kate Bosworth is really hot 🙂

The Logic of Life is Fascinating

The Logic of Life is Tim Hartford’s second book following his fantastic The Undercover Economist. In this book he tackles why so many things that are seemingly irrational are actually the logical result of the underlying incentives people face.

He takes us through an entertaining variety of topics covering elections, marriage, sex, workplace compensation, addictions and much more! Note that some of the chapters make for a somewhat depressing read, but that’s to be expected given that the book explains why it is logical to end up with many of the negative outcomes we observe.

You can buy the book at:

How it all began…

When I explained how I raised my very first round of financing in a recent post, a number of you asked me to count the story of my first company. The story is a lot less sexy and purposeful than that of Aucland, my first Internet company, but I hope you fight it entertaining and enlightening nonetheless.

I cannot explain why I became fascinated with computers. I suppose I loved gadgets and games. We were the proud owners of an Atari game system and played countless hours of Space Invaders and Pitfall. Yet somehow, when IBM introduced its first PC, I became fascinated with PCs. I was lucky to be in a school that was an early adopter of PCs and was introduced to them as early as 1982 when I was 8 as we learned Logo and Basic. After incessant requests, my parents bought me my first PC in 1984 – a Compaq Deskpro 8086 with a 360 Kb 5’25” floppy drive, a 4 color CGA graphic card and monitor, a 1,200 baud modem of lightening speed and a 20 Mb hard drive of seemingly endless space (all my programs at the time – Word, Symphony and various games fit in less than 2 Mb).

My fascination only increased as I realized that my computer allowed me to make up for my horrendous handwriting. I quickly realized I was being under-graded when I handed in handwritten papers, but over-graded when I handed in typed papers. As an overzealous overachieving student, I lobbied for and got a 9-pin Epson dot matrix printer from my dad (which at the very least freed his assistant from typing my papers and untied his office printer). The printer was both horrendously noisy and slow (it seemed that printing 10 pages took over an hour), but it served its purpose well!

This was also the beginning of a life-long fascination with video games – especially strategy and adventure games. It started with Decathlon (I broke several keyboards playing that game) and the original Kings Quest quickly followed by Ancient Art of War, Sword of Aragon, Dune 2 and all Sierra adventure Games (Space Quest, Police Quest, Gabriel Knight, Leisure Suit Larry, Conquests of Camelot, Colonel’s Bequest and essentially every third person adventure game Sierra ever made!).

I simultaneously became an avid follower of the industry devouring PC Magazine, PC World, Byte, PC Week, Computer Shopper amongst others. I eventually figured out I had a modem in my PC and learned the Hayes command set. I started connecting to various BBS, especially Rusty & Eddie to chat with others, get computer industry news and download games and game demos.

As I kept reading about the incessant changes in the industry, I successfully lobbied for upgrading my computer over time (CGA -> EGA -> MCGA -> VGA -> XGA; 8086 -> 80286 -> 80386 -> 80486, etc.) and became adept at assembling computers from scratch. In France, I created one of the first BBS using PC Board 4.5 running on US Robotics Courier HST modems before the official 14.4 kbps norm became available.

Through this process, I became friends with a number of fellow computer enthusiasts as well as the owner of the computer store across the street from my grandmother’s place in Nice, named Fulvio, and one of his interns, named William. William and I became best friends over endless hours of multiplayer gaming.

When I arrived at Princeton in 1992, it quickly became apparent that US retail prices were lower than French wholesale prices and that the latest hardware was being released in US up to one year ahead of its French release. I contacted my French computer industry contacts to see if they would be interested in importing light (to minimize shipping costs), high value computer equipment. They answered yes and I decided to create a company to take advantage of the time and price arbitrage.

I read how to incorporate a company and created Princeton International Computers, LLC (PIC, LLC). I then opened wholesale accounts with two of the largest computer wholesalers in the US, Ingram Micro and Globelle, and started analyzing price and product release differences between the US and Europe. Rapidly I identified that high end processors, memory, graphic cards, motherboards, hard drives and tape drives provided the largest opportunity.

The business had the advantage of being cash flow positive from day one and not requiring any capital. I would fax price lists to Fulvio and William, who had created his own computer retail store in Nice, and my various French computer friends. They would fax me their orders. I would order from my suppliers who would ship to me office (aka my dorm room – for which I wish to express my everlasting gratitude to my roommates who let me use the common area to store all the equipment) and I would have Fed Ex or UPS reship everything to France. As I would get paid at the time of order, but only pay my suppliers 30 days later, the business was cash flow positive from the get go. It was also a great application of the lessons learned in the accounting class. Funnily enough, I ended up being the lead teacher assistant of that class, teaching my fellow undergrads.

As the Internet started becoming more popular, I had transitioned from spending time on BBS’ to spending time on IRC, gopher and various Internet based bulletin boards. I also started selling online in the ”Computer Equipment For Sale” section of the various bulletin boards. However, I did not sell much online as the customers in those forums were extremely tech savvy and price sensitive and the competition was fierce.

As Mosaic and then Netscape started taking the world by storm, I started pondering my options for what to do next. PIC had grown dramatically but the very exploitation of the arbitrage opportunity was making it disappear. Moreover as companies like Intel and Asustek were becoming more global they were aligning their global prices and release schedules. It was clear that the basis for the company was disappearing. Even though sales had multiplied by 10 between 1992 and 1996, margins had divided by five. It was time to call it a day. The company had served its purpose – it taught me the basics of business and let me graduate Princeton with $50,000 in the bank, which after successful investment provided the seed money for Aucland.

It would love to claim that a lot of strategic thinking had gone into the process – starting with choosing to own a PC instead of a Commodore 64, Apple II or Amiga system as most of my friends were getting. The reality is that I was probably influenced by what was available at school, what my dad had at his office and was lucky to have chosen the platform whose open architecture and competitive market would lead to dominance.

Had I much foresight I would have told my dad to buy Intel, Microsoft and Dell stock. I was seeing these companies grow in front of my eyes and yet it never even occurred to me! I was also extremely lucky that what was essentially a hobby turned out to become a huge industry, knowledge of which became important comparative advantage when running an Internet company – especially when managing developers.

All that said, this first business experience was tons of fun. I got to upgrade my computer every week and it yielded a best friend in William. He later became the country manager of France for Aucland, then marketing manager for Meetic (a equivalent in Europe) and is now VP of Marketing for OLX. He lives 5 minutes away from where I live and we still play multiplayer games online every few days 🙂

Sarkozy: The First Year

The first time I got an insight into Sarkozy’s character was reading The Economist review of his literary biography L’Aube le soir ou la nuit by Yasmina Reza. It showed both the scale of his ambition and a fascination with the desire to outwit time:

“These little battles seem to embody a deeper impatience with the passage of time, a perpetual desire to beat it, but for what? Ms Reza is struck by a man almost unable to live in the present, propelled by an insatiable need to move on. “I’m a stranger to my past. The only thing that interests me is this afternoon, tomorrow,” he tells her one day. She replies that he is “burning up the days that he will never know”. Yes, he says quietly.

The solitude of this quest weighs on the man. Despite the public image of a politician in perpetual motion, Mr Sarkozy can be found in this book in quiet contemplation, staring blankly out of a window, or into the night. Ms Reza, who in the end cannot conceal her admiration and affection, struggles to interpret these moments. She visits him at the Elysée Palace, newly installed as president. He tells her that he has “at last got rid of a burden”. Is he content? “Yes, I am profoundly content,” he replies, then adds: “but I’m not joyful.”

This introduction got me interested in knowing more about Sarkozy. From the many articles covering his life, you also get the sense that he is a courageous man willing to take risks and a micro-manager who loves to get involved “to get the deal done” which makes him a natural compromiser.

In many instances those qualities have proven useful. In 1993 as mayor of Neuilly, he went alone in a nursery taken over by a psychotic man strapped with explosives. He engaged him in conversation and within 30 minutes convinced him to free the children. However, his innate desire to find a compromise might be hampering his ability to reform France.

A year ago, when Sarkozy was running for president, I explained why he was the better candidate, but could very well disappoint those hoping for transformative economic reforms in France:

“He has no real knowledge of economics. He still seems to want to protect “poor French companies from evil foreign companies” when they try to take them over and thus perpetrates counter-productive economic nationalism. Moreover, will he have the political courage to stare down a national strike when it inevitably happens as he tries to reform the country?

He does not have the clarity of purpose of a Margaret Thatcher or the smoothness, charm and overall public support Tony Blair had. Arguably it would be easier for a Tony Blair or Bill Clinton-type to reform France. If only for perception reasons, it’s easier to credibly speak of market driven solutions that don’t sacrifice equity when speaking from the left. But no such figure on the left has emerged or is electable. Doing it from the right is likely to be divisive and one can question if Sarkozy will stay the course given his desire to be pragmatic, especially since he does not have the unthreatening image someone like David Cameron has in the UK.”

Given this background and the high expectations he came to power with, it was going to be interesting to see how much he would be able to get done in his first year. Sarkozy’s presidency started with a bang. It was political genius to recruit a broad-based multi-ethnic cabinet. Anointing the well loved Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister and getting Dominique Strauss-Kahn appointed to head the IMF robbed the Socialist Party of its two most potent politicians. From there he moved at lightning speed to change France’s foreign policy, but has been underwhelming in his economic reforms.

Foreign Policy: A-

French foreign policy has had a full make over in a year:

  • Until Sarkozy it would have been unthinkable for a French president to spend his summer vacations in the United States (in New Hampshire).
  • Sarkozy speaks positively of the role the United States plays in the world.
  • He takes a much stronger line against Russia and Iran.
  • France has become a strong supporter of Israel.
  • France has rejoined the integrated military command of NATO.
  • France has sent extra troops to Afghanistan.
  • He secured a simplified version of the EU constitution rejected by French voters two year earlier.
  • With Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister, French foreign policy now has a humanitarian component, where it used to be purely commercial.

So much has changed for the better, that I would have actually given Sarkozy an A+ for his foreign policy were it not for his refusal to admit Turkey in the EU under any conditions. This refusal plays in the hand of extremists. France and Europe would be much better served by setting objective economic, political and human right objectives for Turkey to meet before it could enter the EU. This attitude is all the more discouraging given the fudging that had to happen to let countries such as Romania in the EU in the first place. I hope Kouchner will convince Sarkozy to change his mind!

Economic Policy: B-

Despite the fact that quality of life is actually very good in France, there is clearly a French malaise. People have a real sense of stagnation as their standard of living is not increasing as fast as it is in other countries. France’s GDP per capita which used to be 20-30% higher than that of the UK and Ireland 25 years ago now lags behind those two countries amongst others. Unemployment has been consistently higher than the European Union average and public debt grew to 66% of GDP by 2007.

Sarkozy’s talk of “rupture” from the past had given many hopes that he would fundamentally reform France. On that point, he has proven disappointing. To his credit, he has implemented more reforms in his first year as president than Chirac did in his entire twelve year tenure. However, he falls short by the standards he set for himself as every major reform has been watered down to appease vested interests.

His university reforms are a typical example. France’s universities are overcrowded and underfunded. Some 46% of all first year students drop out and the brightest students avoid them altogether by going to the grandes écoles instead. Last summer Sarkozy granted the universities freedom from central state control. This allows them to recruit the lecturers they want, at salaries they negotiate and to setup private foundations with tax breaks for donors to complement public finance. He also boosted their budget by 43% over five years and opened up enrolment to orient students to appropriate courses. However, he left untouched two elements which will make it hard to sustain financing and improve quality: the selection of students (anybody with the baccalauréat can enroll) and tuition fees (there are none). His plan originally allowed for student selection for master’s degrees, but even this was quickly shelved in face of the opposition from the student unions.

This unwillingness to take the risk to fully reform universities is disheartening. He could have easily made the case for charging fees for universities on the basis of equity. Free university tuition is a subsidy on the rich given that many more children from the upper socio-economic classes go to university. He could have implemented means tested pricing and keep education free for the lower classes.

His other reforms also reflect important compromises. The case for the abolition of the “special regimes” for public-sector pensions, which enabled 1.6 million public sector workers to retire as early as 55, could have also easily been made on the basis of equity. Sarkozy withstood a nine-day strike that led to commuter chaos and ended the special regimes. However, in exchange he boosted final salaries on which pensions are based greatly limiting the economic savings.

Likewise he has yielded to fishermen, taxi drivers, the family lobby and others. More importantly, he did not reform the rules limiting the ability to shed workers if a firm is in profit and the 35-hour working week.

He also seems prone to economic nationalism with repeated tirades against outsourcing of jobs and the need to protect French industry: “Once the factories go, everything goes.”


It is too early to tell how successful Sarkozy is going to be in reforming France. His massive drop in approval ratings, probably because his tumultuous private life suggested he was more interested in his own problems than those of France, have seemingly emboldened him to push ahead with more reforms. As he announced in a televised appearance a few weeks ago, the civil service is to be trimmed and streamlined. Further university reforms are planned. Ports are to be deregulated. The rules for unemployment benefits are to be tightened. The contribution period for public pensions is to be lengthened.

However, the times have changed. France’s economy is slowing down and with his low approval ratings he might not be able to take on vested interests. On the bright side, Sarkozy seems to have realized that his behavior was impacting his ability to rule. He has made progress in appearing more presidential and less “bling bling”. Hopefully the French are merely tired with his behavior rather than his reforms.

Time will tell and I remain cautiously optimistic. I just hope he does not come to regret his lack of resolve on economic reform in his first year as president.

I must be the only one a bit disappointed by GTA4

Given the rave reviews I expected something a little better. The story of single player campaign is absolutely fantastic. However, the graphics are a bit fuzzy at times, especially when driving. Worse the multi-player system is clunky. It’s hard to get games started with your friends (few others join) and the game is not nearly as playable as Call of Duty 4 in multiplayer.

Ironman is the best superhero movie to date!

My previous title holder was Spiderman 2 which I adored, but I just relate better to a fast talking, self indulgent, immodest billionaire who wants to change the world for the better! Besides, he’s driving my next car 🙂

More seriously, the dialog is fantastic, it’s well acted and the special effects take a backstage to the character driven story – as they should even in a superhero movie. I am not sure how well the movie will resonate with very young audiences as a result, but it worked for me!

Go see it!

What was Microsoft thinking?

It’s odd to me that their opening bid was at $31 per share given that the stock was trading at $19. I don’t see why they did not offer a 40% premium – say $27 and give themselves room to negotiate upwards with everyone saving face.

Instead they offered $31 and said it was their final offer, which was not credible. They now will end up paying much more and have to deal with all the bad blood they created in the meantime.

Big bird brain :)

I read a lot of fascinating articles on Alex last September and never got around to writing about it. In case you have not read it yet, read the article below reposted from the New York Times:

Alex Wanted a Cracker, but Did He Want One?

Alex Wanted a Cracker, but Did He Want One?

IN “Oryx and Crake,” Margaret Atwood’s novel about humanity’s final days on earth, a boy named Jimmy becomes obsessed with Alex, an African gray parrot with extraordinary cognitive and linguistic skills. Hiding out in the library, Jimmy watches historical TV documentaries in which the bird deftly distinguishes between blue triangles and yellow squares and invents a perfect new word for almond: cork-nut.

But what Jimmy finds most endearing is Alex’s bad attitude. As bored with the experiments as Jimmy is with school, the parrot would abruptly squawk, “I’m going away now,” then refuse to cooperate further.

Except for the part about Jimmy and the imminent apocalypse (still, fingers crossed, a few decades away), all of the above is true. Until he was found dead 10 days ago in his cage at a Brandeis University psych lab, Alex was the subject of 30 years of experiments challenging the most basic assumptions about animal intelligence.

He is survived by his trainer, Irene Pepperberg, a prominent comparative psychologist, and a scientific community divided over whether creatures other than human are more than automatons, enjoying some kind of inner life.

Skeptics have long dismissed Dr. Pepperberg’s successes with Alex as a subtle form of conditioning — no deeper philosophically than teaching a pigeon to peck at a moving spot by bribing it with grain. But the radical behaviorists once said the same thing about people: that what we take for thinking, hoping, even theorizing, is all just stimulus and response.

Was Alex only parroting when he showed off for Alan Alda on “Scientific American Frontiers” (one of the PBS productions the fictional Jimmy might have seen)?

“What color smaller?” Dr. Pepperberg asked the parrot as she held up two keys. “Green,” he responded. Alex also seemed to understand concepts like “bigger,” “different” and “same.” Presented with a tray of colored cutouts — the numerals 1 to 6 — he could tell you which one was gray: “Four.”

Many linguists argue that only human brains have the ability to nest ideas within ideas to form the infinitely recursive architecture of thought: When you’re done eating breakfast would you look in the box at the back of the table for the yellow rubber glove with the middle finger turned inside out?

Alex could pull together a few simple concepts. Show him a group of objects and he could tell you, “What color is wood and four-corner?” or, “What shape is paper and purple?” Dr. Pepperberg was hoping to train Alex to spin his own recursions, informing her that the nut was “in the blue cup that’s on the tray” or “in the yellow box on the chair.”

“I wish we had gotten further,” Dr. Pepperberg wrote in an e-mail message. “We were just beginning to get him to designate things like ‘in’ and ‘on.’ ”

The deepest recursion is consciousness — knowing that you know and that you know that you know. In his recent book, “I Am a Strange Loop,” Douglas Hofstadter proposed that the richness of a creature’s mental representations be used to take the measure of its soul.

The unit Dr. Hofstadter whimsically proposed is the “huneker,” named for James Huneker, a music critic who wrote that Chopin’s 11th Étude, in A minor, (Op. 25) was so majestic that “small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it.”

If your average person’s soulfulness weighs in at 100 hunekers with a hamster down near 10, Alex hovered somewhere above the halfway mark. But there were moments when he seemed to reach for the top.

In an talk on, Dr. Pepperberg told of an effort to teach the parrot about phonemes using colored tokens marked with letter combinations like sh and ch.

“What sound is green?”

“Ssshh,” Alex answered correctly, and then demanded a nut. Instead he got another question.

“What sound is orange?”


“Good bird!”

“Want a nut!” Alex demanded. The interview was over. “Want a nut!” he repeated. “Nnn … uh … tuh.”

Dr. Pepperberg was flabbergasted. “Not only could you imagine him thinking, ‘Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it for you?’ ” she said. “This was in a sense his way of saying to us, ‘I know where you’re headed! Let’s get on with it.’ ”

She is quick to concede the impossibility of proving that the bird was actually verbalizing its internal deliberations. Only Alex knew for sure.

Next to infinity, one of the hardest concepts to grasp is zero. Toward the end of his life Alex may have been coming close.

In a carnival shell game, an experimenter would put a nut under one of three cups and then shuffle them around. Alex would pick up the cup where the prize was supposed to be. If it wasn’t there he’d go a little berserk — a small step, maybe, toward understanding nothingness.

A bigger leap came in an experiment about numbers, in which the parrot was shown groups of two, three and six objects. The objects within each set were colored identically, and Alex was asked, “What color three?”

“Five,” he replied perversely (he was having a bad attitude day), repeating the answer until the experimenter finally asked, “O.K., Alex, tell me, ‘What color five?’ ”

“None,” the parrot said.

Bingo. There was no group of five on the tray. It was another of those high huneker moments. Alex had learned the word “none” years before in a different context. Now he seemed to be using it more abstractly.

Dr. Pepperberg reported the result with appropriate understatement: “That zero was represented in some way by a parrot, with a walnut-sized brain whose ancestral evolutionary history with humans likely dates from the dinosaurs, is striking.”

In a well-known essay, “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” the philosopher Thomas Nagel speculated about the elusiveness of subjectivity. What was it like to be Alex that last night in his cage? We’ll never know whether there really was a mind in there — slogging its way from the absence of a cork-nut to the absence of Alex, grasping at the zeroness of death.