Monthly ArchiveNovember 2003

Non-fiction 30 Nov 2003 17:18

Insanely Great

coverInsanely Great
Steven Levy
You probably shouldn’t read this book right after Silicon Boys, or you are bound to start confusing the books very soon after. There is a considerable intersection among them, which is not at all surprising.

This one, however, is all about Apple and, most important, the insanely great computer of the book’s title: the Macintosh. It does follow the whole history of the company, though, starting from the early days, way before Woz’s garage. And the good thing is that the author makes no attempt to make both Steve’s look like infallible heroes: they are shown very much like they really are, with their virtues and faults like those of every normal person.

I admit that I have never owned a Mac, or even an Apple II, but it is my constant consumer dream. Apple computers are not only powerful and useful, they are also elegant, beautiful in fact. You look at one and you can’t help wanting to own the thing. And this book shows how this reflects Jobs’s devotion to detail, to perfection. Macs are computers that are designed to be almost pieces of art, and this comes from the very early days of Apple’s history.

Of course, not everything is flowers in the history of Apple, and this is shown in detail in the book as well. Apple lived through some very rough periods in its history, and some of them were undoubtably caused by the same person who gave Apple most of its personality, Steve Jobs.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone who has been bitten by the Apple bug, whether they actually use a Mac or not. It’s a very easy to read book (I read it in one day), and the story is told in detail. It’s a great picture of the early days of Silicon Valley as well.

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Non-fiction 29 Nov 2003 16:30

Silicon Boys

coverThe Silicon Boys and Their Valley of Dreams
David A. Kaplan
In 2003, it’s a little weird reading a book about Silicon Valley that was written before the bubble burst. Actually, even before the bubble was as its peak. However, David Kaplan tells the history of the Valley, from the old days of David Packard and Bill Hewlett (and even before them) to the “recent” days of Jerry Yang and David Filo, in a way that is very fun to read.

All the well-known characters of the Valley in the last 50 or so years are in there: Gordon Moore, the two Steves, Andreessen, Jim Clark, Larry Ellison, Bob Metcalfe… some characters that are not so much in the actuall Valley are also well presented: Gates, Allen, Bezos, Ballmer. And, more important, the not-so-well-known characters, like the pioneers Shockley and Farina, the big money from Kleiner Perkins (mostly in the person of John Doerr), the sadly forgotten Gary Kildall, and so many others.

It all adds to probably the best book on Silicon Valley culture and history I have ever read. If you want to understand what goes on there, this is the book to read. If you just want to have fun while getting to know better the history behind the names and places you already know so well, this is the book as well. By the way, if you want to understand how venture capital works, this is a good introduction.

David follows a more or less chronological order of events, while focusing on different aspects and personalities on each chapters. As the book was written in 1998-99, it ends with the Valley’s most recent (at the time) great success story, Yahoo! It was still too early for Google, and too early to tell of the lost billions of 2000. The general tone of the book, then, is one of optimism, with not a small amount of bewilderment at what is going on and the amount of money involved. “The scale of success has changed”, says Metcalfe in the last chapter; money flows easily and everyone feels that he is entitled — nay, required — to get rich.

Well, things have changed a little since them, but it is still a Valley of Dreams. And, as a local TV station there says (or used to say), it may well be “the best place on earth”.

Fiction 26 Nov 2003 23:06

Green Mars

coverGreen Mars
Kim Stanley Robinson
The second book in Robinson’s Mars trilogy, this is a very well written sequel that will glue you to the book until you finish it. If you liked the first one (Red Mars), of course. In fact, take this as a warning: do not read this book if you haven’t read Red Mars yet. Do not read this review, either.

The great thing about this trilogy, in my opinion, is that we follow a very credible effort at terraforming Mars not only from the technical side (the science and engineering of changing a world), but from the political and social side as well. We see what can become of the two worlds (Mars and Earth) and how a new Martian society could be, given what we have here now. Not many sci-fi authors go in this direction, and this is what really attracted me to these books.

And yet the technical side is not only not forgotten, but very well presented, with lots of details and “progress reports” on the results of the work of the characters. As you can probably guess, all this level of detail results in a somewhat long book (over 600 pages in the edition I read).

This part of the trilogy happens approximately 100 years after the First Hundred landed in Mars; still, due to the longevity treatment discovered in Red Mars, we still follow all the surviving ones (39 at the beginning of the book) while they do their best to make Mars into what they believe is right for the planet. Since they do not share a vision, they don’t all get along, obviously. In this book we see how the influence of the meta-nationals (huge companies who control entire countries back on Earth) try to take their power to Mars, and how the Martians (immigrants and natives) fight back, in a way different from the one that caused the tragic events at the end of the first book.

The trilogy ends with Blue Mars (the title of the book suggesting that the terraforming continued going well), which I will review as soon as I read it.