Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘software’

24 NOVEMBER, 2011

Steve Jobs and NeXT: Rare PBS Documentary circa 1986

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A startup sentiment sandwich from the master chef, or why “reality distortion” helps sales but hurts design.

In 1985, shortly after being fired from Apple, Steve Jobs founded NeXT, the somewhat short-lived but revolutionary company focused on higher education and business services. It was there that Jobs honed his visionary approach to computing and design, and crystalized his lens of priorities — the very qualities that made him not only a cultural icon but also a personal hero.

This fascinating PBS documentary, titled The Entrepreneurs and filmed in 1986, offers a rare glimpse of Jobs’ original vision with NeXT, from his aspirations for higher education and simulated learning environments to his decision-making process on price point and product features to his approach to company culture and motivational morale.

Whether NeXT can be a viable business is something only time will tell. But Steve Jobs’ passionate commitment to his vision is clear, and his certainty that it can be achieved — and is worth achieving — is a conviction to be observed in all successful entrepreneurs.”

Some of my favorite parts:

  • 1:20 Iconic designer and notorious curmudgeon Paul Rand reveals the NeXT logo. (See also this fantastic old favorite, in which Jobs reminisces about what it was like to work with a man of such genius and such temper.)
  • Rand doesn’t usually work for infant companies, even if they can afford him. But NeXT isn’t an ordinary startup.”

  • 3:50 Jobs talks about how affordable, accessible technology can make a real difference in the learning environment — a vision also articulated by beloved science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in this 1988 Bill Moyers interview
  • 4:35 On planting the seeds of a new corporate culture:
  • More important than building a product, we are in the process of architecting a company that will hopefully be much more incredible, the total will be much more incredible than the sum of its parts, and the cumulative effort of approximately 20,000 decisions that we’re all gonna make over the next two years are gonna define what our company is. And one of the things that made Apple great was that, in the early days, it was built from the heart.”

  • 10:31 Joanna Hoffman, also known as Apple employee #5, confronts Jobs about the double-edged sword of “reality distortion,” on the one hand a powerful motivator and on the other false prophet for design decisions
  • 13:54 A startup sentiment sandwich of sorts — celebrating the initial idea-high of entrepreneurship, getting grounded into and concerned about the realities of day-to-day operations, then bringing back those big-picture entrepreneurial ideals as a guiding light in overcoming the mundane obstacles.
  • I don’t see that startup hustle… If we zoom out of the big picture, it would be a shame to have lost the war because we won a few battles.”

Merely 48 months later, Jobs stood up in front of a riveted audience at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall and introduced four fully crystalized, groundbreaking NeXT products, including “some of the neatest apps that have ever been created for any desktop platform,” “the best color that’s ever been,” and “the most important new application area in the 1990s…interpersonal computing.”

For more on the genius of Jobs, don’t miss the excellent I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words, which curates 200 of his most timeless and powerful quotes, and of course the celebrated Walter Isaacson biography of Jobs.

HT TUAW

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09 AUGUST, 2011

In The Plex: How Google Changed Our Lives and Everything Else

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What red gym balls have to do with censorship, privacy and organizing all the world’s information.

Earlier this year, we looked at 7 essential books on the future of the Internet, how the iPhone changed everything and why Google’s algorithms might be stunting our intellectual growth. But there’s hardly a better way to understand the future of information and the web than by understanding how Google — the algorithm, the company, the ethos — changed everything. That’s exactly what beloved technology writer Steven Levy, he of Hackers fame, does in In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives — a sweeping look at how Google went from a startup headquartered above a Palo Alto bike shop to a global brand bigger than GE.

Levy, who has been covering the computing revolution for the past 30 years for titles like Newsweek and Wired, had developed a personal relationship with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, which granted him unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Big G, a company notorious for its caution with journalists. The result is a fascinating journey into the soul, culture and technology of our silent second brain, from Page and Brin’s legendary eccentricities that shaped the company’s creative culture to the uncompromising engineering genius that underpins its services. But most fascinating of all is the grace and insight with which Levy examines not only how Google has changed, but also how it has changed us and how, in the face of all these interconnected metamorphoses, it hopes to preserve its soul — all the while touching on timely topics like privacy, copyright law and censorship.

Levy, who calls himself “an outsider with an insider’s view,” recounts the mysteries he saw in Google, despite a decade of covering the company, which inspired his book:

Google was a company built on the values of its founders, who harbored ambitions to build a powerful corporation that would impact the entire world, at the same time loathing the bureaucracy and commitments that running such a company would entail. Google professed a sense of moral purity — as exemplified by its informal motto, ‘Don’t be evil’ — but it seemed to have a blind spot regarding the consequences of its own technology on privacy and property rights. A bedrock principle of Google was serving its users — but a goal was building a giant artificial intelligence learning machine that would bring uncertain consequences to the way all of us live. From the very beginning, its founders said that they wanted to change the world. But who were they, and what did they envision this new world order to be?” ~ Steven Levy

Levy’s intimate account of Google’s inner tensions offers a sober look delivered with a kind of stern fatherly tenderness, brimming with its own opposing forces of his clear affection for Page and Brin coupled with his, at times begrudging, fairness in writing about Google’s shortcomings.

What I discovered was a company exulting in creative disorganization, even if the creativity was not always as substantial as hoped for. Google had massive goals, and the entire company channeled its values from the founders. Its mission was collecting and organizing all the world’s information — and that’s only the beginning. From the very start, its founders saw Google as a vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence in augmenting humanity. To realize their dreams, Page an Brin had to build a huge company. At the same time, they attempted to maintain as much as possible the nimble, irreverent, answer-to-no-one freedom of a small start-up. In the two years I researched this book, the clash between those goals reached a peak, as David had become a Goliath.” ~ Steven Levy

For a taste, here’s Levy on what Google does and doesn’t know about you:

(For a more worrisome take, see Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.)

Besides the uncommon history of Google, Levy reveals a parallel history of the evolution of information technology itself, a sobering invitation to look at the many technologies we’ve come to take for granted with new eyes. (Do you remember the days when you plugged a word into your search engine and it spat back a wildly unordered selection of results, most of which completely irrelevant to your query? Or when the most generous free web mail offered you the magnanimous storage space of four megabytes?)

James Gleick writes in the New York Review of Books:

Most people have already forgotten how dark and unsignposted the Internet once was. A user in 1996, when the Web comprised hundreds of thousands of ‘sites’ with millions of ‘pages,’ did not expect to be able to search for ‘Olympics’ and automatically find the official site of the Atlanta games. That was too hard a problem. And what was a search supposed to produce for a word like ‘university’? AltaVista, then the leading search engine, offered up a seemingly unordered list of academic institutions, topped by the Oregon Center for Optics.” ~ James Gleick

(Gleick should know — he is the author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, easily the most important book on media history and information theory to come by in decades.)

More than an ambitious — and often entertaining — profile of one of today’s most powerful companies, In The Plex captures a priceless piece of cultural history, one that has shaped and continues to shape how we interact with information, the world and each other.

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26 JULY, 2011

Digital Decluttering: 3 Ways to Visualize Your Mac’s Hard Drive

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How to spot RAM offenders, or what data visualization has to do with the workings of your second brain.

Our hard drives are our satellite brains, vital extensions of our intellectual and creative input and output. But our informationally voracious habits also mean that our second brains get inevitably overwhelmed, slowing down and spasming under the weight of our tastes and interests. To combat the issue, here are three fantastic visualization tools — playing on today’s running theme of data visualization — that help declutter your hard drive without requiring any programming knowledge, visually track down what takes the most space and memory, and allowing you to optimize accordingly.

GRAND PERSPECTIVE

GrandPerspective is a Mac OSX utility for graphically showing the file disk usage on your computer using tree map visualizations. It developed by Erwin Bonsma and is released for free as open-source under the GNU General Public License. You can support the project with a donation.

Direct download link.

DAISY DISK

DaisyDisk scans your hard drive, as well as any external drives you have mounted, and visualizes the contents as interactive maps, allowing you to easily spot unusually large files and delete or move them to an external hard drive to get more free space. The program’s scanning engine is surprisingly fast even with drives as large as several terabytes. You can get a copy for the rather reasonable $19.99.

Free demo direct download link

via Swiss Miss

DISK INVENTORY X

Disk Inventory X, developed by Tjark Derlien, is very similar to GrandPerspective — same tree map visualizations, also a free download and under a GPL license, also supported by donations — though with a slightly different and more intuitive interface. It was inspired by WinDirStat, the hard drive visualization utility for Windows.

Direct download link

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