Engaged Motion: One Key (of many) to Creativity and even Genius

treadmillFor Christmas I gave myself a manual treadmill. I try to use it daily for a strenuous, indoor workout I much need during northern Wisconsin’s long icy winters. But it’s noisy. I knew it would be, so I ordered a stand for my laptop and a headset to go with it. Now while treading I listen to archived radio programs that I probably wouldn’t have listened to otherwise.

A few days ago, for example, I listened to “Seeking Sites of Global Genius” on NPR’s On Point (1/22/16), which featured Eric Weiner talking about his recent book The Geography of Genius (book’s animated trailer here). Weiner argues that much more than natural talent and hard work go into the making of a genius like Plato, Michelangelo, or Steve Jobs. Geniuses, he says, are grown and appear in “genius clusters,” like in ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, and today’s Silicon Valley. But why? geography-of-genius-eric-weiner-263x409

During his NPR talk, Weiner discusses a number of factors that nurture genius, especially mentors, social mingling, and diversity, as well as hardship, immigration, or even a traumatic event early in life (for Plato, think the execution of his mentor Socrates and Athens’ agora). So it seems that having a perspective different from one’s peers, along with sharing ideas with others, contributes to the flourishing of creativity. Consider Apple’s slogan: “Think different.”

About halfway through the program, Weiner briefly mentioned that walking is also associated with creative genius (research backs this up). By then treading had exhausted me, and I took a break at my desktop. Scrolling through the NPR homepage, I found and read a heartwarming article, “Young Artists Find Home and Healing at Pittsburgh Art House” (1/24/15). It then occurred to me that not just walking but many kinds of engaged physical activities are likely to prompt creative thinking. 


Arriving at the notion of engaged motion pleased me, as did connecting the NPR article to the Weiner talk. But more than that, I became intrigued by the Art House founder, Vanessa German, an amazing visual and performance artist who, in my view, is a genius of engaged motion. (See an example of her performance poetry here).

Art House began on German’s front porch, which is next to a bus stop in Pittsburgh’s impoverished, frequently violent Homewood, a neighborhood where kids play “gang” in the alleys. When her sculptures grew too large for the basement studio, she worked on her porch. People would stop to watch. Adults commented on how weird or even scary the fetish-like objects seemed to them (examples of her sculptures here). But kids, she tells us in this 2015 TEDxPittsburghStatePrison talk, “weren’t looking at what I was making; they were watching me do the making.”

SEAsia carved birds
A gift to me from friends

Kids were engaged in the process, the doing, and wanted to help. German told them, “You cannot help me, but you can do your own thing.” She gathered old brushes, paint, cardboard, and materials from a demolished house up the street and set the kids to doing their own art. Soon her porch and front yard were filled with kids. And eventually the young artists got their own place (photos of Art House in the NPR article).           

At the Art House housewarming, German said, “I experience such joy and a sense of deep rightness and completeness when I’m making things…. Like when I’m deciding how I’m going to engineer some sculpture to stand so it looks like it’s defying gravity, and I’m using my brain, and I’m moving around, and I feel like giving myself a high-five – why wouldn’t kids feel that too!?” (NPR).

CandleCurl sculpture Jan15
My candle curl “sculpture”

In my view, German is a genius of engaged motion. But clearly Homewood is not, in Weiner’s terms, a “genius cluster.” Nevertheless, German has found just the right place to grow and nurture her own genius – and to help others grow theirs. On her Love Front Porch website, she says, “I know that art makes a difference, that it can heal, inspire, change anger into love. Art is love. Love is power.”


“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”                                                                                                      ~Musical genius Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart


Image Credits

The Geography of Genius cover comes from Eric Weiner’s homepage and Vanessa German’s publicity photo from a TEDxCambridge site. I took the other three photos with my iPhone: the treadmill setup in my loft; the wood-carved birds, a gift from close friends who traveled to Bali and parts of Southeast Asia; and my candle curl “sculpture,” which continues to grow atop one of my book cases.   

Three Fun Reads by and about Gamers

Most nights I read in bed until my eyes get so heavy that a good night’s sleep is all but assured. More often than not I read plot-driven books, like mysteries, or something on the not-so-serious side. It’s a time to thoroughly relax and let the cares of the day and concerns for tomorrow slip away.

Looking in the books section of my Kindle Fire, I see that five of my 2015 reads were narratives by and about video game players, which is not surprising since I’m an avid World of Warcraft (WoW) player. None were fan fiction, but all involved, in various degrees, MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). Below are my three favorites.

#3 Max Wirestone’s The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss (2015)515iEPS2paL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Wirestone’s unusual whodunit is an engaging, at times hilarious romp with an accidental amateur detective, Dahlia. She’s an unhappy millennial, unemployed, broke, and recently betrayed by her now ex-boyfriend. The one bright spot is her kinky yet often annoying friend Charisse, who has taken her in. Then out of the blue a rich young man attending one of Charisse’s themed parties offers her a well-paid, really strange job – to recover his stolen virtual weapon, the Bejeweled Spear of Infinite Piercing, in a game called Zoth, a fictional MMORPG similar to WoW.

Like most detective stories, there’s a murder, and the murder weapon is a real-life replica of the Bejeweled Spear. At this point, along with finding the stolen virtual weapon, Dahlia’s job becomes planning an in-game funeral for the victim’s guildmates to attend. These tasks aren’t all that easy since she’s not really a Zoth gamer, having only dabbled in it with her ex-boyfriend.

The story weaves Dahlia’s experiences in Zoth and the real world seamlessly. In the process we meet a bevy of characters in-game and out, many of whom are guild members. A new love interest emerges, there’s a flirtation with a police detective, her apartment mate Charisse is unpredictably weird, and of course she, in her bumbling way, eventually exposes the murderer.   

It’s a fun, fast read that includes send-ups of WoW (you needn’t be a player to enjoy the humor). For example, her low-level fairy character, armed with only a harp, has to cross the Field of Ghosts to meet a suspect. Along the way she dies numerous times – “skewered, drowned…poisoned and killed by an evil doppelganger of myself with my own damned harp.” Dahlia tells us, “I know its unbecoming for a gamer girl to do this, but I /sat down on the ground and decided to /cry…. It sounded a little like the noise you get when you poke the Pillsbury Doughboy” (77). (Slashed words are commands for a character to act in such a way.)

In Amazon’s review blurbs, Library Journal characterizes this book as “geek chic.” That seems about right to me.

#2 Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011)


Cline’s dystopian sci-fi novel was the Metagame Book Club’s summer 2015 selection, which is why I read (and enjoyed) it. Set in the year 2044, Earth is an over-populated environmental disaster. Abject poverty is the norm, at least for our protagonist, teen Wade Watts who lives with 14 other people in one of the many skyscraper-high stacks of trailers “on the shores of I-40 just west of Oklahoma City” (21).

Fortunately, he (and most everyone) has a temporary escape – free access to OASIS, a computer-generated virtual reality that far outshines today’s Internet and 3-D video games. And he has an unusual passion for 1980s pop culture, downloading anything, from TV shows like Family Ties to arcade games like Donkey Kong. This passion serves him well as he, along with his avatar “Parzival,” dives into the quest for the holy grail of virtual objects, keys to a vast fortune left by the deceased creator of OASIS.

The novel’s major villain is the head of the world’s largest Internet service provider; if his people find the keys first, then, as Wade says, “the OASIS would cease to be the open-source utopia” and “become a corporate-run dystopia, an overpriced theme park for the wealthy elite” (32). Thus much is at stake; Wade or someone like him needs to find the keys first.

Millions of questers are competing for the keys, including the corporate goons. Several of the questers become Wade’s friends (two in China), and an interesting, even heart-warming tension emerges among these allies who are also competitors – only one of them can succeed. This New York Times bestseller is a compelling, wonderfully-told adventure, for gamers and non-gamers alike.

#1 Felicia Day’s You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): A Memoir (2015)


Here Felicia Day, actor and celebrated geek, tells her life story with disarming honesty and a quirky sense of humor. Confession: I hadn’t heard of Day until a World of Warcraft guildmate recommended her memoir (oops! there go my geek credentials, once again). Soon I downloaded it expecting to read about a gamer’s life. Sure, there’s a lot of that and so much more.

Day, along with her brother Ryon, grew up homeschooled in a “partial-hippie family” with one school rule, “to read. Constantly. All day, every day. Whatever we wanted” unless it had “nudity or Stephen King on the cover…” (1.loc 343). She was socially isolated from peers (mostly), which allowed her, as she says, “to be okay with liking things no one else liked,” such as dragon lore, film noir, and cosine equation graphs (1.loc 424). Her mom played video games. Soon she and her brother were avid gamers too.

On discovering the MMORPG Ultima and its companion bulletin board, she quickly bonded online with other kids who loved the same geeky movies and books. It became the “first environment where I could express my enthusiasms freely to my peers” (2.loc 579). And so began her life-long (so far) passion for the Internet and all its wonders. Somewhat later, after college and rounds of auditions and acting in commercials, she became addicted to World of Warcraft.

Day tells us about her excitement on being immersed in WoW, a new world, a virtual world populated with lots of other players and chat rooms – and especially on having the opportunity to play with her brother in his guild. Her character, a rogue gnome, became, she tells us, “an emotional projection of myself. A creature/person who was more powerful, more organized and living in a world where there were exact parameters to becoming successful” (5.loc 1405).

After about six months of casual play, Day began spending more and more time in the game, where she “was very popular,” a hard working and seemingly indispensable guildmate. She felt needed and accomplished. Addictive feelings, indeed. So things got out of control: “I ate, slept, and lived World of Warcraft” (5.loc 1503).

Day doesn’t blame “that beautiful, repetitive world” for her addiction. Instead, she says, “My life was unhappy, and I covered the hurt with a subscription-based Band-Aid. I just couldn’t find a good reason NOT to play so much.” But she did break the addiction – by redirecting her creative energy toward other things she loved: writing, acting, and the Internet. She took the things she “learned during those dragon-hunting months…to create a web show called The Guild” (5.loc 1516), which is available on the web and on Netflix.

Her stories about the making of The Guild (2007-2012) and its actors, fandom, and enormous popularity begin about halfway through this charming book. I think you’ll enjoy it, whether you’re a gamer or not.


Janis Joplin and Me

Lazarus and I rolled into San Francisco squeezed in the backseat of an Alfa Romeo convertible. It was the last leg of our week-long adventure hitchhiking across the country. The driver and his girlfriend offered us a place to crash, a townhouse in the Haight-Ashbury district that served as both a small commune and a psychedelic poster company. And – talk about luck! – they gave us tickets to Winterland’s Halloween BallTrip or Freak

The ball, called “Trip or Freak,” was that night, Halloween 1967. The performers were the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin. It’s Joplin’s performance that remains the most vivid memory of my hippy sojourn in SF.

What struck me at first was her outfit – especially the bikini-like top with two halves of a coconut shell covering her breasts, which seemed rather risqué to my college-girl eyes. And she was in constant motion. As she dove deeper into the first song, her sexually-charged energy increased. I stopped dancing and, mesmerized, just watched – and listened hard. The soulful way she belted out a song blew me away. I’d never seen or heard anything like that.Janis Joplin at Monterey Pop Festival

I completely agree with David Walsh, who wrote in his review of the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, “anyone who saw Janis Joplin in person, especially in a more intimate space, is not likely to forget it…. I have never from that time to this seen a performer as generous and as giving—and as vulnerable. One almost inevitably fell in love with her.”

Although offering a feminist analysis would not have occurred to me at the time, in retrospect I also agree with Lorraine Ali, who wrote in her Los Angeles Times film review, “The reaction of audiences, who were floored and almost blindsided by the sheer passion of Joplin, illustrates what a true anomaly she was in a rock world populated almost entirely of men. Joplin didn’t wave the flag of feminism, she embodied it.”janis film poster

Walsh and Ali were writing about Amy Berg’s Janis: Little Girl Blue (trailer). This film, the first full-length documentary about Joplin, was released Friday (12/4/15) in major metropolitan areas nationwide. None of the listed theater locations are near me; so I may have to wait until PBS’ American Masters airs it, which, according to the film’s official site, will be in early 2016.

After that amazing first night in SF, I continued to live and work at the psychedelic poster commune. My hitchhiking buddy, a chemistry graduate student named Steve who changed his name to Lazarus after his first LSD trip, soon journeyed on; I never saw him again. Eventually I grew disillusioned with the scene, flew home, and in January resumed my role as a college sophomore – forever changed: more self-assured and with a greater appreciation for the kindness of strangers. All round, it was an excellent adventure.


Image Credits:

“Trip or Freak” poster designed by Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse and Rick Griffin. For details about the poster’s creation, see this discussion by PosterCentral’s Pete Howard. 

Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the 1997 Monterey Pop Festival (found on Pinterest without attribution).

Janis: Little Girl Blue poster (Jigsaw Productions). 

Recommended Youtube videos:

Amazing Joplin performance of “Ball and Chain’’ at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival (Youtube) 

Another amazing Joplin performance, “Piece of My Heart” live in Germany 1968, with audience participation

Joplin’s Greatest Hits, all audio exceptwith a photo and table of contents

Documentarian Ondi Timoner interviews director Amy Berg about her new film Janis: Little Girl Blue

Postscript to “NASA, China, and The Martian”

So I researched, wrote, pruned, revised, and went through that process again, finally clicking “publish.”  “Yay! my third post on this site is up,” I told my computer, then I bounded downstairs for a late lunch.

It’s hard for me to let something go that I’ve worked on (and off) over several days. After lunch I decided to see what other people on WordPress had recently written about The Martian. Bingo! I immediately found Stephanie Platter’s succinct, well-illustrated review. She recommended Mika McKennon’s highly informative post, “Science of The Martian: the Good, the Bad, and the Fascinating,” which I now recommend to you – but perhaps only if you’ve already scene the film (**spoiler alert**).

As I was reading McKennon’s piece (loved the images), I had one of those why-didn’t-I-see-that-before moments. Would that have changed anything in my previous post? Probably not, since NASA-China space relations (rather, lack of) isn’t of concern in her post. But, like Platter, she recommended a site that I really like and also recommend to you, NASA’s “Nine Real NASA Technologies in ‘The Martian,’” which includes super-cool sliding images that show how each of four technologies were portrayed in the film and how NASA does or visualizes something similar.


3-D View of Mars NASA on the Commons
3-D View of Mars                                                                                      NASA on the Commons

NASA, China, and The Martian

20th Century Fox poster
20th Century Fox poster

Retired astronaut Clayton C. Anderson clearly enjoyed Ridley Scott’s The Martian (as well as Andy Weir’s book on which it’s based). He favorably nods to the usual things found in film reviews, like acting and cinematography. But for him “the highlight was the film’s refreshing and inspiring depiction of NASA, ” in particular “the collaborative efforts of all the teams,” the kind of teamwork he experienced during his 30 years with the space program.

Although it’s been over a week since I saw The Martian, I keep thinking about it. I loved this real-science sci-fi film. Part of my admiration is similar to Anderson’s – the depiction of NASA employees. You see, I’m tangentially connected to the space program through my stepfather, a retired “rocket scientist,” as he likes to say, whose long aerospace career spanned from working on the Air Force’s Titan IIIC rocket booster to NASA’s Hubble Telescope.

The scenes that thrilled me the most were those involving the China National Space Agency (CNSA), as well as the montage showing excited masses of Chinese and Americans simultaneously watching  the giant screen, live-streamed conclusion to the joint NASA-CNSA rescue mission. Like Anderson, “I reveled in the scenes of international cooperation…. A science fiction survival and rescue story in which one the US’s current adversaries plays a key role in the mission’s success? What a tantalizing and hopeful vision for the future!”

One of the film's locations. Panoramic view (four images stitched together) of main valley of Wadi Rum, Jordan by Daniel Case - CC BY-SA license - link here
One of the film’s locations. Panoramic view (four images stitched together) of main valley of Wadi Rum, Jordan by Daniel Case – CC BY-SA license – link here

The Martian is indeed an optimistic film. While its conclusion is predictable – yes, NASA will rescue the title character, stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) – the plot flows, punctuated with satisfying  moments of high intensity. And it has an abundance of heroes, from large figures like Watney and Mars spacecraft Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) to smaller ones like Mindy Parks (Mackenzie Davis), a young  engineer who spots tell-tell changes in photos of Mars, and Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), a young nerdy astrodynamicist who devises a risky plan for quickly sending help to Watney.

The surprising hero is the CNSA. Without China’s help, which involves sacrificing part of its own space plans, NASA could not have succeeded in rescuing a living Watney. The science in the film is, for the most part, plausible (e.g., see Inside Science), but the political situation surrounding the decision to accept China as a rescue-mission partner is not – at least not for now. Like Anderson, however, I hope that long before the 2030s,when The Martian takes place, such a collaboration is possible.  

Mars' "Juventae Chasma (11337951926)" by European Space Agency - Juventae Chasma. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here
Mars, Juventae Chasma (11337951926)” by European Space Agency – Juventae Chasma. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here

The current snag is an item in the 2011 NASA  Appropriations Bill, which remains in effect: NASA and the Office of Science and Technology shall not “participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company” (SpacePolicyOnline.com). Fortunately, the ban does not apply to the State Department, which reported that the US and China held their first Civil Space Dialogue in Beijing on 28 September and that another meeting will be held in Washington, DC, in 2016 (for a thoughtful discussion on this meeting and related issues, see China-US Focus).

The Civil Space Dialogue is one of several recent indications that the door may soon widen for US-China space cooperation. A strong indication is summarized in this 12 October Reuters’ headline: “NASA chief says ban on Chinese partnerships is temporary.” It’s a practical matter, NASA chief Charles Bolden argues: If we don’t cooperate with China, which has launched people into orbit and is developing its own space station, “we will find ourselves on the outside looking in, because everybody … who has any hope of a human spaceflight program … will go to whoever will fly their people.”

Mars, "Perspective view of craters within the Hellas Basin (14934509246)" by European Space Agency - Perspective view of craters within the Hellas Basin. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here
Mars, “Perspective view of craters within the Hellas Basin (14934509246)” by European Space Agency. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0-igo via Wikimedia Commons – link here

For its part, China stands “ready to work together with people from all over the world,” according to Zhou Lini, a Chinese presenter at this past September’s International Astronautical Congress (Spacenews). China, in fact, has signed initial agreements with the European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia’s Roscosmos for cooperative use of its Tiangong Space Station, scheduled for launch around 2020 (Space.com 10/14/15). Note that the ESA and Roscosmos (along with the Japanese and Canadian space agencies) are NASA partners on the International Space Station (ISS).

Also China recently signed an agreement with a commercial Houston-based company to send a DNA experiment to the ISS, which will become the first instance of the ISS hosting a Chinese payload. As Joan Johnson-Freese points out, the legislative ban against any kind of NASA-China collaboration (supposedly a ban to prompt China to change its policies on human rights and the like) “hasn’t worked and in some cases has been overtly counterproductive to U.S. interests,” especially “[g]iven that the rest of the world is working with China in space.” She hopes this experiment will be a “positive step forward” toward a better relationship with China and for our own diplomatic and scientific goals (Space.com 8/21/15). So do I.

At the end of The Martian we’re shown American astronaut Rick Martinez (Michael Peña) launching into space beside a Chinese astronaut, presumably on a joint US-China mission. Delightful! Hopeful.

Mars rover simulation: Out of this world. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Creative Commons) – link to my source
Mars rover simulation: Out of this world. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/ Creative Commons) – link to my source

Note: I highly recommend reading Eric Betz’s “Behind the Science of The Martian”  in Astronomy online. The article focuses on some of the science that went into the making the film – and includes great images too.

UFO Artist Ionel Talpazan & Spiritual Technology

It’s almost as if it happened last week – that’s how vivid the memory is. I was seven or eight and wanted to be an astronomer. One night shortly after my grandfather died, I went outside alone to look at the stars. Back then the stars over rural Florida were grand to behold, especially on a crisp, fall, moonless night.

It happened on such a night. I noticed a star overhead getting brighter and bigger and closer. I grew frightened and ran back inside. I listened by the screen door. Then, nothing, not even a bang. I don’t think it was a UFO, never did, not even at the time – probably a meteor. In any case, the memory remains distinct and somehow glorious.alien on trike1.1

UFO artist Ionel Talpazan (1955-2015) had a similar experience as a child – but with a significant difference. Rather than a fiery ball of light, he saw “a ‘blue energy’ radiating from a mysterious source.” This sighting “became the source of his art,” William Grimes says in his New York Times article celebrating Talpazan’s life and work (several examples of his paintings are included). For another thing, he went outside not to grieve alone but to escape a beating.

Talpazan grew up in a Romanian commune and escaped Nicolae Ceaușescu’s brutally repressive regime by swimming across the Danube in 1987. He was granted political asylum in the United States and spent the rest of his life living in New York City, first on the streets then moving to an apartment in Harlem.

In The Telegraph obituary I learned that Talpazan began drawing UFO images four years after his encounter and over time amassed more than 1000 artworks. The Telegraph obituary adds several interesting details not mentioned in Grimes’ piece, and both tell you more about his works and how he came to be recognized by the art world.alien stickman1.2

Contrary to what my whimsical photos suggest, Talpazan was more interested in extraterrestrial technology and space travel than in extraterrestrial beings, especially in how “flying saucers” could “bring about a better world by introducing a benevolent technology” (folklorist Daniel Wozcik, quoted by Grimes). 

In fact, Talpazan once told the journal Western Folklore that his art “shows spiritual technology, something beautiful and beyond human imagination, that comes from another galaxy … Something superior in intelligence and technology. So, in [a] relative way, this is like the God. It is perfect” (quoted by Grimes).

The notion of a “spiritual technology” is what really grabbed my attention. Do we currently have any technology that we might describe as “spiritual,” something that is remotely “like the God” here on earth?

The computer comes to mind with its amazing capability to crunch numbers, find information, render 3-D virtual worlds, and so much more. (Oddly, Talpazan was a low-tech guy who didn’t own a computer, not even a telephone.)  For me, however, the technologies of aviation and recorded music have produced more transcendent moments than any other technologies in my experience. What about for you?


Note on photos:

Young Alien Showing Off on a Trike: the alien is a key chain ornament, and the trike is part of a Christmas ornament. Alien Stickman: something I found on the golf course. The black background in both is my Razer laptop box.


Update to previous post on Steve Jobs: Here’s the recent NPR review of Danny Boyle’s just-released movie Steve Jobs. I haven’t seen it yet but found it interesting that the movie stops chronicling Jobs’ life before he oversees the creation of the iPod. I agree  with the reviewer that a sequel must be planned because the movie ends about halfway through Walter Isaacson’s biography, on which Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is based.

Steve Jobs and the Passion for Simplicity

I’m not  a geek, exactly, but  I do have a keen interest in digital technology, especially  its impact on our attitudes and activities. An iphone is the only Apple product I own; my desktop is a PC, my laptop is a Razer, and my tablet is a Kindle Fire. I spread the wealth, so to speak.

Even so, my admiration for Apple products has recently grown. It began shortly after reading Laura Sydell’s article, “New Film Asks: Were Steve Jobs’ Flaws Uploaded To His Machines?” (NPR).* Her article led me to Walter Isaacson’s very fine, authorized biography, Steve Jobs (2011), which I’m about halfway through.  


Isaacson takes a no-holds-barred approach to chronicling Jobs’ life. In fact, as the book’s publisher explains, not only did Jobs cooperate with the author, “he asked for no control over what was written. He put nothing off-limits.”  Although the book clearly reveals his character flaws and professional missteps, Jobs’ brilliance as a designer and showman – and his enormous influence on how we think about and interact with digital technology (including film animation: think Pixar) – shines through.

Jobs’ design philosophy – Simplicity – is what intrigues me the most. His chief designer, Jonathan (Jony) Ive, shared Jobs’ belief that “less is better” and told Isaacson, “Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep.” Isaacson adds, “Design was not just about what a product looked like on the surface. It had to reflect the product’s essence” (342).


What is meant by “the product’s essence” isn’t explicitly discussed, but clues are here and there. For one thing, Jobs kept his focus on the consumer’s experience rather than the company’s bottomline, especially on the ease of use. A related clue is the “i” in front of Apple products; it originally referred to “integrating” devices with the “Internet,” then expanded to include “individuality” and “innovation,” signifying that Apple products are both personal and revolutionary (see Wikipedia iMac history).

The biggest clue as to Apple’s essence, at least so far in my reading, comes in Isaacson’s chapter on the development of the iPod. He says that “the iPod became the essence of everything Apple was destined to be: poetry connected to engineering, arts and creativity intersecting with technology, design that’s bold and simple. It had the ease of use that came from being an integrated end-to-end system, from computer to FireWire to device to software to content management” (393). So we could add “intersection,” “interaction,” and even “interdisciplinary” to the previous iList of meanings.


Jobs’ ease-of-use approach extended to the creation of the Apple stores. For example, Larry Ellison, Oracle CEO, told Isaacson, “If you look at the stores and the products, you will see Steve’s obsession with beauty as simplicity…which goes all the way to the checkout process in the stores…. It means the absolute minimum number of steps. Steve gave us the exact, explicit recipe for how he wanted the checkout to work” (372).

In other words, Jobs respected people’s time. While developing the first Macintosh, for instance, he demanded a faster boot up. Before the engineer could explain why it wasn’t faster, “Jobs went to a whiteboard and showed that if there were five million people using the Mac, and it took ten seconds extra to turn it on every day, that added up to…the equivalent of at least one hundred lifetimes saved per year” (123). Soon the boot up was 28 seconds faster.

Aesthetics and craftsmanship were every bit as important as efficiency to Jobs. Take product packaging. He and Jony Ive spent lots of time on package design. Ive explained why: “You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater, it can create a story.” Isaacson agrees: “Apple customers know the feeling of opening up a well-crafted box and finding the product nestled in an inviting fashion” (347). The sheer elegance and sturdiness of the small white iPhone boxes may be why I saved mine.  

iphone boxCompressed

Jobs’ passion, Isaacson says, was “for making a great product, not just a profitable one.” Andy Hertzfeld, an engineer on the original Mac team, told Isaacson, “Jobs thought of himself as an artist, and he encouraged our design team to think of ourselves that way too…. The goal was never to beat the competition, or to make a lot of money. It was to do the greatest thing possible, or even a little greater” (123).

Jobs once told Isaacson that “as a kid” he “read something that one of his heroes, Edwin Land Polaroid, said about the importance of people who stand at the intersection of humanities and science, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do” (Introduction). Clearly he succeeded: devices that combine engineering with poetry, packaging with theater, aesthetics with efficiency, elegance with craft, and passion with simplicity.

Got to admire it!



*Sydell’s article is about Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (trailer), released in September 2015. Danny Boyle’s movie Steve Jobs (trailer) will be released very soon; the screenplay was written by Aaron Sorkin and based on Walter Isaacson’s biography.

*Photos: The book-cover image is the same one that came with my Kindle edition. I took the other photos with my iPhone: iPhone earbuds, paperweight, and iPhone box.