The man who inspired the world with his technology anonymously inspired one writer with the simple beauty of his home
A Palo Alto resident looks upon the flowers, candles, and apples placed on the sidewalk outside Steve Jobs's home / Reuters
The world is mourning the loss of Steve Jobs this week, and with him, the inspiration he provided to so many innovators, technologists, designers, thinkers, and everyday consumers. But in perusing some of the news coverage of his death, I came across one particular photo that stopped me in my tracks.
It was a picture of Jobs' house in Palo Alto, California -- a low-roofed, brick and slate cottage straight out of some English or French countryside -- with bundles of flowers and memorials piled up against its split-rail garden fence. And it stopped me in my tracks because I know that house. Really well. It was, in fact, an important source of inspiration for me, for the 7 1/2 years I lived in that neighborhood. It's just that, ironically, the inspiration it and its owner provided had nothing to do with technology.
I moved to Old Palo Alto in the aftermath of the dot.com bust, when rents in the area plummeted to merely expensive, instead of stupid, ungodly, unbelievably expensive. I rented a small writer's cottage a few blocks away from where Jobs lived, although I had no idea, until I saw that photo, that he (or anyone else I might have heard of) lived anywhere nearby. The cottage I rented had been built by Herbert Hoover in 1937, after he moved out to start the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a few blocks away. He built four small cottages on a piece of property near the campus for writers to live in while they worked with the Institution. I'm even told that General Douglas MacArthur lived in my cottage while he wrote his memoirs.
It was, in other words, quite literally a writer's cottage -- which seemed appropriate, seeing as that's what I do for a living. But when the muse didn't speak, or some personal or professional setback got the better of me, or I needed to de-stress, or I just felt too unhappy to produce anything useful.... I'd go walking in the neighborhood. Because Old Palo Alto is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods the city has to offer.
I heard somewhere that the eclectic designs of the houses there stem from the fact that the professors and professionals Leland Stanford recruited to teach at the new Stanford University, at the turn of the 20th century, all built homes there that reminded them of the various places from whence they'd come. That explanation might or might not be true, but the diversity was certainly there. Strolling under a canopy of grand and leafy old trees, I might pass an English Tudor house, and then a Dutch Colonial, followed by a southern Georgian, which would be next to a California Craftsman, which might be next to a mission-style hacienda, which might be next to... well, a medieval English cottage, compete with tousled and carefree-looking shrubbery and gardens.
The corner where Jobs lived, however, was my favorite corner and block in the entire neighborhood. If I was really upset or stressed, I might walk up and down the two blocks that framed his house multiple times, just because it was so beautiful, and somehow so calming that I'd always leave there feeling better. Reminded, in some wordless way, of the simple beauty in the world that existed before, after, and beyond career or relationship mishaps. And on more than one occasion, freed of the writers' block that had driven me away from my desk in the first place.
On numerous occasions, as I walked around that block, I would also see a slender man moving around inside the house. Unlike many houses in the neighborhood, the windows of that house were, at least on one side, almost right up against the sidewalk. Close enough for me to admire the furnishings, anyway, and see anyone walking through the rooms on that side. I never did anything but glance that way, but I honestly used to wonder what that man did for a living, that he'd be there in the late afternoon, calmly going about his business in that lovely and soul-soothing cottage.
I'm actually glad, now, that I didn't know. Because if I had, I couldn't have looked at that cottage, or the man walking around inside it, the same. Even if I'd tried. As it is, I find it both ironic, and oddly fitting, that the man who inspired the world with his technology anonymously inspired me, instead, with the simple beauty of his garden and his home. After all, simplicity and beauty were the two trademark qualities Jobs brought to all the personal technology he designed. It makes sense that a man who valued those things so highly would surround himself with them in his home life, as well.
The seemingly calm man I glimpsed as I walked down that block might not match at all with how the people who worked with him remember him, of course. But that's okay. They can have their Steve Jobs. I have mine. And I like being able to remember him that way: quiet, calm, and anonymous, surrounded by simplicity and beauty that changed with the seasons, but were always, somehow, inspiring.
The most comprehensive review of evidence on health consequences of caffeine use has just been published.
A Los Angeles news anchor said earlier this month, in response to the announcement that “the world’s strongest coffee” is now available in the United States. The product is called Black Insomnia, a playful nod to apotentially debilitating medical condition that can be caused by the product.
The anchor’s tone took a dramatic decrescendo as she read from the teleprompter: “The site Caffeine Informer says Black Insomnia is one of the ‘most dangerous caffeinated products.’” Her smile faded. “Oh. I’ll have to have this one sparingly.”
Black Insomnia is actually in competition for the title of “world’s strongest coffee.” Another, similar purveyor sells coffee grounds called Death Wish. They come in a black sack with a skull and cross bones. On its Amazon page, Death Wish claims to be “the world’s strongest coffee” and promises its “perfect dark roast will make you the hero of the house or office.”
The president has softened some of his tough talk toward China and Mexico, transferring it to Canada and disputes over softwood lumber and dairy products.
Donald Trump is not the first U.S. president to tangle with Canada over lumber. In fact, the first U.S. president to do so was the first U.S. president. George Washington’s administration saw a dispute over ownership of valuable forests on the border between New Brunswick and present-day Maine.
So despite Trump’s recent tough talk about the trade relationship with America’s neighbor to the north, his announcement Tuesday morning of new tariffs on Canadian lumber is actually consistent with what U.S. policy has been for decades. Where Trump differs from previous presidents, though, is in very publicly sounding off about a longstanding disagreement. In so doing he has also, apparently, found a new target for his trade-related ire, even as he softens his stances toward previous targets like China and Mexico.
Democracies across the West are vulnerable to foreign influence—and some are under attack.
Mike Conaway, the Republican who replaced Devin Nunes as head of the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election, has described his mission simply: “I just want to find out what happened,” he’s said. The more urgent question elsewhere in the world, however, isn’t confined to the past. It concerns what is happening—not just in the United States but in European democracies as well.
In the Netherlands, Dutch authorities counted paper ballots in a recent election by hand to prevent foreign governments—and Russia in particular—from manipulating the results through cyberattacks. In Denmark, the defense minister has accused the Russian government of carrying out a two-year campaign to infiltrate email accounts at his ministry. In the United Kingdom, a parliamentary committee reports that it cannot “rule out” the possibility that “foreign interference” caused a voter-registration site to crash ahead of Britain’s referendum on EU membership. And in France, a cybersecurity firm has just discovered that suspected Russian hackers are targeting the leading presidential candidate. “We are increasingly concerned about cyber-enabled interference in democratic political processes,” representatives from the Group of Seven—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S.—declared after meeting in Italy earlier this month. Russia, a member of the group until it was kicked out for annexing Crimea, wasn’t mentioned in the statement. It didn’t need to be. The subtext was clear.
It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.
This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.
When astronomers talk about the search for life elsewhere in our solar system, they usually talk about microbes, simple and resilient forms of life known to exist in the most extreme temperatures and conditions. Space probes have mapped enough of the sun’s planets and moons to show there are no civilizations lurking in this star system, save for the one on Earth. But what if we’re not done looking yet? What if there are indeed signs of an ancient intelligent species right here, on the worlds in our own backyard, waiting to be found?
That’s the question posed by Jason Wright, an astronomer at Penn State University, in a new paper published Monday night. Wright posits the idea that an advanced civilization—an indigenous technological species, he calls it—could have arisen in the solar system before life as we know it did. (“Indigenous,” because it originates in the solar system, and not from extraterrestrial life that may exist elsewhere in the universe.) If it left behind traces of its technology—called technosignatures—some of those technosignatures may have survived, provided they were made of material not easily degraded by erosion or time. Perhaps, Wright writes, they remain hidden under the surface of Venus and Mars.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
The Dems are trying to take advantage of the president’s tendency to make maximalist claims then retreat from them.
Mock Donald Trump’s legislative ignorance if you will, but for a brief, shining stretch during the past week, he managed to bring about a rare Washington phenomenon: House and Senate Democrats saying nice things about their GOP
counterparts. Publicly. With straight faces. That the president accomplished this entirely by accident makes the feat no less remarkable.
It has been like a scene straight out of a No Labels kumbaya, centrist fantasy: As Congress hammers out a deal to fund the government for the rest of this fiscal year, Democrats have been lauding Republicans for handling negotiations in a thoughtful, productive, bipartisan manner.
“Appropriators are all about getting something done,” a senior Democratic House aide noted approvingly of the process. And with the April 28 deadline looming, he told me, members of both teams “had been chugging along, making progress, doing a really good job of getting past some riders.”
The cuts-only plan President Trump is expected to unveil Wednesday follows a pattern: The risk associated with higher deficits takes a back seat when it comes with political pain.
“I am the king of debt,” Donald Trump famously boasted during last year’s campaign. On Wednesday, the president is going to set about proving it—but perhaps not in the way he originallymeant.
All indications are that the tax plan the White House is slated to unveil will include what Trump has described as a “massive” cut in the rate that corporations and many small businesses pay to the government. But it will omit the more politically painful choices that Republicans would need to make to offset the correspondingloss of revenue, such as HouseSpeaker Paul Ryan’s proposed tax on imports or the elimination of popular deductions for charitable giving and homeowners. The result is a tax plan that, like the ones Trump offered as a candidate, could add trillions of dollars to the national debt. You can call them tax cuts, but they aren’t tax reform.
Film, television, and literature all tell them better. So why are games still obsessed with narrative?
A longstanding dream: Video games will evolve into interactive stories, like the ones that play out fictionally on the Star Trek Holodeck. In this hypothetical future, players could interact with computerized characters as round as those in novels or films, making choices that would influence an ever-evolving plot. It would be like living in a novel, where the player’s actions would have as much of an influence on the story as they might in the real world.
It’s an almost impossible bar to reach, for cultural reasons as much as technical ones. One shortcut is an approach called environmental storytelling. Environmental stories invite players to discover and reconstruct a fixed story from the environment itself. Think of it as the novel wresting the real-time, first-person, 3-D graphics engine from the hands of the shooter game. In Disneyland’s Peter Pan’s Flight, for example, dioramas summarize the plot and setting of the film. In the 2007 game BioShock, recorded messages in an elaborate, Art Deco environment provide context for a story of a utopia’s fall. And in What Remains of Edith Finch, a new game about a girl piecing together a family curse, narration is accomplished through artifacts discovered in an old house.