Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

07 OCTOBER, 2011

Apple and the Bananas: A Steve Jobs Personal Remembrance

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From Jules Verne to the Iron Curtain, or why ‘bondi blue’ is the defining color of my curiosity.

I grew up in Bulgaria in the 1980s. Before the fall of the communist regime in 1989, scarcity underpinned the status quo — of commodities, of information, of opportunity. So limited were Western imports that once a year, around New Year’s, a handful of grocery stores would make available “exotic” produce like tropical fruit. The supply-demand ratio was so skewed that the store had to ration these exorbitantly priced annual luxuries — one banana and two oranges per person — and people would line up around the block to get them. (Meanwhile, the unworthy apple, Bulgaria’s most ample fruit crop, would sit neglected in the produce aisle at 50 stotinki a kilogram, roughly $0.15 per pound.) The most ambitious parents would camp out in front of the store overnight to make sure they got the bananas and oranges first thing in the morning as they went on sale.

In my lifetime, I’ve only seen such lines twice since — first in front of the Apple Store on June 29, 2007, when the iPhone was released, and then again in April of last year, when the iPad became semi-available. Under Steve Jobs, Apple became the bananas of the West.

In the 1990s, my mother joined Bulgarian Business Systems — Bulgaria’s first and, for over a decade, only official Apple dealer. I had grown up reading Jules Verne, so when we got our first Macintosh, I remember thinking that the man behind it — because, let’s face it, such was the cultural conditioning that I wouldn’t have expected a woman — must be some modern-day Jules Verne, having just handed me a portal for curiosity and exploration that helped me lean into knowledge in a way that has since become the fundamental driving force of my intellectual life.

That iconic 1984 Apple commercial, with its undertones of Big Brother rebellion and escapism, always had special resonance with me.

In the early 90s, about a year after I had started learning English, my mother reminds me of this jingle I wrote for a Macintosh Performa ad in one of the big newspapers:

An Apple a day keeps the doctor away

A Performa a day lets you thrive and play

(Oh come on, cut me some slack. I was nine.)

By the mid-90s, I was spending my school holidays folding Apple brochures and helping my mother set up the big annual Apple Expo, held every December at the Zemyata i Horata (‘Earth and People’) museum.

In 1998, my high school was the only school in the country to have Macs in its library. I vividly remember the day the first candy-colored iMac G3 arrived. It was the bondi blue flavor, the kind of translucent greenish-blue I’d always imagined as the backdrop to Captain Nemo’s world. When I was exploring the budding Internet on it, I felt like it had opened to me to the doors to the library on Nautilus.

When I came to the states for college, I went through a 13-month period I’ve since referred to as “the dark days” — being broke and beguiled by a sweet-talking UPenn senior, I bought his lightly used Dell laptop for the bargain price of $400, rationalizing it as a handy investment in class assignments. It was a foreign land to me, with its confusing navigation menus and counterintuitive interface. The blue screen became a frustrating frequent.

Finally, one fine day in 2004, I bit the bullet and walked into the campus bookstore, which had an official Apple section. I was working three jobs at the time, to pay my way through college, so I ended up eating canned tuna and store-brand oatmeal for a couple of months to offset the expense, but I did walk out with a brand new iBook G4. It was promptly named Francis by my friends, since I was going through my Frank Sinatra period and that’s all that streamed from my iTunes, the same iTunes through which I discovered Sinatra in the first place.

It was like I had undergone a personal Renaissance. I started taking Francis to all my classes and, often, classes I wasn’t actually enrolled in — curious lectures across various departments, from criminology to nutrition to design history, that I would drop in on. I never thought much of my secret hobby, until I heard Steve Jobs’s now-iconic 2005 Stanford graduation address. In it, he recounts the power of a serendipitous visit to a calligraphy class he wasn’t enrolled in, which went on to shape his landmark contributions to design and graphic interfaces:

If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later. Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” ~ Steve Jobs

Long before I was able to articulate it, he was a living testament to the power of networked knowledge and combinatorial creativity.

The semester I got Francis, I was one of three students to have a Mac in the large Annenberg Center lecture hall, where I had many of my classes. Over the next three years, I watched with wonder as the white lids proliferated, taking over the rows until, by my senior year, you could count on the fingers of one hand the students who hid in the back with their PCs. And it wasn’t because — or, okay, only because — to have a Mac was a status symbol of early hipsterdom. It was because it changed how we did everything, from taking class notes to designing presentations to listening to music. Most importantly, it changed our expectations about taking notes and designing presentations and listening to music.

This is the true legacy of Steve Jobs. He didn’t just transform technology, design, and entertainment — he transformed our expectations about technology, design, and entertainment. He not only made us eager to line up for the bananas of our time, but also made us willing to step into the Nautilus library of fascination and never want to leave.

Thank you, Steve, for shaping my childhood, my curiosity, and my creative and intellectual destiny. May you rest in peace 20,000 leagues under the sea.

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Brilliant top image by Jonathan Mak

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06 OCTOBER, 2011

Bob Dylan & Other Icons Resurrect the Unfinished Lost Songs of Hank Williams

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What Jack White has to do with dumpster-diving for music history.

Legendary singer-songwriter Hank Williams was only 29 when he died in the back of a car in 1953, yet in his short life he shaped the course of American music for decades to come. Some of the most celebrated rock’n’roll pioneers — including Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins — got their start recording Williams songs. He has a posthumous special citation from the Pulitzer Prize, he’s been inducted into just about every American music hall of fame, and earlier this year he entered the loftiest of them all, the Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame.

In 2006, while handling a company dumpster, a janitor of Sony/ATV Music Publishing made a serendipitous discovery: In the dumpster were the unfinished lyrics found in Williams’s car the night he died. The lyrics eventually made their way to Bob Dylan in 2008, who set out to complete the songs for an affectionate album release celebrating Williams’s legacy. Three years in the making, the remarkable The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams is out this week and features a formidable roster of musicians performing Williams’s unfinished songs, including Jack White, Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Alan Jackson, Sheryl Crow, and of course Dylan himself.

You can sample the goodness below and hear the entire Jack White track on Rolling Stone’s exclusive stream.

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06 OCTOBER, 2011

The Magic of Reality: Richard Dawkins Teaches Children to Fight Myth with Science

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What Scandinavian folklore has to do with DNA, or how to myth-bust creationism with the poetry of science.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — who in 1976 famously coined the term “meme” in his seminal, must-read book The Selfish Gene — is nowadays best-known as the world’s most celebrated atheist. This week, Dawkins brings us his first sort-of-children’s book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True — a scientific primer for the world, its magic, and its origin, an antidote to the creationism mythology teaching young readers how to replace myth with science, and a fine addition to our favorite soft-of-children’s nonfiction.

With beautiful illustrations by graphic artist Dave McKean, Dawkins’ volume is as accessible as it is illuminating, covering a remarkable spectrum of subjects and natural phenomena — from who the very first person was to how earthquakes work to what dark matter is — in a way that infuses reality with the kind of fascination and whimsy we’re used to finding in myth and folklore. Each chapter begins with a famous myth from one of the world’s religions or folklore traditions, which Dawkins proceeds to myth-bust by examining the actual scientific processes and phenomena that these stories try to explain.

Here’s an introduction from Dawkins himself:

The Guardian’s Tim Radford sums it up nicely:

I cannot think of a better, or simpler, introduction to science as a good idea: simpler, because the starting point is the world’s palpable, experienced reality rather than say formal subjects such as genetics, wave mechanics or astrophysics; better, because it could hardly be more up-to-date.”

BBC has a great short segment, in which Dawkins explores the relationship between comfort and truth, and explains why evolution is the most magical, spellbinding story of all, more poetic than any fable or fairy tale:

When you think about it, here we are, we started off on this planet — this fragment of dust spinning around the sun — and in 4 billion years we gradually changed form bacteria into us. That is a spellbinding story.” ~ Richard Dawkins

The book comes with a companion immersive iPad app.

In an age when we’re still struggling to convince the powers that be of the value of public science and some public schools still perpetuate the mythology of creationism, Dawkins delivers a sober yet wildly absorbing and magical dose of reality in The Magic of Reality — one that brings to mind Jonah Lehrer’s reformulation of the famous Picasso quote: “Every child is a natural scientist. The problem is how to remain a scientist once we grow up.”

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