When This Is, That Is

Exploring the world of conditionality

Holding Back on the Praise of Steve Jobs

I’ve been using Apple computers since somewhere around 1987. My first computer was a Kaypro II. After that was no longer usable, I got a DOS machine. When it came time to replace it I got a Macintosh.

I have never owned a Windows machine and have only marginal familiarity with that environment. I don’t foresee every using anything but an Apple computer. “But Macs are so expensive,” some people will say.

Yeah, Macs are expensive. But they work well, are easy to use, and are relatively durable. And they are elegant, both physically and functionally. These qualities have value that’s worth paying for. As Guy Kawasaki writes here in “What I Learned from Steve Jobs”:

“Woe unto you if you decide everything based on price. Even more woe unto you if you compete solely on price. Price is not all that matters—what is important, at least to some people, is value. And value takes into account training, support, and the intrinsic joy of using the best tool that’s made. It’s pretty safe to say that no one buys Apple products because of their low price.”

So I’m an Apple fan.

And like everyone else in the world, I’ve been hearing and reading about what a innovative and visionary genius Steve Jobs was. All over the Internet are stories about and lists of how he changed the way people use computers, communicate, and buy and listen to music.

I wish I could be more like Jobs: innovative, persuasive, brilliant. Don’t you?

Yet there is something unsettling to me about all the praise that has been heaped upon him since he died last Wednesday. It’s unsettling because according to things I’ve heard over the years and especially what I’ve been reading recently (for example here and here), Steve Jobs was not a nice guy. Here’s what Rob Long writes in National Review Online, just two days before Jobs’s death:

“The stories of Steve’s temper are passed around Silicon Valley like business cards. Steve tossing a chair when a prototype wasn’t thin enough. Steve firing an engineer in an elevator when the engineer told him about the battery life of a new iPhone. Steve scrapping an entire product line because it wasn’t perfect, and had no hope of becoming perfect. Steve demanding more features. Steve insisting on better syncing. Steve shouting for thinner. Steve screaming for lighter. Steve terrifying his employees, his vendors, his business partners. Steve, engaged in furious e-mail exchanges with journalists, bloggers, and random customers who happened to e-mail him at the right moment, when he was taking a break from making his employees sweat and from engineering even higher standards.”

So why did employees (those who were not fired) put up with such things? The pay, either in cash or stock options, must have been great. But it was more than that. I think people at Apple knew they were on the edge of something great, and they believed Jobs would take them there. That thinking was part of the culture of Apple. As Kawasaki put it:

“I lived in fear that Steve would tell me that I, or my work, was crap. In public. This fear was a big challenge. Competing with IBM and then Microsoft was a big challenge. Changing the world was a big challenge. I, and Apple employees before me and after me, did our best work because we had to do our best work to meet the big challenges.”

A visionary like Jobs would get nowhere and accomplish nothing unless he could attract very talented people who could tolerate his mercurial behavior for their own gain and convince venture capitalists that his ideas would make them all the wealthier. Perhaps that was his greatest strength.

So, yeah, Jobs had an impact on the world. And he was, until last Wednesday, a living legend. Now he’s ranked with Edison and Einstein and Ford for his accomplishments. Yet I think care should be taken in praising too much a tantrum thrower who treated people so poorly and allowed less-than-ethical business practices when it came to stock options.

I will continue to use Apple products because I, too, believe they great value for the money, both functionally and aesthetically.

Boom?

An early childhood memory is of the time I explored the newspaper beyond the Funny Pages. I came across a story about the Baby Boom. During the four or five years of WW II (depending on how you figure beginning and end), thousands of men went off the fight while women stayed back to work on the farms and in the factories.

Nearly all of a sudden, in 1945, the wars in Europe and the Pacific were over. All those men came home to meet up with all those women. Where the US birthrate had declined during the war, it went Boom! afterward. So Baby Boomers, I learned from the story, were those children born between 1946 and 1950.

What I remember most about the article was not the information, but the terrible feeling I had around being left out. I was born in March of 1951. Three months too late! It felt as though I didn’t get an invitation to the party of the century—not that my world view at the time was large enough for me to understand a block of time larger than a decade.

Since then, the Baby Boom has been extended to 1964. So, thanks to demographers and statisticians, I feel included.

But that’s not the point. The point, and I’ve been hearing this for a long time, is that we Boomers will be, and are now, sucking up all the resources. That leaves the younger generations scavenging for what’s left of any social services, now that the my generation has consumed everything in site. Social Security, I’m told, will go bankrupt, leaving the kids to pay the bills of an aging population.

This New York Times article by Thomas Friedman (another one of us), suggests that the current financial crisis is can be blamed on us. Friedman writes:

Indeed, if there is one sentiment that unites the crises in Europe and America it is a powerful sense of “baby boomers behaving badly” — a powerful sense that the generation that came of age in the last 50 years, my generation, will be remembered most for the incredible bounty and freedom it received from its parents and the incredible debt burden and constraints it left on its kids.

He may be right, that that’s how we’ll be remembered. But our current state of affairs—socially, economically, and politically— is a much larger example of cause-and-effect in acti0n that goes beyond the increasing permissiveness of parents and the increasing demands of children.

Something else happened after WW II that directly correlates with the increase in population: an increase in productivity and Madison Avenue’s ability to reach millions of new consumer’s through television. With the post-war Baby Boom came the birth of consumerism as a way of life.

Advertising creates a desire for new things, coupled with an aversion for old things. Desire stimulates the creation of more goods and services, happily provided by prospering businesses. Businesses, in turn, desire more customers to consume their offerings. Among those businesses are banks who make it possible for people with little or no money to buy things they “deserve.” For example, “Take that dream vacation you deserve.” Easy money means easy debt.

And here we are today. The politicians argue about who is to blame and what to do about it. But their blame is misplaced, and their solutions are self-serving. The politicians dare not state the real cause of our collective financial problems, nor will they state the real solution. As a country and a society, we created our current financial problem collectively through the endless cycle of consumption made possible by an economic system that stresses profit above responsibility. The solution is to desire less and be contented with what we have. If it’s good enough for government to spend less to get out of debt, so too it must be for individuals. But what then? What of the cherished corporations?

Boom?

Why I Hate to Read

I read a lot. Mostly what I read is work related in some way. Rarely do I read just for the pleasure of it. Yet, in spite of the title of this post, I love to read. I read for information and intelectual stimulation. I could read all day every day if I had the chance. I especially love to read good novels—for their literary merit as well as for their entertainment value.

I don’t read many novels though. As a writer and publisher it’s a sad situation to be in. It’s not that I don’t want to read more novels. I just don’t have the leisure to spend with them. When I get involved in a good novel, I get so enthralled I don’t want to put it down. And when that happens, nothing else gets done.

I don’t have the discipline to put the book down when it’s time to work on other projects. Other things that need my attention get put aside, and I will create any necessary justification to keep reading. I say things to myself like, “When I get to the end of this chapter, I’ll…” But by then maybe I’m hungry. So I’ll fix something to eat. And I can’t work while I’m eating, right? But I can read while I’m eating. It’s always like that. Eventually, instead of making excuses to keep reading I start rationalizing why I should finish the book as soon as possible.

So I’m doing myself a favor by not to do anything else until I’ve finished the book. The trouble is, I’m a slow reader. That’s why a long time ago I gave up reading novels. Mostly.

Last week I was on something of a vacation. Not entirely, but I had fewer responsibilities than usual. That’s when I noticed on the shelf a paperback copy of Lucifer’s Hammer, an end-of-the-world dramma by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle published in 1977. Of course I’d seen it there many times, and others in my family who’d read it had told me what a good story it was. But, as I said, I’d given up novels, so I labelled it “not for me.” But last week I thought, hmmm, maybe…. Even as I pulled the book off the shelf I was telling myself what a bad idea it was, knowing what would happen.

It took four days to get through all 640 pages. It took the weekend to recuperate and get caught up on things I let slide. I did enjoy it. Come back another day and I’ll tell you what I think about it.

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