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November 29, 1999


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Does Ashok Krishnamurti Know How Many Nudes Manet's Painting Has?

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Emil Guillermo in San Francisco

On this long holiday weekend, we found the economy strong, our nation filled with good Pilgrims (from all parts of the world, not just your Mayflower types), and too few indigenous folks to make it to every household for a hearty toast.

Of course, we are thankful for friends and family. But we have also discovered the ease and greatness of online shopping. And, after yet another serving of holiday food, we must all sing in praise of elastic waistband pants.

But something is missing in my life. Could it be we are entering a period with no new episodes of television's Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

It was on so consistently, I thought it was the only show on the tube. Not that I minded too much. I must confess to having this guilty pleasure. Just like buying a lotto ticket for that multi-million dollar big jackpot, there's something strangely alluring about watching a simple game show based on the jackpot doubling its way up to a million dollars.

For those who were too busy doing something else like reading, Millionaire is a little trivia game that raises the ante on television game shows. There is no home version, parting gifts, or naugahyde furniture as consolations. There is a million dollars. Wanna play?

What I found interesting is to see how people react to the intense pressure of stupid questions becoming increasingly difficult being flung at them in a setting they could have used for the Spanish Inquisition, had the Spanish Inquisition been televised.

Imagine being in the spotlight. Millions are watching. And someone is asking you what material the clothes of that fairy tale emperor were made of. Of course, you know. Nothing. But suddenly you don't know anything. Not even in a multiple choice setting. It's just enough to bring on a monumental moment of wetness, from every living, breathing pore in one's body.

A guy actually used one of his three "lifeline" hints. For a $ 100 question! Talk about high drama. Or high stupidity. And that is my final answer. That's what I like to see. I'm not getting rich off the show.

But, man, do I feel superior after watching it!

I didn't see all the episodes, but I saw one man win a million. Most of the others were just losers. People who could answer the easy ones that even a moron could answer. In essay form!

Ah, but then the tough ones came. One guy was asked to name the actress who wasn't a Charlie's Angel. Aside from the obvious right answers listed, the guy had a choice between Cheryl Tiegs and Shelly Hack.

Come on!

Every guy knows that when Shelly Hack came on, you turned off the television. She didn't cut it. She wasn't Angel material. But there she was. The guy guessed wrong, and was hacked off the show.

The other people I saw were the ones who made it all the way to $ 250,000 and on the verge of doubling it to a half-million, if they only had the nerve. One guy was asked about the famous Manet painting everyone in a European history course sees at least once. There's a nude at a picnic and the men are sitting around ignoring her. The question dealt with how many nudes are in the painting. One? Two? Four?

I told my wife immediately it was "one". I know that painting. The men had clothes. The woman didn't. It kept me interested in European history.

But the contestant, so confident getting to $ 250,000, suddenly wilted. He would not guess. He would not risk. He had lost his nerve. That's the key.

Fox in its derivative wisdom has repackaged its own prime-time game show and called it Greed. I have seen the show and it is much more complicated than Millionaire, and much more ornery. People start off as teams and then they can challenge each other for their shares. It gets nasty. People get greedy. And they lose.

But the phenomenon that I see in Millionaire that prevents people from winning it all is not greed. Greed is bad. Risk is another thing. And on Millionaire no one wants to take the risk to be a millionaire.

I saw more people fold when they got to rarefied territory that it makes me believe there are few who truly want to be a millionaire. They want a free ride. Easy street. Not a million.

So who really wants to be a millionaire?

The people who aren't on the show.

It's normal not to see Asians and other minorities on television. Though much is said about improving the situation, I didn't see many ethnic minorities or even women on the show. I saw a lot of white males. And as I said, most of them are losers. (I must say Greed was much more diverse in the episode I caught, with two African-American contestants, both of whom were clearly the smartest on their teams).

But Asians especially have found another way to become millionaires. Forget the show, they find their way to Silicon Valley.

Anna Lee Saxenian, a professor at UC Berkeley, has completed a study that shows that ethnic Chinese and South Asian immigrants run nearly 25 per cent of the high tech companies started in the Valley since 1980.

That means 2,800 immigrant-run companies with a total sales volume of $ 16.8 billion dollars, employing nearly 60,000 people.

Naturally, a few of the immigrants are millionaires.

At a recent taping of the television program I host, NCM-TV: New California Media three of them were on the panel -- Ashok Krishnamurti with Juniper Networks, a company that makes routers with a stock price in the stratosphere; Anil Godhwani, whose company was acquired by Netscape; and Hsing Kung of Luxnet Corporation, who immigrated from Taiwan 30 years ago, and lives the life of a serial entrepreneur.

To the man, they all owed their success to smarts, drive, a little luck. And plenty of risk.

Risk after all is an immigrant's natural state of being. Why do you think so many immigrants we know like to gamble? Gambling is not something you want to make a habit. But mix risk with skill-that's a powerful combination. That's when you bet on yourself.

All three of the high-tech millionaires said they don't have time to watch much television, let alone Who Wants to be a Millionaire or Greed.

But here's one wager, I'd make: I bet none of them would know that Shelly Hack was the Angel. Or that Manet's picnickers ignore just one nude. But they sure know what it takes to be a millionaire.

Guillermo writes for the San Francisco Examiner. Former host of NPR's All Things Considered, he is the author of the book, Amok: Essays from an Asian American Perspective.

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