Thursday, May 31, 2012

Book review: "In the Plex" by Steven Levy

It seems like ancient history now, but in the early days of the Internet - around 1997 or so - finding even the most basic information was a big problem. Yes, there were some crude search engines like AltaVista and Hotbot, but their ability to turn up a useful website was spotty at best. If you DID find a good site, you had to be sure to bookmark it, because you might not be able to find it again. Your bookmark list grew huge.

Then came a new search engine named Google with a remarkable knack for finding a page that would answer your question. Users flocked to it and in less than a decade, Google would grow into one of the most powerful companies on the planet.

In the book "In the Plex," author Steven Levy helps explain how a company founded reluctantly by two Stanford graduate students became a force that has changed the way the world works and thinks. Levy was given insider access to Google and offers up insightful, detailed accounts of how Google has come up with one brilliant innovation after another.

The story of the early days of the company is one of the most interesting parts of the book. Larry Page didn't want to create his own company, Levy explains, he just thought he had come up with a really good way of searching the Internet and that someone might like to buy his program. But several companies, including Yahoo, turned him down, and soon he and Sergey Brin were launching their own startup.

After rushing to the forefront in search, Google made breakthroughs in online advertising with its AdWords and AdSense systems - crucial innovations that allowed Google to make money (buckets of it). Then followed a succession popular products like Gmail, Google Maps and Google Earth. Less well-known are the company's flops - it actually developed a social media site, named Orkut, before Facebook, but failed to give it much support and it withered on the vine, Levy says.

The Google workplace was unlike no other, Levy explains. Workers zipped through hallways on roller skates, or bounced on giant balls in meetings. Engineers were king, and to encourage innovation, were told to spend 20% of their time on projects of their own devising. Structure and rigid lines of command were avoided, so that any worker could feel free to critique, even rip apart, someone else's work. On the Google campus, employees could eat free meals at an assortment of restaurants, see a doctor, get a massage, use the lap pool or play beach volleyball (some of these perks have since been cut back).

Levy structures the book well, breaking the book into sections devoted to different products or issues. A long section on Google's troubles in China is interesting, another section on Google political involvements less so. There's a lot of names in here and it`s hard to keep them straight; it`s too bad there's no pictures.

Levy has done meticulous work, but he may have suffered a bit from a writer's version of Stockholm Syndrome, sympathizing too much with his subject. Levy consistently paints a picture of those that doubted Google or tried to stand its way as being too dense to understand the company's brilliance.

In fact, Google HAS been brilliant in many ways, but Levy is far too myopic in a chapter on Google Books. In launching an attempt to scan all the world's books and put them online, Google was remarkably oblivious to the obvious issues of copyright. Were they naïve? Or just flat-out arrogant? Sure enough, the Google Books project brought howls of protest from authors and publishers. Levy's description of the dispute is one-sided and he somehow buys into Google's argument that everyone should just quit their whining because an online book archive would be a darn cool thing. It's a rare weak moment in an otherwise well-done book.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Book review: "The Hunger Games"

Imagine if the TV show "Survivor" featured kids instead of adults, and rather than voting each other off the island, the competitors had to hunt down and kill one another. Amid the bloodshed, two of the teenage participants seem to fall in love. Would that be compelling television, or what?

This, roughly, is the premise of "The Hunger Games" the Suzanne Collins novel that has proved wildly popular among teens and tweens.

As a 51-year-old dad, I know I'm not in the target market for this book. But my daughter, 11, devoured the book, and with all the buzz about it, I figured I should check it out myself.

Mostly, I liked what I found. Collins has created an intriguing, if grim, futuristic world where a rich and powerful central government keeps most people impoverished and scrapping to survive (hmmm, a political message here?).

The story centers on the annual Hunger Games in which children from age 12 to 18 are randomly picked from throughout the country of Panem to fight to the death. The weeks-long, 24-hour TV event transfixes the nation, with each "district" cheering for their representatives and the well-off residents of The Capital betting on who will be the final survivor.

Our hero is Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl who is sent to represent District 12 in the Hunger Games. It's nice to see a tween book with a female character who is as strong and smart as Katniss turns out to be. In this sort of book, it's natural to play along with action, wondering what move you'd make next in the battle for survival, so it's good to have a protagonist who is clever and (mostly) avoids doing dumb things.

Collins sprinkles the story with high-tech twists and imaginative elements like "tracker jackers," genetically altered wasps that attack and torment the games participants.

As the story goes on, a love story develops between Katniss and fellow competitor Peeta. To me, this was the weakest element of the book, simply because it's fairly familiar and less inventive than the other parts.

I also was not thrilled with the ending, which basically leaves you hanging and waiting for the next book. Even when they are part of a series, I like books to have a solid ending.