The Accidental Billionares by Ben Mezrich

accidentalbillionairesFacebook has become all-pervasive. It screams at me from the laptops of my fellow classmates, tracks me as I traverse the interwebs, draws visitors to my blog and radio show, and invades the real world through my vibrating phone. The draw of its network and the push of it’s firehose has become inexorably linked with the internet itself. However, like many, I ache to escape its grasp. I have all but shut down my profile, installed blockers on everything but my cat, and rarely log on. But perhaps what I want more is to figure it out. And so I found myself opening ‘The Accidental Billionaires’ by Ben Mezrich. You might know it as the basis of ‘The Social Network,’ which was a surprisingly faithful and brilliant adaptation. It is one of the most entertaining business book I have ever read. That isn’t a compliment.

“Nonfictionish” is how I have seen it described in a couple of places. And, really, I can think of no better descriptor. The Accidental Billionaires is a business book written like a novel. Or, as Mezrich put’s it in the introduction; “a dramatic, narrative account based on dozens of interviews, hundreds of sources, and thousands of pages of documents…”. Now, having read that, I was expecting something along the lines of a Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell tale — a high concept told narratively to keep us plebs interested. Unfortunately Mezrich does not seem to have the deft touch of Lewis or Gladwell, as it’s the drama that wins out over everything else.

From the start, the booze-fueled parties, super-speculative points of view, and bizarre literary flourishes build mountains of melodrama and scant understanding. I really am unsure what insights should be gleamed from Mark Zuckerberg lost in his reflection in a computer screen, Eduardo Saverin – our hapless foil — wondering if he ever really knew Zuckerberg, or the virtuous Winklevoss twins fighting for justice in an otherwise cruel campus. The tension between Zuckerberg, Saverin and the Winklevi does well to build tension throughout, but the space needed detracts from everything else. The real meat of Facebook’s genesis and rise is lost amid the kind of superficial account you’d get from a blowhard at a party. I went in wanting to learn about Facebook, but I’ve come out not quite sure if I learned anything at all. Really, upon reflection it seems like Aaron Sorkin may have toned the book down a bit. I don’t remember the movie being as soapy.

Perhaps this is a Facebook book for a Facebook world. Screaming for attention by airing what was once hidden — the sex, drugs and lawsuits. Hiding the message under layers of drama so we don’t even know we’ve learned something — like putting your pet’s medicine in a treat. If all you want is a passing understanding of Facebook, maybe this is the book for you. The Facebook story is in there, superficially at least. But if you want to know more, about it’s conquering of college campuses and burst into the mainstream, about its rise into a genuine business and global powerhouse. If you are looking for lessons, if you want to understand what drives the pokes, look elsewhere. Two stars.

Title: The Accidental Billionaires

Author: Ben Mezrich

Pages: 272 (Paperback)

Josh’s Rating: 2/5

Amazon Link: The Accidental Billionaires

Crowdsourcing Sight

bemyeyesWhat if there was a way you could help the blind see? What if the answer was in your pocket?

Watching entrepreneurs use now-ubiquitous internet access and smart phones to mine the crowd has been one of the joys of the past decade. But, no matter how wonderful Duolingo’s translated books, Threadless’ T shirts, or Kickstarters’ projects, Crowdsourcing has not really seemed life changing.  Game changing, yes, but none of these solved ‘problems’ were anything but inconveniences. Some of the greatest minds of my generation aren’t working on vaccines or rockets, but on ensuring I’m wearing spiffy crowd-designed pyjamas as I fetch my crowdfunded gadget from the postbox.

 

This is where Be My Eyes really excites. It’s a new iPhone app that allows the visually impaired to call on the eyes of thousands of volunteers around the world. Even today, with all of our attempts to bend the environment to us, there is a lot more to achieve in this area. If you can’t see, how do you ensure your ticket is correct, or the can in your hand is a coke and not something more sinister? Or, as Be My Eyes puts it:

 

It only takes a minute to choose the right tin can from the shelf, look at the expiration date on the milk or find the right thing to eat in the fridge – if you have full vision that is. For visual impaired individuals smaller tasks in their home can often become bigger challenges. Be My Eyes hopes to change that!

 

Through a direct video call the app gives blind people the opportunity to ask a sighted volunteer for help, for tasks that requires normal vision. The blind person “lends” the helper’s eyes all through his or her smartphone. The sighted helper is able to see and describe what the blind person is showing the sighted helper by filming with the video camera in the smartphone. That way, by working together they are able to solve the problem that the blind person is facing.

 

Now, this is an ‘inconvenience’ I very much want to see rectified. To find out more about how the app came to be,how it works, as well as allay some of my concerns (you’re probably wondering the same things I was), I called up Hans Jørgen Wiberg, the app’s inventor. Here is our chat:

 

 

In the short while that the app has been live, about thirteen thousand people have signed on as volunteers. But this isn’t enough to even scratch the surface. If you have an iPhone and would like to take part in crowdsourcing eyesight, you can download the app from the Apple Store. Or check out the Be My Eyes website for more details.

 

Can’t see the audio player? You can take a listen at Soundcloud

(image:Be My Eyes)

#IVotedSL

ivotedslIn a matter of days Sri Lankans will be headed to the polls, casting a ballot for the most imperial of Presidencies. In the face of slumping approval, the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has called the election a whole two years early. He now faces a field of candidates topped by Maithripala Sirisena, a defector from his own party. The Opposition have coalesced behind Sirisena, sensing their first real chance in a decade. Polling might be suspect in a country where statistical sampling is all but impossible, but everything else tells of a real contest.

Despite the hegemony of the Rajapaksas in recent times, Sri Lankans talk proudly of their democracy and their vote. I know of people who will spend more than four hours next Thursday travelling to the polls. And in a race as tight as this is, expect all the stops to be pulled out. But data from the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance doesn’t paint a great picture. The last six Sri Lankan Presidential elections have seen a voting age population turnout dawdling around seventy percent, far below the level of the late 90s.

 

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To be fair, the numbers trounce that of the World’s longest and most obnoxious democracy; The United States. In fact, Sri Lanka’s last election saw a Voting Age participation rate almost twenty percent higher than America’s. This is especially staggering considering many of the barriers faced by voting Sri Lankan’s; a thirty year civil war, poor infrastructure and public transport, and, unfortunately, campaigns of voter suppression and violence (etc.).

 

USPresidentialelections

 

But is a seventy percent turnout really acceptable? To turn this baby around the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence has launched an amazing campaign. It’s called #IVotedSL, and it’s a non-partisan drive to get people involved. The folks at the CMEV want to remind Sri Lankan citizens of the importance of their vote, the power of their vote. It’s more than “if you don’t vote you can’t complain”, the Sri Lankan Presidency has unbelievable power. The kind of power that haunts the sleep of Libertarians worldwide. Check out this spectacular/horrifying infographic created to kick off the campaign:

 

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Alarmed by the powers afforded to the Sri Lankan President and aware of the trending apathy of the generation this campaign is aimed at, I wanted to know more. So I called up Sanjana Hattotuwa, Editor of the fantastic blog Groundviews and leader of the campaign. Here is our discussion:

 

 

I can’t vote in the Sri Lankan election but I implore all those who can not to squander this opportunity. This will shape the future of your country.

 

 

 

 

 Can’t see the audio player? You can take a listen at Soundcloud.

 

Redefining success for business

The last couple of years have seen corporations increasingly under the pump – divestment campaigns, boycotts, fines and regulations (etc.). Considering the part many of them have played in Climate Change, tax aversion, the Global Financial Crisis, and evading sanctions (etc.), you may be thinking this is fair enough.

But not all companies will sacrifice everything in the quest for profit. Some aspire to play a role beyond reaping a financial gain for a small coterie of investors. And, in the United States, there is now a legislative vehicle for these companies. They can incorporate as a “Benefit Corporation” – a company with a stated social responsibility.

Unfortunately, legislation for Benefit Corporations has not yet spread. So, enter the B Corporation, a certification similar to Fairtrade. It signifies a company that has met minimum standards and is driven by loftier ambitions. For a piece I made for The Wire this week I wanted to find out more. So I spoke with Mele-Ane Havea, the Director of Portfolio for Small Giants – the first B Corporation in Australia. Here is our extended interview:

 

 

(Image:Chris/Flickr)

Can’t see the audio player? You can take a listen at Soundcloud.

 

Isaac Newton by James Gleick

isaacnewtonjamesgleickLike a lot of people, I was absolutely entranced by this year’s remake of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. It wasn’t just the stunning visuals and mind-blowing science, it was the stories of the people who have carried us this far. The giants upon whose shoulders we now stand. Michael Faraday, William Herschel, Joseph von Fraunhofer, Cecilia Payne, Edmond Halley, and, of course, Isaac Newton (to name a few). Cosmos made them all come alive, and gave me a thirst to know more about them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the series will be continued. So, for anyone like me, its time to hit the books. Let’s begin with the man who laid the foundation of the modern world – Isaac Newton.

“He was born into a world of darkness, obscurity, and magic; led a strangely pure and obsessive life, lacking parents, lovers, and friends; quarrelled bitterly with great men who crossed his path; veered at least once to the brink of madness; cloaked his work in secrecy; and yet discovered more of the essential core of human knowledge than anyone before or after.”

Isaac Newton is a peculiar figure. Anyone who has received any semblance of a liberal education can probably name him and some of his achievements. You may even be able to recall his pointed nose and luscious hair. But what do we know beyond that? Where was he born? How did he work? What drove him? This is where James Gleick steps in. Many of you may know of Gleick. He’s a prominent science writer, with several other great books out there (a review of The Information is forthcoming). But the deftness with which he brings science to the less erudite is really on show with this biography. It’s not a long book, more of a Newton summary really, but it hits the high points. It begins with a visit to Woolsthorpe – where Newton was born, works through his education and scientific awakening, and finishes with Newton’s legacy. That last subject being something that could fill whole libraries.

“What Newton learned remains the essence of what we know, as if by our own intuition”

For a small book — my edition comes in at under two hundred pages — there is an incredible amount to be gleaned about the life of Isaac Newton. How many of us really consider Isaac Newton the ostensible orphan? When school children learn about his theories in science textbooks, do we realise how hard up the young Newton was for simple paper and pens, let alone textbooks? When we imagine him sitting under the Apple tree (surely a myth), do we conjure the ways the young Newton really did turn the natural world into a veritable laboratory? How many of us imagine a man famous for calculating his way through the mysterious of the cosmos, also filling notebooks with the ingredients for paint, the Bible’s hidden codes, and lists of thousands of nouns in different languages (etc.)? His forays into alchemy and other scorned fields are legendary, but did you know Newton had to be goaded into publishing his legitimate work? Even his famous Principia? Textbooks and popular imagination give us an image of Newton as a robot genius. But Gleick reveals him to be so much more. An irascible yet modest man, whose insatiable thirst for knowledge changed the world.

“It was nature’s destiny now to be mathematised. Henceforth space would have dimension and measure; the moon would be subject to geometry.”

Newton’s life is fascinating, and, as all good biographers do, Gleick has revealed his subject to be much more than our cartoonish popular conception. The book is well written, really, I demolished it in a day. But it’s arguable how much this is due to it’s readability as to it’s length. And it’s the length that gets me. Gleick really, manages little more than pulling back the curtain on a giant of the modern age. And when you consider how much context he must provide — on the age of Enlightenment, the wars with Hooke and Leibniz over no less than Gravity and Calculus (etc.) — it’s no wonder we emerge on the other end having barely touched his personality or character. Newton was a revolutionary, his shadow still falls over science, economics, mathematics, philosophy, theology, and much, much more. As a short dip into his life and works, Gleick’s book is more than sufficient. As a study of one of the most influential men in history, it leaves a lot to be desired.

“No one feels the burden of Newton’s legacy, looming forward from the past, more than the modern scientist. A worry nags at his descendants: that Newton may have been too successful; that the power of his methods gave them too much authority.”

Title: Isaac Newton

Author: James Gleick

Pages: 191 (Paperback)

Josh’s Rating: 3/5

Amazon Link: Isaac Newton

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