Comprehensive Review & Analysis: ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ by Reza Aslan

January 28, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Religion, Reviews

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Like everyone else, I found the title Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth too provocative to ignore. “Zealot” carries certain negative connotations, and the use of the word in the title is clearly by design, intended to stir up a shitstorm which it of course did upon its release.

But beneath all the controversy, Zealot is actually a fairly readable, robustly researched academic work that makes a strong case that the Biblical Jesus Christ is a very different person to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. This is probably already something a lot of non-Christians, and even some more liberal Christians believe, but what this book does is flesh out all the arguments through an analysis of historical documents and the Bible itself, stringing together a narrative that delves into how the religion of Christianity was created in the first place.

Zealot is written by Iranian-American Reza Aslan, who coincidentally shares the same name as the lion from CS Lewis’s Narnia books, which are allegedly veiled Christian stories where the lion is actually God! A lot has been made about the fact that Aslan is a Muslim who converted from Christianity and that he currently works as a creative writing teacher. Both are accurate but overblown because he is also a scholar of religions, someone who holds a PhD in the sociology of religions from the University of California. And really, all you have to do is read a few pages of Zealot to realize that this is not some fanciful creative writing project of some Muslim nut trying to destroy Christianity, but rather a thorough academic work from someone who clearly knows what he’s talking about, or at least projects that image anyway. The Da Vinci Code this is not.

Of course, this is not to say Aslan’s theories about the life of Jesus are correct or that he doesn’t have an agenda (of course he does, and I think it’s motivated by $$$ more than anything else), but most of the accusations that have been hurled his way are pretty embarrassing.

Contrary to some reviews I have read about the book, Zealot is not a straight, blow-by-blow chronological biography of Jesus of Nazareth. The first couple of chapters set up the all-important historical background that helps readers understand the type of world Jesus was born into 2000 years ago, after which each chapter of the book tackles a different aspect or period of Jesus’s life through analyses of the Bible and other historical records. The final chapters, which I found the most fascinating, deal with the resurrection, followed by how Christianity as we know it came into being.

Zealot is also not a piece of “historical fiction” as some have suggested. Granted, Aslan does occasionally delve into what can be described as “creative non-fiction” in some of his descriptions, but to say he is just making things up is a gross exaggeration. For the most part, the book is driven by critical analysis that points out what was likely and what was not likely based on what we know about that time today.

Review

First and foremost, it is important to remember that Zealot is essentially an academic work that has been written with a wider audience in mind. There is accordingly a certain level of historical and religious detail and complexity in what Aslan writes, a lot of which would be difficult for the layman to follow, let alone fully comprehend.

It is a difficult book to get through at times because he blows through a lot of names of people and places very quickly, and people who don’t have at least a bit of knowledge about the Bible or this period of history could find most of it flying straight over their heads. Compounding the situation is that a lot of people back in those days have the exact same names, which means you might have to re-read certain sections if you want to fully understand all the details. I’ll admit I couldn’t be bothered most of the time.

Considering what a tough job it is explaining such a complicated part of history and the need to do it well, Aslan does about as well as you could have expected in keeping the narrative relatively simple and flowing. It is not easy to strike a balance between being comprehensive and informative against being readable and accessible, and I think the fluidity of the narrative and the confident voice with which the story is told is a testament to Aslan’s impressive knowledge of the subject.

The problem with Zealot is that the whole book is written under the presumption that Jesus was not, and could not have been divine, and the narrative is built entirely around the premise that the Biblical Jesus and the historical Jesus are two completely different people. What I mean by that is instead of analysing the available and reliable historical information to reach certain conclusions, Aslan appears to cherry pick parts the Bible and other ancient documents to back up his preconceived conclusion.

Another major problem, which Aslan highlights in the first few pages of the book, is that because there is insufficient information on certain details of Jesus’s life, he is often forced to make “educated guesses” on what was most likely under the circumstances. However, as he appears so self-assured about everything he says, it becomes difficult to distinguish between when he is making a statement based on irrefutable “facts” and when he is making a “guess”, which, even if ”educated”, could be biased or skewed so that he can reach certain conclusions that suit his agenda.

To get a clearer picture of how much guesswork was actually involved, you’ll have to rummage through the extensive notes section at the end of the book, which adds about another quarter to a third of the book’s overall length. I would hardly call this section compulsory reading because the majority of it is just additional sources for interested readers to explore. That said, there are some interesting bits in there that elaborate on a lot of the arguments Aslan makes throughout the book, though sometimes they actually undermine his theories by making you realise that there are equally convincing counterarguments.

Of course, if everything was as obvious as Aslan paints it to be, he wouldn’t need to write a book about it. I’m sure plenty of Christian scholars and apologists already have and will continue to poke holes in his so-called “facts” and “educated guesses”, which is simply something that comes with the territory when writing about stuff no one can really know about for sure.

On the whole, Zealot offers no earth-shattering revelations, but it is nevertheless a well-written book with a strong central argument. While not exactly a page turner because all the context and background it needs to constantly provide, readers interested in who the “historical Jesus” might have been should find it an educative and fascinating read.

Key arguments of the book

Aslan essentially summarises the central argument of Zealot in this paragraph: ”The firstcentury Jews who wrote about Jesus had already made up their minds about who he was. They were constructing a theological argument about the nature and function of Jesus Christ, not composing a historical biography about a human being.”

What he is saying is that the Bible is far from inerrant (as some loonies claim) and is likely skewed by evangelists with an agenda. He does a great job of providing the context in which the Biblical stories of Jesus came into being, explaining to readers that it was a very different world back then where 97% of people were illiterate and driven by superstitions. His analysis suggests that certain parts of the gospels were likely to have been completely made up by the writers or at least twisted to make Jesus’s life fall in line with Old Testament prophecies.

One technique Aslan employs is to compare and contrast the the gospels to show how the later gospels may have built on myths created by an earlier one. For example, he suggests that John the Baptist apparently once had a huge following as well, with some believing he was even greater than Jesus, but the gospels intentionally tried to lessen his influence and make it abundantly clear that, despite being a great man himself, John was nothing compared to Jesus. Aslan illustrates how through time, John goes from the one who baptizes Jesus to just bearing witness to Jesus’s divinity, when historical records suggest that Jesus likely began his ministry as just another one of John’s disciples and only built his own after John was arrested.

By the way, none of this suggests that Jesus is not who the Bible says he is. But what it does argue is that any suggestion that the Bible is an inerrant document is a joke, and that in reality it is a very flawed book driven by different agendas and plagued with historical and factual inaccuracies and contradictions.

So how did the documents that make up the Bible become this way? Aslan points the finger at Paul, a former Pharisee who never met Jesus when he was alive but inexplicably became a believer after a supposed miraculous meeting with a divine, post-resurrection Jesus, after which he started declaring himself greater than the 12 Apostles and as the one chosen by God to build a new religion.

According to Aslan, Paul (who is painted as a bit of a nutcase) had a different agenda and beliefs to the rest of the remaining members of the 12 Apostles and Jesus’s brother James, who advocated something much closer to what the real life (and non-divine) Jesus preached. Paul’s version of a divine Jesus was completely different and often contradictory to the Jesus who lived. It does not narrate a single event from Jesus’s life and provides little insight into who the living Jesus was — nor did he seem to care.

The two sides actually battled bitterly over Jesus’s legacy, leading to the Apostles demanding that Paul come to Jerusalem to answer for his deviant teachings in 57CE. It was not only the destruction of Jerusalem, which destroyed just about all records of Jesus’s life and link to Judaism, that Paul’s side emerged victorious.

“The transformation of the Nazarean into a divine, preexisting, literal son of God whose death and resurrection launch a new genus eternal beings responsible for judging the world has no basis in any writings about Jesus that are even remotely contemporary with Paul’s (a firm indication that Paul’s Christ was likely his own creation).”

Aslan goes on to claim that the only writings about Jesus apart from the so-called Q document that existed in 70CE were the letters of Paul, which became the primary vehicle for the Christian movement and a heavy influence on the gospels. Tellingly, more than half the 27 books that make up the New Testament are either by or about Paul. Two millennia later, as Aslan says, “the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.”

To be fair to Aslan, he is reasonably objective when it comes to certain aspects of Jesus’s life that might suggest divinity. For example, he admits that there is ample historical evidence that Jesus healed the sick and performed “miracles.” Aslan does, however, place Jesus’s remarkable feats in context by pointing out that so-called miracle workers were very prevalent back in those days (in fact, there was an entire industry), with the only difference being that Jesus did not charge for his services.

On the pivotal question of the resurrection, Aslan is unable to answer definitively, saying that it is a “matter of faith,” though he argues what is clear is that  if Jesus did rise from the dead he did not do so “according to the scriptures” (ie, it was not prophecized) as claimed in the Bible.

Aslan also concludes that the resurrection as described in the Bible is “not a historical event” because by the time these stories were written, six decades after the event, the evangelists had heard “just about every conceivable objection to the resurrection, and they were able to create narratives to counter each and every one of them.” The result, Aslan claims, is that the resurrection as described is not a historical event but “carefully crafted rebuttals.”

Having said that, Aslan also recognizes the wealth of evidence supporting the resurrection. “However, there is this nagging fact to consider: one after another of those who claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus went to their own gruesome deaths refusing to recant their testimony,” Aslan admits in the book. As he points out, these people died not because they were asked to deny matters of faith, but because they were asked to deny something they themselves personally, directly encountered. 

This may come as a disappointment to some readers hoping to find something that will challenge what are arguably the most incredible claims in the Bible, but full credit to Aslan for admitting that there is insufficient evidence to reach the conclusion that these miraculous things can be dismissed outright.

Other claims

Some of the other arguments Aslan makes and “facts” he points out in Zealot include:

- The term “zealot”, in the context of Jesus’s time, is someone who believes in only the one truth god and no others. That’s the “zealot” he is referring to in the title of his book.

- Practically every word ever written about Jesus of Nazareth, including every gospel story in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, was written by people who, like Stephen and Paul, never actually knew Jesus when he was alive.

- No one has ever seen the originals of the gospels and it is generally accepted that the gospels (with the possible exception of Luke) were not written by the people after which they have been named. Accordingly, it’s impossible to tell whether the copies (even the oldest one we have) that are in circulation now have been tampered with.

- People back in Jesus’s time did not have a sense of what the word “history” meant, meaning they were not documenting things for future generations, and what the writings meant was more important to whether they were factually accurate.

- 97% of people back in Jesus’s time (including possibly Jesus himself) were illiterate and prone to manipulation.

- “Messiah” did not necessarily mean “God” back in those days as the prophecies in the scriptures were not clear and were confusing and contradictory. There were in fact many messiahs throughout history and even just in Jesus’s time.

- The narrative of Jesus’s birth is riddled with problems and contradictions, including claims in a couple of the gospel that he was born in Bethlehem as opposed to the obscure village of Nazareth. Aslan says Jesus almost certainly had many brothers and sisters, which shoots a big hole in the Catholic claim that Mary was a virgin for life.

- Jesus started off as merely just another disciple of John the Baptist. Jesus’s earliest disciples only started following him after John was arrested.

- Contrary to claims, Jesus was in fact very aware of the political landscape. Aslan tears down the image of a Jesus who only cared about preaching the word of God. He claims that Jesus’s prophecies about being arrested, tortured and crucified could be seen as either made up by future generations or simply “predictable” because that’s what happened to every self-proclaiming messiah who dared to challenge Rome.

- Jesus’s so-called trial before Pontius Pilate was a complete fabrication as Pilate would have never given Jesus the time of day given that at least a dozen similar “trials” were conducted on the same day. Likely also to be a fabrication is the entire narrative from the Last Supper to Jesus’s arrest up until his crucifixion.

- The story that it was the Jews who wanted Jesus crucified made absolutely no sense. It was likely made up for a Roman audience and thus tried to shift the blame away from Rome, though as a result it has sparked 2,000 years of anti-Semitism.

- Jesus was crucified alongside other lestai, which Aslan claims actually means other revolutionaries like him, rather than the general “evildoers” used in Luke’s gospel because he was uncomfortable with its political implications.

- The truth is that Jesus was executed for sedition, not blasphemy for claiming he was divine as the gospels claim, as the laws state clearly that the punishment for blasphemy is death by stoning, not crucifixion. Aslan says the “flagrant inaccuracies” of the procedures and rituals and traditions in Jesus’s trial and execution show a complete lack of understanding by the early evangelists.

- Jesus’s predictions about the the arrival of the Kingdom of God and a new world order never arrived. In fact, Aslan claims that ”Kingdom of God” back then did not mean “heaven” as we know it and actually referred to a Jewish realm on earth where people followed the rules of a deity as opposed to a human king. The suggestion is that Jesus wanted to crown himself “king” of the new order, but a king who will serve the people as opposed to the other way around.

- Jesus did not perceive himself in the way early church leaders did. He never openly referred to himself as messiah or the Son of God (he actually called himself, ambiguously, Son of Man), which in any case did not mean that he was literally God’s offspring but was instead the traditional designation for Israel’s kings. Even King David was called Son of God multiple times in the Bible.

- Stephen, the first person to be martyred for calling Jesus “Christ” and stoned to death for blasphemy, had never met Jesus, was never involved in his life, nor witnessed his death. In addition, Stephen was not a scribe or scholar and did not know the scriptures well, plus he preached to an uneducated and illiterate crowd.

- Luke attributed a long speech to Stephen which was likely to have been made up. Luke says Stephen looked up to the heavens and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God, which became a favourite image of the early Christian community — and that was how Jesus became God. As Aslan writes: ”One can say that it was not only Stephen who died that day outside the gates of Jerusalem. Buried with him under the rubble of stones is that last trace of the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth.”

- The original Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus, including remnants of the 12 Apostles, clashed with the Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews, the ones who claimed Jesus was God. And it was their conflict that resulted in two competing camps of Christian interpretation in the decades after the crucifixion, one led by Christian convert Paul and the other by Jesus’s brother James. Paul’s version of the divine Jesus won out after the destruction of Jerusalem.

- The story of how Paul met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, including his blinding and subsequent cure, is ”a bit of propagandistic legend created by the evangelist Luke, one of Paul’s young devotees,” Aslan contends, as Paul himself never recounts the story of being blinded by the sight of Jesus nearly a decade after the crucifixion.

- There are some great stories about the boy Jesus in the gnostic gospels, especially The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, in which a petulant Jesus flaunts his magical powers by bringing clay birds to life or striking dead neighborhood kids who fail to show him deference.

Conclusion

The ideas in Zealot will be debated to death and I don’t have the requisite knowledge to throw in my two cents about what I think of Aslan’s arguments, as compelling as they are. At the end of the day, no one really knows, or else there wouldn’t be a whole market of books advocating and dissing the truth of Christianity. What Zealot does do very well, however, is provide an alternate version of events to the Bible and point out likely fallacies of the Holy Book, which Aslan paints — at the very least — as an unreliable or undependable account of historical events. Ultimately, what you believe about Jesus remains a matter of faith, though having said that, Zealot could go a long way in helping you make or prevent you from making that leap.

Rating: 3.5/5

Thoughts on Lance Armstrong’s Oprah interview

January 20, 2013 in Best Of, Entertainment, Misc, Social/Political Commentary

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I confess. I was one of those people who was really looking forward to Lance Armstrong’s two-part interview with Oprah over the last couple of days.

Some say why waste your time with that loser, but personally, I have been fascinated with the whole saga and wanted to see him squirm a little and be taken out of his comfort zone. I wanted to see how much of it was genuine and how much of it was staged. Was he sorry for what he had done or was he only sorry that he was caught? Would he try and squeeze out a tear? Frankly, I just wanted to see the best of the best (at lying, that is) try and explain himself out of an unexplainable situation.

On the whole, I thought the interview went relatively well.  As expected, the first part was more explosive and the second was more emotional. We got some answers to questions we already knew (still good to hear them come out of the lion’s mouth), and we didn’t get some of the answers we wanted.

In a nutshell:

  • Armstrong confessed to cheating for all seven of his Tour De France titles, including using EPO, testosterone, cortisone, blood doping, you name it  — but intentionally shied away from specific examples of how he did it;
  • He said he was sorry (duh), was reaching out to people he hurt and will try and make up for it for the rest of his life — but didn’t think he deserved a lifetime ban (which he labelled a “death sentence” when others before him only got six months;
  • He denied being the ringleader of the doping scheme and/or intentionally pressuring others on his team to dope — said he did not create the culture of doping but didn’t stop it either;
  • He denied doping after returning to the sport in 2008, which runs contrary to blood test findings by the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency);
  • He denied donations to the dodgy UCI (International Cycling Union) were to cover up positive drug tests;
  • He contributed his bullying and bad behaviour towards others as his desire to “control everything”;
  • He didn’t shed an actual running tear, but his eyes watered up when discussing how he told his son to stop defending him — even if you think everything else is an act, you can at least assume that the emotion here was legit;
  • He preferred to focus on himself and not name names (such as people in the UCI), probably for legal reasons, though Oprah did not exactly push him either.

It was a riveting yet frustrating interview for many reasons, none more so than the fact that you just don’t really know what is true and what is not when everything that had come out of Armstrong’s mouth up to that point had been a massive lie. It’s hard not to be cynical when he said he would not hold back and yet did precisely that when he didn’t want to answer some of Oprah’s questions (including whether Betsy Andreu’s claim that he admitted to doctors he had used PEDs was true).

On the surface, Armstrong made stepping up to the plate for the interview seem like he had balls (well, more correctly, ball). His supporters, and there are still many, have undoubtedly lapped it up. But was it enough to at least put a dent in all the negativity towards him? I don’t think it was. One look at the headlines today and you’ll see that almost all of them are cynical and are tearing the interview down as a calculated and carefully planned strategy to clean up his image for a potential new start somewhere down the road.

For starters, reports indicate that Armstrong’s entire “team” — agents, lawyers, publicists, PR experts, image consultants and crisis managers — was there for the interview to ensure that everything went according to the script they had prepared.  They would have come up with every possible question that Oprah might have asked and prepared answer guidelines. You could tell roughly where the boundaries were whenever he tried to avoid answering the question by changing the topic, glazing over it with generalities or simply “lay down” and refuse to answer.

It was obvious to anyone watching that Armstrong was walking a tightrope throughout the interview, and that his uneasiness was probably due to that as much as any feelings of embarrassment or disgrace. There was of course the legal ramifications of his responses (financial and criminal, including for perjury), and I’m sure he knew where the line was for that, but there was also the difficult goal of appearing sympathetic to audiences without making it seem like he was grasping for excuses.

The attempts were subtle but consistent. For instance, he said his doping scheme was not the worst in history because the East German ones in the 70s and 80s were worse. He said no one could have won seven consecutive Tour de France titles like him without doping and that he didn’t have access to any drugs that others didn’t, suggesting a level playing field and almost as though he was “forced” to cheat.

He tried to distance himself from himself, if that makes sense. The evil Lance, the one that cheated and lied and bullied was not really him, kind of like when murderers plead temporary insanity. He said stuff like it was “scary”, “scarier” and “scariest” when describing his mindset “at the time” because he didn’t even believe it was cheating or that he was doing anything wrong. He said he looked up the definition of  “cheating” in the dictionary and that what he was doing didn’t fit the definition of gaining an unfair advantage because everyone else was doing it. He called it the “EPO era.” He even said “look at that arrogant prick” while watching old footage of himself.

It was the same thing when it came to his bullying, although it was obviously more difficult to come across as sympathetic. Apart from apologising and promising to make amends, he tried to make his sociopathic, psychopathic behaviour seem like it was some kind of mental illness, claiming that he needed to “control the narrative” (you could argue that the interview was simply another attempt at that). When referring to all the people he had sued over the years for telling the truth about him, he said “we” have sued so many people that he had lost count, as though it wasn’t really his decision to make in the first place.

Another tactic was to play the sympathy card immediately after that. Armstrong talked about his difficult upbringing, about not knowing who his biological father is, about how he let his supporters and family down, and of course, the battle with cancer. What he’s going through right now is nothing compared to the cancer, he said.

Oprah was also the perfect platform to air his confession. She’s been known to tug at the heart strings and look for silver linings and moral stories (she even asked him what the moral of the story was towards the end). And she was less likely to go after him like some of the more “hard-hitting” journalism programs. For the record, I think she did OK; better in the first half than the second. She certainly could have pressed him more, especially on the irreparable damage he caused to the lives of some of his closest former friends, but I think she could see that she wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with that approach. I know she has been criticised a lot for the way she handled the interview, but I don’t think there was a point in turning the environment hostile when Armstrong’s just not the kind of guy who would crack under pressure. It’s not Oprah’s style, anyway.

In the end, everybody will have their views on the interview, including whether he was genuinely contrite. I’m kind of on the fence with this one. He would really have to be a complete psycho to not feel even a tiny shred of remorse, so my inclination is to lean towards “yes”, but what is pulling me back is the knowledge that he was nowhere near as open and upfront as he could have been. Body language experts have all put in their 2 cents and apparently he was “defensive”, “argumentative”, “competitive” and “rejecting opinion.”

Still, I was impressed that he actually came clean, even if it was in a half-hearted kind of way. I had been convinced that Armstrong would never admit he cheated because he had convinced himself it was true, kind of like this legend.

Summary & views on USADA’s Lance Armstrong decision

October 22, 2012 in Sport

I don’t know much about cycling or doping but I have been utterly intrigued by the Lance Armstrong doping case instigated by the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency), which published a Reasoned Decision on October 10 explaining why it was stripping Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and issuing a lifetime ban after the retired cyclist refused to contest the charges. The decision was ratified by the International Cycling Union (UCI), cycling’s global governing body, on Monday.

More specifically, I was curious how someone as celebrated and worshipped as Armstrong, who has practically been a cycling god for more than a decade, could have engineered the greatest doping scheme in the history of sport and not “failed” a single drug test, as he claims. I was interested in how someone could continue to vehemently deny cheating in the face of what appears to be insurmountable evidence. And I was fascinated by how there could still be so many people that continue to believe him when he claims that he walked away from contesting charges that effectively destroy his legacy because “enough was enough” and that the toll of the fight on the “unconstitutional witch hunt” of the USADA was not worth it.

A lawyer friend claimed that the decision was a “good read”, and I supposed as decisions go, it wasn’t too bad. For some reason I have just trawled through the 164 pages of the main report and the 33 pages of addendum (on the credibility of the witnesses), plus just a few of the hundreds of appendices.

My thoughts? Incredible.  Just as there is no doubt that Armstrong, a cancer survivor, has done a lot of good with his cancer charity Livestrong, raising almost US$500 million (though this is contested), there shouldn’t be any doubt that Armstrong doped and is a colossal prick — if, of course, the USADA report is to be believed. And really, even taking into account problems with the report, the quality and credibility of the evidence and the potential of ulterior motives and so forth, I can’t find any reason not to believe the report’s central argument — that Armstrong is a drug cheat.

The Reasoned Decision

To be honest, I found the Reasoned Decision a strange document to read at times. The USADA is not a government body nor a court of law, so the document was not written like an objective case report but more like a one-sided submission.

I also found the tone and wording to be uneven as it was at times quite opinionated and made statements that made me feel like I was reading an editorial.

That said, the substance of the report was all there, and it’s clear that a lot of work was put into establishing an iron clad case against Armstrong, including explaining the credibility of all the witnesses that stepped forward to provide evidence against him. I had problems with some of the things I read, but when taken as a whole, the Reasoned Decision is a very strong document.

The charges

The charges against Armstrong included that he:

- possessed, used and attempted to use doping drug EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone, corticosteroids and/or masking agents;

- trafficked in these illegal substances and offered and administered them to teammates; and

- actively and systematically covered up the evidence of the doping.

What was shocking was that the USADA claimed that Armstrongwas not merely a participant in the doping, but that he was one of the ringleaders of the whole thing and had encouraged and assisted others in cheating to give himself a better chance of winning (as competitive cycling is, as I discovered, very much a team sport designed to benefit its “star”).

The evidence

The USADA’s accusations are largely based upon the sworn testimonies of 26 people, including 15 cyclists of which 11 were Armstrong’s former teammates on his US Postal Service Team. The testimonies are backed up and corroborated to some extent by documentary evidence including financial payments and emails. And yes, there is some scientific data and laboratory test results as well. A lot of it does rest on the reliability of the witnesses, the testing procedures, circumstantial evidence and inferences, which some may find unsatisfactory, but as I explain below, I think it all adds up.

The report also describes in detail how Armstrong refused to contest the USADA’s charges against him and that the evidence would have been even stronger had the case been brought to trial, including witnesses that would not have come forward unless subpoenaed  and the ability to cross-examine opposing evidence.

The USADA’s standard of proof is “comfortable satisfaction” bearing in mind the seriousness of the allegations. However, the agency specifically and repeatedly said in the report that the evidence was ”overwhelming” and that it was “beyond a reasonable doubt” — the standard for criminal cases — that Armstrong was guilty of doping. The report even made the bold statement that the evidence was as strong as or stronger than any case brought by the USADA in its 12 years of existence.

Witness evidence

The strongest witness statements and affidavits came from Armstrong’s former teammates such as Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Frankie Andreu, as they were in his UPS team and remained close with him until they admitted to cheating and implicated him, upon which Armstrong turned on them with a vengeance. Five of the eight riders from Armstrong’s 1999 team produced witness evidence against him and admitted to their own guilt.

From what I read, the statements are so detailed and comprehensive (and supposedly non-contradictory with each other as well as proven facts) that it makes it highly unlikely that they could have simply been concocted out of thin air. They claim that doping was openly discussed inside the team and that each rider was on a special doping regimen. They also recount various specific incidents where it can be strongly inferred that Armstrong was doping. And they say Armstrong was the undoubted leader of the doping movement in their team.

Armstrong and his team have viciously attacked the credibility of just about every single one of these witnesses in the media, claiming that each of them had “axes to grind” against him, mostly out of jealousy or a fallout. He also points out that they were given “sweetheart deals” of six month suspensions in exchange for providing evidence against him, which is potentially another reason to doubt their claims.

If it were just two or three people, then okay, I might be able to imagine a situation where a few former teammates fabricated stories against Armstrong together in order to receive lighter sentences. But first of all, there are 11 former teammates, which makes that highly unlikely. Is it more likely that they are all in some massive conspiracy together to bring down one person out of jealousy or other petty disagreements, or is it more likely that one person is lying?

Second of all, what has been forgotten in the attacks is that all these former teammates have admitted to doping themselves. Many of them previously denied doping until the evidence became too insurmountable. While it does not prove that Armstrong doped as well, the fact that so many of his former teammates admitted their guilt makes it a lot more difficult to believe that Armstrong, the star of the team, was not involved as well, and had no idea that they were doping right under his nose for so many years.

Tyler Hamilton

There were also several witness statements from non-riders close to Armstrong, such as Frankie Andreu’s wife Betsy, as well as Armstrong’s masseuse, Emma O’Reilly, who claimed that she once used make-up to help Armstrong cover bruising from syringe-use. These people clearly had less to gain from turning against Armstrong.

Many of the statements from the witnesses are solely their word against Armstrong’s, but they do paint a convincing narrative because most of them are in line with known facts.

For instance, Armstrong tested positive for cortisone in 1999 but was not punished because he had a medical authorization for it to treat saddle sores — witnesses claim that the excuse was fabricated and that the medical authorization was illegally backdated by his doctor.

In 2000, Armstrong dropped out of a race at the last minute —  a witness claims that he only did so after being warned by the witness that testing officers were after him.

Also in 2000, French authorities discovered that Armstrong’s team had dumped a bag of medical waste with syringes including a blood doping product, but dropped the case after being told that it was to treat a diabetic staff member — again, witnesses claim that this excuse was made up.

In 2001, Armstrong’s samples from the Tour Du Swisse were found to be ”suspicious for the presence of EPO” (though not positive), but this did not come to light until years later when Floyd Landis admitted to doping. Landis claims that Armstrong used his powerful stature and contacts to make the problem “go away”, allegedly with a “financial agreement” with the UCI. While the UCI official in question denies he was bribed, he did acknowledge that Armstrong visited UCI headquarters at the time and offered at least US$100,000 to help the development of cycling.

One of the most damning pieces of evidence was Betsy Andreu’s claim that Armstrong admitted to doctors at an Indiana hospital before surgery in 1996 that he had used performance enhancing drugs. Armstrong said it was a fabrication that arose out of jealousy after Frankie Andreu was dropped from the UPS team in 2001, though three other people provided witness statements stating that Betsy told them of Armstrong’s admission several days after the incident, undermining his assertion that the story was concocted five years later.

USADA has strongly defended the credibility of all the witnesses in the report, saying that it came at a “considerable cost and substantial risk”, including having years of competitive results disqualified, risking current and future employment, suspensions and competition opportunities.

Documentary evidence

The documentary evidence was not quite as strong as I had expected it to be, as most of it was to back up the witness statements or attack Armstrong’s credibility.

For example, Armstrong claimed that he had severed all professional relations with his former trainer Michele Ferrari in 2004, when Ferrari was convicted of sporting fraud and implicated in doping. Records showed that Armstrong paid Ferrari more than US$1 million between 1996 and 2006, and an email trail between Armstrong and Ferrari’s son, who acted as an intermediary, proved that the two continued to work together post-2004.

Another example is an email chain between Armstrong and Frankie Andreu, which showed that the former had requested the latter to return to the UPS team in 2001, but the offer was declined. This tears down Armstrong’s assertion that the Andreu’s turned on him out of jealousy after Frankie was dropped from the team.

There were also other emails to Frankie which asked him to warn Betsy not to “bring him down” with doping inferences in the press. “There is a direct link to all of our success here and I suggest you remind her of that,” the email said, suggesting that Armstrong was guilty (as he would have simply denied doping or accused her of lying had he been innocent).

Scientific evidence

For me, the most compelling evidence was the scientific evidence that Armstrong doped. They are:

- an expert examination of Armstrong’s blood parameters established that the likelihood of Armstrong’s blood values from the 2009 and 2010 Tours de France occurring naturally is less than one in a million and is therefore consistent with blood doping;

- blood samples from 2009 were also found to be consistent with Armstrong having taken part in a blood transfusion during the tour, which suggests he was involved in blood doping (where riders take out 500 ccs of blood and re-inject it back into the body later on);

- Armstrong’s stored samples  from the 1999 Tour de France tested in 2004 by French authorities found EPO on six occasions (with probabilities of 100%, 89.7%, 96.6%, 88.7%, 95.2% and 89.4%) — however, the UCI overruled the findings on the basis that proper protocols were not followed;

- Armstrong’s 2001 Tour du Suisse samples which tested “suspicious” for EPO showed 70%-80% the parameters of EPO, which meant that the probability of doping was high but not definitive as it could have been produced naturally — however, under current testing criteria the result would have been “positive” as opposed to just “suspicious”.

Tellingly, the UCI refused to provide USADA with Armstrong’s stored samples which could have returned a lot more positive results. Some of the samples were refused on the basis that Armstrong refused to give his consent, which is suspicious in itself.

Other evidence

The Reasoned Decision offers a lot of other “supporting” evidence which I did not find particularly material, even though it does help paint a more complete story.

For instance, the USADA used Armstrong’s unlikely dominance as support for the assertion that he cheated, including reports that he intentionally held back at certain stages of races. Personally, I think that’s a little unfair.

The USADA also painted Armstrong as a complete dickhead and bully who would set out to belittle, humiliate and destroy anyone who dared to go up against him. While this is probably true, it isn’t necessarily relevant to the question of whether he actually doped.

More relevant was the fact that Armstrong attempted to prevent witnesses from giving evidence against him, including by intimidating and threatening potential witnesses, both personally and through his lawyers.

Perhaps most damning was the fact that Armstrong surrounded himself with doctors, trainers and staff who have been involved in or at least strongly suspected and accused of being involved in doping. There is a long list, including the aforementioned Ferrari, Johan Bruyneel, Luis Garcia del Moral, Jose Marti and Pedro Celaya. Again, it might not prove that he doped, but it certainly doesn’t help.

How Armstrong managed to get away with it

What I was very interested in was how Armstrong managed to get away with cheating for so many years. To me, being able to plausibly explain in detail how he passed so many drug tests is critical to the USADA’s case.

Growing up, I had always assumed that drug testing in sports was almost foolproof. Even though many high profile athletes in sprinting and baseball have been sprung in recent years, for the most part I still believed that the risks were too high for most athletes to try to dope.

But as the USADA report showed, doping is a chronic problem in cycling and has been for years. Apparently all but one of the podium finishers during Armstrong’s seven-year reign have been linked to or found guilty of doping, which is both remarkable and disgraceful.

The USADA downplayed Armstrong’s claim that he passed more than 500-600 drug tests, saying that he had only been tested 60 times by the USADA and 200 times by UCI, of which many were likely tests for its health test and biological passport programs (which are not actual tests for performance enhancing drugs).

According to the USADA and its witnesses, Armstrong employed the following tactics to avoid being caught:

- avoiding testers during windows of detection — this was easy for Armstrong as the UCI did not have an out of competition testing program. He was also able to evade testers by not answering the door, while his teams had surveillance crews on the lookout for testers. He also often hid at a hotel in Spain when he needed to get away from testers, and his team staff were good at predicting when testers would come. When tested, Armstrong received at least an hour’s notice, during which his team could mask his blood. Armstrong was also accused of providing untimely and incomplete whereabouts information to USADA, thereby making it more difficult to locate him for out of competition testing;

- using undetectable substances and methods — blood doping and human growth hormones, which Armstrong was said to have used, were not detectable back in those days. As mentioned above, Armstrong also cheated the system by getting false and backdated medical authorizations for cortisone, and his team was said to have known very well how long certain drugs would be detectable by testers;

- understanding limitations to drug tests — Armstrong allegedly used hypoxic chambers and training at altitudes to lessen likelihood of detecting EPO; and

- using saline solutions to mask his blood and micro-doping EPO so that it would not come up in tests.

Thoughts

I’ve just realised how bloody long this summary is, and I guess that shows how much evidence there is against Armstrong. It is also telling that Nike, Armstrong’s longtime sponsor, dumped him after the report was released and said that he had misled them for more than a decade. Armstrong himself stepped down as chairman of his Livestrong foundation to spare it of the negative effects of his tarnished reputation.

Importantly, the UCI’s decision to accept the USADA’s findings and officially strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles and enforce a lifetime ban is indicative of the report’s strength and credibility. Having been embroiled in a jurisdictional dispute with the USADA over the Armstrong case and uncooperative in assisting the agency in its investigations, the UCI’s ratification of the Reasoned Decision speaks volumes.

Initially, a lot of people were convinced that Armstrong was telling the truth and that enemies were really “out to get him”. But the question that has never been answered adequately is why? Why would people want to do this to a sporting legend and cancer hero? Why would they be willing to risk or destroy their reputations, careers and futures just to bring down a former close friend and/or teammate with lies, all for something silly like jealousy? Would you lie to risk perjury and ruining your reputation and future just because you despise someone? Would 26 people?

In the Federal Court decision granting the USADA jurisdiction to arbitrate Armstrong’s case, concerns were raised about the motives of the USADA in going after Armstrong, claiming that “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion” that it is “motivated more by politics and a desire for media attention than faithful adherence to its obligations to USOC (United States Olympic Committee).”

It is true that the USADA has relentlessly pursued Armstrong for allegations as far as a decade ago and has more or less forced him to arbitrate. However, it seems highly unlikely that the USADA would frame an innocent man and make others lie about him just so they could build a compelling case. There is no logical reason for them to pick on Armstrong of all people if he had nothing to hide. The bottom line is that they were convinced Armstrong doped and had strong reasons for believing so.

I suspect the number of die-hard Armstrong supporters who still insist that he is innocent and is the victim of a massive conspiracy is very low right now — the evidence is simply too overwhelming to deny or rebut. But what remains puzzling to me is all those people who try and defend Armstrong’s doping with his contributions to cancer research. I don’t get it because the two are completely separate issues. He can still be a hero for cancer even as a drug cheat. People who supported Livestrong need to remember that they are supporting a cause, not a person.

The other thing I find appalling is how people could defend Armstrong’s doping on the basis that pretty much everyone from his era doped, so the playing field was actually level. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that people should just be allowed to dope in any sport. I don’t think I need to explain why this is appalling.

The oft-used assertion that Armstrong is innocent or at least deserves the presumption of innocence because he “never failed a drug test” is no longer tenable. First of all, Armstrong has failed drug tests, but the results were explained away with medical authorizations and elaborate stories — which witnesses now say were fraudulent. Further, there may have been cover ups of test results through bribes, as some of them claim.  From the very limited number of samples the USADA could get their hands on (as the UCI refused to hand theirs over), they have scientifically shown that it is virtually impossible that Armstrong did not dope. And remember that a lot of Armstrong’s former teammates, ones that have admitted to doping after years of denials, managed to pass all their drug tests for years as well. George Hincapie, who is believed to be one of the most credible witnesses in the case, has admitted to doping with Armstrong even though he has never “failed” a drug test either.

I used to believe that athletes can only be proven guilty with definitively positive drug tests, but as the last few years have shown, the biggest drug cheats rarely get sprung during their prime, and it is only through improving technologies and the vigilance of anti-doping authorities that the truth ultimately gets uncovered.

So while Lance Armstrong continues to maintain his innocence, what we know for certain is this:

- as a historical fighter, he refused to contest the charges and mountain of evidence against him, preferring instead to acquiesce to whatever punishment the USADA, and now UCI, issued;

- 26 witnesses, including 15 cyclists and 11 teammates, have voluntarily given evidence saying that he doped; the number of witnesses would have been higher had Armstrong contested the charges;

- almost all of his former teammates on the UPS team have admitted to doping despite having passed years of testing themselves, and yet Armstrong claims he had no idea anyone on his team doped;

- he “passed” a combined 260-280 drug tests from the USADA and UCI, not the 500-600 claimed; many of the UCI tests were health as opposed to drug tests;

- former teammates and witnesses have offered credible explanations for how most of the drug tests were avoided, masked or explained away; many doping methods he allegedly used were undetectable at the time;

- in 2000, his team suspiciously drove 60 miles to dump used syringes in roadside trashcans, which they claim were to treat a diabetic member and road rash;

- he tested positive for cortisone in 1999 but was not punished because he later provided a medical authorization;

- 1999 samples retested in 2004 tested positive for EPO six times but the results were ignored by the UCI;

- his 2001 blood, “suspicious” for EPO back then, would produce a “positive” under current testing standards;

- the odds of his blood being natural in 2009 and 2010 was one in a million; his 2009 blood was also consistent with having received a blood transfusion during the tour;

- he has worked with or has been closely associated with doctors, trainers and staff who have admitted to, convicted of, or strongly suspected of being involved in doping, and he lied about his ongoing association with one of them;

- he and his legal team have intimated, threatened and publicly lashed out at anyone who has spoken out against him, including potential witnesses;

- the UCI, which has had a massive financial interest in protecting him for years, affirmed the USADA’s findings despite fighting the same agency earlier over jurisdiction; and

- major sponsors such as Nike and Oakley, who have supported him and defended him against doping allegations for years, have dumped him and called him a cheat.

When you list all the known facts like this, the case against Lance Armstrong becomes pretty compelling, doesn’t it? Imagine you were on a jury and was presented with all of this — would you still believe there is enough “reasonable doubt”?

I don’t think Armstrong, who has proven himself to be a dick and a half in the way he has handled the controversy and those who have spoken up against him, will ever publicly admit that he doped. He just doesn’t seem like that kind of person, and plus there are potentially dire financial ramifications. His lawyer even suggested a few days ago that he could undergo a lie detector test to prove his innocence. I actually think he would pass that test. As George Costanza once said, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

12 Things I Learned From the Steve Jobs Biography

January 4, 2012 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews, Technology

One of the best books I read this year, and certainly the most fascinating, is the book everyone has been reading — Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (apparently the only authorised biography of the Apple co-founder).

I was entranced by this mammoth book (surprising considering I’m neither an Apple fanatic or hater) and ploughed through it faster than any book I read this year, even though I was still  halfway through a couple of other books at the time.  Amusingly, I read the e-book version on the iPad.

There are enough reviews out there, so all I will say is that I enjoyed it immensely — Isaacson’s style is fluid and easy to read, and considering the plethora of information at his disposal, Isaacson did a fantastic job of structuring it into roughly chronological, theme-based chapters.

Isaacson also managed to keep himself out of the narrative, for the most part, while allowing the minor characters to rise to the forefront.  Though the book is about Jobs, I felt I gained amazing insights into the personalities and quirks of all those who touched his life, either positively or negatively.

The biggest praise is reserved for Isaacson’s courage — he did not shy away from the negative aspects of Jobs’s life and difficult personality; in fact, it’s more accurate to say he embraced it.  At a time when the world was mourning Jobs’s death and remembering him as some kind of god-like figure, I’m sure it would have been a shock to many Apple product faithfuls to discover just what a colossal prick Jobs was sometimes (or most of the time).  Kudos to Jobs too, for giving Isaacson free reign on how to portray him in the book.

5 out of 5!

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to note down some things I learned from reading this book.  You might know some already, you might not.

1. Jobs was indeed a genius

Before reading this book, I always thought media folk threw out the word “genius” too liberally when it came to Steve Jobs.  I knew he was a great visionary and a leader, but genius?  I thought it was a vast overstatement.

However, I was wrong.  Jobs was a genius.  Not a technical genius like his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Jobs didn’t really know the ins and outs of the technology side that well — he knew enough, but he was not an engineering guy), but a genius at getting things done, a genius at developing products, a marketing genius, and a genius at figuring out what people wanted before they did.  Sure, Wozniak developed the first Apple computer, but without Jobs bringing the products out there, Apple would have never gotten anywhere.  There are lots of great inventors out there who have created magnificent products — but it’s a waste without someone who knows how to make people want the products.

2. Jobs deserved the credit he got

Another thing that irked me before reading this book was that Jobs got all the credit for Apple’s success.  It wasn’t something he purposely promoted, but it wasn’t something that he shied away from either.  I had always thought: Apple is a huge company, and Jobs must have only been a small part of the equation.  He only got all the credit because he was CEO.

While Jobs obviously did not deserve all the credit for Apple’s success (indeed, some key Apple players resented the fact that Jobs did), he certainly deserved a lot of it.  I simply cannot imagine how Apple could have become as successful as it is today without Jobs.

Jobs was literally involved in every aspect of the product development process and was not merely a figurehead for the company.  He made all the key decisions, whether it was product, marketing or strategy.  He hand picked the teams (only “A players”, as he liked to call them) and pushed them to achieve things they never thought they could.  He came up with a lot of the original ideas, or at least contributed to them.  He even came up with the idea and the design of the famous Apple stores around the world.  When he saw something he wanted he made sure it was integrated into his products.  When he didn’t like something, instead of putting out a crappy product, he made the tough decision to tear it down and start over.

Check out the famous 1984 Apple commercial, widely considered one of the best TV commercials ever.  Jobs had a significant hand in how it was developed and chose to run it despite staunch opposition.

3. Jobs was a prick

To describe Jobs, I feel it is necessary to invoke the wise words of Jay Chou (Kato) from The Green Hornet: ”He was a complex man.”

Like many people who did not know much about Jobs’s personality, I was stunned when I read the book to discover that he was a colossal prick (and a prick with bad B.O as well — as he believed his vegan diet made him immune).

There’s just no way to sugar coat it (Isaacson certainly didn’t).  Jobs was narcissistic, arrogant, petulant, bratty, liked to take credit for other people’s work, enjoyed destroying people (mentally), was vindictive, disloyal and could be bitterly cruel to everyone around him, including his family.  He would shoot people down, he would be a dick just because he could, he would scream until he got his way, or cry (literally) when he didn’t.

To be fair, he did respect the people that stood up to him or proved their worth to him, but for the most part he was an extremely difficult person to be around.  No wonder he was ousted from Apple the first time round, and even now, people that respected him deeply still have no qualms acknowledging what a flawed personality he had.

4. Jobs saved Pixar

Before reading this book, I thought Jobs was merely responsible for the iPod, iPhone and iPad.  I heard that he bought and then sold the animation studio Pixar, making a healthy profit in the process, but I had no idea that he essentially saved Pixar from going under by pouring his own money into it and actually spent a lot of time there helping them develop the films.  Without Jobs, we probably would have never been blessed with movies such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Up, WALL-E, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc, and so forth.  Wow.

5. Not everything Jobs touched turned to gold

It’s easy to remember only one’s successes, but Isaacson’s book touched on many of Jobs’s failures.  He was at the helm of several failed Apple products and the company he formed after being kicked out of Apple in the 1980s, NeXT, was also ultimately a failure.

We often only remember the mega successes and forget the failures, but it was these failures that helped Jobs learn from his mistakes so that he could grow and evolve.  Without these earlier failures he would never have had the successes he experienced later.

6. Jobs saved the music industry with iTunes

I don’t know if this is an overstatement, but the book certainly made it feel legitimate: Steve Jobs essentially saved the music industry by introducing iTunes.

Personally, I hate iTunes for the restrictive way it operates and how it forces you to sync everything.  But a time when music piracy was (and still is) spiralling out of control, and with both music labels and technology companies struggling to come up with a way to stop the bleeding, Jobs’s iTunes offered a simple solution for everyday users to obtain the music they want at a reasonable price.  Apple’s rivals readily acknowledged that Jobs had come up with something they should have, and that they had dropped the ball with their own clunky versions.  Key members of the music industry also openly acknowledged the effect iTunes had on their businesses.

The mammoth success of iTunes speaks for itself, but what was more amazing for me to learn was that Jobs had personally reached out to a lot of artists to agree to be included so that iTunes would have the widest possible range of music.  The fact he picked up the phone and did that himself, from U2 to Madonna to Eminem, blows my mind.

7. Jobs and Bill Gates loathed each other

One thing I was surprised to learn was that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born in the same year (1955).  Because Gates’s fame and fortune came earlier, and Jobs’s not until the last few years (and let’s face it, Apple was not on most Aussie’s radar during Microsoft’s years of dominance), I had always thought Gates might have been older (despite looking younger…it’s a confusing world).

But as the book revealed, not only were the two contemporaries, they also once worked together before becoming mortal enemies.   Well, maybe those words are too strong to describe the relationship, but it’s safe to say that they hated each other.  Then again, Jobs hated everyone that posed a threat to him.

According to Isaacson, Jobs hated Gates because Gates was a pragmatist.  Jobs saw himself as an artist who needed control of all the hardware and software to ensure his “art” would not be not spoiled by outsiders, whereas Gates was an unimaginative hack simply copied other people’s work and sold out by licensing Microsoft software to all compatible hardware, whether they were any good or not.  I think that’s a good description of how Jobs felt, and perhaps there was also a tinge of jealousy over Gates’s early success.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in 1985 -- though they would eventually make peace, the two hated each other for a very long time

Gates, on the other hand, didn’t think Jobs knew the technology well enough (which was probably fair), but I think the real reason he became a dick to Jobs was because Jobs was a massive dick to him first, for no good reason either.  The book recounts the time when Gates visited Apple’s offices, and Jobs purposely kept him waiting for a very long time while being in plain sight, before belligerently tearing into Gates and his company.

Perhaps it is because Jobs has passed, which explains why Gates appears to only have respectful things to say about Jobs in the book (despite a few jabs at his difficult personality), but it is heartening to learn that the two men kind of made peace before Jobs passed.  One of the most moving parts of the book was when Gates visited Jobs at his home (where Jobs was almost on his death bed) and the two recounted old times.  Jobs finally gave due respect to what Gates did with the computer industry, though he remained defiant on his own methodologies.

8. Jobs had the ability to distort reality

One of the most talked-about things in the book was Jobs’s “reality distortion field”.  It sounds ridiculous but people who know Jobs swear it exists.

It refers to Jobs’s ability to distort reality by making the impossible possible.  He would be able to use his charm, wit and skills of manipulation to convince people to do things or see things in a certain way.  He would also use his power to pressure people into doing things they never thought possible.

The reality distortion field was in full effect numerous times throughout the book, usually when someone who worked with or under Jobs recounted how they never thought something was possible, either in terms of time constraints or technical capability, and yet Jobs would use his reality distortion field to make it possible.

I’m sure at the time these people would have hated Jobs for pushing them to do what they felt was totally unreasonable, but the way he got his staff to continuously achieve the impossible is why Apple ended up with these amazing products.

9. Jobs was a man of contradictions

Steve Jobs was a man of contradictions.  He was adopted and desperately wanted to feel wanted, but when the opportunity came to reunite with his biological father (whom he had unknowingly stumbled across several times because he enjoyed dining at a restaurant his father worked at), he steadfastly refused.  He was abandoned by his biological parents, but he also abandoned a biological child (a daughter) for several years before eventually reaching out to her.

One of the most fascinating things about the book was the fact that Jobs made these Apple products because always saw himself as a rebel and a representative of the counterculture, and yet he made people more materialistic with them.

He hated companies that dominated the market like Microsoft, comparing them to tyrants and “Big Brother”, but Apple eventually became a dominant player itself that bullied anyone who wouldn’t bow to its closed ecosystem.

In many ways, Jobs was the ultimate dictator — he was a tyrant of a boss who wanted to control everything — from the tiniest little screw to the design of the Apple store to the way the product boxes were opened.  And if you ever crossed him he would remember it and make sure you regretted it.

Jobs, of course, never saw himself as that tyrant, which brings up some interesting Annakin Skywalker/Darth Vader analogies.  Jobs preferred to see himself as the underdog — he wanted to be David, not Goliath — even when reality reflected otherwise.

10. Success comes from hard work

A valuable lesson to be learned from the Steve Jobs biography is that true success really does come from hard work.  People who put in the hard yards might not always succeed, but people who succeed always put in the hard yards.

Jobs was the poster child of hard work.  He practically worked around the clock and often forced his subordinates to do the same.  He was once the CEO (official or otherwise) of two massive companies, Apple and Pixar.  He was the type of person who would call people up at 3am to discuss an idea he came up with.  Even when he was facing death he still wanted to make sure that Apple didn’t stuff things up.  Often luck plays a significant role, but if you really want to succeed at something you have to be willing to put in the time and effort.

Interestingly, Jobs always said, prophetically, that he did not think he would live a long life, which is why he was always pushing himself to achieve more and more greatness.  We all have a finite time on this earth, so it’s a mentality we can certainly learn from.

And here’s that legendary Stanford address video, which Isaacson says is probably the best university opening address of all time.

11. Don’t do something for the primary reason of making money

Another valuable lesson is that if you do or make something, don’t do it just because you want to get rich and famous — do it because you want to do or make something the best it can be.

It’s easy to say but hard to put into practice.  Whenever I think of an idea, it is inevitably always linked to how I can monetise it.  But for Jobs, it was never about the money — it was always about making the best products possible, products he would want to have.  The money and success become a by-product of creating the best products.

He became a multi-millionaire in his 20s (and this was 70s money) — most people would have been happy to put their feet up and enjoy the rest of their lives in luxury, but Jobs cared so much about what he was making that he wanted to keep doing it.

A fascinating snippet from the book was when Jobs had been ousted from Apple and was thinking of a way back in.  His wealthy friend, Larry Ellison, suggested that he buy Apple and nominate Jobs as the new CEO.  When Jobs came up with a less expensive way (he would get Apple to buy his company NeXT, which would get him on the board, and he would fight for control from there), Ellison was confused.

“But Steve, there’s one thing I don’t understand,” he said.  ”If we don’t buy the company, how can we make any money?”.  It was a reminder of how different their desires were.  Jobs put his hand on Ellison’s left shoulder, pulled him so close that their noses almost touched, and said, “Larry, this is why it’s really important that I’m your friend.  You don’t need any more money.”

12. Why Apple is so popular

At last, we get down to the big question: why the heck is apple so popular?  It was something I pondered a year or two ago in this post, and I didn’t have the answer back then.  But after reading the book and gaining an insight into Apple, Jobs and the whole phenomenon, I think I am beginning to understand.

It’s actually quite simple: Apple either made existing products (usually still in their infancy) better, or it managed to get the first foot in the door for new products.  Apple made the products simpler, more intuitive and user-friendly.  Jobs and his team created products they would want, not products they thought would make the most money (which is a fine, but important distinction) — often practical concerns would force CEOs to make compromises, but Jobs made sure quality was never compromised.  It was all or nothing.  Even the inside of the products needed to be beautiful.

And of course, there is the brand Jobs built.  He understood the importance of branding and not just marketing.  The slick design of the products, the Apple stores, the grand product unveilings.  These are the things ordinary people might think important but not crucial in the grand scheme of things, but Jobs poured countless hours into perfecting every little aspect of every decision until it was just right.  He made Apple cool.  Apple still has a lot of haters, but those with Apple products believe they are cool, which is all that matters.  Unfortunately, a lot of them have also become Apple-apologist douchebags who tear your head off for even looking like you might want to criticise Apple or praise a competitor, but it’s just something the world has to live with.

Through a combination of luck, learning from experiences and failures, genius and extremely hard work, Jobs turned Apple into the richest company in the world.  He put effort into the little things, things other people would consider irrelevant or negligible; while a lot of these things probably were, the sum of them all ultimately made Apple better and stronger, whether it was in terms of its products or image, than its competitors.

Jobs’s obtuse personality also played a role.  His philosophy of creating a closed ecosystem with fully integrated hardware and software — it didn’t make sense economically (Microsoft proved licensing was the way to go in the computing world) but it allowed Apple to create a better and more complete user experience, which eventually allowed them to overcome the shortcomings of the strategy.  In fact, with iTunes, Apple proved that the opposite of Microsoft’s approach was the way to go when it came to the music industry.

So there you have it.  The 12 things I learned from the Steve Jobs biography.  If you haven’t read the book already I urge you to do so.

Can I dramatise this scene?

June 12, 2011 in Novel, On Writing

Source: mindset.yoursabbatical.com

A few weeks ago we were discussing the use of free indirect discourse in class.  I didn’t even know what it was, even though I had been using it throughout my writings for years.

Free indirect discourse is a way of representing a character’s speech or thoughts using a combination of direct discourse and narratorial commentary.  The simplest example I can think of is instead of writing a whole conversation between two people where you write down every word uttered (followed by ‘he said’ or ‘she said’), you summarise the conversation with narrative (eg, ‘They had a conversation about X’).

It’s used in just about every novel out there, but it’s something I never really thought much about before until I started struggling with my own writing.  Some conversations in my WIP novel(s) didn’t really work or dragged on too long, and probably could have been dispensed with a narrative summary instead of a word by word account.  Conversely, other conversations which I summarised might have worked better if I strung it out more to give the characters more of a voice.

The problem extends beyond just speech for me.  Looking through some of my older drafts, I tended to have a problem of not knowing how to create a scene.  I might not know where to start or where to end a sequence or a series of actions, and it ends up being a long, drawn out, tedious scene where people just do things and talk and do things and talk for an extended period of time.  The pace sags and even if a lot of things are happening it still feels slow and boring.

However, if I just summarise the scenes they end up losing life and take the reader out of the action.

So it’s a delicate balance.  Knowing when to use free indirect discourse and when to summarise scenes and when to write them out in full is a true skill, and a difficult one to master.

The way I look at it now is that I’m a director of a film, and it’s up to me to decide which scenes I want to show, which scenes I want to omit, which parts I want to spell out for audiences and which parts I leave for them to fill in themselves.  Is this scene worthy of being dramatised?  Is the scene capable of creating drama or tension or helps develop a character or reveal something pertinent about the plot?  Is there a point in the reader having to read the entire conversation or know every little thing that a person saw or did in that scene?  Is there a purpose?  If the answers to the questions are yes, then I go ahead and craft the scene in detail.  If the answers are no, then I’ll have to think of an effective way to summarise it.

Either way, it’s not easy!

 

 
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