Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “Stanford”

Vincent J. Coates: Passing of a Mentor – Roger Ingalls

Monday was a sad day. A former co-work informed me via text message that my professional mentor passed away last week.

Vincent J. Coates founded several high-technology companies including Nanometrics, in 1975, which would grow into one of the most recognizable names in the semiconductor capital equipment industry. He was awarded more than 20 patents, had pioneering products in spectroscopy and scanning electron microscopy. One of the products he developed is responsible for a market segment that now generates $500 million a year. The technologies Mr. Coates developed are difficult to explain to those not involved in the industry but without his contributions, computers, cell phones and iPods would run much slower than they do today.

Vince

Vince was a dichotomy, you either loved him, hated him or, more than likely, both depending on the minute. On any given day he could be an absolute hard ass and on the following day he was your best friend sharing a funny joke or discussing last night’s football game. Once you had the opportunity to get know Vince, it was obvious he was a kind person. His fist pounding demands for excellence scared most people into avoidance so they never got to see the true man.

He was always teaching, offering advice and sharing his experiences that brought success. Over time, once mutual respect was achieved, you could talk to Vince about anything. Many years ago when I was a young marketing manager, Vince and I were eating lunch in the company cafeteria and he started talking about politics. He noticed I was uncomfortable and asked why. Telling him I was conflicted because my liberal political views were not conducive to growth into corporate management, he proceeded to set me straight. Vince cited example after example of Silicon Valley leaders that were Democrats and explained that an overwhelming number of entrepreneurs are liberal and they’re successful because their minds are open. Over the years I’ve come to realize that he was correct. Progressive free thinking entrepreneurs develop new markets and industries. Conservatives move in later to milk and stagnant setting the stage for a new wave of liberals to come in and obsolete the stagnation. This is especially true in high technology.

The above is just one example of Vince’s teachings, there are many more I could share. Like most of us, Vince wasn’t perfect but he was brilliant and willing to teach if you willing to learn. He demanded perfection and would let you know, in no uncertain terms, when you fell short. At the end of the day, when the dust settled, he always tried to do the right thing.

Knowing Vince made me a better person.

Veteran’s Day – An Excerpt from Unwanted Heroes

Unwanted Heroes will be released in the new year. The galley proofs are back in the hands of the publisher and I have just seen a first rendition of the cover. 

Unwanted Heroes brings together an old, battle weary Chinese American war vet and an idealistic and pretentious young Englishmen, who share a love for San Francisco, coffee and wine.  They soon discover they share even more when repressed memories bring them together in a gripping climax, finding in each other, an unlikely ally to free themselves from the tragic past that binds them both.  

In recognition of Veteran’s Day, I would like to share a scene with you. Mr. van Ness is Will’s (the protagonist) girlfriend’s father.

—————– 

Mr. van Ness downs the rest of his cognac in one gulp and stands up.

“I want to show you something, Will. Come.”

We leave the country club in his black, shiny Mercedes and drive about twenty minutes to the military cemetery in the Presidio. There are stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I stare silently as we pass through the tall stone and iron gates. The cemetery, like most of the city, is built on a hill. Rows of white tombstones stand in perfect, military symmetry, each defined by straight grass borders, like a white and green chessboard. A huge flag blows in the wind as I follow Jane’s father to a section of graves.

“What do you think the average soldier dreads when he goes off to war?” He asks without looking back at me.

I think for the moment. “Death, captivity, maybe never seeing his loved ones again?”

Mr. van Ness nods. “That’s about it. What about an officer?”

“The same?”

“Yes, but there’s something else. The officers see the young, fresh faces when they join the unit. Sometimes, if we’re embarking together, we see their parents, wives, girlfriends, and children. They hug and cry, while the family steals surreptitious glances at the officer, silently pleading: bring my boy home, my lover, my father.

“And a shiver courses through you. You are not God, probably not much of a soldier either. You know you cannot protect them, but still you swear a silent oath; to try and bring them back alive, as many of them as you can. Fuck the war, the politics, the drive to serve your country. All you want is to bring your boys back. You’d rather face a thousand of the enemy than one of these parents, wives or children at the funeral, or remembrance service.”

We stop by a tombstone and he crouches down, tenderly cleaning some dirt that has gathered there. I crouch with him as he takes a deep breath.

“The last time my wife entered my den was about fifteen years ago, Will. She shouldn’t have, but her motives were no doubt innocent. She found a small black notebook, almost full. I had written a list of names, mainly women. The names reappeared regularly and there was a column with dates and another with dollar amounts. She found a checkbook from a bank she was sure we didn’t use.

“That evening she confronted me. We didn’t hold secrets from each other, financial or otherwise. Who were these women? Ex-lovers? Illegitimate kids? I roared back that it was none of her damn business, how dare she enter my den and I yelled other absurdities. We’d never raised our voices to each other like that and have never since. Totally out of control, total rage.”

He points to the tombstone.

“My first sergeant, Pete O’Reilly. He died in my arms. The last words he heard were an oath from my lips to take care of his two young kids. Their mother received monthly checks from the bank, anonymous. When his oldest daughter was eighteen, she received a letter from the bank about a trust fund for her and her brother to pay for university tuition. The youngest graduated from Stanford a few years back.”

We move on to another grave. “His family’s all devout Catholics. I swore that they’d never know how he died. He’s buried here as a hero, and so it’ll remain.”

At another grave, he seems lost in thought, buried memories resurfacing. Then at length he turns to me. “Jane doesn’t know this, neither does her mother.” I nod, understanding the unspoken and he continues. “I worked in intelligence as well. I oversaw the recruitment and training of a spy network, of sort. Nothing glamorous. We gave the alcoholics and junkies money for booze and drugs.

“They gave us information, basic stuff like troop movement, nothing too significant. Crumbs. They were the dregs of their society and they knew little. But sometimes they knew enough to prevent some of our troops dying. If we thought we could use methods and intimidation to get more out of them, we never hesitated. If it saved one more life…

“I didn’t care, I could justify it. Not for the great United States, or for freedom and democracy, but to get my boys home alive. If this piece of shit’s confession could save just one of my boys, let him scream.”

He took a moment to compose himself. “They were handled by Asians, usually Asian-Americans recruited over here. These people had it hard. They may have nothing to do with Vietnam, born thousands of miles away, in a different culture, a different language. They were doing their job as loyal Americans, no different from the rest of us.

“But they were seen as different. Yellow skin, slit eyes aroused all the wild fears and prejudices that permeated the white and black soldiers. They largely hung out together and felt betrayed.

“Then we returned home. To some we were heroes, but many felt uneasy, as they’d heard of the horrors we’d inflicted. For the Asian-American soldiers, it was twice as bad. In civilian clothes, they were just another immigrant, just another who looked like the enemy. They received no honor, no respect from their peers. Sometimes they were even rejected by their own.”

He pauses again. I watch his warm breath escape as he exhales into the chilly air.

“There are two of these men still alive, physically at least. They’re both loners, pariahs. They’ve never held down jobs, never married. They wander the streets, allowing themselves to remember only enough to ensure they return to a hostel of sorts that feeds them and gives them beds. They are luckier than the homeless you talk about, Will. Their officer turned out to be a rich bastard who cares. Their tabs at the hostel are taken care of.”

There is silence and we stand up stiffly, both staring around. I search for something to say and put my hand on his shoulder. “You’re a good man, James, a generous man.”

He turns sharply and looks at me incredulously. His voice becomes sharp and loud. “I don’t do it for them! I do it for me! I do it so that I can live, so that I can continue. I do it to keep away the nightmares, to prevent the faces of widows and orphans staring at me at every turn.”

He begins to walk towards the car.

“You’re still a good man, James.” I shout after him, my voice shaking with emotion. He turns to face me. My arm sweeps in the cemetery and, with considerable effort, I steady my voice. “They all know who you are and what you did. They still think you’re a fucking hero. So do I, sir, even if I can’t understand it all.”

He stares at me for what feels like hours and I walk slowly towards him. He is breathing heavily; I see this even though the winter coat he wears. When he speaks, his voice is quiet, but steely.

“Find your boss, son. Find him and help him if you can: his brother too, if the poor bastard’s still alive.”

—————————————————————————————————–

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. His next novel, Unwanted Heroes, is due out in early 2013. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Movies That Matter – The Social Network

Facebook – love it or hate, but it is here to stay (or at least until the next great innovation), and it is a central part of our lives. The fastest growing age group used to be students (no surprises), now it is the 40-60’s. When someone under 120 tells me that they are not on Facebook (usually followed by a tirade against social media), my immediate reaction is that they are simply not connected. I have, however, learned from experience to keep that thought to myself.

Authors actually seem to complain a lot, but this is, I think, a symptom of the I-want-to-be-writing-not-marketing syndrome. Truth is, while you need to be on Facebook, you are in control of how many times you check it and how long you stay on. Kind of like flossing.

But this post is about The Social Network, the movie about how Facebook came about. I read The Accidental Billionaires (the book about…) and really enjoyed it. I would enjoy this movie even if I wasn’t into Facebook. I have a small library of ‘brilliant students at school’ movies (Dead Poet’s Society, Finding Forrester, Good Will Hunting – you get the idea).

The Social Network fits into this theme. The portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook and Person of the Year 2010 for Time, is amazing (I have no idea if it’s true), but this is a brilliant mind who can’t fathom the everyday realities of dress (he goes to a business meeting in a hoodie – with the hood on his head), with little social talents, and yet his brilliance is a magnet for other brilliant minds.

It is for us too. As the movie continues, you begin to root for Zuckerberg, hoping he will win through. This happens, I think, without the writers compromising on the harshness or incompatabliity of the protagonist.

Tamim Ansary, a brilliant SF author, shares his recollection of a favorite scene. This is the most memorable scene for me too. It is written in Tamim’s words according to memory, but it is just great. In this scene, Justin Timberlake wakes up in the morning in the bed of a Stanford student that he has clearly only just met. He is lying in her bed and she is just getting dressed.

“What do you do?”
“I’m an Internet entrepreneur.”
“Oh,” she sneers, “In other words, you’re unemployed.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.”
“Well how would you ‘put it’?”
“I’d say I’m an Internet entrepreneur.”
“All right. What have you entrepreneured?”
“I founded a company that lets people share music online.”
“Uh huh. Kind of like Napster.”
Exactly like Napster.”
“What do you mean?”
“I founded Napster.”
“No you didn’t! Sean Parker founded Napster.”
“Yes. It’s good to meet you too.”

I’m going to leave the last word to Mr. Ansary, primarily because it never occurred to me until I read his review.

“Even more fascinating is the understated way the movie conveys that all these plaintiffs are wrong: none of them invented Facebook, and neither did Zuckerberg. Facebook already existed in the world in potentia: the trick was to see it out there, know what it was, and then create the apparatus that allowed it to actualize itself, to materialize.  Facebook invented itself.”

Maybe this is the definition of brilliance. How many times have I read a great novel and thought: “Gosh, I wish I had thought of that plot/character.”

——————————————————————————————————

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Post Navigation

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: