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kottke.org posts about Walter Isaacson

The constructive-destructive axis

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 18, 2018

In his biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson reports on some comments Jobs made over dinner to News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch about Fox News in 2010.

In return for speaking at the retreat, Jobs got Murdoch to hear him out on Fox News, which he believed was destructive, harmful to the nation, and a blot on Murdoch’s reputation. “You’re blowing it with Fox News,” Jobs told him over dinner. “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive, and you’ve cast your lot with the destructive people. Fox has become an incredibly destructive force in our society. You can be better, and this is going to be your legacy if you’re not careful.” Jobs said he thought Murdoch did not really like how far Fox had gone. “Rupert’s a builder, not a tearer-downer,” he said. “I’ve had some meetings with James, and I think he agrees with me. I can just tell.”

Such an insightful comment by Jobs. As John Gruber notes:

This line from Jobs — “The axis today is not liberal and conservative, the axis is constructive-destructive” — is truly the best summary of Trumpism I’ve seen.

It’s been eight years since that conversation and the Republican Party & their voters have doubled down in destroying opportunities for people (particularly those with little power), driven by the likes of Fox News. This destruction will be felt for generations to come.

Art observation skills can transfer to the medical lab

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 17, 2018

In a study done by UPenn researchers, first-year medical students who were taught art observation classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art were more proficient at reading clinical imagery than students who didn’t take the classes.

If you’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with how art and science can mingle to produce something clinically beneficial, it’s a study premise that might seem far-fetched — but it didn’t seem that way to Gurwin, an ophthalmology resident at Penn, in part because she’d already seen the benefits of art education on a medical career firsthand.

“Having studied fine arts myself and having witnessed its impact on my medical training, I knew art observation training would be a beneficial practice in medical school,” she said. “Observing and describing are skills that are taught very well in fine arts training, and so it seemed promising to utilize their teachings and apply it to medicine.”

Gurwin and Binenbaum’s findings, published in the journal Ophthalmology in September: The medical students who’ve dabbled in art just do better.

It’s a glimpse at how non-clinical training can and does make for a better-prepared medical professional. Not only does art observation training improve med students’ abilities to recognize visual cues, it also improves their ability to describe those cues.

The results of this study reminded me of Walter Isaacson’s assertion in his book that Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest skill was his keen observational ability. Not coincidentally, Leonardo was both an artist and a medical researcher who dissected more than 30 human cadavers to study human anatomy. These dissections helped him to represent the human form more realistically in his paintings and drawings.

Leonardo Anatomy

It’s easier to draw a hand, particularly a hand that appears to be moving (as Leonardo liked to do), if you know that’s going on underneath the skin. Looking carefully and purposefully at art, at anatomy, at the physical world, at people’s actions, at movies; it’s all the same skill that can be applied to anything.

I’ve been preoccupied with observation lately…the new kottke.org newsletter is named Noticing for good reason. Again, Leonardo factors in:

Isaacson argues that Leonardo’s observational powers were not innate and that with sufficient practice, we can all observe as he did. People talk in a precious way about genius, creativity, and curiosity as superpowers that people are born with but noticing is a more humble pursuit. Noticing is something we can all do.

Noticing, a new weekly newsletter from kottke.org

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 02, 2018

As kottke.org enters its 21st calendar year of activity (!!!!), it’s time for something new. And old. Email was invented in 1972, the year before I was born, but is still going strong. The email newsletter has re-emerged in recent years as a unique way to connect with readers, distinct from social media or publishing on the web. So Tim Carmody and I have teamed up to launch Noticing, a free email newsletter. You can subscribe here.

Written by Tim Carmody and published by me every Friday, Noticing will contain a curated roundup of the week’s posts from kottke.org as well as some extra stuff that we’ll be introducing in the weeks to come. It most definitely won’t be a replacement for kottke.org…more like something to read alongside it.

Initial funding for the newsletter comes from two sources: the bulk of it from kottke.org (made possible through the support of members) but also from Tim’s supporters on Patreon. Noticing is an experiment in unlocking the commons.

The most economically powerful thing you can do is to buy something for your own enjoyment that also improves the world. This has always been the value proposition of journalism and art. It’s a nonexclusive good that’s best enjoyed nonexclusively.

The newsletter is very much a work in progress and a departure from the way I usually do things around here. For one thing, it’s a collaboration…almost everything else I’ve done on the site was just me. We’ve previewed it over the last two weeks just for members, but it’s still more “unfinished” than I’m comfortable with. The design hasn’t been nailed down, the logo will likely change, and Tim & I are still trying to figure out the voice and length. But launching it unfinished feels right…we aren’t wasting time on optimization and there’s more opportunity to experiment and move toward what works as time goes on. We hope you’ll join us by subscribing and letting us know your thoughts and feedback as we get this thing moving.

P.S. A quick note on the name. I thought of it while listening to the last part of Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci on audiobook on the drive home from NYC last week. One of Isaacson’s main points in the book was that Leonardo’s accomplishments were due in no small part to his extraordinary powers of observation. By observing things closely and from all possible angles, he was able to make connections and find details that other people didn’t and express them in his work. Isaacson argues that Leonardo’s observational powers were not innate and that with sufficient practice, we can all observe as he did. People talk in a precious way about genius, creativity, and curiosity as superpowers that people are born with but noticing is a more humble pursuit. Noticing is something we can all do.

I also thought about one of my favorite scenes from Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. From A.O. Scott’s review:

Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal, has read Lady Bird’s college application essay. “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” Sister Sarah remarks. This comes as a surprise, both to Lady Bird and the viewer, who is by now aware of Lady Bird’s frustration with her hometown.

“I guess I pay attention,” she says, not wanting to be contrary.

“Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” the wise sister asks.

The idea that attention is a form of love (and vice versa) is a beautiful insight.

I agree. Drawing honest & straightforward attention to things I love is much of what I do here on kottke.org, so I thought Noticing was a natural name for its newsletter extension.

P.P.S. An additional programming note. In addition to doing the newsletter, Tim is also taking over the posting duties on kottke.org most Fridays. This will free me up to work on other site-related things that I haven’t been able to tackle due to the daily scramble. Again, thanks to member support for making this possible!

Leonardo da Vinci is overrated

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 19, 2017

Leonardo Overrated

Tyler Cowen asks Is Leonardo da Vinci overrated? and, in a rebuke to Betteridge, proceeds to answer “yes”.

He has no work as stunning as Michelangelo’s David, and too many of his commissions he left unfinished or he never started them. The Notebooks display a fertile imagination, but do not contain much real knowledge of use, except on the aortic valve, nor did they boost gdp, nor are they worth reading. Much of his science is weak on theory, even relative to his time.

So Leonardo was perhaps not the best at any one thing but he was very good or great at many different things. He is literally the quintessential “Renaissance man” and yet Cowen fails to evaluate him on that basis. Not surprising…history’s generalists are under-celebrated as a rule. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo in the next couple of weeks.

See also how the Mona Lisa became overrated.

The Innovators

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 12, 2014

Walter Isaacson has written books on Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Steve Jobs. His newest book, The Innovators, is due out in early October and focuses on the people who invented computing and the Internet.

In his masterly saga, Isaacson begins with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, who pioneered computer programming in the 1840s. He explores the fascinating personalities that created our current digital revolution, such as Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, John von Neumann, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Robert Noyce, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Tim Berners-Lee, and Larry Page.

This is the story of how their minds worked and what made them so inventive. It’s also a narrative of how their ability to collaborate and master the art of teamwork made them even more creative.

The birth of Microsoft

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 08, 2013

From the Harvard Gazette, Walter Isaacson writes about Bill Gates’ years at Harvard.

It may have been the most momentous purchase of a magazine in the history of the Out of Town News stand in Harvard Square. Paul Allen, a college dropout from Seattle, wandered into the cluttered kiosk one snowy day in December 1974 and saw that the new issue of Popular Electronics featured a home computer for hobbyists, called the Altair, that was just coming on the market. He was both exhilarated and dismayed. Although thrilled that the era of the “personal” computer seemed to have arrived, he was afraid that he was going to miss the party. Slapping down 75 cents, he grabbed the issue and trotted through the slush to the Currier House room of Bill Gates, a Harvard sophomore and fellow computer fanatic from Lakeside High School in Seattle, who had convinced Allen to drop out of college and move to Cambridge. “Hey, this thing is happening without us,” Allen declared. Gates began to rock back and forth, as he often did during moments of intensity. When he finished the article, he realized that Allen was right. For the next eight weeks, the two of them embarked on a frenzy of code writing that would change the nature of the computer business.

What Gates and Allen set out to do, during the Christmas break of 1974 and the subsequent January reading period when Gates was supposed to be studying for exams, was to create the software for personal computers. “When Paul showed me that magazine, there was no such thing as a software industry,” Gates recalled. “We had the insight that you could create one. And we did.” Years later, reflecting on his innovations, he said, “That was the most important idea that I ever had.”

And here perhaps is the worst idea Gates ever had:

Steve Jobs, tweaker

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 07, 2011

In a review of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, Malcolm Gladwell says that Jobs was much more of a “tweaker” than an inventor…he took ideas from others and made them better.

Jobs’s sensibility was editorial, not inventive. His gift lay in taking what was in front of him-the tablet with stylus-and ruthlessly refining it. After looking at the first commercials for the iPad, he tracked down the copywriter, James Vincent, and told him, “Your commercials suck.”

“Well, what do you want?” Vincent shot back. “You’ve not been able to tell me what you want.”

“I don’t know,” Jobs said. “You have to bring me something new. Nothing you’ve shown me is even close.”

Vincent argued back and suddenly Jobs went ballistic. “He just started screaming at me,” Vincent recalled. Vincent could be volatile himself, and the volleys escalated.

When Vincent shouted, “You’ve got to tell me what you want,” Jobs shot back, “You’ve got to show me some stuff, and I’ll know it when I see it.”

Steve Jobs interview and celebration

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 24, 2011

Apple has an archived video of the October 19th event held on their campus celebrating the life of Steve Jobs.

And CBS posted the entire 60 Minutes interview with Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson.

Steve Jobs authorized bio now available on Kindle

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 23, 2011

My copy of Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Steve Jobs just showed up on my Kindle and many other people are reporting the same on Twitter. The book is also available as a hardcover.