December 10, 2015

The blind spot

Why don't the smart leaders of authoritarian states quash the revolution before it topples them? Some do, like the Chinese in 1989. Others (Assad in Syria) hammer down with all the effectiveness of pounding jello. And then there are those (Gaddafi) who wait too long to get out of Dodge.

On the fictional battlefields of Lord of the Rings, Kate argues that it is indeed believable that Sauron never suspected that his enemies intended to do with the ring what he would not.

Sauron's weakness is his inability to believe that anyone would actually destroy the ring. A military rival is something Sauron dreads yet something he can handle. Consequently, Sauron reads in Gollum the very thing he sees in others and himself: desire for the ring.

A good example of this from military history is Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga came within a hair's breath of uniting Japan under a single, centralized government in the late 16th century. He was larger-than-life in every way and an undeniable military genius.

On the verge of complete victory, he sent his army and right-hand man to western Japan to subdue the fractious Mori Clan, remaining behind in Kyoto with only a small contingent of bodyguards. One of his own beleaguered generals (Et tu, Mitsuhide?) took the opportunity to stage a coup d'état (click to enlarge).

Cornered at Honnoji Temple, Nobunaga (top right) fought
to his death or committed seppuku (accounts differ).

Nobunaga simply couldn't imagine that any of his groveling underlings would get fed up enough with his megalomaniacal personality to actually do to him what he had done to so many others. For all of his strategic smarts, Nobunaga lacked an objective understanding of basic human nature when it counted.

Yes, sometimes the dog bites the hand that feeds it.

In a completely different context, this is the underlying theme of Pirates of Silicon Valley, a docudrama about the early days of the person computer revolution. It begins with Jobs on the set of his famous 1984 commercial, which cast Apple as the rebel overthrowing "Big Brother."

In this telling, "Big Brother" was obviously computer colossus IBM. Jobs was right about IBM, but especially in the early days of Apple, he was no less petty a tyrant, and convinced that he was the only "pirate" in the business. Fixated on IBM, Jobs didn't see Microsoft sneaking up behind him.

Jobs (Noah Wyle) shows off the Macintosh.
A key set of scenes depict the critical moments when XEROX gave the Apple brain trust free access to its Palo Alto Research Center and its groundbreaking "Alto" prototypes, because what threat did this dinky company pose to them? Except that the "Alto" would directly inspire the Macintosh GUI.

Then Jobs turns around and gives Microsoft access to its Macintosh prototypes, because what threat did this dinky company pose to him?

(The cinematic metaphor doesn't quite work in reality because Microsoft was an important applications developer that Apple needed on board, and giving prototypes to important developers is common practice.)

These scenes lead up to the climax in which Jobs accuses Gates of stealing his ideas. Gates calmly observes that they had both stolen from their rich, inattentive neighbor (Xerox PARC).

And then not long after that, Jobs was fired by the very CEO he had hired, John Scully. Jobs would return to Apple a dozen years later build it into the world's biggest company (in terms of market capitalization).

A common failing in these Jobs biopics, Robert Cringley points out, is that they treat this return as triumphant without the necessary context, a deus ex machina that saves the day.

Something happened during Steve's NeXT years that turned Jobs from a brat into a leader, but they don't bother to cover that. In his later years Steve still wasn't an easy guy to know but he was an easier guy to know. His gut for product was still good but his positions were more considered and thought out. He inspired workers without trying so much to dominate or hypnotize them.

Running NeXT (which failed as a business but produced the core code that became OS X) and Pixar taught Jobs how to work with companies (like Disney) and people as dominating and headstrong as himself. Ross Perot was a NeXT investor and John Lasseter was the creative genius at Pixar.

Likewise, it was Tokugawa Ieyasu who finally united Japan twenty years after Nobunaga's death. Ieyasu was a true Machiavellian who understood people, and established a political system designed to endure despite human failings, not only because of human brilliance (click to enlarge).

By convincing key opponents to switch sides, Ieyasu won 
the Battle of Sekigahara before the fighting began.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
Two points:

1) Gates wasn't ignorant of what Xerox was going and, in fact, hired a bunch of ex-Alto leaders/designers. What interesting is that Apple ended with the ones who believe in the non-persistent GUI model and a single menu, while Microsoft ended up with those who believed in a persistent GUI model and the menu attached to the window. This difference has influenced both to this day. (One of the weirdest things about OSX is the truly archaic global menu. It's like having a brand new car with a radio with mechanical push buttons.)

2) I agree that NeXT had a profound influence on Jobs, though probably not how people would imagine. I think NeXT made Jobs realize that lost cost, high quality production mattered. Hardware-wise, NeXT computers were unreliable, overpriced junk.

Oddly, one lesson Jobs didn't learn was that making your system easy for development encouraged development. Mac development has always been painful. NeXT development was a magnitude worse. This is where Gates was brilliant and while Microsoft Developer Network is not what it used to be in many ways, it is so far ahead of ANY other company it still amazes me.
12/10/2015 3:24 PM