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.

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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.

Packt Publishing celebrates 2000 titles

Quick note: Maybe you saw my review of WordPress 3.7 Complete a few weeks ago. Packt just published Learning Dart, their 2000th title, and running a “Buy One eBook, Get One Free” promotion.

Learning Dart
Packt’s 2000th title

Packt has a range of books focusing on open source software, programming, and web development, and I’ve used more than a few to learn new technologies.One other thing I like about them is when they publish a book related to open source, they give cash to the related project . These projects have received over $400,000 as part of Packt’s Open Source Royalty Scheme to date.

Packt eBooks come in PDF and ePub formats, so chances are your reader can consume it. This is a good deal.

Book Review: WordPress 3.7 Complete

WordPress 3.7 Complete
WordPress 3.7 Complete

The fine folks at Packt Publishing asked me to have a look at their latest WordPress book, WordPress 3.7 Complete. This is the third edition in the WordPress Complete series, by Karol Krol and Aaron Hodge Silver. I am happy to recommend it to folks looking for a good introduction to WordPress.

Full disclosure: I read the edition covering WordPress 2.7, when I started getting serious about learning WordPress, but missed the edition that covered v3.0.

Packt specializes in web development and open source software books, so you shouldn’t be surprised that the strongest parts of the book are in this area. But you don’t have to know code to find good, solid information here. Chapter 3, “Creating Blog Content” offers a nice introduction to blogging that will help you start thinking about the kind of content to include in your blog, along with an introduction to the WordPress admin pages.The chapter on choosing themes has some excellent questions that you may not think to ask yourself before choosing a theme from the vast collection of choices.

While there’s a basic introduction to WordPress.com, most of the book’s content relates to WordPress on an independent web host. It might have been nice to note what sections (like setting up widgets and working with the Media Library) apply to both the dot-com and dot-org sites.

WordPress Complete really takes off in the second half, where Krol and Silver focus on creating and manipulating themes and plugins. I don’t know about you, but when I started messing with code, the first thing that scared me was the likelihood of me breaking stuff that was already working. Krol and Silver help break down that fear by showing you how to safely remove your header, footer and sidebar from an existing theme’s index.php file (“What, you want me to break my home page!?”), customize each new template file, and reassemble the new modules so that it all works.

Another big plus for the beginning developer is an extensive section about building themes from scratch. After comparing this method with constructing themes with the help of a theme framework like Genesis, Thesis or Thematic, they advise:

… create your first theme manually, just to learn the craft and get to know all the basic structures and mechanisms sitting inside WordPress. Then, as the next step in your mastery (if you’re planning to work on other themes in the future), you can pick one of the popular theme frameworks, get deeply familiar with it, and use it as the base for your future themes from that point on. Such an approach will allow you to reach maximum time efficiency and save you the effort of dealing with the core set of functionalities that every theme needs, regardless of the design or purpose.

After demystifying the process of theme and plugin creation, and introducing BuddyPress and WordPress MultiSite, Krol and Silver focus the last two chapters on “Creating a Non-Blog Website” using the increasingly powerful content management features WordPress offers.

You’ll learn a bit about using Pages to create corporate and e-commerce sites, membership sites and the like. Can I say that as an author, I especially appreciated introducing custom post types by way of creating distinctive ways of listing books on your site? You may see something like this on michaelmccallister.com soon.

Overall, WordPress 3.7 Complete is a fine introduction to WordPress and web development. Incidentally, don’t be upset that the book misses out on WordPress 3.8. With the increasing speed of WordPress core development, all us authors are at a distinct disadvantage–we can only type so fast!

So what do you look for in a WordPress book? Have you read this one? Comments always appreciated.

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A brief review of the NYTimes Tech Book Review

Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but quite a few technology-themed books are vying for a spot under your Christmas tree this year. So many, in fact, that the New York Times Book Review devoted a special issue to them back on November 3,

Now I haven’t read any of the books, but I have read this whole issue, and want to tell you about the books I’m most excited about reading.

Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

by Clive Thompson

Clive Thompson
Clive Thompson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a book that seems to cover one of my favorite technology topics: Artificial Intelligence (AI) vs Intelligence Amplification (or Augmentation). John Markoff (who, like Thompson, writes for the NY Times) introduced these concepts to me in his book on he birth of personal computing in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s, What the Dormouse Said. Gamers and robot fans are familiar with the idea of AI. Thompson’s thesis seems closer to mine: that the real power of computers is their ability to make everyone smarter. I wrote about this earlier in the year when Douglas Engelbart died.

Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart
Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Walter Isaacson, who reviewed the book for the NYTBR, points to Engelbart’s seminal paper, “Augmenting Human Intellect,” for philosophical underpinning for this idea (along with Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” and J. C. R. Licklider’s “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” all terrific pieces). “Thompson doesn’t delve into this rich technological and intellectual history,” Isaacson writes, “What he provides instead are some interesting current examples of how human-computer symbiosis is enlarging our intellect.”

Isaacson, who most recently wrote the big Steven Jobs biography, is now working on a new project “on the inventors of the computer and the Internet.” I may be even more excited to read that next year!

BTW, Slate Magazine is having an online “Future Tense Book Club” discussion of Smarter Than You Think with Clive Thompson on January 14. Click the link for details, and to RSVP.

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

by Brad Stone

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos starts his High Orde...
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos starts his High Order Bit presentation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jeff Bezos has been a very busy guy in 2013. His company continues to grow, acquiring the Goodreads social book review and discovery site, and building distribution centers all over the place (including a new one between Milwaukee and Chicago). He bought the Washington Post on his own, and then gave an interview with 60 Minutes featuring product-delivery drones!

Speaking of that CBS Interview: Read Porter Anderson’s take on what people missed in the 60 Minutes interview while being diverted by drone jokes.

This looks to be a pretty fair history of the man and his company.

Writing on the Wall: Social Media – the First 2000 Years

by Tom Standage

Certainly an intriguing title by The Economist’s digital editor. Reviewer Frank Rose suggests that Standage “asks us to look at media less in terms of technology — digital or analog — than in terms of the role they invite us to play.” The story goes back to ancient Rome and takes us at least through the era of radio, with pointers back to today’s controversies.

Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship and Betrayal

by Nick Bilton

This one came out in the days just before Twitter’s IPO (what a coincidence!), and has generated quite a bit of gossip. As an avid and longtime Tweeter, this should be a fun read.

 

What have you been reading lately? Getting any of the above for yourself or a loved one? Surprised that none of these are eBook-only (no trees harmed in production)? Discuss among yourselves!