Defomicron

Software, Hardware, Silverware


Entries tagged: Books

There’s little in life more enjoyable than a book you can get lost in.

False Start

I consider myself a casual Apple historian, in that I am a big fan of Apple’s work and through that interest I have learned a fair amount about their past. It is with much interest that I purchased Leander Khaney’s Jony Ive, a biography of Apple’s famed lead designer. A month ago, I linked to an excerpt about the beginnings of the first iPhone. It is quite good and had me excited to read the rest of the book. Unfortunately (but not unexpectedly) this was the best portion of the book by far.

I was not turned off by the entire book1. The beginning, which talks about Ive’s education and work before Apple is informative, telling a story I doubt many are familiar with. Khaney’s descriptions of Ive’s early work at Apple were also enjoyable, covering the development of the Newton, the Twentieth Anniversay Mac, and the iMac. Part of me wonders, however, if these sections were more enjoyable only because I am less familiar with those product’s stories already. If I knew more about them, would I have found as many faults with Khaney’s writing as I did with the newer products that I am familiar with?

Jony Ive by Leander Khaney
Jony Ive would not like how this book looks.

The book is entirely effusive about Jony Ive, to the point of being annoying. The hockey puck mouse that shipped with the original iMac is only gently derided, and Ive’s tendency to supplant form over function is likewise given a pass. This gushing attitude hits its high in the final chapter, where credit for the success of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad is seemingly given entirely to Ive:

The iPod was a product of Jony’s simplification philosophy. It could have been just another complex MP3 player, but instead he turned it into the iconic gadget that set the design cues for later mobile devices. Two more delightful innovations, the iPhone and the iPad, were products of thinking differently, of creative engineering at work in rational problem solving on many levels.

Khaney repeatedly gives total credit for these products to Ive, which is ridiculous. Even the subtitle of the book is “The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products”. Not some of Apple’s greatest products, not a genius: he is the genius behind all of Apple’s greatest products. Ridiculous. All of the products Ive has worked on at Apple have been the result of massive team efforts of which Ive was only a single part. In many cases he was pivotal, but he was not the only pivotal person.

Regarding the iPod, Khaney even acknowledges that Ive did not have nearly as much control as with later devices. Khaney says that the idea for it came from Rubinstein (SVP of Hardware) and Fadell (Ruby’s understudy), the scroll wheel interface came from Schiller, and that Ive was only told about the project when they handed him the components of a finished unit and asked him to wrap it up in a pretty case.

The struggle between designer and engineer comes up a lot in the book. During Steve Jobs’s first reign at Apple, particularly in regards to the creation of the original Macintosh, design led engineering. Following Jobs’s departure, engineering took over and designers were forced to build pretty boxes around whatever engineering sent their way. When Jobs returned, things flipped back: designers came up with a product, and the engineers had to meet the constraints of the design. Understanding that, you’ve grasped a majority of what Khaney says about design in Jony Ive. That struggle is brought up so many times throughout the biography that I got irritated while reading whenever Khaney indicated he was about to go off on that tangent again.

Even more frustrating was when Khaney would spout things that were incorrect and/or idiotic. Again from the last chapter we get this nugget:

Before he died, Jobs revealed the degree to which he empowered Jony inside the company. “He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me,” Jobs said. “There’s no one who can tell him what to do, or to butt out. That’s the way I set it up.”

Jobs didn’t explain exactly what he meant. According to Apple’s organization chart, Jony reports to Cook; yet, according to Jobs, Cook can’t tell him what to do.

Khaney, you’ve left out one important detail: Steve Jobs is dead. Tim Cook is CEO, and he can absolutely tell Jony Ive what Jony Ive can and can’t do at Apple. Whether or not it would be wise of Tim Cook constrain Ive is a different question, but the notion that he can’t just because Steve Jobs said so is absurd.

In his chapter on the iPad, Khaney says:

In March 2012, Apple followed up with the third-generation iPad, which added a high-density retina display, a faster chip and better cameras. In October of the same year, the fourth-generation iPad was launched with a much faster processor and cell connection, as well as a tiny lightning connector to replace the original thirty-pin connector…

Two things. First, the third-generation iPad added LTE networking, not the fourth. This is a small mistake, but it’s embarassing. These little details are the easiest to research and get correct, and we’re trusting this man to have done extensive research into a very secretive company. If he can’t get the small, public, obvious facts right how are we supposed to trust the rest of it? Second, that paragraph contains the only mention of the lightning connector, the design of which is an important recent design that, as John Gruber put it, “epitomizes what makes Apple Apple”. Did Ive have nothing to do with it? In this book we’re led to think so.

This biography leaves out a lot that I wanted to know. iOS 7, arguably the most important product Ive has worked on since the first iPhone, is covered only briefly at the very end. It is generally summarized and lauded2 without any detail behind the events besides letting us know that Scott Forstall was actually fired, despite what Apple PR claiming he stepped down. Yeah, we already knew that. I wanted new information, not the same stories I’ve seen in the news for the past year. It’s hard to completely fault Khaney for this since all of it is so recent; it’s difficult to find sources for anything inside Apple, and probably impossible to get any behind-the-scenes accounts from the past year.

We can fault Khaney, however, for spending so much time off the topic of Jony Ive the man. There is much discussion of Steve Jobs, who was very important to Ive but not unfamiliar to anyone reading this biography. In fact, most who read Jony Ive will have read Walter Isaacson’s official biography of Steve Jobs, a text that Khaney cites numerous times. Later, there is far too much discussion on Apple’s stock prices and the post-Steve Jobs era of Apple. I picked up this book because I wanted to learn about Jony Ive and his design process and the stories behind my favorite Ive designs, not to hear someone else predict the future of Apple. In his final paragraph, Khaney actually calls on Jony Ive to reinvent Apple’s design language. Apparently it’s become “predictable”. You know, I was just thinking about how everyone more or less predicted exactly how iOS 7 would look.

All of this, to me, points to the unmistakable fact that this biography is premature. The products that Khaney goes in-depth on are older and less interesting. Ive is far from done and I hope his best work is still ahead of him. At the very least, his best work is his current work, and we won’t learn the stories behind these products for several more years, maybe a decade. Only then could we get a proper biography. You can safely ignore this one.


  1. Actually, the book itself is sort of gross-looking. The line-spacing is too tall and the text is set in an unappealing serif (the apostrophes and quotation marks are particularly unsettling) with headings in Avenir Next. Sans-serifs should never be used in printed books. In the case of Jony Ive, the use of the sans-serif combined with weird gray lozenges and pullquotes at the beginning of each chapter (see here) give the impression that this book belongs in an elementary school classroom. It’s an odd, almost intangible effect but I was not the only one who noticed it. I somehow doubt Jony Ive would be happy with his biography looking like this. ↩︎

  2. Khaney spends one paragraph noting iOS 7’s dedication to typography through the use of Helvetica Neue. He does not specify Helvetica Neue Light, and his writing indicates that he has no idea Helvetica Neue has been the system font on iOS since it went retina↩︎

Harry Potter Coming to the Stage

J.K. Rowling:

Over the years I have received countless approaches about turning Harry Potter into a theatrical production, but Sonia and Colin’s vision was the only one that really made sense to me, and which had the sensitivity, intensity and intimacy I thought appropriate for bringing Harry’s story to the stage.  After a year in gestation it is exciting to see this project moving on to the next phase.

The Birth of the iPhone

An excerpt from Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products by Leander Kahney:

Jony in particular had always had a deep appreciation for the tactile nature of computing; he had put handles on several of his early machines specifically to encourage touching. But here was an opportunity to make the ultimate tactile device. No more keyboard, mouse, pen, or even a click wheel—the user would touch the actual interface with his or her fingers. What could be more intimate?

“Think You’re Being Funny, Do You?”

A little boy dressed up as Harry Potter and wandered around Penn Station asking strangers for directions to platform 9¾. This kid’s parents are wonderful people. (For other great parents, see “Dinovember”.)

The End of the Library

Many smart thoughts from MG Siegler on the death of libraries:

It’s hard for me to even remember the last time I was in a library. I was definitely in one this past summer in Europe — on a historical tour. Before that, I think it was when I was in college. But even then, ten years ago, the internet was replacing the need to go to a library. And now, with e-books, I’m guessing the main reason to go to a library on a college campus is simply because it’s a quiet place to study.

I’ve been at NYU for a month and a half and I’ve been to our amazing library twice. Both times, I was accompanying a friend who needed to print a paper for class.

Warner and J.K. Rowling Reach Wide-Ranging Deal

Michael Cieply for The New York Times:

Warner Brothers is doubling down on the J. K. Rowling business. The studio, whose blockbuster “Harry Potter” films have generated billions of dollars for the company, announced on Thursday that it had concluded a deal with Ms. Rowling that will include new movies, distribution rights to a television mini-series and new theme park attractions.

A new film series centered around Newt Scamander that Rowling is writing and is “very excited” about, distribution rights for The Casual Vacancy miniseries in production by the BBC, and continued theme park deals. These are exciting times, my friends.

Andrew Davidson’s Hand-Engraved Harry Potter Covers

The adult editions of Bloomsbury’s upcoming re-release of the Harry Potter series will feature covers designed by Andrew Davidson. Each one was carved into wood and then printed onto paper, and they are gorgeous.

Casual Indeed

When the wealthiest author in the world, the author of a series of books that sold over 400,000,000 copies, a series of books that spurned the most successful film franchise of all time, releases her first out-of-franchise followup, it is expectedly a big deal.

The Casual Vacancy on a Red Chair

It is unexpected that that followup is an idle political novel about a pastoral English village. No one could have predicted The Casual Vacancy. It’s true that we didn’t know really what to expect, but at the least I and others probably thought her next book would land to similar praise and adoration as her others. As I read through it, I constantly was waiting for something big to happen. My expectation of a “Rowling” novel was bent by the fantastic adventures of Harry and friends. Unfortunately I could not appreciate Vacancy for the earth-bounded story it is. I found myself guilty of the thing I’ve poked fun at so often. As so many have lambasted Apple for not delivering earth-shattering revolutionary products at every single event, I was heartbreakingly disappointed with Rowling for not delivering another smash hit.

Stylistically, Vacancy is exquisite. I mustn’t have realized it, as I grew up alongside the Harry Potter novels, reading each of them in turn as they came out, but Rowling’s writing has really matured. Comparing Vacancy to Philosopher’s Stone, the quality of the writing has gone from great to lust-worthy. Don’t get me wrong, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is one of my favorite novels, and the writing is great. Vacancy is just that much better.

To use a specific example, this was my first encounter with extended parentheticals, and I love them. Syntactically, they are super effective delineating a passage (often a long passage) that breaks from the set narrative. Whether it be a flashback, an extended description, or other diatribe, it is made clear that this little bit (right here) is separated. Of course they wouldn’t be so effective if they weren’t placed with the utmost care. J.K.’s shows an amazing aptitude for placing them exactly where they ought to be, providing clarifications and deviations at exactly the times they are needed and never when they would disrupt any of the import, climactic business going on. I could continue attempting to explain exactly why they’re so delightful, but honestly it would be much easier if you read the book and discovered for yourself.

In this novel, for the first time in her writing career, Rowling experiments with out-of-sequence, Pulp Fiction-y storytelling. Throughout the first part of the novel, the point-of-view shifts between different characters and different moments in the timeline of their lives. As we’ve come to expect from Rowling, the backstories are richly detailed. Often tidbits from their background are revealed through those extended parentheticals. The impression given is that Rowling has spent many months in the village of Pagford researching all of the intricate details of every single one of her invented characters. She must have volumes of notes in equivalent detail to those she created for the Harry Potter universe, but with every detail of Pagford jotted.

(I like to imagine that the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy, and the Cormoran Strike series all take place on the same alternate Earth. Actually, I prefer to imagine that it isn’t an alternate Earth at all.)

Fortunately since I read it I’ve had many months1 to reflect. Over time my opinion of it has grown fonder, and my disappointment has waned. The Casual Vacancy is a read not meant to keep you up into the wee hours turning pages. The characters aren’t remarkable. They are human. Humans are boring. They are relatable. Muggles. When you can accept all of that, it’s a lot easier to praise its delights.

I was initially disappointed but this novel isn’t disappointing. It can be difficult to accept that your favorite fantasy author isn’t actually a “fantasy author”, but it’s a good thing. Limiting J.K. Rowling’s talents to one genre wouldn’t be any fun at all. The Casual Vacancy is a superb example of the kind of novel I wouldn’t usually read.

A detective novel, though… that’s something I could get into.


  1. Including the four months it’s been since I promised this review↩︎

The Science that Uncovered J.K. Rowling’s Literary Hocus Pocus

Ben Zimmer for Speakeasy:

In pursuing the Rowling bombshell, freelance writer Cal Flyn, who worked with Times arts editor Richard Brooks on the story, contacted two academics who have developed software specifically to examine questions of authorship: Peter Millican, who teaches philosophy and computing at Oxford University, and Patrick Juola, a computer science professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Flyn provided them with machine-readable texts of “The Cuckoo’s Calling” along with Rowling’s previous novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” and novels by three British women who specialize in crime fiction: Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, and Val McDermid.

Their software, which uses “forensic stylometry”, led The Sunday Times to question Ms. Rowling about it which led to her confession.

Forensic stylometry. You win, internet.

Rowling’s Next Series

J.K. Rowling released a statement on being outed as the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling:

And to those who have asked for a sequel, Robert fully intends to keep writing the series, although he will probably continue to turn down personal appearances.

Boy is that exciting. I’m a third of the way through The Cuckoo’s Calling, and (so far) it’s really good.

J.K. Rowling Has a New Book, It Came Out in April

Alastair Johnson:

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has admitted posing as a retired policeman to write a crime novel that was praised by critics.

This is too exciting. Even though The Casual Vacancy wasn’t my favorite book in the world, I can’t wait to read this one.

Apple Found Guilty of Conspiring to Raise Ebook Prices

Jeff John Roberts:

In a 160-page ruling, Cote points to phone calls, emails and the words of Apple founder Steve Jobs to conclude that the company orchestrated an illegal “scheme” in which five major publishers changed their pricing practices. The court said that the prime target of the conspiracy was Amazon, whose Kindle tablet competes with Apple’s iPad, and whose pricing practices infuriated publishers.

Apple:

Apple did not conspire to fix ebook pricing and we will continue to fight against these false accusations. When we introduced the iBookstore in 2010, we gave customers more choice, injecting much needed innovation and competition into the market, breaking Amazon’s monopolistic grip on the publishing industry. We’ve done nothing wrong and we will appeal the judge’s decision.

John Moltz:

Been a rough four weeks for Internet pundits. First they had to pretend to be design experts and now they’re going to have to pretend to be antitrust experts. Godspeed, Internet pundits.

“The thing about fantasy—there are certain things you just don’t do in fantasy. You don’t have sex near unicorns. It’s an ironclad rule. It’s tacky.”

— Jo Rowling

The Casual Vacancy Cover Art Revealed

Interesting that she decided to stick with “J.K.” instead of “Jo” or “Joanne”, even when it’s not a kid’s book. Or perhaps telling. Either way, I’m excited.

The Casual Vacancy

Announcing the eighth greatest book of all time: The Casual Vacancy.

Harry Potter eBooks For Sale

Finally.