Books: Seveneves, What If?, Steve Jobs

Notes on three books I've had a chance to read recently:

Sevenevesby Neal Stephenson

I've noted here before how much I enjoy Neal Stephenson's writing and storytelling, and Seveneves did not depart from that trend. It mixes together a few of my favorite things: science fiction with attention to realism, thought-provoking end-of-the-world scenarios, and a witty narrative that makes the reader work a bit to put all the pieces together. And while mostly plot-driven, Seveneves manages to do quite a bit of philosophizing about the nature of humanity and what we hold dear, not to mention the lengths we'll go to to preserve that. I will say that I enjoyed reading the first part of the book more than the second, but several days after finishing when the whole story had had a chance to marinate a bit, I was grateful for the completeness of two together, different as they were. Seveneves imagines a universe worth spending some time in.


What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe

Randall Munroe says of his webcomic XKCD, "this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors)" - the end result is one of my favorite regular online reads. What If? is Munroe's really fun, educational and sometimes terrifying tangential descent into researching and explaining answers to the quirky "what if" questions of everyday physics posed by XKCD readers, begun online and now in book form. If you were trying to teach a young child about the mechanics of how the world works for the first time, this might be your field guide for some of the strange but oddly reasonable questions you'd get as the child took it all in. Thank goodness for people like Munroe who make learning technical/science-y/math-y stuff this entertaining.

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

I resisted reading this book for a long time, especially soon after Jobs` death in 2011. I have no interest in deifying him or his work, and I felt like I already knew a lot about the Apple story from following it over many years working in tech. But in between that 2011 hype and the current hype (as two Jobs-focused movies are coming out), I found a space where I genuinely wanted to understand more about the environment in which Jobs created and grew Apple, to see what I could learn about what it might mean to build new kinds of innovative products and services today. (This recommendation helped clear that path, too.) It ended up being well worth it; Isaacson paints a thorough picture of the beginnings of the personal computing industry, while bringing out the textures, conflicts and occasional darkness of Jobs, his work and his relationships. It was a story I found to be moving and worthwhile on its own, even if there had never been a real multi-billion dollar company or global consumer experience involved. Similar to reading Zero to One, I also enjoyed seeing Jobs` adventures through the lens of my own (much smaller scale) adventures in creating and building a tech business, and I took lots of notes on things I would and wouldn't do if I were in that process again. There are many stories worth telling, and the one of Steve Jobs` life and work may or may not be one worth prioritizing over others, but this book is a great read for anyone whose own life and/or work have been touched by the products, company and ideas that Jobs willed into existence.

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Chris Hardie

Chris Hardie is an Internet tech geek, problem solver, community-builder and amicable cynic.

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