In 2010, Der Spiegel published a glowing profile of Steve Jobs, then at the helm of Apple. Jobs’s products are venerated in Germany, especially by young bohemian types. Recently, the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg presented an exhibition of Apple’s products, with the grandiloquent subtitle “On Electro-Design that Makes History”—a good indication of the country’s infatuation with the company. Jobs and Jony Ive, Apple’s extraordinary chief of design, have always acknowledged their debt to Braun, a once-mighty German manufacturer of radios, record players, and coffeemakers. The similarity between Braun’s gadgets from the 1960s and Apple’s gadgets is quite uncanny. It took a Syrian-American college dropout—a self-proclaimed devotee of India, Japan, and Buddhism—to make the world appreciate the virtues of sleek and solid German design. (Braun itself was not so lucky: in 1967 it was absorbed into the Gillette Group, and ended up manufacturing toothbrushes.)
The piece about Jobs in Der Spiegel shed no light on his personality, but it stood out for two reasons. The first was its title: “Der Philosoph des 21 Jahrhunderts,” or “The Philosopher of the Twenty-First Century.” The second was the paucity of evidence to back up such an astonishing claim. Jobs’s status as a philosopher seems to have been self-evident. It is hard to think of any other big-name CEO who could win such an accolade, and from an earnest German magazine that used to publish long interviews with Heidegger. So was Steve Jobs a philosopher who strove to change the world rather than merely interpret it? Or was he a marketing genius who turned an ordinary company into a mythical cult, while he himself was busy settling old scores and serving the demands of his titanic ego?
There are few traces of Jobs the philosopher in Walter Isaacson’s immensely detailed and pedestrian biography of the man. Isaacson draws liberally on previously published biographies, and on dozens of interviews that Jobs gave to the national media since the early 1980s. He himself conducted many interviews with Jobs (who proposed the project to Isaacson), and with his numerous colleagues, enemies, and disciples, but as one nears the end of this large book it’s hard not to wonder what it was that Isaacson and Jobs actually talked about on those walks around Palo Alto. Small anecdotes abound, but weren’t there big themes to discuss?
That the book contains few earth-shattering revelations is not necessarily Isaacson’s fault. Apple-watching is an industry: there exists an apparently insatiable demand for books and articles about the company. Apple-focused blogs regularly brim with rumors and speculation. Ever since its founding—but especially in the last decade, when Apple-worship reached its apogee—Apple has been living under the kind of intense public scrutiny that is usually reserved for presidents. Jobs relished such attention, but only if it came on his own terms. He did his best to manage Apple’s media coverage, and was not above calling influential tech reporters and convincing them to write what he wanted the world to hear. Not only did Jobs build a cult around his company, he also ensured that it had its own print outlets: Apple’s generous subsidy allowed Macworld—the first magazine to cover all things Apple—to come into being and eventually spawn a genre of its own.
As Isaacson makes clear, Jobs was not a particularly nice man, nor did he want to be one. The more diplomatic of Apple’s followers might say that Steve Jobs—bloodthirsty vegetarian, combative Buddhist—lived a life of paradoxes. A less generous assessment would be that he was an unprincipled opportunist-a brilliant but restless chameleon. For Jobs, consistency was truly the hobgoblin of little minds (he saw little minds everywhere he looked) and he did his best to prove Emerson’s maxim in his own life. He hung a pirate flag on the top of his team’s building, proclaiming that “it is better to be a pirate than to join the Navy,” only to condemn Internet piracy as theft several decades later. He waxed lyrical about his love for calligraphy, only to destroy the stylus as an input device. He talked up the virtues of contemplation and meditation, but did everything he could to shorten the time it takes to boot an Apple computer. (For a Buddhist, what’s the rush?) He sought to liberate individual users from the thrall of big businesses such as IBM, and then partnered with IBM and expressed his desire to work only with “corporate America.” A simplifier with ascetic tendencies, he demanded that Apple’s board give him a personal jet so that he could take his family to Hawaii. He claimed he was not in it for the money and asked for a salary of just $1, but he got into trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission for having his stock options—in a move that gave him millions—backdated. He tried to convince his girlfriend that “it was important to avoid attachment to material objects,” but he built a company that created a fetish out of material objects. He considered going to a monastery in Japan, but declared that, were it not for computers, he would be a poet in the exceedingly unmonastic city of Paris.
How serious was he about that monastery thing? Isaacson recounts well-known anecdotes of Jobs’s quest for spirituality and seems to take them all (and many other things) at face value. The story of Jobs’s youth—his pilgrimage to India, the time he spent living on a farm commune, his fascination with primal scream therapy—does suggest that his interest in spirituality was more than a passing fad. But how long did it last, exactly? Did the more mature Jobs, the ruthless capitalist, feel as strongly about spirituality as his younger self did? Surely there were good reasons for the mature Jobs to cultivate the image of a deeply spiritual person: Buddhism is more than just a religion in America, it is also a brand. And one of Apple’s great accomplishments was to confer upon its devices a kind of spiritual veneer.
Jobs was quite candid about his vanishing interest in matters of spirituality as early as 1985. When a Newsweek reporter inquired if it was true that he had considered going to a monastery in Japan, Jobs gave a frank answer: “I’m glad I didn’t do that. I know this is going to sound really, really corny. But I feel like I’m an American, and I was born here. And the fate of the world is in America’s hands right now. I really feel that. And you know I’m going to live my life here and do what I can to help.” In a more recent interview withEsquire he claimed that he did not pursue the monastery route in part because he saw fewer and fewer differences between living in the East and working at Apple: “Ultimately, it was the same thing.”
Jobs’s engagement with politics was quite marginal—so marginal that, except for him lecturing Obama on how to reset the country, there are few glimpses of politics in this book. He did not hold politicians in anything like awe. We see him trying to sell a computer to the king of Spain at a party, and asking Bill Clinton if he could put in a word with Tom Hanks to get him to do some work for Jobs. (Clinton declined.) When he was ousted from Apple, Jobs may have flirted with the idea of running for office but was probably discouraged by all the pandering it required. “Do we have to go through that political bullshit to get elected governor?” he reportedly asked his publicist. In an interview with Business Week in 1984, he confessed that “I’m not political. I’m not party-oriented, I’m people-oriented.”
But “not political” may be the wrong term to describe him. There is a curious passage in his interview with Wired, in 1996, where he notes:
When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth…
Brain in a box: Henry Markram wants €1 billion to model the entire human brain. Sceptics don’t think he should get it.
February 28, 2012
It wasn’t quite the lynching that Henry Markram had expected. But the barrage of sceptical comments from his fellow neuroscientists — “It’s crap,” said one — definitely made the day feel like a tribunal.
Officially, the Swiss Academy of Sciences meeting in Bern on 20 January was an overview of large-scale computer modelling in neuroscience. Unofficially, it was neuroscientists’ first real chance to get answers about Markram’s controversial proposal for the Human Brain Project (HBP) — an effort to build a supercomputer simulation that integrates everything known about the human brain, from the structures of ion channels in neural cell membranes up to mechanisms behind conscious decision-making.
Markram, a South-African-born brain electrophysiologist who joined the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) a decade ago, may soon see his ambition fulfilled. The project is one of six finalists vying to win €1 billion (US$1.3 billion) as one of the European Union’s two new decade-long Flagship initiatives.
“Brain researchers are generating 60,000 papers per year,” said Markram as he explained the concept in Bern. “They’re all beautiful, fantastic studies — but all focused on their one little corner: this molecule, this brain region, this function, this map.” The HBP would integrate these discoveries, he said, and create models to explore how neural circuits are organized, and how they give rise to behaviour and cognition — among the deepest mysteries in neuroscience. Ultimately, said Markram, the HBP would even help researchers to grapple with disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. “If we don’t have an integrated view, we won’t understand these diseases,” he declared.
As the response at the meeting made clear, however, there is deep unease about Markram’s vision. Many neuroscientists think it is ill-conceived, not least because Markram’s idiosyncratic approach to brain simulation strikes them as grotesquely cumbersome and over-detailed. They see the HBP as overhyped, thanks to breathless media reports about what it will accomplish. And they’re not at all sure that they can trust Markram to run a project that is truly open to other ideas.
“We need variance in neuroscience,” declared Rodney Douglas, co-director of the Institute for Neuroinformatics (INI), a joint initiative of the University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich). Given how little is known about the brain, he said, “we need as many different people expressing as many different ideas as possible” — a diversity that would be threatened if so much scarce neuroscience research money were to be diverted into a single endeavour.
Markram was undeterred. Right now, he argued, neuroscientists have no plan for achieving a comprehensive understanding of the brain. “So this is the plan,” he said. “Build unifying models.”
Markram’s big idea
Markram has been on a quest for unity since at least 1980, when he began undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He abandoned his first field of study, psychiatry, when he decided that it was mainly about putting people into diagnostic pigeonholes and medicating them accordingly. “This was never going to tell us how the brain worked,” he recalled in Bern.
His search for a new direction led Markram to the laboratory of Douglas, then a young neuroscientist at Cape Town. Markram was enthralled. “I said, ‘That’s it! For the rest of my life, I’m going to dig into the brain and understand how it works, down to the smallest detail we can possibly find.’”
That enthusiasm carried Markram to a PhD at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel; to postdoctoral stints at the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany; and, in 1995, to a faculty position at Weizmann. He earned a formidable reputation as an experimenter, notably demonstrating spike-timing-dependent plasticity — in which the strength of neural connections changes according to when impulses arrive and leave.
By the mid-1990s, individual discoveries were leaving him dissatisfied. “I realized I could be doing this for the next 25, 30 years of my career, and it was still not going to help me understand how the brain works,” he said.
To do better, he reasoned, neuroscientists would have to pool their discoveries systematically. Every experiment at least tacitly involves a model, whether it is the molecular structure of an ion channel or the dynamics of a cortical circuit. With computers, Markram realized, you could encode all of those models explicitly and get them to work together. That would help researchers to find the gaps and contradictions in their knowledge and identify the experiments needed to resolve them…
February 28, 2012
This weekend, the fracas over foreigners in Cairo is set to escalate when hearings begin against 43 workers (including 16 U.S. citizens) charged with operating without a license, receiving unauthorized foreign funds, and engaging in political activity. The drama is seven months in the making. Last July, Egypt’s Ministry of Justice opened an investigation into the activities and funding of numerous (possibly as many as 400) nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The move came at the behest of Fayza Abul Naga, minister of planning and international cooperation. In the months that followed, her department refused to officially state or confirm any details of the wide-ranging probe. Then, in late December, Egyptian security forces raided the offices of several of the NGOs under investigation. And what began as an effort by one Egyptian minister to assert her control has turned into a game of international brinkmanship that has the potential to upend the security calculus of the Middle East.
After tensions escalated in December, numerous members of Congress made clear that the actions of the Egyptian government could jeopardize the annual $1.55 billion aid package to Egypt — the United States’ second largest, after the $3.1 billion it gives Israel annually. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) introduced a resolution calling for an immediate end to the harassment and prosecution of NGO staff. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went much further when he introduced legislation that would suspend all U.S. aid to Egypt until the matter is resolved. On Monday, a group of U.S. senators including John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) visited Cairo to meet with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and other Egyptian leaders, trying to relieve some of the tension. They returned home with optimistic messages, suggesting that the Egyptian brass offered strong assurances of a swift resolution to the impasse.
How much faith Washington can put in those assurances, however, remains to be seen. Fueling the United States’ impatience have been Cairo’s confusing, and often conflicting, messages. Unlike the Mubarak era, when there were relatively clear lines of command, the past year in Egypt has been marked by the rapid emergence of multiple centers of power competing for political control. Egypt’s actual foreign policy has been almost indecipherable. For example, after security forces raided the NGO offices, top Egyptian officials, including Tantawi, Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri, and Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr, were quick to assure the United States that the maltreatment of U.S. citizens would cease, that all seized materials would be immediately returned, and that the offices would be able to reopen. Six weeks later, those have proved to be empty promises.
Conversations in Washington reveal that U.S. officials, by and large, do not believe that their counterparts in Cairo are being intentionally deceptive — they assume that the Egyptians have simply promised more than they can deliver. For years, Abul Naga, who is one of the few top officials remaining from the days of Mubarak, has been opposed to any foreign funding that bypassed her ministry. And now she seems to be targeting U.S. influence specifically. Last week, the Egyptian press quoted Abul Naga as having portrayed the U.S. as trying to hijack Egypt’s revolution. “The United States decided to use all its resources and instruments to contain [the January 25 revolution],” the government’s official news agency, MENA, quoted her as saying, “and push it in a direction that promotes American and also Israeli interests.”
But her charges against the NGOs ring hollow. For instance, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute have made more than reasonable efforts to comply with Egyptian law. Both groups applied for registration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2005 and have communicated regularly with the authorities about their activities and programs ever since. Both groups were told repeatedly that their registration would be granted, but it never was and no explanation was given. This experience is characteristic of that of many other organizations that have focused on politically sensitive issues, while groups with more innocuous goals have had their registration granted promptly. It is disingenuous for the Egyptian government to refuse to grant U.S. NGOs registration on political grounds and then claim that the investigation against them is an apolitical matter for the judiciary. Moreover, that many other international organizations operate in Egypt today without official registration underscores the selective, political nature of these attacks.
Members of Egypt’s ruling military council have generally avoided the issue in public, perhaps in order to give them plausible deniability with Washington. Privately, they consistently argue to U.S. officials that they cannot intervene in independent judicial processes. But even if the generals are not the driving force behind the crackdown, it is quite unlikely that the investigation could have moved forward without their support. The military has held executive authority and ultimate decision-making power for the past year — all cabinet ministers were appointed by the generals and report to them…
February 28, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.