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.
Okay, not ALL of my books. But a few months ago I did start trying to significantly reduce the number of printed edition books that I was storing at home. It was one part of an overall attempt to minimize the amount of physical stuff in my life. Here I'll share a few thoughts on how it worked.
I'm not quite sure when I made the mental shift toward being ready to get rid of a bunch of my printed books. In the past I've always been someone who was skeptical of digital books and book-reading as a long-term substitute for printed books (though apparently I started changing my mind on that in 2011). I've also always told myself that it's been worth the shelf space, moving boxes and related effort to own and carry around a healthy book collection.
If there was a book I thought I might ever want to reference for anything ever again, I should keep it. A book that felt like it would be worthy of loaning out somewhere down the road was surely a keeper. If I thought I could feel or seem a little smarter or a little more well-rounded by owning a certain book, it stayed on the shelf. If a book was a gift or had an inscription from a friend or loved one, I felt obligated to keep it forever to honor that history. If there was a book I hadn't gotten around to reading or finishing, I told myself it was better to hold on to it for when my interest returned. Books on hobbies long since abandoned and ways of thinking long since changed were all there, just in case.
(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.
This blog post is serving as a bookmark for the recently deactivated website IshCon.org, which I used to maintain.
After reading Ishmael and some of Daniel Quinn's other books and finding them moving and challenging, I ended up being involved in creating and hosting several conferences for other people who wanted to discuss the ideas in the books. Those happened in Richmond, Pennsylvania, Texas, Illinois, etc in the late 90s and early 2000s, and were usually called "IshCon" or some variant of that name.
I also created an online news and discussion community for fans and frenemies of the books (IshCon.org) that was quite active up until it was deactivated in 2005.
I have a guest editorial piece in today's Palladium-Item, End risky economic games. I've also reproduced the edited version of the piece below. I had originally hoped to title it "What can James Bond teach us about economic development?" but I decided that's not actually a question I want to know the answer to. So instead the article focuses on two different labels for economic development models, coined by author Michael Shuman.
I first saw Shuman speak at a conference back in 2005. He's an economist, attorney, speaker, author and entrepreneur, and he's written a number of books on the economic why and how for creating thriving, self-reliant communities. In particular, he posed the labels of "TINA: There is no alternative" and "LOIS: Local Investment and Import Substituting" as shorthand names for the dominant economic development model of today (TINA) and an alternative model that he sees having great success and sustainability on paper and in practice (LOIS).
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: