Readings: USB Plug, Nabokov’s Lepidoptery, Art Forger

A few interesting readings from today:

1) “USB Plug Goes Both Ways” [Yanko Design Blog] – wonderful concept for a double sided USB plug. Would alleviate a ton of hassles of trying to correctly connect the USB thumb drives and other devices to our computers.

2) “Nabokov Theory on Butterfly Evolution is Vindicated” [New York Times] – when he wasn’t writing novels, Nabokov had a deep passion, lepidoptery:

Nabokov inherited his passion for butterflies from his parents. When his father was imprisoned by the Russian authorities for his political activities, the 8-year-old Vladimir brought a butterfly to his cell as a gift. As a teenager, Nabokov went on butterfly-hunting expeditions and carefully described the specimens he caught, imitating the scientific journals he read in his spare time. Had it not been for the Russian Revolution, which forced his family into exile in 1919, Nabokov said that he might have become a full-time lepidopterist.

This piece explains how one of Nabokov’s most interesting (and controversial!) theories about a group of butterflies he studied (the Polyommatus blues) has been vindicated:

Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.

I love the inclusion of Nabokov’s poem near the end:

I found it and I named it, being versed

in taxonomic Latin; thus became

godfather to an insect and its first

describer — and I want no other fame.

3) “The Forger’s Story” [Financial Times] – a fascinating piece about Mark Augustus Landis, who may be described as a reverse-forger. That is to say, he forged paintings not for the purpose of selling them, but to see if they would be accepted into museums:

For nearly three decades, Landis has visited ­museums across the US in various guises and tried to donate paintings he has forged. As well as Father Scott, he has posed as “Steven Gardiner” among other aliases. He never asks for money, although museums have often hosted meals for him and made small gifts. His only stipulation is that he is donating in his parents’ names – often his actual father, ­Lieutenant Commander Arthur Landis Jr, a former US Navy officer.

Landis has been prolific and consistent in his endeavor:

Matthew Leininger, chief registrar of the ­Cincinnati Museum of Art, has spent more than two years tracking Landis’s progress. He estimates that Landis has tried to fool at least 40 museums – and probably many more – in 19 states in cities from Boston and Chicago to Savannah and ­Oklahoma City. Some forgeries have been spotted, yet he has persuaded museums not only to add works to ­collections, but even to hang them in galleries.

What’s fascinating is that what Landis does isn’t against the law:

The difficulty is that, however annoying and disruptive Landis’s activities may be for museums, he does not seem to have broken the law. “The criminal statute [of fraud] says there must be a loss and that’s the problem. There hasn’t been a loss to any victim,” says Robert Wittman, an investigator who used to run the FBI’s Art Crime Team.

As always, I recommend reading the entire piece.

Apple and the Legacy of Steve Jobs

You might have heard that the CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, has taken an indefinite medical leave. This is the third time in the last ten years that Steve Jobs has stepped aside from the biggest technology company in the United States.

If you don’t know much about the company or Steve Jobs’s nature, then there is one article that is an absolute must-read. It is this Esquire piece, written by Tom Junod in 2008. It may appear dated, but it’s as every bit as relevant today as when it was first published. I highlight a few quotes which grabbed my attention

On Steve Jobs’s health and perseverance:

Steve Jobs has been saying that Steve Jobs is dying for years. From the beginning, death has been the hellhound on his trail; from the beginning, he has based his claim on immortality on the knowledge that he isn’t going to make it. In the commencement speech he gave to the graduates of Stanford University a year after his cancer surgery, he diagnosed himself as “fine now,” and hopeful to live “a few more decades.” At the same time, he spoke of death as though it were a new Apple product — that is, as “very likely the single best invention of life.” He said that since he was seventeen, “I’ve looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today?”

I love this passage on the bravado and Jobs’s stubborn demeanor. Must he always win?

Nobody wants to be the guy who points out that Jobs is “an obnoxious asshole” or “just a horrifying human being” — because then Jobs has already won, simply on the basis of scale. Better to be the ex-Apple-employee who says, “The question is not whether he’s an asshole. That’s beside the point. The question is whether he [Steve Jobs] can be an asshole and a good Buddhist.” Now, that’s a good one, because it concedes the obvious and moves on to the question of whether Jobs’s epic simplifications hide, well, inconsistencies. How can the Buddhist — the strict vegetarian — squash so many people like bugs? How can the Apollonian artist of our technological moment also be the Machiavellian corporate executive? How can the guy who implicitly put himself in league with Gandhi, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Martin Luther King while urging us to “think different” think, in fact, only of winning? “For most people, he’ll go down in history as the guy who made technology user-friendly,” says one executive. “But to people in business, he’ll be remembered as the guy who only did deals where he had all the leverage — and used every bit of it. It’s not enough that he wins. You have to lose. He’s completely unreasonable.”

That part about you having to lose, that’s gladiatorial. I was immediately reminded of Derek Sivers’s post “The Day Steve Jobs Dissed Me in a Keynote.” I highly recommend reading it.

An excellent paragraph about Jobs’s ruthlessness (if you weren’t getting the picture just yet). But also: why are Apple products something the consumers desire so much?

Now they start with what makes an existing experience crappy. And that’s where Jobs is a genius. That’s where his ruthlessness comes in. He’s ruthless with himself, ruthless with other people — he’s also ruthless with technology. He knows exactly what makes it work, and what makes it suck. There were MP3 players before the iPod, but they sucked. So he’s like, Okay, what do we have to do so that they don’t suck? Same with the iPhone. A lot of phones had Web browsers before the iPhone, but nobody used them. Why? Because they sucked. Now even people without iPhones are using the Web browsers on their cell phones. But that’s because of the iPhone. And that’s what he does. He makes the experience of technology better.”

Lastly, I love this wisdom from Steve Jobs: shortly after he showed off the iPad last year, Steve Jobs was asked what consumer and market research guided its creation. Steve Jobs’s response was illuminating:

None.  It isn’t the consumer’s job to know what they want.

There’s a lot more in the Esquire piece which I didn’t highlight here. If you have a half hour, I highly recommend reading the entire piece. It paints a portrait of Steve Jobs better than any I’ve ever read.

Reading in 2011

Happy New Year!

I took a holiday at the end of 2010, but I wanted to make a quick update regarding the state of this blog. I started this blog in January 2010 with the intention of discussing the books I read (my goal was to read 52 books; I read 26). In addition to reading books, I read a lot of magazine articles. I shared the top five long reads in 2010, and it became my most popular post of the year.

I will continue updating this blog, but I plan to do something different this year. In addition to sharing mainstream newspaper/magazine articles, I will also start linking to blogs I read. There’s just so much quality material which I read last year which deserved a mention, but my implicit focus was on the mainstream, so I didn’t link to blogs. So, I will do my best to link to blogs in 2011.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to subscribe to this blog by email (just enter your address in the space on the top right). Thanks, and happy reading!