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Archive for July 14th, 2009

Ben Mezrich has a winner in The Accidental Billionaires.  It’s just a flat out fun read.  Bought it from bookstore at sometime past 5pm, finished it by 9:30, while squeezing in dinner and what not.  It reads fast and furious because it is FUN and Of The Moment.  Mezrich’s last couple of books I’ve read had that same movie like pace to them.

I can’t claim it’s accurate to every detail and Mezrich flat out notes that he’s constructed most of the narrative from lots of different pieces and created the dialogue.  So if you’re looking for some business analysis of Facebook, gotta got to WSJ or something like this.  This is a wild tale of ivy league, ambition and college tomfoolery cum mega dollars.

What’s so fun is that we’re still seeing this story play out!  Facebook is only 5 years old and still an unfinished tale.

If you’ve ever read books about Harvard and Ivy League education/campus life the context of the story won’t shock you.  If you have no idea what goes on and actually powers the lives of college kids, well, you might be a little rattled.  No, not all student loans and 529s go into the books… and, yes, a great deal of the world’s most successful media and Internet companies are driven by some pretty basic goals of 20 year olds.

I did find some of the details of the story enlightening but not surprising.  First off, I guess I didn’t really know that Mark Z was initially inspired by HotOrNot.com.  Pretty funny.  No one ever gives that site credit enough for pushing web 2.0 forward.  It’s pretty interesting to see how connected the main folks are to the same ol same ol in Silicon Valley.  The characters are what you expect if you’ve followed any of the backstory in the news.  Very few surprises – no shocker in the eventual ‘reality bites’ part of becoming a business and entering the world of valuations and legal locomotion.  In fact, I found the documentary, StartUp.com, a bit more shocking in it showed the breakdown of friendship in a very raw, visual format.  Reading about such things doesn’t seem as painful as seeing it in the eyes of friends falling away.

One complaint, and it only applies if you actually know web programming.  The “hacking” descriptions are pretty lame.  Scraping the Harvard internal websites for student photos isn’t that big of a hack.  At least from Mezrich’s descriptions it was some pretty straightforward perl script scrapes and some very lightweight password guessing.  Oh and some basic physical network connection stuff.  This is not the stuff of legendary hackers.  It’s pretty standard tasks for anyone working on the web nowadays… aggregating content in its various forms.

I suppose if there’s a bigger topic in this book it would be the role that universities play in new media.  Think about how much commerce comes out of university systems that never leads to direct compensation.  Without access to bandwidth, computers and a big network of connected people, many big Internet ventures simply wouldn’t exist.  Oh, and we must not forget the sheer amount of “free time” at college –  that is, time that isn’t structured for students.  Whether this needs to change or not, I can’t really say.  I’m pretty sure it’s always been this way.

One note of caution… probably not a great gift for a high school senior ready to ship off to school.  This is certainly an adventure that might inspire others to head off to school not for a life of the mind but instead to find the pot of gold. 🙂

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Ron Currie Jr delivers a really fun, clever read in Everything Matters! The book cover sells the book as more of comedy than than the sci fi/philosophy/absurdist mystery it is.  The essential question of the book – does anything we do matter?

The premise is set up with the unavoidable apocalypse that only the main character, Junior, knows about.  He has always known when humanity will end.  The book covers how Junior navigates life – from birth to the apocalypse – knowing that it will all be over and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  In the end, Junior is left with a choice… hide his knowledge from everyone and live with this lonely knowledge or reveal his secret and suffer a different set consequences.

Currie uses a variety of viewpoints and literary devices to give the story context and arc.  I particularly liked the subtle countdown, sort of a reverse page numbering used when the omniscient narrator/being giving Junior his knowledge talks.  It leaves you with a sense of “uh oh” i know this is going to end… which is part of the point of the story.  We know the ending and we know exactly when it ends and the countdown gives the reader the sense of just how far we’ll get into the characters lives before it all ends… and the dread was real for me.

The prose moves your brain right along.  Reading it in one longish sitting is possible and fun.  Currie develops the main character reasonably well.  The secondary characters aren’t always developed much further than some basic behavior patterns.  The book does move along a large time horizon though – making character vignettes rather difficult.

Generally a good reading experience… so…. do we get anywhere with the big question: does it all matter?

No. I didn’t.  And I didn’t expect to.  Does it all matter is a personal question.  I presume the answers I get from this book are the personal perspectives of the author.  Ultimately it is an optimistic view that family, love, connection matters – even at the expense of intellectual honesty.  Ah, isn’t that a secondary big question?!  Is it “better” to keep certain facades intact to make life bearable/enjoyable versus really chasing and embracing truth, no matter its ugly consequences?

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