All This Useless Beauty: RIP Steve Jobs

Finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I used to run past his house on long 20 mile workouts from Mountain View to Stanford. It wasn’t lavish.

A sad final visit from Bill Gates in his terminal cancer. Gates envious for Jobs up to the end was still actively running Apple.

For better or worse, Jobs’ aesthetic informs my 13″ PowerBook. The DVD reader is a slot rather than a popout tray, famously referred to as a cup-holder after early PC users used it for that purpose. This is because Steve hated popout trays. It means there’s no way to aggressively eject a disk: you must restart and hold down the touchpad.

There are only two USB ports and they are so close together you cannot insert a “dongle” with extra electronics for accessing the Web, and another USB. You have to attach a hub. I have two which were given away free with HP mouses but they are unreliable, and clumsy for portable use, being wire attached.

The 13″ PowerBook is a bit heavy owing to the anodized aluminium case which has perhaps caused my back trouble this month. Should have gotten the Air with a separate DVD drive left at home.

Jobs said, I will design the future, and you will live in it.

But there was an element of superficiality in his Baby Boomer modernism. For him, “Picasso” was an icon, whereas reading John Berger (The Success and Failure of Picasso) and Francois Gilot (Life with Picasso) reveals a far more complex figure who reconciled with the rich and with tradition in the 1920s, being untrue to the hard cubism of Georges Braque, and stealing from Braque as well.

Baby Boomers think they know Modernism in Prokofiev, Picasso and Gershwin and do not realize that in the 1920s, these and other modernists made it easy for the bourgeois to like whilst Schoenberg, Braque and Adorno insisted on a harder path. Thus they only SAY “think different” while in the real company, real difference is “disruptive”.

Jobs returned computer Modernism to tonality whereas for Wozniak and me, the very appeal was its atonal programmability and openness, an openness that made computing accessible only to people smart enough to understand software.

Now, in one of those paradoxes (those dialectical paradoxes), the Woz openness approach is at one and the same time “elitist” and “democratic” as is the Jobs closed approach in a different way.

Woz was an “elitist” because he thought the end user could learn to program his Apple II even in machine language (it really isn’t that hard). He was also a democrat who preferred Denny’s cuisine.

Jobs on the other hand was a cultural elitist who wanted to make sure we all used the “proper” design yet also profoundly lower middle class in outlook, including his striking disregard for the feelings of others.

Woz opened the backplane of the Apple II for slots over Jobs’ objections even as I, as a Cobol programmer supporting babies before I escaped to the Valley, labored to provide mini-languages as parameters for my code rather than “sit down” with the “end user” and “decide” what “was wanted” (in the language of business that I found so false and dreary). I wanted to serve the end user, but I wanted very little to do with actual Human Resources and Payroll managers since I thought them bourgeois and boring. Likewise, Adorno wanted to teach how to recognize sonata form so that the music listener would be able to listen to a new sonata and follow the form, whereas his manager and that clown Deems Taylor (who appears as the emcee of the first Fantasia movie from Disney) wanted listeners only to recognize the themes of “important” works.

Were we “elitist”? I’d say the real elitists were the people who got much more rich than Woz by deciding what the 99% wanted and stealing from Xerox PARC. Likewise, Adorno was an “elitist” whose typists understood his writings better than David Sarnoff, the CEO of RCA.

There are disturbing things in the Apple legacy that were unnoticed by Isaacson. For example, the headphone jack of the iPod (and perhaps the iPhone and iPad for all I would know, being only familiar with the iPod) is failure prone especially when you use headphones not Apple approved. I get the distinct impression that Apple would like to sell users multiple iPods and perhaps multiple iPhones and iPads by simply not taking responsibility for this situation, and it reminds me of the traditionally poor integration of cars and tires, which have caused accidents. “Business” means finding an addictive model.

The iTunes design is centered in a Pop way around the concept of the “song” as if most classical music is a “song”. This makes it in fact very easy for the end user to destroy, for example, Beethoven’s intentions by getting the order of symphonic movements messed up and today (thanks to the rejection of Adorno in American “music education” for non-musicians) people simply do not know the classic order of movements.

Recently I loaded Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis only to discover it was completely messed up. The problem was twofold. First of all, the CD manufacturer had split up movements into tracks such that the Credo, especially, was multiple tracks. In addition, it appears that an organization called “Gracenotes” which operates some sort of data base of music (in which classical is treated as niche pop) allows ignorant members of the iTunes fan-base to update its data base.

Very few users will know the order of the Tridentine Mass and even fewer will give a damn. The result is the destruction of Beethoven’s intention in writing the Missa Solemnis.

The concept of music as a two-level hierarchy (or in the Missa Solemnis, three levels especially in the Credo) disappears in favor of the common listener who listens with pious exaltation to a Mass, understanding nothing.

An upper bound is imposed on the 99% by the “gods of antiquity” in Elvis Costello’s words. We’re not expected to be more than the product.

We got it, Woz and I. Instead of deciding arrogantly what “people” wanted in a generalization, we designed languages for “people” to get what they wanted in a fundamental computing gesture. I was bored at Roosevelt University with having to write the same assembler program over and over again for a large class of jobs so I designed a program to operate within 8K that would accept the user’s specification of logic and format.

But: as my boss at Princeton emphasized, so many people live damaged lives that they are not interested in open interfaces. For her, our constituent was in the abstract the alienated and stressed graduate student who really hates Milton now because “Milton” names her pain, who cannot print her dissertation on time. My boss conceded that part of my job was in-depth (she in fact had me fix an assembler program very similar to my Roosevelt code and work for John Nash) but we also had to support damaged existence.

And despite the Reverse Polish elegance of Postscript I too get enraged at the lack of progress information from my printer when I’m in a rush. But Steve Jobs, I think, doesn’t want his hardware and software to give me progress reports. His thinking would instead be that the printing would be FAST.

Woz and I were Adorno at the Radio Research project: Adorno wanted to teach about real music but his handlers wanted him to justify idiot “music appreciation”.

Jobs never faced up to the fact that our artifacts have to adjust as we do to damaged existence.

Jobs was part of the 1% who can go and buy an Air when the PowerBook throws their back out. In 1981, a San Mateo County court directed him, according to Isaacson, to pay his former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan 345.00 a month to support Lisa whose paternity he tried at first to deny. A few months later a Chicago court directed me to pay 1000.00 for two kids on a 40K/year salary in Silicon Valley. Jobs was already quite well-off in early 1981 when the San Mateo award was made, and concealed from the court the planned IPO of Apple which later that year made Jobs a millionaire.

I paid the award, of course. And during a later spell of unemployment I was very proud of my kid Peter when he got on the phone and said, “hey when you gettin’ a job so you can give our Mom da munny she needs for us?” I calmly told him of the steps I was taking, the resume writing and the interviews and this he seemed to understand. I respected his feisty willingness to confront me. He did very well in school and became a successful entrepreneur. As his Grandma would say, he is good.My other kid developed an innovative game for the Mac at the age of 12. I noticed that he lovingly documented it in clear and very literate English and credited me for giving the computer. But they ignored him at his school and laughed at him when he asked to be admitted to the honors program; in helping to clean his room later on I found demeaning comments scrawled on his papers by teachers when those papers were in fact ten times more literate than the average because like me my elder son is a natural rebel. As his Grandma would say, he is good.

When the first Mac came out overpriced at 2400.00 I bought one and my kids, during their frequent and expensive trips to California, really liked it. But it was all such a fragile illusion, “all this useless beauty” since it had so many preconditions.

Late in life Jobs complained to Obama that it was cheaper to open a factory in China than in the USA, which sounds dubious due to the opacity of working and doing business in Mainland China that I’ve experienced first hand. He also said that teachers’ unions be destroyed.

Jobs is said to represent “the spirit of the Sixties”. He’s more early Seventies, and from the time of the Beatles’ White Album, not Sgt Pepper. This was a time during which the Left which had been multicultural, urban and intergender, became a sort of white male myth in which dominant white males would be “Uncle John” and counsel the Rest of Us by the riverside.

I’m not saying Steve or Apple was a racist or a racist company: it was and is not. I am saying that “designing the future” is not just art and technology. It also tells us how to live. Steve’s favorite color was white but I liked black (the IBM 370 mainframe, announced around 1970, was black).

Open computing encourages diversity whereas Apple was a sort of creepy Heideggerian “Gathering” in which Steve defined Being.

I can see where my desire for a DVD tray and progress reports are based on my experience with unreliable PC hardware; if the system works faster and more reliably these are unnecessary. But, we cannot design in 100% reliability.

We in the 99% don’t “take” meetings with Steve. Instead, our own managers come to us and warn us not to “offend” Steve by departing from his articles of faith, and since we’re meeting that child support obligations we dare not talk back, or ask for a meeting with Jobs…who was willing to be swayed by good arguments.

Ideally I should have started my own firm but this runs up against a fundamental truth. Despite the fact that I was very good with programming, having grokked Turing’s science BEFORE my first computer science class, I wanted to be in the humanities (art, dance, writing, theater) and allowed myself to be counseled to be “practical”, not only by my parents but also by my friends, who were all sellouts and party animals.

Like Steve’s sister Mona Simpson, in the Valley, I wanted to be “anywhere but here”. And the first time I tried to draw with the mouse, I realized, whoa, this platform has a LONG way to go. While today I can buy great pen-digitizers primarily aimed at Chinese people who want to write their calligraphy, Steve never thought about what an effective brush-stylus might be since he hated the stylus. But I don’t want to paint with fingers: that’s childish.

Apple is for me like an old and totally psycho girlfriend: in the 1980s at Princeton I had Apple on my desk and was really into Hypercard. But then in 1990, Bill Atkinson told me at a conference that Hypercard would have color “when he felt like it”: Steve and Bill were I think into the elegance of monochrome. So, when Visual Basic 3.0 came out it was like crack cocaine for me. I got totally into it, and recapitulated my early days with the IBM 1401 (caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol to relax) but in my 40s with the result that my life was a mess.

But today I’ve gotten back with my old and psycho girlfriend in the form of my Powerbook.

Rest in Peace, Steve. Thank you. But…grace and virtue must never be stupidity, and when you said, “great artists steal”, that’s what they were.

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One Response to “All This Useless Beauty: RIP Steve Jobs”

  1. spinoza1111 Says:

    I wasn’t the hapless corporate type whom Steve interviewed in Steve’s bare feet who insulted him for being a virgin and not taking LSD…but I could have been. I lost my virginity to a lovely lady on the night America landed on the moon but I’ve never taken LSD.

    But at Bell-Northern Research (for let us not speak falsely now the hour is much too late) I was very, very offended by self-appointed alpha males who lacked the sartorial imagination I had and looked like the BeeGees and who tried to tell me what was what.

    And in training for the London Marathon I had my little LSD trip because I had synesthesia (experiencing one sense through another) and a feeling of trust on a long long run from San Francisco to Sausalito.

    We in the 99% know something Steve never learned, that was whispered to me over a cube by a lovely technical writer in the valley.

    In dreams begin responsibilities.

    Steve did take care of his responsibilities in some absolute sense…and I could have done more for my kids. But as my brother has said, we should not live to work, we should work to live. As what I am now, a teacher, artist, writer and dancer (anything but software!) I could have hung out more with the kids.

    In the 1960s we looked forward to a four day week, and when I was a data center manager my lovely African American employees, both of whom were single mothers, persuaded me on the sly to give them a four day week. We got the work done…better.

    But in Silicon Valley people regularly compensated for their basic ignorance of simple computer science by working overlong hours, developing programs that were pages of bullshit (the same function done different ways in such a way that changes were time consuming).

    Isaacson reports that Steve was overworked because he left home at 7 and returned at 9. But this is a twelve hour day and in Silicon Valley, twelve hour days for the 99% were for pussies. We put in 24/7. And then were laid off.

    My own job (primarily compilers for telephony) was vastly over-complicated by the perceptions of the ignorant….managers who didn’t think it was important to know what a “compiler” was. To Steve, a “compiler” vaguely louche: the only mention in Isaacson was a compiler that enabled Adobe Flash to run on multiple platforms….oops…Sharif don’t like it.

    (You know he really hates it!).

    But it’s all ancient history…

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