Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Pausch's 'Last Lecture'and Jobs's biography: Death and Memoirs

Before Steve Jobs there was Randy Pausch. Pausch and Jobs share eerie coincidences and yet both are very different persons. Carnegie Mellon had a lecture series titled "Last Lecture" and invited professors to give a lecture as if it was their last lecture. Pausch, professor of human interaction and computers in Carnegie, identified by Time as one of the 100 most influential (like Jobs), was called too to give a last lecture in 2007. Just a month prior to that lecture Pausch learned that he had terminal stage pancreatic cancer, a cancer similar to Jobs. Pausch persisted with giving his lecture except he made a small change. Pausch did not talk computers he talked about "Really achieving your childhood dreams".

The lecture was reported by a Wall Street Journal reporter as a compelling life story. In the youtube age the video went viral. As I type this the video has been viewed 14 MILLION TIMES. Randy Pausch uprooted his family to quiet suburbs in Virginia. Given his popularity now he was asked to write a book. The book 'Last Lecture' became a runaway bestseller. Pausch worked for Xerox from where Jobs got the idea for a 'mouse' and 'window'. Pausch, after a childhood of loving video games and Disney World, went to work for Disney. Jobs's turnaround of Pixar that he later sold to Disney is corporate folklore.

For all the similarities of how they lived and died Pausch and Jobs were completely different persona and in many ways opposites. Of course Pausch and Jobs functioned at completely different level with the latter being considered a sheer genius in the mold of Edison. Jobs practically commissioned his biography. Walter Isaacson, former editor of TIme and author of bestseller biographies of Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, was sought out by Steve Jobs to write his biography. A stunned Isaacson asked Jobs why he was chosen, he even poked Jobs about the fact that his previous biographies were about Einstein and Franklin, "do you see yourself in that order by having me write your biography". Pausch's biography is so heartwarming that it is now stocked in the 'self-help' region in book stores (groan!!!). Jobs, knowing full well that his biography will be published after his death, is irascible and completely ungracious about his famous rival Bill Gates. Even Isaacson is stumped by how ungracious Jobs was. Pausch recounts learning humility, learning how sending a thank you note is important, learns how Disney World workers say "park is open till 10 PM" when asked by a visitor "when does the park close". Both books are good counterpoints and well worth the read.

The tragedy that unites Pausch and Jobs is the very public dying they had to endure. As much as Jobs aged in front of millions so did Pausch on a far lesser scale but equally watched. Pausch died a year after his last lecture in 2008 and it was front page news. Jobs, after resigning as CEO, died slowly in front of his family. Its really tragic to think that both Pausch and Jobs had very young children practically watching their dad die. Pausch had a 2 year old. Pausch and Jobs were deeply motivated by leaving behind some memories for their children. Jobs told Isaacson that wants the biography to explain to his children why he was not there for them like other dads. Jobs desired his children to understand that their father was trying to create a new and better world ever since he knew his diagnosis instead of sulking home and living of his past accomplishments or wealth. Pausch ruefully thinks that his youngest child would have no memory of him as dad.

Pausch and Jobs were dads dying in public glare who felt they needed to leave behind some voice of their own for their kids. On the other end of the spectrum are dad's writing out of grief for dead children. Harold Khushner, a Jewish Rabbi lost his son to progeria at 6. Khushner out of his inconsolable grief wrote a runaway bestseller, "When bad things happen to good people". Khushner, as a Rabbi, is deeply troubled by how a loving omnipotent God could allow such illness to fell innocent children. Going into a pediatric cancer ward can melt the hearts of even the most stoic. John Gunther had an equally anguished book "Death be not proud" written after his son died. Joan Didion, American writer, mourning her husband wrote "The year of magical living" and in an unprecedented tragic sequence also wrote "Blue Nights" mourning her daughter who died soon after her own father died.

Death and the philosophical musings of what life means is endless. An obituary that remains etched in my memory is columnist Roger Rosenblatt's column in Time, "The Measure of A Life", about John F. Kennedy Jr's tragic death. JFK Jr died in a plane crash with his young wife. Rosenblatt mused if there ever is such a thing as timely death. Given JFK Jr's youth the first words in every obituary was "untimely death". "In some way, a life ended in youth may be superior to a prolonged existence subject to revisionism and conspicuous error. Death turns "potential" into realization; what one could have done becomes in effect what one did". Biologist and educationist Lewis Thomas, author of classic 'The lives of a cell,  told Rosenblatt that "the true measure of a life is that it be useful".  Rosenblatt concludes, "When a man dies, a civilization dies with him. Whatever constituted his being--his gait, manners, tone of voice, political opinions, appearance, his particular use of language, philosophy, sense of beauty, sense of style, his personal history, ambitions, his smile--all go".

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Caldecott, Newbery Prizes and Children's Books

America has a very deep intellectual culture that is best epitomized by the plethora of prizes awarded in so many fields, especially books. The Pulitzer's are the most widely known prizes. There are others too like the 'National Book Award', 'National Book Critics Circle Award, 'PEN/Faulkner Award', "Bancroft Prize' and much more. Of course each carries different prestige with the Pulitzers being ranked highest. New York Times book review is a treasure for any bibliophile. A few years back NYT started a separate section to review children's books. Children's toys, movies and now books are money spinners. During summer movies for kids hit the screens raking in hundreds of billions of dollars. Only after coming to America I realized that there are really kids movies made for kids. As a kid in Tamil Nadu we had watched a few pathetic children's movies that were replete with club dances (that movie also received a tax exemption categorized as 'kid friendly'). Other than Amar Chitra Katha that peddled mythologies as comics there was simply no child friendly literature. One poet Valliappa, labeled 'children's poet', wrote some eminently forgettable verses. As an obsessive visitor of book stores I am well aware of wonderful books for children in US book stores. The county libraries offer library cards for tiny tots. However a recent discovery has made me yet again say, like Tim Russert's dad Big Russ, "what a country".

Caldecott Medal is given to children's picture books, not illustrated, just 'picture books'. This being Christmas season such books are stacked as 'gift ideas'. Of course there will be people who will see this as 'commercialization', or 'money making'. My reply, "take a hike" or "get a life". One medal winner I saw was a picturisation of the time worn tale of "Lion and Mouse". There were no words just luscious drawing in vivid colors. The image that stuck in my mind was the lion looking forlorn through the net as it sees the mouse nibble the thick braids of the net. Note, children's books, does not necessarily mean only Aesops fables and fairy tales. A 'National book award' winner illustrates charmingly what "life cycle" mean. There are books on symbiotic relationships of organism, idea of 'time', the book 'What to do with a tail like this' details regenerative organs.

Intrigued by this genre of prizes I looked further and learnt of the Newbery Medal which is awarded for the best in children's literature since 1920.A few weeks back I had bought Hendrik Willem Van Loon's "The story of Mankind". I remembered Will Durant writing about that book, "adults bought Hendrik Willem Van Loon's 'Story' for children and surreptitiously read it themselves". The book is a riot to read. Books deal with delicate subjects of Civil Rights too. Van Loon, I was delighted to learn, is the first recipient of Newbery Medal in 1922. In 1918 Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar had written the incorrigibly stupid play titled 'Sabapathi' about a country bumpkin. Sambanda Mudaliar is hailed as the first Tamil novelist. With such a beginning Tamil literature went nowhere in the decades after.

Both Caldecott and Newbery are administered by the "Association for Library Service to Children". The wikipedia for ALSC threw a huge surprise listing 10 prizes awarded for various categories in Children's literature plus notable listing of books for each year. NYT too just released the best children's books for 2011. The ALSC website, , has a plethora of resources for teaching children ( ).

Last week we attended our daughter's parent-teacher conference. The ways in which a first grade student is evaluated is simply amazing. The learning atmosphere, how the concepts are introduced and ingrained, the web resources etc only mades us, as parents, feel so good about her educational prospects. I've absolutely zero hesitation in bringing up a girl child in USA. In fact we feel comfortable that she is NOT studying in India. Recently I heard that a premium convent in Chennai has classrooms divided on caste basis with students, not even in teens, trade remarks on caste and talk about reservation quotas. For those who keep bringing up teen pregnancy, dating etc, my reply is "look beyond and grow up". Also let me note that we often forget that the India we left behind is not there. There is a new India that is practically living the American 60's sadly taking only the vices of that age not its institutional virtues like Caldecott and Pulitzer's.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

As the Tsar went so goes Trotsky

Not much in this world is as veritable treasure of contradictions, cruelties, ironies and stories as USSR and communism. During my usual treasure hunting at an old bookstore I found "Trotsky's Diary in Exile 1935" by Leon Trotsky. Trotsky, for those who do not know, was considered second only to Lenin himself in the Revolution. Trotsky was respected as a great intellectual. In later years Trotsky fell out with Stalin and was exiled from USSR. While living as an exile in Mexico Trotsky was assassinated by a Stalin agent.

Trotsky's entry for April 9th is chilling. One of the mysteries of the Revolution was how the Tsar's family was murdered. Every member of the Romanov family was killed in a cellar, or it is said. The story of Anastasia, the missing Romanov princess, inspired a Hollywood movie starring Yul Brynner and the undoubtedly beautiful Ingrid Bergman (Kollywood robbed the movie to make a Rajni+ Sri Devi starrer 'Adutha Vaarisu'). Trotsky narrates a tale in his diary. It needs to be quoted in full:

" Talking to Sverdlov, I asked in passing: "oh yes, and where is the Tsar?",he answered, "he has been shot"." "And where is the family?""and the family along with him." "All of them?" I asked, apparently with a touch of surprise. "All of them" replied Sverdlov. "And who made the decision?" I asked. "We decided it here. Illyich believed that we shouldn't leave the Whites a live banner to rally around..".

Trotsky then continues remorselessly, "(and) considered the matter closed. Actually the decision was not only expedient but necessary." The prize for Freudian slip that shines a light into the darkest corners of these so called revolutionaries goes to this:"The severity of this summary justice showed the world tat we would continue to fight on mercilessly, stopping at nothing. The execution of the Tsar's family was need not only in order to frighten, horrify, and dishearten the enemy, but also to shake up our own ranks.

What makes the reading of that diary page so gripping and spine chilling is it is written by a man who is fleeing for his dear life from a blood thirsty tyrant who also was interested in " frighten, horrify, and dishearten the enemy". The irony reaches biblical portions when one reads just a few days before that Trotsky worries about his own family, including his first wife, left back in Moscow. Stalin promptly sent all to the Gulags and then dispatched an assassin to kill Trotsky. Trotsky was struck by an ice-axe and died a few days later. I am not sure if he thought how Stalin would characterize this killing as "not only expedient but necessary"

Most anti-communist literature focuses on the atrocities of Stalin. Very few know that Lenin himself was a monster. Lenin, according to Soviet archives recently opened, would draw up lists of doctors and educated people to be killed. Maxim Gorki, who had a love hate relationship with Lenin, would plead with Lenin to go easy on the killings. David Remnick, author of Pulitzer winning "Lenin's Tomb" on the downfall of communism, wrote in his essay on Lenin for Time's 100 greatest Leaders in the centenary issue, "Stalin was a lamb compared to Lenin". Lenin and Trotsky were not fated to live long or at the helm and only that fate saved millions from their hands and delivered the millions to Stalin instead.

The Soviet Union was a terror machine more to its own citizenry than to others. Communism killed mostly its own citizenry. Nazism in a perverse logic declared a section of its own people as not German and THEN killed them. Che Guvera sitting in Cuban jungles would dispense Trotsky's "summary justice" horrifying even Castro.

Tatyana Tosltaya, great niece of Tolstoy, in her "Pushkin's Children" muses on this blood lust by communes revolutionaries and the Tsar's before them. Her theory is that Russians have a streak of violence interwoven in the culture and it spills over.

The diary itself is an interesting read. Trotsky's biggest complaint against, Emma Goldman, an American communist and highly respected revolutionary, was that Emma was an "individualist". Trotsky goes for a hair cut in France and his barber talks to him about Charlie Chaplin.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Is Steve Jobs A Model C.E.O.? Level 5 Leadership.

Steve Jobs remains the flavor more than a month after his passing. A manager in a Fortune 500 firm gifted a copy of Steve Jobs's eponymous biography by Walter Isaacscon to each one in his team. I do not know the exact reasons as to why he did it. I surmise he felt enamored about Jobs's life story and felt his team could learn a thing or two from that eventful life and career. True there is much to be learnt from Jobs and there is much more to be wary off too.

Jobs was a classic iconoclast. His obsession over design and simplicity are all now regurgitated endlessly (including yours truly). Just last week I was looking at a Sony laptop and the word that came to my mind was "ugly". I had been using Macbook Air for over 3 weeks. Other laptops were grotesque. The good old PC towers are declining now its mostly the "all in one PC" made famous by the iMac design. Steve Jobs has a patent for the glass panels he designed for his flagship store in New York. He also holds a patent for the unique staircase in that store. He would not hesitate to delay a product release if he was not satisfied. He rejuvenated Apple and brought it back to life from near certain death. Apple is now frequently trading places with Exxon as the most valuable company on Earth on market capitalization terms. Jobs has upended decades worth understanding of consumer behavior. A college dropout was feted by Ivy League universities. Yes, there are lessons to be learned there. But, how often do we learn the correct lessons? Jobs had another side that could be summed up in one word "JERK".

Let us overlook quibbles like whether he was less than generous to Steve Wozniak or his friends. Many subordinates recall one trait of Jobs. Whenever an employee offered an idea mostly Jobs would call the idea stupid and the employee an idiot (laced with expletives of course). Two weeks later he would come back and repeat the idea like it was his own. The employee would have to meekly agree. For a man who threatened to go 'thermonuclear' with Google over Android OS, that he called stolen from Mac OS, its strange that he would shamelessly palm off ideas. He was a genius but not above swiping an idea.

During Jobs's first stint at Apple he had to be bridled by a person recruited to be CEO. The CEO's prime responsibility was to baby sit Steve Jobs the irascible genius whose very genius was threatening to derail the company he had founded. Later in a coup, one tailor made for a movie, the CEO and the board joined hands to oust the founder.

At Pixar, another company Steve Jobs resuscitated from the brink, Jobs would run up huge expenses insisting on arcane coloring of machines. The furniture and architecture ran up bills that any CFO would not just lose sleep but bring in the board to rein in. Again his genius revived the company but his passion also came close to destroying it.

No management book would endorse Jobs's actions as manager, much less as CEO. With all due respect Jobs died too soon before his time. Android phones have overtaken iPhones. MacOS is still a minuscule market share. iPod's are being threatened. Can we place Apple in the league of Coca Cola or IBM or GE? Not just yet. Coca Cola and IBM are around for 100+ years. It takes more than one individual to build a company like that.

Jim Collins, guru in analysing companies and author of "Good to Great", wrote in Harvard Business Review about what kind of a CEO delivers great results. The article's title sums it up "Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve". Collins wrote "our discover of Level 5 leadership is counter intuitive. Indeed its counter cultural". Collins brushes past celebrity CEO's like Jack Welch, Lee Iacocca and offers, 'shy, awkward, shunning attention' Darwin Smith, CEO of Kimberly-Clark. Level 5 leader, Collins sums up, "builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will". Level 4 leader is one who "catalyzes commitmment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision; stimulates the group to high performance standards".

Isaacson often refers to Jobs's "reality distortion field" referring to Jobs's ability to make people do what they thought was impossible for them to accomplish. Jobs is clearly Level 4. Nothing beyond. Level 5 leaders are those who took their companies to great, delivering "cumulative stock returns at or below the general stock market for 15 years, punctuated by a transition point, then cumulative returns at least three times the market over the next 15 years". Apple has had a great decade after the turning point what lies ahead in the next 5 we don't know yet.

Even Jack Welch the most celebrated CEO is being re-evaluated and many wonder how much of GE's growth was due to him and how much to the overall economic climate which was the most prosperous period in post war USA. Jack Welch's divorce papers showed a typical greedy arrogant CEO who had bargained for outlandish benefits from an awe struck company that thought he was God.

Jobs could afford doing the unthinkable reschedule of a major product release chasing perfection. Facebook CIO says she does not have the time for perfection and in her line of business its better to bring a 'good enough' feature quickly to market. This shows the pitfalls of learning about Jobs without carefully considering his context. That pitfall applies any exercise in analogy. Failure to analyze and map two situations clearly to test whether they are analogous is the most common folly of all.

For a man who felt scarred for being given up to adoption as a baby Jobs was remorseless about abandoning his first girl friend and his daughter. Jobs paid for her education and tried to make amends but she in turn bore the scars he himself carried.

Much is made of Steve Jobs's famous address to Stanford grads advising them to remain "foolish and hungry' going after their passions. Once addressing a classroom of Stanford students he asked the girls how many of them are virgins and he asked the class if they had done drugs. As a self confessed LSD taker he felt that such rebelliousness, losing virginity or taking drugs, is what makes them different and become a creator. About his famous rival, Bill Gates, he would stingingly say that Gates "had no imagination" and would ruminate that Gates might have made better products had he "dropped acid". All of that makes good reading but if followed would be dangerous. Millions have lost their lives doing drugs and millions of teenage women have ruined their lives due to teen pregnancies. College grads chasing dreams with no plan B end up as wastrels or in Occupy Wall Street shrieking inane leftist bromides.

Steve Jobs practically commissioned this biography, primarily, so his young kids would know their father after he is gone. He knew very well that he would not live to see his book. Isaacson interviews Bill Gates several times especially about the famous Jobs-Gates rivalry. Gates had beaten Jobs in the market yet Gates is gracious in his admiration for Jobs. Jobs on the other hand is in no mood for grace, he rubs it in that Gates was uncomfortable in technology and is now 'comfortable doing philanthropy'. Even Isaacscon notes the absolute lack of grace. Jobs wanted to reach from his grave and rub dirt onto Gates's nose.

Learn from Steve Jobs, but very carefully. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Friedman's India Kool-Aid

I first came across Thomas Friedman in 2001 when I read “The Lexus and The Olive Tree”, an excellent primer for understanding globalization. When globalization was bursting into policy circles there were few books that explained the new order so lucidly. Ever since I remained a big admirer of Tom Friedman and eagerly lapped up his wonderful columns in New York Times. Then he wrote “The World is Flat”. It was the very first time in my life I sold back a book I had bought. The book was a bestseller and every American CEO who had not heard of Bangalore grabbed a copy of the book for in-flight reading before they reached Bangalore to negotiate offshore contracts. The book was panned by serious scholars. Yes he shone a nice light on little known aspect of India. Friedman’s book, the outsourcing phenomenon, the massive influx of H1B’s (including me) changed America’s perception of India for the better. 
Friedman, however, painted another extreme picture of India. He portrayed an India that was ready to snag Nobel Prizes by the dozens, rock the world technology with innovations, math crazed students, students who took to science like ducks to water and so on. During an interview he was asked why he interviews only CEO’s and never the common man for his books and articles on globalization. Friedman replied “only CEO’s can explain the emerging order”. I was aghast at the hubris and could clearly see how he was losing touch from his days as reporter. His book “From Beirut to Jerusalem”, which brought him fame, was filled with tales of common men. His books on globalization, on the other hand, start and end with Nilakeni, including his latest column in NYT titled “India’s Innovation Stimulus”
Friedman writes, “just when your mind tells you that this crush of people will surely overwhelm all efforts to lift the mass of India out of poverty, you start to notice a pattern: Every few miles there’s a cellphone tower and a fresh-looking building poking out of the controlled chaos. And the sign out front invariably says “school” — engineering school, biotechnology school, English-language school, business school, computer school or private elementary school. India is still the only country I know where you can find a billboard advertising “physics degrees.”

I did not have the stomach to continue. Friedman thinks flying First Class on a Jet, driving around in a Mercedes, staying at Marriotts and playing golf with Nilakeni gives him a picture of India. Silly guy. Nowhere else in the world he would see a billboard advertising “physics degree” because nowhere else in the world would degrees be sold like popcorn. I saw those boards during my last trip to India and told my dad that it reminded of the inverted V shape boards in front of Udipi hotels saying “today’s special”.
Only in India can a doctor purchase both MBBS+a P.G. degree for a package deal of Rs 1-2 crores. Only in India would MBBS students protest that the passing limit should be brought down by 50%. The much vaunted IIT’s do not even figure in the top 200 universities in the world. The research output of Indian professors, let alone students, is pathetic. I bet that most students do not even know what a ‘peer reviewed journal’ is. Of course not all of America’s students are Feynman’s but the system ‘encourages’ the excellent. An American 12th grade student sits for a 4 hour SAT exam. A medical school aspirant in USA sits for a 7 hour endurance test taking MCAT. In Tamil Nadu politicians and demagogues take pride in abolishing entrance exams. The student in Tamil Nadu is taught to fear exams, the student is taught to abhor merit, the student is taught that he/she is entitled to a college seat. 
When the outsourcing phenomenon hit the airwaves, thanks to Lou Dobbs 'Exporting America' program on CNN, the death of IT industry in US was predicted. Friedman and his ilk enthused ‘there is nothing that cannot be digitized and sent to India for completion”. Friedman kept repeating that India graduates a million engineers every year. 
Outsourcing is here to stay but the predictions of sending high level jobs never happened. A chief challenge was the quality of Friedman’s graduates. Duke University and McKinsey analysed India’s graduates by including a criterion, ‘employability by a MNC’. The number of qualified Indian graduates fell exponentially. Wall Street Journal ran a detailed report on how woefully inadequate the Indian graduate is. I've worked in the biggest investment banks and have seen at first hand how outsourcing experiments have failed chiefly due to lack of quality work.
Fareed Zakaria wrote in Time magazine, “I went through the Asian educational system, which is now so admired. It gave me an impressive base of knowledge and taught me how to study hard and fast. But when I got to the U.S. for college, I found that it had not trained me that well to think. American education at its best teaches you how to solve problems, truly understand the material, question authority, think for yourself and be creative”. Note, Zakaria is being polite about the education he received in India. I can vouch that most colleges in Tamil Nadu are not fit to be called colleges at all. That any of us turned out any good is despite the colleges we had been through. 
If Indians want to progress they should stop drinking from Friedman’s kool-aid. (Drinking  the kool-aid is an American expression to say somebody is buying into an idea blindly and is actually dangerous)

Sunday, November 6, 2011

IBM Shatters The Glass Ceiling

On October 25th Virginia Rometty, 60, was chosen to be the CEO of IBM. She is the first woman CEO of IBM in its 100 year history. It came shortly after HP, another venerated tech giant, chose Meg Whitman as its CEO, its second actually after the unceremonious ouster of its first woman CEO Carly Fiorina.

Ginny, as Virginia is referred to, joins a select club of woman CEO's. Indra Nooyi, Indian born, at Pepsico; Ursual Burns, first Afro-American and second woman CEO to head Xerox, Xerox has had two women CEO's in succession with Anne Mulcahy as the first; Ellen Kullman heads the bicentennial giant Du Pont, a first in 200 years of that company's existence. Compared to corporations the supposed guardians of progressive politics, the universities, are slow to move. Princeton got its first woman president, Shirley Tilghman a molecular biologist, in 2001. Harvard appointed Drew Gilpin Faust a Civil War scholar to its presidency in 2007 shattering the proverbial glass ceiling after 350 years.

Sam Palmisano, the outgoing CEO of IBM, is quoted by NYT as rejecting the notion that gender played any role in selecting Rometty. Palmisano was full of praise for Rometty. No nation on earth is free of prejudices and biases that disadvantage sections of the population but how they evolve from it is what differentiates the substantive from the chaff.

The rise of women, by merit, in US is irreversible and marks a progress that is substantive. Drew Gilpin Faust illustrated how women outgrew their traditional roles in the crucible of the civil war in her book "Mother's of invention". When men had to leave for battlefields it was the women who stepped out and filled in the shoes of men. Teaching, seen today as a woman's profession, was out of bounds for women in pre-civil-war era in USA. In the decades after women were assigned to traditional jobs like nursing and teaching. Many other occupations were out of bounds for women. Especially Science and Math. Faust herself faced jeers from male professors as a student. Faust had completed all requisite coursework for her PhD and the work that remained did not need her to be at the university. Newly married Faust asked her professor if she can complete the thesis from remote as she had to accompany her husband. The professor sneered that as woman she was only focused on marriage. When many women won Nobel Prizes in science in 2009 I wrote and emphasized that women started entering top research positions only in the 80's and their researches are only now coming to notice and that this is only a beginning.

The incident in Faust's life illustrates a key difficulty for women. I remember reading an article in Harvard Business Review citing IBM studies that women lose 7 years in their career life due to child bearing and bringing up children. Corporate America has been negligent in this regard. In an age when jobs are being sent across oceans allowing women to work from home where the function can afford it is still in the minority. Corporate America is stuck in the 60's when it comes to workers and work practices.

Corporations are rarely, rather never, given credit for ushering in social change, politicians corner it. IBM has been a leader in ushering in social change. As an employer of hundreds of thousands over decades its policies are an illustration of how Corporations are often painted with the same brush and very unfairly. IBM's President Thomas Watson, in 1953, sent out a letter to his employees that IBM needed the best people irrespective of color. He also sent notices to two southern governors that IBM will NOT have a segregated workplace. Only those who know the race politics of US would appreciate the monumental courage for a company CEO to do that. IBM is rated highly for its support of Gay and Lesbian rights. When Atlanta natives demurred over a function to honor Martin Luther King Jr who had won the Nobel Peace prize Coca Cola threatened to walk out of Atlanta if the city did not honor its most famous son. A note, both IBM and Coca Cola were thrown out of India when Janata Party came to rule, George Fernandes broke coke cans in the streets.

When Time magazine chose to highlight whistleblowers for their courage to speak truth to power, not coincidentally all three that were chosen were women. Michael Lewis in his latest bestseller about the crises sweeping Europe, "Boomerang", writes that maybe Wall Street would not have been so reckless if there had been more women at the helm. Testosterone driven men drove Wall Street off the cliff. Michael Lewis, I could say with my tongue in my cheek, has not heard about Jayalalitha or Indira Gandhi and has forgotten Imelda Marcos.

American politics is still chauvinistic. When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama dueled for the Democratic party nomination a WSJ poll said more Americans were ready for a black president and not yet for a woman president. The poll was taken about a hypothetical without referring to Hillary or Barack. However I am sure people responded with those two in mind and it certainly skewed the results. Hillary is the first woman to 'win' votes in a primary. She gave many a sleepless night to Obama. When Hillary spoke at a rally in New Hampshire two guys stood at the back of the crowd with t-shirts that said "come do my laundry". Obama never faced such a racism at close quarters those such comments surfaced in commentary. Hillary finally lost due to her own mistakes. However today she is the most admired cabinet member of Obama with a Time magazine cover story this week gushing over her work. She is the third woman as Secretary of State.

Many men who swear by gender equality still betray traces of male chauvinism. I've seen this especially amongst Tamil Nadu men, particularly those who dislike Jayalalitha. Jayalalitha's marital status is often fodder for jokes and snide remarks. That she was an actress adds fuel to the fodder. As Elizabeth, the Virgin queen, was mocked for her supposed virgin status so is Jayalalitha mocked.

Hillary Clinton suffered many an unkind remark about her pant suits, her girth, her make up, how she dressed, if she dressed conservatively she was stuffy, if she dressed with an open neck she flaunting cleavage, if her eyes had dark lines she had a bad night dreaming of losing, if she had her makeup perfect perfect she was 'unconnected and distant'. Damned if she did it, damned if she did not.

After Iowa when blacks realized that Obama is not Jesse Jackson and rallied to him in a historic candidacy women refused to do the same for Hillary. Oprah chose race over gender. Hillary plowed on and won 18 million votes in primaries and later referred to it in her concession speech as '18million cracks in the glass ceiling'.

That women of high merit are chosen because of their merit is what makes these breakthroughs as admirable. Drew Faust is a sheer scholar. Rometty is a high achiever. They are not, to be blunt, affirmative action cases or quota cases. In a not too distant future a woman would certainly become the President of USA. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

iTunes and A.R.Rahman; iPad and Ayn Rand:Lesson's in Capitalism

Growing up in Tanjore in the 80's and early 90's one of the pastimes in our family was to procure cassettes (yes, those tapes) of Tamil film songs. Often time we would make a list of just the songs we wanted and take it to a shop where they would look up their repository of collection and say which ones we could get. For like Rs50 we could get our own collection of songs. Sometimes the collection would have a theme like "Songs with Moon" (Nila Paadalgal), al the songs would be centered with moon as analogy for the theme. Copyrights were unheard of. Mostly Ilayaraja songs. Ilayaraja reigned supreme in 80's Tamil film music. This practice was common all over Tamil Nadu. Street corner tea shops would have cassettes like that and blare the latest hit songs early morning. Ilayaraja commanded a princely sum for scoring the music but earned literally zero from all these sales. He would not even have known that such a thing is possible. Hollywood Screen Writers get, I read, a dollar from the sales of each DVD in addition to their fee for writing screen play. Imagine the accrued earnings for a block buster movie.

Today A.R.Rahman earns in crores, sums which Ilayaraja would not have dreamt of. When the soundtrack of Rajini's last mega blockbuster movie, scored by Rahman, was released it burned the charts on iTunes. From the day he scored for 'Roja" in 1992 Rahman has come a long way. Now he signs contracts with recording companies like Sony at unheard of sums. Sony, no doubt, factors sales from iTunes and I'd guess Rahman's lawyers, if they are good, put in clauses for royalties from online sales. The Rajini movie is now almost a year old but even today if I bought the song revenue is shared between Apple and the record label and I am sure the music composer gets a share too.

Steve Jobs took capitalism to areas where only crony capitalism existed. An invention in America, product made in China (with South Korean and Taiwan parts), enables an obscure Indian musician to earn money through a Japanese recording label. Yes today too infringements of copyrights like I narrated would certainly take place in India but Rahman's avenues to earn money have expanded making him a global brand. If this is not progress I'd love to know what is. Seminars on economics can be woven around this.

As a bibliophile I watch with sadness as book store chains disappear. Today I read that the last remaining book store chain (Barnes and Noble) faces a possible bankruptcy. Apple's iBook (an app originally created for iPad) and's Kindle are the key drivers. Tennyson in his 'Idyll's of the King' wrote beautifully, "the old order changeth yielding place to new...lest one good custom should corrupt the world". Yes, a good custom left undisturbed for long will corrupt. Book selling and reading is undergoing an epochal change. I've a dog eared copy of Ayn Rand's epic "Atlas Shrugged" bought for $7. I've read the 1000 page tome several times. Yesterday 'Atlas Shrugged' was released for iPad as an app complete with rare videos of Ayn Rand's speeches, graphic laden biographical time lines, trivia quiz, multimedia presentations etc. This book published in 1954 is being repackaged and republished for the 21st century 50 years later. Cost $14. Worth every penny. 9How I wish some Tamil Classic was rendered thus but....OK why go there). Children's books are the best. Those books come with read along option with each word being read out and highlighted as they are read out.

As with iTunes store it was the app store that unleashed a torrent, not just of creativity, but very importantly of capitalism. With the core principles of free market such as copyrights, revenue sharing, ratings, comments and more app store democratized capitalism to an extent unseen in centuries. Today a college student sitting in a dorm can 'create' something, sell it and call it his 'earning'.

Steve Jobs never made anything cheap. He did not donate anything to anybody. Microsoft and Intel partner together in donating computers (of course with Windows and Intel chips) to schools. Microsoft products are far cheaper than Apple products. Microsoft and Intel really ushered in the PC era though affordable PC's. While reams of newsprint hail Jobs' business acumen in churning out products that sold at premium and sold in blockbuster numbers what is generally glossed over is a big business failure of Jobs. Jobs refused to unbundle his software (Mac OS) and the hardware. Bill Gates, very shrewdly, did the opposite and created the PC era with IBM.

Steve Jobs never subscribed to anything 'free'. Freeware was anathema to him. However iTunes serves as a platform for Ivy League universities that disburse classes free. MIT's 'Open Course ware" is very popular. MIT posts classes by its professors online through iTunesU (iTunes University). I once downloaded a physics lecture on Snell's law and practically relearnt everything that my teachers pathetically failed to teach at school and college. If colleges, in Tamil Nadu, just had internet connections and students only watched these lectures they would learnt twice as much as they learn from those who roam in the colleges calling themselves as lecturers.

That Steve Jobs is mourned so much today is not only because he produced entertainment products that millions use. Users, especially of iPhone and iPad are not just passive users. The iPhone and iPadiPad in turn become an extended identity of the owner. One can never say that of Microsoft office or a Bose audio system. Ayn Rand's biggest agony about industrialists and innovators was that they lacked the philosophical framework to appreciate what they were achieving. Likewise Apple users, mostly unknown to themselves, take part in a quintessential free market ecosystem that is the bedrock of capitalism.

The ultimate principle of capitalism is 'individualism'. The individual is the building block of capitalism. One commentator highlighted how Jobs and his products enabled individualism on a scale that no innovator or product had achieved before. Ayn Rand's in her novella  'Anthem' depicts a collectivist society where the word "I" is banished and its usage is punishable by death. Apple products are all prefixed with 'i', iPad, iMac, iPhone, iPod. 

Time magazine's "Person of the year" in 2006 was "YOU". The cover featured a Mylar strip in the place of a computer (an iMac) screen reflecting the person who is reading it. In an age of twitter, Facebook, blogs where every person expresses himself Steve Jobs and his 'i's just fit in. He cashed on an era of individualism by making his users feel that  the products they use are an extended identity.

The Apple product we bought is not a one time money-earner for Apple. The product serves as a channel for continued revenue. A PC sold by HP is one time money-earner. An iPad continues to earn money for Apple beyond the initial sales. Everytime we buy a song or an app a share of the cost goes to Apple as much as it goes to the creator of the app or the record label of the song. Let me be clear, I've the deepest admiration for business strategies that are innovative in creating revenue streams for companies. Anybody can choose never to buy an Apple product or having bought they can choose not to spend on apps etc and use it without paying one cent more to Apple.

There is a dark lining though amidst this sunny aspect of capitalism that is enveloping millions. Sociologists often talk about 'digital divide'. 'Digital divide' refers to the gulf between those who have access to internet and digital technologies and those who do not. My daughter plays piano on the iPad, listens to wide array of music, watches excellent shows, plays with innovative apps that teach physics and math. She loves to construct bird houses within a budget and test them for sturdiness. This learning experience is possible only because I could afford a pricey digital product. Some rich counties in USA are using iPads in classrooms. A kid from lesser fortunate circumstance would miss out on this. This is deepening the digital divide.

Before the critics of free market pounce on that let me caution do not take it for granted that nobody else would come along with a cheaper and better product. When Steve Jobs signed a exclusive arrangement with AT&T for iPhone AT&T's chief competitor Verizon used all their innovativeness to stanch the migration of its customers. Jobs could hold that exclusive deal for only 4 years. AT&T network was plagued by heavy data usage of iPhone customers. Finally as iPhone subscription reached a saturation point with AT&T Jobs then expanded the availability to Verizon in early 2011. The latest iPhone is available on Sprint too thus increasing the iPhone carriers to 3. Another big factor in expanding the availability is the success of Android phones.

Customers unsatisfied by the monopolistic attitudes of Jobs went to Android. Android, developed by Google, is sold to phone makers. Google, after a short disastrous stint, got out of the business of making phones. So its the classic DOS vs Mac OS fight retold as Android Vs iPhone. Android app store is more liberal unlike the control freak Apple in approving apps. Android phones now surpass iPhone sales. As Jobs said 'this is life in the technology lane'. So there might come a competitor to obliterate iPad soon enough and THAT's the charm of free market.

While Steve Jobs is being mourned by all and sundry there is little awareness of how he furthered the cause of capitalism and I wish Ayn Rand wrote his obituary. From Adam Smith to Ayn Rand with Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman in between praise Jobs for his signal service to capitalism and free markets.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Steve Jobs: Posterboy for Capitalism, Ayn Rand and Genius

In early 1980 Gorbachev's deputy showed him an Apple computer and said "Look, this is a revolution' (David Hoffman's Pulitzer awarded 'Dead Hand').

A saga and an epoch that has changed lives, created jobs, destroyed jobs and, most notably, introduced us to desires we did not know existed within us, has ended. No one book, let alone one blog or one column can do justice to the life that Steve Jobs lived. Wikipedia gives a good short hand biography of Jobs so I shall not regurgitate either arcana like his being an adopted son etc or recite his well known trajectory of being famously fired from a company he founded and later rejoining it to take it to stratospheric heights. Though many in US are broadly aware of Steve Jobs, his obsession for design, creating computers and software that even computer novices could use with ease, only a moment like his passing away would bring into sharp focus features of his life that we did not know.

Steve Jobs did everything that Bill Gates did, except for Gates' philanthropy yet it is Jobs who is mourned affectionately. Jobs filed patent violation lawsuits with glee, shut down charity programs at apple (Apple is the richest company on earth today), borrowed ideas (windows and mouse from Xerox corp), took what existed and improved them vastly (iPod, iPhone, iPad), complete monopoly over his products, censors what can be done within app stores (no adult content or Gay rights), when his product has an issue he would scald his competitors and use graphics to show they are no better, he would scold customers (iPhone 4 death grip affair) yet he remains the most loved.

Steve Jobs never ran focus groups to know what customer wants, he said "It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.". Howard Roark, Ayn Rand's architect protagonist in 'Fountainhead', could not have said it better. Roark gets his first commission to build his style of home. When the customer first sees it he enthuses that Roark had thought of the customer in every minute decision. Roark denies, "I haven't thought of you at all. I thought of the house, Perhaps that's why I knew how to be considerate of you". Roark would never include in his designs anything that was not logically flowing out of the needs of the home. Whether its the choice of tables in Apple showroom or demanding that the thinnest laptop have a full keyboard Jobs was all about perfection. A columnist noted that the worst insult Jobs could offer to a person was to say "you have no taste". That's vintage Howard Roark. Apple products are famously friendly to users. Businessweek summed it up in an article titled "Steve Jobs and design: Beautiful gadget, no manual necessary". 

The more I read of Jobs only two characters came to my mind. Howard Roark and Hank Rearden from Ayn Rand's two mega selling classics, bestsellers for 50+ years.  Jobs had been to India in search of, enlightenment but returned disillusioned and went on to found Apple. When I read Jobs's statement that "Thomas Edison has done more for the world than Karl Marx and Neem Kairali Baba put together" I felt a thrill, it was the core of every thing that Ayn Rand wrote for over 30 years.  Jobs as innovator and visionary understood that creating products that enhance lives is the best philanthropic act. He briefly ran a charity fund and later closed it. An associate remarked, "he had no time for it". The words could not have been better said of Hank Rearden who thought his inventing a rare steel that mankind should thank him for and had no rights to ask for more.

Time and again Jobs, specifically after his comeback, stood up conventional economic theories on its head. While the country reeled from a dot com bust and a terror attack Jobs unveiled a very pricey iPod. Then he married an innovative concept of running a store, iTunes, making iPod the music device to be seen with. iTunes is buggy, I've found that oftentimes it cannot match appropriate artwork for CD's when Windows media player could. But the device and simplicity of the store fed each other.

A columnist gushed that Jobs is the Henry Ford of our age. Wrong. Dead Wrong on many counts. In an era when profit sharing was unheard of Ford implemented profit sharing for every single worker of his factory. He wanted his car to be affordable to all. Jobs, as Hank Rearden, had no such desires. All of Apple products are priced well above equivalent products in the market. Apple devotees would argue hard about the value for money but its a hard case.

Little attention is also paid to how Jobs is disruptive to economy. If any economics professor wanted to illustrate the 'creative destruction' aspect of capitalism the best illustration is iPod. Last year Jobs removed the CD image in iTunes logo, "CD is an anachronism". Millions cheered. Thousands lost their job in factories that manufactured CD's and Walkmans. Sony discontinued its iconic Walkmans several years ago).

Jobs with his bestselling iPod exercised his muscle into browbeating the recording industry into lowering prices for songs. Recording industry preferred to deal with iTunes rather than Napster and keeled over to Jobs.The customers were happy. Note this is exactly what Walmart does and its the most hated big box retailer in the world. Walmart squeezes its suppliers for every cent and passes on the savings to the customer giving 'low prices'. The award for that is partisan documentary titled 'The high cost of low prices'.

Jobs with his innovative App store for iPhones created a new industry and wiped out a few. Best Buy and  Circuit City were the top two electronics retailers in USA. Circuit City closed out a few years ago leaving just Best Buy in the scene. We would expect Best Buy to become arrogant and indulge in price gouging. No luck, they are fighting for profits. App store kept them honest. Today bar code apps and QR code scanners tell a shopper inside the store, immediately, what is the cheapest price is for a 65" HDTV on Amazon or some Internet retailer. Best Buy would match the price. Customer walks out grinning and Best Buy just lost a pretty penny. Best Buy puts in a store assistant, trains them, give him benefits etc and here is the customer forcing the corporation to match prices given by an Internet retailer than has lower costs than Best Buy.

It is said that Jobs' most outstanding product might be the iPad. Between Jobs's ebook store and Amazon today the publishing industry is at a cross roads. Borders, the second largest book store chain, closed out in part due to flagging CD sales (iTunes) and books (ibooks). Barnes and Noble, the only remaining large book seller,  today resembles a toy store than a book store. iPad is one product that took iPhone to a much new plane of unleashing consumer creativity. Again note that iPad is changing parts of the economy. iPad creates and destroys jobs. The jobs it destroys are the lower paying ones. The jobs were it helps a professional become better is a higher educated worker. Remember as books go out of fashion printing presses, layout artists and so many others lose jobs. If books can be delivered wireless who needs trucks, who needs union bound truckers, who needs to take insurance for cargo, who needs able-bodied employees to unload and reload cargo. Books are now written to exploit iPad's capabilities but none of the above who lost their jobs can aspire to play a role in that. When Jobs said Edison did more for humanity than Marx what he meant was how Edison's product unleashed individual productivity and lifted millions out of poverty. Its the IPad that is increasingly written about for somebody employing it for a very novel idea. Autistic and learning disabled children respond to apps that were made possible by iPad.

Reams of newsprint is already spent on Jobs the visionary and his iconoclasm. Jobs, a college dropout, drew upon his calligraphy classes to invent 'fonts'. When IBM's Watson jeered "what is the need for a PC", Jobs saw the future. The genius of jobs is that he saw not only saw the future, he helped shape it.

The past few weeks have seen mass protests in USA against Wall Street called "Occupy Wall Street" led mostly by youngsters, many toting Apple products. Little do they realize that Apple and Steve Jobs are poster boys for capitalism.

Time magazine, in a cover story titled "Striking it rich: A new breed of risk takers" highlighted how raising Capital gains tax, a pet peeve of Obama, would hurt raising capital for innovators like Jobs. The article gushed that Jobs "single handedly created the PC industry" and is now "worth over $140 million" (in 1982).  Jobs would appear on Time magazine cover 12 times.

Jobs was an intensely private person, he was monk like in his pursuit of making lives better through technology. He lived in a modest house. Nothing was flashy about him personally. Every obituary writer drew attention to the fact that Jobs was the ultimate showman. Apple is notorious for its secrecy around products and particularly product releases. Many columnists pointed out that Jobs manipulated the media and the media loved him back. One obituary wrote tartly that Jobs would not give access to journalists unless he had a product to sell.

After the iPod triumph a scandal relating to stock options briefly appeared to knock down Jobs. Apple, with Jobs as CEO, was accused of back dating stock options. SEC inquiry cleared Jobs of personal wrongdoing yet it was a blip. If Bill Gates had done it, Microsoft would have gotten a black eye and people would have grunted "capitalist".

Steve Jobs slapped lawsuits on Microsoft alleging patent violations. Then in 1981 with Apple teetering on the brink of collapse, Jobs did what was sacrilege to his flock of devotees. Jobs asked Gates for help. Bill Gates invested in Apple giving it a lease of life. When Jobs introduced Gates at a Apple event Gates was booed. Jobs got irritated that the audience showed disrespect to the man who saved what they all loved. But Jobs himself loved to throw barbs at Gates and Microsoft. Jobs protects his patents with  a zeal that would make Ayn Rand proud of him. Apple would file prolific lawsuits against competitors especially after iPad variants hit the market.

Some obituaries compared Jobs to Thomas Edison. The publisher of tech books, Oreilly (not Bill Oreilly of Fox) demurred that some adulation is going overboard. Edison did not hire an army of geeks and lord over them. Jobs's successes have his finger prints all over but they share prints with a few others, most notably, Jonathan Ive the designer.

Every obituary of Jobs had the word "ego maniac". Jobs is notorious for not suffering fools and for verbally lacerating his people if something went wrong. Jobs's ego mania came into full view when he sparred with users. Users can freely write to Jobs and sometimes he would reply. A few weeks after iPhone 4 was released there were lot of complaints over the so called "death grip". When the phone was gripped a certain way the signals faded. Jobs retorted "don't hold it that way". The furore refused to die down and Jobs backed down finally but in a way that was, well what to say, classic Bill Gates.

How Jobs steam rolled AT&T into giving him a carte blanche for developing iPhone is industry gossip. Verizon refused to give him that. Later Verizon, in a shining example of capitalism, fought tenaciously to prevent its users from jumping to AT&T just to get the new craze in town. When Jobs attempted the same techniques in Europe he was rebuffed. European commission frowned on Jobs giving exclusive rights to one carrier thus robbing the consumer of choice. Note, yet again, if Gates had done something like tons of antitrust law suits and scathing articles would hit him.

iMac's are the only PC's today that do not have a Blu-Ray DVD option. I bought a High definition camcorder and started testing it out. I used canon's own software, provided only for Windows, and burnt DVD's of the recordings I made. It was wonderful. There was no software for Mac be causes Mac's famously come with Apple software, like iMovie, that can handle any product. Finally I burnt a DVD from Mac. The quality was crappy. I spent 2 hours in a Mac store and finally figured out that the iDVD software, notoriously never updated by Apple, is crappy and introduces interlaces. Its not that Windows DVD burning is superior but possibly Canon's software removes the wrinkles. No luck for Mac because Jobs brushes off manufacturers from writing anything specific for Mac. The techie asked me "why do you need to burn DVD's, you can stream them to your TV". I said "can I stream it to my parents in India". He had no answer. Apple store employees will rarely accept that their product has shortcomings. They have drunk from the corporate koolaid that they can do no wrong.

Apple products carry the personality stamp of Jobs. iPhone and iPad do not support 'flash' the most widely used software on the web for presenting videos. Jobs got into a mud fight with Adobe refusing to support what is the de-facto standard in Internet. Again, traces of Hank Rearden and Roark. Sort of, this is my product, I define what goes into it, I'll not bend to the market, I define the market.

As an admirer of Ayn Rand and Capitalism I am happy to see the life of Jobs being celebrated. It is gratifying to see somebody whose products are priced at a premium being mourned by his consumers like they lost a loved one. Jobs life is unique at many levels. During the iPhone 4 flap one commentator astutely observed that slowly Apple is facing the consumer ire akin to what Microsoft used to face when its products failed. Apple was not longer the underdog compared to a greedy behemoth Microsoft. Apple was loved by its fanatically loyal user base primarily because they made great products and equally because they were underdogs. No longer. This year Apple crossed Microsoft as the most valuable tech company and is now threatening the status of Exxon Mobil as the most valuable company in earth. His cancer affliction and his slow death smoothed the rough edges that are inevitable for a billionaire CEO. Incidentally, he earned every penny of his wealth. So when a left wing commie says that the top 1%, the billionaires in USA, take 40% of US income please remember that every single one has earned every single penny and that it includes Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs will be remembered forever, to use what is now a cliche, for 'changing our lives'. His life is worth studying for the sheer number of lessons so many can learn. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

9/11 And The Vietnam Albtaross: The story of George Coker

America's engagement in Vietnam is a sordid saga of venality and war crimes. It was an age and time that makes current partisan discord look like exemplary brotherhood. The civil rights struggle, the anti-war movement, military drafts, a president assassinated, the air thick with conspiracy tales, America was a cauldron. When many rushed to scold US on 9/11 with a thinly disguised criticism of its foreign policy what drove most were the memories of Vietnam, especially of a little girl running naked, screaming, when her village was napalmed. 

Nothing has weighed heavily on US foreign policy as Vietnam. The nation's psyche was wounded for decades. US never again got into a full fledged war until the Gulf War of 1991. In fact Saddam had calculated that America with its aversion to seeing soldiers return in body bags would not venture into a war. That US had scurried out of Somalia in between Vietnam and Gulf War emboldened not just Saddam but Osama too.

Robert McNamara, LBJ, Nixon are the three most culpable individuals in what turned out to be America's shame ranked probably only next to the original sin of slavery. That they were not indicted as war criminals is not indicative of any exclusive power of America but symptomatic of how weak the world bodies are in prosecuting any such person. If those deserved to be prosecuted they should very well be along with so many others.

While most of the above is common knowledge what is less known is how America got dragged into this body quagmire. Eminent historian and two time Pulitzer winner Barbara Tuchman, author of bestseller 'Guns of August', traces how America slid into this mess that was not of its making in 'The March of Folly". During the days of World War II the Allies had an uneasy relationship which on some counts was even blatantly hypocritical. Churchill was calling for the defense of liberty while he jailed Gandhi and declared that he had not become "his majesty's first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British empire". De Gaulle while mourning the loss of France and yearning to be its leader again was clear that France will remain a colonial power. Stalin, as historian Robert Conquest labeled him, was the 'breaker of nations'. The least guilty in this was US led by FDR. FDR would plead with all three, Churchill, Stalin and De Gaulle to be fair to nations in their post war plans.

What is now known as Vietnam used to be Indo-China. It was the playground of the French, the Japanese and Chinese. The French ruled Vietnam with an iron fist and in true colonial fashion. Try watching the movie "Battle of Algiers" to get a sample. With Ho-Chi-Minh in saddle North Vietnam slid into the deadly embrace of communism. In a conflict that drew a wide array of nations and competing agendas Vietnam became America's "Bloodland", to adopt the phrase of a historian. America went headlong into Vietnam when the French sowed chaos and sought to exit out. With the passage of time what remains in most  people memory is only the carnage that US left behind and that is married to notions of a superpower trying to bludgeon a country of bicycle riders under the pretext of saving them from Communist stranglehold.

If one traces the role of countries in Vietnam its mindblogging to separate friend from foe. In what is characteristic of wars at various junctures both US and China had allied with the murderous regime of Khmer Rouge in the background of the Vietnam war.

With such stories to be told Hollywood was not far away. The anti-war movie "Hearts and Minds" was highly critical of US policy in Vietnam. A scene featured a Vietnam veteran,  George Coker, saying "If it wasn't for the people, it was very pretty. The people there are very backwards and primitive and they make mess out of everything". The movie in Hollywood style omitted to mention who Coker was. Wikipedia notes aptly that this was a propaganda movie. Not surprisingly it garnered an Academy Award. What the movie omitted was George Coker has been prisoner of war in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton". Coker had suffered inhuman torture that would make water boarding and Guantanamo look like five star facilities. Wikipedia details:

"While in a facility on the outskirts of Hanoi known as "The Zoo", he was forced to endure a torture called "the wall", in which he, as well as other prisoners, was forced to stand facing a wall in his cell with his hands above his head from the time a gong sounded at 5:30 in the morning until it sounded again at 10:00 at night. After two weeks, the knee injury he suffered when he ejected had worsened, and he was taken to a hospital where the infection was drained. After a two day respite while he recuperated, "the wall" torture continued for two more months. Coker called this "probably my worst experience in Vietnam".[1

Another Prisoner of War who was famously incapacitated due to torture in Vietnam is Arizona Senator and former GOP Presidential candidate John McCain. While critics of US foreign policy breathlessly recount tales of My Lai and napalming of villages the narrative becomes too stilted and blatant propaganda when it completely ignores the brutal realities of tortures by Vietnamese.

In what can be the very epitome of irony today US and Vietnam are close allies. John McCain and Hillary Clinton have visited Vietnam. Vietnam is a major outsourcing hub for software. Ultimately it was the market that triumphed. The victorious North Vietnam gobbled the south and the united country plunged into socialist abyss until recent times. The US failed to save South Vietnam unlike South Korea. South Korea under American tutelage (or hegemony as the critics remind us) became an economic power house. TOday South Koreans, thanks to American soldiers still dying in the DMZ ( I met a veteran wounded recently in South Korea), enjoy a free society that they can organize marches decrying US hegemony. The icing on the Vietnam-US detente is Vietnam requesting US help to stave of Chinese threat in the seas, New York Times, reports, quoting Nguyen Manh Hung, director of the Indochina Institute at George Mason University in Virginia, "Vietnam worries about Chinese in the South China Sea and America worries about interference in freedom of navigation,” Mr. Hung said. “Because of this, the strategic interests of Vietnam and the United States converge.”

The more and more I read on US foreign policy the angrier I get at the shibboleth of citing US foreign policy as reason for 9/11. That girl running naked with burning skin from a Napalm attack had more reason to be angry at US than the polygamist turned fundamentalist Osama Bin Laden and his thugs ever had. China, Japan, all of Western Europe, Philippines, India, Simgapore, Vietnam, South Korea are all beneficiaries of US economic policies and many owe their prosperity to US. It was US leadership, or hegemony, that saved Western Europe from Stalin. Communism laid waste continents and impoverished millions and it was US to the rescue almost always. What prompted Bin Laden was not any articulation of high liberal principles but sheer religious fundamentalism that was unique in that region. After the July 2004 London subway bombings Granta magazine ran an issue titled "the rise of British Jihad". That and about the apologists for terrorism in my next blog.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Road to 9/11: Harold Pinter's Anti-Americanism

On September 11th 2001 while America mourned several parts of the world mourned and in the same breath muttered "you had it coming". Sujatha wrote that the days USA's "gun boat diplomacy" are over and like a good father sent his son to USA to live and become, I guess, an American citizen. Aijaz Ahmed, living in USA, writing for Frontline divined that the 19 hijackers were thinking of the so many past injustices of USA.

When people complain of US foreign policy I hear the usual litany starting with Vietnam meandering through the past as far their erudition goes, perhaps the coup Teddy Roosevelt engineered to build the Panama Canal, to every present day conflict weaving an ugly tapestry of a hegemony run amuck. Yes, as in Vietnam, there are very justifiable blemishes on US foreign policy. No country in history with the economic and military size of USA could have an unsullied record. But to place America in the company of Nazi Germany or malign the US army like they were murderous blood lusty terrorists alone only betrays the pathological hatred of such opinion holders.

In spring of 2002, while the fires were barely put out and WTC was just mangled steel with 2500+ bodies still buried, Granta magazine asked eminent intellectuals across the globe to share their thoughts for an issue titled "What We Think of America". Orhan Pamuk, Ramachandra Guha, Amit Chaudhuri and many more including Harold Pinter.

Orhan Pamuk and Harold Pinter, both Nobel Laureates, perfectly bookend the range of emotions most feel about America. Pamuk, coming from Turkey, has a gentle portrait of USA told through a story of his childhood involving an American boy. Pinter's essay was an address he delivered On Sep 10th 2001, a day before 9/11. Pinter said the address is still relevant. Pinter eviscerates USA for the NATO bombing of Serbian forces of Milosevic. Pinter called the USA a 'rogue state', 'a fully fledged, award-winning gold plated knows only one language-bombs and death". Doris Lessing, another Nobel Laureate, wrote a meandering piece, "America, it seems to me,has as little resistance to an idea or a mass emption as isolated communities have to measles and whooping cough".

Harold Pinter scolded the USA for the NATO bombings in Bosnia and went on to organize funds for Slobodan Milosevic, need I add a word after that. Doris Lessing was a communist, a typical worshipper from afar who never lived under communism.

It is this 'gold plated monster' that sent thousands to the beaches of Normandy. Flagging off the D-Day landings Eisenhower said "half of them will not come back alive". America, Lessing says, allows ideas and emotions to wash over with little resistance like a populace stricken by measles. Sure, is that why America put its money and men defending Western Europe and her own beloved England. Referring to FDR's 'lend lease program' to England, Presidential historian Robert Dallek, chuckled, "what lend lease, there was no collateral to be lent against. FDR basically hoodwinked the people and supplied Churchill". Lessing jeers that Americans have short memories. She with a long memory forgot that US had to be dragged into both World Wars. It is a matter of conjecture that had US entered, what was seen as European conflict, earlier in WW-II much loss of life could have been stopped.

Torn between two wars, a terrorist attack that reshaped the psyche of a country and an economic recession, it was only USA that rushed its C-14 helicopters across the globe to save the thousands battling for life in Tsunami stricken Banda Aceh in Thailand. Note, there was no oil or any strategic advantage in Banda Aceh.

George W. Bush hiked the aid given to Africa to combat AIDS. A 2006 Washington Post article says he tripled the aid. Bill Clinton, through his 'Clinton Global Initiative', has negotiated with drug companies to supply AIDS drugs at a fraction of their prices. Why should American companies sacrifice their hard earned profits?

"Black Hawk Down" is a famous blockbuster that portrayed the infamous incident in Somalia. UN aid to famine stricken impoverished Somalis was being hijacked by war lords. US decided to take out one notorious war lord and the ensuing scuffle was absolute humiliation. The black hawk helicopter was shot down, the soldiers were killed and their bodies were dragged in the streets. This is the incident that is said to have crystallized Osama's vision that America could be hit. 1993 America was a different place. Cold War was won. NASDAQ and DOW soared, American economy was overheated. Clinton was battling for re-election. America was in no mood for war in a war ravaged Africa which had nothing to offer. Today millions of children face near certain death in Somalia due to continued famine.

When Russia imploded after the failed coup by the hardliners again it was America that rushed in to prevent USSR from self-incinerating. Yet again during a recession precious money was funneled to USSR to secure the nuclear war heads. David Hoffman, Pulitzer winner for his portrayal of Cold War arms legacy in 'Dead Hand', writes scathingly 'not one of USSR nuclear facilities met Western standards".

The Marshall Plan, Reagan's "Mr Gorbachev bring this wall down", Nunn_lugar aid for USSR, saving South Korea, rebuilding Japan, rebuilding Western Europe, saving millions in Bosnia and much more was all America.

Indira Gandhi came running to LBJ for wheat to feed India. USSR too, depended on US for food. Yes, the dictatorship of the proletariat could not feed itself. Well after the bloody collectivization drives in Ukraine and killing millions of Kulaks it was the Yankees to the rescue. By the way but for US Zhou-En-Lai would have marched to Delhi and given a Bhai-Bhai lesson to Nehru.

Ask anybody today, including most Americans, who started the Vietnam war. The answer would be America. Truth, of course is different. America was dragged into it by France and brought itself great shame by its conduct. However here too a wrinkle is often ignored. We only hear how USA napalmed villages. We never hear how American GI's were brutally tortured by Viet-Cong, torture that makes Abhu-Ghraib, however shameful, look like picnic. Google the words "Hanoi Hilton". I'll blog on this separately.

Every international institution owes its independence (however arguably) and robustness to American taxpayer money. USA pays more than 60% of UN's bills. No other country comes close. IMF and World Bank, both born out of US leadership, have saved millions across the world, unarguably unless  you are a bleeding heart liberal and a closet communist.

Hearing criticisms of inciting a coup in order to build Panama Canal Teddy Roosevelt reminded his critics that the coup he  incited were only 51st in a steady stream of coups. The canal helped world trade for 100+ years and was recently turned over to Panama. For over 200 years it was dream and TR, in what would be the 'American Century', turned it to reality. Of course one could argue over the morals of the coup. What would miss the point is that coups were par for the course and TR's coup, not entirely engineered by him but only aiding what was already underway, helped world trade and millions.

The Granta issue highlighted a critical dichotomy. Those from erstwhile communist countries were more sympathetic to USA than those from well heeled western democracies. Only a pathological hater like Pinter could call NATO bombings as evil and fund raise for Milosevic. He and others like him are beyond the pale of reason.

An American GI was distributing sweets to children in a street side in Iraq. They were ambushed in a terrorist attack. When Time magazine interviewed an insurgent and referred to the incident asking "what about the many children", the insurgent replied "Allah will understand, we had to get that one soldier". To equate both is not just fallacious reasoning but a very facetious reasoning.

So was really US foreign policy the angering element in fashioning the ghastly attacks? Osama had zero interest in anything as remote as articulating an alternate world vision or in standing up for some high liberty. He launched a religious attack, pure and simple. One can keep papering over it but thats what it is. One crude question to puncture the logic would be this:"If US foreign policy begets terrorism then how come it was not the Vietnamese or Filippino's or Grenadans or Haitians or heck even Panamanians or Cubans, why was it only the Saudis?". A peek into Osama's persona and his evolution into a jihadist is for another day.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ralph Nader, Upton Sinclair and Vasantha Balan

I am often asked what is it about USA that thrills me so much. The questions and wonderment get sharper in response to my carping about India. I turn 40 next year by which time I'd have spent most of my adulthood, 18+, in USA. I left India as a 25 year old, I could not leave earlier unfortunately. I wear my opinions on my sleeve and I make no bones about what I think of anything. Here is an issue that draws the distinction clear and bright between two civilizations.

Last year a Tamil movie, 'Angaadi Theru' ('Merchandise Street' or something close) became an unexpected blockbuster. The movie was made with teenage newbie actors on a very medium budget. The dialogues were penned by a popular contemporary Tamil writer, Jeyamohan. The dialogues were pedestrian and lacked any panache marking the pen of a writer. The movie was a thinly veiled, in fact not at all veiled, fiction of  the travails of employees in a store in a particular street in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

Renganathan Street near the Mambalam station is famous for its clutter of stores and of course, dirt and squalor. "Saravana Stores"is a prominent well known departmental stores selling everything from sarees to dresses to utensils etc. Every now and then 'Saravana Stores' would feature in some story in Junior Vikatan, a vernacular gossip magazine. Invariably the accounts would be about some woman customer being abused on charges of theft. Other than that nobody knew much about the store. After all this is India where nobody has time for anything other than immediate concerns.

'Angaadi Theru' laid bare very ugly truths about the store. The movie featured prominent hints about the store starting with their popular ad jingle to store logo and in one shot the camera would linger on 'Saravana Stores' neon signs itself. The movie relates how the store management would fish out teenage and sometimes plain children out of destitute families and later treat them like bonded labor. Abusing women employees, making employees live and eat in crowded areas, physical abuse, torture etc were portrayed unflinchingly. What is worse, the director said that what was shown was still not 100%. Watch the below clipping

The movie was a big surprise hit. In a state where movies packaged like bromides with no story or logic save super human heroes and voluptuous heroines are the fare this story of impoverished child workers was a very surprise hit. And the story ends there tragically.

There was no social awakening, no public furore, no zeal to legislate and correct such inhuman acts, no boycott of the stores. Nothing. Zip. Recently Tamil Nadu's top drawing star Surya recorded an ad for 'Saravana Stores'. Surya is no George Clooney.

There is no society with ills else it would be paradise. Even paradise was not liked by its occupants who nevertheless yearned for the forbidden fruit. How a society responds to ills and how remedies come forth, how the remedies remain institutionalized uprooting the ills forever are all the hallmarks of a responsible and responsive society.

Prompted by another thought I intend to blog on how America is a country of deep intellectual traditions influenced by ideas and books but here is a good sampling. 

Upton Sinclair wrote his bestseller  "The Jungle" about the meat packing industry in Chicago. Sinclair's intended focus was  the horrific circumstances of the workers and the appalling unhygienic conditions of how meat was packed and sold. The book, published in 1906, caused a furore and was instrumental in USA enacting the "Pure Food and Drug Act", the forerunner of the now functioning 'Food and Drug Administration' (FDA). Sinclair was disappointed that people only focused on the unhygienic meat part and did not address the workers conditions. Those were to be addressed later and workers rights became contentious issues.

Ralph Nader is mostly now known as the spoiler for Al Gore becoming President. Nader, however, is the quintessential 'consumer activist'. His book "Unsafe at Any Speed" , 1965, sent shock waves into the auto industry by causing an uproar amongst US consumers by ripping into how unsafe the cars were. GM, then US auto giant, tried to silence Nader by every crookish method. However the furore reached such proportions that Congressional Committee hearings were held. GM apologized to Nader and later paid out a settlement to Nader on a lawsuit on the harassment. Nader, wikipedia says, used the money to lobby for the creation of a watchdog agency, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). 

Tamils often mistake that culture is something about some hoary ancient literature (using words that are mostly not used in daily life) or some hazy notions of ill defined chauvinistic identity that has no basis in history or anthropology culture is beyond all that. About all that some other time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Road to 9/11: Hamburg and the Patriot Act

As I wrote earlier 9-11 was just a murderous attack by fundamentalists and their supposed causes were nothing but fig leaves to disguise a murderous ideology. Not many realize that the attacks themselves were made possible by the freedom's enjoyed by the murderers in USA.

Terrorists used the freedoms of US and other western countries to hurt us. To be blunt, a 9/11 kind of attack was possible only in USA, a July 2004 attack was possible in UK. Neither of these would have been possible in xenophobic, illiberal regimes across the middle east from which the attackers mushroomed. Only in USA protected by freedoms given to all who are in its soil could the thugs execute such a dastardly act.

The 9/11 plotters were drawn from a group that is now referred as the "Hamburg Cell". Why did they choose Hamburg? Lawrence Wright, in his Pulitzer awarded and well researched book "The Looming Tower", provides a stunning insight. Germany in it is desire to redeem itself for the Nazi era excesses of curbing freedoms lurched to the other extreme. Hamburg, Wright says, became a sanctuary city, "Acknowledged terrorist grouse were allowed to operate legally, raising money and recruits-but only if they were foreign terrorists, not domestic. It was not even against the law to plan a terrorist operation so long as the attack took place outside the country".

A phrase that became famous in the aftermath of a colossal failure of US intelligence community was the "failure to connect the dots". To use a word that is common place today, there was too much "chatter" after the U.S.S.Cole attack. Today on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 NYC and DC are on heightened alert due to "chatter". Americans were infuriated to learn that CIA and FBI had so many clues. A very famous memo was the one given to Bush in August outlining exactly Osama Bin Laden's resolve to strike USA. Little mention is made of the fact that US laws prohibited sharing of information across agencies and even within agencies.

Wright says that FBI took Rule 6E - of the Federal Rules of Criminal procedure- as absolute. Rule 6E prohibits revealing any information arising from a grand jury testimony. Added to that was a new Justice Department policy in 1995, Clinton era, "that regulated exchange of information between agents and criminal prosecutors, but not among agents themselves". Wright says that FBI took it as holy writ to mean no exchange of information. The CIA too in turn had its own self imposed barriers on sharing information with FBI agents.

When I came to USA in 1998 all that I needed to get a driver license in USA was my social security number and proof of residence. I got a drivers license that was in no way different from a US citizen though I was on H1B. The drivers license renewal date was beyond my H1B visa date. In fact my immigration status was not even inquired about. In US other than for international travel nobody uses a passport for anything. Waving a drivers license for a curb side check in was routine. A driver license, as government issued ID was on par to a passport giving access to many things. Airlines would not share information on passengers to FBI that easily. The drivers licenses were not even tamper proof. my NJ license just had a photo stuck on a card and laminated. Post 9-11 all that changed. Patriot Act and its concomitant sentiments changed it all.

The cost of 9-11 operation to Bin Laden is estimated at $500,000. Half a million dollars!!! That's it. How as money funneled to the conspirators? Some through Hawala some through very legitimate means. Banks would not ask about immigration status for opening accounts, invasion of rights!! It was easy to open accounts with little and sometimes no information. Patriot Act put a stop to that. I work for a major retail bank in US and I've seen the transitions. Again not many know that as a country that welcomes immigrants by the thousands these supposedly lax procedures have made life easy during the initial struggling days for immigrants. Also those, now extinct, freedoms to open an account easily was good for many illegal immigrants from Mexico who come to US, though illegally, only to make an honest living and for the sake of their families.

When the Radia tapes were released most Indians were interested only in the gossip. Nobody, at least not most, batted an eyelid that a government department was eavesdropping on telephones used by people who posed zero threat to the government and as yet no case was made against them. Its impossible to do that in USA. Even if its done such evidence will be thrown out of the court. Obama, as candidate and as President, has repeatedly renewed the FISA act that governs wiretaps.

Americans, especially pre-9/11, are a very open and trusting people. States like NY, NJ, VA, CA and FL, with heavy immigration, are very accepting and hospitable to immigrants. When would-be hijackers told flight instructors that they did not need to learn how to land nobody's radar went up. As recently as 2009 political correctness prevented timely action in preventing a massacre. The Fort Hood Texas shooting suspect (he is no suspect actually, it is him) Nidal Malik was an American born Muslim who served as psychiatrist. Post 9-11 there were many warning bells about him. Political correctness trumped any attempt to dismiss or take any action. The result was a ghastly day that left 13 innocent men dead. This from a guy who was treated honorably as a citizen without any discrimination.

Lawrence Wright who interviewed hundreds to write his book and is very well aware of how rotten the real world nevertheless is uncomfortable in how US is balancing liberty and security. In his column he wonders, "is this the country we want to be". While I understand his concerns I am perplexed at what kind of policy prescriptions are available to combat this hydra headed monster.

America cherishes freedom of  opinion like anything. One could say the most despicable stuff and still strut about safely protected by the First Amendment. Pre-9-11 another issue tested the limits of free speech. Instances of hate crimes against homosexuals brought attention to what came to be labeled as 'hate speech'. US courts have ruled that hate speech is not free speech. However the bar is set pretty high. This problem reached its acuity in the July 2004 bombings in London. Mosques in an around London indulged in unbridled hate speech calling for Jihad against England by its own citizens who have enjoyed liberties not given to anybody in lands from which they came from.

Barack Obama, who sailed to the US Presidency on the power of rhetoric, recognizes what a potent weapon speech is. Nidal Malik was radicalized by listening to YouTube videos of Anwar Al Awlaki. Obama has issued an unprecedented kill order against Awlaki, a US citizen residing in Somalia. Ever since the botched CIA attempts on Fidel Castro, overt and not-so-overt, Congress has passed laws prohibiting the US President from issuing such orders. The Obama administration made out a case that Awlaki, by virtue of his preachings, is an imminent threat to US national security. Again, an act made possible, only in the backdrop of the Patriot Act.

Yes its easy to quote Ben Franklin who said "people who sacrifice a little liberty to secure a little security deserve neither". Ben Franklin would not have imagined the savagery of Al Qaeda. Ben Franklin or Jefferson could not imagine, with all their erudition, the vicious rationalizations of Qaeda. Who can understand  the murderous sophistry behind 'takfeer', declaring ones own coreligionists with whom one disagrees, as "un-Islamic" and hence OK enough to be killed?

America is a very dynamic and resilient country. We shall find our balance in due course. A recent PEW global survey reports that most American Muslims feel good about being in USA post-9/11 despite the harsh light that shone on the community as a whole.

American foreign policy is blamed for 9-11 by its apologists. Anybody who starts of condemning the attacks and then adds "but" to tag on their own prejudices against America is an apologist for terrorism. Let us not forget that Bush came to office vowing to pursue a more humble and withdrawn role, especially, militarily. Al Pacino, the aging Godfather who yearns to get out of the mafia business would get drawn back in after an attack on him. Pacino would curse "just when I want to get out, they pull me back right in".

As for those who continue to beat USA with the Vietnam stick, the napalm bombings and of course Palestine etc, I can only say, "none of the 19 hijackers were from Vietnam or Palestine". USA today shares a very good relationship with Vietnam.

On this day, the 10th anniversary of 9-11, a word of tribute to US armed forces. From the beaches of Normandy to Tsunami stricken Banda Aceh to the sands of Libya its US Army that often stands as a force for good. In human history if any army had the record of US Army, its blemishes and My-Lai notwithstanding, they can be proud.