Tag Archives: computers


Ron’s #44: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Mark’s excellent review is here.

I finished the last few pages of this biography in the following environment: My Apple TV played Cars streamed from my Mac that I controlled with my iPhone. All that was missing was an afternoon trip to an Apple Store somewhere. This illustrates not my dependence on technology (a topic that was addressed several other times in my reviews), but on the influence Steve Jobs has in my life. In many ways, Apple’s history is my history. Since I’m only a little older than Apple, I can connect aspects of my life with its.

I bought my first Mac in 1998 and lived in an Apple-exclusive home every since. The history of Apple and the computer industry has been a favorite topic of study over the years, and I’ve read and watched many books and movies. I have been an Apple enthusiast/evangelist for over a decade. I, like many, fell into Steve’s charismatic spell. Because of this, reading the new biography about Steve Jobs was not an option; it was an edict from within. The author, Walter Isaacson, chronicled the lives of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and now, Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs was a many of contradictions.

He was a billionaire, and he was a Zen Buddhist.
He created beautiful products, but he lived as a minimalist.
He was a charismatic man, but he was a complete jerk everyone around him.
He talked about passion in life, but he largely ignored his family.
He believed in design and beauty, but he ignored a Creator or Architect.
He believed in eschewing the trappings of the world, but he created the prettiest ones.

Isaacson gives a multi-faceted picture of the man who popularized geek, both the good and the ugly. And there is lots of ugly. The book is fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable, even if you were not interested in computer history. Steve Jobs is as tormented of a man as any character is a Dostoevsky novel. He wants to build great things, but he gets in his own way. He died with few close friends, but changed the technology world for the good. On one side he inspired engineers and designers under his leadership to create products that couldn’t be done, but he did this with berating, insulting, and, at times, crying. Most leaders use encouraging phrases like “Good job!” and “Impressive!” to help build up employees. Steve Jobs’s favorite line when he is shown a new design or feature is, “This is shit!” To Steve, this isn’t an insult; rather, it is a motivational tool.

What makes this book rich and deep is not just the computer history narrative, but it is also the subplots that run through the story: adoption, Steve’s estranged daughter that he denied for years, his romantic life, Bob Dylan, and Steve’s cancer. These secondary stories make Jobs more human and relatable to use non-billionaire geniuses.

While I learned much more about Apple, the one aspect that I was more surprised to discover is how much Steve Jobs really did at Apple, even in the final days. He micromanaged design, usability, packaging, commercials, color of walls, construction of new buildings and campuses, tile in Apple stores, the “floating” staircase in the stores, and even the dinner menu at events. Before I read the book, I thought that Apple would continue just fine without him. Now, after reading how he made all the decisions, I’m not so sure.

There’s so much more I want to say in praise of this book and for Steve Jobs and Apple, but I’ll save those for conversations with my geeky friends. I wish I could have it with Steve himself. Steve Jobs was one man I wanted to have dinner with someday. (Sidenote: I did have coffee with Apple’s other co-founder, Steve Wozniak. It was a great conversation with a slightly odd fellow. Read about it here). I’d love to talk about how his quest for design, order, and beauty springs from something within us, something built by an ultimate Designer. There was an interesting spiritual comment from Jobs as Yo-Yo Ma was playing his cello for an event. “You playing is the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.” After this, Jobs made Yo-Yo Ma commit to playing the cello at his funeral. Fittingly, I am listening to Ma’s Bach Cello Suites as I type this.

I know what Steve Jobs would say about this review for his biography if he were to read it:

“This is shit.”


Ron’s #17: The Next Story by Tim Challies

I have reviewed a couple of books on the subject of technology recently (Hamlet’s Blackberry and The Shallows), but I’m not growing tired of them (you, readers, may get tired of reading the reviews, though).

For those not familiar with the author, Tim Challies is a prolific Christian blogger at www.challies.com. His is one of only a handful of must-read sites that I visit. When I saw that he had a book about the effects of technology, I wanted to read it. What would a man who makes his living from technology have to say about technology?

The Next Story doesn’t offer much different from the other two books I mentioned, but I don’t mean that as a criticism. Rather, it shows that many people from different walks and faiths come to the same conclusion: our immersion in technology is changing us. Anyone who disagrees with this premise should reconsider and take a longer look at his own life. Challies’s book is part computer history, part social commentary, and part Christian living. All together, this offers a more complete picture of how we ought to live our lives while surrounded by iPhones, Internet, wi-fi, email, Facebook, and digital clouds.

I discovered a curious response when I discuss technology with people: there is a quick reaction against any criticism. This comes from both Christians and non-Christians alike. People seem quick to defend/explain their own technology use and how it is not that bad. I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce when the Angel confronts the man with a lizard of lust on his shoulder. The Angel asks, “Would you like me to make him quiet?” but the man has lots of excuses as to why the lizard is not that bad, and that any action will result in pain.

The Angel asks, “Don’t you want him killed?”

“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”

“It’s the only way,” said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?”

“Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here — well, it’s so damned embarrassing.”

“May I kill it?”

“Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please — really — don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.”

“May I kill it?”

“Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.”

“The gradual process is of no use at all.”

“Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very careful. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well to-day. It would be silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.”

While the other books discuss how overdosing on technology saps our human interaction, The Next Story adds an added loss, our time and relationship with the God of the Universe. If my texting at dinner pulls me away from my wife and son, what does checking Facebook in the morning or playing Angry Birds before bed do to my relationship with the One who has created me to enjoy the Creator supremely over the creation? When God asks, “May I kill it?” may my response never be, “I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.”


Ron’s #15: Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh

When I told people that I was currently reading a book on the start of Zappos.com, the response was always the same: “Why?” I’m not exactly sure what interested me in this book, but I found it in the thrift store, and I was eager to read it. Aside from theology, my favorite topic to read is the history and evolution of the computer industry. Reading a book on how an online shoe store became a powerhouse retailer seemed to be perfect.

This book is part autobiography of Tony Hsieh and part how-to-be-a-leader book (a genre that I usually try to avoid). I enjoyed reading the start of young Tony with his entrepreneurial endeavors and accidental encounters that led him to Nick Swinmurn, the owner of a business called shoesite.com, which then transformed into what we now know as Zappos.com. Tony’s dedication to Zappos (even when business logic told him it is a losing proposition) was inspiring. It made me want to buy shoes at Zappos.

Before you readers get too inspired and leave this review to buy the new Nike Frees, I want to give what annoyed me most about this book: Tony Hsieh himself. He is an arrogant, condescending, and strange man. He is smarter and richer than you, and he makes sure you know this. He loves to refer to his friends as his “tribe” (so annoying), and tells of the epiphany he has in a rave. (Tony makes it clear that he liked raves before they were popular). Somehow, that trippy experience inspired him to provide excellent customer service.

Hsieh pontificates how amazing the Zappos culture is, and, frankly, I don’t care. While I appreciate good customer service, let’s keep in mind that they are selling shoes, not running the United Nations.


Ron’s #31: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Let me begin with what I think is Nicholas Carr’s main statement in this book:

“What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work?…Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards” (115-116).

Carr has written an engaging book that explores how our Internet habits are changing how we think. He tells how he noticed a shift in his concentration levels after his immersion in the Internet world of links, clicks, and tweets. This English literature major found that he had trouble concentrating on a novel beyond a few pages. After years of training his mind to follow links and read news blasts, he was troubled that he could no longer read deeply. This led him to write an article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” which he expanded into this book.

The bottom line of his findings is that our brains are malleable, and they will change to fit the environment. When we “feed” our brain a diet of short bursts of information with no contemplation, the neurons and synapses change. In essence, we teach our brains to be distracted. We become shallow thinkers.

This is a matter I have thought about as a teacher. I look out into a sea of brains that have been raised on digital distractions and see that they cannot sustain attention for a short story without pictures and accompanying videos, never mind a longer work of fiction. While many in education hail the Internet as a wealth of information and a Promethean gift from the gods, I do not see that teaching journals are addressing what this bombardment of information is doing to how we think and, in turn, how we behave in and about the world around us.

In my estimation, this book focuses on three main parts. The first is about neurology and the Internet. At times, it was too technical for me, but I was able to enjoy the idea of the “plasticity” of our brains. This section grounds Carr’s premise in scientific testing and research. The second part of the book addresses the history of written text and computer science. As an English teacher and a computer enthusiast, this was my favorite section. The third section discusses the effects of the intertwining of our lives with the Internet. The chapter titled, “The Church of Google” is worth the price of the book, as it gives us a side of Google that causes me to question its company motto, “Do no harm.”

Aside from the intriguing topic, I also enjoyed Carr’s writing style. This book is filled with excellent quotations and stories about books and reading. One story that is particularly vivid is his recounting of Nathaniel Hawthorne enjoying a peaceful time of contemplation in Sleepy Hollow when the noisy locomotive arrives in town. The juxtaposition of these two worlds powerfully captures how we are distracted by the Internet “railroad.” My copy of the book is marked up, and I intend to return to it for these reminders.

This book has given me an impetus to make some changes in my Internet usage. I am online far more than I want to be. Like Nicholas Carr, I have a difficult time concentrating on longer novels or books, due to my constant checking email, Facebook, Twitter, and IMDB. Writing pieces like this are often punctuated with non-stop searches for other distractions and procrastinations. Because of reading many small headlines or articles, I do not have time to process them so I don’t really “know” them. All I have at the end of a surfing session is three fewer hours in my life.

This is not the life I want to lead. In Mark 12:30, Jesus tells us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Not only do I want to redeem the time to worship Him rather than wasting it on Facebook, but I also want every neuron and synapse to glorify Him as much as it is possible. If I am shrinking those connections that shorten my thinking, something must change. How can I love God with my mind if I am short-circuiting my brain with distractions and interferences?

The Shallows is one of the best books I’ve read on this list of my52books.com so far. Nicholas Carr has written a powerful book that I’ll think about every time I’m tempted to check my email or Facebook “real quick.” He has also, perhaps inadvertently, offered some spiritual advice to help in my improvement as a Christian. I see that even reading Christian blogs or religious news or even Bible study tools can, in effect, act as a stumbling block in our faith if they are distractions interrupting our mediation or contemplation of deeper things.

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Ron’s #27: Free: How Today’s Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing by Chris Anderson

While I don’t usually enjoy books on economic principles, I do love books on computer history and start-up Internet companies. I loved the PBS mini-series, Triumph of the Nerds and its follow-up about the Internet, Nerds 2.0. Discovering how companies start and sometimes fail fascinates me. (After I write this, I will purchase the DVDs of Nerds 2.0. Perhaps you should as well).

Chris Anderson’s Free satisfies my desire to read about the success of companies in the digital age. A writer for Wired magazine, Anderson offers this seemingly contradictory hypothesis: companies will make money by giving away things for free. He uses two powerhouse companies to frame his argument: Gillette and Google. King Gillette (yes, that’s his name) was a struggling salesman and inventor who come up with a genius idea: give away the razor and sell the blades. Because of this, an entire industry of disposable razors was born. That is why today the razor is free or cheap, but the blades cost two bucks each. Gillette makes up whatever money they “lost” on the lower price of the razor. I suppose this is why heroin peddlers give away the first few tastes for free (not that I have any idea if this is true from personal experience. All my drug-trade knowledge comes directly from The Wire).

Much of the book focuses on Google, as it provides an excellent success story of a company giving away free services (email, search engine, documents, maps, you name it) but is incredibly profitable. Free examines how this works and why.

The essence of free in the digital world is summed up in three commodities that are “too cheap to meter” and they can be given away: bandwidth, storage, and processing. Because these can be given away, companies should find ways to give away services and content.

Music and digital piracy is discussed several times in the book. According to Anderson, if it is digital, it will one day be free. He addresses the discussion of music piracy, and seems to lean on giving it away for free. He uses musician Derek Webb as an example. He gave away music content online if users provide email and a zip code. Using the zip codes, he sent invitations to shows around the U. S. He found that more people were coming to his shows and buying merchandise, making up for the money he “lost” in giving away his music. (This is coincidental, but iTunes is currently playing Derek Webb’s music as I type. I don’t even like Derek Webb. Does he have my zip code?)

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and it helped me see possibilities for a new economy in the digital age. While I don’t have a business, it still helped me to look for ways in which I can give away content online (this blog, for example) to gain something (your applauding and gushing comments, perhaps).

Most importantly, reading this and The Shallows (see review #31) together makes me be weary of the power held by Google.

By the way, I listened to a free audio book of this work. Strangely enough, when I was at a bookstore last week, I had the temptation to purchase a copy of it to review. Chris Anderson knows what he is talking about!

Here is the Wired article from which the book is based. It can offer an overview of his argument.

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