Saturday, November 27, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal / Author: Michael Gates Gill
Published in Daily Times / Saturday, November 27, 2010

Starbucks had more than coffee on the menu the day Michael walked in. A company that claims its mission is to “inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time”, was about to offer him a choice of lifelines along with their standard latte. And the man who once hobnobbed with poets, writers and political bigwigs and jet-setted around the globe, happily ensconced in his armour of wealth and entitlement, was going to accept both.

It is not every day that a former creative director of J Walter Thompson (JWT) who has a Yale education and leads a charmed life steps down to take the place of a Starbucks barista only to find that it was actually a step up in life. As ludicrous as this sounds, How Starbucks Saved My Life insists on turning the classic rags to riches story on its head.

Michael is someone born with a silver spoon in his mouth (he is the son of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill), who discovers the secret to happiness only after he crosses over to the other side of the divide doing work that, according to him, would have appalled his entitled and arrogant self. Knocked off his comfortable perch at 53, he fell a long way down, losing balance upon re-entry.

This is the story of how a fallen star who lived for work and let his true priorities go astray found his bearings in a famous coffeehouse that offers its guests (there are no customers) a rich experience, and its partners (as every employee is called) a nurturing environment.

Starbucks, an international coffeehouse chain that welcomes all new partners with coffee sampling and coffee stories is the unexpected star that upstages the mighty JWT. JWT, which is the “largest advertising agency in the US and fourth biggest in the world” is the one in need of an image makeover before this saga ends.

Working as a barista might not be everyone’s cup of tea (or coffee), but it proved to be an ideal “pick me up” for one Michael Gates Gill. Michael, or Mike as he is now known, recounts his adventures, first as the king of advertising and later as a pawn in the service industry. He reminisces about the past when his cloak of invincibility was still intact and he seemed to have a firm grip on things, yet, upon closer examination, he notices that his supposedly picture perfect life was riven by fault lines. Pondering over his background that “put him on an upward escalator reserved for those few affluent, properly educated, well spoken, well dressed peers who would never stop ascending”, he acknowledges that he would never have left voluntarily. He uses the book to condemn not just the soulless corporate machine that evicted him after 25 years of loyal service but also his lifestyle choices responsible for driving a wedge between him and his priorities. After being escorted out of JWT, he recalls how missteps were greeted by a cheering squad, fear was the driving force and clients loved to see them trip up.

At Starbucks, on the other hand, he finds that “both partners and guests agreed that everyone deserved to be treated with respect and dignity”, which is a far cry from the Fortune 500 companies he had encountered that “spent lots of money and time writing and publishing high sounding mission statements and never practised the corporate gobbledygook that they preached.”

Mike observes that his superiors at Starbucks have no problem serving subordinates, “turning the traditional corporate hierarchy upside down”. He discovers benefits at every turn, working with people who never order but request and is pleasantly surprised when guests appear to show genuine concern about partners.

The writer happens to be the original Mad Man (reference to the AMC show Mad Men about an advertising agency on Madison Avenue set in the 1960s) and bears an uncanny resemblance to its lead character, Don Draper. He does not pretend to be an innocent bystander at JWT and, afterwards, mentions that as he moved past an old colleague, he was also “moving beyond other remnants of his past more arrogant self”. He admits to his own failings (as a family man) and pleads guilty to harbouring secret prejudices; this is not just an angry rant against a corporation that left him out in the cold.

Every now and then Mike takes a break from ripping apart JWT and entertains with vignettes from their vault. Through the book he can take down his old company without worrying about lawsuits and endorse Starbucks without being dismissed as a PR man. In 2011, Tom Hanks will don the green apron to play Mr Gill in the movie adaptation of How Starbucks Saved My Life.



Gotham; Pp 272

Saturday, November 6, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA's SpyTechs, from Communism to Al-Qaeda

Wallace, Robert (Author) and Melton, H. Keith (Author)
with Schlesinger, Henry R. (Author)
Foreword by George J. Tenet Former Director CIA

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Published in Daily Times / 06 Nov 2010, under the title: I Spy With My Little Eye

Some in the intelligence business have been dismayed to find that they have been using gadgets relegated to spy museums long ago. As agencies operating under the espionage banner usher in a new era of covert warfare, asking the public to admire their enterprising nature may not be wise. Getting the agencies to set aside their secrecy clause long enough to admit to their past may not be possible.

The ‘top gun of OTS’ CIA’s Office of Technical Service have been engaged in a battle of wits for half a century and their stories are worthy of attention. An insider’s look at the world of espionage especially OTS or ‘America’s Q’ and its fearsome capabilities besides being a cause for concern for rival agencies is a chance to observe ‘history in the making’ through the eyes of bit players deployed on the technological frontlines.

Ripple effects of an American intelligence failure can be felt all over the globe - ditto for intelligence manipulation. OSS (Office of Strategic Studies) even when it was lightly dismissed as the ‘bastion of aristocrats and bankers’ during WWII had its fingers in several covert pies across Europe, the Middle East and Asia; its successor has been cast in a more sinister light.

Stanley Lovell(credited with playing the role of the dreaded Professor Moriarty of the OSS) who also wrote about technical aspect of intelligence in another book ‘Spies & Stratagems’ and initially considered the idea of subversion to be un-American, would go on to oversee the creation of a clandestine arsenal for use by ‘soldiers of underground resistance movements, spies and saboteurs’.

Now Robert Wallace, a former director of OTS gives away what were once valuable trade secrets and are still deemed classified by CIA given that all but three chapters of his (originally approved) manuscript ended up on the cutting room floor so to speak. While the fast evolving capabilities may have rendered technology that was considered revolutionary for its time obsolete, spooks, being spooks are reluctant to part with expired blueprints.

Wallace, a career intelligence officer finally managed to get the document past censors (making voluntary changes) all the while insisting that this is a non inflammatory history lesson. He claims to have lifted the cloak of secrecy surrounding the CIA and its operations without demonizing the agency or the President or leaking classified information for that matter. CIA can agree to disagree here.

Devices with built in spy capability are ubiquitous now so T-100 mini camera / pen series or BUSTER the infant texting device are no longer the star attraction; but the ingenuity (and cunning) that went into perfecting tradecraft, and the bold initiatives launched under technological constraints are. This is a detailed guide to Uncle Sam’s intelligence strike force launched against communism with a few tantalizing glimpses into their efforts in the ongoing anti terror campaign against the Al-Qaeda.

The remarkable story of OTS - ‘the organization that did not just make magic, it made magic on demand’ has its share of ‘Mission Impossible’ moments with more than a few ‘Get Smart’ situations thrown in. Deciding to recruit feral cats by bugging them to spy on an Asian head of state in the mid 1960’s appears to have the stamp of Maxwell Smart (from the classic spy comedy) yet the ‘Acoustic Kitty Project’ was an all too real albeit failed experiment. But the value of intelligence provided from behind the Iron Curtain by a senior Soviet military intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Oleg Penkovsky, (featured in a book ‘the Spy who Saved the World’) that supposedly ‘led to American denying Soviets a foothold in Western hemisphere’ cannot be questioned. Nor can the Soviet’s ability to repay the favour.

It gives readers a fair idea of the Soviet paranoia, the risks CIA agents ran operating right under the ever vigilant KGB’s inquisitive nose and the challenges techs (technicians) encountered bringing in a silent technological revolution as they struggled to match (and eventually overtake) the brilliance of their counterparts. Whether it is applying the dramatic Skyhook technology recently featured in Dark Knight – the movie, equipping a helicopter with night vision capability and quiet mode or using a jack in the box head to ditch surveillance and applying covcom(covert communication) to establish links with U.S. POW prisoner of wars in North Vietnam.

The book delves into the Q’s inner sanctum sharing operational details and imagery leading readers to fully appreciate the arcane world of ‘shadow warriors’, the transformative effect of emerging technology and the role (good) intelligence plays in gaining that decisive edge over adversaries. ‘Spycraft’ takes place in a universe where the nerdy Q saves the day with a dash of bravado, a pinch of guile and a smidgen of savvy.