Tag Archives: books

Facebook: The inside story

I’m not a big fan of Facebook. And the odd thing is that it feels like Steven Levy isn’t either.

I’ve read most of Levy’s previous books and, while he’s never been uncritical, there has always been a mostly positive spin. From Apple, to Google, to the “hacker culture” (including Stallman) I don’t recall any of his previous works quite being so down on their subjects.

It’s to the credit of Zuckerberg and his crew, then, that they were so involved in its creation. All the big names were interviewed on the record and, frankly, few come off well. Zuckerberg himself comes across as petty, jealous, arrogant and not terribly likeable. Even Steve Jobs had a fun, mischievous side.

That’s not to say the Levy doesn’t give credit where it’s due. The coverage comes across as fair, so maybe it’s more fair to say that reality is skewed against Facebook than this book!

It covers everything from Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook projects, through to its founding, move to California, early growth and the last decade of being practically ubiquitous.

Most of the early phases have been well documented elsewhere (including in the Social Network movie), which made the discussion of some of Facebooks biggest missteps, and the threads that connect them, the highlight. The focus on growth at all costs, the organisational split between Zuckerberg and Sandberg, and the belief that connecting people is an unalloyed good seem to be the key to most failings and, disturbingly, they don’t seem to have learned that lesson.

Overall, it’s a fascinating, well written book about a troubling company. If we can’t avoid the company, we should at least try to understand it.

How to be right

Sometimes I can’t help being a bit of a liberal caricature. James O’Brien is one too, and he knows it.

In his book “How to be right… in a world gone wrong” he goes through a bunch of topics, from Islam to Political Correctness, and debunks the common arguments, often using transcripts from his radio show. The chapter on The Age Gap is, perhaps, the one that made me think the most.

If you live in the same bubble that I do, you’ll probably find that it’s not essential reading. Which is not to say that it’s badly written or poorly argued or difficult to read. It isn’t. It’s a quick, enjoyable read. There’s just not a lot that’s new.

Bounce

Matthew Syed’s “Bounce” is a pop-science book that I borrowed from the library on a whim. It’s about the the “science of success” and starts with the idea that experts have at least 10 000 hours worth of experience in their field.

It’s… fine. I think I believed the thesis before I started but, while it was easy to read, I’m not sure how much it added.

The third chapter — about deliberate practice — almost had me for a minute, until I realised I’d seen it many times before. You see people at work who claim n years of experience but it doesn’t take long to understand that they just have the same year repeated over and over again; they didn’t grow or learn.

This is also the chapter where I agree with one statement in principle but not in practice. He says that while most of his examples show sportsmen improving their performance, the benefit could also be applied to society as a whole (agree) and that the economic advantage would be shared by everyone (disagree). We’ve seen productivity across countries improve for the last thirty years yet a disproportionate amount of the proceeds have gone to the rich. I’m not sure how we fix that.

He did lose me towards the end. Not that I disagree with where he was going in the last chapters about the reasons behind the success of black athletes1, but I’m not entirely clear that it needed to be in this book. Did he have to hit a word-count? Did he just want to include something he was interested in even though it was only tangentially related to the rest of the book? (Kind of like I did in the last paragraph about inequality.)

Anyway, it was an easy read. I think it reinforced what I already believe but didn’t significantly challenge or ultimately dramatically increase my understanding. Perhaps the 10 000 hours theory has so thoroughly permeated society that this book has been rendered surplus to requirements.


  1. Spoiler alert: it has little to do with their skin colour. ↩︎

Two Brothers

It’s been fascinating watching Ben Elton grow as a writer. I read his first book, Stark, when it first came out. It was political and funny, as you might expect for a stand up comedian. It wasn’t terribly well written, though.

Next came Gridlocked, which was better written but not as funny.

I’d argue that he finally hit his stride with Popcorn, which was a real page-turner, with structure and humour and it was well written.

Two Brothers dispenses with the humour almost entirely, but keeps the drama and everything he’s learned about story writing. The rise of the Nazis provides a familiar structure but the believable characters and unpredictable twists are what makes it work.

His first couple of books may have had me close to tears of laughter. This one has emotion and I was on the verge of very different tears. I say this without hyperbole.

Overall, highly recommended.

Toll

If you read my thoughts on the first book in the Kestrel series, “Changer” you’ll have a good idea of my thinking about the second, “Toll.”

It’s an entertaining, light read. I think that’s the intention, so I don’t mean that as a back-handed compliment.

Compared with last time, the MacGuffin didn’t bother me as much. What jarred were the constant info-dumps.

“[Barcelona is] the sixth most populous urban area in the European Union. Within Spain, it is second only to Madrid. But globally, it does not appear in the first ninety.”

I didn’t choose to read Wikipedia! There are even discussions about climate change and Brexit, which I’m not sure is a good idea. The former, at least, is relevant to the story-line (if a bit preachy) but the latter stands only to date the book.

Anyway, none of that is really a big problem. After “Guns, Germs and Steel” I needed something less strenuous and this totally hit the spot.