Impressions of “Beneath a Surface: The Inside Story of How Microsoft Overcame a $900 Write-down to Become the Hero of the PC Industry,” by Brad Sams

If you are unaware that Microsoft had a $900 million write-down related to the Surface tablet, this book is probably not to you. Rather, Beneath a Surface definitely is for the reader who wants an accurate, if partial, history of a Microsoft business unit.

It’s too high a praise to compare Beneath a Surface to God — even comparing author Brad Sams to the Divinity would be misplaced — but like the All-mighty, it is easier to say what Beneath a Surface is not than what it is. It is not a history of Panos Panay’s career at the company, or even Microsoft Hardware’s efforts (MS Hardware became MS Surface under Panay). It is not a history of the past few years of the company at the highest levels, or even like Hit Refresh a propagandist attempt to create a history from that level.

Rather, Beneath a Surface is a blow-by-blow account of the trials of the Surface project, told from the perspective of the group’s leadership. It resembles Renegades of the Empire in the sense of charting the successes and failures of a high-visibility project within Microsoft. Where it surpasses that book is in its journalistic focus. If you read Mary Jo Foley’s Microsoft 2.0 but wondered how the organizational tree she outlines would actually play out, this is the book for you.

The best part of the book was its the perspective on timing and tenor provided by Brad Sams. Given that Microsoft totally abandoned its mobile ambitions, the lateness with which phones were still being announced in tandem with new Surfaces. Panay was tasked with promoting phones built by a team he acquired but did not want, and the wording of his remarks shows it. Likewise, Sams confirms the extremely late decision to kill the Surface Mini — which was still being hinted at in the official press invitations sent out for a later-repurposed launch.

I read Beneath a Surface in the Kindle edition.

Impressions of “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup,” by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood is a true-crime story, a corporate history, and an ethnographic report on a bizarre, feminist misreading of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. It is Detroit meets Losing the Signal meets Hacks, and — for what its worth — it provides a nifty travel guide to the Silicon Valley Area.

But first: the crime. Elizabeth Holmes and her longtime boyfriend, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, operated a racket that primarily prayed on tech investors, secondly on patients, and thirdly on the status and relationships of high profile champions they found (such as former Secretary of State George Schultz and future Secretary of Defense James Mattis). Their operation, “Theranos,” claimed to be developing either a Machine Learning driven blood test system, or blood test that requires much less blood, or portable blood testing devices, or some combination of these. Theranos was run in a secretive and functional structure, similar to Apple, and the standard practice for individuals who found out it was a scam was to force them to quit, sign an NDA, and threaten them with lawsuits if they talked.

Now, the corporate history. Criminality aside, Theranos acted as if it were a start-up located around buildings now or previously controlled by Facebook. From a 10,000ft perspective, investors were gambling that Theranos could disrupt the blood testing industry — provide a slightly lower quality product at a much lower cost — and that Theranos innovative scientific processes would allow it to quickly increase the quality over time in way incumbent businesses could not. Corporate executives at least claimed their services were widely used — including by the military — when they were not, making the possibility of Theranos boot-strapping quality over an extended period of “dark mode” — at least possible.

Especially in its late stage, as Theranos began courting media celebrity (and, inadvertently, scrutiny) resembled both gamergate and the 2016 Presidential election in its lazy weaponization of feminism. While parts of Theranos CEO Elizabeth Warren’s performance were arguably transgender (mimicking Steve Jobs’ dressing style and adopting a fake, baritone voice), she identified as a woman as was able to convince middle age men to treat her as a daughter. This reached its most ridiculous extent in (SECSTATE George Schultz effectively disowning his grandson to spend more family events with Elizabeth). She also adopted a victimized stance, accusing author John Carreyrou of misogyny, complaining that she was scrutinized more closely because she was a woman, and generally weaponizing a protected status.

Bad Blood contains hilarious moments, such as Theranos’ feuding with a separate patent scam that targeted them. At one point George Schultz is slowly walking up the stairs while his wife tells his grandson to call the family lawyer before he’s able to. Elizabeth Holmes may have destroyed lives, money, and people’s health, but her scam made a great story and was worth a few chuckles.

I read Bad Blood in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone,” by Satya Nadella with Greg Shaw and Jill Tracie Nichols

Impressions of “Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone,” by Satya Nadella with Greg Shaw and Jill Tracie Nichols

Hit Refresh is a book published by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to cultivate a cult of personality within Microsoft, to cement the use of rhetorical phrases common in the company, and to sell himself to both large enterprise clients and regulators. While Lou Gerstner’s Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance was written on the retirement of a CEO, and Alan Mullaly’s American Icon was effectively a resume aimed at larger corporations, Nadella is aimed at cementing and continuing his leadership of what is now America’s most valuable company. Of this genre, Hit Refresh is the first where I am able to judge in a context of closely following the company in question at the time.

There is a short section on Satya’s childhood in India, which largely cuts off around high school. I assume the material in that section is accurate. After that, Satya’s narrative suffers from very selective editing and time dilation. Events are presented as causal when years have (silently) passed between them. Important events are described, sometimes using tortuous language, to hide the presence or activities of certain others. One specific example of this is the renaming of Microsoft’s Windows Azure cloud platform to just “Azure” (dropping the name Windows), which is presented as the result of a specific customary verdict. Another is when a chain of pronouns is needed to hide former Windows-head Terry Myerson‘s role in delaying the purchase of Mojang AB (creator of the popular game ‘Minecraft’) for years.

Nadella either elides or downplays the most significant decisions he made during his first years at Microsoft: the shift away from consumer products and the shuttering of the “Nokia / Microsoft Mobile” smart phone and manufacturing business. (Nokia herself, which sold the phone business to Microsoft, used the proceeds to acquire Alcatel-Lucent, which was profiled in Douglas Coupland’s mesmerizing Kitten Clone). The first is not mentioned at all, and the second is quickly discussed in what seems a paragraph. But these were the most high-stakes, high-risk and potentially high-payoff decisions that Nadella made. Microsoft literally scrapped one of the most modern and effective manufacturing organizations in the consumer electronics business as virtually his first decision. I understand that the renaming of “Windows Azure” to “Azure” is something of a shorthand which describes the point without boring business readers with details, but it means Satya’s narrative is not factually — at least — reliable. This is neither an in-depth portrait of a leader like Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs nor a journalist history of an industry like Blake Harris’s Console Wars.

And yet…. And yet there’s no arguing with success. Microsoft under Satya Nadella left a generation-long malaise and is now the most valuable company in America. Nadella’s Microsoft is more valuable than Apple. And this has not been the result of “cost cutting” or hasty decisions. Satya’s starving and demoting of the Windows organization — not covered in this book — was Solomonesque, and Microsoft’s handling of political risk well before it lands has been masterful. Perhaps the nature of Satya’s authorship here — collaborative, intellectually, and hiding more than it shows — is typical of his leadership. If so, it may be for the best.

I read Hit Refresh in the Audible edition.

Impressions of “Ball Lightning,” by Cixin Liu

Ball Lightning is a science fiction novel by Cixin Liu set in the contemporary world. It is loosely connected to the author’s “Three Body” trilogy of Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End, and like those books is enriched by a Chinese author’s story being told largely in China. But the story does not depend on those connections, and the events in Ball Lightning do not provide much depth to the events in that trilogy. Ball Lightning succeeds in three areas: discussion of the real phenomenon of ball lightning, a fun description of the highs and lows of scientific discovery, and a meditation on the interdependence of defense research and new technologies.

But before that, some brief criticisms. I enjoyed Ball Lightning and recommend it, but as with “Three Body” the focus is definitely on science and its implications, not characters. All characters tend to be two-dimensional, with simple motivations. No character changes much or discovers more about themselves. They are tropes, but tropes well used to tell an interesting “hard science” fiction story.

I am interested in ball lightning. That comes back to two family members, who did not like each other and often undercut each other, who both reported seeing a silent, very bright, ball of light at the same place in time. (The same episode lead to my interest in UFOs, as described in my UFO theory). I did not know before reading Ball Lightning that the phenomenon was no longer considered to be paranormal: it was recorded by scientific equipment in China! Ball lightning discoveries have been scientifically published (Cen et al, 2014). This is mentioned in-book, and I was as pleasantly surprised it really happened. Nevertheless, the actual composition, nature, and source of ball lightning are unknown, and Liu develops (and has characters either support or contest) a number of interesting hypotheses.

Liu goes one step farther, describing not just specific theories but different methods of implementing research. Characters defend, attack or practice theoretical and empirical research, civilian and military research, and even “mechanistic” and non-mechanistic research. The last category appears to relate to Marxist theory as applied by the Soviet Union, and is a reminder that the Cultural Revolution and our own politically correct eras are not the only where science is infected by political fashion. A large variety of defense research methods are described, ranging from the lone “mad” inventor to computer systems espionage to corporate work.

A fascinating, if short, involves the main character’s trip to the United States. Without giving way plot points, the themes of low-trust bargaining, surprise attacks, coded messages, and mutually assured destruction, all familiar from The Dark Forest, make a reappearance. They feel like good friends.

In the afteward Liu states that Ball Lightning is a traditional Chinese-style science fition story, focused on the invention of a technology itself, as opposed to a western science fiction story, focused on the societal consequences of the invention (The “Three Body” series is, by this definition, western). As I look over the western science fiction I’ve reviewed on this blog — A Canticle for Liebowitz, The Accidental Time Machine, The Difference Engine, and “The Frozen Sky” — I do see this pattern.

I listened to Ball Lightning in the audible edition.