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Book Notes Tech

Book Notes: ‘The Upstarts,’ by Brad Stone

the_upstarts_cover

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting. They’re neither formal book reviews nor comprehensive book summaries, but I hope you find them useful.

For previous postings, see my Book Notes category.

The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World

Published: 2017
ISBN: 0316388394
Amazon link

Brief Summary

A detailed account of how Uber and Airbnb – two startups that launched around the same time and took advantage of similar new technological trends – upended the taxi and hotel industries.

My Notes

  • This is the second book I’ve read by journalist and author Brad Stone. The first was “The Everything Store,” which I loved and wrote about in an earlier Books Notes entry. That book is the definitive account of how Jeff Bezos made Amazon into a global behemoth.

    “The Upstarts” focuses not on one company, but two: Uber and Airbnb. (I began reading this book in preparation for interviewing Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, last month.)

  • Both Uber and Airbnb benefited from shifting technological trends. As Stone writes, both emerged just as the iPhone and the concept of apps was beginning to take hold; Facebook was growing quickly and encouraging people to “establish their identities online;” Google Maps was emerging and could be integrated by third party apps; and broadband web use was soaring, Stone notes.

  • Both “own little in the way of physical assets.”

  • Founders of both startups lacked lofty ambitions like Google (“organize the world’s information”) or Facebook (“make the world more open and connected”).

    Rather, “Camp, Kalanick and their friends wanted to ride around San Francisco in Style. Chesky and his cohorts were looking for a way to make some extra cash when a conference came to town.”

  • Beyond noting the two startups’ similarities, the book takes a straightforward approach to recounting of how both grew rapidly, encountered challenges, and then overcame them.

    The brash, ambitions, entrepreneurial, math whiz Kalanick was just what Uber needed to grow at a breakneck pace and vanquish rivals. But his personal shortfalls, Stone writes, later got the company into trouble.

    At Airbnb*, Chesky and his co-founders placed an overarching emphasis on the notion of community; they, too, faced some obstacles on their way to success.

    *The original name of the site was Airbedandbreakfast.com, which was later shortened to Airbnb. For some reason I’d always thought the name was “bnb,” for “bed and breakfast,” with an “Air” appended to it.

  • As with “The Everything Store,” which I read to better understand Amazon, I recommend “The Upstarts” if you’d like a better grasp on Uber and Airbnb, and how their early days and culture inform their current activities.

Categories
Book Notes Tech

Book Notes: ‘The Master Switch,’ by Tim Wu

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting. They’re neither formal book reviews nor comprehensive book summaries, but simply my notes from reading these titles.

For previous postings, see my Book Notes category.

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

Published: 2010
ISBN-13: 978-0307269935
Amazon link

Brief Summary

All new communications media are at first open, but come to be dominated — closed — by corporations. “The cycle” is happening again with the internet.

My Notes

In this meticulously researched and prescient* 2010 book, Columbia University Law Professor Tim Wu, who famously coined the term “network neutrality,” shows how radio, film, television and cable all began as wide-open playgrounds for hobbyists. Then large corporations took over, exercised monopoly control, and have stifled innovation.

Wu says this represents “the cycle.” As he writes, “information empires” eternally “return to consolidated order however great the disruptive forces of creative destruction.”

What is “the master switch“? Wu takes the phrase from CBS executive Fred Friendly, who:

…thought that the shortage of TV stations had given exclusive custody of a ‘master switch’ over speech, creating ‘an autocracy’ where a very few citizens are more equal than all the others.’

  • It’s important to note that the book was published in 2010, the same year that the Arab Spring began. Eight years ago there was, in my mind, a much more utopian view of what the web could become: a place for free speech to blossom, where everyone can have a voice and speak truth to power.

That was, of course, long before the rising skepticism of how platforms like Facebook and Twitter wield their power, and long before “fake news” and Russian trolls. And it was, of course, before Obama’s 2015 net neutrality rules — and before FCC Chairman Ajit Pai rolled them back last year.

My notes on other tidbits from history that I enjoyed reading about:

  • RCA dominated radio, then suppressed the release of TV until they could control the medium, Wu writes.
  • In the 1940s AT&T killed through a series of lawsuits an inventor’s simple, useful contraption called the Hush-a-Phone; it was, Wu writes, an example of a corporation stifling innovation.
  • The breakup of the Hollywood monopolies, in which studios owned theaters and produced fairly bland content, gave rise to the “new Hollywood” and classic films of the 1970s, such as “The Godfather” and “Bonnie and Clyde.”
  • At Apple, Steve Wozniak wanted openness (i.e. Apple II, which could be tinkered with); Steve Jobs wanted things closed (i.e. the Mac, which was sealed). Wu says Wozniak told him “That was Steve. He wanted it that way. The Apple II was my machine, and the Mac was his.”
  • Google wants the web to remain open, even though it has enormous power. Wu writes:

    In fairness, it must be allowed that Google has remained more committed to openness than any information empire before it. What now seems possible, if unprecedented, is a well-defended Internet monopolist running a mostly open system.

  • Wu recounts an interesting Google anecdote:

    In the fall of 2010, I was on Google’s campus speaking of cycles, of open and closed, centralization and decentralization. A senior employee raised his hand. “You have a good point,” he said. “When you’re a new company, getting started, openness seems really great, because it offers a way in. But I have to admit, the bigger you get, the more appealing closed systems starts (sic) to look.”

  • Finally, Wu says the stakes are much higher when it comes to the web, compared to other media. That’s because “our future…is almost certain to become an intensification of our current reality: greater and greater information dependence in every matter of life and work, and all that needed information increasingly traveling a single network we call the internet…already there are signs that the good old days of a completely open network are ending.”
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Book Notes Books India

Book Notes: ‘The Other One Percent: Indians in America,’ by Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh

the other one percent

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting. They’re neither formal book reviews nor comprehensive book summaries, but simply my notes from reading these titles.

For previous postings, see my Book Notes category.

The Other One Percent: Indians in America

By Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur, Nirvikar Singh
Published in 2017
Oxford University Press
ISBN–10: 0190648740
Amazon link

Brief Summary

An illuminating look at how Indians in America – a tiny percentage of the overall population – have come to enjoy such outsized success.

My Notes

The jacket copy sums up nicely the miracle that is Indian immigration to America:

One of the most remarkable stories of immigration in the last half century is that of Indians to the United States. People of Indian origin make up a little over one percent of the American population now, up from barely half a percent at the turn of the millennium. Not only has its recent growth been extraordinary, but this population from a developing nation with low human capital is now the most-educated and highest-income group in the world’s most advanced nation.

You read that passage, and the title of the book, right: There are only about 3 million people of Indian origin in the U.S.

That’s an astoundingly low number when you consider their prominence in tech, medicine, finance and more. As a group, they have much higher levels of education and income than other citizens.

How’d that happen?

The short story: A U.S. immigration act in 1917 virtually terminated immigration from Asia. But changes to the law in 1965 opened things up, and thus began an influx of Indians.

But not just any Indians.

The authors – academics at Temple University (Chakravorty), the University of Pennsylvania (Kapur) and the University of California, Santa Cruz (Singh) – argue that Indian immigrants were “triple selected”:

  1. They came from dominant castes and had access to higher education
  2. They were selected to take exams in tech fields
  3. They benefitted from U.S. immigration law, which favored immigrants with tech skills

The book is absolutely brimming with data, and makes for a fantastic resource. (One reason I read substantive books in paper rather than on a Kindle is so I can underline passages, take photos for blog posts like this one, and then put them back on my shelf for future use!)

“The Other One Percent” contains some excellent graphs and charts, like this one, illustrating just how exceptional this population is:

IMG 0645

There were three phases of Indians coming to America:

  1. The early movers, in the 1960s and 1970s
  2. The families (1980s through early 1990s)
  3. The IT generation (after the early 1990s)

IMG 0648

Here’s a map of where Indian-Americans tend to be clustered in the U.S., based on community organizations:

indians in america by geography

And here’s data on the boom in H–1B visas (a topic on which I’ve reported before) issued to highly skilled workers – and Indians’ huge proportion of those.

indian visas and america

Finally, while the book argues that “the success of Indian Americans is at its core a selection story,” the authors do touch on other potential factors. These include:

  • “thrift and pooling of savings”
  • English language skills
  • strong social networks
  • “cohesive families”
  • an experience with social heterogeneity in India that has made them more “adaptable”

I highly recommend “The Other One Percent” for those interested in immigration and immigration policy, the Indian diaspora, and American society broadly.

Categories
Book Notes Books Life

Book Notes: ‘Sapiens,’ by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting.

For previous postings, see my Book Notes category.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Published (in English): 2014
ISBN–10: 0062316095
Amazon link

Brief Summary

A deeply thought-provoking book about how homo sapiens came to dominate the world – and how our advancements have come at a significant cost.

My notes

I love big, sprawling books that tackle huge subjects and challenge you to change the way you conceive of the world.

This global bestseller, which has been all the rage among Silicon Valley technologists in recent years, in particular, is one of the best of that sort of title I’ve read.

It’s a kind of even-bigger-picture “Guns, Germs and Steel,” the hit 1997 book (which I also loved) in which Jared Diamond famously demonstrated the role the environment has played in shaping civilization and material development.

I think anyone who reads this fun, fast-paced, surprisingly easy-to-read book will be hard pressed not to come away with the sense that:

Human life is insignificant in the grand scheme of things;
– Our advancements as a species have been mind-bogglingly rapid, with humans and the planet paying a huge price;
– The way we have been living for the last 200 years is radically at odds with how humans have existed over the long term;
– The jury is out, according to Harari, as to whether humans will survive in the long term. He is not optimistic.

(Okay, all that may sound depressing, I know realize, but still…)

  • Harari, a historian, shows how homo sapiens evolved in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then 70,000 years ago spread out of Africa as the cognitive revolution took over, in which language emerge and allowed sapiens to either kill off or out-flourish other humans, like Neanderthals.
  • We all know that sapiens wiped out the world’s biggest animals, but Harari reinforces this point, recounting how we killed off megafauna from Australia to the Americas over time. Sapiens has historically destroyed everything in its path, and now that we have nuclear weapons, Harari is not bullish on our long term survival. But, of course, the universe doesn’t care about people. Cockroaches and rats are thriving today despite our having driven other creatures to extinction, and could in millions of years evolve into sophisticated creatures, thanking us for demolishing the planet and setting the stage for their rise.

  • The agricultural revolution, which happened about 12,000 years ago, was “history’s biggest fraud,” Harari writes, because it lead to widespread suffering for farmers and laborers producing food for elites, while life as hunter-gatherers may have largely been more conducive to human happiness despite shorter lives and higher rates of violence.

  • 2,500 hundred years ago coinage came into use. Money equals trust. Harari is big on “imagined orders” and the power of ideas to bind or separate us, such as democracy, capitalism, racism and the caste system.

  • The scientific revolution, about 500 years ago, lead to the industrial revolution some three hundred years later, and ultimately imperialism, with all its devastation for those subjugated.

    “The feedback loop between science, empire and capital has arguably been history’s chief engine for the past 500 years,” he writes. Capitalism + scientific inquiry = imperialism.

  • The industrial revolution – while providing us with undeniable material and medical benefits – has meant “family and community” have been replaced by “state and market.”

    “Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members,” he writes. “Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals.

  • Industrialized animal husbandry feeds the world, but “If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.

  • I found the penultimate chapter, on human happiness, to be particularly thought-provoking.

    Money doesn’t ultimately bring lasting happiness due the luxury trap: there are diminishing returns to having fancy things, and someone always has even nicer stuff. That’s the case even for most billionaires.

    Community, family, positive marriages, and living according to one’s values – and with a sense of purpose – matter more. It could be that happiness most flourishes when we buy into belief systems or religious delusions, even if scientifically life has no meaning.

  • Harari seems to promote Buddhist philosophy and meditation as an antidote to alienation. “People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them,” he writes.

  • Ultimately, for all our advancements, human suffering is still rife in the world – whether it’s due to consumerism, ongoing oppression, or other factors. That puts all of our economic and scientific progress into perspective. Are humans actually happier today than tens of thousands of years ago? We are undoubtedly healthier and safer, but we may not be any happier.

Categories
Book Notes

Book Notes: ‘Waking Up,’ by Sam Harris

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting.

For more, see my Book Notes category.

waking_up_sam_harris

Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion

Published: 2014
ISBN-13: 978-1451636017
Amazon link

Brief Summary

An insightful book about the nature of consciousness and why we don’t need religion to better understand ourselves and the world. What we really need is to understand how our brain works.

My Notes

  • Everything in this world shaped by our minds. I like this passage from the very beginning of the book, which sums up quite neatly what Harris, a neuroscientist, wants us to know about consciousness:

Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others…Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved.

  • “I,” the ego, doesn’t exist. Meditation stops discursive thought and helps us understand how our brain works and how it mediates the world around us.
  • Buddhism is different than Abrahamic religions, Harris writes, because it aims to foster an understanding of reality and achieve selflessness. He writes:

Buddhism has been of special interest to Western scientists for reasons already hinted at. It isn’t primarily a faith-based religion, and its central teachings are entirely empirical. Despite the superstitions that many Buddhists cherish, the doctrine has a practical and logical core that does not require any unwarranted assumptions.

And:

Although many Buddhists have a superstitious and cultic attachment to the historical Buddha, the teachings of Buddhism present him as an ordinary human being who succeeded in understanding the nature of his own mind. Buddha means “awakened one,” and  Siddhartha Gautama was merely a man who woke up from the dream of being a separate self.

  • Meditation, like Vipassana practice, is useful in gaining insight into how our minds work.
  • Psychedelic drugs like LSD — the book contains a memorable passage about Harris’s experiences with the drug — are powerful tools, but their use can be perilous.