Googled: somewhat predictable, quite fascinating

Ken Auletta's new book Googled takes us for a fascinating look behind the scene as he shows us the growth of Google from its simple beginnings within the labs of Stanford University to its becoming what is perhaps the most influential technology company in Silicon Valley today.

Author Auletta is a technology journalist and media critic for the The New Yorker, and was one of the first to popularize the concept of the so-called "information superhighway" with a 1993 New Yorker profile of Barry Diller, in which he described how Diller used his Apple PowerBook to anticipate the digital future. In his new book he has interviewed many key players to tell this fascinating story as only he is able. Full of interesting tales, insight and remarkable scrutiny, this comprehensible book explains how and why Google matters to a lot of us, from basic Internet neophytes to business decision makers.

Mr. Auletta stands out at writing Google's company history in a solid chronological style. GoogledIndividual chapters are focused on the years of its growth from 1999 through 2008. We get an intimate look at Google's highly-private founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, a pair of indisputably brilliant (but socially-awkward) individuals who have remained focused on their vision of making information accessible to the world, like so many Internet success stories of today. The author illustrates how Google's focus on perfecting its own proprietary search algorithms has proven to be equally unsettling to media and technology companies, while its control of information has gained often unwanted attention from governments and non-governmental organizations who are concerned about issues of personal privacy and corporate power.

Google's growth has posed internal challenges to its management, corporate culture and strategy, and while praising Page and Brin in general for their decisions, Mr. Auletta shows his concern that Google's founders, who have yet to be confronted with the kind of difficulties that affect most business owners, could be overlooking some of the external threats to the company's enduring capabilities. The author believes there are legitimate public concerns about the use of private information for profit, yet it's clear from his thoughtful examination that the data Google collects has positioned the company to continue to take advantage of and perhaps even define the technology and media backdrop for our own probable future.

Ken Auletta's book does an excellent job with its explanation of what Google actually is and what it does so well. It's significantly different from other books such as What Would Google Do?, by columnist and media blogger Jeff Jarvis, or Planet Google, by college business professor Randall Stross, who writes the New York Times column "Digital Domain." Mr. Auletta focuses some of the discussion from the point of view of the advertising industry. While that doesn't provide a significantly different perspective, it does provide for interesting reading. Just keep in mind that if you understand Google's revenue streams, you already knows it's in the advertising business.

For the beginner first looking at the Google story, this book will answer many questions. The author Auletta does raise significant issues, and some have been covered by others as well. The discussion on Google books and copyright issues is quite notable. The arrogance portrayed by traditional media companies during Google's early days is amazing and amusing, and well covered in the book, which is also available as a Kindle edition.

The business and community changes that are developing in our world are important to understand, and this book will help. It's an honest and balanced look at the reality that is Google. Overall it's an excellent 5-star read, and highly recommended.

Revised version posted on Amazon.com 1/29/2010


Can you change the world?

Is it actually possible to change the world?

Can you make it a better place? Or is this just an overly Utopian idea?

We all complain, but in fact most of us have it pretty easy. True, there are rough spots along the way; it happens to all of us. But why not help out someone who's going through a temporary difficulty?

The video below is a trailer for the film Pay It Forward, starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment. In the motion picture, social studies teacher Eugene Simonet (Kevin Spacey) gives his class an assignment: look at the world around you and fix what you don’t like. Mr. Simonet’s student, Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osment) comes up with a concept for changing the world: “Pay It Forward.” But can you fix people?

You can see more about the film here.

Before it was a 2000 hit movie, Pay It Forward was a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Challenged by a teacher to "think of an idea for world change and put it into action," 12-year-old Trevor McKinney decides to do a good deed for three people. Instead of paying him back, Trevor asks them to "pay it forward." The idea catches on and his initial acts of kindness have global consequences.

It's a hopeful book for our cynical times.

The concept isn't new, as the concept was described by Benjamin Franklin in 1784. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay "Compensation", wrote: "In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody."

Lily Hardy Hammond wrote, "You don't pay love back; you pay it forward." And in 1944, an anonymous spokesman for Alcoholics Anonymous said in the Christian Science Monitor, "You can't pay anyone back for what has happened to you, so you try to find someone you can pay forward."

Science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, used the phrase in Between Planets, a book published in 1951, almost fifty years before C. Ryan Hyde's novel. Heinlein both preached and practiced this philosophy, and now the Heinlein Society, a humanitarian organization founded in his name, does so today.

Making a Difference

The premise is fairly simple: you do a favor for three people over a few days or weeks. You ask for nothing back, nothing at all. When they ask how to repay you, you tell them to pay it forward to three more people. Each person is then impelled to pay it forward to three more. Nine becomes 27, which becomes 81, which becomes 243. Do the math: in just 14 levels we reach a group about the size of the population of Australia.

Hopefully, this thought will inspire everyone that reads this to start with just one deed today, be it big or small, to help someone. It could be a loved one, a neighbor, a co-worker, or even a complete stranger. Try to make a habit out of it... just one tiny gesture each day. If everyone did this, imagine the effect on the entire world. It's amazing to think about the possible results.

So, is "Pay It Forward" realistic? And what if your idea doesn't work? Then again, what if it does!

Want to know more? Maybe these links will help:

Pay It Forward links on Facebook:

Note: Pay It Forward bumper stickers are available to readers on request. There is no charge. The author asks only that you put them to use where they will be seen. Also follow the link on that page for info on Pay It Forward wristbands.

In conclusion...

OK, so why did I post all of this? It's simple: a dear and close friend recently did a very large favor for me with a surprise gift of a particular piece of electronic gear. As an aspiring author with books in the works, I had wanted since it was first announced: a new Amazon Kindle (Global Wireless), their latest generation wireless reading device.

As an Amazon Top 500 Reviewer, I've seen a number of new authors who have successfully published books using this new media, which I consider almost as revolutionary to the printed word as Johannes Gutenberg's printing press was when he first assembled in Germany in about 1440... the first in Western Europe to develop a printing press. It eventually replaced most versions of block printing, making it the most used format of modern movable type, until being superseded by the advent of offset printing.

This unnamed friend knew that as a single father of a 13-year-old son, I could not just plunk down the money to get this product, especially in this current economy. What this friend did not know was that having the Kindle would allow me to move up my publishing schedule by a good six months on one of the books (a technical manual) and possibly by as much as nine months on a novel that I've been working on for a few years.

And above all, this friend asked for absolutely nothing in return. It should also be noted that this friend made a substantial gift to a family on the other side of the world, a woman with children who wasn't going to be able to celebrate Christmas because of her particular economic situation. My friend gave the woman enough money for presents for each of her boys and enough food for an entire month.

That's what this is all about. When someone does you a big favor, don't pay it back... Pay It Forward.


The Trip and the Promise

(Originally published in October 2001)

It was more than the typical Sunday drive, but since it was for the christening of some friends' young daughter, we didn't mind it. We left a bit early, but when driving anywhere around New York City, it seems like early is never enough. My son, a five-year-old and a well-seasoned traveler, was situated comfortably in his car seat, looking forward to the trip. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and just warm enough to even turn the air conditioner on since we were more dressed up than usual for the special occasion.

Driving from Bucks County, PA to where we were headed on Long Island's South Shore should have taken less than two-and-a-half-hours. The Yahoo online travel directions had pegged it at just under two hours: it took over three hours. And this was almost predictable, as the route we were taking had us crossing the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

Traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike was fine, and even cruising along well in excess of the posted speed limit, every fourth car was still passing us. We took the exit indicated for the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and now it seemed that every other car was passing us. That was until we hit the ramps for the bridge, when all traffic almost came to a halt. A pedestrian taking a stroll with two dogs could make progress at a far greater rate of travel, and this we actually witnessed. Still, the weather was fine, and we took the upper deck of the bridge in hopes of seeing a bit of the fabled New York City skyline.

The creeping traffic was perfect for that type of sightseeing, and my son was enjoying looking in all directions. As he looked towards The City, he observed the Statue of Liberty in the distance, and this excited him, for he had seen this in books and on television. I was concentrating on the creeping traffic, and as such was only offering token replies and comments to his observations.

Then he asked me what "those two buildings" were. I tried to be patient as I watched the on-again, off-again flashes of the brake lights in front of us, and asked to describe the buildings that he was talking about. He responded something to the effect that they were the two that were next to each other, and were the tallest ones that he could see. I already knew what they were, as I had been in that exact Manhattan location just a few days earlier for a successful meeting with some new business clients.

World Trade Center dominating the New York City skyline.

I replied to him that they were known as the World Trade Center towers, and that they were some of the tallest buildings in the work. He corrected me and told me that they were two of the tallest skyscrapers in the world. I had to laugh and agree with him. Three-syllable words will always win out over two-syllables in a growing child's vocabulary. And it made be think back in a brain-flash about the first time I could recall my parents taking me to New York City as a child younger that my son, and the indelible effect that seeing real skyscrapers had on me.

We continued our journey, going down the 360-degree loop-under off ramp that put us onto the Eastbound Belt Parkway. Nothing more was said about the skyscrapers as I focused on making up on lost time. We arrived at our destination a few minutes late, but since the christening was underway, we weren't noticed. After the service was over, everyone descended to one of the in-laws houses for the festivities, which continued into the evening.

My son was playing with some of the children his age, and suddenly I heard him state that he had seen two of "the biggest skyscrapers in the world today." Some of the other kids, a bit older, laughed and said that they had even been in some of them. One related that his parents had taken him to the top of the World Trade Center, where he could see for "millions of miles." That brought a few laughs from some of the adults, but then my son came over to me and asked if I would take him to the top of one of the biggest skyscrapers someday, and maybe to "that statue, too." I promised him that I would, and that made him happy.

He was asleep when we drove back to Pennsylvania late that night. I glimpsed quickly at the illuminated New York City skyline in the clear night air as we crossed the bridge again, remembering the promise I had made earlier that day.

That's a promise to my son that I will be unable to keep, for it was less than thirty-six hours later that terrorists slammed two commercial airliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, altering the way of life as we had know it. And already my son understands why I will not be able to keep the exact promise I made to him.

Copyright © 2001 J. Williamson
All rights reserved.

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Personal Note: I was able to partially keep my promise to my son last week when we visited the Statue of Liberty together for the first time. We discussed visiting Ground Zero (where the WTC Twin Towers once stood) and decided against it, even though we were in Manhattan a couple of days later. There are too many personal memories of people known that made this decision the right one.

Grove of Remembrance - Liberty State Park
Photo Copyright © 2009 J. Williamson

The inscription on the memorial reads:

A Living Memorial dedicated to the New Jersey residents who perished on September 11, 2001. May the trees planted here offer a peaceful place to reflect and heal.
~ New Jersey Tree Foundation


Actors Studio Questions

If you've ever watched “Inside the Actors Studio,” you've seen James Lipton ask the same 10 questions to each actor at the end of the show. This was tossed at me by a friend, so I responded. If you want to try, then copy the questions and replace my answers with yours. Enjoy!

  1. What is your favorite word?
  2. What is your least favorite word?
  3. What turns you on (creatively, spiritually or emotionally)?
    The scent and feel of a woman.
  4. What turns you off (creatively, spiritually or emotionally)?
  5. What sound do you love?
    Gentle springtime rain.
  6. What sound do you hate?
    Drunken voices.
  7. What is your favorite curse word?
    Effing... and it's variants.
  8. What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?
    Travel photographer for National Geographic magazine.
  9. What profession would you not like to do?
  10. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?
    Here are the keys to your fully-restored Ferrari 275 GTB/4 in just the color that you like. There's unlimited fuel here, and you can never crash it. Here are your keys... enjoy the ride!

1967 Ferrari 275 GTB/4...
perhaps one of the most beautiful versions of this marque.

Your turn...



Change is interesting, and it’s often a good thing…

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
~ Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock
and The Third Wave 

There is nothing permanent except change.
~ Heraclitus (535-475 BCE.)

It’s hard to argue with either of those thoughts. More here: