Lordy Lordy.

I am 40 years old today.

When I was growing up, 40 was the official over-the-hill birthday. A 40th birthday party involved novelty canes, ear trumpets, black armbands, walkers and other unfunny, made-to-be-thrown-away crap that occupied a dedicated shelf at Spencer’s Gifts. It still does, somewhat, but as I’ve aged I’ve noticed that culturally, we have tacitly agreed to move back the point beyond which “it’s all downhill from here.” As more Baby Boomers edge closer to the abyss, we have grown less willing to draw the line at which we must admit to ourselves that we are, finally, old.

I am a bit unsure of what to make of it all. Statistically, the odds are that my life is more than half over. When I think of all the things I would like to have done by this age – mostly involving writing and traveling, neither of which I’ve done to anything like the extent I once hoped – I am torn between two competing realizations: that youthful dreams rarely come true and mostly aren’t even meant to, and that I have squandered too much of the only existence I will ever have.

How badly should I feel that I have never lived abroad (well, apart from that semester in college), written a novel or been to Italy? That I work in the corporate world and have often substituted workplace ambition for personal or artistic goals? Is there any point in regretting the many mistakes I’ve made — situations where I sacrificed my happiness for someone else, gave into fear and laziness or knowingly made a bad decision to spare someone’s feelings?

I tell myself that any mistake is worth making as long as I learn from it. I tell myself that it is never too late to do the things that matter to me: to live in a place I don’t know, to use my talents for my own ambitions rather than for my bosses’, to live a life I will be grateful for once it’s over. I think these are valid views — but I would, wouldn’t I?

Shortly before he died, Christopher Hitchens said, “You have to choose your future regrets.” We can never fulfill all our dreams — not if our dreams are worth the name. I haven’t fulfilled all that many of mine. But I do have a beautiful, intelligent and fantastically talented woman to share my life with; reasonably good health; and that persistent, nagging urge to do something more than show up to a job every day — to make something lasting that reflects who I am.

Yes, I wish I had more time ahead of me. But do I wish I were younger? Not a chance. What wisdom I have has been very dearly bought. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else than where I am today.

Happy birthday? Why, yes it is, thank you.

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs and the Wrong Question

You have no fucking idea what it’s like to be me.
— Steve Jobs

While I have deliberately avoided reading most of the critical reaction to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, the broad consensus seems to be that Isaacson had the biographer’s opportunity of a lifetime, and blew it. Despite having unprecedented access to one of the most relentlessly private of public figures, Isaacson’s is a book without insight: his Steve Jobs is the same collection of contradictory impulses he has always been, a self-centered, unlikeable man who somehow created products that people adored, changing whole industries in his wake. In a world full of assholes, critics complain, what set Jobs apart? What made it possible for him to do the extraordinary things he did?

Let me say first that I agree in principle with the critics: Steve Jobs is a lousy book. I believe I arrived at the conclusion via a different route from a lot of other people, and I’ll get into that soon. First, let’s consider the argument, articulated well by Thomas Q. Brady, quoted on Daring Fireball:

I know lots of people that could be described [as “self-absorbed, immature, emotionally unstable control-freaks”], and none of them started a company in their garage that became one of the most valued corporations in the world. What made Jobs different? This isn’t really answered.

Actually it is, at least to a point. There is the asshole half of the Jobs equation, and then there is the other half, which Isaacson documents and which everyone already knows about: his fanatical obsession with spare, minimalist design; his belief that he was destined for greatness and his determination to achieve it; his tremendous persuasiveness; and his knack for infusing technology products with an underlying human friendliness. Unlike Jobs’s more unsavory characteristics, these are not common traits. Combine them with the ones above, and the story of Steve Jobs begins to seem, if not inevitable, then at least somewhat plausible.

Our civilization has spent centuries debating the origins of genius — even the definition of genius — and yet with each new transformational figure that comes along, we start the debate all over again. The truth is that genius has no formula. It cannot be predicted, reconstructed, feigned (for very long) or dissected, at least not in any way that is remotely edifying. You can quantify the factors that make it possible for people to be successful; for instance, Jobs acknowledged how lucky he was to grow up in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people who could nurture his talents and fire his ambitions. Had his parents opted to raise him in the suburbs of Wisconsin, we’d likely never have heard of Steve Jobs. But creativity — or inventiveness if you prefer, since we don’t tend to associate creativity with non-artistic pursuits — is a process that ultimately operates beneath the threshold of awareness. Indeed, it can operate in no other way; inspiration is not an algorithm.

Many people seem to have expected Isaacson’s book to provide the missing piece of the puzzle — the key that would finally unlock the secret of his genius and forever solve the enigma of Steve Jobs. They were never going to get what they wanted, because it didn’t exist. There was no “one more thing.” The enigma is its own solution.

I don’t want to give the impression that any inquiry into the inner workings of a genius is futile, or that Isaacson should be let off the hook for writing a superficial book about a man who was anything but. I merely suspect that no one could have written an entirely satisfying book on Steve Jobs, because the things people want to understand about him aren’t really explicable. What made Jobs different? How did he look at a Rio MP3 player and conceive what would become the iPod, where everyone else just saw a clunky, half-assed music player? You can posit various intermediary reasons — because he was driven to achieve perfection, because poor design caused in him something akin to physical pain — but what do those explain? What are the reasons for the reasons? The truth is that Steve Jobs did what he did because his unique blend of innate qualities, combined with the people and places that helped to shape his worldview, allowed him to. His career was the result of a confluence of circumstances so unlikely as to appear impossible. “What made Steve Jobs different?” is more a rhetorical question than an actual one. It is a way for our mathematically hampered brains to acknowledge the  baffling unlikelihood of his achievement — the incredible fact that in this world, a man like him could exist at all.

So having put that issue in perspective, what is my primary objection to the book? I will put it in straightforwardly Jobsian terms:

The writing sucks.

Click to continue reading “Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs and the Wrong Question”

And My Dream of a Better iPod Takes Another Blow

Good news, everyone! Oh wait — not so good news:

If you want to buy an iPod shuffle or iPod classic from Apple, you should do it sooner rather than later. We’ve heard those two iPods are getting the axe this year. (Courtesy TUAW)

Assuming this is true, is it likely that Apple is going to release a 128-gigabyte iPod touch this Christmas, so that die-hard music lovers might find something in their stockings that comes close to suiting their needs? I’m guessing not. The mp3 player market is dead. They are to this young decade what digital watches were in the ’80s: formerly sleek emblems of progress reduced in price and stature until they ended up being sold out of gumball machines.

Time was that Apple needed to offer a high-capacity iPod model to stand out from the competition. Now that race is run, and music playing is just one more function on a smart phone, or a handheld gaming and Internet device (to describe the iPod touch accurately). If the rumor is true and the shuffle is in line for the axe along with the classic, that means that the iPod nano will be the only remaining device Apple makes whose primary function is to store and play music — and i think it’s reasonable to assume that the nano will itself continue to exist only until Apple can price an iPod touch below $199. (Side bet: if the above rumor comes to pass, watch the nano drop to $99.)

So why is this a big enough deal that I keep harping on it? Because there is no smartphone or iPod touch that can do what an iPod classic does: hold a library of songs numbering in the tens of thousands, all stored locally and accessible without a network connection. And it does not offer a hardware interface optimized for playing music.

Don’t mistake this for sentimentality or Ludditism. (Ludditery?) I recently started using Rdio and was sufficiently taken with it that I thought it might obviate the need for my iPod classic. It offers a sizable library to choose from, the mobile app is pretty slick and it has some nice music discovery tools. But it doesn’t offer the granularity of iTunes: the ability to rate songs, tag songs, construct dynamic playlists or change metadata. In short, it doesn’t afford the kind of advantages that come from owning and curating your own music files. So Rdio on my iPhone is like having two different, mutually incompatible music libraries, one of which has everything by the Beatles (in mono, even) and not much else, the other of which is so ungainly it has 12 different songs called “Learning to Fly,” just because I wanted to see how many there are. (There are more than 12, but it was starting to get ridiculous.) And if I want to, say, make a playlist with “Flying” and Kate Earl’s “Learning to Fly”? Well, that ain’t happening. I can put Kate Earl on my iPod, but I can’t put the Beatles on Rdio.

If the classic is going away, then I and thousands of others like me are marooned. Our choices are to either keep our devices operating until Apple offers a new product that can serve our needs (mine is already three years old and on its second battery), or jump ship for something else. Such a change, for all I know, may not be possible, or if it’s possible, it may not be worth the trouble. Leaving the iPod will also mean leaving iTunes, and the information that app has stored about my music — my ratings, my playlists, which songs I’ve played or skipped in a given time — is, given the nerd-tastic way I listen to music, almost as valuable as the music itself.

So while I am chagrined to arrive at the end of the road with my iPod, I am hopeful that some competitor out there will finally seize the opportunity to build a music player that offers us what Apple will not. People are still buying vinyl records, for god’s sake. You mean to tell me there is really no return on catering to rabid music listeners — people who have already demonstrated their willingness to devote a lot more of their income to music than the average person?

Anyone want to sell me an mp3 player?

The Unelucidated Facebook Tragedy

You’re scrolling your Facebook news feed, populated with friends, acquaintances, relatives, that guy you met waiting in line to get into a concert, coworkers you never speak to, and so on. Down the list you come to that old high school friend you haven’t seen since graduation. (That is a long time ago. You are approaching 40, like me. And you are probably losing your hair, and you really ought to do something about that belly. But I digress.) Next to her name you see something like this:

To our beloved Cassie [for example] — you would have been 16 years old today. Daddy and I miss you so much and we carry you in our hearts every day. We love you!

Hmm. I take it something happened.

I am not making light of anyone’s tragedy. Truly — the thought of losing a child is horrifying to me and I don’t even have any children. But being a person who suffers from a degree of social awkwardness, I have a masochistic fascination with this kind of social cul-de-sac. The person who posted about this loss obviously did so in the knowledge that those close to her would know what she was talking about. I have not spoken to her in person in twenty years, and barely even pass the time with her on Facebook, and so I have no idea what she’s talking about, apart from what I can infer. The dilemma, obviously, is this:

Is it appropriate to ask for more details when a distant Facebook friend refers to a personal tragedy you know nothing about?

On the one hand, the simple answer appears to be, why not? If they posted it to Facebook of their own accord, it would seem they are capable of engaging with the subject on at least a limited basis. Imagine the corollary real-world experience: you are making the rounds at your high school reunion. Having already met and greeted this friend earlier in the evening, you find yourself near her in a quiet corner where you can exchange words. And she says to you, My daughter would have been 16 years old today. I still think about her all the time. In this situation, it is obviously completely appropriate to ask for more information — indeed, it would be rude not to, and your friend certainly wants to be able to share with you the pain and loss that she has carried with her.

But Facebook is not real life, and it is really not even close to real life. There is nothing in the real world that maps to Facebook’s strange social stew of acquaintances, ex-boyfriends, bosses, grade-school friends, parents and that really nice gal you met at Subway all bobbing around in the same virtual medium. Unless you take the time to stratify these people into castes and direct certain posts only at certain groups — which, judging by my personal experience, virtually no Facebook user knows how to do — your tragic outpouring is hitting every pair of eyeballs with the same force. It seems crazy to think that someone would compose a reflection on the death of her own child that is equally suitable for both her mother and for a schoolmate she hasn’t seen since Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em came out. Therefore, I think she can’t be doing it on purpose: the Facebook settings that would allow her to target her post to a select group of readers must either be too opaque to figure out or she just doesn’t know about them. Which leaves me thinking, again, that I really ought to not say anything.

I don’t know. I really have no clue what is the appropriate thing to do. But I can tell you this: if you came to this post through a link on my Facebook wall, it’s because I wanted you, and you specifically, to see it. I think I’ve had all the social ambiguity I can take for a while.

Three Extra Covers

Over on Popdose, I had the fun and privilege of collaborating with the staff on a list of the 100 greatest cover songs of all time. I wrote about eight or nine of the write-ups, though I missed the chance to tackle a couple of songs I would have enjoyed doing. More than that were some songs I had floated in my personal 100 list that didn’t make the final cut, about which I found myself really wanting to say something. One of these I tackled in an addendum to the Popdose article that will appear soon. A few others — three, to be precise — I am resurrecting and discussing below.

“That’s All Right,” Elvis Presely

Originally recorded by Arthur Crudup
My ranking: #7

One of the challenges the self-styled critic faces in compiling a list like this is the temptation to nominate songs because they’re “classics”: songs that mark a pivotal movement or moment without necessarily meaning anything to the critic on a personal level — precisely the level at which music should matter to us most. (This was the reason that the eventual Popdose winner, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” placed a relatively low 21 on my list: I recognize it as a great song, but I rarely stop to listen to it.) Bearing that in mind, I think I was on firm ground in naming this primal Elvis number to such a high place on the list. Say what you will about “Blue Suede Shoes;” for my money, this is where it begins, both for Elvis and for rock n’ roll in general. Its recording is one of rock’s great legendary origin stories. Having pestered local record producer Sam Phillips for ages for a chance to record, Elvis found himself struggling to get a passable performance of “I Love You Because,” the kind of schmaltzy ballad his mother loved. Between increasingly futile takes, Elvis and the hired musicians began messing around with this old Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup number, and Sam Phillips heard his young singer suddenly come to life. The rest we all more or less know, but you don’t need to know the rest to hear greatness here: the originality is palpable, the spontaneity of a kind almost completely vanished from modern music.

“Way Down in the Hole,” the Blind Boys of Alabama

Originally recorded by Tom Waits
My ranking: #13

OK, so a lot of people know this one as “The Theme to Season One of The Wire.” I get that. And I accept that my affection for this song is probably colored by my admiration for its use on that show. But it’s not hard to look past that association to an already great song become even greater. Tom Waits’ take on the song is laced with his customary and distinctive irony, a subtle flavoring of the material that, rather than undercutting the song’s spiritual content, seems to afford it a range of plausible interpretations. The Blind Boys of Alabama by contrast serve it up straight, opening a window directly onto a rich musical and spiritual tradition that Waits views through a funhouse mirror. I’m an atheist, but I still know a great spiritual when I hear one.

“Mr. Moonlight,” the Beatles

Originally recorded by Dr. Feelgood and the Interns
My ranking: #79

This may well be the most underappreciated and misunderstood track in the Fabs’ canon. Ian MacDonald in Revolution in the Head called it “excruciating.” Jonathan Gould in Can’t Buy Me Love thought it “falls completely flat.” I happen to love John Lennon’s unhinged vocal, the comically straight backing vocals by Paul and George, and of course that organ solo, as though a member of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra popped into the Cavern on a bet and decided to briefly sit in with the house band. In fact, far from being an aberration, this is exactly the kind of song the Beatles loved to do — a vital and often-forgotten element of their greatness. For one thing, it was obscure; it actually came out as a B-side, a favorite tactic of theirs to ensure no competing act would be playing their material. For another, it was goofy — the Beatles relished taking oddities like this and turning them into raving rock n’ roll songs. And finally, it helped to fill out what were often extremely long sets: the Beatles played for as long as eight hours some nights, forcing them not only to become tight, accomplished musicians but also to assimilate nearly any raw material into their act and make it their own. If you had happened to stumble into the Star Club in Hamburg in 1961, or the Cavern in Liverpool, this song or something like it is probably what you would have heard: an R&B relic given an unlikely second life by the greatest cover band in rock history.

You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello: Steve Jobs Resigns

If you’re an Apple fan, an Apple user or just a technology enthusiast in general, there is only one story today: Steve Jobs is stepping down as CEO of Apple.

This is not to say he is leaving Apple. He is continuing on as Chairman of the Board, so it seems reasonable to assume he will still exert considerable direct influence on Apple’s products and overall direction. That face-saving news probably helped insulate Apple’s stock from the bad news. As of this writing, it has taken a five-percent hit, much less than the cataclysm many predicted would befall Apple should Jobs have died, quit or otherwise left the company abruptly.

Apart from sadness and a vague sense of unease or disquiet, I have these thoughts on hearing this news.

Whatever health issues Jobs has been dealing with, he has not been able to overcome them. Jobs must have reached a point where he and his doctors realized his recovery would make no more significant progress. It is possible (and I certainly hope) that Jobs has many years ahead of him in which to contribute to Apple and to enjoy life with his family and friends. However, it is just as possible — and knowing Jobs’ concern for his privacy, not at all unlikely — that there may be more bad news about Steve Jobs ahead, and that it will come sooner than anyone wants to accept. I take no pleasure in thinking that. But I do think it.

In a sense, we are about to see the ultimate test of Jobs as a businessman and leader. How well has he inculcated his values and expectations into Apple’s culture? How well, in other words, has he enabled it to continue as though he were still there? The answer to this question will not be apparent for some time; Jobs will, as noted, continue to be involved with Apple, and it will take months or even years for the efforts he has overseen to come to fruition. That will not, alas, stop the tech pundits from clucking over Apple’s “loss of vision” at the first post-Jobs bump in the road to come along. For example, if the iPhone 4’s “Antenna-gate” issue had happened at a post-Jobs Apple, no one would skip a beat before denouncing the scandal as the inevitable result of Apple adrift in the leadership vacuum left by its departed visionary: “This would never have happened if Steve had been there.” There’s going to be a lot of bullshit like this in the months ahead, I’m afraid.

But it is true that, at some distant point, people will look at Apple and have to decide, as well as they can, whether the company they see is truly living up to its founder’s standards, or whether it shows the first signs of an inevitable decline. Apple could easily remain unassailable with no input at all from Jobs for at least three years, and probably closer to five. By then, the tech landscape may have shifted sufficiently to allow a smaller, faster competitor to undermine Apple’s dominance or to establish a new computing paradigm ahead of it. This is going to happen eventually; it’s just a matter of when. The only real question is: will it happen sufficiently far in the future that no one can reasonably blame it on Jobs’ absence? Indeed, could Apple remain dominant for so long that Jobs himself one day becomes a hazily remembered, almost mythic figure like Henry Ford, with no direct associations with any of Apple’s then-current products?

I think it could happen. If it does, that will be the true confirmation of Steve Jobs’ genius. He would not have merely started Apple. He would not have merely rebuilt it from a teetering computer company into the world’s most valuable technology company, capable of redefining entire markets at a stroke. He would have given it a soul, and not just a soul but his soul — the one thing even some of his greatest admirers were convinced he could not do. He would have achieved a kind of immortality: a cluster of dedicated people who absorbed his ways of thinking and distilled them into an essence that can be taught and passed on after he was gone. If he succeeds in this, then there is no telling how long Apple could remain in its present dominant position. Jobs came back to Apple 15 years ago. What could Apple be in another 15 years? It could come back down to earth, become just another successful purveyor of computers, gadgets and lifestyle accessories. Or it could be something that no one today can see, an integral part of industries we haven’t yet imagined. We might even one day call it the most powerful and innovative company that has ever been — greater than U.S. Steel, greater than Ford, greater than AT&T or Microsoft — a company so ingrained in our lives that it literally has no precedent.

Knowing what little I do about Steve Jobs, I am guessing that is the legacy he strives for. Will he succeed? I wouldn’t bet against him. How amazing it is to think that for all Jobs has accomplished, today really only marks a new beginning.