Posts tagged ‘Steve Jobs’

March 23, 2014

#75) Book review: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson

This is an unusual biography, not just because of the unique story of its subject.  It is a biography by a writer who had nearly unlimited access to his subject, whom he interviewed forty times in preparation for the book.  It’s also a rare example of a biography that was written with the knowledge that the subject was near the end of his life.  As Jobs tells Isaacson near the end of the narrative, “I wanted my kids to know me…when I got sick, I realized other people would write about me if I died…[t]hey’d get it all wrong.  So I wanted to make sure someone heard what I had to say.”

Isaccson and Jobs knew each other but it was only when Jobs realized his cancer was potentially terminal that he enlisted Isaacson to write his story.  Isaacson points out an interesting irony: while Jobs was known as, for lack of a better term, a control freak, he specifically declined authority on what went into this book or stayed out of it; he didn’t want the bio to “seem like an in-house book.”

The result is an overall positive, inspiring reading experience.  Isaacson takes us into Jobs’s childhood and youth in Silicon Valley, where the personal computer revolution was beginning.  Seen historically as the property of institutions and corporations, computers were being used by members of the counter-culture as a means of personal expression.  With Steve Wozniak, Jobs quickly makes Apple into a success, but pays the price with his own ego and arrogance, leading to his banishment from the company in 1985.  In the ’90s, Jobs discovers a digital imaging company called Pixar and helps them merge with Disney to create computer-generated animation before returning to Apple and spearheading the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

Isaacson’s in-depth interviews with Jobs provide insight.  Apple products have a reputation as being particularly intuitive and an early pilgrimage to India instilled in Jobs the value of intuition.  “The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world.  Intuition is a very powerful thing…[t]hat’s had a big impact on my work.”

We also get a sense of how Jobs viewed electronics as having human characteristics.  For example, the handle on the iMac is described as “approachable.  It’s intuitive.  It gives you permission to touch.  It gives a sense of deference to you.”  One sees the roots of the Pixar mentality of giving inanimate objects human souls, such as in “Wall-E” and “Toy Story.”

Yet there are a few flaws that hold the book back from being truly great.  Isaacson tends to go into a lot of technical detail about the computer designs, the various business deals between Apple, Pixar, Disney and Microsoft and other less-exciting subjects without making them seem particularly interesting.  Some of the visits to the bargaining table are rendered vividly; Isaacson doesn’t hold back when describing Jobs’s various tantrums or his “hero/shithead dichotomy”.  For the most part though, Isaacson failed to get me too excited about whether Jobs received 4 or 5 points on a Pixar deal or the difference between the circuit boards of the Apple II or the Lisa.  Isaacson also doesn’t elaborate in areas that could probably use more detail. In describing the unveiling of the iPhone, he says, “In a career of dazzling product presentations, this may have been the best.”  Yet he spends only half a page describing the event.  (Isaacson devotes a whole chapter to the launch of the Macintosh, describing the seminal “1984” commercial and the unveiling of the computer; here, he is at his strongest as a narrator, artfully building up the level of excitement throughout the chapter.)

The book also could have been more detail oriented.  Usually details bore the crap out of me; I prefer to enjoy the big picture than to fuss over i’s being dotted and t’s crossed. That said, this is a biography of someone whose attention to detail was extreme.  Isaacson’s writing style is frequently awkward and lacks the type of flow that Jobs would have wanted.  The most notable example is that many sentences often start with “but” or “so”; in the index, the Beatles’ album “Abbey Road” is misspelled “Abby.” Is it forgivable to make a few mistakes in a nearly 600-page book? Almost everyone would say yes–but Jobs, at least the man portrayed by Isaacson, would have noticed and said something.

Needless to say, a book about a figure as influential as Steve Jobs shouldn’t just be a sketch and on the whole Isaacson’s tome does the man justice.  Readers who are deeply interested in the details of Jobs’s life and perhaps have an interest in computer technology, business and other subjects covered in detail will find everything they want here.  Those who are more casually interested in Jobs and want to learn more about the broader aspects of his life might be better served with Wikipedia.  For my part my experience with this book – which lasted almost three months, including three trans-continental plane trips – was hit or miss.  At times it resembled the bulky, awkward feel of the PCs that Jobs saw as the enemy throughout his career.  At times Isaacson hits the nail on the head and reading the book was the intuitive, Zen, naturally flowing experience Jobs desired all of his products to deliver.

February 13, 2014

#71) How do you know?

How do you know?

I mean, seriously, how the fuck do you know?

This simple, timeless question was recently brought home to me by a TV commercial.  Like any good commercial, it failed to actually instill the name of the product in my head, but its message resonated with me nevertheless.  An adult is shown some fancy new product he’s supposed to buy and hesitates.  During his hesitation we see him flash black to junior high, when he dumps a tubby blonde girl: “Sorry, Brooklyn, it’s just not working out.”  In another flashback, now at college age, he declines investing in his friend’s startup: “What can you do with just 140 characters?” Which brings us to the present; the implication being that he doesn’t want to pass on yet another thing that will end up being huge.

Apart from its amusing storyline, the commercial has hit home for me on a personal level.  Since starting my hiking blog,, I have been fortunate to keep the company of dozens of blogging experts.  Counsel that has been given to me about how to successfully monetize the blog includes T-shirts and other swag; creating a mobile phone application; eBooks about the hikes, branching out to other cities (coming soon:

With demeanor ranging from polite to borderline hostile, depending on the intensity of my expert’s pitch to me, I have invariably rejected most of these ideas, not because I want to be difficult, stubborn or ungrateful, but just because in most cases, I don’t feel that the potential for revenue justifies the effort and expense of, say, hiring an app developer or handling (gulp!) physical inventory, that bane of the existence of anyone who has ever tried to develop an online revenue stream.  My hesitation to endorse these ideas is based on information I’ve gathered about my site traffic, link clicks, etc (I have been known to spend hours a few minutes here and there perusing statistics related to my blogs).  While the revenue the site has earned – mainly through advertising; also through affiliation sales, the Nobody Hikes in LA Guidebook and donations – is a little bit short of Fortune 500 status, by breaking the three-digit income threshold, NHLA stands apart from at least 81% of the blogs out there, according to Infographic.

That being said, a part of me has to ask: what if I am wrong?  Are eBooks based on hike writeups the wave of the future?  By passing on these opportunities, will I become the next Nolan Bushnell?  (In the mid ’70s, after founding Atari, Busnhell had an opportunity to invest in a startup created by one of his employees: a certain Steven Paul Jobs.)

History abounds, of course, with stories like this: numerous record producers rejecting the Beatles; board game makers  passing on Monopoly; the Portland Trailblazers drafting Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan.  Hell, there’s even one from my own family: in the mid 1960s in New York, my dad and uncle Joe were involved with the city’s thriving folk music scene.  One of the misfits hanging around the fringes was a scruffy kid from Minnesota named Robert Zimmerman, whose presence was a nuisance to everyone, be they veteran musicians who didn’t want him fucking up the songs or young women whom he was trying to bed.  One of the latter category was waiting for my uncle Joe to meet her at a cafe and when he showed up, she was laughing.  “This homeless looking kid tried to hit on me,” she said.  “When I brushed him off, he said, ‘But I’m Bob Dylan!’  I said, ‘Well, I’m here waiting for Joe Lockeretz.'”

To bring it back to my original question, strictly speaking, no, you DON’T know.  You can, however, make sound decisions based on odds and information.  I consider the fear of passing on a great opportunity to be the converse of fears such as being struck by lightning, being attacked by a shark or being in a plane crash.  Just as plane crashes make the news because of how rare they are, stories such as the Beatles’ early rejections make history because of their infrequency.  Yes, it’s inspirational to hear these kinds of tales and their positive messages shouldn’t just be dismissed.  It should just be noted, however, that these events are the exception and should have limited influence on your decisions, investment and otherwise.  And if you do end up on the wrong side of history?  At least you’ll have some good stories for the grandkids.