Sunday, August 23, 2009

Reality Check

For perhaps the first a time, a foreword to a book prevented me from buying it. I was pretty close to buying it. In fact, after thoroughly browsing it, I was bringing the book down the escalator to purchase it. I usually don’t even read forewords, but this one caught my mind. What follows is a discussion about my distaste of that foreword, proceeded by a wider discussion of what matters in life and what doesn't.

The book was Guy Kawasaki’s Reality Check: A compilation of his best work, intended to serve as a comprehensive business start-up manual, an update of his previous publications, and a scattered best-of writings collection.

Kawasaki was one of Macintosh’s first marketers, famous for creating Apple evangelism through ads such as his 1984 spin-off.

His idea, in a nutshell, is that you should try to change the world with your product. Don’t hold back. Don’t be modest.

Moreover, simply from browsing his work, he is undeniably quotable and insightful, a sort of philosopher for ADHD-driven capitalism.

Riding down the escalator, I couldn’t help but notice the foreword, titled Foreword 1.0 followed by Foreword 2.0, both written by “Daniel Lyons, aka Fake Steve Jobs”.

Explaining the reason for publishing an updated Foreword 2.0 for the first edition of the book is a sort of foreword to Foreword 2.0:
What follows is the best foreword in the history of business books. It came about because shortly after Dan wrote the first foreword, he announced that he was discontinuing Fake Steve Jobs. I begged him to write one last piece as Fake Steve Jobs – what an honor that would be for my book! Fortunately, he agreed, and so Reality Check has not one but two forewords.
As you can imagine, I was intrigued, and proceeded to read the 2 forewords. At first they seemed somewhat interesting. Lyons (or whoever) opens by describing Silicon Valley as “the American dream on Red Bull and steroids.” He proceeds to discuss how unique Kawasaki is, essentially asking the reader to take his word that he’s a great guy.

It was Foreword 2.0, however – “the greatest in the history of business books” – that thoroughly turned me off. In it, Lyons brags to the reader that he hasn’t read the book because he doesn’t read books. Elaborating: “I wish this book had been around when I was starting Apple in 1976. I’m sure I wouldn’t have read it, but still it would have been nice if it had been around back then…”

A more played out joke in Foreword 2.0 is that Lyons associates Kawasaki the person with Kawasaki the motorcycle company. In fact, this takes up the majority of Foreword 2.0’s two and a half pages, as Lyons tries to applaud Kawasaki but keeps coming back to motorcycles.

I’m not one to take life too seriously, but there is an underlying current to everything intellectual – I’d expect, least of all, a marketer such as Kawasaki to realize this: That you may glamorize or skew the presentation of any product, but the central piece nonetheless remains the product.

The foreword left a particularly bad taste in my mouth because too often in life people are prone to overlook the underlying content due to less important factors – like when people are more concerned about their ego than the truth, or when leaders become more concerned about power than their driving mission. Had Stalin really been pursuing communism for the common good of his people, then he would have remained in tune with their condition. Bill Gates is not famous because he harnesses the strength of thousands of employees; he is famous for his insight that personal computers may be of use to the average individual, and then acting on that. People come and go, and controlling them is easy; but the truth stays the same.

The distinction between such matters – although hardly clear-cut – is widely recognized in society. It’s reflected in the Biblical distinction between the wheat and the chaff:

He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Luke, 3:16-18)
There’s a sense of not only superficiality, but tragedy when one gets lost chasing the chaff, which is merely the outer cover of the kernel that humans inevitably seek.

Underlying the notion of marketing evangelism, or the bit that I understand of it, isn’t making your product out to be more than it is; rather, it is convincing people of its true worth and its wide-reaching potential impact. The point is not to do this in a kitsch manner – “buy this Hallmark card, it’ll change your life” – but to remain genuine, albeit while pushing the envelope. Afterall, insofar as typing on and programming a computer maybe a daily extension of one’s mind, an alternative operating system really might get you to “think different”.

But opening a book with a person joking around about how he hasn't read the book, but loves the guy, even though his name sounds like motorcycles, certainly does the exact opposite for Kawasaki what “think different” campaigns did for Apple.

I hardly need to expound on the tongue-in-cheek idea of evangelical capitalism - with it's implication being that rifts between commercial operating systems rival those between religions. But in the spirit of not selling ideas short, good products really can change lives for the better, even if they don't quite live up to the salvation of the human soul. Such ideas, if they are to be one's focus, deserve to be treated with a fair amount of respect.


Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Cover of Guy Kawasaki's 2008 book, Reality Check; (2)EC-24MAR08 [103], 05/24/2008, by HYPE; (3)After the harvest, 10/08/2007, Lincolian(Brian);(3)Apple_logo_Think_Different, 12/16/2008, Ballistic Coffee Boy; (4)Baptist Church, 11/18/2006, Thomas Hawk.

Video: (1)1984 Apple's Macintosh Commercial, Sean Collier's channel.
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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Catharsis in the Middle East

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions. (1449[b])

-Aristotle, Poetics
Conflict in the Middle East will probably end in violence. It is difficult to see it going down any other way.

The Economist declares that the Arab World is awaking from a slumber to find itself in the modern world. Such views, common among Western thought these days, are poorly thought out. They may offer some insight, but they ignore the scope and intensity of the underlying problem. More importantly, they offer no solution to it. But however you conceptualize things, ignoring the problems won't make them go away.

The Patronizing View

The Economist writes in a special report on the Arab World:
Imagine an Arab Rip Abu Winkle who had fallen into a deep slumber some time in the early 1980s. If he woke up now, he would rub his eyes in disbelief at how little had changed.
Coming off of Iran’s recent election protests, the magazine’s writers see the Arab World as ripe for political and philosophical change. In the face of the region’s common religious-political charges of heresy, they challenge a Middle Eastern academic to spark an intellectual revolution. Jestingly they conclude:
It turns out the French thinker Voltaire probably never uttered the words so often ascribed to him: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” So the way is clear. Let some Western Muslim sage be the first philosopher to make that pronouncement, and mean it.
The Economist is right to point out the region’s state of transition, but it’s hard to see how the solution lies in a philosophical breakthrough. Furthermore, it's tempting to view the region as absent from the world’s rapid changes over the past 20 years, but the first half of the 20th century saw a similar stagnation in Europe.

Contemporary History

A European Rip Van Winkle who went to sleep after the First World War only to wake up during the Second undoubtedly would’ve had déjà vu. Many of the direct causes of the First World War can be traced further back to the late 1800’s, and its proper resolution lay in the Cold War - all of which arguably stretches the period of European unrest to just shy of a century.

During the years leading up to World War I, Europe has in retrospect been called a powder keg, waiting to explode into violence. It would not be far off to call the modern Arab World a powder keg. And despite the region’s residual violence and ongoing tensions, it doesn’t seem to have exploded yet.

The Arab Rip Abu Winkle who wakes up today should be gravely concerned, similar to the European Rip Van Winkle waking up around World War II. From an outsider’s view – such as The Economist’s – it’s tempting to conclude that nothing has changed in the Arab World; but this cannot be correct from an Arab’s perspective. Dealing with the same issues for nearly 50 years has likely built a huge amount of tension, which has only been released in small doses of short wars, border conflicts, and mini-massacres.

The Arab Rip Abu Winkle who awakes this year, unlike his European counterpart, is unlikely to think that little has changed, as if all of the strife is a trifle annoyance preventing him from getting on with his life. He is more likely to think, "Why do my bloodsucking neighbors still roam the earth?"

What Has Changed

In the meanwhile, the West has thrown all the resources and diplomacy into the region that it can, none of which has had appreciable effect. If the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again without meaningful results, then working on yet another treaty is certainly stupid. By this point wishful diplomacy further carries the risk of alleviating violence in the short-term while failing to solve the underlying problem. Indeed, the longer the underlying problem persists, the more powder is added to the keg.

Disregarding meaningless diplomacy or the rise of an Arab Voltaire, there are a few key factors at play that will determine whether the region falls into bloodshed.

First, the region is getting younger. The baby boomer phenomenon in the West has been echoed throughout the world through dramatic jumps in the average lifespan. Older generations throughout the world are yielding to younger ones. This transition is even further delayed in developed nations, where average lifespan is longest. But it has already occurred in 2nd world areas like the Middle East, where over half the population is entering their 30’s.

The world is just beginning to witness this transition, as seen in Iran’s election protests. The near future of the Middle East rests in the hands of the young. If the region erupts in bloodshed, it will be their doing. If nations lay down their arms, it will be their doing as well.

The protests might signal that the new generation is growing tired of the old regimes, and may consequently be less violent than their ancestors. Moreover, Israel’s culture, in many respects, is known as being surprisingly secular.

But forgetting such violent past grievances is easier said than done. Contemporary history doesn’t suggest that peace will do a good job at burying the hatchet.

A second but less critical factor is the global recession. The Middle Eastern economy is disproportionally reliant on oil, making it overly sensitive to fluctuations in world demand while eschewing other forms of internal economic growth (a phenomenon known as Dutch Disease). Unemployment is particularly high among Arab youth, which further worsens its prospects for peace.

Looking Forward

In a famous piece, American-Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy called Israel the opium of the Middle East; the statement was made in the same sense that Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. She claimed that the conflict has blinded the region from pursuing more virtuous goals by influencing each nation to play the victim.

The conflict certainly has taken their gaze off of more noble aims, but the region is hardly in a pain-free euphoric state, even be it artificially induced. The conflict with Israel is hardly intoxicating, and it hasn't trumped more noble other pursuits simply because it's easier. It's trumped these other pursuits because it has remained red hot with intensity for nearly half a century.

All hope is not lost for a peaceful solution. But whatever that solution may be, it will have to genuinely come from within the region; patchwork external solutions merely risk making things much worse. The greatest source of hope lies in the new younger generation, who are just beginning to take power. At the same time, their young hubris remains an even greater risk for volatility.


Modern day relations between European nations might not seem like anything special, but it's no coincidence that Europe's current peacefulness arrived off the heels of almost a century of cyclical violence and tension. The devastation of two World Wars, followed by the bitter taste of the Cold War, thoroughly purged Europe. The world will have to wait and see whether the Middle East need undergo a similar purging of her own.

But again, tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. (1449[b])

-Aristotle, Poetics

Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Issue cover for July 25th Economist; (2)MontageMain Page; (3)WWI ChartX: A diagrammatic illustration of European political alliances in the period leading up to the First World War, depiction of Europe's preWWI "powder keg" from Wikipedia; (4)Will it ever stop?, 06/28/2009, Clar@bell; (5)TL032318, 06/03/2008, Ava Pearl; (6)Oedipus at Colonus by Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust 1788 French Oil, 11/10/2006, mharrsch. for the World War I Wikipedia.

Music: (1)Video, 10/30/2007 Basketballerke, of the song "Broken Chord Can Sing a Little" from the 05/27/2000 album He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corners of Our Rooms by the band A Silver Mt. Zion.
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