Book Review – In the Plex : How Google Thinks, works and shapes our lives


Prelude:

I liked the book a lot, it reads like a thriller- at least to me. I couldn’t put it down and was reading the book late night, during work days – to the chagrin of the family !

Stephen Levy has clearly chronicled Google’s ascend and the tribulations it encountered – internal and external, on the way. What is more interesting is the fact that he has written a set of very crisp & detailed explanation of the innovations that Google brought into the search & advertisement domains.

I agree with Stephen that Google is a “clever internet-startup-named-after-a-100-digit-number turned into a corporate phenomenon”. It is very interesting to read it’s agony to IPO (and the ecstasy of the investors!) If Google had it’s way it would have added a requirement of min SAT score (and a Stanford PhD – at least an MMDS Certificate) for buying it’s shares ! Am forced to quote Scott Reeves (Forbes Aug 2004) on Google’s targeted price of $108/$135 “Only those who were dropped on their head at birth [will] plunk down that kind of cash for an IPO” – ouch ! (I myself was ready for around $50)

Google – A sum of it’s Obsessions

Search (Of course!)

  • PageRank, of course, refers to Larry Page’s Ranking Algorithm ! The PageRank estimates the importance of a page by the web pages that link to it. “We convert the entire web into a big equation with several hundred million variables”
  • The concept of signals – viz factors like terms, capitalization, font size, position et al – as traits added with PageRank is the secret sauce that made Google’s search very effective.
  • The search engines get major and minor rewrites “like changing the components of a flying plane – without the passengers knowing about it, but the ride becomes more comfortable and they get there faster “ not a perfect analogy but an effective simile!
  • The engineers fret about any queries that do not get answered in the first page – in many ways clicking next page in a search result is a failure of the brilliant engineers behind the search engine. You have to read about the query “Audrey Fino” that vexed Amit Singhal Google’s chief of search engine. The search showed lots of Audrey Hepburn and that bothered Amit – “There’s a person somewhere names Audrey Fino and we didn’t have the smarts in the system to know this” and the remedy was of course – to state Stephen,  a multi-year name detection and name classifier “algorithmic therapy” with a dash of “bigram breakage” added to taste !
  • Rokc is rock unless it has little in front of it (when it becomes the capital of a state) or if preceded by Noah becomes ark ! Another such query was “Eika Kerzen” which requires translation (to German in this case) to get to the right search result.

Algorithmic purity & ubiquitous

  • Google is an algorithmic company driven by computer science ! We can see that everywhere – successes and failure. For example the number of shares at IPO (2,718,281,828) is the Napier’s constant e ! During the bidding of patents, Google was bidding numbers like pi for Nortel’s patents
  • Even the Google ad sales people consider themselves as mediators between madison avenue and algorithms – only Google can say with both the words in the same sentence, make it sensible and in the process create an industry where it makes billions of dollars – as one SEO chief puts it “It is not we want to put all our boxes in one basket,  but there is only one basket in the industry”
  • The great lengths the Google team would go to make search relevant is exemplified by the “running shoes gnome sculpture”. The engineers believed in algorithmic purity – and before the launch of the Froogle product search, “running shoes” would show a “garden gnome sculpture that happened to wear sneakers”. The team cannot ship a product that fails to differentiate between a lawn art and a footwear. It seems within a couple of days the offending link disappeared ! And the team learned that one of their teammates went ahead and bought the one-of-a-kind sculpture that taking it off the web site !   “The algorithm started showing the right results, … and we launched!”
  • Search algorithmics sometimes had very strange effects – like showing the now defunct main office of bell telephone for a query “weather.com Philadelphia” – reason being the telephone company used to tell weather over the phone and this factoid was unearthed by the search algorithm !
  • It is interesting to read how Google re-invented the bidding system “Vickery second-bid action system” because the engineer (Eric Veach) wanted to avoid the “bid shading”. In the end, like anything else that Google touches, they created an innovative system that combined a few factors like bidding and ad-positioning, adding competition & customer satisfaction, in the end creating a rolling revenue stream in the order of billions of dollars for Google  – all in all a nifty feat!
  • The concept of compressing data to understand it was a brilliant stroke – the Google project called Phil (Probabilistic Hierarchical Inferential Learner) resulted in understanding the essence of web pages and …. Contextual matching ads with the web page’s content service called “Google content-targeted advertising” which later became AdSense (after acquiring the company Applied Semantics!)

Scale

  • Their success of algorithms (gave Eigen vector some credence) and  the change of scale that came with that was what made Google Google ! As Luiz Barrozzo observed “There are programs that do not run on anything smaller than a 1000 machines,  which means you are looking at a datacenter as a computer “
  • Google affects whatever it touches in unpredictable ways – for example, Google’s racks maxed out (power & cooling) at Exodus that Exodus drove an 18-wheeler upto the colo, punched 3 holes in the wall and pumped cold air into Google’s cage through PVC pipes!

The movers

  •  As I was reading the book, there were a few people I knew who played prominent roles in Google – was wondering when Hal Varian would show up – he did in (P.116) and stayed relevant in a lot of pages with his team of “econometricians” cross between statisticians and economists !
  • Was wondering when Sundar Pichai would show up, he did (P.205) and remained relevant as Steven narrated eloquently the advent of Google Chrome and the JavScript engine V8 … leveraging Google’s insistence on speed …
  • Stephen has interviewed most of, if not all, the technology leaders and we get to meet them at the relevant topics.

Trivia:

  • I think building 40 is called Building 0 or Nullplex. It is interesting as I work nextdoor – the only non-google building among the sea of bicycle trotting Googlers !
  • Pages Law according to Brin – “Every 18 months, software becomes twice as slow” !
  • Danger, which Andy Rubin cofounded, moved into the Palo Alto office when Google moved out of it in 1999 ! Eventually he left Danger and started Android …
  • Google always was structured like a PhD program dorm in a university – as Andy Rubin puts it “There is an implied grading on a 4.0 scale of the questions during interview and anybody less than 3.0 is rejected; the GPS (Google Product Strategy) meetings are run like a PhD defenses”
  • As told by Alan Eustace to Andy Rubin “Google’s brain is like a baby’s – an omnivorous sponge that was always getting smarter from the information it soaked up”!
  •  “We want Google to be that third half of your brain – Sergey, P.386
  • “It’s quite amazing how the horizon of impossibility is drifting these days” Thurun
  • The locus and trajectory of Google –“put Google in the driver ‘s seat on many decisions – large and small – that people make the course of a day and their lives![P.68]

Epilogue:

  • In this review I touched only a minimal set of interesting points (interesting to me!). The book has a lot of good read from Google’s China syndrome to how the Googlers shaped the last presidential election and later worked for the Obama administration to the controversies like Goggle view and the struggle with digitizing books.
  • One important development that Stephen couldn’t include, due to the timing of the release of the book, was Google+. But don’t despair – Stephen has written that part of the story as an article in wired ! Best to read it after finishing the book.
  • Readwriteweb has an article on the data scientist behind Google+
  • And Stephen’s blog on Motorolla Mobility purchase is another good read, again an important step by Google.
  • I just now saw a write up by infoworld on Google’s 5 biggest hits and misses.
  • Next book on my reading list “I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59” by Douglas Edward; it is on hold 3 of 7 from San Jose public library.
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One thought on “Book Review – In the Plex : How Google Thinks, works and shapes our lives

  1. Pingback: The Master Algorithm (Book Review) a.k.a Data the Final Frontier | My missives

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