: New: Book Report: In the Plex

Why do I keep reading Steven Levy books? They're full of mistakes. He interviews people who know a lot... and then somehow still gets it wrong. I read In the Plex because, golly, he talked to all these people, an interesting book must have come of it. And the history of Google's interesting, right? So I'd like a book about that, right? (This is probably a good time to point out that I don't speak for my employers; that my opinions are mine, and don't reflect those of my employers, my former employers, etc etc.)

Unfortunately, the book contains only short snippets of interviews with way-too-much of Levy's interpretation filling up most of the book. You want an example of wrongness? Here's one that's mercifully short: he explains MapReduce "The program works in two steps—first by mapping the system (figuring out how the information was spread out and duplicated in various locations—basically an indexing process) and then by reducing the information to the data requested." If you're a non-technical reader who's looking at that and sighing, saying, "Oh, it's too bad I don't know enough computer stuff to follow that," take heart: that description of MapReduce doesn't mean anything. It sounds kinda like something written by someone who'd just emerged from a conversation about MapReduce. Later on, he talks about The Great Chinese Firewall [sic] as something that Google could have somehow smuggled censored information through if only its executive leadership had been properly motivated. And it's not like those are just two scattered mistakes in a book full of good journalism. There's lots of them. Which is too bad. The book talks about some stuff I don't know about but am curious about—the experiences of Ex-Googlers who went to work for the Obama administration. There are some interesting stories in this book... and I have no idea if any of them are even halfway true, since they're all Levy's words and I just can't trust him not to mess everything up. Oh, one more: He spells Vickrey auction as "Vickery"... I mean that's just getting names right and you can't just blame it on technical ignorance... gah, sorry, I'll calm down.

There's a fun bit about a conversation Levy had with Bill Gates back when Gmail was a new thing.

My editor and I explained that the IT department at Newsweek gave us barely enough storage to hold a few days' mail, and we both forwarded everything to Gmail so we wouldn't have to spend our time deciding what to delete. Only a few months after starting this, both of us had consumed more than half of Gmail's 2-gigabyte free storage space....

Gates looked stunned, as if this offended him. "How could you need more than a gig?" he asked. "What've you got in there? Movies? PowerPoint presentations?"

No, just lots of mail.

He begain firing questions. "How many messages are there?" he demanded. "Seriously, I'm trying to understand whether it's the number of messages or the size of the messages." After doing the math in his head, he came to the conclusion that Google was doing something wrong.

The episode is telling.

Levy goes on to say what he thinks is "telling": oh that dummy Bill Gates just didn't get teh importance of teh internets. But that's not what it tells me. It tells me that Levy's answers to Gates couldn't have made much sense, they didn't add up. Regardless of whether you think Gates was blindsided by the internet, at least give him credit for being able to figure out storage space for N number of email messages which this reporter claims doesn't have any big attachments... and Bill came up with less than a gigabyte. Well, yeah, so would anyone. Maybe when Gates asked about big attachments, Levy should have thought harder. But why would he? He's happy in his ignorance.

You know what I like about the Coders at Work and Founders at Work books in terms of "recent tech history" books? They're straight-up interviews. Instead of having Steven Levy misinterpret what these folks say, I can misinterpret them myself.

Tags: book business programming

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