If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Paul Allen, the Idea Man

Alongside a few colleagues, I started fiddling with personal computers (PCs) in 1987. The first IBM PC rolled out of a plant in a small town, Boca Raton in Palm beach, Florida in 1981 and soon became the industry standard. Later, only “IBM compatible PCs” would see the light of the day. These machines would reach our corporate office in a small town in India within a few years of their launch.

After having used the typewriter for many years, I found the new machine fascinating. Typing, correcting, editing, everything you could do by looking at a screen; you could chisel your language to perfection. You could store tonnes of text and take any number of clear prints. That was not all: A few hours of tinkering with a utility called dBase III, and you got a system that would do in one hour what an army of clerks would do in one week.

We, who used the machines, were the beneficiaries. The benefactors were many, who developed PC hardware and software on the other side of the globe, in the US of A. Paul Allen, 21 and Bill Gates, 19, were entrepreneurs who, with tremendous prescience, dreamed of putting “a computer in every home” at a time when computers were huge, unwieldy, monstrously expensive machines that were accessible only to governments and top research institutes. It was an arena reserved for scientists, where a few passionate hobbyists, aka nerds, sneaked in from time to time. Let alone common people, even commercial houses hardly used them in the 1970s.

IBM PCs and their clones changed it all. Originally known as microcomputers, they were first built around the microprocessor or microchip called Intel 8086. Subsequent models were based on Intel 8088 and Intel 80826. With every new avatar, we experienced exponential increase in data storage capacity and speed of computation. As users, we were a tiny part of a revolution that would later change the way people keep in touch, buy movie tickets, gather news, fall in love, in short, the way people live.

We saw these changes as audience in a grand theatre. Paul Allen’s autobiography, Idea Man, gives us a glimpse into what happened backstage, and in the greenrooms. The story is extraordinary and the book, particularly the first half (174 pages), which covers the two young men’s tryst with destiny and the setting up of Microsoft, is as riveting as the finest thrillers by Agatha Christie.

Paul Allen and Bill Gates were together at an exclusive private school (equivalent to public school in India) in Seattle. For them, it was a stroke of fortune that the school decided to install a terminal link to a General Electric mainframe computer at a distant location. The two friends used the terminal to teach themselves programming and begged borrowed and stole to get as much computer time as possible, wherever and whenever available. Before he was twenty, Allen had
“working familiarity” with ten computers, ten high-level languages, nine machine-level languages, and three operating systems.
A brilliant student and a rather conceited young man, Gates went to Harvard to study maths and got a rude shock to discover that he was not the smartest, but just one of the top students. One of his maths professors “got his PhD at sixteen.” He shifted to applied maths. Allen got a “dead-end job” nearby, but their obsession with programming continued.

In 1975, an unknown New Mexico entrepreneur Ed Roberts launched the MITS Altair, the world's first microcomputer. It was based on the microchip Intel 8080. But the world's first microcomputer was less than a fancy toy as strangely, Ed didn’t have a clue about the software that could run the machine. Allen and Gates, assisted by a freshman Monte Davidoff, worked like mad to write the software, technically known as “the interpreter” that would enable the machine to run programs written in the BASIC programming language.

The genius of Allen and Gates made it possible although they were at the other end of the continent and had no access to the Altair computer or even the 8080 chip. Their experience of working on a failed previous project helped.

The day Allen flew down to Albuquerque, New Mexico to demonstrate their software (Altair BASIC), he knew it might not work on the Altair machine. Also, he had forty dollars on him and no credit card. Ed Roberts had booked him in a hotel that cost fifty dollars a night. But in the knowledge industry about to change the world, what you had in your head was more important than what you had in your bank. The software worked, Allen bagged the contract and Microsoft (MICROcomputer + SOFTware) was born.

In 1980, when IBM was looking for an operating system (the basic software on which computer programs operate) to run its new personal computer, they approached Microsoft. Microsoft hadn’t developed any operating system earlier, but they didn’t let go the opportunity. A small Seattle based company had developed a rudimentary operating system, QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System). Allen bought it at a throwaway price and developed it into MS-DOS. It was not easy. The Microsoft team sweated blood and delivered. The rest is history: the IBM PC became the benchmark in an ever-expanding industry and DOS became its operating system. As is commonly said, with MS-DOS, Microsoft acquired a licence to print money.

Underneath the teamwork, there was tension. Bill Gates, a ruthlessly focused man who would reach his goals at any cost, was not an easy person to get along with. He could be rude and cantankerous. In their team, Allen was mainly the thinker and Gates, the doer. Allen did the research and scanned the horizon for new opportunities. Gates ran the business. Their partnership, which began as with a 50:50 sharing of profits, became 64:36 in favour of Gates in course of time. The greed or jealousy between the two men could have been between any two bania partners. Yet, the story of the friendship and competition between these two brilliant men is no less absorbing than the story of Microsoft itself.

After spending eight feverish years in developing Microsoft into a behemoth, Allen was down with Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of 29. Although he recovered, he never went back to an active role in the company.
The remaining half of the book deals with the other half of his life till 2010. A 30% ownership of Microsoft meant he is an enormously rich man. He hasn’t used his wealth like any other eccentric billionaire. Rather, he has used his wealth like an eccentric billionaire who has a genuine, umbilical connection with science in particular and knowledge in general, and who has varied interests ranging from basketball to rock music to wild life.

Although being from the third world, one finds the idea of owning a seven-storey, longer-than-a-football-ground yacht ridiculous and put-offing (Paul Allen has got one), one cannot but bow to a man who spends millions to map the brain and the spinal cord and puts the findings in the public domain, and sets up libraries and museums, and funds SETI, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Paul Allen is a brilliant entrepreneur who played a key role in a technology revolution which will surely rank as a watershed in the history of our civilization. He is also tremendously inquisitive about the frontiers of science, and wants to be a part of any project that might achieve a breakthrough into the future. And he says, “From my youth, I’d never stopped thinking in the future tense.”

Paul Allen - Idea Man, published by Penguin Books Limited, London, 2011

Monday, 4 July 2011

Joe – there was only one of his kind

Joe (Joy Joseph Manimury) died on 19th June. He needn’t have. He was only 59. But accidents don’t care how old their victims are.

Since I write a web log more or less regularly, I cannot but share Joe with my readers. At the same time, it is hard to write about someone whose absence bleeds your heart. I haven’t written a sentence since I heard of Joe’s death. I must, now. The catharsis must be, if I have to move forward.

Joe was of medium height. But when I met him first in 1975, he looked much taller because of his slender frame. With a shock of black hair, a half smile playing through carelessly grown whiskers, and bright eyes piercing through metal rimmed glasses, he would stand out in a crowd. He had worked in the ministry of external affairs in New Delhi before we joined the same bank and became friends. He told me that before the ministry, while he was trying to find his feet in Delhi, there was a time when, as he woke up in the morning, he was not sure where he would find a bed to sleep in after sixteen hours. He would hit the road with a bag. Then he added, ‘I always carried a toothbrush in my pocket.’

He described the situation casually, as if it is common for every young fellow out in the world not to have a roof over his head.

Amongst us, a group of thirteen newly recruited probationers, two things were common between Joe and me. While the rest of the gang had outstanding or near-outstanding academic records, we two were the only “second classes” and neither had done Masters. I have mentioned this elsewhere, but what I failed to record is that the similarity ended there. Joe had a sparkling intellect and a breadth of reading that often left me awestruck. I secretly dreamed of matching him in acquired knowledge someday, but I knew I had no chance of matching his razor-sharp mind. An hour’s conversation with him would light up my horizon, like the first rays of the sun in Darjeeling set up a stunning Kanchenjunga.

The second similarity between us was a shared love for literature. All our friends had varied interests and were well-read. But none, I think, had such a deep and enlightened interest in serious literature as Joe had. I recall having spent many evenings with him talking about books and authors we had read. Our interests were eclectic, but there was not much common ground, except for Hemingway, Steinbeck and Graham Greene. That was in the late 1970s, before Marquez swept us off our feet.

He wrote brilliant English and his letters were always a treat. Having lived a peripatetic life, I haven’t been able to hold on to many things that were of real value. And Joe’s letters would be among them. Here is one of Joe’s rare forays into creative writing, which I quote from memory:
There was a young man called Roger Buck
Who once courted Lady Luck.
His horse came last,
And he let blast
Something that rhymed with duck.
It was he who introduced me to the game of Scrabble. A common friend and fellow Scrabble aficionado, KTR has written how Joe used to knock him out with punches like sitcom (long before the TV hit us Indians) and syzygy, whatever that might mean. I too had a similar experience, having learned awning and jamb in some of the first few games that we played. I am sure I never beat him in Scrabble. The question wouldn’t arise.

Once I asked him how he had learned English so well. Did his father, who was a professor of English, help?

‘No, I don’t discuss English with old man.’

‘Do you consult a dictionary often?’

‘No, never.’

I was flabbergasted then, but now, after teaching English for ten years, I know, you can have that kind of vocabulary without opening a dictionary only if you read tonnes of books and have a top class analytical mind to back up your reading.

Joe had a wacky sense of humour and was capable of springing a surprise or two. The second aspect first.

We worked for the same bank for twenty years, but never under the same roof. We were not even in the same city most of the time. Once when my wife and I were moving from Trivandrum to Calcutta, Joe arrived unannounced from Ernakulam ostensibly to help us pack, and lit up the dim evening. Packing we did, but it was before our children were born and our entire household fitted into two boxes and Joe knew it. He called Arundhati didi and she loved him like a brother. Those two days in Trivandrum were among the happiest days of our life. After reaching Calcutta, we found Joe had also slipped in a set of beautiful German silver salt and pepper cellars in one of our boxes.

On another occasion, he came to Hyderabad from Kerala for a weekend.

Joe lived by his own rules and didn’t care for many things. He spent like mad until he ran out of cash. He was famously absentminded too. Once, alone on an official tour in Bombay, he decided to give himself a treat at an up-market restaurant. After the dinner, he discovered his wallet was empty. And it happened before the invention of credit cards. Joe wrote to me, ‘For the first time in my adult life, I prayed to God. And God appeared, in the shape of Madhusudan Rao.’

Rao was an officer in another bank and we happened to be together during a training programme ten years before.

V. T. Thomas a.k.a. Toms, who created the impish cartoon characters Boban and Molly, has been a household names in Kerala since 1961. He was an uncle of Joe (on his mother’s side, if I am not mistaken). Joe told us this story about Toms. Once, as a child, Toms was taking a geography test where one of the questions was a fill-in-the-blank:

___________ is the longest river in Kerala.

Toms tackled the question this way:

Which is the longest river in Kerala?

Joe’s sense of humour, which was obviously genetic, was legendary among friends and colleagues. Once, he had gone for an interview for a position on the faculty of the Bank’s training centre. The selection would not help him financially: it was just another position at the same level of hierarchy. On the contrary, it was not considered a great career move by many.

I met Joe just after the interview and found him a little fidgety. When I asked him why he bothered about something so inconsequential, he replied,‘Santanu, even if you went for an interview for a barber’s post in the bank, you’d feel bad if you didn’t get it.’

One of our perks was that we could travel home once in two years from our place of posting on company expense. And we could travel by air, a rare privilege those days. Once, when he was posted at Ahmedabad, Joe came down to Kerala as he had some urgent work at his home in Changanacherry. He met us in Trivandrum and said smugly, ‘Since I didn’t have money to buy train tickets, I flew down’, meaning he had utilised the home-travel facility.

I have written about Joe’s intellectual prowess and his sense of humour and his flair for doing the unexpected. He was also a brilliant officer and a top-notch achiever at work. On the lone occasion when I happened to work on a project with him, I was impressed by the quality of his work and his ability to think out of the box. And he was fastidious about everything he did. If he had been a barber, he would have tried to be the best barber in town. Once he said in some context, ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing well.’

Joe should have lived much longer. I am sure after he had retired and returned to India next September, we would have found some occasions to play a few games of Scrabble and drink a few bottles of beer.

PS 1: I met Joe last fifteen years ago. And we spoke over phone but rarely. If his death affects me so immensely, I wonder how it would be like for his wife, Catherine and his two daughters, Aarti and Nikhila. I can only believe they have the strength to bear the loss.

PS 2: If you wish to read about some other facets of this wonderful person, please click here.

[The photograph at the top is from Joe's Facebook page. The picture above was sent by Joe in April 2010 from Comoros Island with a terse note: “Look at the sky!”]