Total number of books I’ve owned: It’s a bit offputting that it starts with the question people are least likely to be able to answer, especially the kind of people who are surprised to discover clothes they didn’t know they had in their own laundry. (This morning.) So I’ll just say lots and lots and lots.
Last book I bought: Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare At Goats. I’ve long loved his writing for The Guardian and his previous book, Them: Adventures With Extremists. His is a world full of fascinating shlemiels into which he happily lumps himself. His (rarely-updated) blog is here.
Last book I read: Currently in the middle of the above. Since I don’t currently have a long commute (which I wouldn’t be able to read on anyway, since I drive) and I don’t read much in the evenings either, my reading is sadly limited to weekends and toilet breaks. It’s fairly easy to keep track of what I’ve been reading by just looking at the continually-growing pile of books on the cistern. This weekend I also made a brief start on Jared Diamond’s Collapse but didn’t get very far.
Last book I finished: Moore & Cambell’s From Hell. Yes, it really has taken me this long to get around to it. Like any other Alan Moore work it must now be read again, and again, and again, discovering amazing new things every time.
Five books that mean a lot to me:
- Anyone who’s asked me for a book recommendation in the last five years has usually received the same first suggestion: Carter Beats The Devil. It’s not earth-shattering, it won’t change your life, it’s just bloody excellent fun – so excellent that I’ve been eagerly telling everyone. I read this at roughly the same time as Kavalier & Clay and while they’re obviously comparable in a lot of ways and both wonderful, Carter narrowly edged it for me.
- I’ve mentioned Andrew Mueller before, but his Rock And Hard Places – a collection of his wonderfully acerbic/enthusiastic music and travel writing – is probably the book I’ve revisited more often than any other in this list. Tragically, it’s now out of print, but Amazon still have some. Even better, the majority of the book is online for free at his site. To start with try his adventures on the Cresta Run, then China Drum’s tour of Bosnia. Unfortunately my favourite of the lot, his hysterical account of the apocalypse that was Woodstock II, is not currently online.
- Inviting Disaster: Lessons From The Edge Of Technology is probably the best book I read last year, and I’ve been meaning to review it properly for a long time. Until I get around to it, be assured that it’s superb, revelatory, and remarkably gripping for a set of tales told so calmly. Chiles just lets the stories unfold, neither skimping on detail nor overloading you, to show how and why technology fails. The situations themselves range all over, from famous tragedies (Challenger, Bhopal, Titanic, R101, Chernobyl) to famous screw-ups (Hubble’s mirror, Three Mile Island) taking in lesser-known-but-still-horrific accidents and a bunch of near-misses on the way.
- I realise that I’ve been overdoing the Douglas Adams references around here recently (and I’m not done with them yet), but how could I not include him? I was initially tempted to go with Last Chance To See, which is probably the most consistently-well-written of all his works, but the book that had the biggest effect on me is easily Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a book so utterly rammed with fantastic ideas that it took my teenage mind about four attempts to fit them all in.
While throwing ideas down I was thinking about the old joke about comparing people’s lists of books that they think changed their lives (“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, “The Dice Man”, etc.) with the lists of books that actually changed their lives (The Highway Code, the UCAS Institution Guide, etc.).
But then I got more interested in creating a list of five books that were most important to my twelve-year-old self:
- The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy Radio Scripts
- The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison
- Chocolate: The Consuming Passion by Sandra Boynton
- The Puzzle Mountain by Gyles Brandreth
- This thing.
The baton is hereby passed to:
- La amiga, Bob
- El barbudo, Santiago
- La mujer del cristal quebrado, She
- El hombre del cubo que falta, Dan
- El hombre que fue traicionado por una manzana, Ian
- El Tim, Tim
In a few hours, cheapest we get one of the most eagerly-awaited events in the technology calendar: a Steve Jobs keynote. I’ve been watching them since he returned to Apple in 1997, pharm despite the fact that I’ve never owned any Apple gear. I know I’m not the only one hypnotically drawn to his performances. I’m a Windows user, but I don’t watch video presentations from Bill Gates (well, not often) or Andy Grove. Why Steve?
The answer: It’s why we’re here in the first place.
Whether you love or hate Apple and its products (personally, I’m all over the map on that one) you can’t deny that Jobs is a demo master. There are few better examples of technology theatre than one of his keynotes. For two hours one is transported into the infamous Reality Distortion Field, where everything is swooshy and wonderful and Apple did it all first. He is the loving uncle bestowing gift after gift, and just when you think he’s all done, he’ll give you the best gift of all. (Now that everyone’s attuned to the “One more thing…” moment, we spend most of those two hours holding our breath for it, waiting for Steve to play Columbo. Such delicious teasing!)
If you want to see just how completely Jobs dominates his keynote performances and rules our attentions, the keynote he gave in January (stream here) contains three notable moments:
Twelve minutes in, something goes wrong – the photo viewer locks up, the machine’s dead. It’s the usual demo nightmare, but it’s the first time something’s gone severely wrong in any of the Jobs keynotes that I’ve seen. It takes Steve a couple of moments to work out what’s happened, plays it to the crowd – “Alrighty… I got a little bug here!” – just long enough to get a laugh, then instantly switches the whole KVM setup to a second hidden Mac. “Well, that’s why we have backup systems here. Anyway…” Round of applause, demo continues. Whole incident is done in 20 seconds. Most of the roundups didn’t even mention it. As Danny said at the time, you imagine that if Steve suffered a heart attack onstage then an identical Steve would instantly step out from the wings and carry on as if nothing had happened.
Fifty minutes in, Steve introduces the President of Sony Corporation, who comes on and immediately, giggling, tells the crowd how excited he is to be taking part in a Jobs keynote. This is the President of a company that could absent-mindedly crush Apple with one tread of its big scaly foot (Daring Fireball headline: “Why It’s Cool To Say AIIEEEE!!”) yet the guy is acting like an awkward kid on stage with his hero. He takes way too long to ramble badly through a discussion of the HDTV standardisation efforts before eventually crumbling into ten seconds of being utterly lost, waving to Steve for help. Steve gets up and thanks him, shakes hands, and just as Mr Ando is leaving the stage, he stops! Turns back to the crowd! And tries to do the “Just one more thing…” thing!
This is not good. He’s stolen Steve’s Holy Addendum Of Wow and he’s doing more rambling with it. Every single person in the auditorium can see Steve’s thoughts above his head, like a mantra:
Get the fuck off my stage
Get the fuck off my stage
Stop screwing with my keynote
And get the fuck off my stage
… and Steve’s eyes are bulging like he’s trying to will laser beams out of them. It’s lucky that Ando shut up and left when he did, because a few seconds later Jobs would have pulled out a silenced Walther PPK from the back of his polo-neck, quickly dispatched the President of Sony without a moment’s hesitation and said, “Well, that’s why we have guns here. Anyway…”
About half an hour after that, Phil Schiller comes on to demo Pages, and it’s a good demo. Actually, it’s a really good demo. Out of all the software demos in this keynote, Pages was what impressed me most. Lovely templates, image embedding and flow that’s as easy as breathing, a genuine break away from the “word processor = Word” mentality, gorgeous. (The reality, sadly, doesn’t live up to the demo, but the demo was really good.) When I spoke to other people about it, many of them Apple fans, they were just, “Pages? What? Oh, yeah, word processor thing, nice. I want another iPod!” Now, it may be just that I was alone in getting more pleasure from a demo of a word processor than is considered healthy, but I think the key reason they didn’t notice was that Steve didn’t give it, Phil did. And Phil’s good, but he’s not Steve. Poor Phil.
A Steve Jobs keynote is the closest thing we have, in our industry, to a rock’n’roll stadium gig, and it reminds us why we’re here.
Those of us who make a living through building and using technology spend 99% of our time up to our elbows in code or email, reading websites, talking to customers, trying to make the backups work properly, etcetera. The world of technology only seems fast because there are so many people doing so many different things, and as a result new things appear every day. But if you’re working on a big project, it can be months or years between releases, and the amount of drudgery is almost intolerable.
This is not what we came looking for. When we were young we wanted jetpacks, underwater cars, holographic video games and x-ray specs. These days, when we’re at the office want the magic button that says “Produce Great Work Instantly”, and we want it to work right goddamn now. (And when we’re at home, we want a machine that lets you become James Bond.)
Please, Mr Demo Man – give us that button! In your brief time on stage, show us that the last week of work could be done in a minute! And with really whizzy graphics!
One of the most notable aspects of working at The Digital Village was the number of famous people stopping by to say hi to Douglas (and then engage in long chats with Emma or Mary). Off the top of my head I can recall Paul Allen, Terry Jones, Charles Simonyi and Brenda Laurel, but it’s Kai Krause who I remember most clearly. This was in 1997, when Kai’s Power Tools was on every designer’s hard drive and Kai’s Photo Soap was raking in millions. His products were way out, wacky but brilliant, and utterly unique. One evening he commandeered a spare 8600 and gave a handful of us a half-hour demo of some new stuff he happened to have with him.
He gave us a great demo.
At the risk of sounding like this guy, the difference between a really good demo and a great demo is this:
- A really good technology demo will genuinely impress you and show you how certain aspects of your life could be a lot easier or a lot more fun. You will become quite eager to get your hands on the product, and you will tell others about it.
- A great technology demo will suddenly drop you ten years into the future. You will start breathing the the words “How the fuck…” and then your mouth will be open for the rest of the demo. You will not want the demo to end, because this is a seriously cool future and as soon as it ends you have to wait ten years to get back there again.
I can only remember snapshots of Kai’s demo (it was eight years ago, after all) but I was standing there with Tim waiting to be impressed while we were taken on a whistle stop tour around his new software, and thinking roughly the same things:
Kai: “So I can take this picture and spin it all around like this…”
Us (thinking): “Yeah, you’re mapping a texture to a polygon and rotating it, this is how you got rich?”
Kai: “… and I can take this picture and zoom all the way in like this…”
Us: “Okay, fractal zoom, nicely gradiated, nice curves going on, nothing particularly special.”
Kai: “… and I can wibble it around like this and zoom out and wibble it about up here…”
Us: “Wait. Do that again. Did he just do what I think he just did? Do that again? Please?“
As the demo went on we saw more remarkable things and heard incredible stories about these Russian guys he was working with who had a camera that could take instant 3D shots that you could load into a modeller and he’d be selling these for $200 a pop and we were completely in the palm of his hand and drooling. None of it ever came out, alas – I don’t know why. (“Everything we ever sold was six months too early,” he says. If you want to know more about what he’s up to now, good luck; all I can give you is this bizarre rambly book thing from the Myst school of UI design)
Truly great demos come all too rarely for addicts like us. This year’s DEMO conference was, according to Om Malik, bereft of them. The best I’ve seen in the past few months have been Will Wright’s “Spore” talk at GDC and this remarkable augmented reality demo. Even Steve, the demo god’s demo god, only shows something truly incredible once every couple of years, if that. (This year’s buzz is all about Apple possibly changing the type of silicon they use. I’ve been speculating just as much as anyone, but really – do we actually care? Those of you working at IBM and Motorola excepted.)
But it’s near-impossible, because however good your demo skills are, they’ll only get you as far as a really good demo. Great demos require great technology. This is why Scoble is currently running around the Redmond campus filming his Channel 9 videos, because he knows that the only way to bless Microsoft with even 1% of Apple’s cool is to show other techies that, you know, there’s actually some genuinely impressive stuff going on there. One day, Bill may actually get it, and show us the many dreams he has pointlessly locked away in his many research centres. Until then, I’ll be watching Steve.