Book Review: How the Internet Happened

Cover of "How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone" by Brian McCullough.

How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone (2018: Liveright) is the result of Brian McCullough’s researching and hosting the Internet History Podcast for the last few years.

The book’s subtitle tells you a little bit of what the book does and doesn’t cover: This is not about building the network and connecting the academics in the 1960s and 1970s. It is not a social history of the Internet, nor does it cover much of the open-source movement that underlies so much of what the internet is today.

What you will get in this book is a clear sense of how a military/academic network of mainframe computers and terminals familiar to very few became an essential part of most people’s lives. The narrative is often informed by the people at the center of the transformation. Among the topics covered:

  • The transition from proprietary commercial online services to the open World Wide Web
  • The browser wars of the 1990s
  • How the mainstream media botched online news in the early days
  • Amazon, eBay and the birth of online commerce
  • How we began to think of the internet as the “New Economy,” immune from business cycles, and how that bubble burst
  • The origins of online search
  • The birth of digital music and the copyright wars that ensued
  • The rise of blogging and social media after the bubble burst
  • A brief history of how Apple went from near-bankruptcy to being the wealthiest corporation on Earth

McCullough also tells us how Google managed to survive the dot-bomb crash of 2000-01 to become one of today’s dominant companies. This happened almost by accident.

The new version of AdWords had advertisers bid against competitors’ ads, but Google’s system was not simply pay-for-placement. Ever enamoured with math and the power of algorithms, Google ingtroduced an important new ranking factor for the ads it called a “Quality Score.” In essence, Google’s system took into account how often that ad was actually clicked on, in addition to how much an advertiser was willing to pay per click. … Over time, more money would come in from a 5-cent ad that was clicked on 25 times—than from a dollar ad that was only clicked on once.

Brian McCullough, How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone p.230

What this means is that Google discovered the importance of learning everything about its users (meaning: you and I), because they could make money from that knowledge. To fully understand, you should check out Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. I’m reading that now, and will probably have a lot to say about it when I finish. Right now, I can tell you it succeeds in altering one’s perception of what’s wrong with Big Tech.

McCullough is more interested in the businesses that built the web, you’ll get a lot of stock prices, investment numbers, and net worth of the founders. If you liked the National Geographic Channel series, “Valley of the Boom,” you will enjoy the more detailed stories. All the main subplots get at least a mention. If the docudrama elements turned you off, you’ll appreciate the research and storytelling that McCullough delivers.

What scares me most about this book is that, for better or worse, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg comes off the best of all the book’s founders, as the person who (accidentally) really had the purest vision. Once he figured that out, he refused to sell out. That worked out, didn’t it?

I’ve read a lot about the history of the internet, and How the Internet Happened is one of the better ones. I started listening to McCullough’s podcast, which continues on, as a result of this book, and learned a bit from both the source interviews and the collected text. You likely will too.

Book Review: Guy Kawasaki’s “Wiseguy”

Disclaimer: This week marks the publication of Guy Kawasaki’s 15th book, Wiseguy: Lessons from a Life. Having read a few of his previous books, including The Art of Social Media and What’s The Plus? (his guide to the soon-to-be-disappeared Google Plus social network), I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy of this part-memoir, part-advice book.

Cover of "Wiseguy: Lessons from a Life" by Guy Kawasaki
Book cover, Wiseguy by Guy Kawasaki

tldr; Wiseguy is entertaining, but the wisdom isn’t very deep.

Stories

Chances are you’ve heard of Kawasaki through his long association with Apple or from his extensive participation on Twitter and other social media (see the book I mentioned in the disclaimer). Both of these facets of Kawasaki’s life are on display in Wiseguy, but this isn’t really about either. In the very first paragraph of the preface, he describes his intent: “it is a compilation of the most enlightening stories of my life.”

Yes, Steve Jobs makes multiple appearances, but the hardest hitting comment Kawasaki makes is that “it wasn’t easy to work for him; it was sometimes unpleasant and always scary, but it drove many of us to do the finest work of our careers.”

The most interesting bits of this book are the personal ones: growing up in Hawaii as the son of a politician. How he quit law school during orientation week. His various sporting pursuits: Playing football in high school. Falling in love with hockey (as a fan and player) in his 40s, and then taking up surfing in his 60s after his daughter went crazy for the sport.

Guy Kawasaki in the penalty box with Hockey Hall of Famer Eric Lindros.
Kawasaki with Hockey Hall of Famer Eric Lindros

The surfing stories also highlight another theme of the book: the amazing luck Kawasaki has had in meeting the right people at the right time. His surfing teachers include some of the most famous surfers ever (not that I would know, but he doesn’t hesitate to tell us).

Among the stories he tells is his accidental ride in a military fighter jet, arranged after a presentation to the Pentagon Mac Users Group. How he got to be a “brand ambassador” for Mercedes-Benz. How he tweeted his way to an evangelist job at Canva.

Wisdom

After each story, Kawasaki offers us the “wisdom” he gained from the story he’s just told. All these stories are meant to explain how he got to be a “wiseguy.”

Now there’s nothing wrong with the advice he shares. There’s some important ideas in here. For me, the problem is that it’s just not unique. If you’ve read even one self-help book in your life, you’ve probably encountered most of these. After reading the stories, Kawasaki doesn’t offer something he learned that seems counter-intuitive. or different.

Wiseguy: Lessons from a Life is a quick, entertaining read. It might inspire you to do great things. I am going to put one more book on my to-read list after Kawasaki recommends it three times in this 236-page book: If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. See how that goes.

First Gutenberg Post: Why Can’t I Just Write!

WordCamp Milwaukee 2013 Logo

WordPress 5.0 is scheduled for release Thursday, December 6. Some people are terrified of this happening.  I don’t think I’m one of them.

I have turned on Gutenberg for this post. Let me know if weird things happen on the screen while you’re reading.

The one serious issue still in process for WordPress 5.0 is accessibility. For that reason, I don’t recommend that people with issues using a mouse use Gutenberg until a promised accessibility audit is completed. Everyone else should be able to upgrade with reasonable confidence. If you’re the slightest bit concerned with how Gutenberg might affect your experience, install the Classic Editor plugin.

As Matt Mullenweg, team lead on WP 5.0, was announcing the projected release date Monday, I was already writing this post about one writer’s Gutenberg experience. I will now pick up on that original idea. 

Complaints about Gutenberg’s Interface

Last week, Matt Mullenweg published his Gutenberg FAQ. This was a fairly well-reasoned response to his critics.

But a few critics showed up to demonstrate their anger in front of the boss.

There was one guy who responded that “WP is history, and so am I…I feel it is a HUGE STEP BACKWARDS! But then gotta keep all those barely educated millenials (sic) happy.” Unfortunately, he didn’t really explain what his problem with Gutenberg was. Perhaps it was because his website is on Blogger now.

Two other folks offered more constructive criticism, worth examining. Their criticism focused on the way you write in Gutenberg. Thiago writes:

Comment from Thiago on Matt Mullenweg's Gutenberg FAQ post. "Why can not I simply write the way I like, with justified paragraphs, with colors to highlight ideas, etc? My blog, my style!"
Comment from Thiago on Matt Mullenweg’s Gutenberg FAQ post

Paul Marsden has a similar complaint, taken a bit further.

Comment from Paul Marsden on Matt Mullenweg's Gutenberg FAQ post: "You are forcing humans to write in a new, non-intuitive, un-human, inhuman way."
Paul Marsden’s comment on Matt Mullenweg’s Gutenberg FAQ post.

If you haven’t yet tried Gutenberg, these comments might fill you with terror. Let me suggest trying this version of Gutenberg before you call it “inhuman.”

The Gutenberg Learning Curve

Marsden makes a good point about how the Comments editor works, but I’m not sure it applies here. It’s also true that word processors also present a blank screen and you just type until you stop typing. Gutenberg takes a little getting used to, but the height of the learning curve is about the size of a pebble in the road.

Writing

I’ve been using TinyMCE, aka the Classic Editor, in WordPress for nearly 15 years. When I first typed in a Gutenberg block some months ago, I thought it was a little weird that pressing Enter demanded that I select another block. Well, the developer team fixed that. Today, finish a paragraph and another paragraph block appears. If you’d rather have a heading just now, move the mouse to bring up a menu, or type a forward slash like this / (which it helpfully suggests) to choose a Heading block. By default, the menu will make that a Heading 2, but you’ve got options. 

Note: As I’m typing here (in a Paragraph block, by the way), I’ve got a couple suggestions for the team: It would be nice to have a Note block with a border around it to make it stand out. I could add some CSS to make that happen in the Advanced settings for this block (it’s right there on the right side of the editor page), but my CSS skills aren’t quite up there yet. It would also be great to have the Word Count information at the bottom of the screen, like the Classic Editor does. I’ll see if anyone else has filed that as a bug.

Images

My other favorite thing about Gutenberg over Classic is how easy it is to deal with images. Those comments up there? I took a screen shot, put it on the clipboard, and pasted it into the spot. An Image block was created, and I could change the positioning on the page. It just worked! I was hardly ever happy with how graphics meshed with text in the old editor.  You also don’t need a separate window to type Alt Text, and handle the other editing tasks to make the image look right.

If you just want to use something already in your Media Library, you have to create the block first, then choose from Upload, Media Library, or Insert from URL, just like you used to.

HTML, Blocks and Structure

But why can’t WordPress just let me write on a blank sheet of (electronic) paper? Why blocks?

One short answer is: Every web page you’ve ever seen has paragraph tags. Every word processing document has code of some sort hiding out of plain sight. Blocks in Gutenberg should make it easier for you to communicate. It may also have a benefit in that search engines can better find your content (though probably not immediately).

Some folks have noted that the menu of formatting options for writing is not at the top of the screen, always visible. In Gutenberg, those options are available with the push of a mouse at the top of each block. This can be a problem if you can’t use a mouse, but I’m confident this will be fixed soon.

As a writer, I think Gutenberg will make a positive contribution to democratizing publishing on the web.  I think we’re all going to be better at communicating with Gutenberg very soon.

I guess I can say that I, for one, am ready for Gutenberg! I’m hoping to learn more this weekend, watching at least some parts of the Livestream of WordCamp US. Get your free ticket here.

More Time to Get Ready

So much for writing a daily post on WordPress 5.0/Gutenberg! I’m mostly managing to keep up with the plan to spend 15 minutes a day picking something up about the new release; mostly still a lot of reading. Writing about it is even harder to find time for.

Beginning to think a weekly roundup will do, but we’ll see if I can get more done this week.

Pushing Back the Release Date

Anyway, if you haven’t heard, we all have another week to get ready, as the WordPress 5.0 development team pushed back the release date from Monday, November 19 to Tuesday, November 27. It will be interesting to see if the date slips again.

It is my firm opinion that there is nothing magical about a release date. WordPress does not have to release a Gutenberg product so they can book a zillion sales by the end of the fiscal year. No one is anxiously awaiting the arrival of a shrink-wrapped copy of WordPress 5.0 under the tree in December. Matt Mullenweg has always maintained that Gutenberg would be released when it was ready. The team should stick to that.

On the other hand, Mullenweg told WordCamp Portland that “The hope is that the 5.0 release day is the most anti-climactic thing ever,” because so many sites have already decided to install Gutenberg, or stick with the Classic Editor (a version of the existing editor that is compatible with themes and plugins that are also Gutenberg-compatible). We can hope! I’m going to check out the video at WordCamp.tv too.

As I type this, I’m updating the Gutenberg plugin to v4.3. Still haven’t run into any trouble, but I haven’t exactly tried anything fancy yet.

Plan: Working Through “20+ Tips”

WPLift published a list of 20+ Tips for Gutenberg that will serve as a useful jumping off point for me, I think. Any technical article that starts with learning your way around the editor screen is an article that aims at being helpful to new users.

wordpress-gutenberg-editor-tips-1-1024x622

Alternative Editors?

While strolling through my Twitter feed last week, I saw this great chart from Birgit Pauli-Haack, and sent it around:

Of course, what this means is that if you decide you don’t like editing posts in Gutenberg (or Classic Editor, for that matter), you can use almost any word processor or gizmo that you can write with. Write in your preferred tool, copy and paste into the WordPress editor. See the complete chart in a readable version in the link to the Github project.

Birgit not only retweeted my retweet but also included it in this week’s Gutenberg Times update.

Well, back to testing the tips! If you’ve found something interesting and/or horrifying in your own Gutenberg tests, let me know in the Comments.

Previous Posts in the Series

Getting ready for Gutenberg

Getting Ready for Gutenberg: First Weekend

 

Getting Ready for Gutenberg: First Weekend

Sunday I wrote the first post in this series, “Getting Ready for Gutenberg.” It wasn’t the only thing I did to get ready for WordPress 5.0, though.

Getting News About Gutenberg

Nearly everything I know about WordPress 5.0 and the Gutenberg editor comes from two sources: WPTavern and the Gutenberg Times. If you want to be on top of all things WordPress, here’s where you want to start.

I do not know how Jeff Chandler (aka @Jeffr0) and Satah Gooding do it, but WPTavern takes its journalism very seriously. If it’s news in the WordPress World, the Tavern will have the story within hours. Here is everything they’ve written about Gutenberg in the last two years. It’s a lot. Their WordPress Weekly podcast is also helpful, though a little long for folks like me.

Birgit Pauli-Haack compiles and curates a weekly summary of Gutenberg news at the Gutenberg Times. She also shares much on Twitter. All in all, wonderful stuff. I spend Sunday afternoons reading and clicking on the site.

Getting Ahead of Myself

The other WordPress-related task I completed was to sign up for a one-day online course in designing Gutenberg-compatible themes presented by iThemes next week. From a user’s perspective, I fear that much of the content may be over my head, but I think I will learn something about Gutenberg guts, and perhaps hear what developers think. So it will be good.

If you happen to be a theme developer, you may want to check out the course too.

Monday: A New Beta

One thing I learned from WPTavern today was the release of WordPress 5.0, Beta 3. Got that installed on my test system Monday night. If you want to try it on:

  1. Install and activate the WordPress Beta Tester plugin on any non-production installation of WordPress.
  2. Go to Tools > Beta Testing
  3. Choose Bleeding Edge Nightlies to get the latest stuff. Click Save Changes. This is why you don’t want to put the betas where your live website lives — bad things can happen!
  4. WordPress will tell you there are updates. Download and install. You’ve got the new beta!

Tuesday, I’ll play with the beta a little bit when I’m not closely watching US Election returns.

 

Oh, and if it’s Tuesday, November 6, and you live in the United States — Go vote today! Vote.org will help you if don’t know how to find your  polling place and other critical information. WordPress is about democratizing the Web. Voting is about democratizing democracy.