The basic premise of Influx is that humanity's scientific and tech geniuses have created many more technological break-throughs than most of the world knows about, and that a secret department of the U.S. government has taken extreme steps to hide those break-throughs in the name of protecting everyday people from their practical implications. The plot thickens when there's resistance to that department's methods, and I won't say much more about it to avoid spoiling what unfolds, but you can imagine the story-telling fun that can be had when futuristic-and-very-advanced human tech and mindsets meets present day human tech and mindsets. And most of it is pretty dark stuff - no kibbitzing with humpback whale scenes here.
I just finished reading Randall Stross's The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, a great accounting of the origins, growth and successes of the seed accelerator company that helps "budding digital engineers." This blog post is a little bit book review, but mostly highlighting the wisdom that Y Combinator seems to capture and employ in its work helping startups succeed.
I could not help but take in that wisdom and Stross's stories through the lens of my own experiences creating a tech company, and while I felt affirmed in having learned a lot of the things that Y Combinator tries to teach its program participants, I also had plenty of forehead slapping moments about things I wish I'd understood better. I think some of those tidbits are very relevant to what I'll do next, and present day efforts to invigorate the local tech economy here in Richmond, so I'm including some comments on them here too.
If you don't already know about Y Combinator, I encourage you to check out their website, or watch this very recent interview with Paul Graham, who has headed the company's efforts most of this time. The bottom line is that they host a three-month program in Silicon Valley to help startup companies with the money, advice and industry connections they need to go from concept to initial implementation, ready for investors to take them to the next step. As Stross describes, they focus on admitting young groups of founders who are going to bring the hard work and innovation needed for success, even if their initial idea for a startup isn't sound. If you use Dropbox, you're benefitting from a startup incubated at Y Combinator.
The cover art and subtitle of Nick Bilton's Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal are perhaps more sensational than the actual story of Twitter's creation turns out to be, but it's still a really interesting read for anyone who's curious how a company with such a dominant place in our culture came about.
Bilton takes us back to the tentatively formed relationships that brought Twitter's founders together, the failing startup idea that necessitating thinking up a new idea that would become tweeting, and the tangled web of investors, supporters, detractors and high-profile users that would redefine Twitter many times along the way. If the account is to be believed, and Bilton seems to have done his research, there was a fair amount of drama along the way: ego and jealousy between founders of the success and limelight the others received; dealing with conflicting demands from users, media, investors and employees; inexperienced leaders finding themselves in over their heads, and so on. I doubt these scenes would be sufficiently exciting for a Hollywood dramatization a la The Social Network, but it was actually refreshing to learn of the real and human ups and downs that were at play.
(I've been reading a lot of books lately about the stories of how various technology companies came to be, and it's been great food for thought as I work on the next chapter in my own professional life story. This is the first in a series of blog posts about these books.)
I remember hearing about Netflix from a geek news site sometime in the early 2000s, and I think I was among the first folks in my town to try the DVD subscription by mail service that they'd launched in 1999. I was skeptical of it, having a hard time imagining a day when I wouldn't rather just stop in to the local movie rental store than bother with ordering a disc online and then waiting for it to show up by mail. But I tried it out, thinking it would be an interesting way to access some of the independent and obscure films that local stores wouldn't bother to stock.
And so I took my place as one of the many video watching consumers that Netflix, Blockbuster and other media companies were battling to attract and keep as customers over the last 15 or so years, leading right up to present day where the release of the second season of the Netflix-produced House of Cards on Friday was a major media event.
That battle and the personalities that made it interesting are the focus of Gina Keating's great book, Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America's Eyeballs.
Some mini reviews of books (and one movie) I've had a chance to take in lately. For most items I’ve linked to an online purchase option, but please consider buying from your locally-owned bookseller or visiting your local library first:
Brave (2012), Pixar
I can't say that Brave, Pixar's latest feature film, is anywhere close to my favorite from this studio. It's not that the animation isn't stunning (it is) or that the watching experience isn't enjoyable (it was), and it's certainly great to see a strong female main character whose departure from limiting traditional roles is largely uncompromised. But the world wrought by the story feels somehow smaller and more forgettable than other Pixar adventures. The nuanced and emotionally complex experiences of the characters mostly overcame the awkward dialog and sometimes dragging plot, and in the end it was observing their inner transformations that was most compelling,
I just finished reading Steven Levy's In the Plex, a great history of Google, Inc.'s origins and growth, and a great insight into what the company could look like in the future, or at least how it might get there.
The story of Google that matters for most people is how it affects their daily lives (searching, web browsing, mobile phones, mapping/navigation, email, calendaring, YouTube, news, etc.) but I appreciate that Levy's book focuses on the personalities and processes driving the evolution of what is arguably one of the most transformative corporate and technological entities of our time.
It can be easy to forget that behind some of the game-changing products and services produced by the company, there were real people thinking through issues of privacy, dealing with cross-cultural considerations and navigating interpersonal dynamics all while trying to make a living and find a sustainable business model. They had/have desks, meetings, slide shows to give, families to care for, water-cooler conversations to have, and Levy does a great job capturing and re-telling those stories from the days of "two guys in a garage" all the way through the present days of life as an international corporation. This is not always done with the most critical eye - those with concerns about Google's operations or policies may be put off by the extent to which this book is an homage - but on the whole I think Levy is fair in calling out the moments when individual Google employees or the company as a whole screws up, and placing those in the context of Google's good intentions.
A few themes in what Levy's book revealed about "the Google way":
For a long time I was one of those people who crinkled my nose at the thought of reading a book on a screen, waxing poetic about the irreplaceable sensory experience of holding paper in my hand.
Today, I'm over it. (Especially with an exciting recent announcement from Morrisson-Reeves Library here in Richmond - more on that below.)
Not that I don't still treasure the sensory experience of reading a real book, and not that I don't still feel a little guilty doing my part to nudge us toward the end of an era every time I pick up my Kindle. But a few things happend to push me past my reluctance about using e-books and e-readers:
It's been a decent summer of reading for me, and I thought I'd post some very brief reviews of some of what I've encountered along the way. For each book I’ve linked to an online purchase option, but please consider buying from your locally-owned bookseller or visiting your local library first. I've organized the reviews into three sections: Culture, Novels and Business & Politics:
Ghost in the Wires by Kevin Mitnick
Finally, Mitnick gets to tell his side of the story when it comes to his adventures in computer cracking and social engineering. Though his writing style isn't particularly compelling and his personal meditations on the interpersonal aspects of his adventures are a bit awkward, the details of how he pulled off some pretty technologically impressive (albeit illegal and sometimes destructive) hacks - and how law enforcement responded - make for compelling reading on their own. As someone who spent a fair number of hours in my childhood trying to deconstruct how the phone system and the emerging world of BBSes and Internet nodes worked, Mitnick's book is a great visit to the past and a reminder that humans continue to be the weakest link in all computer security.
I'm fortunate to have had time to read some actual books cover-to-cover in the last few weeks. Other than some novels that made for decent beach reading, a notable theme of business, communication and politics emerged. A few reviews are below; I've linked to an online purchase option, but please consider buying from your local bookseller or visiting your local library first.
by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
Published in 2010, Game Change recounts the stories of the 2008 Presidential election with a behind-the-scenes perspective unlike anything I've seen elsewhere. The book reads like a novel (think Joe Klein's Primary Colors or even a John Grisham work) and is simply fascinating to take in. Chapter after chapter paint a nuanced picture of what Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, John McCain and other candidates were experiencing from the time they decided to run until the election itself - it's a narrative that the media simply couldn't have assembled along the way. Knowing of the extensive research and interviewing that the authors did to assemble it together made it all the more impressive.
I haven't been reading at the pace I want to but I've still be able to squeeze in some books here and there. Here are some mini-reviews of a few of them:
Sex at Dawn
by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
Sex at Dawn is an honest and thorough exploration of the history of human sexuality, and what that means for how we understand our sexuality today. Written by some folks who have clearly done their research, it's part anthropological study and part cultural critique, and it's got plenty of witty humor sprinkled throughout.
Let's be honest, it's easy to take the history and meaning of sexuality for granted in a society that throws images and talk of it in our faces left and right - "surely things have just always been done this way, right?" And there's so much pressure to understand, have and be good at sex while also maintaining an extremely nonchalant approach to being a sexual being. But whatever you think you know about why and how people have sex, why monogamy is held up as a moral imperative in modern culture, and how other cultures and species around the world treat sex and sexuality, you should be prepared to be challenged and entertained by this journey through human behavior. I certainly was! Continue reading "Mini-Book Reviews: Sex, Genius, Spying and Cyberwar"