Steve Jobs as seen through his nemesis


(Credit: Matt Yohe)


As some of you know, I am fascinated by the complex character of Steve Jobs, who is one of the people featured in my forthcoming book (though not at all in his usual context).

So I enjoyed reading this interview with John Sculley, Jobs’ erstwhile nemesis (when Sculley pushed Jobs out of Apple in the 80s).


The interview may be too geeky for some of you, but I like it, first, because of the noble tone in which Sculley speaks. He is not bitter; he does no underhand sniping; he does not furtively try to redeem himself or get even. Sculley simply moves on from what was an extremely painful episode in the two men’s lives to evaluate — and bow to — the genius of his enemy.

(Steve Jobs, from everything I hear, has never got himself to take that same step.)

Sculley speaks, in other words, as Hannibal would speak about Scipio, or Scipio about Hannibal. Great men and women are ennobled by their enemies. Kudos.


Second, I like the interview for this glimpse into the nature of Jobs’ genius. Sculley:

What makes Steve’s methodology different from everyone else’s is that he always believed the most important decisions you make are not the things you do – but the things that you decide not to do. He’s a minimalist… He is constantly reducing things to their simplest level. It’s not simplistic. It’s simplified. Steve is a systems designer. He simplifies complexity.

Simplicity is, of course, a big thread here on The Hannibal Blog. It is interesting that Jobs also admires Einstein, as I do (he is another main character in my book), probably because Einstein had that same yearning for elegance and simplicity. As Sculley recalls:

I remember going into Steve’s house and he had almost no furniture in it. He just had a picture of Einstein, whom he admired greatly, and he had a Tiffany lamp and a chair and a bed. He just didn’t believe in having lots of things around but he was incredibly careful in what he selected.

(Compare this to Feng Shui.)


Third, I like it for what I interpret as Steve Jobs’ instinctive nod to the Dunbar hypothesis.

Named after the anthropologist who came up with it, the thesis says that primates can form effective social groups only to the extent that their neocortex can compute the interactions among the group. The cognitive limit for human groups seems to be about 150. (I once worked with Facebook to find out whether technology might change that. Not hugely, it appears.)

Anyway, listen to Sculley:

Steve had a rule that there could never be more than one hundred people on the Mac team. So if you wanted to add someone you had to take someone out. And the thinking was a typical Steve Jobs observation: “I can’t remember more than a hundred first names so I only want to be around people that I know personally. So if it gets bigger than a hundred people, it will force us to go to a different organization structure where I can’t work that way.”

The 4th (and final?) coming of Steve Jobs

As you regular readers of The Hannibal Blog know, I am fascinated by Steve Jobs. He is a main character in one chapter of my forthcoming book.

He is a man who is hard to like, impossible to hate and easy to admire. Complex, in a word.

And he is a man who has both lived and reflected on Kipling’s two impostors — ie, triumph and disaster. Oh, what ups and downs Jobs has known.

Now he has unveiled what may be the fourth device in his career (the first being the 1984 Mac, the second the iPod, and the third the iPhone) that fundamentally changes the way we live. It’s called the iPad.

This is not a review

Every tech and media blogger and journalist is right now weighing in on the iPad as a device, so I will not. We put it on the cover of The Economist this week, and my colleague Tom Standage adds context on his blog.

So let me just add some disparate and quirky observations.

1. Nobody imagines (and thus inspires) as Steve Jobs does

My Chinese mother-in-law, who only gave up dial-up internet when it ceased being offered as an option, wrote my wife the following email:

Subject: iPad

Is this the one I’ve been waiting for?

Now this is the Confucian equivalent of a gyrating pole dance. Steve Jobs has hereby cleared the highest hurdle in the excitement-generation industry.

How does he do this?

Jobs has always known how to imagine on our behalf. The truth is that people don’t know what they want (hence Henry Ford’s famous quip that if he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘A faster horse’.) Jobs has the arrogance to understand that and to believe that he knows, and he tends to be right.

2. Nobody feints as Steve Jobs does

Two years ago, when Amazon brought out its Kindle eBook reader, Steve Jobs dropped all sorts of disparaging comments in such a way that he could be sure journalists would repeat the narrative on his behalf. For example, he said that

It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.

It was catchy because it rang true and caused many of us literati to hyperventilate about this dreadful trend (ie, people no longer reading).

But some of us guessed even then that Jobs in fact believed the exact opposite. And now we know. At the time he said it, he was 80% of the way into developing … his own eBook reader! For that’s what the iPad is, in part. It is Steve Jobs’ stab at reinventing buying and reading books as he once reinvented buying and listening to music.

Let us all pay extra attention to whatever he disparages next.

3. Even Steve Jobs feels his mortality

The man has been facing death for years now. He had pancreatic cancer. He had a liver transplant. He looks gaunt.

Could it be that this notorious perfectionist broke his own rules and accelerated the release of the iPad, launching it before it is really ready so that he could still be there for its birth, not only as father but also as midwife?

At the moment, the iPad is really a large iPod Touch — you can use only one app at a time, for example. Its trajectory, of course, points toward a time when it will indeed become a new “interface” for day-to-day computing. But I feel there is something half-baked about the release as it stands, by Jobs’ previous standards.

I also could not help but notice that Apple’s promotional video for the iPad does something uncharacteristic: It does not feature Steve Jobs, but instead highlights his lieutenants. They have, of course, been there all along, as ingredients of Apple’s secret sauce. But Jobs has never really displayed them, lest anybody might get the idea that he were grooming successors. The corporate message used to be that Jobs was Apple, and Jobs was forever.

Put differently, this may have been the beginning of a Good Bye. Viewed thus, it is especially moving.

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Revolution: Satire ends tyrannical reign of Steve Jobs

The other day I opined on the difference between irony, sarcasm, wit, humor and satire.

I defined satire as “the art of ridiculing somebody in power (possibly using irony, sarcasm, wit or humor as weapons).”

Well, a great cultural moment–dare I say a backlash, an insurrection, a turning point (insert your own metaphor)?–has just arrived. It is the fall from cool of Apple and of Steve Jobs. How? By satire, naturally. Watch:


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The suffering of Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten at Wikimedia Commons

Kahlo and Rivera. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons

I popped into the Frida Kahlo exhibition currently at the San Francisco MOMA. Mainly, to see her piercing paintings–and boy, do they pierce–but also, at least in part, as research for my book.

A friend of ours, Erika Lessey Chen, had suggested Kahlo to me a year ago as a possible life-story to look into. I had told Erika that I’m interested in people whose success (triumph) somehow turned into failure (disaster), or whose failure somehow turned into success, à la Kipling’s impostors.

Does Kahlo fit my story-line? Mostly, I’m looking at characters such as Hannibal’s enemy and nemesis Scipio to illustrate how disaster at the right moment in a life can liberate a person–set free his or her imagination and creativity, and thus initiate a much bigger triumph in the future. People such as J.K. Rowling and Steve Jobs.

But disaster can have other effects, of course. There is the strength that comes from overcoming it. I’ve mentioned Joe Biden and Demosthenes in that context. Among the main characters in my book, the person who would personify that is Fabius, the old Roman senator who was the only one not to despair after Hannibal’s crushing victories.

And Kahlo? As I walked through the exhibition and looked at her absolutely harrowing self-portraits, I realized that she had done something else again with her own disasters: She had made the disasters themselves the success.

Here she was on a hospital bed in Detroit, her body writhing and bleeding, with a uterus and a fetus torn out of her. She painted it after yet another miscarriage. The people in the exhibition became very quiet in front of that one.

There she was bound in a steel corset with a broken spinal column, her entire body pierced with nails. In this painting, she is all pain and frustrated sexual desire.

Over there she is sitting in a double-self-portrait, after her marriage to Diego Rivera had failed. She is holding hands with herself, and simultaneously tries and fails to stop the bleeding of her heart. (All these paintings seem to be copyrighted, so I don’t want to show them here.)

What were her disasters? The first was polio, which she caught at age six, and which left her right leg atrophied. The second was a bus accident when she was eighteen. She broke her spine, her pelvis, and lots of other bones, and an iron handrail pierced her uterus, leaving her infertile. The third, arguably, was falling in love with Diego Rivera, whom she adored but who was never faithful to her.

In short: pain, infertility, loneliness. And to deal with it, she painted. And the painting made her into the most “successful” Mexican artist ever.

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Biden and Demosthenes: A tale of two stammerers

As I was watching Beau Biden (video below) and his father Joe at the Democratic Convention today, I was struck by a stunning parallel between Senator Biden’s remarkable life story and that of the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes.

Both were stammerers in their youth. Both were taunted for it with cutting nicknames–“dash” for Biden, since he left his words hanging with a dash; batalus for Demosthenes, which meant both asshole and stammerer.

But both defined themselves by overcoming this impediment, and thus turning their greatest weakness–speaking–into their greatest strength–oratory. Demosthenes went on to become the single greatest orator not only in Greece but in all of history. Statesmen from Cicero to Disraeli and Churchill looked to him for lessons in how to move a political audience with speech. Joe Biden, too, became an effective–and, if anything, a garrulous–senator and may now become vice president.

As always, it is how they overcame that is the story. Joe Biden’s story is all over the news this week. But you may not know Demosthenes’ story. Here is the brief version, as Plutarch tells it:

Once, after Demosthenes was once again laughed out of the forum of Athens for his slobbering, panting attempts at speech, he was walking in dejection around the port. An actor followed him and caught up. He asked Demosthenes to recite passages from Euripides and Sophocles. Demosthenes recited them. As soon as he stopped, the actor would deliver the same passage, but with full force and feeling, with gesture and emotion.

Demosthenes was so inspired that he built himself a sort of cave underground where he hid for months at a time, just practicing his speech. He shaved one half of his head, then the other, so that he would be too ashamed to come out. With laser-like focus, he stayed in that dungeon and worked on his tongue, his vocal cords, his gestures, his cadence, his logic.

Eventually he came out of his cave and set his hurdles higher. He recited speeches while running up hills. He went to the shore and orated against and over the breaking waves. When even that became easy, he put pebbles under his tongue and then enunciated over the roaring surf. Here he is, as the painter Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ imagined him:

In time, he became the greatest orator, and then the greatest statesman, of his country and time, Athens in the fourth century BCE. It would be Demosthenes who roused the Athenians against the menace of Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.

Were the early failures, setbacks and shortcomings of Joe Biden and Demosthenes impostors, in Kipling‘s sense? Do they belong in my book, which is about how the two impostors, triumph and disaster, work? Stammering, for Biden or Demosthenes, was not a liberating event, as failure was for Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, or Hannibal’s nemesis, the great Scipio. Their stammer was more like a gauntlet that life threw before their soul. Success in life can be about picking such gauntlets up and then going deep, way deep, to find the strength.

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The end of book publishing? Part II

I return to one of my threads, which is: What on earth were you smoking, Andreas, when you decided to write … a book?!?

So this is the second in what promises to become a series of occasional musings about the book industry, the first being here. As you can tell, there is an ongoing tug-of-war in my mind between pessimism and optimism.

Most writers, publishers, agents and even readers froze in shock this January when Steve Jobs, never one to mince words, seemed to sum it up perfectly: “People don’t read anymore.” (He was simultaneously dismissing Amazon’s new Kindle, an electronic book reader, and explaining why Apple does not have anything similar–an iPod for readers, say.) If you need academic gravitas, the National Endowment for the Arts gives the same verdict. (Thanks to Steven Harris, librarian at Utah State University, for the link.) So here I am, writing a book, just as people have stopped reading books. Great.

Now, the irony is that there seem to be more books published every year. I forget the numbers (anybody have a link?), but they are daunting. So we have: Fewer people reading books + more books than ever published. Greeeeat!

Now, I’ve always thought that the picture must be more nuanced. And there are several issues intertwined.

One is the issue of how we read, meaning what format we use. Many of us read more than ever before if you count screens (email etc), but less on paper, especially when it happens to be bound between two hardcovers. For example: More Wikipedia, less dead-tree Encyclopedia Britannica. So some categories and genres of books will disappear, others may disappear, and others yet will simply change, as I argued in The Economist last year; but some categories and genres of book may never change, and may even thrive in this new era. So the trick is to write a book that falls into these genres. Great. Easier said than done.

Another issue is how we read, meaning how our brains process the words. Whether reading online makes us lose the ability to read offline is an intellectually fascinating question. But will or should posterity care?  I doubt it. How many of us today still share the depression of that Renaissance monk who committed suicide because a new technology (Gutenberg’s printing press) had flooded the market–his market!–with a new text medium, leading to a drop in appreciation for monks transcribing Aristotle by hand (as in manuscript) in their monasteries, in between getting sloshed in the brewery vault downstairs?

As a book writer I commiserate with that monk, but I’d rather find a different solution than he did. So, besides writing my book, I’ve decided also to blog, as you may have noticed. The monastery and the printing press, as it were. (With this Californian Cabernet instead of the beer.) I’m hoping that between these two poles–a bound book and an unbound blog about it–some energy will flow. A good book blog can, over time, become something that a physical book can never be: a community, in which the author maintains a conversation with readers and everybody learns from everybody (ideally). My hope is–especially given the book’s topic of life, success, failure, reversal–that all of you will share your stories (by email, comment, whatever). In turn, the physical book, when it comes out, can provide something that a blog is not good for: an immersive and gripping story.

My thoughts about this blog-book alchemy owe a lot to people such as Chris Anderson, a former colleague of mine at The Economist, currently editor of Wired Magazine, and author of The Long Tail–both the book and the blog. He has long been saying that “blogging a book” and even giving much of it away free is enlightened. In part, that’s because, as Tim O’Reilly, a publisher, likes to say, “obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.” And also because, well, why wouldn’t an author seek input from as many people as possible?

But back to the basic conundrum, and to my search for possible solutions. So far we can summarize:

Fewer readers + more books in fewer genres = friggin’ big challenge

What about those genres, though? It’s not about fiction versus non-fiction. But non-fiction books do tend to contain a fifty-page idea that the author must stretch out to 300 pages just to please the publisher, leaving lots of books with 250 unread pages on most people’s shelves, as Seth Godin, an author and blogger, told me in my article on the subject. Good fiction does not face that problem, because it tells stories, and human beings love good stories. So the challenge is really a timeless and old one: to write great stories, whether fiction or non-fiction. Or:

Fewer (but engaged and appreciative) readers + great story with satisfying idea = happy readers + happy author

As Seth Godin said to me in that same interview, right at the end of the article: We are increasingly discovering that books are not artefacts, nor necessarily good vehicles for ideas, but rather “souvenirs of the way we felt” when we read something. A good author has to make you feel something, and then you’ll want the book to remind you of it. I’m giving it a shot.

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Impostor Disaster, part I: Steve Jobs

Back to the book: Remember, the whole book is a long story woven around Rudyard Kipling’s poetic insight that triumph and disaster are impostors. I want to lead up to the main character, Hannibal, with a few other examples, and today Steve Jobs comes to mind. I saw him on a stage last month, launching the new iPhone, and he looked as haggard and emaciated as death. He had had–and, he said, beaten–pancreatic cancer, and everybody in the audience must have been wondering whether it had come back. Now, people are beginning to discuss his mortality more openly, for instance here and here. Jobs talked about his encounter with cancer in a commencement address he gave at Stanford in 2005. I want to talk about that speech, but not about the part where he discusses cancer (which starts at about 8 minutes, 40 seconds), even though it lends my focus some poignancy.

What hit me were his thoughts (from minute 6 to about 8 ) on the biggest failure and disaster in his life (before cancer, that is). Watch:

Just to recap, he founded Apple and it was the passion and meaning of his life, and then, at age thirty, he fell victim to a boardroom coup and was fired from his own company. He was devastated. He spent over a decade drifting from one thing to another, thinking he was lost. But, he says:

I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Soon it turned out that the things he was dabbling in had a meaning that would become clear. In his exile, he founded NeXT, took over Pixar, fell in love and started a family. And then … Apple bought NeXT, and he was back where he belonged, only now changed. In his second coming, Apple would become more successful than he could have dreamed in his first coming, and:

I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith.

I highlighted the words lightness and freed me for a reason. That is because one theme I’m exploring in the book–again, I’m always in search of the wisdom behind Kipling’s impostors–is the potential of disaster or failure to liberate. Liberate from what? I’ll get to that.

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