Monday, May 09, 2011

The Day After - GE 2011 and Beyond

Many people asked if I am pro-PAP or pro-Oppo. Afterall, I have always professed my admiration of MM as one of the greatest thinkers of our times, of the uselessness of many of the opposition parties, and yet I am also greatly appreciative of Chiam See Tong. I speak highly of PAP's economic policies, disparage some of the scatter-brain policies suggested by the opposition, and yet I also speak about the need to consider the needs of the lower middle classes more sensitively. What am I? Thinking about it after the elections, I think my answer will shock many - I am neither. I don't support either party per say, because that would be too irrational and blind with love.

I belong to what is termed, in political science terms, the 'middle ground'. And many people are like that, in all democratic societies. In Singapore, this 'watershed' elections, so to speak, is indicative of that same pattern. There are the die-hard fans of course: the purest Whites (纯白), the darkest Blues (深蓝), and in my coined term - the Colours (任何颜色). The Colours is an interesting group - they will support any opposition team, regardless of the team's colour. But the Colours is very likely a small percentage of all Singaporeans, perhaps 15-20% at most. I don't think I belong to any, being more pragmatic and commentative than that - I don't think I could be comfortable to fully support any party. I suppose the middle ground voters could be considered the Transparents, just to continue the colours analogy of Singaporean political landscape. The Transparents take on colours of the day - depending on the changing situations and needs, reflecting the respective colours or issues.

In most societies that get to vote regularly, the middle ground is a highly crucial set of people, almost 40%, and they owe no long-term die-hard allegiance to any party. Rather, they will support the party that they either think is good for the nation or is able to raise their concerns in Parliament with a stronger voice. In a socio-political sense, the middle ground is also a very necessary group of voters. Parties that are entrenched in power for a long time could meander or wander off at times, and the middle ground will shift to try to bring the ruling party or the opposition part(ies) back to the middle. I like to perceive it as a democratic ground movement of 中庸 in the pure Confucian sense - the Confucian Golden Mean. (中庸 , 不偏不倚 .) It prevents parties from going too far into the extremes, which could not only divide a nation, but destroy one half in the process. Thus, in a mature democratic society, the middle ground provides a natural fulcrum of balance.

This 2011 elections is one in which the middle ground seemed to have sent a signal. They want to be heard, heeded and hosted with greater sense and sensitivity. More importantly, they want a more compassionate Singapore with a soul. Yet, they are also mindful of the quality of opposition candidates and parties. If we were to examine the results, it is an interesting but very clear picture. Of the vote swing to the opposition parties, does it mean that all the opposition parties have gained die-hard supporters? Not so. Only the WP seems to have gained more darkest blues supporters, and thereafter perhaps the NSP of the Nicole Seah effect. SPP is on the decline; it has never really stepped out of Mr Chiam See Tong's personal star effect. As for SDP, SDA and RP, they would be deluded if they think the 30 odd percent of votes that they are garnering this time (up from the previous election's 20%) implies voters supporting their respective parties.

That 10% increment is merely the general protest vote swing nationwide. it is, if we strip off the details of sound and fury, I would see the general baseline opposition support to be at about 20%, which is then augmented by another 10% because of the general unhappiness with the ruling PAP's brisk style and approach to costs of living, transport, foreign worker, the freak incident of Mas Selamat and floods. That sets it to a general 30% of opposition support in general, which is what most of the opposition parties garnered this time. This analysis also fits the reduction of about 8% on the part of PAP's national vote percentage from the last elections. The WP, in particular, is the only opposition party that has made clear inroads in picking up more supporters. It probably won over another 8-10% of die-hard deep blues, evidenced in its average vote percentage and its rallies' attendance figures in comparison to the others. Most significant would be the outcome of the one three-cornered fight this time, with WP winning 42% of the votes there, in comparison to the 4% votes won by the other opposition contestant. When there is a choice between opposition candidates, quality obliterates. What more need to be said?

I would propose, with the best of intentions, that RP, SDA and SDP simply dissolve themselves and the good candidates to join the other main opposition parties. The current RP, SDA and SDP are just languishing in a different league altogether, and their rambling and many a time disjoint and under-developed policies suggestions are just a waste of constituency places and voters' time. They devalue the opposition, the cause of the opposition, and the votes of the electorate. This is not to discredit the usefulness of these opposition parties this GE, because they do provide that critical mass and momentum - the whole of Singapore is involved in voting, accelerating a national awareness and support. However, how sustainable is it to have six opposition parties, all vying for candidates with slightly different nuanced views, which then erupts into a messing confusion of party platforms? In a non-unhappy year, when the PAP is held in higher regard, these opposition parties' votes could very well be reduced to the 20% band again.

The SPP is a different story. My deepest respect and admiration goes to Mr Chiam See Tong, who gave 27 years of good dedicated public service to provide that balance in our Parliament. However, my general gut feel is that the SPP has reached its end-point, because it simply does not seem to be able to attract new younger members who are capable, or to sustain and keep them. Neither did it seem to have a strong party organ structure. I am very appreciative of what I sense to be a family-oriented 'my kind of town' style in the SPP, from the vibes I get at their rallies, but that will not bring SPP into the new age of Singaporean politics. Unless it changes its style, it would have served its purpose.

The WP has won the praise and support of Singaporeans in this 2011 Elections, but I do hope they take caution too. I am most exhilarated at the WP win of Aljunied, because that means a breakthrough, and Parliament will see a good 2-party system in the making. Yet, the greatest moment of achievement could also be the most precarious moment. For when one reaches a peak, one could very well slide or drop all the way down. On the positive side, the WP, in my observations, is most credible and viable. It is well organised, with clear vision, and it seems to be the most similar in structure, party rules, party discipline and style as the PAP. I have attended the rallies of the blues, and indeed, I came away inspired about a better Singapore. To some extent it reminds one of the early PAP, of those times of worries, dreams and battles for a young nation. This GE, they are wise, real and practical too. That augurs well for Singapore. In many policies, I think they do recognise the wisdom of the PAP's general policies, and they just want tweaking so that the concerns of the common man is better heard. The main difference is in the extremes. PAP tends to be more business-oriented, while the WP tends to be more social/under-class oriented. In a sense, it's like being on both sides of a swinging pendulum, and one provides the necessary check on the other, and that is perhaps what Singapore's future political landscape would turn out to be. Yet, I do hope that over time, if and when WP does make more in-roads, they do not become complacent, take voters and party members for granted, for that is a typical route taken merrily and unconsciously by organisations which reach a certain state of stability and achievement.

On the other hand, though PAP seemed to have lost quite a bit of votes this time round, dropping all the way to a mere 60%, it could benefit from it. It could be perceived as a winner in the long run. It is indeed a shocking loss of George Yeo and the others - 5 good men and women, and this could only force the party reflect on the necessary changes seriously. Many organisations went through such crisis before - the Catholic Church during the Reformation, and Japan when it was forced to open its ports. And they changed - the Catholic Church underwent its own Counter-Reformation, and Japan underwent the Meiji Restoration, and they emerged stronger than before. Similarly, the British lost the American colonies, but they learnt from it and thereafter created an even greater empire, one on which the sun, supposedly, never sets.

The changes and analysis reflections that PM has said the PAP will undertake is thus a necessary and highly beneficial stage it has to undergo. In my opinion, it can only come out of this stronger, if it takes heed of the messages sent by the electorate in this election. The voters have not abandoned PAP. In fact, the dismal results of the RP, and the not too illustrious results of the SDA and SDP, indicate that quality of party still matters. Even the vote difference in Aljunied is only about 10%. PM's AMK GRC gave him a good 69%, which is more indicative of the trust that the people have in PAP without the distractions of minsters in charge of ministries with unpopular policies. If PAP as a party could change and adapt to the new electorate profile and needs, it could very well emerge a stronger party than before. On hindsight, I wonder if this sense of connectedness, which PM spoke about in his apologies, had been adopted earlier, especially after the famous episode of Catherine Lim's 'The Affective Divide' in 1994, perhaps the PAP would not have lost the affection and trust of that 10% of the electorate in this 2011 Elections. But, hindsight is always cheap, so I shall not explore that further.

There are some points that many argue over this elections. The mind versus the heart. Many people say that they vote 'with the mind'. But frankly, I do not know what that means, because it could mean different things to different people. Voting with the mind could mean voting for more alternative voices in Parliament, because that voter sees the need for it, even as it could mean voting for the ruling incumbent party, because the voter sees stability and economic success as more important for the overall good of the nation. The same argument could be used in voting 'with the heart' too. So I am most amused to hear people tell each other to 'vote wisely', because that is the most vague expression ever. Another point raised is whether one is being ungrateful in not voting for the incumbent, or one is not thinking of nation and rather just concerned with self interest. Again, that's a matter of perceptions - one might be grateful, but yet believe in the need for change for the good of the nation. One might also think that having more voices in parliament is for the greater good of the nation as compared to estate upgrading, or short term foreign affairs. Similarly, others might accuse those who vote for more voices in parliament to be myopic and selfish because they simply want their complaints to be heard, that they are not thinking about the dent it would create on Singapore's national interest in foreign affairs. Yet others further assert that voting for a more 'caring society, for the heart' and compassion is to betray the elderly and underprivileged who need upgrading and tangible help. The list goes on. I think this is probably healthy debate, because there is no clear answer, and such civic discussion in the rallies, coffeeshops and online will crystallise for all the Singapore we want, and the Singaporean values we hold dear. It will take a few elections for this to emerge, and that will be when we truly know what we mean by our great Singaporean dream and identity. It connects Singaporeans together, whichever parties they may support, regardless of new or old citizens, because there is public discourse and consensus thereafter.

So, now that the dust has settled, and the shock and euphoria and sadness have subsided, can we say that certain political parties have won and certain parties have lost? That would be too simplistic an interpretation of it all. Perhaps, in a short term view, parties can proclaim their own victory or failure, but the true effects and impact of GE2011 on the respective parties will only be fully understood in the long term. But one thing is clear - the true great winners of this General Election 2011 are Singaporeans and Singapore.

For once in many years, all Singaporeans are exercising their responsibilities to discuss, to assess, to reflect, to think, to dream, so as to decide on their individual votes. And for once in many years, all Singaporeans are exercising their privilege and right to vote - that single paper that represents each person's voice on the matter of discussion. And that, truly, is what binds Singaporeans together for a common purpose, a common destiny, for our great country Singapore.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Still Sharp and Witty

He's still sharp and witty. A strong heart he has.

A First Prize Speech

Rise and Fall of Nations and Organisations

Special trees and wild mushrooms reminds me of Lord of the Rings and the hobbits - they love mushrooms in the shire. Makes me think about the rise and fall of nations, and the rise and fall of companies. (lots of Tolkien and Jim Collins there.)

A thought - when other companies and countries are researching and breeding new species of mushrooms and trees, and exporting these highly prized unique new varieties around the world, and we hold on only to one species, we end up being irrelevant. One day, our forest of special trees might not be as unique and prized anymore if there's only inbreeding. We might one day be like China during the mid-Qing Dynasty - so strong was its belief in its self-reliance and superiority, it rejected all things from outside or any criticism, and look at the humiliation China suffered for 150 years because of that pride. Incidentally, that rejection of new technology etc happened during the so-called golden age of Emperor Qianlong, when China thought it was invincible and so rejected the British ambassador and advanced western new technology. Qianlong said, "Great Qing is a great and vast nation. We have everything here, and there is nothing we have to learn or acquire from the barbaric primitive west." And look where that led China. Then, tradition-bound inertia and preservation politics of the Qing court thereafter blocked and stopped any hopes of renewal and rejuvenation of that country. And on hindsight today, it was group-think by the mandarins of the court, all selected from the same eons of Confucian-based Imperial Exams, and their ostrich mentality towards the west (in contrast to the Japanese Meiji Restoration) that sunk China in the Late Qing era, not just Empress Dowager Cixi.

That is but one example of the fall of great nations. Look at Rome, at Venice, at Spain, at Portugal, at the UK. All rendered obsolete because they became entrenched and all-too-blind in believing in the invincibility of their own factors of success. They stopped evolving. Or perhaps that's the natural rhythm of the rise and fall of nations, communities, organisations, companies when people become entrenched in the ways of yesteryears. That's how IBM failed to microsoft, and how microsoft is failing to apple/andriod-goggle etc. They try to make rectifications and innovate from within, but frankly, engineers and managers who have been in these companies for years, and their recruited cohorts, how different can they be? A leopard is too old to change its spots, even if it wants to. So what do companies do? They do re-orgs, they import people from outside, they try to shake up the company. Some manage to reinvent themselves, others are simply replaced by new nimble ones. Some take a bruise and languish for a while after being dislodged from top market position, begin to explore new fields, and suddenly emerge again a new leading force - just like Apple.

Even as we are so confident in our trial and tested systems, should we not avoid being over complacent about our invincibility? Evolution shows what prevails - selection and adaption, not 'shut the door and make our own cars'.

I do worry about that complacency.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Over-reaction to Maths PSLE Gets Flake from Forumers

Brilliant forum responses here to one father's online gripe about the PSLE Maths being too difficult for his son - resulting in his son's loss of confidence.  Seems like Singaporeans do have tenacity and most Singaporean parents are enlightened afterall.

Read the forum here - classic!

Obama awarded Nobel Peace Prize? WTF?!??!?!?!?!

Have the Nobel Peace Prize committee members taken leave of their sensibilities??? Seriously?!?!

Absolute crap. Simply ridiculous. An insult to all the previous awardees, and an absolute absurdity! The Nobel Peace Prize Committee has truly made a mockery out of themselves. How
is Obama any better than some of the other world leaders working to
reduce nuclear weapons and bring world peace? Except that he seems
better than his predecessor. And ...there
has been no concrete sustained results as yet! This Prize is awarded
based on HOPE, as much as Obama was elected based on the Promise of
Change! And he has yet to deliver! My goodness. I think our LKY or S. Rajaratnam, who penned our Singaporean Pledge - regardless of race, language or religion -  should get
the Nobel Peace Prize then, and all the more qualified for it, for
shaping and moulding a working national model of racial-ethnic harmony
that has lasted for some 40 years. Now, that is real change, and real
promise, and real hope, for the rest of the world as to Peace.

Thursday, October 08, 2009


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The State of Singlish

Oh well, I have been ranting about this for quite a while...

Frankly, the key reasons for the State of Singlish, and the pidgin Mandarin we speak, are:

1) Jack Neo's GaoXiaoXingDong - contaminating two decades worth of children who grew up with the numerous Singlish expressions from his iconic characters. We applauded his genious and observational powers at that time. On hindsight, that was the beginning of the rot. Imagine the impact and linguistic influence upon the children who grew up with the 5 consecutive nights of his GXXD over the stretch of many years. (Perhaps, Jack Neo and co. did a great disservice to our nation, notwithstanding his Public Service Medal.)

2) Gurmit Singh, Andrian Pang, Mark Lee and the many other emcees and comperes on the mediacorp TV channels and Radio stations, who perpetuated Singlish and mangled English these many years.  (In fact, I should be directing all the fault-finding towards Mediacorp instead, rather than these minions of the company.)

3) We the people. We the English speaking people. We the Mandarin speaking people. We the supposedly educated and informed people, who argued once upon a time that Singlish, being our de facto lingua franca (and I am damn proud of Singlish too), should be embraced by all, because we can code-switch afterall. We have forgotten that young children are not as capable of code switching as adults, and they need constant GOOD models of language in action. And we the people - parents, maids, passers-by in the market and NTUC, interviewees in national news programmes etc - are all guilty of being TOO LAZY to speak good standard English (or Mandarin as well).

So, our generation, and our subsequent generations, will not be able to out-talk the very effective and persuasive/loud speakers (people) from the West (U.S., U.K.) and the East (China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan.)  If we cannot persuade, if we cannot communicate effectively (not to even consider our utter lack of general knowledge and perspectives), we would have failed as individuals and as a society.

Monday, August 24, 2009

National Day Rally 2009 - Shaping Our Future Together

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Happy Shakespearean Birthday! Onscreen!

Sketching Shakespeare on film and TV

Scholars continue to argue over the Cobbe portrait, but what have the small and big screens taught us about the Bard?

So it's happy birthday, William Shakespeare! (And happy death-day too.) The RSC's annual birthday procession is underway in Stratford and Cobbegate rumbles on, with Stanley Wells admitting he feels "a bit isolated" in his belief that a recently discovered painting is the only lifetime portrait of the Bard. (Plenty more about that here.)

From  The Guardian 23 April 2009. Full Article here:

My List of Shakespearean Greatest:

Henry V ... Hamlet ... King Lear ... Macbeth


Why Henry VIII matters - David Starkey tells School Gate

Times Online article

It's 500 years since Henry VIII acceded to the English throne, and a major exhibition opens today at the British Library. It is also St George's Day - a fine time to think about England and to ask if it was Henry who first created a sense of English identity.

But back to the exhibition. It is, as Rachel Campbell-Johnston writes, a stunning, wonderful show, full of the most remarkable exhibits. And most marvellous of all are all the documents annotated by Henry himself, either in his inimitable scrawl, or with a pointed finger, his version of an arrow or highlighter.

For example, one cabinet contains a Bible. Here Henry's pointed finger is aimed at the section of Leviticus which says that "no man marry his brother's wife." This, the King felt, made his case when he demanded a divorce: marriage to Katherine of Aragon (who was first married to Henry's older brother, Arthur) was against the Bible. It was against religion and immoral.

But another cabinet reveals more. It displays love letters from Henry to Anne Boleyn. These letters are owned by the Vatican and were probably smuggled there to prove, during Henry's bitter attempts to divorce Katherine, that lust, not religion was the main reason. 

Most of us have some knowledge of Henry VIII, even if we know only that he had six wives, or that he was Elizabeth I's father. But he is so much more than that. This exhibition shows the young, chivalrous, well-educated, Renaissance, but conventional prince, and also the reformist, revolutionary King, who, in David Starkey's words, "tore apart the fabric of England." After all, it was he who broke from Rome, setting himself up as the Supreme head of a new, English, Church.

But Dr Starkey has more than that to say about this fiery Tudor monarch, much more, because he feels that Henry VIII is the central figure in English history. "Henry carries out a revolution," he told School Gate.

Dr Starkey points out that it's Henry, not his daughter, Elizabeth, who began to see England in terms of an empire, and says that it was this 16h century monarch who really developed a sense of English national identity.

"He develops this conception of the realm of England as an empire - self-governing," he says. "Yes, this feeds into Elizabeth's reign, but it's Henry who creates the navy which enables her to turn the notion of empire into reality.

"He also carries out a revolution culturally. This is the beginning of the invention of English as a great language, and English literature as a great literature. The key text is the [translation of the] Bible into English, and that takes place under Henry. It's also the first time that a collected edition of Chaucer was published - and he was to be seen as the English Homer or Virgil."

Dr Starkey feels that it was under Henry's rule that England also developed its euro-sceptic tone. "No other country has the debate that we still have, about our position in Europe," he says. "England sees the continent as Henry did, as something exotic and exciting, but also strange and incomprehensible. He was the original Euro-sceptic."

And all this even though of course, none of it was planned. "It all happened by the accident of him falling out of love with his first wife and in love with another woman," agrees Dr Starkey.

Andrea Clarke, the curator of the British Library, has spent two years putting the new exhibitition together. She agrees with Dr Starkey that Henry is "our most important monarch."

"Just look at all of the changes that take place under his reign," she says. "It's the beginning of the England we know today. There's that sense of national identity following the break from Rome, and a true revolutionary period in British history."

So now you know. Henry was not just the huge, scary, gluttonous King we know from popular lore. He was hugely important for England - and for the rest of the UK too. His daughter's heir, after all, was James VI of Scotland.

(The picture above is a detail from King Henry VIII's psalter, which is currently on show in the British Library exhibition. It dates from 1540 and links Henry to King David, and perhaps even to Jesus himself. It was used by Henry for his private prayers - you can see him in the illustration reading the Bible).

Henry VIII: man and monarch is on at the British Library until 6th September.

From School Gate - Times Online  article.


Which are the significant events and who are the significant people in forging Singapore's national identity. What is the Singaporean Identity? Did it begin in 1819? 1945? 1959? 1963? 1965? Thereafter? What constitutes the Singaporean Identity?

Is the Singaporean Identity a constant? Ought it be a constant? If it is still evolving today, will there be, one day, a divide between the old Singaporeans and the new Singaporeans? What do we value and treasure most in what we term the Singaporean Identity, the Singaporean Psyche? We Are Singapore - that age old National Song - indeed invokes and evokes strong chest-thumping feelings.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Her Dream - Susan Boyle, Britain's Got Talent 2009

Britain's Got Talent:
Scottish Singing Sensation - Susan Boyle

47 years old, Never Been Kissed

She came, and would sing Les Miserables - I Dreamed A Dream.
They laughed at her, judges and audience.
And she sang.
And boy, did she sing!

You have got to watch this:

Watch CBS Videos Online

Susan Boyle 1999 Recording of Cry Me A River Uncovered

Great Articles:

Great CBS interview of Susan Boyle here

A Moment of Truth in an Appearance-besotted Age (London Times Article)

I Have Got Bills To Pay, A House To Keep

Watch CBS Videos Online

(London) The Times Articles:

(London) Daily Mirror Article:

Fantastic Singing! A Victory for the Underdog!
A Most Thrilling Moment of Hope, a Complete Privilege!

Friday, April 03, 2009

Why Does He Have To Shout?

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's flamboyant Prime Minister, found himself on Italian front pages today – but more for his gaffe in offending the Queen at the G20 "family photograph" than his performance at the summit itself.

At the end of the G20 photo call yesterday Mr Berlusconi shouted out to the US President: “Mr Obamaaaa! This is Mister Berlusconi!”. The Queen then turned to the gathered leaders and said: “What is it? Why does he have to shout?”

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Friday, February 06, 2009

JK Rowling's Speech at Harvard Commencement

The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination
J.K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter book
series, delivers her Commencement Address, “The Fringe Benefits of
Failure, and the Importance of Imagination,” at the Annual Meeting of
the Harvard Alumni Association.

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

President Faust, members of the Harvard Corporation and the Board of
Overseers, members of the faculty, proud parents, and, above all,

The first thing I would like to say is ‘thank you.’ Not only has
Harvard given me an extraordinary honour, but the weeks of fear and
nausea I’ve experienced at the thought of giving this commencement
address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation! Now all I have
to do is take deep breaths, squint at the red banners and fool myself
into believing I am at the world’s best-educated Harry Potter

Delivering a commencement address is a great responsibility; or so I
thought until I cast my mind back to my own graduation. The
commencement speaker that day was the distinguished British philosopher
Baroness Mary Warnock. Reflecting on her speech has helped me
enormously in writing this one, because it turns out that I can’t
remember a single word she said. This liberating discovery enables me
to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to
abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy
delights of becoming a gay wizard.

You see? If all you remember in years to come is the ‘gay wizard’
joke, I’ve still come out ahead of Baroness Mary Warnock. Achievable
goals: the first step towards personal improvement.

Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say
to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own
graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years
that has expired between that day and this.

I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are
gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to
talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the
threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the
crucial importance of imagination.

These might seem quixotic or paradoxical choices, but please bear with me.

Looking back at the 21-year-old that I was at graduation, is a
slightly uncomfortable experience for the 42-year-old that she has
become. Half my lifetime ago, I was striking an uneasy balance between
the ambition I had for myself, and what those closest to me expected of

I was convinced that the only thing I wanted to do, ever, was to
write novels. However, my parents, both of whom came from impoverished
backgrounds and neither of whom had been to college, took the view that
my overactive imagination was an amusing personal quirk that could
never pay a mortgage, or secure a pension.

They had hoped that I would take a vocational degree; I wanted to
study English Literature. A compromise was reached that in retrospect
satisfied nobody, and I went up to study Modern Languages. Hardly had
my parents’ car rounded the corner at the end of the road than I
ditched German and scuttled off down the Classics corridor.

I cannot remember telling my parents that I was studying Classics;
they might well have found out for the first time on graduation day. Of
all subjects on this planet, I think they would have been hard put to
name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the
keys to an executive bathroom.

I would like to make it clear, in parenthesis, that I do not blame
my parents for their point of view. There is an expiry date on blaming
your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you
are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. What is
more, I cannot criticise my parents for hoping that I would never
experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since
been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling
experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression;
it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of
poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride
yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.

What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure.

At your age, in spite of a distinct lack of motivation at
university, where I had spent far too long in the coffee bar writing
stories, and far too little time at lectures, I had a knack for passing
examinations, and that, for years, had been the measure of success in
my life and that of my peers.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted
and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent
and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the
Fates, and I do not for a moment suppose that everyone here has enjoyed
an existence of unruffled privilege and contentment.

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that
you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a
fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your
conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s
idea of success, so high have you already flown academically.

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes
failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if
you let it. So I think it fair to say that by any conventional measure,
a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic
scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was
jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern
Britain, without being homeless. The fears my parents had had for me,
and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every
usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun.
That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was
going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy
tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a
long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because
failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending
to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to
direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.
Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the
determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.
I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and
I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had
an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid
foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is
inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something,
unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at
all – in which case, you fail by default.

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by
passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I
could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will,
and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had
friends whose value was truly above rubies.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks
means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You
will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships,
until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true
gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to
me than any qualification I ever earned.

Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old
self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a
check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV,
are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older
who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond
anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you
to survive its vicissitudes.

You might think that I chose my second theme, the importance of
imagination, because of the part it played in rebuilding my life, but
that is not wholly so. Though I will defend the value of bedtime
stories to my last gasp, I have learned to value imagination in a much
broader sense. Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to
envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention
and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory
capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans
whose experiences we have never shared.

One of the greatest formative experiences of my life preceded Harry
Potter, though it informed much of what I subsequently wrote in those
books. This revelation came in the form of one of my earliest day jobs.
Though I was sloping off to write stories during my lunch hours, I paid
the rent in my early 20s by working in the research department at
Amnesty International’s headquarters in London.

There in my little office I read hastily scribbled letters smuggled
out of totalitarian regimes by men and women who were risking
imprisonment to inform the outside world of what was happening to them.
I saw photographs of those who had disappeared without trace, sent to
Amnesty by their desperate families and friends. I read the testimony
of torture victims and saw pictures of their injuries. I opened
handwritten, eye-witness accounts of summary trials and executions, of
kidnappings and rapes.

Many of my co-workers were ex-political prisoners, people who had
been displaced from their homes, or fled into exile, because they had
the temerity to think independently of their government. Visitors to
our office included those who had come to give information, or to try
and find out what had happened to those they had been forced to leave

I shall never forget the African torture victim, a young man no
older than I was at the time, who had become mentally ill after all he
had endured in his homeland. He trembled uncontrollably as he spoke
into a video camera about the brutality inflicted upon him. He was a
foot taller than I was, and seemed as fragile as a child. I was given
the job of escorting him to the Underground Station afterwards, and
this man whose life had been shattered by cruelty took my hand with
exquisite courtesy, and wished me future happiness.

And as long as I live I shall remember walking along an empty
corridor and suddenly hearing, from behind a closed door, a scream of
pain and horror such as I have never heard since. The door opened, and
the researcher poked out her head and told me to run and make a hot
drink for the young man sitting with her. She had just given him the
news that in retaliation for his own outspokenness against his
country’s regime, his mother had been seized and executed.

Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how
incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically
elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were
the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will
inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to
have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw,
heard and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.

Amnesty mobilises thousands of people who have never been tortured
or imprisoned for their beliefs to act on behalf of those who have. The
power of human empathy, leading to collective action, saves lives, and
frees prisoners. Ordinary people, whose personal well-being and
security are assured, join together in huge numbers to save people they
do not know, and will never meet. My small participation in that
process was one of the most humbling and inspiring experiences of my

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and
understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into
other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that
is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or
control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They
choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience,
never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other
than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages;
they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not
touch them personally; they can refuse to know.

I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that
I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do. Choosing to
live in narrow spaces can lead to a form of mental agoraphobia, and
that brings its own terrors. I think the wilfully unimaginative see
more monsters. They are often more afraid.

What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real
monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil
ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics
corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something
I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author
Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times
every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable
connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other
people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to
touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard
work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique
status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you
apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining
superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest,
the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way
beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice
on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not
only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the
ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have
your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who
celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose
reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic
to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves
already: we have the power to imagine better.

I am nearly finished. I have one last hope for you, which is
something that I already had at 21. The friends with whom I sat on
graduation day have been my friends for life. They are my children’s
godparents, the people to whom I’ve been able to turn in times of
trouble, friends who have been kind enough not to sue me when I’ve used
their names for Death Eaters. At our graduation we were bound by
enormous affection, by our shared experience of a time that could never
come again, and, of course, by the knowledge that we held certain
photographic evidence that would be exceptionally valuable if any of us
ran for Prime Minister.

So today, I can wish you nothing better than similar friendships.
And tomorrow, I hope that even if you remember not a single word of
mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met
when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders,
in search of ancient wisdom:

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

I wish you all very good lives.

Thank you very much.

(Text as prepared for delivery)

Copyright of JK Rowling, June 2008

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Kobe Illuminare

Kobe Illuminare
Originally uploaded by edwinheng
Entrance Arch to Kobe Illuminare 2008
- An annual commemoration of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake - A procession of lights, warmth, love and hope.

1 km of walking in the crowd, under the arches of hope and light, with moving music that warms u in the winter chill, seeing the endless arches in front, moving, and moving, till u suddenly reach this final cathedral-like structure - and everyone enters it in homage and uplifted spirits.

Kobe Illuminare 2

Kobe Illuminare 2
Originally uploaded by edwinheng

Kobe Illuminare 3

Kobe Illuminare 3
Originally uploaded by edwinheng

Kobe Illuminare 4

Kobe Illuminare 4
Originally uploaded by edwinheng

Kobe Illuminare 5

Kobe Illuminare 5
Originally uploaded by edwinheng

Kobe Illuminare 6

Kobe Illuminare 6
Originally uploaded by edwinheng

Kobe Illuminare 7

Kobe Illuminare 7
Originally uploaded by edwinheng

Himeji Castle, UNESCO World Heritage

Caught this photo just at sunset, beautiful glow of the castle walls ...

Arashiyama 4

Arashiyama 4
Originally uploaded by edwinheng

Arashiyama 3

Arashiyama 3
Originally uploaded by edwinheng
Through the Arashiyama valley

Arashiyama 2

Arashiyama 2
Originally uploaded by edwinheng
Views captured on the Rail Tram ride

Arashiyama 1

Arashiyama 1
Originally uploaded by edwinheng
Arashimaya in Kyoto

Kiyomizu Temple, UNESCO World Heritage

In Kyoto, perched on a mountain, great climb, great view...
Lots of people, including an entire high school's graduating classes - all posing for class photos on what seems to be their traditional graduating outing.

Kiyomizu Temple, UNESCO World Heritage

In Kyoto, perched on a mountain, great climb, great view...
Lots of people, including an entire high school's graduating classes - all posing for class photos on what seems to be their traditional graduating outing.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Labour Against Tories - Advertising Wit

Brilliant Advertising Campaign by Gordon Brown's Labour Against Tories

Labour Against Tories - Advertising Wit

Brilliant Advertising Campaign by Gordon Brown's Labour Against Tories

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Genius, Opportunity AND Hardwork - The Full Equation

From the London Newspapers ...


A gift or hard graft?

We look at outrageously talented and successful people - the Beatles, Mozart, Rockefeller, Bill Gates - and assume there is such a thing as pure genius. No necessarily, argues Malcolm Gladwell...

Malcolm Gladwell, The Guardian,

Saturday November 15 2008

Full Text Link:

The University of Michigan opened its new computer centre in 1971, in a low-slung building on Beal Avenue in Ann Arbor. The university's enormous mainframe computers stood in the middle of a vast, white-tiled room, looking, as one
faculty member remembers, "like one of the last scenes in 2001: A Space
Odyssey". Off to the side were dozens of key-punch machines - what
passed in those days for computer terminals. Over the years, thousands
of students would pass through that white-tiled room - the most famous
of whom was a gawky teenager named Bill Joy.

Joy came to the University of Michigan the year the computer centre opened, at the age of 16. He had been voted "most studious student" by his graduating
class at North Framingham high school, outside Detroit, which, as he
puts it, meant he was a "no-date nerd". He had thought he might end up
as a biologist or a mathematician, but late in his freshman year he
stumbled across the computing centre - and he was hooked.

From then on, the computer centre was his life. He programmed whenever he
could. He got a job with a computer science professor, so he could
program over the summer. In 1975, Joy enrolled in graduate school at
the University of California, Berkeley. There, he buried himself even
deeper in the world of computer software. During the oral exams for his
PhD, he made up a particularly complicated algorithm on the fly that -
as one of his many admirers has written - "so stunned his examiners
[that] one of them later compared the experience to 'Jesus confounding
his elders' ".

Working in collaboration with a small group of programmers, Joy took on the task of rewriting Unix, a software system developed by AT&T for mainframe computers. Joy's version was so good that it became - and remains - the operating system on which millions of computers around the world run. "If you put your Mac in
that funny mode where you can see the code," Joy says, "I see things
that I remember typing in 25 years ago." And when you go online, do you
know who wrote the software that allows you to access the internet?
Bill Joy.

After Berkeley, Joy co-founded the Silicon Valley firm Sun Microsystems. There, he rewrote another computer language, Java, and his legend grew still further. Among Silicon Valley insiders, Joy is spoken of with as much awe as Bill Gates. He is sometimes called the Edison of the internet.

The story of Joy's genius has been told many times, and the lesson is always the same. Here was a world that was the purest of meritocracies. Computer programming didn't operate as an old-boy network, where you got ahead because of money or connections. It was a wide-open field, in which all participants were
judged solely by their talent and accomplishments. It was a world where
the best men won, and Joy was clearly one of those best men.

Sport, too, is supposed to be just such a pure meritocracy. But is it? Take
ice hockey in Canada: look at any team and you will find that a
disproportionate number of players will have been born in the first
three months of the year. This, it turns out, is because the cut-off
date for children eligible for the nine-year-old, 10-year-old,
11-year-old league and so on is January 1. Boys who are oldest and
biggest at the beginning of the hockey season are inevitably the best.
And so they get the most coaching and practice, and they get chosen for
the all-star team, and so their advantage increases - on into the
professional game. A similar pattern applies to other sports. What we
think of as talent is actually a complicated combination of ability,
opportunity and utterly arbitrary advantage.

Does something similar apply to outliers in other fields, such as Bill Joy? Do they
benefit from special opportunities, and do those opportunities follow
any kind of pattern? The evidence suggests they do.

In the early 90s, the psychologist K Anders Ericsson and two colleagues set up shop
at Berlin's elite Academy of Music. With the help of the academy's
professors, they divided the school's violinists into three groups. The
first group were the stars, the students with the potential to become
world-class soloists. The second were those judged to be merely "good".
The third were students who were unlikely ever to play professionally,
and intended to be music teachers in the school system. All the
violinists were then asked the same question. Over the course of your
career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have
you practised?

Everyone, from all three groups, started playing at roughly the same time - around the age of five. In those first few years, everyone practised roughly the same amount - about two or three hours a week. But around the age of eight real differences started to emerge. The students who would end up as the best in their class began to practise more than everyone else: six hours a week by age nine,
eight by age 12, 16 a week by age 14, and up and up, until by the age
of 20 they were practising well over 30 hours a week. By the age of 20,
the elite performers had all totalled 10,000 hours of practice over the
course of their lives. The merely good students had totalled, by
contrast, 8,000 hours, and the future music teachers just over 4,000

The curious thing about Ericsson's study is that he and his colleagues couldn't find any "naturals" - musicians who could float effortlessly to the top while practising a fraction of the time that their peers did. Nor could they find "grinds", people who worked harder than everyone else and yet just didn't have what it takes to break into the top ranks. Their research suggested that once you have enough
ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes
one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it.
What's more, the people at the very top don't just work much harder
than everyone else. They work much, much harder.

This idea - that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of
practice - surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact,
researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for
true expertise: 10,000 hours.

"In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice-skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals," writes the neurologist
Daniel Levitin, "this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand
hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or 20 hours a week,
of practice over 10 years... No one has yet found a case in which true
world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it
takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to
achieve true mastery."

This is true even of people we think of as prodigies. Mozart, for example, famously started writing music at six. But, the psychologist Michael Howe writes in his book Genius Explained, by the standards of mature composers Mozart's early works are not outstanding. The earliest pieces were all probably written down by his
father, and perhaps improved in the process. Many of Wolfgang's
childhood compositions, such as the first seven of his concertos for
piano and orchestra, are largely arrangements of works by other
composers. Of those concertos that contain only music original to
Mozart, the earliest that is now regarded as a masterwork (No9 K271)
was not composed until he was 21: by that time Mozart had already been
composing concertos for 10 years.

To become a chess grandmaster also seems to take about 10 years. (Only the legendary Bobby Fischer got to that elite level in less than that time: it took him nine
years.) And what's 10 years? Well, it's roughly how long it takes to
put in 10,000 hours of hard practice.

Ten thousand hours is, of course, an enormous amount of time. It's all but impossible to reach that number, by the time you're a young adult, all by yourself. You
have to have parents who are encouraging and supportive. You can't be
poor, because if you have to hold down a part-time job on the side to
help make ends meet, there won't be enough time left over in the day.
In fact, most people can really only reach that number if they get into
some kind of special programme - like a hockey all-star squad - or get
some kind of extraordinary opportunity that gives them a chance to put
in that kind of work.

So, back to Bill Joy. It's 1971 and he's 16. He's the maths wiz, the kind of student that schools like MIT, Caltech or the University of Waterloo attract by the hundreds. "When Bill was a little kid, he wanted to know everything about everything
way before he should've even known he wanted to know," his father
William says. "We answered him when we could. And when we couldn't, we
would just give him a book." When he applied to college, Joy got a
perfect score on the maths portion of the scholastic aptitude test. "It
wasn't particularly hard," he says, matter-of-factly. "There was plenty
of time to check it twice." He could have gone in any number of
directions. He could have done a PhD in biology. He could have gone to
medical school. He could easily have had a "typical" college career:
lots of schoolwork, football games, drunken fraternity parties, awkward
encounters with girls, long discussions with roommates about the
meaning of life. But he didn't, because he stumbled across that
nondescript building on Beal Avenue.

In the 70s, when Joy was learning about programming, computers were the size of rooms. A single machine - which might have less power and memory than your microwave - could cost upwards of a million dollars. Computers were hard to get
access to, and renting time on them cost a fortune. This was the era
when computer programs were created using cardboard "punch" cards. A
complex program might include hundreds, if not thousands, of these
cards, in tall stacks. Since computers could handle only one task at a
time, the operator made an appointment for your program and, depending
on how many other people were ahead of you in line, you might not get
your cards back for several hours. And if you made even a single error
in your program, then you had to take the cards back, track down the
error and begin the whole process again. Under those circumstances, it
was exceedingly difficult for anyone to become a programming expert.
Certainly becoming an expert by your early 20s was all but impossible.
"Programming with cards," one computer scientist from the era
remembers, "did not teach you programming. It taught you patience and

That's where the University of Michigan came in. It was one of the first universities in the world to abandon computer cards for the brand-new system called "time-sharing". Computer scientists realised you could train a computer to handle hundreds of tasks at the same time. No more punch cards. You could build dozens of
terminals, link them all to the mainframe by a telephone line, and have
everyone programming - online - all at once.

This was the opportunity that greeted Bill Joy when he arrived on the Ann Arbor
campus in the autumn of 1971. "Do you know what the difference is
between the computing cards and time-sharing?" Joy says. "It's the
difference between playing chess by mail and speed chess." Programming
wasn't an exercise in frustration any more. It was fun.

According to Joy, he spent a phenomenal amount of time at the computer centre.
"It was open 24 hours. I would stay there all night, and just walk home
in the morning. In an average week in those years I was spending more
time in the computer centre than on my classes. All of us down there
had this recurring nightmare of forgetting to show up for class at all,
of not even realising we were enrolled."

Just look at the stream of opportunities that came Joy's way. Because he happened to go to a far-sighted school, he was able to practise on a time-sharing
system, instead of punch cards; because the university was willing to
spend the money to keep the computer centre open 24 hours, he could
stay up all night; and because he was able to put in so many hours, by
the time he was presented with the opportunity to rewrite Unix, he was
up to the task. Bill Joy was brilliant. He wanted to learn - that was a
big part of it - but before he could become an expert, someone had to
give him the opportunity to learn how to be expert.

"At Michigan, I was probably programming eight or 10 hours a day," he says. "By the
time I was at Berkeley, I was doing it day and night... " He pauses for
a moment, to do the maths in his head which, for him, doesn't take
long. "It's five years," he says, finally. "So, so, maybe... 10,000
hours? That's about right."

Is this a general rule of success? If you scratch below the surface of every great achiever, do you always find the equivalent of the Michigan Computer Centre or the hockey all-star team - some sort of special opportunity for practice? Let's
test the idea with two examples: the Beatles, one of the most famous
rock bands ever, and Bill Gates, one of the world's richest men.

The Beatles - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr
- came to the US in February 1964, starting the so-called "British
Invasion" of the American music scene. The interesting thing is how
long they had already been playing together. Lennon and McCartney began
in 1957. (Incidentally, the time that elapsed between their founding
and their greatest artistic achievements - arguably Sgt Pepper's Lonely
Hearts Club Band and the White Album - is 10 years.) In 1960, while
they were still a struggling school rock band, they were invited to
play in Hamburg, Germany.

"Hamburg in those days did not have rock'n'roll music clubs. It had strip clubs," says Philip Norman, who wrote the Beatles' biography, Shout! "There was one particular club owner called Bruno, who was originally a fairground showman. He had the
idea of bringing in rock groups to play in various clubs. They had this
formula. It was a huge nonstop show, hour after hour, with a lot of
people lurching in and the other lot lurching out. And the bands would
play all the time to catch the passing traffic. In an American
red-light district, they would call it nonstop striptease.

"Many of the bands that played in Hamburg were from Liverpool," Norman
continues. "It was an accident. Bruno went to London to look for bands.
But he happened to meet a Liverpool entrepreneur in Soho, who was down
in London by pure chance. And he arranged to send some bands over.
That's how the connection was established. And eventually the Beatles
made a connection not just with Bruno, but with other club owners as
well. They kept going back, because they got a lot of alcohol and a lot
of sex."

And what was so special about Hamburg? It wasn't that it paid well. (It didn't.) Or that the acoustics were fantastic. (They weren't.) Or that the audiences were savvy and appreciative. (They were anything but.) It was the sheer amount of time the band was forced to play. Here is John Lennon, in an interview after the Beatles disbanded, talking about the band's performances at a Hamburg strip club called
the Indra: "We got better and got more confidence. We couldn't help it
with all the experience playing all night long. It was handy them being
foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to
get ourselves over. In Liverpool, we'd only ever done one-hour
sessions, and we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones, at
every one. In Hamburg we had to play for eight hours, so we really had
to find a new way of playing."

The Beatles ended up travelling to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. On the first trip, they played 106 nights, of five or more hours a night. Their second trip they played 92 times. Their third trip they played 48 times, for a
total of 172 hours on stage. The last two Hamburg stints, in November
and December 1962, involved another 90 hours of performing. All told,
they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the
time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed
live an estimated 1,200 times, which is extraordinary. Most bands today
don't perform 1,200 times in their entire careers. The Hamburg crucible
is what set the Beatles apart.

"They were no good on stage when they went there and they were very good when they came back," Norman says. "They learned not only stamina, they had to learn an enormous amount of numbers - cover versions of everything you can think of, not
just rock'n'roll, a bit of jazz, too. They weren't disciplined on stage
at all before that. But when they came back they sounded like no one
else. It was the making of them."

Let's now turn to the history of Bill Gates. His story is almost as well-known as the Beatles'. Brilliant young maths wiz discovers computer programming. Drops out of
Harvard. Starts a little computer company called Microsoft with his
friends. Through sheer brilliance, ambition and guts builds it into the
giant of the software world.

Now let's dig a bit deeper. Gates' father was a wealthy lawyer in Seattle, and his mother was the daughter of a well-to-do banker. As a child Gates was precocious, and easily bored by his studies. So his parents took him out of public school, and
at the beginning of seventh grade sent him to Lakeside, a private
school that catered to Seattle's elite families. Midway through Gates'
second year, the school started a computer club. "The Mothers' Club at
school did a rummage sale every year, and there was always the question
of what the money would go to," Gates remembers. "That year, they put
$3,000 into buying a computer terminal down in this funny little room
that we subsequently took control of. It was kind of an amazing thing."

Even more remarkable was the kind of computer Lakeside bought:
it was an ASR-33 Teletype, a time-sharing terminal with a direct link
to a mainframe computer in downtown Seattle. "The whole idea of
time-sharing only got invented in 1965," Gates says. "Someone was
pretty forward looking."

From that moment on, Gates lived in the computer room. He and a number of others began to teach themselves how to use this strange new device. The parents raised more money to buy time on the mainframe computer. The students spent it. As luck
would have it, Monique Rona, one of the founders of C-Cubed - a company
that leased computer time - had a son at Lakeside, a class ahead of
Gates. Would the Lakeside computer club, Rona wondered, like to test
out the company's software programs on the weekends in exchange for
free programming time? Absolutely!

Before long, Gates and his friends latched on to another outfit called ISI, which agreed to let them have free computer time in exchange for working on a piece of
software that could be used to automate company payrolls. In one
seven-month period in 1971, Gates and his cohorts ran up 1,575 hours of
computer time on the ISI mainframe, which averages out at eight hours a
day, seven days a week.

"It was my obsession," Gates says of his early high school years. "I skipped athletics. I went up there at night. We were programming on weekends. It would be a rare week that we wouldn't get 20 or 30 hours in. There was a period where Paul Allen and I got in trouble for stealing a bunch of passwords and crashing the
system. We got kicked out. I didn't get to use the computer the whole
summer. This is when I was 15 and 16. Then I found out Paul had found a
computer that was free at the University of Washington. They had these
machines in the medical centre and the physics department. They were on
a 24-hour schedule, but with this big slack period so between three and
six in the morning they never scheduled anything." Gates laughed.
"That's why I'm always so generous to the University of Washington,
because they let me steal so much computer time. I'd leave at night,
after my bedtime. I could walk up to the university from my house. Or
I'd take the bus." Years later, Gates' mother said, "We always wondered
why it was so hard for him to get up in the morning."

Through one of the founders of ISI, Gates landed a secondment programming a
computer system at the Bonneville Power station in southern Washington
State. There, he spent the spring of his senior year writing code.

Those five years, from eighth grade to the end of high school, were Bill
Gates' Hamburg, and by any measure he was presented with an even more
extraordinary series of opportunities than Bill Joy. And virtually
every one of those opportunities gave Gates extra time to practise. By
the time he dropped out of Harvard, he'd been programming nonstop for
seven consecutive years. He was way past 10,000 hours. How many
teenagers had the kind of experience Gates had? "If there were 50 in
the world, I'd be stunned," he says.

If you put together the stories of hockey players and the Beatles and Bill Joy and Bill Gates, I think we get a more complete picture of the path to success. Joy,
Gates and the Beatles are all undeniably talented. Lennon and McCartney
had a musical gift, of the sort that comes along once in a generation,
and Joy, let us not forget, had a mind so quick that he could make up a
complicated algorithm on the fly that left his professors in awe. A
good part of that "talent", however, was something other than an innate
aptitude for music or maths. It was desire. The Beatles were willing to
play for eight hours straight, seven days a week. Joy was willing to
stay up all night programming. In either case, most of us would have
gone home to bed. In other words, a key part of what it means to be
talented is being able to practise for hours and hours - to the point
where it is really hard to know where "natural ability" stops and the
simple willingness to work hard begins.

What is so striking about these success stories is that the outliers were the beneficiaries of some kind of unusual opportunity. Lucky breaks don't seem like the
exception with software billionaires, rock bands and star athletes;
they seem like the rule.

Recently Forbes Magazine compiled a list of the 75 richest people in history. It includes queens and kings and pharaohs from centuries past, as well as contemporary billionaires such as Warren Buffet and Carlos Slim. However, an astonishing 14 on the list are Americans born within nine years of each other in the mid-19th century. In other words, almost 20% of the names come from a single
generation - born between 1831 and 1840 in a single country. The list
includes industrialists and financiers who are still household names
today: John Rockefeller, born in 1839 (the richest of the lot); Andrew
Carnegie, 1835; Jay Gould, 1836; and JP Morgan, 1837.

What's going on here is obvious, if you think about it. In the 1860s and
1870s, the American economy went through perhaps the greatest
transformation in its history. This was when the railways were built,
and when Wall Street emerged. It was when industrial manufacturing
started in earnest. It was when all the rules by which the traditional
economy functioned were broken and remade. What that list says is that
it was absolutely critical, if you were going to take advantage of
those opportunities, to be in your 20s when that transformation was

If you were born in the late 1840s, you missed it - you were too young to take advantage of that moment. If you were born in the 1820s, you were too old - your mindset was shaped by the old, pre-civil war ways. But there is a particular, narrow nine-year window that was just perfect. All of the 14 men and women on that list had
vision and talent. But they also were given an extraordinary
opportunity, in the same way that hockey players born in January,
February and March were given an extraordinary opportunity.

Let's do the same kind of analysis for software tycoons such as Bill Joy and Bill Gates.

Veterans of Silicon Valley will tell you that the most important date in the
history of the personal computer revolution was January 1975. That was
when the magazine Popular Electronics ran a cover story on a machine
called the Altair 8800. The Altair cost $397. It was a do-it-yourself
contraption that you could assemble at home. The headline on the story
read: Project Breakthrough! World's First Minicomputer Kit To Rival
Commercial Models. To readers of Popular Electronics, then the bible of
the fledgling software and computer world, that headline was a
revelation. Computers up to that point were the massive, expensive
mainframes of the sort sitting in the white-tiled expanse of the
Michigan computing centre. For years, every hacker and electronics wiz
had dreamed of the day when a computer would come along that was small
and inexpensive enough for an ordinary person to use and own. That day
had finally arrived.

If January 1975 was the dawn of the personal computer age, then who would be in the best position to take advantage of it? If you're a few years out of college in 1975, and if you have had any experience with programming at all, you would have
already been hired by IBM or one of the other traditional, old-line
computer firms of that era. You belonged to the old paradigm. You have
just bought a house. You're married. A baby is on the way. You're in no
position to give up a good job and pension for some pie-in-the-sky $397
computer kit. So let's also rule out all those born before, say, 1952.

At the same time, though, you don't want to be too young. You can't seize
the moment if you're still in high school. So let's also rule out
anyone born after, say, 1958. The perfect age to be in 1975, in other
words, is young enough to see the coming revolution but not so old as
to have missed it. You want to be 20 or 21, born in 1954 or 1955.

Let's start with Gates, the richest and most famous of all Silicon Valley
tycoons. When was he born? Bill Gates: October 28 1955. The perfect
birthdate. Gates is the hockey player born on January 1.

Gates's best friend at Lakeside was Paul Allen. He also hung out in the
computer room with Gates, and shared those long evenings at ISI and
C-Cubed. Allen went on to found Microsoft with Gates. Paul Allen:
January 21 1953.

The third richest man at Microsoft is the one who has been running the company on a day-to-day basis since 2000 - one of the most respected executives in the software world, Steve Ballmer. Steve Ballmer: March 24 1956.

And let's not forget a man every bit as famous as Gates, Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Computer. He wasn't from a rich family, like Gates, and he didn't go to Michigan, like Joy. But it doesn't take much investigation of his upbringing to
realise that he had his Hamburg, too. He grew up in Mountain View
California, just south of San Francisco, which is the absolute
epicentre of Silicon Valley. His neighbourhood was filled with
engineers from Hewlett-Packard, then, as now, one of the most important
electronics firms in the world. As a teenager he prowled the flea
markets of Mountain View, where electronics hobbyists and tinkerers
sold spare parts. Jobs came of age breathing the air of the very
business he would later dominate. He picked the brains of
Hewlett-Packard engineers and once even called Bill Hewlett, one of the
company's founders, to request parts. Jobs not only received the parts
he wanted, he managed to wangle a summer job. He worked on an assembly
line to build computers and was so fascinated that he tried to design
his own... Steve Jobs was born on February 24 1955.

Another of the pioneers of the software revolution was Eric Schmidt. He ran
Novell, one of Silicon Valley's most important software firms, and in
2001 became the chief executive officer of Google. He was born on April
27 1955.

I don't mean to suggest, of course, that every software tycoon in Silicon Valley was born in 1955. But there are very clearly patterns here, and what's striking is how little we seem to want to talk about them. We pretend that success is a matter of individual merit. That is not the whole story. These are stories about people who
were given a special opportunity to work really hard and seized it, and
who happened to come of age at a time when that extraordinary effort
was rewarded by the rest of society. Their success was not of their own
making. It was a product of the world in which they grew up. Their
success, in other words, wasn't due to some mysterious process known
only to themselves. It had a logic, and if we can understand that
logic, think of all the tantalising possibilities that opens up.

By the way, let's not forget Bill Joy. Had he been just a little bit older
and had to face the drudgery of programming with computer cards, he
says he would have studied science. Bill Joy the computer legend would
have been Bill Joy the biologist. In fact, he was born on November 8
1954. And his three fellow founders of Sun Microsystems - one of the
oldest and most important of Silicon Valley's software companies? Scott
McNealy: born November 13 1954. Vinod Khosla: born January 28 1955.
Andy Bechtolsheim: born June 1955. ·

© Malcolm Gladwell 2008.

• This is an edited extract from Outliers: The Story Of Success, by
Malcolm Gladwell, to be published on November 27 by Allen Lane at
£16.99. Malcolm Gladwell: Live In London is on November 24 at 5.45pm
and 8.30pm at the Lyceum Theatre, London. Tickets from £13.50 to
£26.50. To book, call 0844 412 1742 or go to There will be an interview with Malcolm Gladwell in tomorrow's Observer.

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