Review of “Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel,’ by Narain Gehani

At one point, listening to this book while running on an eliptical, I wanted to throw the remote control at the television.

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Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel is a first-person history of the Bell Labs – Research, as told from the perspective of a Computer Science Ph.D. who began n development, transferred to research, and eventually became head of Bells Labs Silicon Valley. The book suffers from numerous flaws, and I finished it merely so I could give it a negative review.

In a way, comparing Bell Lab: Life in the Crown Jewel with other stories of innovation engines (such as Where Wizards Stay Up Late and Dealers of Lightning) leads to the same comparison of The Man Who Stayed Behind and I Chose China. Both of these latter two books concern American Jews who went to China in the early post-War years, aligned themselves with the Communist Party, and witnessed Maoism first-hand over a period of decades. However, while The Man Who Stayed Behind is carefully organized, I Choose China is a collection of reminiscences that go nowhere in particular. Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel is a collection of reminiscences that go nowhere in particular. The tenacity with which Narain repeats that there is a conflict between basic and applied research is impressive, but ultimately pointless.

Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel appears to want to be a popular business book. I say this because technical and research skills are regularly mocked, but little is learned from a research perspective, either. For instance, in one anectdoe, Gehani disputes whether a colleague actually saved a Business Unit a large amount of money through some new technique. The colleague, the colleague’s manager, and the Business Unit all assert that he did. Gehani’s “test” — to see whether the Business Unit would grant a bonus of a large amount of money, because that employee might again be so productive the next year, ends the anecdote as an example of Gehani’s cleverness. The technical details of what this innovation might have been are not discussed. But neither is any business thinking exhibited. Questions of headcount, corporate fiefdoms, and the such aren’t even raised. Instead, in this anecdote and others, the reader is intended to exist with a sense of Gehani’s unique cleverness.

The book is a nauseating example of how corporate lawfare retards actual innovation. For instance, in a sickening passage, Narain discusses how he “invented” and patented co-browsing, and urged Bell Labs’ general counsel to sue others who use this “invention.” The patent(s) Gehani refers to appear to be:

These ridiculous patents exist only because corporate corporations attempt to use the law to club possible competitors. None of these “inventions” are any more impressive than, say, “A Method to Repair Shoe Laces with Scotch Tape in the Event they Break Instead of Buying New Shoelaces.” However, large companies that hire lawyers are able to cause enough problems litigating these pattens (that they get by flooding the underfunded USPTO with applications) that they are able to carve out de facto monopolies contrary to the intent of U.S. law. A search on the Patent Office’s website indicate that Gehani’s first patent was granted in 1995, considerably after he joined Bell Labs. My obvious conclusion is that Bell Labs, ever closer to its decapitation by Lucent, began generating patents in order to force competitors to “license” obvious methods, or else face hundreds of thousands in legal bills. This is not discuss.

The tragedy of Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel is that it might have been one of the best case-studies of an innovation engine written. Perhaps Narain Gehani will still write that book. He is no longer with Bell Labs, and currently serves as the Chairman of the Computer Science Department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. His publication list is impressive, and Google Book Search brings up numerous other works written or co-written by Dr. Gehani. I hope that I will have a chance to read a more complete first-person perspective, perhaps titled Bell Labs: Decline and Fall, sometime soon. Narain could structure such as book as follows.

Introduction: What Went Wrong
Chapter One: My Early Life
Chapter Two: From a Professor to a Researcher
Chapter Three: (Mis)Adventures with the Unix Team
Chapter Four: Concurrent C/C++
Chapter Five: The Object Database Environment
Chapter Six: Years of Transition
Chapter Seven: The Columbus GPS System
Chapter Eight: Maps On Us
Chapter Nine: Cell Center Capers
Chapter Ten: Commuting from Jersey to the Valley (by Jet)
Chapter Eleven: From a Researcher to a Professor:
Epilogue: What Went Right

Such a book would be a wonderful read, a great “technical autobiography” of a man, and a first-person history of Bell Labs. It would explain obviously important parts of Narain’s career which are discussed but never described, such as his database and C/C++ systems. Additionally, it would provide a coherent chronology and frames of reference, that do not exist in the current book.

Two-bite movies, Part V: “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” and “Chungking Express”

Of all the genres I did not expect to “fall in love” with, Hong Kong romance is pretty high upon the list. Yet so far I have watched Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, 2046, and The World of Suzie Wong, and enjoyed all of them. With that said, recently I watched two more, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing and Chungking Express. As romances, both are terrific. But both films (almost) go beyond their genre.

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As is typical of genre romances, the only character with depth is the heroine. In 1955’s Splendored this is Dr. Han Suyin (played by Jennifer Jones), while in 1994’s Express the female lead is simply “Faye” (played by Faye Wong). Both female leads are unsure how to define themselves — Suyin is a mixed-race doctor who wishes to be Chinese, while Faye is a Chinese convenience-store attendant who wants to live in California.

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Far more interesting than the flat characters are the common theme of the coming of the Communist Party. Splendored begins in 1949, and one of the first conversations centers around the fall of Shanghai. Suyin’s desire to help build China and apparent loyalty to the Communists as the only truly Chinese party is tempered by her family’s belief that it will be executed by the Party.

The concern is far more muted in Express, which takes place a few years before the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. These themes are explored more fully, if still allegorically, in the director’s film (with the same lead actress), 2046.

Both movies are quirky in their own ways. Love is a Many-Splendored Thing is a remarkable film when taken in the context of race relations. Chungking Express has what amounts to an extremely large series of establishing shots, all of which serve to give context for the person and surroundings of the protagonist, who does not even appear into halfway into the film.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing won three Academy Awards. Chungking Express is one of Time’s 100 best films of all time.

Review of John Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” Series

I had the pleasure of reading five related stories by John Scazi recenty — Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, The Sagan Diary, The Last Colony, and Zoe’s Tale. The series ultimately revolves around Zoe Boutin Perry, and are told from the perspective of her adoptive father (Old Man’s War, The Last Colony), her biological uncle and her adoptive mother (The Ghost Brigades), her adoptive mother alone (The Sagan Diary), and, lastly, by Zoe alone (Zoe’s Tale).

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The series brings to mine the Ender series, by Orson Scott Card. This is true because they share similar themes (interspatial warfare against alien species), some of the same rhetorical tricks (like Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow, The Last Colony, and Zoe’s Tale give different perspectives on the same events), and because both series are typically categorized as “young adult science ficition.”

Both the Ender’s series and the Old Man’s War series, however, also contain deep themes that save them from a literary ghetto. The later books in the series focus on questions of morality and war: “How can I ask people I do not even know to die for people I do?,” Zoe asks a friend in Zoe’s Tale. In The Sagan Diary, Zoe’s adoptive mother recalls with contept the arrest of an enemy who led his colony in a futile, and suicidal, defense against overwhelming odds. In The Last Colony, she and her husband are then given just such a mission. Earlier books dwell on the question of identy. Early in Old Man’s War, Zoe’s adoptive father watches his body die, and the reader begins to learn how advanced genetic engeering has evolved to the extent that special forces (like Zoe’s adoptive mother) that they only physically resemble human beings as part of a design decision.

The Old Man’s War series is well worth reading. Still, differnet books will appeal to different readers. Two are narrated by males and two are narrated by females, and I suspect that men and women will enjoy those books in different ways. Likewise the overlap between The Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale is substantial enough that most readers probably will read one or the other, but not both.

The author, John Scalzi, maintains an active blog at whatever.scalzi.com. John Scalzi discussed his work, The Last Colony, during a 2007 talk about google:

Two-bite movies, Part IV: “The Squid and the Whale” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

In this series, “Two-bite movies” I have reviewed the life of moster Henry Hill, Japanese adaptations of Shakespeare, and good movies ruined by Hollywoodization. Now for two nostalgic and elitist wastes of time: The Squid and the Whale, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

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The Squid and the Whale is sort of a 1980s offshoot of the Wes Anderson universe. Indeed, the similarities between Squid and The Royal Tennenbaums is striking. In order to go from one to another, simply remove interesting characters, subtlety, and charm. There are no sympathetic characters, certainly the parents are both awful people, and neither of the children appear to be headed anywhere sort of juvie. Unlike Smart People (a nearly identical film made three years later) there is no attempt at humor. The only thing that Squid and Whale adds from the Wes Anderson universe is an excessive obsession with the foibles of the wine-and-Kerry crowd, from a major plot element being published in the New Yorker to the parents comparing each other based on their publishing record.

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If The Squid and the Whale is an abode of farces of those who really wish they could have voted for John Kery, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are for Americans who really, really wish the 2008 elections would have been George W. Bush v. John F. Kennedy. The film is told from flashbacks during Hurricane Katrina, and includes a dizzying array of stereotypical, flat, characters (a blue-collar worker who’s really an artist; an anti-war protester who makes a clock that goes backwards; an angelic, meaty black woman, cold, white rich, fathers; ad naseum). While I’m critical of The Squid and the Whale for its stuffy elitism, at least it is intelligent enough to recognize problems. For instance, the theme of a broken home is pervasive in Squid, even if it’s presented as a quirky inevitability. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it really does just take a village, and kids grow up just fine without their fathers in their lives.

Between the two, The Curious Case of Benajamin Button is worse. Longer, duller, and more boomerish, it has nothing to recommend it except for computer graphics. The Squid and the Whale, on the other hand, would be clever if not for better movies that came before and after it.