Remembering Steve Jobs

Okay, look: Gallows humour aside (for the moment), Steve Jobs doesn’t deserve our reverence. He deserves our respect, yes, for being one of the only people in the industry to actually think about how people used hardware. He was a great hardware designer in part because of his obsession with detail and his absolute inability to compromise on a principle.

I admire him for that. And I’m more than a little disgusted to hear about Jobs’ ‘visionary’ genius from the likes of Ballmer and Gates – who, not to put too fine a point on it, wouldn’t know a good design if it slapped them in the face with a dead salmon.

Who the fuck are they to judge? And who the fuck are we to listen?

No, the thing we need to admire about Jobs – the thing we need to LEARN about Steve Jobs – is how he thought, how he never stopped trying to make things simpler, how he utterly refused to compromise, how he refused to accept ‘improvement’ as the criterion for success. It was necessary, of course, and relentlessly pursued, but it was the means to another end….

And that was good design. Something the technological world knows far too little about. And with his passing, most of its collective knowledge and ability pass with him.

If you really want to show respect and admiration for Steve Jobs, understand him.

Emulate him. Let them call you arrogant and impolite if they must, but be a perfectionist. Be unforgiving, cruel even, to yourself and others. But be simple and clear, too. If you do that, then one day you might – just might – do one perfect thing.

An American Dreamer

He swung and missed at every ball, and never blamed the bat. And every time he stepped up, he believed – he believed this time was different.

Tim at the base of Mount Yasur

Vanuatu seemed made for Tim Drefahl, and he for it. He wasn’t the typical Peace Corps volunteer. Older than most, much younger than the rest, he struggled to find his place in the fraternity. Perhaps it was his outsider status that made him a true friend for some of us and a devoted, caring member of his adoptive family in the Maskelyne islands.

In his first real foray outside the confines of Reaganite California, Tim found himself bewildered by the sarcasm and piss-taking of his newfound expat mates. He struggled and, as he always did, adjusted. By his second year here, he was leaning into the banter, trying gamely to give as good as he got.

No such struggle was required in his integration with ni-Vanuatu society, not at first. His love for the people of the Maskelynes and his devotion to their development gave focus to his unquenchable determination. An American Dreamer to the last, he KNEW that, with a liberal application of sweat and willpower, anything could be achieved. No matter what the world threw at him, no matter how he struggled to find his stance, this was one lesson he never un-learned.

Tim could be thick, occasionally breath-takingly wrong. He was awkward, often comically lacking in timing and sense. But he was true. Few people can be said to be genuinely pure of heart, but this man was one. And the world, with its piercing subtleties and sharpened edges, made sure that he paid more for every lesson.

Tim never learned caution and never lost hope. He stumbled into success and failure with equal resolve and unending faith in the rightness of his cause. It was his misguided clarity, ultimately, that closed Vanuatu’s door to him. Contracted to work in the administration of donor funds on a project close to his heart, he butted heads continually with departmental staff. No battle was too small. Right was right and wrong was wrong and that was it.

He was too Good. He succeeded too well. His project stayed on track, more or less, but winning so bluntly guaranteed that he would not work here again.

His exile from Vanuatu was purest misery. Alone and nearly friendless, he kept himself going through a year teaching English in Korea with the promise of return. But an extended vacation was the most he could muster. The world, as usual, exacted its price. The realisation that he could not make this his home nearly broke him.

He never stopped fighting, though; we knew he wouldn’t. Back to the US, then to Seoul for a time, just long enough to find a new passion: The city of Osaka, Japan. A clownish barbarian at the gates, he threw himself into this new exploration with blind enthusiasm. Appropriating friends like a pinball gaining points, he bounced and stumbled and clutched his way toward work, a home, a place of his own.

But the world does not reward the quixotic. Courage untempered by caution is brittle indeed. The causes are unclear, but on the 22nd of June, Tim was admitted to hospital with severe head injuries. He lingered for a few weeks, and on July 13th, 2010 he died.

“I miss you,” wrote one of his newfound Japanese friends, “I’m very sorry that I couldn’t save you even though I was near you.”

There are many in Vanuatu who feel the same.

The world is not gentle to the innocent, but no matter how it battered him, Tim Drefahl never let it win. Vanuatu offered solace for a while and, on an island ringed by an azure lagoon, there are people who will never forget his duty, his devotion, his love.

Randall Biliki, 1963 – 2007

I just found out at Randall Biliki has died, apparently murdered in an attack on his family.

I met Randall for a brief time, when he came to Vanuatu to help get the ball rolling on our leg of the People First Network. He was a conscientious, quiet individual whose intelligence quickly made itself shown through the clarity of his questions and comments. He was always tactful and soft-spoken, so perfectly disarming that I thought he was one of those people who would always sail through smooth waters.

I’m going to Honiara next month for the annual PACINET conference, a regional ICT get-together sponsored by the Pacific Islands Chapter of the Internet Society (PICISOC). I was really looking forward to buying him a beer (he didn’t like the kava at all). Now I’ll have to go and pay my respects to his family, if they haven’t fled Honiara.

A note about PFNet – they were virtually the only media presence on the ground during the civil strife in the Solomon Islands, and their Internet café was for some time the sole means of communication with the outside world for a number of people.

Randall, David Leeming, David Ma’ai and many others created a viable nation-wide communications network using technology that most others thought beneath them. Comparing their approach[*] with, for example, an Asian Development Bank-funded telecentre (at USD 125,000 a pop) provides an object lesson in sensible, sustainable development.

People often toss about the phrase ‘He will be missed‘ when speaking of the dead. But Randall’s death does exact a price. It can be measured directly in the ability of people on some of the remotest islands of the world to speak with one another.

This is probably the final straw for the Vanuatu extension of the project. Randall was to have come in and help run things for the first six months. I honestly don’t know how it can get off the ground without him around.