Updating the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is considered to be one of the most important documents in human history. Not only was it the seminal document in the political formation of the United States, it also was arguably the first time that a nation was expressly formulated with an understanding of the essential nature of human rights, despite not living up to it. It inspired many more rebellions against tyranny around the world in places as far removed as Vietnam and Haiti, and continues to inform our understanding of the relationship between a people and their government.

However, while its syntax is beautiful, it also no longer rings true to everyone who reads it. This is both because of our updated understanding of who political rights should be applied to (all human beings), and because not every reader is familiar with the assumptions and meanings inherent in the eighteenth century English of its writers. I don’t think we should literally update a historical document, but I do think it’s important to be clear about what the Declaration means to us today.

Here is the language in the Declaration’s most famous section:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Here is my interpretation of the Declaration’s most famous section in the simplest language that can represent what it means to me in today’s context, and no simpler:

We believe that all people should be treated equally under the law. There are universal human rights including, but not limited to, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Government exists to ensure these rights. Government’s only legitimate power comes from the people it governs. Governments that infringe on human rights or derive their power from a source other than the people, are illegitimate. It is the right and duty of people to replace such governments.

This is my personal interpretation of the Declaration. This is what it means to me today. And it’s how I will parse it for my children. Maybe I have some details wrong and I’ve changed some of its intent. But I think the spirit is right and I think the language will be very easy for them to understand and contextualize for the modern world.

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Building a Local Newsletter

One year ago, I launched BTV Daily, a daily email newsletter that delivers news, events, top social media posts, and other items of local interest to subscribers in the Burlington, Vermont area. The newsletter is largely automated, although I write a short daily blurb in a section called “Dave’s Corner.” BTV Daily is a hobby, but one that I take quite seriously because it provides real value to its subscribers. I know this because for the one-year launch anniversary this week, I put out a subscriber survey, and I was impressed to find how many people really appreciate the newsletter.

This post contains details about how I built BTV Daily and how I’ve grown it from 0 subscribers to (a still fairly meager) 296 subscribers (as of today). Keep in mind that Burlington, Vermont is a city of just 40,000 people. Also, keep in mind that the newsletter is not (yet?) monetized. In fact, it costs me money. This is a passion project, not a business.

Generating Content

To see what a copy of the newsletter looks like, you can checkout the archive section of the BTV Daily website. The sections in the newsletter are Weather, This Day in Vermont History, News, Events, Top Twitter Posts, Dave’s Corner, Latest SeeClickFix Issues, and Quote of the Day.

Technical Setup

BTV Daily is generated by a Python script that runs via a cron job on a Raspberry Pi in my home. At 7:45 AM each day, the Pi connects to GitHub to pull my latest blurb for Dave’s Corner. At 8 AM each day, the main script executes. It calls various APIs to generate BTV Daily’s content, which is amalgamated into an HTML file that is passed to MailChimp to deliver to our subscribers. I use no images in the newsletter to decrease load time and avoid being marked as spam. I do make extensive use of emoji instead. Unfortunately, I still get erroneously marked as spam by gmail’s spam filter for some users despite the fact that this is a subscribe-only newsletter (I don’t manually add any users).

Weather

The day’s weather information is generated using the Dark Sky API. An avid reader asked me to include sunset time in it, and I think that was a very nice addition. Apple has purchased Dark Sky, but their API will keep working through the end of 2021.

This Day in Vermont History

I added this section about halfway through the year after receiving permission from the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation to use their database (which they sent me as a Word document). This was, of course, very nice of them. I wrote a script to reformat the database into a Python dictionary.

News

When I first started BTV Daily, I used the RSS feed of The Burlington Free Press to generate the news content. However, much of the content from them is paywalled, and users complained. So, I moved to the Bing News API, which Microsoft provides a Python library for accessing. I carefully calibrated the local sources to request stories from, the keywords to use to get Burlington specific stories, and other settings. I also added the NY Times as a source, so that when Burlington is in the national news, relevant stories will come up. This did lead to some Bernie Sanders political stories making their way into the newsletter even though they were not really about Burlington (sometimes stories about him will mention his hometown of Burlington in passing).

Events

The newsletter links to Burlington area events from Seven Days, hopefully driving some traffic to this venerable publication.

Top Twitter Posts

I use the Twitter API to search for the top five tweets in the past 24 hours that have the most favorites that use hashtag #BTV or #BurlingtonVT. #BTV was unfortunately getting me tweets from non-Burlington sources, but I later discovered that the API has an option to limit searched tweets to a radius around a zip code. I use a 250 mile radius of Burlington and it works well.

Dave’s Corner

I write Dave’s Corner in a text file that is labeled by date in a format the script looks for. I can include HTML tags. I should probably put the work in to include markdown support. Occasionally, my wife will write a blurb and the section changes from Dave’s Corner to Rebecca’s Corner if the first line is “Rebecca.” My blurbs are usually observations about Burlington or my life.

SeeClickFix Issues

SeeClickFix is a tool for citizens to report local issues to municipal authorities. I have some concerns about the fact that people can be virtually anonymous on the site (they can act almost as a secret police). By exposing issues to the general populace through the newsletter, hopefully they are getting more scrupulous attention. I report the SeeClickFix issues of the last 24 hours via the SeeClickFix API. They are released under a non-commercial license. If I monetize the newsletter in the future, I suppose I may need to remove this section, or is it fair use?

Other APIs

I use the MailChimp API for actually sending the newsletter. I use the WikiQuotes API for generating a random local quote at the end of the newsletter. Unfortunately, the only non-political and non-controversial figures from Burlington on Wikiquotes are Ethan Allen and John Dewey. These quotes get pretty boring, pretty quickly.

Getting Subscribers

I got my first twenty subscribers through a Reddit post. I got another twenty or so subscribers by mentioning the newsletter on a Vermont email social network called Front Porch Forum. Several people in the one-year anniversary survey said I should post more about the newsletter on Front Porch Forum, but believe it or not the advertising rates on Front Porch Forum are exorbitant. And I don’t want to post regularly there without paying for advertising since that doesn’t feel right.

The rest of the ~300 subscribers have come through Bing ads, Facebook ads, Twitter ads, and word of mouth. I also tried a few physical advertisements on bulletin boards around the city. It ends up costing me about $1/subscriber when using Facebook/Twitter ads. I guess that’s my “customer acquisition cost.” Since this is a hobby project that I enjoy, I don’t mind that I’ve spent a few hundred dollars on it.

Keeping Subscribers

The vast majority of people who subscribe to BTV Daily stay subscribed. The numbers show that over the first year, about 80% of people who subscribe don’t unsubscribe. I try to be responsive to individual emails I get from subscribers. Several improvements to the newsletter have been a result of reader feedback. About 40–50% of subscribers open any given edition of the newsletter within 24 hours.

The vast majority of subscribers live in Burlington or one of the surrounding communities. Once in a while someone from out of state will accidentally subscribe and they will realize their mistake and unsubscribe. The most infuriating thing is when someone unsubscribes after being on the list for months and marks the reason to Mailchimp as “spam.” This happens rarely, but how can a newsletter that you personally signed up for and read for months be spam?

Looking Forward

I would like to add additional sections to BTV Daily. One section in particular that I am interested in adding is job postings in the Burlington area. I contacted Craigslist legal for permission two times, one year apart, and nobody got back to me. I applied to become an Indeed.com publisher almost a month ago and never heard back as well.

I would like to grow the newsletter to 1,000 subscribers (2.5% of the population of Burlington proper). I am thinking of showing a progress bar in the newsletter. Perhaps that would encourage subscribers to tell their friends. Or perhaps it would discourage them because they thought the newsletter had thousands of subscribers and it only has ~300.

If I reach the 1,000 subscriber goal, I may try to monetize the newsletter to at least cover its advertising costs by allowing people to place local ads. I would not be opposed to making a profit either! But it’s not my primary concern right now.

If you have questions or comments about the newsletter, feel free to reach out to me at newsletter at btvdaily dot com

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Book Review: Showstopper! The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft

I enjoy books about tech history and business. I also enjoy biographies. So, Showstopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft by G. Pascal Zachary was a perfect fit for me. It has a compelling software business narrative, backed up by significant author access to the major players, and features non-stop action throughout most of the book.

Showstopper, written in 1994, is a book about the building of Windows NT, one of the last still-in-use desktop operating systems to be developed from scratch (Windows NT remains the underpinnings of Windows 10). Zachary had incredible access. He was able to interview all of the major players involved in NT development, including David Cutler, the project’s lead, and Bill Gates, the CEO of Microsoft at the time. It provides real insight into the market landscape at the time, the challenges that Windows NT faced, and what is was like for regular software developers and management to laboriously crank out NT over many sleepless nights throughout a period of roughly four years.

Zachary does a good job balancing vignettes about management with vignettes covering lowly software developers, testers, and their families during development. He pays attention to the human story. What was the toll of the breakneck development schedule and the high pressure environment on families and worker mental health? He clearly did his research, took the time to interview everyone relevant that was involved, and weaved their respective narratives into a cohesive largely chronological whole.

Where Showstopper falls short is in Zachary’s understanding of the technology. While seemingly written for a mainstream audience, I imagine most readers today, like me, will be software developers. From the beginning it was clear to me that Zachary did not fully grasp all of the software development technology that a book like this inevitably needs to cover. Or if he did, he dumbed it down too much for my liking. He did his best, and I think if I were a mainstream reader, his explanations would actually be quite good: just enough to give me a basic understanding. But as a software developer, I was left wanting.

The parts of Showstopper I liked least were the first thirty pages, largely covering Cutler’s career at Digital, and the Afterword in the 2008 edition with Zachary pontificating about 2008 Microsoft. I think Showstopper was at its best when reporting on the week-by-week challenges and worker vignettes during NT development, and at its worst when trying to analyze the big picture. Another problem with the book is that it tries to cover too many characters. It was easy to lose track of who was who. You will be treated to many mini-biographies, which while interesting, are not enough to get you invested in each of the players.

Despite its flaws, Showstopper! is worth reading because it pulls back the covers of a Herculean software project in human terms. If you are interested in computer software history or the business history of Microsoft in the early 1990s, it’s a must read. Software developers with an appreciation of computer history will find it compelling and enthralling, if they make it past page thirty.

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One Year of Classic Computer Science Problems in Python

Approximately one year ago today, my most recent book came out, Classic Computer Science Problems in Python. It is the second book in the Classic Computer Science Problems series. You can purchase it on Amazon or through the publisher’s website. It has been an amazing year for the book.

I had the good fortune to be on several podcasts to promote the book. I really appreciate all of the podcast hosts who gave me the honor of being on their show. It made a huge difference in sales. For example, my appearances on Talk Python to Me and Podcast Init alone accounted for approximately 1,000 sales according to the publisher. To see all of the podcasts I’ve been on, checkout the interviews section of classicproblems.com.

This has been the most successful book that I’ve written by an order of magnitude. It’s surpassed the sales of Dart for Absolute Beginners and Classic Computer Science Problems in Swift by a multiple of their combined sales. I appreciate all of the support from the community. I think Classic Computer Science Problems in Swift was a good book but the publisher was right in saying that it needed a larger language audience. Python not only has more users in absolute numbers, it also has more users in one of the major target demographics for the series, which is self-taught programmers who missed out on a computer science education.

I’ve done many things to promote the book, and I appreciate how my publisher, Manning, has advertised the book to their audience. However, more effective than anything have been the podcast episodes. I can’t tell you how many people have told me they learned about the book through a podcast episode. Podcast episodes have even led to translations. If I hadn’t appeared on the mostly Portuguese (but sometimes English) podcast Castalio, then perhaps the Portuguese edition would not have come out.

Amazingly, the book is now on target to be translated into seven languages, including: Russian, Polish, German, Traditional Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Portuguese. Interestingly, the only translation publisher that has been in regular contact with me has been O’Reilly Japan. I think they did a really nice job on their edition, and I thank them for their attention to detail. It’s interesting to see how the book’s teaching style (informal in terms of theory/math, to the point, and code heavy) appeals to some cultures and not to others. Anecdotally, my worst review has been for the Russian edition, and some of my best reviews have been out of Germany for the English edition. Of course I can’t tell you if the Russian translation is good or not, since I don’t speak Russian.

By far the most controversial decision I made about the book was to use type hints/type annotations throughout. This decision alone led to some of the worst reviews of the book. Would I do it again? It’s impossible to say how many people bought the book because it was one of the first Python books to use type hints throughout. I do think the type hints add value in terms of readability once you get used to them, but I can definitely see how the effect of turning some people off, makes any benefits not worth it. And of course I agree that the way Python does type hints is still too verbose.

Looking forward, one nice thing about the Python book versus the Swift book is how much more stable a language Python is. I wrote both books according to the latest versions of their languages respectively. However, by the time the Swift book came out (it took 6 months to go from done to store shelves) it was already a little outdated due to the fast pace of change in the Swift language. Python on the other hand, has a much longer shelf life and greater backwards compatibility between versions.

Finally, I am currently writing the third book in the series, Classic Computer Science Problems in Java. I look forward to it being released later this year, so look out for it if you are a Java aficionado. To decide what language to do next, we did a poll of Manning readers that had 300 votes. Java practically tied with Go. The idea of going with Java is that this book did well in a large language community (Python) and only okay in an emerging language community (Swift). Writing a book in Java feels like going back to my roots since Java was one of the first “real” languages that I learned in the late ’90s. I have done some professional projects in Java as well, so rest assured that I’m competent to write it!

I’d like to thank all of the readers who have purchased the book. I’d like to thank anyone who’s shared their constructive feedback. And, I’d like to thank the team at Manning. If you are a reader and you like the book, please do leave a review on Amazon or your place of choice.

Also, it goes without saying, but please stay home during the coronavirus crisis if you can. Stay safe!

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Book Review: Unix: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan

Today, I finished reading “Unix: A History and a Memoir” by legendary computer scientist Brian Kernighan. Kernighan’s accomplishments are too many to list in this space (writing the definitive book on C, co-author of the AWK programming language, to name just a couple), but some people may not know that he was also deeply intertwined with the development of Unix. In this short volume, Kernighan recounts a comprehensive history of the extremely influential and widely used operating system, told from a personal perspective.

Unix, in its early days, was largely the product of Kernighan’s colleagues Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie at Bell Labs. But Kernighan was actively making contributions almost from the beginning. His intimate personal knowledge adds a lot of value to the book. Kernighan maintains a good balance between “official history” and his own involvement throughout. He explains concepts related to Unix and its ecosystem clearly and methodically.

There’s no doubt that this book has a limited audience. In my opinion, to find the book interesting, you need to have a pre-existing interest in computer history, Unix, and programming (in that order). If you already have some familiarity with using Unix (or its derivatives) from the command-line, that will certainly help you understand the significance of many of the items that Kernighan discusses. If you have no prior experience with Unix, then I don’t know why you picked up this book or read this review!

At just 180 pages, with plenty of illustrations, “Unix: A History and a Memoir” is an easy read. Yet, Kernighan still manages to pack plenty of detail. He concentrates the most on interesting user-facing innovations within Unix, and innovative programs that became standard pieces of its ecosystem. Kernighan explains clearly how all of the pieces fit together and evolved from one another. This provides interesting insights for software developers and system designers.

Kernighan also spends plenty of pages on the human-side of Unix, including short vignettes about his colleagues and what the work environment was like at Bell Labs. I appreciated these touches and they really helped paint a complete picture of the operating system’s development in my mind. Kernighan is a good story teller.

Kernighan has written many widely read technical books published by highly regarded outlets. I have previously read his books “The C Programming Language” and the “The Go Programming Language.” Like those books, the writing and editing in this self-published memoir is of the highest quality. Yet, a minor point is that the cover design is not. It’s pixelated and looks like something straight out of the ’80s (maybe he was going for that aesthetic). This is ironic given the book’s significant content on type-setting software. I almost wonder if Kernighan did this to make a point along the lines of “don’t judge a book by its cover.” More likely, he just didn’t realize it would come out that way. Even Brian Kernighan makes mistakes.

“Unix: A History and a Memoir” is an excellent book that achieves the wonderful virtues of Kernighan’s other books by being succinct, comprehensive, and clear at the same time. Kernighan is a talented writer, and every word is more meaningful because he lived the subject matter inside and out. The book has a quite limited audience, but if you are in that audience, you should definitely check it out.

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Books About Apple and Steve Jobs

I’ve been reading books about Apple and Steve Jobs for two decades. I was always really into the company and its charismatic cofounder, Steve Jobs. In 2000, when I was 13 years old, I read my first full-length Apple book, The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. I kept voraciously reading Apple books and I’ve never stopped. In this post, I will try to summarize that knowledge for you by providing a very brief summary of every Apple and Steve Jobs book I’ve read. I will also categorize each book so that you can more easily find one related to your interest. At the end I’ll summarize the three pieces of media about Apple you must consume to get an introduction to the company’s history.

Early Apple History 1976–1997

I think it’s important to understand not just modern Apple, but early Apple as well, if you really want to understand the company’s values. Apple itself has its employees study Apple history through its Apple University program.

Return to the Little Kingdom: Steve Jobs and the Creation of Apple by Michael Moritz (1985, 2009)

This is the single best book about Apple’s early history from its founding in 1976 until the release of the Macintosh in 1984. The updated material in the latest edition doesn’t add much value, but if you primarily want to know about the very earliest days of Apple, this is your book.

Checkout my full Amazon review of Return to the Little Kingdom.

Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple: A Journey of Adventure, Ideas, and the Future by John Sculley and John Byrne (1987)

John Sculley was the longest serving (1983–1993) CEO of Apple other than Steve Jobs (but Tim Cook may soon take that title) and this pseudo-autobiography was written just four years into his tenure. It’s a pretty good biography, but its main value to an Apple fan is probably Sculley’s perspective on his interactions with Jobs, and what led to their falling out.

Defying Gravity: The Making of Newton by Markos Kounalakis and Doug Menuez (1993)

No book gives you a better sense of what product development was like at Apple during the Sculley era. The Newton was arguably well ahead of its time. It’s an interesting side story and it also paints a picture of Sculley as someone who desperately wanted to have the “vision” that Steve Jobs had, even if he did not.

Checkout my full Amazon review of Defying Gravity.

On the Firing Line: My 500 Days at Apple by Gil Amelio and William Simon (1998)

Gil Amelio was Apple’s CEO for just 500 days, but he pivotally made the decision to buy NeXT, which brought Steve Jobs back to the company and created the technological underpinnings for modern Apple. This book, like Odyssey, is probably most interesting to a fan for its portrayal of Steve Jobs interactions with another Apple CEO.

Apple Confidential: The Definitive History of the World’s Most Colorful Company (1999, 2004)

I read the first edition of this book. It covers primarly vignettes from the early years and the non-Jobs era of Apple (1985–1997) and came out in 1999. For that era, it’s arguably one of the most comprehensive. I have not read the newer, 2004 edition.

iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It by Steve Wozniak and Gina Smith (2007)

Steve Wozniak’s autobiography chiefly focuses on his early life and his years at Apple. The writing style is very simple, almost childlike. But this is the only book written by one of Apple’s cofounders and Woz has a very positive, inspirational message.

Checkout my full Amazon review of iWoz.

Steve Jobs

Reading about Steve Jobs is really like reading about Apple because his persona, business decisions, and values are so deeply ingrained in the company. While not all of these books are about business, they all capture a different side of Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011)

The “official” Steve Jobs biography, which came out shortly after his death in 2011, is one of the most widely read business biographies of all time. It is comprehensive and required reading for any Apple fan or Steve Jobs fan. Not all reviewers felt Isaacson fully grasped or expressed all of Steve Jobs accomplishments sufficiently, nor truely captured his character. However, it still tells the general story of Steve Jobs life well and is important as a launching point for other biographies.

Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli (2015)

This biography was almost written as a “response” to the Isaacson book. It better covers the NeXT and Pixar years. In fact, it makes the case that those years in Steve Jobs life were critical for his later tremendous success after returning to Apple. A good book that should probably be read after the Isaacson book by any true fans.

The Second Coming of Steve Jobs by Alan Deutschman (2000)

Unlike many Steve Jobs biographies, this short biography, primarily focusing on NeXT, Pixar, and his first couple years after returning to Apple, is no hagiography. Instead, its highly critical of his management style, while still doing a good job expressing his incredible charisma and taste. However, it’s definitely biased, and I wonder if it would be so negative if Deutschman had written it just a few years later.

The Bite in the Apple: A Memoir of My Life with Steve Jobs by Chrisann Brennan (2013)

This is a deeply personal book, written by Steve Jobs high school (and beyond) girlfriend, with whom he had his daughter, Lisa. If you want to learn more about Steve Jobs early years and his personality at that time, this is arguably the best book.

Checkout my full Amazon review of The Bite in the Apple.

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs (2018)

This recent book, written by Steve Jobs daughter Lisa, has received literary acclaim. Lisa does come off as a bit bitter, but that’s understandable once you read the book. This book gives great insight into Steve Jobs family life.

Checkout my full Amazon review of Small Fry.

A Regular Guy by Mona Simpson (1996)

This novel by Steve Jobs biological (but with whom he didn’t grow up) sister, Mona Simpson, is supposedly fictional, but it’s well known that it was based on Steve Jobs and his relationship with his daughter, Lisa. Taking place primarly in the 1980s and early 1990s, this is a well-written novel by a literary star. Between A Regular Guy, Small Fry, and The Bite in the Apple, you can read about the relationship between Steve and Lisa from three different perspectives, and all of them are people who were involved in the situation. A Regular Guy goes out of its way to capture its main character’s (Steve Jobs ostensibly) personality.

Inside Steve’s Brain by Leander Kahney (2009)

Inside Steve’s Brain is not a bad book, but neither is it comprehensive or particularly better than the “mainline” Steve Jobs biographies. Kahney does do a good job boiling down some of Steve Jobs most important traits as a business leader into a shorter volume. This book is more Apple focused than many of the above books.

Modern Apple

The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant (2017)

If you want to understand the design process, technologies, and materials that went into producing the first iPhone, then this is a good starting point. It’s not actually particularly Apple centric, instead spending time in South American mines and with technologists that worked on various components of the iPhone. However, it is a unique book that gives you a more global perspective on Apple’s supply chain.

Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products by Leander Kahney (2013)

Jony Ive recently announced he’s leaving Apple, but during his time at Apple he arguably became the world’s foremost designer and his influence on the company cannot be understated. This biography suffered from a lack of access, but it does give new insight into Jony Ive’s early years. It is mainly worthwile as the only full length biography of Jony Ive.

Checkout my full Amazon review of Jony Ive.

Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level by Leander Kahney (2019)

I was pretty critical of this biography of Tim Cook, as you can read in the link to my Amazon review below. Tim Cook frankly deserves a better biography. That said, like with his Jony Ive book, Kahney gets bonus points for being the first (and so far only) person to write a biography of this important Apple player.

Checkout my full Amazon review of Tim Cook.

Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs by Ken Kocienda (2018)

This fantastic little volume by Ken Kocienda, puts you in the shoes of a software developer at Apple during Steve Jobs second stint at Apple. It’s insightful and interesting.

Miscellaneous Related Books

To Pixar and Beyond: My Unlikely Journey with Steve Jobs to Make Entertainment History by Lawrence Levy (2016)

This incedibly positive book about Levy’s experience working at Pixar on its financing during and after the release of Toy Story paints Steve Jobs with a very enthusiastic and positive brush. It does give some insight into Steve’s thinking at the time, during the era when he was about to return to Apple.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace (2014)

The co-founder of Pixar tells its entire story from the beginning and highlights some management strategies that worked effectively for it during its golden age. Steve Jobs makes many appearances and it’s likely he took some of the management philosophies he learned at Pixar back to Apple for his second stint.

The Silicon Boys and High-Tech Titans

Both of these books give a good overview of what the tech industry as a whole was like in the late 1990s. Both include decent chapters on Steve Jobs.

Fearless Genius: The Digital Revolution in Silicon Valley 1985–2000 by Doug Menuez (2014)

Menuez had insider access at NeXT when he took the photos for this photo book. There are no great insights to be had here, but there are some great pictures of Steve Jobs and early NeXT.

Checkout my full Amazon review of Fearless Genius.

Iconic: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation by Jonathan Zufi, Forest McMullin, and Lisa Clark (2014)

This beautiful photo book is a testament to Apple’s many amazing industrial designs over the years. Take note that its solely focused on hardware instead of software. Interestingly, Apple itself put out a very similar but much more expensive book itself shortly after Iconic’s publication called “Designed by Apple in California.”

Movies

The best value you can probably get is to watch some old full length interviews with Steve Jobs on YouTube. That said, there are a few movies I would recommend.

Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)

This made-for-TV movie telling the story of the early days of Apple and Microsoft has wonderful acting, excellent production values, and is fairly accurate in terms of history. Noah Wyle is by far the best actor to ever portray Steve Jobs. The movie is very romantic. When I saw it on TV when I was 12 years old in 1999, it solidified my interest in Apple, which I was already very into. It also solidified my interest in working in tech and specifically the business of tech. Highly recommended!

Jobs (2013)

Ashton Kutcher really tried his best. You can tell he was trying really hard and really wanted to do Steve Jobs justice. I think he largely succeeded, although he did not do as well as Noah Wyle. This movie covers a wider gamut of Steve Jobs life than Pirates, but it’s also less accurate. That said, it gets the overall arc correct.

Steve Jobs The Lost Interview (1995, 2012)

This release of old interview footage from 1995 is actually quite compelling because it was just such a good interview. Cringely really got Jobs to talk and think about the big issues in the industry.

Media I’ve Avoided

I’ve avoided consuming media about Apple that seems overtly unfactual or extremely biased from the getgo. Here are some items I’ve avoided

Steve Jobs (2015)

This movie has been cited by many who were present for the events portrayed as HIGHLY inaccurate.

Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs by Yukari Iwatani Kane (2014)

Biased right from its title, this 2014 book’s premise obviously was wrong. Apple continued to do very well and became the first trillion dollar company after its publication. Reviews were also poor.

iCon by Jeffrey S. Young and William L. Simon (2005)

Steve Jobs himself called it a “hatchet job.” So much so that he removed its publisher’s books from Apple stores. Perhaps he didn’t like the criticism, but if it was so offensive to him, I presume it’s pretty biased given all of the other books about him before and since didn’t lead to such reactions. I’ve also heard that it just doesn’t compare favorably to The Second Coming of Steve Jobs. Either way, it just seems unnecessary given the other books available.

Where should you start?

If you’re at the beginning of a journey to learn about Apple History then I would recommend Return to the Little Kingdom, Steve Jobs, and Pirates of Silicon Valley. If you’re interested in Steve Jobs specifically, then I would recommend all of the books I mentioned in the Steve Jobs section above, plus Return to the Little Kingdom and To Pixar and Beyond. But perhaps the most value you can get is to watch and read many of the old interviews with him. Finally, if you’re interested in modern Apple, then unfortunately I do not have any great book to recommend that is not overly specific. All of the books in the Modern Apple section above are about one specific facet of the company—I think the best books about modern Apple are still being written.

One more fantastic resource is the website All About Steve Jobs. And of course there is a ton of great content on YouTube, including all of Apple’s old keynotes. Enjoy!

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Book Review: Defying Gravity - The Making of Newton

Defying Gravity: The Making of Newton is a special and unique book. Photographer Menuez and author Kounalakis were provided extensive access to Apple’s Newton team throughout the product’s development over multiple years to document the process of its creation. When they finished writing the book in 1993 at the time of the Newton’s release, it was unclear whether the product would be successful. Of course it was not successful, but the book is still a gripping read as one experiences the ups-and-downs of high pressure product development at John Sculley era Apple. It also provides an incredibly high-bandwidth look into the early 1990s technology industry.

From its experimental layout, to its color palette and cultural references, Defying Gravity is very early ’90s. The photography by Menuez is skillful and reminiscent of his other photo book covering roughly the same period in the tech industry, Fearless Genius. However, this is much more than a photo book. The writing has depth and really takes you on the journey of Newton from idea to launch. The authors balance covering marketing and engineering well. It’s a much better balance than most tech business books achieve, which usually are overly focused on marketing. There are also photos and vignettes that add a personal touch—really letting you step into the shoes of the team members. In particular you really get to know marketer Michael Tchao and engineer Steve Capps, who could arguably be called the book’s protagonists. Interestingly, both of them have enjoyed long-and-illustrious careers in the technology world after Newton.

Defying Gravity’s only fault is that it is perhaps too uncritical. It seems eternally optimistic about the technology, also a very ’90s trait. While this makes for refreshing reading in the age of big-tech pessimism, it also seems like the authors perhaps traded access for spin. All of the Newton team members at Apple are presented in a flattering light. Maybe this is accurate, but it doesn’t always feel genuine. John Sculley in particular, with a quarter-century of further hindsight, could perhaps be better viewed as using the Newton as a desperate grasp for his own legitimacy, than as being a “visionary.”

Defying Gravity also paints a picture of an out-of-control work culture that celebrated continuous 16-hour days. There is something heroic about giving your all to a cause that you really believe in. And that was clearly portrayed throughout the book. However, there is also something troubling about pushing people to work beyond their limits. And for one team member this seems to have led to tragic consequences. I think a book written today would have a more balanced view of the pros-and-cons of such an environment.

Defying Gravity provides a unique look at the high pressure development of an early 1990s computing platform at Apple. It’s worth reading for anyone interested in that era of technology, Apple history, or who enjoys business dramas. It’s unimaginable a writing team today would be provided such unprecedented access, which is unfortunate because the result is really quite enjoyable and insightful.

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