Everybody Lies (2017) by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is an interesting look at how big data gleaned from the internet can give us a better picture of what people are really like. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz (SSD) did a PhD in economics using search terms from the internet. After his PhD SSD worked at Google. He’s clearly seen a lot of data and thought about it and found a lot of interesting stuff.
The book emphasizes that what people say in public and put on Facebook isn’t what they are thinking. The dramatic use of racist search terms and their locations when President Obama was elected gave a great correlation for where Donald Trump would do well. People say how great their spouses are on Facebook, then they search for why they aren’t having sex with them on google. People outright lie about how many condoms they are using, with both sexes exaggerating substantially.
The book refers frequently to Freakonomics and Steven Levitt and the author states and shows his admiration for the work of Levitt and the way he looks for interesting data.
There are some other interesting observations about violent films and crime, which someone will hopefully soon extend to violent video games and some interesting notes on selective schools. There is even some things on the most unread books around.
The book makes the point that social science and literary studies have a fantastic new source of great data in big data. It’s an interesting and seemingly valid point.
It’s not a bad book and it would be hard to go through without learning something. SSD writes well and there are some fun facts on the way. It’s not great, but well worth a look.
Wonderland : How Play Made the Modern World (2016) by Steven Johnson is an interesting read about the impact of how luxuries and amusements have had on history. Johnson wrote a superb book called ‘How we got to now’ that had a limited number of key inventions that he says lead to the modern world. Wonderland is similarly constructed.
The book looks at shopping, music, taste, illusion, games and public space. The chapter on shopping looks at how the development of shopping fed growth. When looking at music the fact that humans like music and the importance of automatic players is described. Taste concentrates on the importance of the spice trade. Illusion looks at spiritual shows and finally Disney. Games looks at Chess and early computer games. Public space describes pubs and other public spaces.
Johnson is a fine writer and a lot of the information in the book is fascinating. His descriptions of the mechanical works of Iranian engineers is amazing. However, the book is undermined in that the main thesis running through it is oversold. The book is worth reading for a well written and interesting diversion though.
Confessions of a Serial Entrepreneur: Why I can’t Stop Starting Over (2007) by Stuart Skorman and Catherine Guthrie is an autobiographical account of Skorman’s adventures in starting businesses. Skorman founded reel.com which was an early fairly successful dot com in the first dot com boom. He had an entertaining interview on ‘The Internet History Podcast’ recently and the host recommended his book.
Skorman grew up in Ohio and his father ran a business that had a number of stores so he was brought up being aware of retail and business. He went to college and then managed a band in New England. Following that he tried to become a writer and then worked for Bread and Circus, a health food retailer in New England. After that he founded and ran a chain of video stores in Vermont then sold them to Blockbuster and then founded reel.com. Finally he founded a blended pharmacy and new age medicine store.
There is definitely some interesting stuff in the book. The fact that people in the know thought as early as the start of the 1990s that video stores were going to be replaced by online streaming and purchases is interesting. There is also quite a lot of business advice from Skorman. It’s not a bad book but far from the most interesting memoir about dot coms and the like you can find.
F’d Companies : Spectacular Dot Com Flameouts (2002) by Phillip J Kaplan that lists company after company that raised money, burned money and went out of business. Kaplan, aka Pud, created the site F’dCompany that was a really fun site that catalogued the collapse of many dot com companies. I saw him speak in DC not long after the book had been released and he was also an entertaining speaker. I think I read the book around then as well.
The book is of some historical interest because it looks at failure, which is something that isn’t often looked at. There are dozens of books about Apple, Google, Microsoft, Ebay, Amazon and co but few books look at the many, many failures that looked almost as likely at one point. The book is also funny, at least for a while, but the sort of thing that makes a funny blog post (which this book actually predates really – blogs took off after) isn’t what makes a funny book. It gets a bit tiring. But there are still some laughs. For anyone who was around at the time it will bring back some memories.
But reading the book in 2016 makes you realise that a number of the ideas were just before their time. On demand internet video, now known as Youtube, is there. Also a company called ‘myspace’ in their first incarnation as an online storage site. There are also other online storage sites like Dropbox that went insolvent. Hosting companies are also numerous. Also mocked is six-degrees, which was about the first social networking site, long before Facebook. Also mocked are various sites for making internet sites mobile friendly, admittedly over WAP which never took off. Still, an idea before it’s time that doesn’t make any money is a bad idea. It’s also worth noting how many failed companies Amazon was involved in.
If you’d been really smart and looked at the book in 2002 and thought about how increasing broadband and internet adoption was coming and what would work once there was three or four times as many people on the internet as there was in 2000 you could also have founded Youtube or Facebook. Who knows, perhaps some of these companies were founded by people who’d read the book and thought about what would work in the future. This is overly simplistic, there is a lot of skill in making things like that scale but it does show that ideas that do eventually work have often failed before.
There’s something in this book for people who remember the first dot-com boom and people who listen to ‘The Internet History Podcast’ but want to remember some of the many companies who didn’t make it. They style is pretty terrible but the content is there. It’s also worth noting that Pud went on to found some successful companies, so the book isn’t about total disillusionment with the internet, it just shows that there money was too easy to come by and ideas that were half baked got funded like never before and never since.
Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet (2012) by Andrew Blum looks at the physical manifestation of the internet, that is the cables, interconnects and data centres that create the internet. The history of the internet is also briefly examined.
Blum is a journalist who writes for Wired and the book has the style of a Wired article. Blum starts off with problems on his home connection connection and then starts looking at where the wires actually run and how the internet works.
Blum is a good writer and has a reasonably interesting subject. He makes good points about how we now take for granted an amazing technological creation that enables us to look at videos from any connected part of the planet. He points out how most of us have very little knowledge of how it all works.
The descriptions of the places and people where cables come to land and to connect are well done and quite engaging. The book could have been a bit better if there had been more of a technical description of what’s going on. After posing the question of what do people know about how the internet really works Blum seems to not be particularly interested in that aspect of it all.
Tubes isn’t a bad read. It reads like a good extended form of a Wired essay. It’s not a great book but if this kind of thing appeals it might be worth a look.
100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith (2013) by Sonia Arrison looks at how likely dramatically extended lifespans are and what their consequences would be. Arrison is founder and is connected with Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity University.
The idea of dramatically enhanced, or even indefinitely enhanced longevity is really interesting. It’s physically possible, it’s plausible and there is even a trend, that of increasing life span that makes it seem quite possible. Indeed, in 2000 leaving India and spending a day in Bangkok I met a man who was about 40 and firmly believed that he was not too old too see such change, provided he kept himself in really good shape.
Life expectancy has been rising for about 200 years but this has mainly been due to a reduction in child mortality and improvements in basic health. However recently various technologies are starting to promise a dramatic extension in longevity. The sequencing of human genome, AI and the increase in computing power and stem cell research are producing some incredible breakthroughs that may well lead to radical change. Growing replacement organs is going to happen, stem cell replacement and change of cells may well lead to huge change.
The book looks at this and has a lot of interesting information about these technologies, however the book makes the assumption that these changes will happen. It’s a big leap. While it may well happen it’s far from certain.
Beyond that the book looks at the social changes that extended longevity could produce. A lot of ground is covered and it’s fairly well done. Changes in work, finance and even religion are considered. Arrison is very optimistic about the consequences of extended lives and gives good arguments for this optimism. The chapter on religion is also good in that it is respectful of religion and points out that religious people would probably accommodate life extending technologies. The book also discusses people who think that extended longevity is immoral. Interestingly Arrison describes how many of the new technology rich are putting large amounts of money into longevity research. She also complains about how little government work is going into researching life extension
100 Plus is an interesting read, it makes a big assumption that lives will be dramatically extended. This isn’t completely unreasonable but it’s important to note that book isn’t about pondering how likely dramatic life extension is. The facts about the current changes in technology and the well thought through discussion of the consequences of life extension are well presented and most interesting to think about.
Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley (2016) by Antonio Garcia Martinez is a fun memoir of working in Silicon Valley.
The first part of the book is about Martinez starting a company and getting funding and then getting acquired by Twitter, the next part is about Martinez working at Facebook.
The book is far from perfect, Martinez is a very smart guy but is a bit prone to humblebrags, anyone who tells you they were in the bottom third of their PhD Physics program at Berkeley is really pushing it. Martinez also injects a few banal aphorisms and little theories of his into the book which it would be better off without.
However, the book is a lot of fun and has a lot of really interesting information about startups, advertising and Facebook. Having worked at a few small but unsuccessful companies that wanted to get bought out or make it big it’s also worth saying that Martinez captures the feeling of working at a start up really well. The discussion of how web advertising works was really fascinating. It’s a fun book that is worth reading for anyone interested in what’s going on Silicon Valley now.