Good Reads: From understanding Khamenei, to Microsoft’s demise, to brand Japan

This week's round-up of Good Reads includes a deeper understanding of Iran's supreme leader, why the Guardian stands by Edward Snowden, the costly mistakes made by Microsoft's Steve Balmer, and Japan's efforts to be 'cool.'

Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/AP
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a sermon.

“Who Is Ali Khamenei?” writes Akbar Ganji in Foreign Affairs. Understanding Iran’s supreme leader is a crucial step if the United States is to ever find a way to deal with Iran on vital issues from its nuclear program to the security of Israel and the stability of the entire Middle East.

The first problem: Mr. Khamenei believes that the US wants to remove him and his government, either through an internal revolution, economic pressure, or military action. He also believes that capitalism and the West “are in inevitable decline,” Mr. Ganji writes. The good news: He doesn’t blame the US and the West “for all the Islamic world’s problems.”

And he’s not been isolated from Western ideas: His favorite novel is Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.” Among American works a favorite is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe. He’s also read John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Khamenei “is not a crazy, irrational, or reckless zealot searching for opportunities for aggression,” Ganji concludes. “But his deep-rooted views and intransigence are bound to make any negotiations with the West difficult and protracted....”

The Guardian defends its actions

Edward Snowden, who leaked details of United States government surveillance programs, has launched an important debate on privacy versus security, says the news organization that published portions of the material. In an editorial titled “Surveillance and the state,” Britain’s The Guardian defends its actions:
“It is difficult to imagine any editor in the free world who would have destroyed this material unread, or handed it back, unanalysed, to the spy agencies or the government,” the editorial says. “The Guardian did what we hope any news organisation would do – patiently analysed and responsibly reported on some of the material we have read in order to inform the necessary public debate.”

Electronic surveillance has changed the rules since the days of cold-war spies smuggling a piece of paper or microfilm across physical borders.

“What was once highly targeted has now become virtually universal,” The Guardian says. “The evident ambition is to put entire populations under some form of surveillance. The faceless intelligence masters may say they are still searching for needles, but first they want the entire haystack. And thus countless millions of entirely innocent (in every sense) citizens are potentially being monitored.”

Microsoft’s Gorbachev

When Steve Ballmer announced late last month that he was stepping down as head of Microsoft, few analyses of his tenure were more scathing, or colorful, than “Why Steve Ballmer Failed,” a post by Nicholas Thompson on The New Yorker’s website.

“Ballmer is roughly the tech industry’s equivalent of Mikhail Gorbachev, without the coup and the tanks and Red Square,” Mr. Thompson surmised. “When he took control, in 2000, Microsoft was one of the most powerful and feared companies in the world. It had a market capitalization of around five hundred billion dollars, the highest of any company on earth.... As he leaves, it’s a sprawling shadow.”

Mr. Ballmer, Thompson says, is the “anti-Steve Jobs,” missing out on every big trend – completely misjudging, for example, Apple’s revolutionary iPhone and iPad. Ballmer has managed to alienate customers and employees alike. He loved complex designs when Apple saw that customers sought simplicity.

Microsoft has become a paper tiger. “Ballmer’s reign has done more to defang Microsoft than the Justice Department could ever have hoped to do,” Thompson writes.

Who will benefit most from a new chief at Microsoft? “Given the size of his financial stake in the company,” Thompson says, “there’s almost no one who should want a better C.E.O. for Microsoft than Ballmer himself.”

Is Japan ‘cool’?

The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry hopes so.

Two years after the “triple disaster” of an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in 2011, the Cool Japan Advisory Council is testing the idea.
It’s true that Japan is the home of anime (animation) and manga (comics), two cool art forms, points out David Zax in the Smithsonian. But stodgy Japanese bureaucrats and Japanese pop culture might not make for a comfortable match.

“The forefront of Japanese popular culture tends to be edgy and off-color, so there is likely a limit to the kinds of things that Japan’s perennially conservative government is willing to support publicly,” he quotes one cultural anthropologist as saying.

A Japanese art curator has a better idea, he writes. The triple disaster has other lessons for Japan: “how to live in harmony with nature, how to wean the country from nuclear power and how to sustain a peaceful world.” “If we practice these,” the art curator says, “any branding will not be necessary.”

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