Category Archives: Science

‘The Google Guys’ by Richard L. Brandt

googleNext to the air that we breathe, if we take anything for granted today, it has to be Google, at least to a lay person  like me. It has become the single destination for anything that we need, in fact, the name itself has become a verb. You want any information, just google it.

‘The Google Guys’ , originally published as ‘Inside Larry & Sergey’s Brain’ gives more than a glimpse into who the two brilliant young guys are and how they think. Written in a simple, straightforward style, it gives insights into how the organization came into being, what makes its founders tick, their people, their vision, the key people who support them and most importantly their vision  and the seemingly improbable things that you could expect from them in future .

The book starts with an analogy of the world’s first great library – the Great Library of Alexandria that was created by Ptolemy I, the childhood friend of Alexander the Great. The similarities are uncanny and aptly presented in the first few chapters. The author introduces you to a typical employee of Google and you no longer wonder why the organization seem to be at the forefront of any new age thought that you could think of. Alan Eustace, the senior VP of engineering and lead person on engineering hiring puts it very clearly,

“The key element we’re trying to find is smart people, productive people, people with a slight disdain for the impossible, people who have good leadership shills who we find interesting. We try to avoid people that have incredibly large egos that are inconsistent with their abilities or are not good at working in teams.”

In a world that was dominated by Yahoo and Microsoft, if one wonders how Google outsmarted them all, the answer is simple – to keep things simple for the end user – the most basic and important principle that organizations tend to forget as they grow. They are almost fanatical about simplicity , whether it is the look of the home page or the ads that run there. That brings us to another area where Google clearly scored over others. their own advertising spend.

“We’ve resisted the temptation to have big advertising campaigns,” Sergey said in 2000. “I’m not sure it is the right thing to do. I am concerned about long-term profitability.”

Instead, they knew their target audience, met them in person and showed them what they could do. The instinct sure did pay off in the long run. In further chapters, Brandt narrates the story of the infamous IPO where Larry and Sergey almost botched it up because of their apparent apathy towards the so called norms. The controversial entry into China that seemed to go against their much heralded policy on censoring is also dealt with in detail.

The chapter that I loved the most is ‘The Ruthless Librarians’ that talks at length about their attempt to digitize all the books that are available somewhere in the world today. The stories bring out the passion that the duo has towards preserving something that is so priceless.

The last three chapters takes you through Google’s plans for Cloud, Android and the like. Some of the information may seem outdated, but it is interesting, nevertheless. Reading through the last chapter you are left thinking whether there is nothing that these brilliant guys have not thought about. Their future plans include among others, renewable sources of power, eco friendly cars, a trip to Mars and the like.

The ever threatening question of privacy and the potential risk of one entity having this humongous information in their hands is referred to throughout the book. As the author says, most of the controversies are about what could happen and not what has happened.

The author says rightly,

There’s one thing that’s certain: they are going to be breaking rules, pissing people off, and trying to make the world a better place for decades to come. Love them or despise them, everyone must contend with them. They are having greater impacts on the business world and on people’s lifestyles than any other business executives in the world.

World’s information and energy controlled by a corporate behemoth, it sure is a scary prospect. Countries would lose significance, Google could easily be taking up the place of erstwhile United States , the Big Brother or even the Patriarch of the Universe. At the same time, the control wielded by the duo in practically all the decisions including even recruitment of key resources, leaves us with the billion dollar question , what after Larry and Sergey?

Almost serendipitous, this news came out yesterday as I finished reading the book

http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international-business/google-stock-hits-1000-cash-pile-at-56-billion-how-the-internet-giant-is-making-money/articleshow/24382807.cms

Verdict – An absolute must read for anyone who  Googles 🙂

5/5

‘What Do You Care What Other People Think?’ by Richard P. Feynman

feynmanPeople are normally surprised when and if they learn I graduated in Physics. What I learnt later and what I have been doing ever since is not even remotely related to Physics or even the Sciences in the conventional sense. Who knows where I would have ended up if we had professors even remotely like Richard P. Feynman ? Anyway, that has nothing to do with this book or the review , so lets get going.

The official Feynman website introduces him as  a,

 “scientist, teacher, raconteur, and musician.  He assisted in the development of the atomic bomb, expanded the understanding of quantum electrodynamics, translated Mayan hieroglyphics, and cut to the heart of the Challenger disaster.  But beyond all of that, Richard Feynman was a unique and multi-faceted individual”

Those who have read his books or listened to his lectures online would vouch for the fact that he is indeed a raconteur at par with the best of your favorite authors. The fact is proved yet again in this book.

The first part is more of his personal memories – childhood, his first wife Arlene, some his travels, a few letters to his family, some other letters about him that his family received after he passed away and similar anecdotes from his life.  I found the first chapter quite fascinating in the way his father answered his questions. You are left with a feeling of ‘no wonder he turned out to be like this.’

Once a friend ridiculed him that his father didn’t teach him anything because he didn’t know the name of a particular bird. While, Feynman knew it was the opposite. This is what his father told him,

“You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you are finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. “

Feynman goes on to say,

“I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

I was ready to complete this as a random memoir kind of book when the second part started.  This is where he takes us into the shocking labyrinth of the Challenger investigation . His never ending curiosity, ability to get down to the root of a problem by asking the right questions to the right people and his unwavering sense of ethics is very well brought out in this part.  I am someone who believes that the solution to any problem almost always would lie with those who are handling things at the ground level. You change the name ‘NASA’ to any other organization where anything has gone wrong, the scenario would be the same.

“management reducing criteria and accepting more and more errors that weren’t designed into the device, while the engineers are screaming from below, “HELP!” and “This is a RED ALERT!”

Feynman, in his own quintessential style, brings out how some critical decisions that may affect the lives of many and millions of tax payer’s money are made based on certain factors , that might even be whimsical and which has no relevance whatsoever to the actual event. The chapter ‘ Afterthoughts’ is particularly interesting. Whether it is a NASA or an ISRO, the way the system works are not too different. The only difference could be someone as unique as Richard P. Feynman and what a difference it made!

Verdict : Was prepared to give this a 3.5 or at the most 4 while reading the first part. Halfway through the second part I knew it had to be nothing less than 5. Do read it for the interesting bits of life of a brilliant mind and the great lessons that a major disaster imparts to us as human beings and cogs of  organizations.

5/5