Archive for 2019

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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Book Review: Tim Cook

Leander Kahney deserves credit for taking on the task of writing the first full-length biography of Tim Cook—an important figure who’s successful leadership of the world’s most influential corporation deserves study. Kahney found a similar niche by being the first to write a book on Jony Ive. Unfortunately, both books suffer from a lack of access and a significant amount of superficiliaty around their subjects’ time in leadership at Apple. While well researched (at least from public sources) and competently written, Kahney’s Cook biography delivers little new insight, and comes off largely as a superficial hagiography.

The first third of Kahney’s “Tim Cook” is the most interesting. Kahney was able to elucidate important details about Cook’s early life including his time growing up in Alabama, his time in college, and his early career at IBM. Whie I would have liked even more details, the profile that Kahney builds clearly sets the stage for the work ethic and social values that Tim Cook is so well known for possessing. The roughly middle third of the book about Cook’s rise at Apple is fairly interesting for two reasons: it clearly explains the inventory and supply-chain issues that Apple was suffering from prior to Cook’s arrival and how he went about fixing them from a business perspective, and it includes original interviews with high-level Apple executives about Tim (although these interviews do not provide as much insight as one would hope). The last third of the book is largely about social issues, such as Apple’s stance on the environment and diversity. Doubtless these are important issues to cover, and it’s good that Kahney covered them, but there is so much about Tim Cook as a person and as a manager that are left out. You would think these pages, about Tim Cook as CEO of Apple, would be the most interesting, but instead they are the least because Kahney’s writing is largely driven by well publicized speeches, interviews, and press releases, with little original reporting.

When I read a biography about a business-person, I expect to gain an understanding of how they conduct business. How does Tim Cook manage his team? What is it like to sit in a meeting with him? What is his philosophy on R & D spending? How is he as a negotiator with other companies? Very little of this is in the book. We do get a strong sense that Tim Cook’s social values drive some of his decision making at Apple, but that doesn’t tell us what it’s like to work for Tim Cook, or how Tim Cook behaves as a manager.

While we get some insight into Tim Cook’s early life, Kahney provides little information about Tim Cook’s personal life as an adult. When you read a biography of someone, you do expect to learn about their personal life, because someone’s work life is only half the story. I’m not saying I need to read gossipy lurid details in a biography, but I do want to know what someone’s friends think of them. I do want to know how they interact with their family. However, Kahney seems downright opposed to this sort of reporting (or maybe it’s an excuse for his lack of access). On page 188, Kahney writes: “While researching this book, I didn’t pry into his personal life at all. Cook keeps his private life private, and I’m happy to respect that.”

There are some minor factual errors in the book, that probably only someone like myself, deeply enmeshed in books about Apple, would catch. They don’t take away at all from the overall narrative. For example on page 217 Kahney refers to well known former Apple employee Don Melton as “Doug Melton.” I noticed other similarly small errors. They are not a reason to not buy the book, but they do speak to perhaps the book being a little rushed to market, where it could have used more research into Cook’s business and personal life. Perhaps that’s reading too much into them though.

The subtitle of Kahney’s Tim Cook is “The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level.” I really like Cook, and I gained an even greater respect for him from reading this biography. But, Kahney did not provide enough new insight to justify his subtitle calling Cook a “genius.” Perhaps Tim Cook is a genius, but I would’ve liked to have seen more evidence. What I did take away is that Tim Cook has an incredible work ethic. And that in of and itself is inspiring. That someone can achieve so much just through determination, very hard work, extreme competence, and good social values is a great message in and of itself. As for Tim Cook, though, he deserves a more thorough biography.

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Classic Computer Science Problems in Python is Published

My third book, Classic Computer Science Problems in Python, is now published in its final form. You can purchase the print edition from Amazon and Manning. Print copies come with a way to download the eBook for free from Manning’s website. You can also purchase the standalone DRM-free eBook (PDF, .mobi (Kindle), and .epub (Apple Books)) from Manning. As a special bonus for being a reader of this post on my blog, use code ccspkopec to get 40% off on Manning’s website on either edition.

Classic Computer Science Problems in Python teaches computer science problem solving techniques to intermediate and advanced Python programmers. It is a broad book, not a deep book, covering a wide swath of topics ranging from search algorithms to neural networks. You can think of it as a survey book for self-taught programmers without a formal CS education, although it has also been found useful by students and CS educated folks looking to brush up on some of the covered topics. What it is most definitely not is a textbook—it tries to minimize the barrier to entry for readers by using little formal notation and by not requiring much of a mathematical background. It does not aim to be academically rigorous. Instead, it is focused on actual code solutions to the many classic problems presented, and explaining those solutions in plain English.

This is the second book in the Classic Computer Science Problems series, published one year after Classic Computer Science Problems in Swift. I have created a website, classicproblems.com, that provides detailed information about both books. If you read the site and your question about the book is still not answered, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @davekopec. You can also listen to me answer host Tobias Macey’s questions about the book on episode 197 of Podcast init. Finally, I have recorded an episode of Talk Python to Me about the book with host Michael Kennedy that should be appearing in the next couple of months.

The book uses Python 3.7 and type hints throughout. The use of features from the latest version of Python has been praised by most readers. However, the use of type hints in particular was, as expected, controversial. I think the type hints ultimately add clarity, but I agree that they certainly take some getting used to for Python programmers who have not seen them before. To ease the transition, we included a crash course on type hints in Appendix C.

Classic Computer Science Problems in Python has already been very successful. Its pre-sales through Manning’s early access program have exceeded the total sales of my previous two books. In fact, prior to publication, translation rights have already been acquired for the book for the languages Korean, Japanese, and Traditional Chinese. I guess it’s true what they say—third time’s the charm. I’d like to thank all of the readers and all of my supporters, both online and offline. I hope you enjoy the book!

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