MacArthur Fellow ATUL GAWANDE lionises the humble checklist in his new book. In this extract, he discovers how the rock band Van Halen turned it into a power tool.
THE VOLUME and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.
That means we need a different strategy for overcoming failure, one that builds on experience and takes advantage of the knowledge people have but also makes up for our inevitable human inadequacies. And there is such a strategy — though it will seem almost ridiculous in its simplicity, maybe even crazy to those who have spent years carefully developing ever more advanced skills and technologies.
It is a checklist.
Listening to the radio, I heard the story behind rocker David Lee Roth’s notorious insistence that Van Halen’s contracts with concert promoters contain a clause specifying that a bowl of M&M’s has to be provided backstage, but with every single brown candy removed, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation to the band. And at least once, Van Halen followed through, peremptorily cancelling a show in Colorado when Roth found some brown M&M’s in his dressing room. This turned out to be, however, not another example of the insane demands of power-mad celebrities but an ingenious ruse.
As Roth explained in his memoir, Crazy from the Heat, “Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, thirdlevel markets.
We’d pull up with nine 18-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors — whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move thegear through. The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function.” So just as a little test, buried somewhere in the middle of the rider, would be article 126, the no-brown-M&M’s clause. “When I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl,” he wrote, “well, we’d line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error… Guaranteed you’d run into a problem.” These weren’t trifles, the radio story pointed out. The mistakes could be life threatening. In Colorado, the band found the local promoters had failed to read the weight requirements and the staging would have fallen through the arena floor.
“David Lee Roth had a checklist!” I yelled at the radio.
The Bluster Of Progress
Prem Shankar Jha makes acute points but doesn’t explain them fully, says Sreemati Chakrabarti
THE SUB-TITLE of this book (The Battle Between Soft and Hard Power) is misleading. It’s not concerned with either power or influence of India or China in any sense. It studies China and India’s phenomenal growth and links them with the politics that shapes them or is shaped by them. It delves into their recent political histories to explain their economic transformations. And although Mr Jha has tried to give almost equal space to both India and China, his analysis of Indian issues is clearly more sophisticated and comprehensive than that of China.
The pages devoted to India are insightful and well documented. India’s case reveals that its ‘sophisticated’ democratic system and array of institutions both impede and promote growth and development. Mr Jha holds that a relatively weak Centre (vis-à-vis the states), and in particular coalition governments, have made India lag behind China’s pace. This may be acceptable but can one deny that India is far more diverse than China and perhaps a strong Centre could be detrimental to national unity?
The book doesn’t adequately explain the massive reforms in China in the early 1990s. While Mr Jha quotes the Chinese intellectual Wang Hui, he doesn’t mention that the reforms (initiated in 1978) were the State’s response to the Tiananmen movement — seen by Wang and others as a social movement of the small, emerging, urban middle-class against the State’s pro-peasant policies. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 pushed Beijing towards reforms — a calculated risk to save China from a similar eventuality. And Mr Jha doesn’t satisfactorily assess why the provinces are given almost unrestrained power for growth. Beijing overlooked regional disparity in the early reform years, which left some provinces backward despite a national GDP spurt.
Giving more economic power to provinces shifts the responsibility of non-performance to local leadership. The regime has succeeded since almost all protests (Mr Jha discusses them elaborately) remain local and directed against county cadres. One flaw that can’t be overlooked is Mr Jha’s ignorance about Chinese names: last names come before given names.
On page 126, for example, Chen Guide and Wu Chuntao are mentioned with their given names.
Recently, there’s been much interest to comparatively study India and China, and Mr Jha’s effort is commendable. Unlike most, he doesn’t believe that by the middle of this century, the two will be ahead of the US and Japan — even if their economies continue to grow at current rates. While one accepts this, one doesn’t see an adequate explanation in the book. China’s impediments to global superiority are regional imbalances, environmental degradation, ethnic resentments and, of course, the Taiwan issue — all of which need to be factored to understand its future trajectory. No nation has ever reached superpower status with such a baggage of problems.
(Chakrabarti is Professor of Chinese Studies at Delhi University and Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies)
A book that means a lot to you?
Conversations With God by Neale Donald Walsch. It was a pathbreaking book for me. I had been dropped from the Indian team and was trying to make a comeback. My mind was cluttered and it brought a lot of clarity.
How many books do you own?
Around 100. I had asked my interior decorator to make a small shelf as I had very few books then. But now I have more books and they are all over the place.
Your favourite cricket book?
Beyond a Boundary by CLR James. John Wright’s Indian Summers is an honest account of his experience in India. I loved Steve Waugh’s diaries which later became his autobiography, Out of My Comfort Zone.
An underrated cricket book?
On and Off the Field by Ed Smith, which is the season diary of an English cricketer.
Last book read?
Andre Agassi’s Open. I’m fascinated by the things he speaks of. The quality of writing is fantastic too.
Your favourite cricket writer?
I really like reading Peter Roebuck and Gideon Haigh. Among Indian journalists, Sharda Ugra is a brilliant cricket writer.
Books written by cricketers you really liked?
Nasser Hussain’s Playing With Fire was a sensational book. Michael Holding’s Whispering Death is a superb personal account of a great fast bowler.
A book you wish you had written?
Andre Agassi’s Open. He speaks about difficult subjects with brutal honesty. I admire this book deeply and wish I could have written something as candid.