Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

By Joseph Kellard

Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs presents Apple’s creator as a passionately driven producer that demanded excellence, both of him and others, and who was beset by intense emotionalist tendencies.

Jobs’ legacy is that he primarily transformed existing systems into innovative products, from the Macintosh to the iPad — which others either couldn’t create or even foresee. As Isaacson writes: “On the day he unveiled the Macintosh, a reporter from Popular Science asked Jobs what type of market research he had done. Jobs responded by scoffing, ‘Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the telephone?’” (p.170)

Jobs embedded in Apple’s DNA the premium he put on integration, whether it was software and hardware; aesthetics and engineer/exterior design; or multiple products — computers, phones, music players — into singular devices such as the iPhone and iPad.

While Isaacson lauds and emphasizes Jobs’ masterful work, he paints with a heavy brush when portraying his relationships with others. Here, his motif is Jobs’ “reality distortion field” — a term his colleagues coined to describe what is a basically a package deal that includes examples of putting an “I wish” above a “what is”; pushing his workers to meet seemingly impossible deadlines that they sometimes met; and outright deception, as when he tried to deny fathering his first child. Moreover, to Jobs, there was usually no middle ground between your ideas or work: they were either brilliant or “shit.”

Yet Jobs was also a straight shooter, often harshly so, and so he’s painted sensationally as an insensitive jerk. When asked about this characterization, Jobs basically replied that his honesty was necessary to rid Apple of anyone other than A players.

But in writing his chapter on Jobs’ legacy, Isaacson concludes: “Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying that he got them to do things they never dreamed possible.” (p.565)

Unfortunately, Isaacson falls short of truly uncovering the particular philosophic ideas that drove Jobs’ trailblazing work. He mostly writes about them superficially (e.g., Jobs’ love of “simplicity” in his products is attributed to his beliefs in Zen Buddhism), and often Isaacson explains his insights in terms of “instincts”/“intuition,” as did Jobs.

Of course, this is to be expected in our anti-philosophical age, as well as from a biographer who was a former editor at Time and a chairman at CNN, neither news organization of which represents objective journalism. Obviously, like most modern biographers, Isaacson felt compelled to “balance” every prominent personality and character trait.

Ultimately, while Isaacson is incapable of concluding that Jobs was a moral giant for his outstanding innovations, his biography nevertheless manages to evoke a spirit that projects this fundamental truth and makes it a particularly worthy read.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Seed of My Love of Reading

By Joseph Kellard

Go ahead, you can say it. The image accompanying this blog post looks like a book that’s been through a war. Well, not quite.

I salvaged Four Stars from the World of Sports from a flood in my apartment, due to a Calcutta-like downpour a few years ago. I had to keep this book from my childhood. I realized, even if not explicitly until now, that it held a certain significance to me. I believe it is the first sports book, and perhaps the first “real” book after a diet of Green Eggs and Ham and others like Charlotte’s Web, that I had read on my own.

I recall my mother buying it for me at my elementary school, P.S. 21 in Flushing. I think I was in third grade and I bought it at a book fair there. It featured some of the great athletes of the day from the four major sports, baseball’s Henry Aaron, football’s Roger Staubach, basketball’s Kareem Abdul Jabbar and hockey’s Bobby Orr.

Leafing through its time- and weather-beaten brown pages now, I remember some of its photos and illustrations, but I remember little, if anything, about the stories. One of my problems as a young boy was that I didn’t read very well, and had particular trouble with comprehension. But I do recall enjoying the book and learning about the lives of these sports idols.

One of my earliest memories of watching sports was rushing home one summer night to the living room in my parents’ second-floor apartment on 26th Avenue, as I watched on television Henry Aaron hit his historic 715 home run that broke Babe Ruth’s career record.

On that same set (probably a Zenith), I vaguely recall watching Joe Namath play football. I had already heard enough about the legendary quarterback to realize I was watching someone special. I remember vaguely that earlier that year I watched my first Super Bowl, when the Miami Dolphins defeated the Minnesota Vikings. That’s when I became a Dolphins' fan.

Since I didn’t read well as a young boy, so I didn’t read much. At that time, my interest in watching sports was in its fledgling state, so I don’t recall reading many or any other sports books after Four Stars. Maybe I did; maybe I didn’t—and if I did they didn’t make enough of an impression on me to save them. Four Stars did. Maybe because it was the first book I read in which I was offered (real-life) heroes.

My parents thought my reading problems had something to do with poor eyesight, so they bought me reading glasses. I thought this was totally senseless. There was nothing wrong with my eyes. At about that time, my parents brought me to a reading specialist, and she said I had dyslexia. I ditched the eyeglass, but mainly because wearing them wasn’t cool.

When I reflect back on this now, I realized my troubles could be traced and reduced to one main issue: motivation. Sure, when reading, I definitely mixed up letters and words, and that certainly made it a struggle; but it actually wasn’t until a few years later, when my parents observed my already intense interest in sports, that they got the bright idea to buy me a subscription to Sports Illustrated.

Their thinking was this: why not have him read about a subject that interests him? I remember the days of my mother working with me, having me read story after story in Reader’s Digest. I enjoyed some of the stories, especially one about a captain of a boat who remained calm through a storm that threatened to capsize the vessel and navigated through the squall. But it wasn’t until I started to read about sports that I read consistently and often, and my problems with reading just faded away.

That’s really the genesis of my love of reading that has endured to this day. I believe that seed was planted with this one book, Four Stars.