Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Pausch's 'Last Lecture'and Jobs's biography: Death and Memoirs

Before Steve Jobs there was Randy Pausch. Pausch and Jobs share eerie coincidences and yet both are very different persons. Carnegie Mellon had a lecture series titled "Last Lecture" and invited professors to give a lecture as if it was their last lecture. Pausch, professor of human interaction and computers in Carnegie, identified by Time as one of the 100 most influential (like Jobs), was called too to give a last lecture in 2007. Just a month prior to that lecture Pausch learned that he had terminal stage pancreatic cancer, a cancer similar to Jobs. Pausch persisted with giving his lecture except he made a small change. Pausch did not talk computers he talked about "Really achieving your childhood dreams".

The lecture was reported by a Wall Street Journal reporter as a compelling life story. In the youtube age the video went viral. As I type this the video has been viewed 14 MILLION TIMES. Randy Pausch uprooted his family to quiet suburbs in Virginia. Given his popularity now he was asked to write a book. The book 'Last Lecture' became a runaway bestseller. Pausch worked for Xerox from where Jobs got the idea for a 'mouse' and 'window'. Pausch, after a childhood of loving video games and Disney World, went to work for Disney. Jobs's turnaround of Pixar that he later sold to Disney is corporate folklore.

For all the similarities of how they lived and died Pausch and Jobs were completely different persona and in many ways opposites. Of course Pausch and Jobs functioned at completely different level with the latter being considered a sheer genius in the mold of Edison. Jobs practically commissioned his biography. Walter Isaacson, former editor of TIme and author of bestseller biographies of Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, was sought out by Steve Jobs to write his biography. A stunned Isaacson asked Jobs why he was chosen, he even poked Jobs about the fact that his previous biographies were about Einstein and Franklin, "do you see yourself in that order by having me write your biography". Pausch's biography is so heartwarming that it is now stocked in the 'self-help' region in book stores (groan!!!). Jobs, knowing full well that his biography will be published after his death, is irascible and completely ungracious about his famous rival Bill Gates. Even Isaacson is stumped by how ungracious Jobs was. Pausch recounts learning humility, learning how sending a thank you note is important, learns how Disney World workers say "park is open till 10 PM" when asked by a visitor "when does the park close". Both books are good counterpoints and well worth the read.

The tragedy that unites Pausch and Jobs is the very public dying they had to endure. As much as Jobs aged in front of millions so did Pausch on a far lesser scale but equally watched. Pausch died a year after his last lecture in 2008 and it was front page news. Jobs, after resigning as CEO, died slowly in front of his family. Its really tragic to think that both Pausch and Jobs had very young children practically watching their dad die. Pausch had a 2 year old. Pausch and Jobs were deeply motivated by leaving behind some memories for their children. Jobs told Isaacson that wants the biography to explain to his children why he was not there for them like other dads. Jobs desired his children to understand that their father was trying to create a new and better world ever since he knew his diagnosis instead of sulking home and living of his past accomplishments or wealth. Pausch ruefully thinks that his youngest child would have no memory of him as dad.

Pausch and Jobs were dads dying in public glare who felt they needed to leave behind some voice of their own for their kids. On the other end of the spectrum are dad's writing out of grief for dead children. Harold Khushner, a Jewish Rabbi lost his son to progeria at 6. Khushner out of his inconsolable grief wrote a runaway bestseller, "When bad things happen to good people". Khushner, as a Rabbi, is deeply troubled by how a loving omnipotent God could allow such illness to fell innocent children. Going into a pediatric cancer ward can melt the hearts of even the most stoic. John Gunther had an equally anguished book "Death be not proud" written after his son died. Joan Didion, American writer, mourning her husband wrote "The year of magical living" and in an unprecedented tragic sequence also wrote "Blue Nights" mourning her daughter who died soon after her own father died.

Death and the philosophical musings of what life means is endless. An obituary that remains etched in my memory is columnist Roger Rosenblatt's column in Time, "The Measure of A Life", about John F. Kennedy Jr's tragic death. JFK Jr died in a plane crash with his young wife. Rosenblatt mused if there ever is such a thing as timely death. Given JFK Jr's youth the first words in every obituary was "untimely death". "In some way, a life ended in youth may be superior to a prolonged existence subject to revisionism and conspicuous error. Death turns "potential" into realization; what one could have done becomes in effect what one did". Biologist and educationist Lewis Thomas, author of classic 'The lives of a cell,  told Rosenblatt that "the true measure of a life is that it be useful".  Rosenblatt concludes, "When a man dies, a civilization dies with him. Whatever constituted his being--his gait, manners, tone of voice, political opinions, appearance, his particular use of language, philosophy, sense of beauty, sense of style, his personal history, ambitions, his smile--all go".

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Caldecott, Newbery Prizes and Children's Books

America has a very deep intellectual culture that is best epitomized by the plethora of prizes awarded in so many fields, especially books. The Pulitzer's are the most widely known prizes. There are others too like the 'National Book Award', 'National Book Critics Circle Award, 'PEN/Faulkner Award', "Bancroft Prize' and much more. Of course each carries different prestige with the Pulitzers being ranked highest. New York Times book review is a treasure for any bibliophile. A few years back NYT started a separate section to review children's books. Children's toys, movies and now books are money spinners. During summer movies for kids hit the screens raking in hundreds of billions of dollars. Only after coming to America I realized that there are really kids movies made for kids. As a kid in Tamil Nadu we had watched a few pathetic children's movies that were replete with club dances (that movie also received a tax exemption categorized as 'kid friendly'). Other than Amar Chitra Katha that peddled mythologies as comics there was simply no child friendly literature. One poet Valliappa, labeled 'children's poet', wrote some eminently forgettable verses. As an obsessive visitor of book stores I am well aware of wonderful books for children in US book stores. The county libraries offer library cards for tiny tots. However a recent discovery has made me yet again say, like Tim Russert's dad Big Russ, "what a country".

Caldecott Medal is given to children's picture books, not illustrated, just 'picture books'. This being Christmas season such books are stacked as 'gift ideas'. Of course there will be people who will see this as 'commercialization', or 'money making'. My reply, "take a hike" or "get a life". One medal winner I saw was a picturisation of the time worn tale of "Lion and Mouse". There were no words just luscious drawing in vivid colors. The image that stuck in my mind was the lion looking forlorn through the net as it sees the mouse nibble the thick braids of the net. Note, children's books, does not necessarily mean only Aesops fables and fairy tales. A 'National book award' winner illustrates charmingly what "life cycle" mean. There are books on symbiotic relationships of organism, idea of 'time', the book 'What to do with a tail like this' details regenerative organs.

Intrigued by this genre of prizes I looked further and learnt of the Newbery Medal which is awarded for the best in children's literature since 1920.A few weeks back I had bought Hendrik Willem Van Loon's "The story of Mankind". I remembered Will Durant writing about that book, "adults bought Hendrik Willem Van Loon's 'Story' for children and surreptitiously read it themselves". The book is a riot to read. Books deal with delicate subjects of Civil Rights too. Van Loon, I was delighted to learn, is the first recipient of Newbery Medal in 1922. In 1918 Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar had written the incorrigibly stupid play titled 'Sabapathi' about a country bumpkin. Sambanda Mudaliar is hailed as the first Tamil novelist. With such a beginning Tamil literature went nowhere in the decades after.

Both Caldecott and Newbery are administered by the "Association for Library Service to Children". The wikipedia for ALSC threw a huge surprise listing 10 prizes awarded for various categories in Children's literature plus notable listing of books for each year. NYT too just released the best children's books for 2011. The ALSC website, , has a plethora of resources for teaching children ( ).

Last week we attended our daughter's parent-teacher conference. The ways in which a first grade student is evaluated is simply amazing. The learning atmosphere, how the concepts are introduced and ingrained, the web resources etc only mades us, as parents, feel so good about her educational prospects. I've absolutely zero hesitation in bringing up a girl child in USA. In fact we feel comfortable that she is NOT studying in India. Recently I heard that a premium convent in Chennai has classrooms divided on caste basis with students, not even in teens, trade remarks on caste and talk about reservation quotas. For those who keep bringing up teen pregnancy, dating etc, my reply is "look beyond and grow up". Also let me note that we often forget that the India we left behind is not there. There is a new India that is practically living the American 60's sadly taking only the vices of that age not its institutional virtues like Caldecott and Pulitzer's.