Julian Assange and Steve Jobs biographied, a beguiling Michael Faraday lecture, and accessible anecdotes from the world of technology.
Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Autobiography
£9.99, ISBN 978-085786-384-3
If, like me, you're puzzled as to what an 'unauthorised autobiography' could possibly be, here is a story that's as much about Julian Assange's new book as it is about the man behind WikiLeaks. Australian journalist, finding himself short of funds to cover his escalating legal costs, sells the publishing rights to his autobiography. Upon completion of the first draft (ghost-written by Scottish novelist Andrew O'Hagan) Assange declares 'all memoir is prostitution' and asks his publisher Canongate to release him from his contract.
But it's too late for Assange and, despite the author's wishes, his publisher honours (their word) the contract and goes to press. And so it seems that a man who can control the publication of three of the biggest leaks in history – the Afghan War Diaries, the Iraq War Logs and Cablegate – cannot control a simple potted airport autobiography. Unless that's all part of the media hype.
So what have we got? We start in Wandsworth Prison, December 2010, with Assange complaining about his inability to communicate with the outside world, comparing himself with Oscar Wilde, in whose cell he believes himself to be incarcerated. Then we're propelled back to his early years, dragged around Australia by his hippie mother, chased by debt, stalkers, the authorities. All this prepares him for his adult life persecuted by sinister unseen forces that suppress freedom of speech. This experience draws him into the world of computer hacking, where he finds refuge, comradeship and the comfort of machines.
His deepest insight into hacking is 'people just don't get it', by which he means that criminal activities shouldn't be illegal if you're perpetrating them for what you think are the right reasons. After all, he was never in it to steal money, and the law of unintended consequences will never apply to people who work at night, under assumed names such as 'Mendax'. A theme that runs throughout this book is that the world has dealt Assange an unfair hand, and that conventional law should not apply to unconventional people.
Oddly enough, his persona isn't relentlessly dislikable. His nostalgia for early computer technology – in chapters such as 'My First Computer' and 'Cyberpunk' – betrays nothing more unpleasant than a mildly deranged, geeky teenager. His most interesting observations are about taking his first steps into computer systems of Nasa and the like. It's all a game, and the disconnected kids are not the nerds in their bedrooms hiding floppy-disks in their two-storey beehives, but those who hang out on street corners, or sit around watching TV.
Questions over the book's authorship, along with the disputed circumstances under which it was published, combine to produce the final irony that as a tool for technology journalists wishing to research Assange, the unauthorised status renders it pretty much useless. To be honest, the book raises more issues related to the ethics of publishing autobiography than it does leaked documents. There is, however, one laugh aloud moment where on the publisher's preliminaries page we are told that 'The moral right of the author has been asserted'.
Oxford University Press
The Chemical History of a Candle
By Michael Faraday, £14.99, ISBN 978-0-19-969491-4
One of the reasons Michael Faraday became such a popular lecturer in the 19th century was that he went to great lengths to engage his audience, undertaking detailed preparation and studying the art of keeping people on the edge of their seats.
'If I say to my audience this stone will fall to the ground if I open my hand, I should open my hand and let it fall. Take nothing for granted as known: inform the eye at the same time as you address the ear,' Faraday is reported to have told one young speaker about this 'show and tell' technique.
Certainly this approach is evident in his Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution in December 1860 and January 1861 on the chemistry of a candle. He starts from how a candle produces light and then explores hydrogen balloons, the properties of oxygen, and the gaseous products of combustion while doing a lot of clever business with laboratory glassware, matches, turpentine, goldfish, and gunpowder.
In this 150th anniversary edition of the lecture series, the text comes complete with a reproduction of Faraday's original handwritten notes and diagrams. There is also an introduction by Frank James, author of the 'Complete Faraday Correspondence', to provide some useful historical context.
Reading the lectures for the first time myself, I was surprised by how close to the surface Faraday's religious beliefs are. At the end of the final lecture, he sends his audience away like a vicar, saying 'shine as lights to those about you, that in all your actions you may justify the beauty of the taper by making your deeds honourable and effectual in the discharge of your duty to your fellow-men.'
These lectures are historical documents written in the language of their time. And yet the science hasn't gone out of date, neither it seems have the techniques for inspiring young scientists.
Steve Jobs: The Biography
By Walter Isaacson, £25.00, ISBN 978-1408703748
It is easy to judge Steve Jobs, to slam much of his behaviour as deplorable. One of the strengths of Walter Isaacson's excellent biography is that he refrains from iconoclasm although the strong meat is there.
Of many questionable acts the book details, one involves a 2008 confrontation between Jobs and Fortune. The magazine had prepared an article that discussed Jobs' cancer and a long-standing controversy over Apple stock options. The privacy-obsessed Jobs played this card while lecturing Fortune's managing editor that the piece should be spiked: 'So, you've uncovered the fact that I'm an asshole. Why is that news?'
Isaacson says this illustrates Jobs' self-awareness. Arguably, yes it does. But for many Silicon Valley workers and commentators, the anecdote chimes another way.
Forgive us, but 'high-tech CEO exposed as asshole' isn't news (although the article was, and Fortune rightly went ahead and published). Jobs' generation saw a clutch of driven founder-leaders spend their youths building start-ups into empires. While there are many 'gentlemen' running Valley companies today, the 'players' necessarily outnumber them.
Isaacson gets this. Although as many of Jobs' contemporaries remain powerful business leaders with powerful lawyers, he wisely makes it an implicit theme. The book is so well structured that the enforced fudge doesn't matter too much.
Isaacson humanises Jobs. He negates the distortion field to deliver a comprehensive overview of the traits and experiences that shaped his subject. More importantly, he successfully highlights the differences in Jobs between the simply atypical and the truly exceptional.
One talent that set Jobs apart was understanding not so much technological detail but entire systems, through to industrial design. Here is Jobs addressing Apple staff after the ousting of CEO Gil Amelio in 1997:
'OK, tell me what's wrong with this place,' he said. There were some murmurings but Jobs cut them off. 'It's the products!' he answered. 'So what's wrong with the products?' Again, there were a few attempts at an answer, until Jobs broke in to hand down the correct answer. 'The products suck!' he shouted. 'There's no sex in them anymore!'
The book shows how Jobs' aesthetics developed and how he lived them – at one point occupying a largely unfurnished house not only because it suited his 'less-is-more' tastes but also because he could seldom find a sofa or table he liked. This feeds the recounting of Jobs' later involvement with Pixar in computer animation and how his return to Apple seeded the iFamily of products that made it the pre-eminent technology company.
Isaacson is also strong on the Apple founder's relationship with money. The young Jobs spotted the commercial opportunity in selling 'blue boxes' that Steve Wozniak designed to scam long-distance phone charges (and he cheated Woz on payment for some contract work). But while counterparts remained obsessed with earnings or switched to philanthropy, the mature Jobs wanted to change the world through his business. He probably has.
The book shows signs of having been rushed out following Jobs's death: it needs a few edits for the paperback. But overall, this is a powerful combination of the general and the specific. It is the life of a great innovator painted in Cromwellian style, and gives a real sense of Silicon Valley from the 1980s to the present. Yup, you're going to buy it – and not just because Jobs designed the cover.
Dot-Dash To Dot.Com
By Andrew Wheen, £26.99, ISBN 978-1441967596
A wealth of interesting historical facts and entertaining anecdotes from the early days of telecommunications make Andrew Wheen's account of how the sector has evolved over the last couple of centuries extremely easy to get straight into.
Having delved into the lives of pioneers such as Samuel Morse and Henry Ellsworth, and their Bill which almost wasn't passed in time for the invention of the electric telegraph, the book moves swiftly on chapter by chapter through a timeline of events in telegraph evolution before exploring the pioneers of radio communication such as Gugliemo Marconi, Nikola Tesla and James Clerk Maxwell.
Wheen then goes on to look at modern digital times, from computer networks and the birth of the Internet to how the Internet works and has evolved over the last few decades. Those unsure of what Wiki, blog or podcasts are will benefit from reading this section and be more confident to try them out.
The last few chapters discuss the mobile revolution and the emergence of internet phones. He also covers the future of telecommunications including information on cloud computing, internet television and possible health concerns with radioactivity from mobile communication systems.
An extremely easy read, Dot-Dash to Dot.Com is informative and well laid out with lots of great photos.