Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Search, by John Battelle

The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, by John Battelle

This book is an easy appraisal of the state of Internet search. As search is dominated by Google these days, Google stories dominate the book as well. In general I found this a fairly well-balanced book, discussing both the positive and negative aspects of the topic. When discussing Google, though, Battelle’s obvious admiration for the company (“Google has never known anything but success. The only thing Google has failed to do, so far, is fail.”) is pretty obvious. He tries to temper it here and there (he includes one of my favorite Jeff Bezos quotes, “Well, of course you shouldn’t be evil. But then again, you shouldn’t have to brag about it either.”) but the overall text fairly drips with praise. It was so positive that I was surprised that Battelle used Apple rather than Google when he wrote, “While others argued that the wheel or the internal combustion engine was civilization’s greatest tool, I’d stick to my guns and argue for the Mac.” I am as impressed as anyone with what Google has accomplished, but Google’s potential scares me more than Microsoft ever did! But I digress; back to the book.

Battelle clearly understands not only how search works, but that it will become the most important factor in our interaction with the Internet in the future. He uses excellent examples of how subtly search has creeped into our everyday life, and how in turn this has affected the business world. When discussing why sites that force registration to read or search (such as the Economist and the Wall Street Journal), he makes the astute observation that in preventing people from seeing content, they are reducing their status as an respected authority. “Sites that wall themselves off are becoming irrelevant, not because the writing or analysis is necessarily flawed, but because their business model is.” Battelle gives well thought out examples on what we can expect to see in the next few years; for instance the combination of localized search and mobile devices will level many playing fields: being able to compare the prices of wine on a store-by-store, local level will make it easy to draw conclusions such as, “Whole Foods is ripping you off.” Also briefly touching on the emerging fields of domain-specific research (citing the superb Austin-based Indeed as an authority on job hunting) this book gives an encompassing, informative, and interesting survey of the search business.

First Sentence:
By the fall of 2001, the Internet industry was in full retreat.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Starfish and the Spider, by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom

If you cut off a spider’s head it dies, but if you cut off the leg of a starfish, it grows a new one. This biological truth has been reflected many times in our society: the French underground during WWII, terrorist cells today, open source software, and the Boy Scouts of America to name a few. These examples have led the authors to an interesting conclusion: decentralization is the key to unstoppable organizations. Interestingly, the most successful groups tend to be a combination of spider and starfish: Alcoholics Anonymous is made up of many small circles capable of operating and growing independently of each other (very starfish-like), yet Alcoholics Anonymous World Services is the parent organization that controls copyrights, trademarks, and other intellectual property (clearly a spider).

Sony Records, IBM, and the U.S. government are clearly not starfish (although I suppose you could argue that the original intent of the Constitution was to allow a much higher degree of state autonomy than we currently possess which in turn would dramatically decrease the spider-like top-down authority our federal government wields) and yet are obviously highly successful; given this, how can anyone claim that decentralization is superior? The answer is that a spider-like organization doesn’t imply failure any more than a starfish structure guarantees success, but the latter arrangement of small independent groups make it very difficult for a rival force to control or defeat them. Take a look at the competitors of the earlier mentioned august institutions: Sony (and most of the recording industry) has been crippled by file sharing (Napster, Kazaa, eMule); IBM while still powerful hasn’t been considered an innovator for years, ceding that label to upstart Internet companies; the government has largely failed in the war on drugs and the war on terror. This is beginning to change, however, largely due to the established companies adopting starfish principles. The armed forces and government intelligence agencies have many small, autonomous units that operate with very loose oversight; this has enabled many successes against terrorism at home and abroad. IBM has become a champion for open source software, especially Linux and Eclipse. The recording industry on the other hand has tried to defend it’s market by becoming even more spider-like, foisting DRM on the public and prosecuting individuals for file sharing which in turn is causing a growing backlash of negative public opinion—clearly not a successful strategy.

Obviously I found this book very interesting. The discussions of when decentralization is a positive thing (free speech, the open flow of ideas, privacy—nobody likes the idea of Big Brother) and when it is negative (security, accountability, safety—when on an airplane, would you want the guy in “seat 28J to decide that right about now is a good time to land?”) were spot on. The discussion behind how a starfish confederation is formed was presented in a simple yet compelling fashion: a catalyst helps like-minded people connect and then gets out of the way, his place taken by a champion that relentlessly promotes the idea. This book gives an excellent analysis of a time-proven organizational technique that anyone interested in innovation or corporate evolution should read.

First Sentence:
Don Verrilli might as well have uncorked the champagne bottle right then and there on the marble steps of the Supreme Court—the case he was about to argue was a slam-dunk.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, by William Goldman

The movie The Princess Bride came out when I was in high school and quickly came to rival The Blues Brothers for the top spot in my repertoire of quotable lines. “Inconceivable!” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” “I know something you don’t know. I am not left handed.” “I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.” “Rodents Of Unusual Size? I don’t think they exist.” “Have fun stormin’ the castle!” “As you wish.” “Anybody want a peanut?” “Mawwage.” “Boo, boo! Your true love lives, but you marry another!” And of course, “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Truly a classic. When I came across the original novel on a sale table, I snatched it.

Much like the movie, the book tells two stories in one. The film and the book both tell the tale of Buttercup and Wesley, but where the film has a sick boy being read a story by his grandfather, the novel has the story of the author trying to edit the (fictional) lost text of S. Morgenstern into a manageable form and convince his son to read it. Enough about the movie, though; why was the book so good? In short, it has all the wit and charm with which we are familiar from the silver screen, plus a heavy dose of flippancy and sarcasm.

One of my favorite running gags was when a character would make an anachronistic comment, and the author in an aside would try and explain it away. “‘All aboard,’ the Sicilian said. (This was before trains, but the expression originally comes from carpenters loading lumber, and this was well after carpenters.)” Goldman at one point ends up in an extended aside where he recaps the battle he had with his editor over these. “The copy editor at Harcourt kept filling the margins of the galley proofs with questions: ‘How can it be before Europe but after Paris?’ And ‘How is it possible this happens before glamour when glamour is an ancient concept?’ ... All I can suggest to you is, if the parentheses bug you, don’t read them.” Smart humor like this added a whole other layer to a story I already loved. As I’ve said before I like witty books, and this one certainly qualifies.

First Sentence:
This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights

I was familiar with the famous story of the king that took a different bride every night, killing her in the morning. A beautiful girl named Scheherazade is chosen one evening, and to save herself begins spinning fantastic yarns that can’t be finished in a single session and so she is allowed to live another day. When actually reading this, however, I was amazed at how little I really knew. The back story of why the king was killing women was interesting; apparently he was jilted by his first queen and resolved to never be hurt again. And the heroine wasn’t simply unlucky to be picked and survived with her wits, she volunteered to save the lives of the women of her kingdom. This nobility and courage is reflected in many of the stories told, and eventually heals the king’s irrational distrust of women.

Another surprising tidbit was that two of the most famous tales—Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves—aren’t actually part of the original Arabian Nights. Because the tales developed out of an oral tradition, there isn’t any single reference version of the book. Over the years, various authors, translators, and storytellers have added chapters to expand the scope of the adventure, and apparently Aladdin and Ali Baba (included as an afterward) are two of these added later. The Seven Voyages of Sinbad are considered by some experts to be another set of “orphan” tales, but this edition includes them in the main text. Regardless of the dubious authenticity, I loved this book. Almost 700 pages, but I read it all in nearly one sitting while flying to Singapore.

First Sentence:
Sir, there was formerly a merchant who had a great estate in lands, goods, and money.

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