Avast blog: Review of “The Chaos Machine” by Max Fisher on the evolution of social media toxicity

The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our WorldWith the reinstatement of previously banned Twitter luminaries including Donald Trump and Kathy Griffin, this is a good time to do further research into the role of social media in our public discourse. The recent book by Max Fisher, The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World, should be on everyone’s reading list. His book documents the rise of social networking for the past decade and shows its highly influential role in society. Fisher is a reporter for the New York Times who has covered its effects for many years.

I review his book for my blog for Avast here. I highly recommend it, even if you think you have been following along the evolution — some would say the devolution — of social media.

One solution is from Google’s Jigsaw unit, who has a couple of experimental tools freely available, such as the Tune browser extension that can be used to filter the most toxic discussions.

Book Review: Dead and Gondola

A bookstore in a small Colorado ski town is at the center of a murder. The sisters who own the store imagine themselves as amateur sleuths and you meet many of the townsfolk, all of whom have secrets to keep and interesting lives that unfold over the course of the following days. The characters are all charming in their own special ways, and there is a lot of classic drawing room murder mystery setups as one or another comes under suspicion. If you are a fan of bookstores or ski towns, you will appreciate the setting even more so.

The book is available on AMZ here.

Book review: Mother Daughter Traitor Spy

The novel tracks pretty closely to the real-life mother/daughter duo that lived in LA in 1940 and spied on a group of American Nazis who were organizing various meetings and propaganda efforts before we officially entered WWII. The two infiltrated the group, taking notes and names and eventually providing the details to the FBI. What is interesting about this story is how many parallels we have with present-day America, and the power of disinformation and hate to polarize and energize the general public. The mother/daughter duo — who have German heritage — have various adventures as they try to keep up appearances and convince the Nazis that they are genuine sympathizers, even though they want nothing to do with them. Coming on the heels of the new Ken Burns documentary about American’s role during this period, it presents some thought-provoking choices that were made.

Book review: Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow: A novel by [Gabrielle Zevin]Normally when I finish a book I have some strong opinions either pro or con. I am of two minds with this novel by Gabrielle Zevin which is excellently written and an epic tale of its three principle characters. We follow their exploits for the next 20 years, starting when they are all in their late teens. If you are interested in computer gaming, the book portrays the world of game creators and the gaming industry very realistically — I covered this world as a tech journalist once upon a time. And the relationships of the trio — who form their own gaming studio and quickly become successful — is also very believable and interesting as they and the industry matures. The downside is that the ending is less than satisfactory as the author takes us inside a game itself that the characters play new roles. It just felt off somehow. Nevertheless, this novel is one of hope, of loves found and lost, of how people work together and work against each other in interesting ways that drives the plot forward. And maybe one day you will find those secret underground LA freeways that are posited in the book. (You ‘will have to read it to understand this reference.)

Finding the tell

What does the Greek king Ptolemy I, the way you type in your sentence endings, a WWII weather report, and the word “northeast” have in common? They are all clues to solving some of the grandest puzzles of all time, and what con men and magicians often call “tells” or personal habits that give away the game.

The 1987 movie House of Games has a wonderful take on tells that is actually central to its plot, so I won’t go into detail just in case you haven’t seen it yet. Even if you have seen it and know how it ends, it is still delightful to rewatch it years later. Another wonderful memory of mine is watching one of Penn and Teller’s magic acts where they repeat the same trick several times, each time providing a fake tell to fool you repeatedly about the trick. (Penn wrote the foreward of my first book about email BTW.) Magicians excel in having you focus on something other than what they are doing, so the tell is part of their act. Con men — such as card sharks and swindlers depicted in the movie — look for their mark’s tells so they can manipulate them into getting money.

I was reminded about tells and clues after reading The Writing of the Gods, a wonderful book that came out last fall by Edward Dolnick about solving the translations that appear on the Rosetta Stone. The book describes how two scholars tried over decades to make progress on the translation. It is a wonderful read, especially if you have interest in ancient Egypt, like solving codes and puzzles, want to hear about mathematicians behaving badly, or just interested in a fascinating description about life back in the day when colonial powers ruled the world and could just appropriate artifacts with never a care. Dolnick brings the puzzles of the stone to life for me, showing us the pure thirst for knowledge and showing the drive that these two men had in trying to figure out what was going on with the three languages written on that piece of rock.

As you might have guessed, the Ptolemy clue that opened this post is what got scholars working on figuring out how the text, which is written in three different languages, were related. Given that he was Greek, there was no easy way to write down his name using a word that was not part of the languages of ancient Egypt. The scribes had to spell it out, phonetically. The hardest part about the stone was the hieroglyphics, because they can play the role of symbols, letters of the alphabet, and grouped together to form ideas or other concepts.

One of my favorite stories about tells has to do with solving the German wartime codes Enigma and Lorenz. I have written about my visit to Colossus here. The tell used to break these codes had to do with knowing the vocabulary used by the military to provide the local weather report, and knowing that this report was usually placed at the top of each message. Given that the Allies recorded thousands of messages, they had a large corpus to use in their decodes.

But unlike these wartime puzzles, figuring out the Rosetta Stone had a major problem: you first had to find the context and get into the heads of the ancients without really any idea of what their lives were like or what they did. It is one thing to be solving a puzzle with contemporary references. It is another thing to try to reconstruct a dead language with no known speakers, and to do so by using yet another dead language.

Dolnick mentioned something in his book that got me looking further into our next tell. He was nice enough to answer my query with a link to this story in the NY Times which recounts the double-space-at-the-end-of-a-sentence debacle. The problem has to do with college essays, and having your parents write them, or more accurately, type them. Because those of us of a certain age learned to type back in the pre-PC era, we have this ingrained habit of using two spaces after a period. Kids who were digital natives didn’t have this habit, and college admissions staff could quickly recognize what parts of the essay were written by the parent as a result. If you didn’t know the context or the history, you probably would have missed this tell.

Finally, there is the “northeast” clue. Astute readers will probably recognize this as part of the decoding effort with the Kryptos sculpture at CIA headquarters. I wrote about this several years ago when I got a chance to meet Elonka Dunnin, who maintains a wonderful resource page here. The clue is from the sculptor, James Sanborn, who is trying to help people decrypt the final piece of the puzzle. And just to bring things to a delicious full circle, one of the passages in the sculpture relates to the diary of archaeologist Howard Carter on the day he discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922. It is all about Egypt!

Book review: Suddenly Hybrid Provides Good Advice On How To Manage Our New Way Of Meeting

Karin Reed and Joseph Allen have written a great sequel to their book, Suddenly Virtual, titled, naturally enough, Suddenly Hybrid: Managing the Modern MeetingIt should be required reading for all of us as we try to keep up with the changing nature of work as we move into the third year of the COVID pandemic.

The authors have a few suggestions on how to improve hybrid meetings and other practical tips and tools to both run them and participate in them. This book will help you build upon the habits from our fully remote world over the past few years and use the collaboration tools found in videoconferencing platforms, even when we are conducting meetings in person or with hybrid audiences. It will help you figure out where an organization wants to land on the “hybrid meeting spectrum,” and remove any obstacles from fully realizing their benefits.

You can read my full review on Biznology here.

Book review: Ahead of the Game

As someone deeply steeped in the tech industry, I am embarrassed to admit that reading Ahead of the Game by Kevin Ryan (a business tech reporter) is the first time I have heard of Delane Parnell and his rise to run one of the most successful startups of the modern era. His company, PlayVS, has grown into an eSports powerhouse, and Parnell’s origin story is told with lots of verve and interest in this book.

Parnell showed early signs that he was going to be a great business leader. As a teenager, he leveraged his way from working in a cell phone store to becoming a partner and owning several of them in his native Detroit.

When he funded his first venture round, he was the third largest such round by a Black-owned business. PlayVS was responsible for recruiting thousands of high school gamers to participate in the first ever varsity-level gaming contests, with almost half of the players being in their first after-school activity ever. The story shows the numerous obstacles that the venture capital world — like the rest of society — places on successful Black entrepreneurs and how Parnell managed to overcome them to build his company. For all potential entrepreneurs, this is a must-read book.

My former boss Jason Calacanis interviewed Parnell at the beginning of the Covid pandemic in April 2020 on This Week in Startups. If you don’t want to read the book, you can watch the interview, where Parnell talks about going to Jason’s Launch event as a teenager and getting inspired by the conference and meeting other startups.

Book review: A biography of the Pixel by Alvy Ray Smith

Alvy Ray Smith played a key role in creating a great deal of digital graphics content over the decades he worked at Lucasfilm and Pixar, and this book is a tour de force and a tour of the people, places, technologies, and companies that played key roles in these creations. The book, A Biography of the Pixel,  serves to correct the historical record about how the early digital computers and computer graphics software came to be and also provides the links between these early efforts — some of which might be well-known to you and some won’t be — and how different (almost always) men stood on each other’s shoulders to get us to where we are today. The illustrations are genius and help to explain his points in the evolutionary cycles of the Fourier series, Kotelnikov’s sampling equations, and Turing’s computational efforts, how computers and digital animation worked hand-in-hand, and the great digital convergence that we know and love today and celebrate what Smith calls Digital Light. You don’t have to know any math to find his explanations lucid and indeed, delightful. These innovators not only had a great scientific idea but drove technology into a fruitful application, while finding powerful supporters to help promote them. Along the way, you’ll see some old myths busted that digital can fully represent analog pictures and sound and how computers don’t have to be electronic numerical calculators — instead, they have become the most “malleable tool ever invented by humankind.”

I realize that a 500+ page book is a big commitment. I would start by reading the Finale chapter, which is a neat summary of all that Smith has presented in one cogent narrative. That should whet your appetite to want to dive into the entire epic journey.

Book review: The Spectacular

The best recommendation that I can give to a work of fiction is the feeling I get when I finish the book that I haven’t read a novel. With this book The Spectacular chronicling the lives of three generations of women, I felt like I was reading real reporting about what happened to each of them and had to check to make sure that it really was fiction. The three women are all flawed in interesting and complementary ways: grandma has adjustment problems as an immigrant from Turkey, mom doesn’t want to be a parent initially and leaves her daughter in grandma’s care to go find herself, and the daughter has so many issues that drive the narrative that to document them here would spoilt the book. The author tackles some very real issues: gender identity, understanding how to live with others, finding your calling and your passions, etc. I really enjoyed this book, even as a white cis male. There are many familiar chords that were struck while reading its pages, and I wanted to meet these three women in real life when I was done. Highly recommended. I have read an earlier work by Zoe Whittall and would recommend her earlier works as well.

Speech: Using NetGalley to Promote Your Self-Published Book

One of the best ways to promote your book is by reaching new readers with pre-release copies, and thanks to a service called NetGalley, you can add this to your toolbox.

I have been using NetGalley as a reader for the past several years: the idea is that I can read new books that interest me for free, provided that I review them and post my reviews on Amazon and other book selling sites. In this presentation, I will show you the author’s point of view. Yes, it does cost to make your pre-release “galleys” available—but the fee is a very reasonable $450 per book, or $200 if you are a member of IBPA. In this presentation, I will show you how NetGalley works, what kinds of books are best for the service (including audiobooks) and the best time to take advantage of it as part of your book marketing efforts. 

This speech will be given to the St. Louis Publishers’ Assn September 8.

Here is a copy of my presentation slides