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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2954

A Book Review from a local perspective --- Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Book Review by D L O Mendis

A newspaper book review was useful before the advent of the computer. Today such book reviews are all but obsolete because information about books is available ‘online’, the term referring to the electronic media which is essentially computer based information systems. In some instances however, a newspaper book review provides information that online reviews do not have, as in this instance, which is a book review from a Sri Lanka perspective as will be seen.

Many persons in Sri Lanka today are familiar with computers, and a large number would have heard of Steve Jobs, often in association with another computer wizard, Steve Wosniak. Likewise, many readers familiar with the names of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, would have heard the name of Walter Isaacson, the author of two biographies of these two world renowned scientists, who lived centuries apart in the United States of America. In USA, Isaacson is himself a celebrity, as sometime chairman of the news channel CNN, managing editor of Time magazine and CEO of the Aspen Institute, in Colorado. A biography authored by him will always be a good read, and his life of Steve Jobs, fulfils this expectation in ample measure.

Steve Jobs’ biological father Abdulfattah "John" Jandali, was a Syrian student reading political science at the University of Wisconsin where he eventually earned his PhD. His German-Swiss mother, Joanne Carol Schieble, too was a graduate student in the University of Wisconsin, her parents having emigrated to USA. When Steve was born in 1955, his student parents gave their newborn for adoption to foster parents, a skilled auto mechanic, Paul Jobs, who loved to work with his hands, and his loving wife, who was unable to bear a child, which they both desired. They gladly agreed to a proviso that the child should be given every opportunity to achieve high academic goals to emulate his biological parents. Neither of his blue collar foster parents had ever had a chance to aspire to such goals, which they may have desired, and they fulfilled their duties to the utmost of their adopted son’s highest potential. Thus, Steve Jobs loved his de facto parents who were responsible for his upbringing, while his biological parents whom he never really knew, he would refer to somewhat scornfully as “my sperm and egg bank”.

Isaacson starts his memorable biography of Steve Jobs with a brief outline of his background. Steve had studied at Reed College, in Oregon, a five star College on par with the Ivy League universities in the eastern states of USA. From the start he showed originality in his choice of academic subjects, paying little heed to the conventional race for good grades, selecting subjects that aroused his interest instead. It is a tribute to his foster parents that they struggled to support their gifted son in his pursuit of excellence, and in the end their faith was amply rewarded.

Steve Jobs had what Walter Isaacson describes as a “binary way of categorizing things”, an either / or way of thinking. For example, to him a colleague was either “enlightened” or “an asshole”. This writer had a friend from childhood, till he passed away last year in USA, Jega Arulpragasam, who also had this either / or binary tendency. Jega too, was a creative person not unlike Steve Jobs, who made his mark in computers in England, in Canada, and finally in USA.

However, this binary tendency is not generally tolerated among Sri Lankans, neither was it too popular among Steve Jobs’ colleagues, although they respected him for his genius. Isaacson wrote: “Was he smart? No, not exceptionally. Instead he was a genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical….. He was indeed …. someone whose insights come out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power”. This talent was described by one of his colleagues as “Steve has a reality distorting field”, this reference being to an episode in a science fiction film Star Trek “in which aliens create their own new world through sheer mental force”.

According to Walter Isaacson, an important aspect of the development of Steve Jobs’ genius was how it was fine tuned by his exposure to the annual “International Design Conference” in Aspen, Colorado, beginning in June 1981. That year the focus was on Italian design, featuring “the architect-designer Mario Bellini, the filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, the car maker Sergio Pininfarina, and the Fiat heiress and politician Susanna Agnelli”. At this exhibition, Jobs was “exposed to the spare and functional design philosophy of the Bauhaus movement, which was enshrined by Herbert Bayer in the buildings, living suites, sans serif font typography, and furniture, on the Aspen Institute campus”. Beyer followed the design philosophy of his mentors, Walter Gropius (the originator of the Bauhaus in Germany, (1919 - 1928) and Mies van der Rohe one of his successors (1930 - 1933), that there should be no distinction between fine art and applied industrial design. Among their maxims were “God is in the details” and “Less is more”.

Steve Jobs reacted positively to this philosophy, and harmonized with his foster father Paul Jobs the master mechanic who appreciated the finer points in design of motor cars as well as other mechanical devices. As an example, Steve took his biographer Walter Isaacson to see the Mountain View, California, house in which he had lived as a boy, and showed him the stockade fence built 50 years earlier by Paul Jobs, and pointed out its “clean design” and “awesome little features….” “Paul loved doing things right,” Steve said. “He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn’t see,” like the back of a wall-cupboard set against a wall. In the same vein he praised the developer, Joseph Eichler, who had built more than 11,000 homes in California subdivisions, for making an affordable product on a mass-market scale. Eichler had been inspired by the Bauhaus, and Steve Jobs was inspired by the same design philosophy.

All this is very interesting for us, since there have been many learned lectures recently at the Institution of Engineers and elsewhere touching on “innovation”, “creativity”, and “intuition”. First, a Fellow of the Society of Engineers, London, Professor Gehan Amaratunga, lectured on the theme Igniting the Power of Innovation in Sri Lanka, at the Institute of Policy Studies in August 2013. He is the 1966 Professor in Engineering at the University of Cambridge, the chair he has held since 1988. He is concurrently a Professorial Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, and a Founding Adviser to the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology, SLINTEC in Moratuwa. In September, Deshamanaya Dr Mahesh Amalean, a trained Chemical engineer, turned business entrepreneur delivered the third Ray Wijewardene memorial lecture at the Institution of Engineers on “Innovation through the eyes of an Entrepreneur”, which was his personal story. He summed it all up in one word CURIOUSITY, together with the statement: “Invention becomes Innovation when an Entrepreneur comes in”. The third lecture will be the Dr A N S Kulasinghe memorial lecture that will be delivered at the Institution of Engineers on October 26, 2013 by Engineer Gratian A. Peiris on The Need for an Integrated Development Framework for Sri Lanka.

These lectures on modern themes, also indirectly revive interest in our traditional engineering heritage that we take for granted, featuring the ancient irrigation works, and the magnificent Buddhist stupas and statues seen all over the country. The ancient so-called hydraulic civilization that had evolved in harmony with nature was studied and documented in colonial times by scholars like the surveyor R L Brohier and the engineer S Arumugam, and others. Their published works should be mandatory study for all students in Sri Lanka schools today, so as to wean them away from a tendency to be over impressed by the baubles of modern invention in the form of television and other applications of electronics. They will then understand in depth the true genius of the likes of Steve Jobs, Gehan Amaratunga, and Mahesh Amalean, and the hardware and software created by them, especially so when they come to appreciate the skills of our own blue collar workers. Placed in context, many of our workers are the equivalent of Paul Jobs. But, they remain at a much lower level in our stratified society, than we engineers.

Professor Valentine Basnayake, as President of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science in 1996, held a Seminar on Aesthetics in Science to discuss “three factors that produce joy in science, one set connected with conduct of the scientific work, including perception of orderliness and pattern, and flashes of insight, another set connected with subsequent fate of the work including applause by the scientific community and the public, and a third set called scientific appreciation enhanced by knowledge of the relevant scientific background’. (SLAAS, 1996). Professor Basnayake invited five SLAAS scientists in 1996, to make presentations about their own personal experiences of these three aspects, and this writer was one of those invited. That contribution was later supplemented with two annexes for Professor Basnayake’s Professor A C E Koch memorial lecture in 2001. [Evolution and development of Water and Soil]

Walter Isaacson wrote: “Mr. Jobs, the brilliant and protean creator whose inventions so utterly transformed the allure of technology, turned those childhood lessons into an all-purpose theory of intelligent design”. It may be added that Steve Jobs had a sympathetic affinity to his fellow men who were not so fortunate as himself. In this respect, he demonstrated a trait that had been immortalized in another way, in another context, in an earlier age, by Ernesto Che Guevera:

“After receiving my degree I began to travel through Latin America. Except for Haiti and the Dominican Republic, I have visited – in one way or another – all the countries of Latin America. In the way I travelled, first as a student and afterward as a doctor, I began to come into close contact with poverty, with hunger, with disease, with the inability to cure a child because of a lack of resources …… And I began to see there was something that, at that time, seemed to me almost as important as being a famous researcher or making some substantial contribution to medical science, and this was helping those people”. (From The Motor Cycle Diaries, 1960 – Notes on a Latin American Journey by Ernesto Che Guevera, p. 84: Appendix: “A Child of my Environment”).

In a coincidence of sorts, a 1970’s bestseller book: “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values” by Robert Persig, was gifted to me by my son. At that time I owned and rode a Norton 500 cc motor cycle, the model Che Guevera rode with his friend Alberto Granado on the pillion, in the first stage of their memorable trip through south America, before it broke down, after which they continued their odyssey, hitch hiking. Coincidentally, Persig wrote in this book: “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha - which is to demean oneself.” Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

In passing, there is a popular anecdote about how Fidel Castro and his small band of fighters were discussing how to set up a planning ministry in Cuba after their armed assault in the Sierra Madeira had succeeded. Fidel had asked if any among them was an ‘economista?’, and Che had replied that he was one. Surprised, Fidel exclaimed “Surely, you are a medical doctor, not an economista!” And Che had replied “Oh! did you say ‘economista’ I thought you said ‘communista!”. (I am told that this sounds much better when spoken in the original Spanish). As is well known, Che Guevera was committed to uplifting the poor in the grossly unequal societies in Latin America. He helped Fidel Castro and other Cubans to overthrow the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Even U S President John F Kennedy has gone on record saying:

I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country's policies during the Batista regime. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear”. U.S. President John F. Kennedy, to Jean Daniel, October 24, 1963.

In this context it is unfortunate that here in Sri Lanka the Che ideology was followed literally by disgruntled youth, who took up arms not once but twice, to try to win political power from democratically elected governments, in the early 1970s, and again in the late 1980s. Both attempted insurrections failed, but at tremendous cost, when thousands of youth were killed.

Thereafter there was a separatist ethnic conflict that lasted for nearly three decades. Even today, in the early new millennium, there may be a similar state of mind among some Sri Lanka youth. This is in spite of, or perhaps because of rapid economic growth in a few sectors, like tourism and services, that widens the gap between the haves and the have-nots in our society, resulting from the effort to catch up after a long period of economic stagnation on account of civil conflict.

It may be argued that Steve Jobs was motivated in a similar manner as Che Guevera. However, Steve’s story is based in the context of the unequal distribution of privilege and wealth in USA, unlike the far more cruel, unequal distribution of wealth, and the exploitation of vast natural resources, in Latin American countries. Che, in Latin America followed the ideological path of revolution, while Steve Jobs in USA followed the cultural resistance of the musician Bob Dylan. Dylan’s impact on youth is well documented in books by the likes of Sean Wilentz who discovered Bob Dylan's music as a teenager growing up in Greenwich Village, New York. Now a Professor of History at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1979, he “revisits Dylan's work with the skills of an eminent American historian as well as the passion of a fan”.

Steve Jobs also discovered Buddhist philosophy, and tried to practice Zen Buddhism as he understood it. He spent a lot of time walking barefoot when discussing practical matters with his colleagues, and visitors. He also wore the yellow robes of a bhikkhu, and undertook a visit to India, with a girl friend, to meet an ideological ‘guru’ or Maharishi. Walking while engaged in serious discussion was akin to the practice of walking meditation in Buddhism, although the pilgrimage to India with a partner was hardly a comparable event. It is a matter for regret that Steve Jobs did not ever visit Ceylon, as we were till 1972, or Sri Lanka thereafter. Had he done so, as the gifted Chilean poet Pablo Neruda who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 did in the 1930s, who knows what may have been the result. For example, he may even have inspired our national development efforts in ways that would have prevented the two futile insurrections undertaken by disgruntled youth mentioned above. (In passing, Pablo Neruda was the pen name and, later, legal name of the Chilean poet, diplomat and politician Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. He chose his pen name after the Czech poet Jan Neruda).

In India, an important anniversary is celebrated every October that should have interested Steve: October 14, 1956, the day when Dr B R Ambedkar, the first President of India, and an incredible three lakhs of his followers were converted to Buddhism at a place in Nagpur which is now called Deeksha Bhoomi. Lakhs of Dalits across India gather at the place to remember their “Babasaheb” and to celebrate the Dhammachakra Pravartan Din. (The Hindu, October 14, 2013). Apart from Babasaheb Ambdekar, it is appropriate to mention Che Guevera, and Steve Jobs, together, in a book review of Walter Isaacson’s life of Steve Jobs, because October 8, 2011 was the day when Che was captured by Bolivian military forces while trying to start a revolution in Bolivia. He was killed on October 9, which date is now recognized as a day to celebrate the lives of martyrs in Latin America.

As for Steve Jobs, October 5, 2011 was the date of his untimely death due to recurring cancer, “with members of his family around him, touching him” as Walter Isaacson wrote. Then on October 16, a formal memorial service was held in Stanford’s Memorial Church attended by a hundred or so guests including US VIPP, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Bill Gates and Larry Page, among others. Three days later another service was held on the Apple campus in Palo Alto, California, where Steve Job’s own voice in a recording, “wafted over the crowd: ‘Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently’ ” as Isaacson wrote.

October 2013, the world of computer geeks would remember Steve Jobs with the admiration that his unique life and work evokes in computer aficionados of all ages. Such persons know the bare facts of his life, especially how his lifelong friendship with Steve Wozniak, began in his father’s garage in Palo Alto. Woz as he was known, was five years senior to Steve Jobs, and was temperamentally quite the opposite of his friend. Woz was scrupulously honest in word and deed, while Steve tended to change his opinion according to his binary style, oft times starting with condemnation of another’s creative idea, and later even developing it as his own! Nevertheless both Woz and Steve harmonized in their creative work together with remarkable achievements in the development of a variety of electronic devices, as is well known. More details are available “online” for those interested.

There had been public protests by the local Baptist church against Steve Jobs’ funeral because he was not a Christian. There had even been persons ‘in yellow robes’, obviously Buddhist priests, for whom police protection had been provided. According to Walter Issacson, among tributes at the memorial service on October 16, 2011 had been the singing of “Swing low sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home” by Joan Baez, one of Steve’s former dating partners. After reading about this, what crossed this writer’s mind was another line of the song: “I looked over Jordan and what did I see, coming for to carry me home, a band of angels coming after me……” The fact that the river Jordan passes through Syria, the birthplace of Steve’s biological father came home to me.

Incidentally, I had met Joan’s father Albert Baez, the world famous physicist, at a Pugwash conference in Stanford University, CA, in 1987. He was of Cuban origin, but he had worked in advanced physics in Baghdad, in Iraq, and his participation in Pugwash was as a world renowned physicist. My brother Eustace, a physicist himself, was in Mountain View, California at that time, as founder Executive Director of the Silicon Valley Science Centre in San Jose. Eustace and I visited Albert Baez at his home in Woodside, CA, where he related stories about his famous daughter, and joked that he was used to even being introduced as Joan Baez’ father!


This essay was written in Seattle, Washington state, USA during the past two weeks, as this great country was going through an unprecedented experience, a shutdown of the government. A few hours ago a total collapse was barely averted with a Resolution in the House of Representatives carried by 285 votes to 144 barely a hour before the deadline of 12 midnight on October 16, 2013. In a House of 432 elected members a simple majority of 217 votes was required, and this was achieved comfortably.

- Asian Tribune –

Cover of the book "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson.
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