The Last Words of Steve Jobs: “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW”

On October 16, 2011, in a memorial service at Memorial Church of Stanford University, Mona Simpson, Steve Jobs’s sister, delivered the following eulogy. And it’s absolutely breathtaking. It’s far and away the best (and most human) thing I’ve read about Steve Jobs after his death.

Do read the whole thing. I will admit getting teary-eyed reading this eulogy.

On Steve’s capacity to work, even as his death was imminent:

None of us knows for certain how long we’ll be here. On Steve’s better days, even in the last year, he embarked upon projects and elicited promises from his friends at Apple to finish them. Some boat builders in the Netherlands have a gorgeous stainless steel hull ready to be covered with the finishing wood. His three daughters remain unmarried, his two youngest still girls, and he’d wanted to walk them down the aisle as he’d walked me the day of my wedding.

Imagine if Steve lived longer and was able to make a wider impact with his vision. While in hospital:

Intubated, when he couldn’t talk, he asked for a notepad. He sketched devices to hold an iPad in a hospital bed. He designed new fluid monitors and x-ray equipment. He redrew that not-quite-special-enough hospital unit. And every time his wife walked into the room, I watched his smile remake itself on his face.

And this is my favourite line in the eulogy. It’s so beautiful. It reminds us of how there are beginnings and ends, but somewhere, sometime, it will happen in the middle of others’ stories:

We all — in the end — die in medias res. In the middle of a story. Of many stories.

And what were the last words of Steve Jobs? Mona closes her eulogy with the following:

Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

Steve’s final words were:


Stephen King’s New Monster

Stephen King is getting into the historical fiction genre. According to The Wall Street Journal,

Stephen King’s new novel, 11/22/63, set to be published Nov. 8, follows Jake Epping, a high-school English teacher in a small town in contemporary Maine. Jake travels through a mysterious time portal to 1958, aiming to stop Oswald from killing President John F. Kennedy. Set almost entirely in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the narrative tracks Oswald’s movements in the months and days leading up to the Dallas shooting, and features historical figures such as James Hosty, the FBI agent who investigated Oswald; Bonnie Ray Williams, Oswald’s co-worker at the Texas Book Depository, and George de Mohrenschildt, a Russian geologist and friend of the assassin.

I like Stephen King’s perspective on book advances (though I am guessing he wasn’t against them in the early stages of his career):

In the 1990s, Mr. King was collecting advances of around $16 million a book. He now calls those advance sums “grotesque.” “They were ridiculous,” he says. “It became almost like a d—-measuring contest—my advance is bigger than your advance. For a guy like me or a guy like Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovich, why do we need an advance?”

When he left his publisher, Viking, 14 years ago, he traded gargantuan advances for his current deal with Scribner, granting him much smaller advances and roughly half of the profits. Most authors get 10 to 15% of royalties. If a book does phenomenally, he stands to earn multiple millions.

A humorous anecdote from the piece:

He’s also grown wary of his more ardent fans. He says he spends less time in his Bangor home now because tourists cluster outside the gate and snap photos. When he goes on book tours, fans find out where he’s staying and camp out outside. “It’s very unsettling,” he said. “They always call you by your first name—’Stephen, Stephen, over here. Just sign this one baseball.’ Then it turns out they’ve got about 19,000 other things.”

I find the history of the JFK assassination fascinating. I’ve put 11/22/63 on my reading list. Will you?

To Be Young and Mormon in America

An article in The New York Times explains the challenges of being Mormon and rebellious:

But the boundaries of Mormon style are expanding. The highly visible “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign (the subject of a major push on television, billboards, the subway and the Internet) seeks to quash strait-laced stereotypes by showing off a cool, diverse set of Mormons, including, besides Mr. Flowers, a leather-clad Harley aficionado, knit-cap-wearing professional skateboarder and an R & B singer with a shaved head.

It’s not just in ads sponsored by the church. On college campuses, city streets and countless style blogs, a young generation of Mormons has adopted a fashion-forward urban aesthetic (geek-chic glasses, designer labels and plenty of vintage) that wouldn’t look out of place at a Bushwick party.

You learn something new every day. This is the most unusual tidbit from the article:

But when it comes to dressing young and hip, some Mormons said they face unique challenges. Among other things, many adult Mormons wear a type of underwear known as the temple garment, meant as a symbolic reminder of an individual’s promises to God. Both men and women have their own style of garment, but each consists of two pieces, a chaste knee-length bottom reminiscent of a boxer-brief and a white undershirt.

No tattoos. No beards. Strict dress codes. It’s not easy being a Mormon.

How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth?

The BBC website has a neat interactive where you can plug in your date of birth, and it will output the numbern of where you fit “in the story of human life.”

But the more interesting part was the link to the Population Reference Bureau, where an article attempted to guess the total number of humans that have ever lived on Earth.

First, a caveat:

And semi-scientific it must be, because there are, of course, absolutely no demographic data available for 99 percent of the span of the human stay on Earth. Still, with some speculation concerning prehistoric populations, we can at least approach a guesstimate of this elusive number.

Continuing, the article explains a number of assumptions about early human life:

At the dawn of agriculture, about 8000 B.C., the population of the world was somewhere on the order of 5 million. (Very rough figures are given in the table; these are averages of an estimate of ranges given by the United Nations and other sources.) The slow growth of population over the 8,000-year period, from an estimated 5 million to 300 million in 1 A.D., results in a very low growth rate—only 0.0512 percent per year. It is difficult to come up with an average world population size over this period. In all likelihood, human populations in different regions grew or declined in response to famines, the vagaries of animal herds, hostilities, and changing weather and climatic conditions.

In any case, life was short. Life expectancy at birth probably averaged only about 10 years for most of human history. Estimates of average life expectancy in Iron Age France have been put at only 10 or 12 years. Under these conditions, the birth rate would have to be about 80 per 1,000 people just for the species to survive. Today, a high birth rate would be about 45 to 50 per 1,000 population, observed in only a few countries of Africa and in several Middle Eastern countries that have young populations.

Our birth rate assumption will greatly affect the estimate of the number of people ever born. Infant mortality in the human race’s earliest days is thought to have been very high—perhaps 500 infant deaths per 1,000 births, or even higher. Children were probably an economic liability among hunter-gatherer societies, a fact that is likely to have led to the practice of infanticide. Under these circumstances, a disproportionately large number of births would be required to maintain population growth, and that would raise our estimated number of the “ever born.”

The site starts tallying population growth from 50,000 B.C., and comes to the following conclusion:

This semi-scientific approach yields an estimate of about 108 billion births since the dawn of the human race. Clearly, the period 8000 B.C. to 1 A.D. is key to the magnitude of our number, but, unfortunately, little is known about that era. The assumption of constant population growth in the earlier period may underestimate the average population size at the time. And, of course, pushing the date of humanity’s arrival on the planet before 50,000 B.C. would also raise the number, although perhaps not by terribly much.

So with the current population approaching 7 billion, about 6.5% of humans living today have ever lived on Earth.

A Mission to Mars (on Earth)

“Our main challenge right now is to avoid being bored. Every single day is very similar to the previous one.”

At the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow, six men (three Russians, an Italian, a Frenchman, and a Chinese national) are finishing up a remarkable 520-day experiment in isolation. They are participants in a simulated mission to Mars about a “ship” dubbed Mars500.

Bill Donahue, the author of the Wired piece, had a chance to interact with the participants:

When I visited the institute last year…The voyagers were sealed off from terrestrial life, each one allotted a private bunk room just 32 feet square and access to a common living room, a small gym, a greenhouse, and two minuscule lavatories. The crew’s food storage room is almost as big as their living quarters, and when they entered isolation on June 3, 2010, it contained every single calorie they would consume as they soared through “space,” then spent nine days on “Mars” (in this case a small pit of red sand) before returning and exiting a year and a half later.

I did find the betting on who would quit the program a bit unsettling:

Isolation is hard; being deprived of fresh air and social variety makes you go batshit. That narrative is so ingrained in the collective psyche that when the Irish bookmaking chain Paddy Power set odds on Mars500, it all but anticipated failure. If a bettor wagered a dollar that the original six-member crew would not last the whole mission, he was, by Paddy’s lights, practically predicting the sun would rise tomorrow—he’d only get $1.20 back. Paddy, meanwhile, set 8-to-1 odds that at least one crew member would go “clinically insane” after leaving the Mars500 experiment. (Fairly long odds until you consider that most jobs don’t come with an 11 percent chance that you’ll go clinically insane in a year and a half.) The Irish bookie even set odds as to who’d be first to quit. It tapped the sole Chinese astronaut, Yue Wang, putting him at 2-1. (Yue was, after all, the most culturally isolated.)

And if you think everything is rosy aboard the Mars500, consider what has happened in a previous isolation experiment (in the year 2000):

The booze wasn’t the only contraband aboard that simulated space station run. The ship’s Russian cosmonauts regularly watched pornography, Kraft admitted, and one Japanese man, Masataka Umeda, left the mission two months early in protest. Meanwhile, there were cockroaches in the showers and mice crawling up through cracks in the floor.

The experiment sounds quite unpleasant, but these men are doing it for science!

Being aboard Mars500 is mostly menial and toilsome—the astronauts are glorified lab rats. Scientists are keeping close tabs on how the isolates’ hearts are coping with the stress of confinement. They are monitoring the microflora in the crew’s intestines, subjecting them to questionnaires on their interpersonal dramas, and hitting them with regular doses of blue light to gauge its effect on their psychological states. The regimen is at times exhausting. “The biggest challenge for me,” Charles wrote in one email, “is the width of my bed—60 centimeters. As soon as I have more than one device to wear during the night (for blood pressure tests, electrocardiograms, electroencephalograms, etc.), I can’t move.”

Are Law Schools and Bar Exams Necessary?

I’m all for democratization of knowledge and seeing fewer barriers to entry for business, but I found this op-ed by Clifford Winston totally off-base. Winston argues that law schools and bar exams are unnecessary and should be done away with:

What if the barriers to entry were simply done away with?

Legal costs would be reduced because non-lawyers, who have not had to make a costly investment in a three-year legal education, would compete with lawyers, who in many states are the only options for basic services like drafting wills. Because they will have incurred much lower costs to enter the field — like taking an online course or attending a vocational school — and can operate as solo practitioners with minimal overhead, these non-lawyers would force prices to fall. The poor would benefit from the lower prices for non-criminal matters, and poor litigants, who might be unrepresented in criminal matters like hearings because they could not afford a lawyer and because of dwindling state legal aid, would be better off.

As a counter-argument, Jeoffrey Stone writes:

[L]egal education exposes would-be lawyers to a wide range of legal subjects — procedure, contracts, torts, criminal law, evidence, constitutional law, corporate law, property law, administrative law, jurisdiction, labor law, commercial law and on and on and on. This, too, is essential for the intelligent practice of law.

I would like to add one other important item: networking. By going to law school, you are exposed to the community of professors, lawyers, and other professionals in the field. As you start to get into the practice, this reach becomes invaluable.

Another scenario to imagine: suppose you hired a self-taught lawyer who bombs your case. You want to sue. So you end up hiring another lawyer who turns out to have insignificant experience (he was also self-taught). The whole situation could easily spiral out of control, with number of litigations skyrocketing. Sure, overall costs per case might decrease with self-taught lawyers. But do we really want to see the number of cases litigations rise (as they surely would) as a side effect? I surely don’t.

And a final food for thought: if we say that law schools are useless and that people could gain entry by being self-taught, what’s to prevent others clamoring for the barriers to entry to be disbarred in other professions? Would you want to go on an operating table with a doctor who didn’t go to medical school?

Surely I haven’t thought about all the implications here, but Winston’s idea seems short-sighted to me.

What are your thoughts?

On Being Scared to Death

From the Wall Street Journal article “Inside Movies and Real-Life Risks,” we learn about the phenomenon of being scared to death:

Fear can be fatal. Martin A. Samuels, chief of neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, has collected hundreds of reports of people whose hearts have suddenly stopped during times of extreme stress or emotion.

“The heart muscles contract involuntarily in a characteristic pattern, and they don’t relax again because of the huge rush of stress hormones,” says Dr. Samuels, who thinks that many disaster victims may die from fear rather than injuries, although obtaining proof in autopsies is difficult.

Researchers have noted a spike in sudden cardiac deaths following earthquakes and other disasters. For example; there were triple the typical number of heart attacks at 11 Worcester, Mass., hospitals on Sept. 11, 12 and 13, 2001, immediately after the terrorist attacks, according to a study in the American Journal of Cardiology. People have also suffered sudden heart attacks at times of extreme joy or excitement—such as hitting a hole-in-one in golf or being acquitted of a crime.

And in rare cases, people have had fatal reactions to make-believe situations. One woman in Wichita, Kan., died of an apparent heart attack while watching the 2004 film “The Passion of Christ,” with its crucifixion depiction, and at least two children have apparently been scared to death on amusement-park rides.

Another interesting tidbit from the piece, which I never heard about before:

 In a famous 1986 experiment, Indiana University psychologist Dolf Zillmann interviewed 36 pairs of students after showing them excerpts of slasher film “Friday the 13th.” The more distressed the woman was by the movie, the more attractive her date found her. The less distressed the man was, the more attractive his date found him.

So gentlemen: next time, take your date to the scariest movie playing at the theater. Just don’t have a heart attack in the process.

Barry Duncan: Master of Palindromes

NPR has a fun story about Barry Duncan, a man who is obsessed with creating palindromes (those words or phrases that spell the same thing backwards and forwards) everywhere he goes:

In the beginning, Duncan’s palindrome obsession wasn’t much fun. For the first 10 years, he says, it drove him a little crazy. “There was a point in the early ’90s where I thought I would have to be hospitalized,” Duncan says. “I would go to bed thinking I was missing three letters from the beginning of a palindrome and I could work it out, and I just couldn’t. Now I know better.”

Duncan is constantly working out new palindromes — not just on paper, but in his head. Strolling down the street, he spots a “Don’t Walk” sign. He turns the words around in his head and comes up with “Don’t nod” and “Walk Law” — both palindromes. He expands “Walk Law” to “Walk, sir, I risk law.” He identifies the “I” as the middle pivot point and then begins to build it out on each side. “I walk, sir. I risk law. I” leaves that last “I” dangling, so he resolves it by adding one more word: “Won’t I walk, sir? I risk law. It now.”

I think this is just wild:

Once Duncan gets rolling, he can write some of the longest palindromes in the world. He has written palindromes for friends that are 800 words long. He fills up pages and pages of notebooks. He reads them at parties. He writes them for local businesses.

Would you consider being a master palindromist an oddity? Is it a weird hobby? In my opinion, I think the point is to find something you love and continually build on it, as Duncan has clearly done.

My only gripe? One of his palindromes was about LOST:

In 2010, Duncan wrote a palindrome expressing his incredulity that Lost was still airing new episodes on ABC: “No, still? It’s not so long? No, Lost on. Still, it’s on?”

And here I thought we would get along. Anyway, the full story/radio broadcast is here. Read through the end, where Duncan offers advice for reading and building palindromes:

If you are new to reading palindromes, here is the best advice I can give you: Read a palindrome the way you would read anything else. In other words, read it forward. If you insist on reading it forward and backward (thinking that you are being clever and sophisticated by following both ends until they meet in the middle), you may become dizzy and confused. Wait. The time will come.

Some novice readers of palindromes are under the impression that the punctuation in a palindrome must be the same in both directions. These people are misinformed. Pay them no mind.

The Fragility of Ideas

On October 19, Apple held an event to honor Steve Jobs. Featured appearances include the newly-appointed CEO Tim Cook and the legendary designer Jony Ive, who goes on to talk about the fragility of ideas (as proposed by Steve Jobs):

Steve used to say to me — and he used to say this a lot — “Hey Jony, here’s a dopey idea.”

And sometimes they were. Really dopey. Sometimes they were truly dreadful. But sometimes they took the air from the room and they left us both completely silent. Bold, crazy, magnificent ideas. Or quiet simple ones, which in their subtlety, their detail, they were utterly profound.

And just as Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence. You see, I think he better than anyone understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished.

So eloquently said. I’m reminded of this quote from Inception:

What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed—fully understoodthat sticks; right in there somewhere. 

(Hat Tip: Fortune)

The Million Dollar Taxi

The statistic of the day comes from The New York Times, which reports that for the first time ever, taxi medallions–aluminum plates that grant the right to operate a yellow cab–sold for over $1 million a piece:

The sale was the culmination of decades of astonishing growth for the humble medallion, which is nailed to the hood of every yellow cab in the city. When New York issued its first batch of medallions in 1937, the going price was $10 even, or $157.50 in today’s dollars.

Some perspective: The Dow Jones industrial average has risen 1,100 percent in the last 30 years. In the same period, the value of a taxi medallion is up 1,900 percent. That return beats gold, oil and the American house.

According to NPR, New York City strictly limits the number of medallions — currently at just over 13,000. So as the supply is held relatively constant, demand has been rising. But according to NPR:

The medallions create a textbook example of what economists call rent-seeking behavior: Basically, gaining extra profits without providing extra benefits. If the number of taxis were allowed to increase (and if cab fares were unregulated), the number of taxis would increase and the price of a cab ride would fall.

So forget investing in gold or the general stock market… Consider investing in TAXI.