Review of “Veins” by Drew

We know the list. We have heard it so many times it does not mean anything.

  • The poor
  • The hungry
  • The weeping
  • The hated
  • The ostracized
  • The insulted
  • The scorned

In Veins, the list means something.

The narrator of Veins is a man who meets six of the seven beatitudes found in the Gospel of Luke. The author begins by emphasizing the generic humanity of the main character, a man who is suffering

My name is M.R. I hate it when people use my first two names, or my first name. I didn’t get to pick them so every time someone says Michael its like my dad is yelling. So if you want to talk to me, you can say Hey Man, or M.R., or you can just say Dude. I like Dude the best because it automatically means you’re cool if someone calls you Dude.

Veins is a sad book. Very sad. At times it is a novella version of Pedro the Lion’s song, “Big Trucks“:

Just remember that the next time you’re in a car and you go around a mail truck. If the driver says “F— mail truck,” tell them “There’s a real person in there, and he doesnt’ want to go that slow either.”

A major theme in “Veins” is that M.R. is fascinated by slogans, sayings, and aphorisms. One of the most meaningful lines in the entire novel is a play on the expression, “That’s life”:

“If good stuff happened to use until we died, it wouldn’t be called Life. It would be called Great.”

The one beatitude M.R. does not match is weeping. Just as the list of beatitudes come meaningless with repetition, so are the instructions in the very next verse

  • Be glad
  • Leap for Joy

M.R. feels his suffering too much to leap for joy, but his optimism is far brighter than many who are rich, well-fed, and well spoken of:

That’s why they call them goals.” If you already did them, they’d be called history.

and

Microsoft didn’t take my slogan either, but they said “Thanks for trying.” when they wrote back. That’s really nice, and it makes me want to get Windows and use it a lot. I just wish that when I turned it on it said, “Think Microsoft is small and soft? Think again.”

The sorrow of Veins would be unapproachable without comic touches, and here the novella does not lack. Veins is written by “Drew,” the hilarious author of Toothpaste for Dinner.

Veins is the most haunting piece of fiction I have read in some time. Highly recommended! Buy it for the Kindle today!

Review of “In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives,” by Steven Levy

Disclaimer: My employer is a specialized consultancy, and my responsibilities include working on-campus at a large software giant in Redmond, Washington. I do not work on search, but I do work with many of the technologies described in this book. I am probably a biased interviewer, and I know that some of my experiences deeply colored (in a good way, I thought) my impressions of this book.

With that said…

In the Plex is the most timely business book I ever read.

In the Plex begins, and ends, in India. India is the symbol of the new world, of business opportunity, and of hope, so the Steven Levy begins In the Plex with a “blazing hot July day in 2007, in the rural Indian village of Ragihalli, located thirty miles outside Bangalore.” Twenty-two feature Google leaders met with the locals, looking for new opportunities and expanding their view of the world.

It half worked. Most of those 22 are no longer with Google. In the Plex chronicles the rise and stagnation of Google: the founder of Blogger left… to found Twitter. The founders of Dodgeball left… to found Foursquare. Many ex-Googlers now work for Facebook. And one of the final scenes in India, reported second-hand, is this short sentence: “I’ve sen beggar kids who use their money to get on Orkut.”

Orkut is one of (four) distinct social-media failures by Google: the others being Knol, Google Wave, and Google Buzz. The story of In the Plex is the story of how Google could rise to dominance in the search engine status, while defenselessly watching as the social media space eclipsed its original business.

Indeed, the story of Orkut is the story of Google in miniature.

Orkut was an internal Google project headed by Turkish software developer Orkut Büyükkökten to build a social media site. As Levy writes:

Was it a sign of the company’s distrust of the insufficiently algorithmic nature of social software that the product was not branded with the Google name? “We wanted to see if it could stand on its own two feet,” says Melissa Mayer [a Google manager who led the trip to India that begn the book] a stricture not required from such Google services as Gmail and Google Maps.

Orkut not only suffered from not being a “Google” product — it was allowed to run slower than other Google services, and few engineers were assigned to the project. Even a Facebook continued its exponential climb, Orkut was allowed to flounder, only finding success in Brazil and… India.

Just as Google once sought out India, once sought out the new, by the end of In the Plex Google simply allowed the new to happen to it.

There are perhaps two reasons for Google’s slumber. One is its bizarre management structure. For a while Google simply abolished the management profession entirely, flattening the entire company to three levels (individual contributors, heads of departments, and the triumvirate of Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt). Even after this cultural revolution was undone, the company was led by the uniquely unhappy triumvirate.

Schmidt reminds me of no one so much as a Chinese official under Mao, an individual whose bizarre praises of the leader are obvious clues to anyone sensible that Schmidt is completely disclaiming responsibility from the company’s increasing erratic moves.

“Larry is the brilliant inventor, the Edison. Every day I am thankful I accepted this job offer.”
“Genius? I think so.” [referring to Larry Page]
“This was very clever on Larry and Sergey’s part” [referring to Google poaching Firefox engineers to work on Chrome]

Mixed in with “personal views” which directly contradicted Google policy

“My personal view is that private information that is really private, you should be able to delete from history.”
“Google has five thousand years of patience in China.”
“I didn’t want to moon the giant [Microsoft].”

Schmidt of course was fired by Larry and Sergei, and soon after his dismissal Schmidt’s deputy, Jonathan Rosenberg, quit in protest. It is shocking how disrespectful Rosenberg was in the book, as during the writing he still worked in the company.

At one point in his canned presentation, Rosenberg stared at the spreadsheet calculation in his PowerPoint deck and corrected a subtle mathematical error. Everyone was blown away. (In fact, Rosenberg knowing that Sergey Brin was supposed to be some sort of math Olympian had planted the mistake and faked his spontaneous discovery.)

and

But [Rosenberg's] first year was awful. Larry Page would sit in meetings and second-guess every move Rosenberg made. “I would come to the staff meeting with my structured agenda, the market research we needed to do, the one- and two-year roadmaps that we needed to develop, and Larry would basically mock them and me,” Rosenberg later said.

Jonathan’s calculation must have been that Larry would be marginalized, so publicly mocking the co-founder would simply distance himself from Larry’s and Sergey’s decisions. What Eric tried to do through praise and personal off-sides, Rosenberg did through mockery and complaints.

Other incidences — for instance, Larry requiring CEO Schmidt to share an office with another employee — are littered through the book, but “What is wrong with Google” has another answer besides “Facebook” and “Chaos.”

Arrogance is how the mighty fall.

None of us are as right as we think we are.

We are learning machines. We make mistakes, and others zoom ahead. We are at our best when we criticize our faults to ourselves, and praise our competitors.

Such a view of the world leads directly to oligopoly in most human endeavours. Monopolies naturally form in a capitalist system, and in the computer industry several are worth mentioning

  • Amazon is the world’s bookstore
  • Apple is the world’s luxury computer company
  • Facebook is the world’s gathering place
  • Microsoft is the world’s supplier of operating system

It is not illegal to be a monopoly, but it is illegal to buy one’s way to monpoly status or to abuse one’s monopoly powers. With this in mind, the corporate behavior of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft makes a lot of sense.

  • Amazon has not used its giant database to take on Facebook, nor has it attempted to purchase Barnes & Noble
  • Apple has not used its technical expertise to try to displace Microsoft’s share of the low-cost computer market, nor has it attempted to buy Microsoft’s operating system division (which it has the market cap to do)
  • Facebook has not used its powerful brand to try to own the luxury music player market, nor has it attempted ot purchase MySpace.
  • Microsoft, since the departure of Gates, now links to Amazon, Apple, and Facebook properties through its Bing search engine, and has not attempted to buy a new monopoly since its failed takeover of Intuit in the 1990s.

By contrast, Google has been unfocused, challenging other incumbents everywhere. Steve Jobs famously asked, “Apple didn’t enter the search business — so why did Google get into the phone business?” ChromeOS and Google Apps directly challenges Microsoft’s Office and Windows divisions. Google Print directly attacks Amazon’s role as the world’s book seller. And just now, Google +1 takes on Facebook… again.

This is not to say that competition is not good for consumers. It is good. But as Jim Collins wrote in How the Mighy Fall, arrogance is even worse for organizations.

-

Centuries ago explorers tried to reach India. For a few brief years, Google seemed at home in that new world. But there are obstacles on the road, and if Google will rise again the nature of these obstacles should be addressed.

One relates to China.

Can you guess what search pattern generated results like these:

The answer of course, is a search for the company’s name and “China.” Google alone failed to compete in company, and worryingly this decision to support civilizations apartheid was led by Sergey Brin (who threatened to leave Google if Google would not leave China).

Just as Google (like Microsoft of the 1990s) sees itself above American law — the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice are just two standing bureaucracies that repeatedly object to Google’s behavior — it sees itself above the Chinese marketplace as well.

Sergey Brin, it should be remembered, came to this country only because of the intercourse of ideas – Sergey’s father, a scientist in the Soviet Union, encountered westerners for the first time in at a conference at Warsaw, and soon after applied to leave Communist Russia. Yet instead of treating China as a business opportunity, instead of seeing the Party as something to be managed, instead of lightening the way for Chinese “Brins,” Google flamed out, embarrassing its friends in the government and hurting its employees.

A final, and sad, coda, is the end of idealism at Google. During their IPO, Google warned investors that the company would spend 1% of revenue and 1% of equity each year on charity. After walking back from this, Google now includes in its “charitable” lobbying politicians and investing in companies aligned with its business.

The former Microsoft CEO was particularly harsh:

Bill gates said that [Google]DotOrg “is the most publicized foundation in the world, and it’s tiny. Expertise and analysis is this much of what is needed.” He made a gesture with his thumb and index finger a half inch apart to indicate how insignificant the amount was. “You make an impact with money,” he continued, referring to DotOrg’s outlays, in tens of millions compared to his own foundation’s billions. “Your analyze won’t help sick people or save people’s lives! You do that with monnnn-ey.”

In the Plex is a fantastic book about the search engine giant, its history, its management, and its future. I bought it on Tuesday and finished it on Thursday. Highly recommended!

Review of “Renegades of the Empire,” by Michael Drummond

Renegades of the Empire is a 1999 book by Michael Drummond. Renegades is an odd book, focusing primarily on a small political faction within Microsoft and two projects with which it was identified. Drummond’s LinkedIn profile lists as an accomplishment, “Managed Shiite, Sunni employees as Baghdad bureau chief at the height of the U.S. military surge,” so presumably he knows something about in-fighting!

Specifically, Renegades focuses on Alex St. John (eventually CEO of WildTangent), Eric Engstrom (eventually CEO of Wildseed), and Craig Eisler (now a Corporate Vice President at Microsoft, and former blogger) through two projects, DirectX and Microsoft Chrome/Chromeffects. If you’re a PC gamer, you’ve heard of DirectX, a multimedia technology that many games use to have more lifelike graphics and sound. Almost no one has heard of Chrome/Chromeffects, initially an advanced browser, and finally a bucket of technology subsumed by other groups. The political machinations that occur in the background continue to impact the company, such as the rise of Jim Allchin (who became head of the Windows group, only to resign the day Vista shipped and is now a musician) and the ever-increasing importance of Steve Ballmer (now the CEO).

In my mind I compare Renegades to four previous books with similar themes

  • I Sing the Body Electronic is an on-the-ground account of the near-collapse of the “Encarta Kids” project at Microsoft
  • Microserfs is a fictionalized treatment of ambitious employees at the company
  • Crystal Fire, focusing on Bell Labs, is an analogous story of three men attempting to push their vision on an organization.

Against such fine competition, Renegades comes up short. While I Sing the Body Electronic finally differentiates between characters and explores the link between personality quirks and project fates, Renegades focuses on three stereotypical alpha nerd. Microserfs, similarly set in the mid-1990s, features much more sympathetic protagonists. Crystal Fire, exhaustively researched and with the benefit of historical context, charts the rise of an entire industry.

Michael Drummond has had an excellent career since Renegades of the Empire, and I would be fascinatined if he came out with a second book. Considering the heavy competition in the niches that Renegades occupies, however, it is difficult to recommend this book.

Review of “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962,” by Alistair Horne

A Savage War of Peace is one of the best books I ever read.

It is the story of three separate wars, all of which concerned the future of the city of Algiers, which is now in Algeria, and used to be in France.

The First War: The Fourth Republic Against the FLN, 1954-1958

The first war is the three-way fight for the future of Algeria between the FLN, the Pied Noir population, and the Fourth Republic. This war, occupying the first half of the book, in many ways resembles the American experience in Iraq.

The FLN was a terrorist organization that was anti-Western, anti-Communist, anti-Liberal, and anti-Semitic, and initially counted in its supporters many Muslim opponents of French rule and a small but dangerous coiterie of deluded western fellow travelers.

The Pied Noir, generally white (but not ethnically French) settlers, composed a minority of the overall Algerian population but the vast majority of its “European” residents. Analogous to the (relatively) educated and (relatively) affluent Sunni community in Iraq, it was situated half-way between the French metropole and the Algerian bled. As beneficiaries of the welfare state, the Pied Noir were politically affiliated with Petain’s collaborationist government and hostile to liberal democracy.

The Fourth Republic, the democratic French state, inherited from its pre-war predecessors a dicey situation in Algeria. The millet system, inherited from the Ottoman Empire upon France’s conquest of Algeria in 1830, let the initial Muslim community live under Sharia Law while the European community lived under French law, voted in French elections, and so on. The increasing power of the French state, however, made this situation decidedly unequalal. The Fourth Republic’s mission was to essentially reestablish the status quo before the rise of the French state, to allow the Pied Noir to be full citizens of the Republic while also allowing the Algerians to effectively government themselves.

Each of these three factions had specific challenges. The FLN, paranoid, fratricidalal, uneducated, and given to a degree of sexualized hyperviolence that would make al Qaeda in Iraq blush. The Pied Noir, demographically the weakest faction, were (barely) an over-class in Algeria while suffering the lowest living standards of any group of French citizens. The Fourth Republic, established after Petain’s collaborationist military dictatorship, attempted to avoid a return to tyranny by creating a weak executive.

The first four years of the war would be extremely familiar to all Americans, because of the analogous first four years of the Iraq War (2003-2007). The FLN began a campaign of murderous terrorism while (in the early days) enjoying the tolerance of the local population. Counter-insurgency operations included torture, which worked in some cases and not in others, but alienated those French intellectuals who believe that war is a gentleman’s pursuit. The Pied Noir often exasperated their military protectors through their fear of what any political change might entail. The organized combatants — the FLN and the Fourth Republic — both experienced stress as the the FLN’s military capacity was destroyed in proportion to the Fourth Republic’s political standing.

In the United States, a stable constitutional liberal republic, what happened next was the following: our party system allowed millions to funnel their frustration in a candidate of “hope” and “change” who, of course, changed nothing. Simultaneously, in Iraq, the Sunni minority accepted the lost of their political hegemony while securing for itself security and self-government. The military policy of the American government was continued, and the war is perhaps as “won” as any counter-insurgency operation can be. With body-count now sufficiently low, the issue simply fades away as other issues of the day (the economy, jobs, cultureal issues) dominates politics in both the United States and Iraq.

France, unlike the United States, was not stable. Remember that the German occupation was made possible only the collaboration of Marshall Petain, the war hero who had previously saved France from German in World War I.France had the weakest resistance of all “occupied” countries, and was the most energetic in its economic collaboration with Germany. This led to two disastrous consequences for France

  1. The natural modernization of the political culture of Algeria was profoundly harmed. The War experience both artificially accelerated expectations among Muslims for their political ascendancy while also teaching the Pied Noir that their political stresses were the result of democracy, which might not always be the French form of government
  2. The “Vichy” and “Free” French regimes were both led by military men, which led to a belief that neither civilian leaders nor higher officers should be entrusted with the war effort. It was up to each officer to decide what is “right.

While the FLN collapsed on schedule, France would not be so lucky.

In France, unlike America, democracy itself collapsed.

The Fourth Republic’s plans of abolishing Sharia and integrating the Muslim population into Algeria ran into violent opposition from the Pied Noir, who feared the loss of their ability to control Algeria at some future date to be more frightful than the barely standing FLN enemy. The military, angered by actions by the Fourth Republic that in retrospect only trivially effected the war effort (granting independence to Morocco and Tunisia, etc.) had taken to disobeying orders. And in the background, refusing to condemn violence as a method of seizing power within France, stood the man who would end democracy in the country: Charles DeGaulle.

The military, egged on the Pied Noir, began seizing government offices and replacing Governors with its own appointment. As the machine of the coup churned, DeGaulle made it clear his support was contingent on the end of the Republic and the granting, to him, of dictatoral powers. The French experiment in democracy ended in 1958, with the military and Pied Noir factions successfully ending the Fourth Republic which had slowed down the efficiency of their victory over the FLN, and the enthronement of DeGaulle. DeGaulle prompted gave the French Assembly a “Vacation” as he ruled by decree for months on end.

The Second War: DeGaulle Against the Pied Noir, 1958-1962

There is no mystery about DeGaulle’s personality, aims, or ruling style. Anyone familiar with Chiang Kaishek or Mao Zedong instantly recognizes the type. DeGaulle’s method of management was “working towards the chairman,” in which he vaguely states operational objectives and allowed underlings to carrry them out. DeGaulle identified himself with the nation though not with any specific ideology, and so viewed personal enemies as enemies of the state. Also like Chiang and Mao DeGaulle was a profoundly cold man, whether concerned with the fate of individuals or groups.

As DeGaulle identified himself with France, his two greatest strategic interests were (a) preventing Germany from emerging as a competitor as (b) liquidating any remaining supporters of Marshall Petain. The first led him to support close economic integration with Germany. The instrument of that campaign (barely mentioned in A Savage War of Peace) are the institutions that would eventually form the European Union. The second led him on a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Pied Noir population. The instrument of that campaign were the scattered and defeated remnants of the FLN, who so many had died in vain to defeat.

Just as Chiang and Mao coolly maneuvered others into liquidating their enemies, DeGaulle began setting the stage for the resurrection of the FLN and the ethnic cleansing of the Pied Noir. DeGaulle’s efforts occurred in several stages

1. Ceasing offensive operations against FLN remnants
2. Turning in leaders of the Algerian Awakening to the FLN
3. De Facto Recognizing the FLN as the sole legitimate representative of the Algerian people
4. Imposing a “unilateral truce” on French forces
5. Directing French negotiators not to hold out for guarantees of the safety of the Pied Noir
6. Instructing the French army not to intervene even when Pied Noir are murdered before their eyes
7. Disarming Pied Noir and Pied Noir allies to facilitate FLN massacres

During this DeGaulle responded to protest by having tanks bombard civilian buildings at close range, ban opposition political groups, ban demonstrations, use torture against French citizens, and all other techniques which today we would associate with Gadafi’s Libya.

The Third War: The OAS Against French Algeria, 1960-1962

Of course, the people who had overthrown the Fourth Republic and installed ad DeGaulle were shocked and outraged by his policies (but not, it is important to remember, his abolition of democracy). After peaceful protests, boycotts, and even military coups did not work, elements of the French military and the Pied Noir population formed the OAS (Secret Army Organization), which had both a primary and a fall-back goal

The primary goal was to attempt to prevent the DeGaulle/FLN victory by establishing itself as a terrorist organization along FLN lines, and establish itself as a “third force” in the reality of any peace process. The hope here was to force the hand of the French government.

Once the primary goal was seen to fail, terrorism as such was abandoned as tactic. Dictatorships such as DeGaulle’s France (or Franco’s Spain, or Chiang’s Taiwan) are of course immune to terrorism as a tactic. Therefore, the OAS moved onto splitting DeGaulle and the FLN by manipulating events to attempt to force a FLN-OAS united front.

The FLN, composed largely of violent and uneducated hicks, did not have the manpower to actually run a government. They were not more adept to governing a modern Algeria than, say, the Taliban could effectively govern Alabama. Some of the FLN (particularly leaders of other factions which had been absorbed early by the FLN) were aware of this, and exacerbating this situation could possibly lead to a cold detente. The OAS thus began systematically executing all non-Pied Noir government functionaries. In one outrage (intended both to highlight their destruction of the machinery of government while also emphasizing their basically pragmatic purpose), they executed 2 white postmen, 2 Muslim postmen, and 1 Jewish postman in one night.

DeGaulle responded by strengthening the position of the least educated factions of the FLN, to close this last attempt to the Pied Noir to save themselves. Eventually, in 1962, DeGaulle won the war, as the Pied Noir were scattered and the last internal threat to his rule.

The ethnic cleansing of an entire people would buy DeGaulle seven more years in power. A trade that Mao, Chiang, or Gadafi would have accepted as eagerly as did DeGaulle.

In Retrospect

A Savage War of Peace is a history of tragedies and ironies.

DeGaulle. DeGaulle ended democracy in France, and brutally suppressed those who fought for their rights and livelihoods. Vain, arrogant, and machiavellian, he successfully oversaw the ethnic cleansing of a community he viewed as antagonistic to his political future. But his self-confidence was stronger than his paranoid, so like Chiang (but not Mao) he laid the groundwork for the return of democracy. Just as Chiang’s “White Terror” eventually gave way to free & fair elections in Taiwan, DeGaulle allowed himself to be defeated by the vote (and old age) in 1969. At the same time, DeGaulle’s fear of a German revival lead him to energetically push forward the multilateralal institutions that now form the European Union.

The Communists. The dog that never barked was the Communists. Concerned with the poor Pied Noir early in the war, the French Communist Party ended up having the most reasonable policies of all factions during the war against the FLN. Later, after DeGaulle’s coup, the Communists continued to be a force of order as they accurately saw DeGaulle simultaneously alienated the United States while constraining Germany. In French, as in Chinese, history, pro-Moscow communists tend to be sympathetic characters.

General Salan. The most interesting human in the entire book is General Raoul Salan, Légion d’honneur (Knight, Officer,Commander, Grand Officer, Grand Cross), Médaille militaire, Croix de guerre, Croix de guerre, Croix de guerre des Théatres d’Opérations Exterieures, Croix de la Valeur Militaire, Médaille Interalliée de la Victoire, Médaille Commémorative de la Grande Guerre, Distinguished Service Cross (US), Commander of the Order of British Empire (CBE) (UK), and the only person to lead operations in all three phases of the war.

  • Salan was an early leader of the French military in its counter-insurgency against the FLN, and was nearly assassinated by a bazooka by enraged Pied Noirs.
  • In the second war, Salan organized resistance to DeGaulle’s authoritarian government and attempted to organize a second military coup.
  • In the third war, Salan was a leader in the OAS and ordered the general mobilization of the Pied Noir population, and the extermination of the Muslim intellectuals.

Given the history of French military leaders, one imagines if he had ever gained executive power he would have been as bad as Petain or DeGaulle. As it was, however, he strikes the reader as a romantic figure, fighting for a lost cause against impossible odds.

Context. If most Americans are aware of the Algerian War at all, they know it from The Battle of Algiers. But that movie, showing a terrorist campaign by the FLN and its defeat, only accurately captures the first of the three wars described in A Savage War of Peace. DeGaulle’s coup and the OAS campaign are the most important phases of the “war,” but all occur after the end of the film.

A Savage War of Peace is a disturbing book, and a must read for anyone who cares about history, democracy, or the Arab world.