Tag Archives: book review

Book review: Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs.

It is the day in Australia to be thinking about poor leadership and its sequelae. And coincidentally I’ve just finished up everyone’s favourite summer hardback brick (all hail the Kindle), the authorised Steve Jobs biography, and I just read this today too:

However, sometimes really smart employees develop agendas other than improving the company. Rather than identifying weaknesses, so that he can fix them, he looks for faults to build his case. Specifically, he builds his case that the company is hopeless and run by a bunch of morons. The smarter the employee, the more destructive this type of behavior can be. Simply put, it takes a really smart person to be maximally destructive, because otherwise nobody else will listen to him.

Why would a smart person try to destroy the company that he works for?… He is fundamentally a rebel—She will not be happy unless she is rebelling; this can be a deep personality trait. Sometimes these people actually make better CEOs than employees.

When Smart People are Bad Employees

Well, good to see that someone understands Jobs better than me.

One major thing that struck me about this book is that Isaacson is really quite flattering about… Bill Gates. It is, however, fairly easy to do this in a biography of Jobs, because Gates was really one of the fairly few people with both power and emotional and financial distance to assess Jobs relatively dispassionately and to go on the record about it. He also never had a intense and short-lived mutual admiration relationship with him in the way that Jobs had with many men he worked more closely with. Gates and Jobs apparently always considered each other a little bit of a despicable miracle: astonishingly good work with your little company over there, Bill/Steve, I would never have considered it believed with your deluded pragmatic/uncompromising approach to software aesthetics.

I read these books mostly for the leadership and corporate governance insights at the moment: unfortunately there’s not a lot here. There is of course a lot of unreplicatable information about Jobs personally: I doubt a firm belief that vegans don’t need to wear deodorant is essential to building a massive IT company. Likewise, if your boss is uncompromising and divides the world into shitheads and geniuses, the solution turns out to (in this book) “be Jony Ive or John Lasseter”. Not really a repeatable result.

It shouldn’t (and didn’t!) really come as a surprise, but if you want to know more about Jobs personally, read this book. If you want to know a great deal about the successes and failures of Apple’s corporate strategy, you’ll largely see them through a Jobs-shaped lens. Which probably isn’t the worst lens for it, but not the only one. In any case, it’s a nice flowing read (I read it in a couple of days) and is ever so full of those “oh goodness he did WHAT?” anecdotes you can subject your patient housemates to, if you like.

Book review: The Commission

Philip Shenon, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation

This is a major contrast to Steven Levy’s In the Plex. Yes, obviously the subject matter is pretty far removed, but aside from that Shenon is all critical sources and critical distance here. If someone was involved in the 9/11 Commission, Shenon and his sources have some criticism of that person. Well, at least if someone was either a commissioner or a senior staffer, that is: it seems that a lot of his sources were more junior staffers, and so there is a touch of reverence in the treatment of them. (On the other hand, what other sources are there going to be?)

Impressively, Shenon seems to have managed this while continuing to get comment from Philip Zelikow, the Commission’s executive director and the person who is by far the most consistently criticised. (Well, possibly excepting Condoleezza Rice, but the Clinton and Bush White Houses, the FBI, the CIA and so on are all more in a cameo role here.) Shenon has gone on to publish all the correspondence he had with Zelikow, but I haven’t read it.

The result is, frankly, a rollicking good read. The major difficulty I have with the book is the difficult I had, while reading it, of remembering the truth of the story: the actual dead people in the towers, the planes, and the wars. It’s all shocking and fascinating: both the failures that led to the dead people (the FBI’s contempt for counter-terrorism, the Bush White House’s diminished focus on terrorist threats prior to September 2001 and subsequent laser focus on Iraq and so on) and the politicking, silliness and compromises that the Commission made both by necessity and by choice.

Some of it is forehead-slapping: the NSA was apparently keen to cooperate with the Commission and set up a special secure reading room within walking distances of their office, which the Commission then proceeded to almost totally and inexplicably ignore, with the result that probably no one other than the NSA has gone through their material in any detail to this day. Some of it is more necessary compromises: US politics made it pretty unlikely that Bush and Cheney were going to be ripped to shreds.

Read it if: you are interested in US politics, you are interested in interpersonal politics in formal situations, you are interested in how the victors write history.

Note: the Commission’s own report is both sold by various bookstores and available for free. There’s a seemingly good e-book conversion by a third party.

Book review: In the Plex

Steven Levy, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

This book started off annoying me by being a little too worshipful of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in my opinion. So clever! So Montessori! These cheeky little geniuses will rock your world! They’re going to take over your brain and you’re going to like it! But it improved early on other histories I’ve read of Google (lest this sound like an unfortunately dull hobby of mine, I mean shorter essays over a period of ten years or so). which tend to focus on a couple of things heavily: the Google Doodles and their approach to raising venture capital. I’ve heard about all I ever want to hear about doodles and Google’s fundraising. Levy doesn’t quite stay away from the latter but it’s mercifully short at least. Instead he gets into things that are more interesting to me, namely the engineering.

He spends a fair portion of the book getting to grips with the basic design of and use-cases of the two key Google products, search and ads, in a way that’s useful to me as someone with a software engineering background, so that was a win. I’m not sure how that would read to people without said background although it didn’t strike me as very technical. Later it deals with some of Google’s key expansions: the creation of its massive set of data centres, the Youtube acquisition, the attempt to become a major search player in China, book scanning and search, and finally, social.

I’ll certainly give Levy credit for finally explaining to me the wisdom that Google “doesn’t get social”, which I hear everywhere and which no one has ever given me a bite-sized cogent explanation for. (This is a terrible admission from someone who is meant to have some idea about the tech industry, yes? But I’m not really your go to person for social either. I use it, but I don’t make sweeping claims about it.) Levy’s bite-sized explanation: Google is philosophically committed to the best answers arising from processing huge amounts of data, and is resistant to cases where the best answers arise from polling one’s friends. Whether it’s true I have no idea but at least it’s truthy.

Levy has created a good history of Google for people especially interested in Google I think, but he largely hasn’t jumped over the bar of making Google into an interesting story for people who don’t have an existing interest in it, in the way that people have done with Enron, for example. There are parts of it that start to get close, particularly the treatment of Google’s expansion into China and its sometime Beijing office. But it’s not quite there. Possibly Levy didn’t have access to enough critical sources, or, if he did, he didn’t use them to their full extent for fear of jeopardising his access to Page, Brin and Eric Schmidt and to the Google campus. (Also, it sounds like Google makes it very hard for any current employee to be an anonymous source.)

Read it if: you are interested in the history of Google, and find them impressive. You don’t need to be a complete fanboy.

Caution for: as noted, not really a book for people seeking a rollicking good story of corporate ups and downs in general; and not really for people looking for really sharp criticism of Google either, although his critical distance certainly increases as the book goes on.

Book reviews: The Big Short, The Zeroes

Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

The story of the subprime mortgage crisis, from the point of view of various traders who were betting it was all a crock for a long time. I originally learned about this book on The Daily Show. Mmm, March 2010. A good time for our local Bing Lee: we went and bought a washing machine with a decent spin cycle and I suddenly put my foot down and said that if I was going to be spending 2 hours each night putting our then young baby to sleep we were going to have a TV recorder to tape The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

If anyone is interested in the genesis of the Ada Initiative, it’s actually that washing machine, because I wrote a blog entry about it that inspired Valerie to get in touch with me after some years of radio silence. (We weren’t mad at each other, we just usually only talk when we have a project cooking. Or when we have washing machine thoughts, it seems.)

Ahem, Lewis’s book. A fun tale of investment outsiders who were shorting subprime mortage bonds by buying credit default swaps against them. They ranged from cynical to apocalyptic. They were mostly social misfits or investing misfits or both. (Aren’t we all misfits?) It’s a well-told tale, but it’s not a true insider’s tale. What was happening at Goldman Sachs, again?

Caution for: it’s from a trader point of view, so while at least one person profiled believed he was watching evil happen, we aren’t talking radical critiques of capitalism or anything here.

Bonus: As I said earlier, I wish I could read expert reviews/rebuttals for almost every non-fiction book I read. And this time I could. Check out Yves Smith, Debunking Michael Lewis’ The Big Short.

Randall Lane, The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane

Another insider-but-outsider tale of the bond market of the Naughties (the Zeroes, as Lane calls them). Lane was the co-founder of Trader Monthly, a glossy freebie magazine for Wall Street traders. This brought him into contact both with traders themselves, jockeying or not to be profiled as hot up-and-comers, and luxury goods advertisers keen to get in on bonus season.

It’s about equal parts how-my-magazine-startup-failed, which is interesting enough—a combination of it-could-happen-to-anyone road bumps, and getting into business with some real jerks—and what-were-they-like-these-traders. Entertaining enough as a library loan (which is how I read it), but I probably wouldn’t have actually purchased it. Still a bit of an outsider’s tale.

Book review: The Wisdom of Whores

Elizabeth Pisani, The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS

I picked this up when it briefly was a free ebook giveaway in 2010. Was that less than a year ago? Seems like a long time. I had not got through Jonathan Engels, The Epidemic: A Global History of AIDS, finding it not-global and spending too much time emphasising that the AIDS activists from the gay community really should have understood that they were viewed as sinners. Or that’s how I remember it now. I’m still interesting in the story of AIDS in the US, but I want it billed as such.

Anyway, Pisani’s book is an epidemiologist’s view of working in HIV research and prevention in (mostly) Indonesia. It’s partly a story and partly an argument that HIV/AIDS funding and approaches need some revision. In particular: prevention is cheaper than treatment, so while treatment is essential she thinks prevention is very underfunded. The approaches used successfully in the high-infection-risk communities in the US don’t all translate well to other high-risk groups. Emphasis on “everyone’s at risk” is nice for funding but is essentially bogus in most cultures: in most cultures sex workers, drug users, and people who have anal sex with multiple partners are at risk. (She argues the African epidemic is due to multiple long-lived concurrent heterosexual relationships being very common in some African cultures. This means that when someone has a primary HIV infection, one of the most contagious times, that they will often have more than one partner to potentially transmit to.)

I simply don’t know how valid her arguments are, because I know next to nothing about epidemiology, public health or HIV/AIDS, really. One of many books (almost anything outside my expertise) where I wish I could see expert reviews to read alongside it.

Read it if: you are interesting in HIV/AIDS, the UN, charity and NGO stuff, Indonesia, trans issues, sex worker issues.

Caution for: every so often she likes to add in a teaspoon of “I’m not PC!” She actually is, somewhat, anyway, but she likes to revel a touch in how her hip UN “AIDS mafia” crew were just such good buddies they could throw the lingo (about trans people, drug users, sex workers) in the bin. Also you may not actually agree with her on where HIV/AIDS funding should go, but it’s a book, you run that risk.

Books I haven’t finished lately

A sort of an inverse book review, books I have closed, or returned to the library, without finishing them.

Treason’s Harbour by Patrick O’Brien. I probably will finish the Aubrey-Maturin novels at some point, but I don’t think it’s going to be this year, and perhaps not next. I’m not sure exactly why I suddenly went off them, but I think it’s because I don’t like Jack as a character very much. He’d probably be a lovely person to complete your table for dinner (better than Stephen for many dinners), but I don’t want to read twenty novels about him in a short period of time.

Generation text: raising well-adjusted kids in an age of instant everything by Michael Osit. I am in theory deeply interested in problems relating to cyberbullying and so on. In practice I have no patience for the write-ups. As an example, Osit early on compares hypothetical Bobby, fresh-faced teen of the 1960s with surly hypothetical Jake of the late 2000s. Bobby loves his mother’s eggs for breakfast! Jake never leaves his room, because his six speaker sound system is replacing parental affection! Remember your childhood, Osit seems to be asking. Before there was all this stuff?

Well, no, not really, not as you mean it. Bobby is my mother’s age! There are very few people who were teenagers in the 1960s and who are parents of teenagers now. Bobby may well be a grandfather, or at the very least wondering why his 30 year old son won’t leave home despite having so much money to spend on a soundsystem.

I was born in the early 80s. I had an email address before I left high school. I am one of the very last groups of middle-class Australians who did not go through their teens with their own mobile phone. (I got one at nineteen, and my fourteen year old sister had one before the end of that year.) Once at a sleepover my fifteen year old friends and I collectively had terrible cybersex with a random guy (or perhaps another group of teen girls?) on a Yahoo! (or something) chat room. It’s going to be a while before authors of books on parenting teens are aimed at me, I can see that.