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The New Swiss Army Knife: Bill Gates Predicts the iPhone in 1995

What Siri and the appification of faxing have to do with the difference between envisioning and enacting.

In 1995, exactly 20 years after starting Microsoft as a 19-year-old, Bill Gates penned The Road Ahead (public library), in which he envisioned the future of computers, information, and the internet. Now, another almost 20 years later, the book stands as a lucid presentiment of much of the technology we not only use but take for granted today. Particularly fascinating is this excerpt from a chapter titled “Appliances and Applications,” in which Gates envisions what’s essentially the iPhone:

What do you carry on your person now? Probably at least keys, identification, money, and a watch. And maybe credit cards, a checkbook, traveler’s checks, an address book, an appointment book, a notepad, something to read, a camera, a pocket tape recorder, a cellular phone, a pager, concert tickets, a map, a compass, a calculator, an electronic entry card, photographs, and maybe a loud whistle to call for help.

You’ll be able to keep equivalent necessities — and more — in an information appliance I call the wallet PC. It will be about the same size as a wallet, which means you’ll be able to carry it in your pocket or purse. It will display messages and schedules and let you read or send electronic mail and faxes, monitor weather and stock reports, and play both simple and sophisticated games. At a meeting, you might take notes, check your appointments, browse information if you’re bored, or choose from among thousands of easy-to-call-up photos of your kids.

[…]

Wallet PCs with the right equipment will be able to tell you exactly where you are anyplace on the face of the earth. The Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that orbit Earth right now broadcast signals that enable jetliners, oceangoing boats, cruise missiles, some cars — and even hikers with handheld GPS receivers — to know their exact locations. Such devices are currently available for a few hundred dollars, and eventually they’ll be built into many wallet PCs.

[…]

Off the roads, on a hike in the woods, the wallet PC will be your compass and as useful as your Swiss Army Knife.

In fact, I think of the wallet PC as the new Swiss Army knife.

Gates goes on to even presage Siri:

The wallet PC will connect you to the interactive network while you travel and tell you where you are. A voice from its built-in speaker will let you know that a freeway exit is coming up or that the next intersection has frequent accidents. It will monitor digital traffic reports and warn you that you’d better leave for the airport early, or it will suggest an alternative route. The wallet PC’s color maps will overlay your location with whatever kinds of information you want — road and weather conditions, campgrounds, scenic spots, even fast-food places. You might ask, ‘Where’s the closest Chinese restaurant that’s still open?’ and the answer will be transmitted to your wallet by wireless network.

[…]

Eventually we’ll also be able to speak to televisions, personal computers, or other information appliances. At first we’ll have to stick to a limited vocabulary, but eventually our exchanges with our appliances will become quite conversational.

So how come Gates predicted but failed to invent — or, more importantly, create a culture around — this “Swiss Army knife” of the future? “Ideas are cheap and abundant,” legendary management guru Peter Drucker famously proclaimed, “What is of value is the effective placement of those ideas into situations that develop into action.”

Steve Jobs, it seems, had it right all along: “Real artists ship.”

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Italo Calvino’s 14 Definitions of What Makes a Classic

“A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.”

A reader recently wrote me to lightly criticize the fact that I called George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four “cult-classics,” suggesting that they instead merit the inferior term “required reading.” So what, exactly, is a classic, and why should we care? Richard J. Smith, in discussing the iconic ancient Chinese Book of Changes, offered a four-point checklist definition and Simon Crtichley showed us how to read them. But perhaps the most essential question is why the classics should be read. That’s exactly what beloved Italian writer Italo Calvino addresses in his 1991 book Why Read the Classics? (public library) — a sort of “classic” in its own right. In this collection of essays on classical literature, Calvino also produces these 14 definitions of a “classic”:

  1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: 'I'm rereading…', never 'I'm reading….'

  2. The Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.

  3. The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual's or the collective unconscious.

  4. A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.

  5. A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.

  6. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.

  7. The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.

  8. A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.

  9. Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.

  10. A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.

  11. 'Your' classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.

  12. A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.

  13. A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.

  14. A classic is a work which persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.

Perhaps most poetic is Calvino’s 11th definition, bespeaking the idea that there is room for subjectivity even in a term as deterministically universal as a “classic,” and offering a witty answer to the nitpicky reader: “‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.”

r/books

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The First Poem Published in a Scientific Journal

An ode to the ocean’s bioluminescent marvels.

We’ve already seen science as a muse of painting, music, sculpture, and design. In 2001, the poetic muse struck Smith College life sciences professor and clock researcher Mary E. Harrington who, smitten by the circadian rhythms of the bioluminescent algae Gonyaulax polyedra, penned a poem about these whimsical organisms. It appeared on the pages of the June 2001 issue of the Journal of Biological Rhythms and is considered the first poem to be published in a strictly scientific journal. (I discovered it through a passing mention in the excellent Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired.)

FEEDBACK

If the lazy dinoflagellate
should lay abed
refuse to photosynthesize,
realize:
the clock will not slow

but it will grow fait
    weaker
        weaker

barely whispering at the end
    “rise”
        “rise”

to little effect.
The recalcitrant Gonyaulax
arms crossed
snorts
“No longer will
they call my life
(my life!)
‘just hands’.
I am sticking to the sea bed!”

Image courtesy of the J. Woodland Hastings Lab, Harvard University

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