Category Archives: history

Steve Jobs, Alpha Male

It’s a little late coming here at the Hut (I sketched this post out late last year, but it lost its immediacy and I moved on to other topics), but Steve Jobs’ passing late last year was a sad (if not unexpected) event for almost anyone with a kick for technology.

Very few people are so intimately identified not just with their company, but with the company’s products themselves. Jobs’ shadow over his field was unlike any other in the western world. Politicians get identified with policies and programs – the New Deal, Reaganomics, Obamacare. CEOs might get identified with campaigns, slogans and overall brands – the Choice of a New Generation comes to mind, as does Lee Iacocca’s leadership of Chrysler. But even good technology is so often esoteric and impersonal, no human stamp can be done justice associated with a lump of plastic and silicon. But Steve Jobs was so instrumental in the development of his company’s flagship products (the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad), and so personally identified with the life and times of his creations, he carried a cult of personality into mainstream technology that has rarely been approached by other inventor/designer/manager/entrepreneur personalities.

Now you might say that it was all an image job, a media manipulation to buy him lo-fi geek cred in an otherwise buttoned-up and socially awkward industry.

You might be partially right. But that’s part of my point. Jobs cultivated a public persona that itself sustained his influence and gravitas in a field where it’s very easy to get typecast as a geek (whose products are too difficult to use for average customers) or as a pointy-headed bean-counter out of touch with the needs of customers (who is unresponsive to customer’s desires). People in business and technology know who Larry Ellison is, the founder of database giant Oracle. But people on the street know Steve Jobs, and they don’t see him as a businessman, his public image is that of a 21-st century Thomas Edison, creating new things that make the average person’s life easier and better.

Jobs has already gone down as one the most influential personalities of two eras – Generation X (whose technology revolution he fueled) and Generation Y (whose icons he designed) – and will probably wind up the most historically recognized technology figure of the information age, with the possible exception of Microsoft founder Bill Gates (more on him later).

THE REALITY DISTORTION FIELD

Even in his early 20′s, Jobs was renowned for his “reality distortion field” – the ability to impress his own viewpoint on anyone in his vicinity, no matter how insane it was with regard to feasibility, cost or time. The broad shadow of his personality could pull the most logical person out of their mind.

One of the stories that went around about Jobs was that the worst place to be in Apple was in an elevator with him. He would start interrogating employees about their work, and if he felt you weren’t adding value you might be fired before the ride was over. Whether it was true or not, it served a purpose – everyone at the Infinite Loop worked under his vision, and wouldn’t be allowed to forget it.

Another story went that Jobs and an underling were interviewing a candidate when Jobs asked “when did you lose your virginity?”

“Excuse me?”

“How many women have you had sex with?”

The interview ended abruptly.

VISION

Real vision, and the discipline to carry it out, is what separates a business leader from your average middle-management douchebag.

Did Steve Jobs lay out the circuit boards and glue the cases together? Hell no, he had thousands of people working under him to do that (prime among them the great Steve Wozniak and Jef Raskin). But they wouldn’t have been working on it had he not brought the concept to the fore. Jobs knew where he wanted the company to go, kept everyone focused and their spirits up, and got rid of people who stood in the way of the prize. He won respect because he didn’t court it – he was great with people, but he wasn’t afraid to cross people in pursuit of the goal.

The most lucid parable of his vision came in the mid-80′s when he was courting Pepsi president John Sculley to join Apple. Sculley protested that he had a great gig going. Jobs replied “you can sell sugar water to kids for the rest of your life…or you can come with me and change the world.”

That’s a ballsy thing to say. It’s ballsier to follow through. Jobs did. So did Sculley (a good leader knows another leader when he sees one).

Forget these fools who say that tech entrepreneurs are betas. Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. They’ve been hanging around with too many flip-cupping frat guys who’ll spend the rest of their lives as circle-jerking brokers or shilling tires to suburban housewives, or they never knew what a real leader was in the first place.

Has Steve Jobs changed the world? That’s an unqualified yes. He’s an alpha male.

STEVE INVENTED HIPSTERS

Ever since the original Macintosh, Apple had aggressively marketed its graphics capabilities and rounded user interface to designers and other “creative” workers. They didn’t balk at the price tag and had a personal sensibility that appreciated the soft nature of the user interface.

In keeping with the Internet era’s trend of democratizing everything, in the early 2000′s a new niche sprung up not of graphic designers or semi-professional film editors, but of regular fledgling youth who wanted to entertain the self-concept of being in the creative class. This built on the popularity of the white iPod design scheme, and coincided with the switch to OS X (a stable, kickass operating system that leveraged large amounts of well-worn and highly efficient Unix software).

It quickly became a trend that to own a Mac and display it proudly was itself a signal to society that you were “creative” and “artistic.” You might never had even opened iMovie or Garage Band, but it didn’t matter – image is image, and Apple catered to the kids’ desire to finally make the A/V club cool. Then finally, Apple built up the iTunes store, enabling the granular distribution of indie music to warm the cockles of the young aesthetes’ hearts.

In other words, Steve Jobs opened the door to today’s modern hipsters.

THE PHOENIX OF THE VALLEY

Two-time success at the top is really not a common thing. Douglas MacArthur** vowed “I shall return” when he fled the Philippines – and he did, to final victory in the Pacific, but ultimately to ignominious censure and dismissal after his arrogant diplomatic actions in Korea. Then-vice president Richard Nixon lost a nail-biting race to Kennedy, and returned to the White House in 1968, only to be run out of town in the wake of Watergate.

Jobs founded Apple with Steve Wozniak in a garage, built the Apple II, rolled out the Macintosh, and was then fired by the CEO he himself had hired. After his technologically-notable but commercially-limited startup (NeXT)*, Jobs returned to the leadership of Apple in 1997 for the celebrated salary of $1. Thus began an aggressive program of simplifying Apple’s product line and image, and making long-term-oriented background investments to advance Apple’s core technologies which ultimately culminated in OS X, the switch to Intel processors and the horizontal unification of music players, computing and media distribution.

Roissy (or one of his commenters, I don’t exactly recall) witnessed countless women at bars and clubs glued to their iPhones, completely oblivious to the men who wanted to talk to them, and nominated Jobs as Cockblock of the Decade. That’s being at the top in my book.

*NeXT was notable for being the platform on which the first-ever web server was deployed.

**Edited – I had put George MacArthur, confusing the five-star with George McClellan, who also served as head of the Union Army twice only to be sacked both times and then get crushed by Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election.

COMMENTS ON MICROSOFT

In Robert X. Cringley’s excellent documentary “Triumph of the Nerds,” filmed during Jobs’ exodus from Apple, Jobs waxed on his former company’s bitter rival. “My problem with Microsoft is not their success. I have no problem with their success. It’s that…it’s that they have no taste.”

In an extraordinary side-by-side interview before Jobs’ death, Bill Gates repaid Jobs by saying he had always admired Steve’s aesthetic sense.

Such was the complementary dynamic of the two men’s companies – one guy eating up market share that no one could argue with, the other selling it better and cleaner than the other guy.

As long as we’re on the topic, I want to mention that I believe Bill Gates’ popular-culture image as a geeky computer programmer to be one of the greatest public relations hoodwinks in modern American history.

Only in the very beginning was Gates’ primary contribution that of code, of direct product. Gates’ value to Microsoft has overwhelmingly been his business acumen and willingness to make aggressive and even ruthless deals with other market players to acquire technology, dictate licensing terms or push competitors off the table. Gates, like Jobs, liked technology but ran on vision – the vision to have a computer on every person’s desk.

Vision is especially important in high technology because you’re marketing a product that literally didn’t exist before, a disruptive offering that requires fundamental changes in the way people go about their daily lives. Lots of people will say no, unable to imagine why they need it, only coming around when the product has caught on with more risk-tolerant, novelty-seeking citizens.

Although Gates apparently fancied himself a code expert (as alluded to in the opening sequence of Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs), he’s always been front and center anticipating the features and products average people would need and figuring out ways to get those products into schools, businesses and government offices where his dream of universal computing could come true.

Like Jobs, Gates’ image serves as self-reinforcing for his business needs. While Jobs’ artistic shtick opened customers’ hearts, the geek image is disarming, and hides the spectre of the one-sided deal that is about to unfold. To get an insight into the feisty nature of the management team, consider that Microsoft president Steve Ballmer’s Harvard roommate was none other than manic financial journalist Jim Cramer (maybe baldness is contagious?)

It has been discussed in several arenas that Gates has no game and may be horrifically awkward around women. This has led to some pronouncements that Gates is a hardcore beta, a true geekboy. I think it’s better to view Gates as a corner case – a high achiever who has changed the world with his ability to navigate business and society from the top, who was never good with women but nonetheless never felt the need to leverage his success to bag chicks with supercharged beta-provider/rich-guy game. Not a paper alpha, a guy who is superficially successful but lacks the ability to take advantage of it, but a guy who was probably not that interested in the game in the first place, and with the demands of his enterprise never had time to develop the skills that would make the game worthwhile (or to taste enough success to motivate getting more of it).

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Must-See: Denis Leary Sings About The Kennedys

This goes out to all my Bay State readers.

An incisive and very literate anthology. Check out the bass player dressed as a priest.

I remember when Denis Leary was first getting exposure, delivering his cynical and bitter rapid-fire monologues during MTV commercial breaks. He was an unmistakably low-brow comedian in a climate that was coming out of a very unmasculine, Alan Alda-like era in popular culture. Leary was a bit like a Northeastern version of the grunting Tim Allen, unabashed in his gruff crudity. He once made literal mention of “Cindy Crawford naked eating an eskimo pie on the top of the Empire State Building.” He was one of those guys that everyone hated, but most of them loved that they did so. I bet Camille Paglia adored him.

I drink, and I drive
I’m the only one in my car who gets out alive
Ted Kennedy

You vote, and I win
The bishop says carousing is a cardinal sin
But the cardinal’s on the payroll so I’ll do it again
Ted Kennedy…

I’m dead, and I’m gone
I used to play football on the White House lawn
Bobby Kennedy

Big smile, big hair
Jackie married Ari and I really don’t care
I had sex with Marilyn in my rocking chair
Jack Kennedy, whoa oh, Mr President

I’m Joe, you don’t know,
I was supposed to be the president but died in the war
Joseph P. Kennedy…Junior

I’m Dad, and I’m bad
I was a liquor bootlegger and a genuine cad
I didn’t that Hitler was really so bad
Master Kennedy

I was born to immigrant parents back in 1937
I played Bobby in a TV movie, then I got to play JFK
My name’s Martin Sheen, my name’s Martin Sheen’s my naaaame…

I’m rich, and it’s great
I hang around Hyannis Port and wake up late
I’m a Kennedy

Ich bin ein,
Ich bin ein Berliner and we’re doin’ fine
Seven thousand relatives are waiting in line
It’s the Kennedys, whoa oh, it’s the Kennedys

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History Flashback: The End of the Soviet Union

Ferd posted a clip on In Bona Fide about the last days of the Soviet Union, referring to the secret meeting between the leaders of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia that broke up the Communist empire for good. Here I’ve posted another shorter clip of contemporary news coverage of the final whimpering hours of Communist rule.

The fall of the Soviet empire was the final act in a wave of geopolitical madness going all the way back to the opening salvos of World War I in 1914, a century of diplomatic bluster and bloody internecine cruelty whose extents boggled even the imaginations of hardened cynics.

From my childhood I distinctly recall watching the night shot of the Communist ensign being lowered from the Kremlin’s flagpole (2:32). My father told me “you’ll never see that flag fly again.”

I say good riddance. Communism sucks.

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The Greek Crisis in Perspective

John D. Cook quotes a pair of tweets from Dan Snow, the self-styled “History Guy:”

BBC reporter: ‘This could be the worst crisis Greece has ever known’. There speaks a man without a history degree.

Greece has been ravaged by Persian Immortals, Roman legionaries, Huns, Janissaries, Russian cossacks, Nazi stormtroopers. She’s seen worse.

 

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Reader Poll: Modern Films Based on Shakespeare Plots

After I saw Ten Things I Hate About You (with the wonderfully saucy, soft-girl-in-a-hard-shell Julia Styles), a friend pointed out that the plot was cribbed from “The Taming of the Shrew.”


from amazon.com

Later I saw the Amanda Bynes vehicle She’s The Man on an airplane, and though it reminded me of Rodney Dangerfield’s cross-dressing romp Ladybugs, it was easy to see “The Twelfth Night” in all that modern high-school subterfuge.

from amazon.com

So help a blogger out here with some more movies based on Shakespeare but with time, place or character re-sets.

Follow-up question: Do you think old Billy Shakes wrote all those plays, or was he heading up a manuscript mill under a composite authorship like Tom Clancy wound up doing?

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Dr. Marcus Conant on Modern AIDS Epidemiology

Jacksonville native and Air Force veteran Marcus Conant was a dermatologist working in San Francisco in 1981 when he began seeing young male patients exhibiting a rare skin cancer called Kaposi’s Sarcoma. Because KS was one of the first two opportunistic infections to be characteristically identified with AIDS-related immune suppression (the other was the fungally-induced pneumocystis pneumonia, or PCP), Conant’s specialty and proximity to the gay community put him directly in the path of a then-baffling new disease.

It was an interesting fit for him, as early in his career in San Francisco he worked at the Haight-Ashbury STD clinic triaging the fallout from the experimental free-love community. Conant says this clinic witnessed one of the first epidemics of genital herpes, an unfortunately common disease among sexually active Americans today.

(WordPress won’t let me embed the fora.tv video, so here is the link – it is absolutely worth watching.)

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in here, from transmission patterns among truck drivers to the politics of foreign aid, doctors who don’t want to know if their patients are positive to the effect of crystal meth on casual sex to “black and Hispanic America have not yet come out of the closet.” Conant also gives specific medical recommendations – testing of every sample of blood that is drawn and aggressive monitoring of viral load in patients.

To head off questions I feel I need to disclaim my interest in the subject. I’m not gay, I’m not bi, I’m not bi-curious or anything like that. I’m not involved in any activism when I’m not blogging, and I’m not a doctor on the front lines. I became interested in the AIDS epidemic as a pre-teen and teen as it was a major factor in what they were teaching us in the the nascent “safe sex 90′s.” It was only after a full medical understanding that I became interested in the social environment and fallout of the disease, which dovetails nicely with my amateur study of sexual dynamics (otherwise known as this blog). AIDS is also interesting in that it’s one of the only diseases to completely emerge under the scope of modern medicine and epidemiology, meaning its origins could be rather conclusively traced and its various treatments completely recorded and studied.

While medically and socially it’s wrong to approach AIDS as a gay man’s disease, the fact is that since the first months of its appearance, AIDS has been an ever-present specter in the gay male community, a more singular demon than almost any threat facing any other first-world demographic group. I recently saw an estimate that even today, a sexually-active gay American man has a 1 in 5 risk of becoming infected with HIV in his lifetime.

AIDS, even before it was named such, quickly caught the notice of the Centers for Disease Control, which internally characterized it as the “4-H” disease – referring to its first classes of victims: homosexuals, heroin addicts, hemophiliacs and Haitian immigrants. It’s morbid to consider that AIDS fairly quickly shut down the fast-lane lifestyle of young gay communities in the Castro, New York’s Fire Island and a dozen other North American gay villages, for two reasons: the disease forced behavioral changes in risk groups, and many of the lifestyle’s evangelists themselves died of the disease. It’s fair to note that many young gay men were not participating in the hyper-promiscuous behavior the culture was known for, but after a certain point, it didn’t really matter; the second wave of cases started to hit relatively chaste men, who in the course of a sensible serial-monogamy lifestyle would come in contact with a “reformed bathhouser.”

Public health authorities have long played a tightrope game of trying to contain risky sexual behavior, but not shaming it so much that it simply goes underground where health and social services can’t reach them. This is something like what has happened in places like Washington DC where gay black men (“on the downlow”) are extremely circumspect in their behavior, difficult for public health services to find, and are trafficking the virus between gay and straight communities.

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Don’t Forget

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Real Men Of Alpha: The Moon Landings

“Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”

“Roger Tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You got a bunch a guys about to turn blue. We’re breathin’ again. Thanks a lot.”

As long as the Hut is running American history week, it’s well worth noting that today is the 42nd anniversary of Apollo 11′s splashdown, bringing home with it the first men to walk on the moon. Stop and think hard about that one. Atop a bazillion gallons of rocket fuel, we sent a crumpled can to the moon; two guys got out, walked around the surface, then got back in and came home.

The men selected for these missions were among the top specimens America had to offer. Drawn from the pool of military test pilots – those brave and risk-seeking enough to fly aircraft nobody had flown before – they were too young for World War II, although some had seen action in Korea.

Sometimes arrogant and petulant, always confident and ready for the challenge, they had deep respect for each other and for their Russian cosmonaut counterparts; but they were fiercely competitive at the same time. Were disaster to befall any of them (and it did), without a doubt the rest would be racing back from the funeral to get in line for the next flight. Even in one of the most exclusive groups in history, no one wanted to be second place.

“The first man to walk on the moon walked into this room today.”

“FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION”

The alphatude necessary to go to the moon doesn’t stop with the guys in the capsule. The flight controllers running the mission from the ground had their own needs for serious leadership and gravitas.

The guys with the pocket protectors and slide rules weren’t just geeks off the street; they were exhaustively trained technical officers whose job it was to act as emergency responders for any – any – issue that might come up during a flight, guiding the mission through its flight plan and its contingencies.

If a controller patched into the flight director loop, his words and tone of voice had to reflect his absolute confidence that he knew what he was talking about – whether it was rocket burn data, a go/no-go on a critical mission step, medical information or whatever, it was his job to be the expert, and he better act the part. The best of them were dubbed “steely-eyed missile men.”

And when Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft or any of the other flight directors responded, everyone listening had to hear that he was in complete control of his staff and his flight, rapidly assimilating often-conflicting reports against the mission rules and making a sound, well-informed, quick decision that more often than not had better turn out to be right.

When the capsule communicator (CAPCOM, the only person who actually spoke to the spacecraft and always staffed by an astronaut) spoke to the crew through the ether, they had to hear in his voice the absolute certitude of the entire flight control enterprise.

The technology of the Apollo program is famous and continues to be studied and applied; we would not have gone to the moon without the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo guidance computer. But we also would not have been able to go without the tremendous interpersonal achievements of the astronaut, controller and engineering teams, strong, courageous personalities on the ground and in the air. (While we’re at it let’s not forget the domestic teams, the astronaut wives.)

If you don’t have time for all these videos, just watch this one which half the time describes my reaction to the whole thing:

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150 Years of the Civil War

“By the summer of 1861, Wilmer McLean had had enough. Two great armies were converging on his farm. What would be the first major battle of the Civil War, Bull Run – or Manassas as the confederates called it – would soon rage across the aging Virginian’s farm, a Union shell going so far as to explode in the summer kitchen. Now McLean moved his family away from Manassas, far south and west of Richmond, out of harm’s way, he prayed, to a dusty little crossroads called Appomattox Court House. And it was there in his living room three and a half years later that Lee surrendered to Grant. And Wilmer McLean could rightfully say that ‘the war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.’”

-Ken Burns’ The Civil War, Episode 1

Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas. I am not a Confederate but somehow I find the name more poetic and so I use it, also it’s easier to find on a map. While the start of the war could be traced to the April 12 shelling of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, or even earlier to the state secessions, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry or the Bleeding Kansas border war, it was this Virginia battle 30 miles from Washington, D.C. that brought the war home for both Americas.

Following the Union’s routed retreat to Washington from the bloodiest day yet on American soil, the situation turned from a hotheaded rebellion into an honest-to-God war – a joined effort that anyone watching would have to conclude wasn’t going to end anytime soon, despite the wishes and best efforts of either side. (That is a lesson which would be soberly and tragically re-taught fifty years later, in the farmlands of France in the opening phases of World War I.)

To the North, it was clear they had a lot of work to do. To the South, it was a revelation that they were not in for a quick series of spirited engagements; rather, many, many Southern sons would die in pursuit of their own country.

Bull Run is also famous for granting the nickname to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, one of the most colorful characters in a war with no shortage of them.

As the only war on American territory since the Revolution, the war affected everybody in an unimaginably immediate way. Three percent of the population became casualties. Death rates among uniformed men were in the vicinity of 20%. Both sides were taxed and issued fiat dollars to finance the enterprise. Both sides’ sons were conscripted into arms and marched probably thousands of miles, and both sides’ resources looted and foraged for at will. That is to say nothing of those civilians caught in the crossfire of the war’s historic skirmishes, and of course of the slaves, whose fates were a motivating cause for the war to begin with.

The war came home most bitterly to those in the Deep South as victims of William Tecumseh Sherman’s slash-and-burn March to the Sea. Eschewing the military objectives of incapacitating armies and taking key cities, Sherman sought to destroy the South’s material ability and psychological will to wage war entirely, burning the city of Atlanta and ransacking the Georgia plantation countryside for his own army’s resources. In a final ignominy, Sherman turned north and struck at South Carolina, the vanguard of secession. To this day his name profanes public speech in the South.

Burns opened his film with searing testimony from a war veteran and future Supreme Court Justice, the Yankee from Olympus, Oliver Wendell Holmes:

“We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We felt – we still feel – the passion of life to its top. In our youths our hearts were touched with fire.”

The war affected everybody, and given the prominence of the United States since 1865, it has affected us all today, American and non alike.

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Day Of Days

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world…

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory.Good Luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force
6 June 1944

Like any great leader, Ike was prepared for contingency, and it was discovered he had drafted the following in the event the largest landing in the history of warfare failed:

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Harve area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

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