Monday, October 10, 2011

How great is great?

A relatively unknown man named Ralph Steinman died from pancreatic cancer three days before he could receive the Nobel Prize for medicine, shared with two partners. Coincidentally he was Canadian. The irony is that he never learned that he would be receiving the Nobel Prize.

What he did is discover the dendritic cell which his fellow scientists say has greatly enhanced how the body's immune system works and has paved the way for cancer treatments and other diseases. Not a cure, but something that will bring a cure closer.

A few days later, Steve Jobs also died of pancreatric cancer and the world watched endless hours of tributes and millions of tweets from the man who gave us the MacIntosh,  iPod, iPhone and iPad and how much he contributed to the world.

No, I'm not going to trash Jobs, he did not deserve to die so young and he was one of a kind. But I think that now, in the next week or so, we'll begin to see editorials and letters about his failings  and I guess it's inevitable that such a huge reaction will be followed by those who will bring out his almost draconian corporate rules, his revenge against those who opposed him and the poor condition of the Chinese factory workers, 10 of them who leapt to their death because of harsh work conditions.

But I found it interesting how pancreatic cancer involved both of them, the scientist  who was and trying to find a cure and one of the  innovators of the personal computer who created products to entertain us.

So yes, I just got tired of the constant coverage of Jobs,  yes, he was brilliant. But so was Steinman and he got a quarter of a page for one day.

The interesting thing about Steinman, is that after he got pancreatic cancer, he chose to become a test tube for any kind of treatment that was available for study. Since he was dying, he figured he'd continue his study of immunity as far as his body would let him. He was also named co-recipient of the $500,00 Albany Medical Center Prize, the largest award in medicine in the U.S.

Watching the Jobs coverage I wonder where our values are now. What's more important; a cure for cancer or an iPod that plays 15,000 songs.  I guess it depends on one's values.

Jobs was responsible for opening up the world to some extent for the blind and deaf, but he wasn't the innovator nor the only computer manufacturer to do so. And as far as the iPod, Sony came out with the Walkman in 1980 and it was a major change in that one could carry a small portable cassette player with them all the time. With earphones too.

So why all the attention for Jobs?

Well, first of all we now have more media coverage of everything than ever in the history of the world. Something happens in Uzbekastan and we hear about it immediately, that is if it has a good  hook. As the old news saying goes, "if it bleeds, it leads". When I worked in TV news, both as writer, cameraman and soundman, I learned early that news was when something bad happened to someone.

But we now have, thanks to Jobs and Gates and all the others, the ability to instantly tell the world what we feel. And it's infectious; one starts and then another and then millions and pretty soon it's a movement and everyone wants to be included.

And so what Jobs helped create was also the reason that the outpouring of tributes and messages in the millions took place. Remember that Americans in the west didn't know that Abraham Lincoln was president for almost 2 months.

When Michael Jackson died, his family and the world mourned the "greatest entertainer ever". Was he the greatest? Nobody really knows as most of our perceptions are based on the values we have now, the world is a little smaller and to some, everything's been done. All we're doing is refining it.

Did Michael change the world? Not as much the Beatles did. They literally changed the world, people began to dress like them, more bands than ever in history were formed by teenagers, including me and long hair... well it's still a style today.

But the world again rained tributes and messages to them and to each other. A celebration of being part of something big.

So consider that the media, mostly TV and internet and newspapers, now run 24 hours and thus need content. So when someone important, or mildly important dies, they jump on it and try to find family, friends or anyone who they can interview in their "breaking news". Jobs was a natural, a California boy and he did change his world, primarily that of how to listen to music and extending the idea of a laptop into the iPad.

Steinman got a short mention as did his 2 partners, for their research. They didn't appear on CNN or MSNBC or ABC or any of the news shows. CNN seemed to run almost 24 hours of Jobs and in the LA Times today an article talks about "a world without Jobs".

So who's the guy above with lightning in his hands?

Nikola Tesla was arguably the 20th century's greatest genius and most people have never heard of him. Among his amazing inventions was invented A/C power, you know, that outlet on the wall that you plug your computer and your TV and your radio and your refrigerator into. Where would Jobs be without Tesla. Or us?

The LA Times had a headline Saturday that read "What will the world do now that Steve Jobs is gone?"

Well, it will continue. Genius is unique, and he had that. But genius isn't all that uncommon. When Alexander Bell was developing the telephone there were at least a dozen others who were working on their telephone at the same time. Bell never patented his telephone until his father-in-law actually went to the patent office and had it patented.

Two hours later another inventor came in to patent his phone, similar to Bell's. But it was too late. Had Bell not got his phone patented,  he would never had the recognition he has to this day. Bell is a common word now.

Genius comes and goes, and there's always someone else out there who has the next great idea and there's also some scientist who sits for hours in a cramped lab somewhere who will also come up with one more advance in medicine, influenced by Steinman and probably listening to his iPod.

For the record, I have 4 computers, 2 Dell laptops and 2 Mac's (although one is ancient). And an iPod.

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