Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Steve Jobs

This is an extemely fascinating biography of one of the icons of the 20th and 21st centuries. Yes, his life straddled 2 millienia, and he obtained fame in both. Last century, he, with Steve Wozniak, founded Apple Computers, which went on to become wildly successful. In his "Second Coming" towards the end of the last century into the 21st, he reinvented Apple as a company of mobile products which paved the way for Apple to become the most valuable company on earth in this new millenium. Steve Jobs has always viewed Apple as a products company. And his product design philosophy is that it must be simple, beautify and closed. Because of this strategy, and the creative people he goaded to produce of their best eventually created the most beautiful products on planet earth - think iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBook, and before that, the wildly successful Apple ][. Steve Jobs, however, never considered the Apple ][ as his product. That would be the Macintosh computer, which though it introduced many innovative technologies (the graphical user interface, the mouse) flopped as a product.

Yes, Steve Jobs was not perfect even though he demanded perfection in whatever he built. Some people who worked on the original Macintosh computer burnt out working with/for him, as the chronicler, Walter Isaacson, related in the biography of Jobs, simply titled "Steve Jobs".  Isaacson is brutally frank about Mr Jobs in this book. Fortunately, Jobs left him to write whatever he thought he should, and Isaacson did just that, warts and all. It is a very fascinating account. I grew up looking envious at his Apple machines while I bought and used the more affordable IBM-compatible PCs, and wondered about the man. But he was a very private person although he did behave in ways that people either loved him or hated him. Some loved him and then hated him, but strangely never the other way around. Those are the kinds of emotions that one has to go through with him, his wife not excepted.

Jobs was charming, selfish, and spoilt. His exacting ways resulted in highly innovative products that has made fanatics of Apple products the world over. That said, Jobs never always produced the things that became successful. And not all the things that he produced succeeded. Ultimately, his genius was to surround himself with highly creative people, such as John Lasseter of Pixar and Jonathan Ive of Apple, to work his magic through them. All  the rest were bozos to him.

Unfortunately he was so driven that he failed to heed warnings about his health. Some thought that his health was permanently damaged by him running 2 very successful companies - Apple and Pixar - at the same time. But I suppose he wouldn't have had it any other way. He was not a person who listened to others easily. Unfortunately, his strict dieting habits, acquired since young, also contributed to his failing body.

Brilliant as he was, he had to battle the emotional hurt he suffered all his life from the knowledge that he was an abandoned child. One wished he had been able to overcome it, but he never did. This is perhaps the saddest part of an otherwise eventful and creative life. He had done it all. No regrets. RIP.

P.S. I still don't own any Apple product.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Why and wherefore

Singapore's President SR Nathan will be leaving office in 10 days' time. His last day as President is the 31st of August 2011. He has served the longest of all the Presidents Singapore has had - 12 unbroken years (well there was the matter of his re-election 6 years ago, but he was returned un-opposed). His Presidency has, by all measures, been a successful one. Of course, there are detractors, people who think that his actions (or in-actions) as President has lowered his standing among all previous Presidents. But these, in my opinion, are not the majority view. During his presidency, Mr Nathan has written a short book on his time as a Seaman's Welfare Officer in the 1950s. He had graduated from the University of Malaya. He wrote that the reason why he got the job was because he had written about Seamans in Singapore. The post was a new one and in the first few years, Mr Nathan shared the responsibilities with fellow civil servant, Mr Goh Sin Tub. Gradually he defined his own work, which was to help one and all Singapore seafarers with their problems, which ranged from lodging, meals, unemployment to unfair treatment by their employers. He has spent a fair amount of time describing the social situation of Singapore seafarers, and occasionally about foreign seafarers stuck in Singapore, and the challenges and hardships they faced.

Mr Nathan gives some anecdotes of seamen and their families that he had helped, and described how these same people have risen in their social standing in life. This is an easy-to-read book, and absorbing in its contents, if only because it describes real situations and real people. I used to live in the Singapore Naval Base, and as a youth, have had neighbours who sailed the seas for a living. While many had fathers around every day, like mine, these others will be gone a considerable length of time. They are sailing the seas, I am told. I even wrote an essay in Primary school about my ambition - to be a sailor - without quite realizing the harsh and hard life of a sailor - people that had often to turn to others, like Mr Nathan, for help.

Why the title of the book "Why am I here?" I thought it wasn't such as great title at first. I mean, all of us would ask that question of ourselves. A book that focuses only on a few years of one's life hardly qualifies for a biography. But as it turns out, that question helped to define Mr Nathan's years of service, not only as a Seaman's Welfare Officer, but also as an Ambassador, and ultimately, the President of Singapore. Read this book to find out how exactly he learnt to ask that question.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Quagmire

Bob Woodward's name, in my mind, is synonymous with Nixon and Watergate. He is a chronicler of US government and US Presidents ever since his book, "All the President's Men", documented the Watergate affair. Since then, he has written about the Presidencies of Clinton, Bush Snr and Bush Jnr and most recent about President Obama. Of course President Obama's term in office is hardly over. Woodward's book, "Obama's Wars" is about the wars that the President has had to fight in 2008-2009. Specifically these wars refer to the left-over conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. More specifically, it is about Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book describes in detail the involvement of the many people around Obama, whose jobs were to figure out how to get the US out of the Afghanistan quagmire. The main players in the White House, besides Obama himself, includes the Secretary of State, Mrs Hiilary Clinton, VP Joe Biden and White House staffers such as Rahm Emmanuel and David Axelrod. The National Security Council (NSC) consisting of General James Jones, Admiral Mullen and their deputies formed another "division" in the war deliberations. The US Department of Defense is represented by the able and just retired Robert Gates, and his field commanders Generals McKiernan, McChrystal, and Petraeus formed a formidable 3rd division. On the opposing side, are President Hamid Kazai of Afghanistan, and President Zardari of Pakistan. The reasons for all these wars, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, remained largely a black box in the narrative.

Quite beyond these names are the accounts of the almost day-to-day issues that swirled around the conduct of the Afghanistan war during the years 2008-2009. Indeed the account rarely mentions the year, just the day and the month as events moved along. This is a fascinating study, if nothing else, into the workings of the US government White House at the very highest levels. Woodward writes it as it as he sees it - the various actors, their actions, concerns and fears, and the often swaying discussions on the Afghan war. The narrative draws out the often conflicting strategies of the military and the government towards a common objective. This "common objective" itself was deliberated over quite extensively, as described in the book.

Its a long and detailed narrative. One cannot help but feel what Woodward thought about certain people, such as Biden, whom he describes as being long-winded and and tended to be unfocused during the many strategy review meetings described in the book. General Petraeus was quoted as saying the "vice president tended to get lost in his own verbiage...". One gets the impression that Joe Biden wasn't a very lucid thinker. But he had been asked from the beginning by Obama to play the devil's advocate, be the "contrarian". This book is full of such personal observations, some of which may not be flattering at all. So if you want to know a bit more about what people thought about other people in this book, and the process by which Obama ordered a surge and set a timeframe for the eventual pullout of American troops from Afghanistan, this book would satisfy that curiosity.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

The Big Short

The name "Michael Lewis" is always a draw when it comes to 'storybooks' about the finance industry, particularly the bond markets. I first read him in 'Liar's Poker', perhaps his most famous, and hilarious, book on the goings on in the now defunct Saloman Brothers. Since then Mr Lewis has gone on to write more books, the latest of which is "The Big Short", which is billed as a  true story. Unlike many books on the Financial Crisis that plagued the world in the 2007-2008 period, Lewis writes intimately about the people caught up in the maelstrom. He is a good story teller, which is why his books are popular. "The Big Short" tells the stories of several protagonists - investors and small time fund managers, who placed bets against the prevailing sentiment that the sub-prime mortgage market would never crash. Their stories were about a search for information, for clarification, for understanding the behaviour of the markets that had basically malfunctioned. That is the polite way of putting it. In fact, as our protagonists were to discover, the entire financial system had gone to the dogs. Nobody in the big Wall Street Investment Banks (including Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, and yes, Lehman Brothers) cared that what they were doing, selling 'crappy bonds' to unsuspecting investors, was anything but ethical. The abuse of trust and the greed has been documented widely since then.

In the telling of the stories of individuals' search for truth about the innovative investment products coming out of Wall Street, Lewis points the finger straight at the ratings agencies, Standard & Poor and Moody's, for facilitating the widespread fraud that culminated in the eventual collapse of such names as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, with hallowed institutions such as AIG and Citigroup needing vast infusion of cash from the US government to stay afloat. All these are the stuff of legends now.

The Big Short relates how a few investors, would be fund managers, decided that the sub-prime mortgage market, which spawned the now notorious CDOs (Collaterised Debt Obligations), was bound to fail one day, when people start to default on their mortgage loans which they could not afford in the first place. When this would happen in a Wall Street flushed with CDOs was the great unknown. By conventional wisdom, mortgage repayments carried little risk of defaulting, so any investment product based on these mortgages would also carry little risk. And the ratings agencies gave them their stamp of approval, without understanding the complexity of the CDOs.

True enough, our protagonists were proven correct at the end, which netted them not a small sum of money. The book can be heavy going at some points as Lewis tries to explain the more technical aspects of investments in bonds. He readily admits that the subject is not simple, and this perhaps has taken the enjoyment out of reading Lewis this time around. Perseverance is needed, but at the end of it, it is still a good story.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Crisis upon crisis

Intentionally or not, I have been picking up books on the financial crisis of 2008. First there was "Fool's Gold", a largely US-centric account on Investment banks, such as JP Morgan,  "The Crunch" which is a British-centric account around Norther Rock. And then there is that all-rounded discussion by Prof Paul Krugman in "The Return of Depression Economics", where his analysis of the financial crisis spanned the times and the globe, from the Latin American crises in the 1980s to Mexico in the 1980s and 90s, and forward to the Asian financial crisis in 1997, arriving at the most recent crisis in 2008. Such a broad survey linking common and originating factors illustrates the truth of Solomon's wisdom, that there is no new thing under the Sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). His is a unique account among a sea of books that have already been written on the same subject.

The latest I have read is Fintan O'Toole's "Ship of Fools", which, if nothing, is a damning account of the Celtic-Tiger years in Ireland. (The term, "Celtic-Tiger" is taken from the term, 'Asian Tiger' referring to Singapore, Hong Kong, S Korea and Taiwan that experience rapid economic growth and development between 1960 and 1990). Though Ireland also experienced rapid economic growth towards the end of the 1990s and into the first decade of the new century, the account in this book focuses, quite unflatteringly, on the almost pervasive corruption and incompetence of the powers that be in the very highest of government and society (read: bankers, and property developers).

My prior impression of Ireland is that illustrated by the Irish-American Frank McCourt's in his award-winning book, "Angela's Ashes". The book was depressing reading because it described an Ireland that was poor and hopeless. So much so that, as Mr O'Toole pointed out in his book, one of the things that characterized the Irish people is emigration - away from Ireland, for good.

For almost a decade, Ireland seemed to have gotten itself out of its depressing cycle of civil conflict, poverty and depression. Electronic giants such as Intel, Motorola, and Apple made a bee-line for Ireland to set up a significant presence. Ireland's economic growth became the stuff of legends and impressive case studies in management literature.

But the statistics have lied. And while the industries are real, lured to the island through generous tax incentives, the over-priced properties that came up in those years were a mirage. The account does not attempt to hide Mr O'Toole's contempt for the character and integrity, or more precisely, a lack of these qualities in people like Bertie Ahern, erstwhile PM of Ireland in the Celtic-Tiger years and his fellow government ministers. Names have been named in the book, and it doesn't need to be repeated here. I have no personal interest in what happens in Ireland, but it is incredible that a country can fall into such a state at all in the first place. Were there no opposing voices to right the wrongs? Is Parliament sleeping all those years? Is the media dead? Are there no regulators? Sadly, according to Mr O'Toole, all of these parties are either intentionally ignorant or complicit in the 'crime'. The rest of the good people, I suppose, have simply left for greener pastures across the seas.

There is a lesson in this for countries with mal-functioning democracies, and of countries which believe only in one-party rule.

A disturbing book.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Against the odds

Some say "Manners maketh the man". Others say "Looks maketh the man". But there is yet a third - "Trials maketh the man". Of course in this day and age, the word 'man' includes woman. And this is the subject of the book "Innovate! How great companies get started in terrible times", written by Thomas A. Meyer.

Meyer makes the point that, as the saying goes, 'in tough times, the tough gets going". In his narrative in this book, he documents how some well-known and enduring companies were actually borne during economic recessions. His narrative goes as far back as 1797 and continues right up to 2008, where the phenomenon described in his book continues. The companies that were borned of adversity  are exceptional companies, and the people who founded them are exceptional people - like Thomas A. Edison, Walt Disney, Milton Hershey, Robert W. Johnson, and Mary Kay, right up to Steve Jobs. Meyer believes that much can be learnt from the experiences of these entrepreneurs. He has helpfully organised the book according to the qualities demonstrated by these people who would not give up easily - qualities such as perseverance (Edison), Pain (Walt Disney), Intuition (Steve Jobs), Simplicity (Robert Johnson), Failure (Hershey), Faith (Mary Kay), Insignificance (Lonnie Johnson of Hasbro), Greed (AIG), Integrity (George Foreman) and of course, Luck (William Procter and James Gamble).

Each narrative is short and simple but effective. He states the lessons to be learnt through a narrative of the underlying story that validates the point. For example he illustrates the power of starting from the bottom with the example of how Robert W. Johnson Jr, the son of one of the founders of Johnson & Johnson, chose to begin his career in his father's company by first working as a mill-hand in its factories. 10 years were to pass before he assumed control of the company as its CEO. Meyer showed how asking for help can move a person's passion forward after a series of failures in the example of Milton S. Hershey, the creator of the Hershey empire. And as they say, this book is chock full of similar examples and lessons.

It is a great book to learn how not to give up when everything seem to be working against you.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bank Bust

By now, many books have been published on the 2008 Financial Crisis that engulfed almost the entire civilized world. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman has written about it in "The Return of Depression Economics". Gillian Tett's "Fool's Gold" is another, and Alex Brummer's "The Crunch" is yet another. First published in 2008 and updated in 2009, "The 'Crunch" focuses on the failure of Northern Rock and the crisis that it precipitated for the British financial system. This British-centric focus is different from the many books already written on the financial crisis of 2008, which are more centred on Wall Street and the US. And if this is missing from your mental history of this most momentous event up till now of the 21st century, then you can read it up here. This book does go into details on the people whose actions unwittingly caused the near meltdown of the financial situation in Britain, and this is not referring just to Adam Applegarth, the rogue CEO of Northern Rock who single-handedly almost brought Britain's financial system to its knees. Of course the problem really originated in the US through the uncontrolled sub-prime lending by banks and the subsequent investments in these toxic assets the world over.

This book takes a look into the triumvirate of the Bank of England, the Financial Services Authority and the  Treasury. An invention of Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, it worked well enough in regulating and managing the financial flows and investments in Britain, which was centred on London. Indeed London succeeded in becoming a major financial centre in the world. While this worked well in good times, it failed to hold up when crisis hit. During the meltdown, these 3 parties descended into a finger-pointing stance, impeding the institution of necessary policies and actions quickly to overcome the run on Northern Rock and shoring up the rest of the banking system. This book makes for fascinating reading, and the chapter on the Central Bankers, which relates the life of key people such as Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England,  Ben Bernanke of the Federal Reserve, Jean-Claude Trichet of the European Central Bank, and how each approached the financial crisis makes for absorbing reading.

In the end, hindsight is always perfect, and Brummer concludes the narrative by deconstructing the whole episode from various angles to draw 'painful lesson' from it. A good read.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Doctor and a Gentleman

There has been a rash of books published by Singaporeans on Singapore in the last few years. Mr Lee Kuan Yew published his memoirs some time back, and the latest on him, which has stirred up not a bit of controversy, is actually out of stock in many bookstores due to overwhelming demand. Then there is the tome written by some former Straits Times journalist on the history of the PAP. Even President S.R. Nathan has weighed in with an account of his time with seamen. A month ago, I picked up another book, a thinner and more 'manageable' book, also on Singapore, but on a subject, or more precisely, on a Malayan Singaporean. Why a Malayan Singaporean? Because he lived till 1954, well before Singapore obtained self-government in 1959 and eventually independence in 1965. But Dr Charles Joseph Pemberton Paglar was, in his lifetime, very much a Singapore native, and the book "Dr Paglar: Everyman's Hero" by Rex Shelley (with Chen Fen) recounts the life and times of this hero of Singapore. Dr Paglar was a Eurasian, the offspring of an illicit relation between an Indian women and a British planter by the name of Pemberton. And as offsprings of illicit relations went at that time, he was sent away (abandoned is perhaps a better word here) to a convent in Penang (Malaysia) in which he grew up.

He was eventually adopted by Alexander Paglar and his wife, both of whom were Catholics and Eurasians. Dr Paglar migrated to Singapore in 1910, while still a young man, to further his education. He eventually won a Queens scholarship to study medicine in Britain. Dr Paglar later returned to Singapore and set up his medical practice. He got married, and became friends with the lowly and the royalty - specifically the Sultan of Johor, who made him his personal physician. The Second World War, while disruptive, did not change his routine - he still practiced medicine although medicine was hard to come by, for which he turned to the Japanese conquerors. Therein lies the controversy of his 'collusion' with the enemy. But the book attempts to explain his rationale for working with the Japanese, which was for the good of his own people and the poor and defenseless.

After the war, he turned to helping rebuild Singapore society, and in particular sports. He was very generous with his money and time. The Singapore Badminton Hall still stands as a testimony to his effort, amongst many other facilities. Alas his life in politics proved short-lived. He was elected to the Legislative council in 1951 but died in 1954.

This is a simple book. It doesn't dwell into great detail. For example, Dr Paglar was married 4 times, but the circumstances and reasons for his first divorce are hardly mentioned, and the narrative is also silent on his other marital relationships beyond a single sentence that hinted that he had a weakness for women. But otherwise, the book does introduce you to the man and his times in a short read. The other plus about this book is that it is filled with pages and pages of photographs, some of which show society in a now long forgotten era in Singapore's history.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Looking Back

Many Singaporean's are expecting the General Elections to be held this year. The elections to choose the President of Singapore will be held in August, so the question is whether the GE is before or after that date. Whenever that date will be will be decided by the sitting government, but it appears that Opposition parties are gearing up for this once in a 4-year event to choose the next government. Most expect the siting government to be re-elected. The only question is how many seats will fall to the Opposition, and if a GRC or more will be captured.

A signal event that took place in the last month is the gazetting of the erstwhile community blog, The Online Citizen. Over the years, its has evolved into a sort of Opposition platform, with lots of dissenting views and, in some cases, quite vitriol comments directed at government policies and actions, and personalities. And to do so seems fashionable, as it has always been, and is taken as a badge of the thinking person.

I disagree with some government policies, but there are other policies I agree with. I do not want to hurl any criticism at MM (Minister-Mentor) Lee Kuan Yew. When all is said and done, he, together with his collaborators has lifted Singapore from a third world backwater, neglected by the British for as long as they had been around, to a first world country, so much so that foreigners are making a beeline for its shores. One may point to the dirty politics that he may have played, about muzzling dissent, throwing people into jail for long periods of time using the ISA (Internal Security Act), etc., But it is often conveniently forgotten that he himself was played out several times in the formative years of the PAP when it shared its bed with the Chinese socialist/communists. Then it was either you or me, and anyone with any sense would want to be the one that emerges the victor. Politics, as the PAP continues to emphasize, is not about charity, but might and perhaps, right.

Whether you agree with me or not is of course up to you. But before you jump to any conclusion, it is best if you found out more about how the PAP developed. And for this, I would recommend that you read "Men in White - The Untold Story of Singapore's Ruling Political Party". This is written by a number of journalists. Though they were once employees of the Strait Times, which, though not always so, tended to be sympathetic to the government's cause, they have, in my opinion, been fairly objective in their account of the birth and development of the most dominant, if not the only dominant political party on this island state. But it was never always so, and the account narrates how the PAP nearly disintegrated. Many say that MM Lee had been vicious and vindictive. But these same people never bother to look at the other side of the fence. If they did, they would find others just as "dirty", if not more dangerous, than the MM.

My father voted for the PAP in every election. The workers unions where we grew up came around to harass him because he would not join their cause. They were fighting Lee Kuan Yew. My father believed in hard work, they believe in agitation. He believe in the PAP, and we, his descendants, are enjoying the fruits of that belief in the PAP government.

We must do justice to ourselves to read both sides of the story and then make up our minds instead of parroting others to gain acceptance in a certain circle of opinion makers so as not to appear as 'running dogs' of the government.