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Books of Note -- Killer Drones, Tech Jobs and the Internet's Birth on Labor Day 1969

September 02, 2012

By Mark P. Mills

PRINTER FRIENDLY

Summer’s not over until September 21st. There’s still time for productive summer reading. Here’s three new books, each with deep relevance to issues of our times.

Kill Decision, Daniel Suarez, Dutton Adult, 2012.

Okay, start with this first because it’s the only work of fiction in this group of three, an SF thriller in Michael Crichton tradition. (BTW, Crichton’s posthumous Micro is worth the read too) Suarez’s story is about the immediate future. In fact, it’s barely science fiction since it pivots on technology readily available or emerging right now. The plot concerns autonomous drone swarms attacking Americans across the country and around the world, from an unknown enemy, in frighteningly efficient terrorist-like strikes. There’s a hero, a love story, etc. But the machines, and action sequences, are the compelling parts. As is the terrifying opening scene.

If you’re into this type of thriller, Suarez rises to the quality of Vince Flynn, but with a deeper tech bent. His drones are frightening and credible. Even if you’re not a techie, the story sweeps you along. And if you’re interested in drones, autonomous micro drones too, and nuances of uber Internet hackers, odds are you’ll learn more about where technology is taking the world reading Kill Decision than a lot of the trade literature. Suarez is a tech systems consultant, knows his stuff, and his characters explain it well. This is a great book to read on an airplane or for that last weekend at the beach. And the subject of drones couldn’t be more timely as we continue to expand their lethal efficacy abroad and explore wider deployment of them at home. Suarez explores the combination of the two, run amok.

The New Geography of Jobs, Enrico Moretti, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

This important book by a U. Cal Berkeley economics professor contains vital insights and data about the nature of jobs in our new economy. The thesis he unveils is, at its core, extraordinarily encouraging because American innovators have so much untapped potential. Moretti gets special points for observing that Friedman’s The World Is Flat thesis is simply wrong. In Moretti’s opinion "…the data don’t support this view." And "Despite all the hype about the ’death of distance’ and the ’flat world’, where you live matters more than ever." One of the book’s subtitles for instance is "Your Salary Depends More on Where you Live Than on Your Resume."

The first two-thirds of Moretti’s book is rich with both data and examples – well worth the read. I thought he somewhat lost his focus in the latter part of the book – but that doesn’t matter. The cogent analysis in the first two-thirds is the critical essence. Moretti notes that innovation-centric jobs have a multiplier effect: they create other jobs, and at triple the rate of standard manufacturing jobs. You won’t find Moretti calling this phenomenon the pejorative (and incorrect) "trickle down," but instead he explains that this is how economies (productively) work. He notes that the beneficial economic multiplier is thus not all about techies, but about all the jobs that innovation’s wealth and multiplier creates. For example, he notes that of the "top ten cities for waiters, three are purely tourist destinations but seven are cities with a strong high-tech presence." And Moretti’s data shows that the service workers in the geographically-enriched cities make a whole lot more money than in the less innovation-centric places. In fact, his data shows that where people and policies favor the high-wage innovation workers, those with high-school degrees make a better income than those with college degrees do in the less favorable cities.

One of Moretti’s conclusions has relevance to the ’fairness’ argument in play today. Moretti notes that highly skilled innovation workers certainly get paid a lot more than the average folk. But he finds that a high concentration of such workers creates "human capital externalities." He writes that the "existence of human capital externalities is good news for less educated workers in highly educated cities, because it means that they end up earning more than they would otherwise earn" In fact, Moretti reaches the conclusion that "well-educated workers are not fully compensated for the social benefits that their education generates." [emphasis added] Quite a conclusion, and an inversion of the fairness argument.

Aside from evaluating the nature of the jobs-innovation landscape, Moretti also attempts to proffer ideas on policies to facilitate and encourage more of the beneficial gains from innovation’s job boosting, but he struggles with this. That too is not so important as seeing and understanding the facts. The Earth ain’t flat, and where you are and what you do matters.

Tubes, A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Andrew Blum, Ecco, 2012.

Writer and Wired correspondent Blum is perhaps the millennial generation’s John McPhee, chronicling an arcane journey of deep relevance to everyday life. Blum, curious about the physical architecture of the Internet, sets out to visit the people and geographic locations of hardware that underlie the ubiquitous smart screens. He visits network operating centers, finds fiber cable landings, watches a transatlantic cable being brought ashore, visits the bowels of data centers and network rooms to see the racks of routers, servers and pulsing fiber. For Blum, it’s a revelation to discover that: "On a daily basis it may feel as if the Internet has changed our sense of the world; but undersea cables showed how that new geography was traced entirely upon the outlines of the old world."

For non-techies, the book is a very accessible revelation. While tech sophisticates will find nothing new in the revelations about the electrical and mechanical realities of the apparently ethereal Internet, they will be entertained by Blum’s prose and travelogue style, as well as his penchant for noticing and exploring details and idiosyncrasies about the people and places he visits. Blum starts his journey at UCLA to see the site, the professor, and the hardware that comprise the very first network connection that took place on Labor Day weekend in 1969.

Blum wanted to see the birthplace of the Internet and came about as close is physically possible. From there he travels the world. We learn – who knew? – that Equinix’s biggest UK data center is located in Slough where the original British version of The Office was set.

Blum deals only episodically with data and technical facts, focusing much more on the places and people where the Internet’s hardware resides. He does touch on the subject of my particular long-standing interest, the power appetite for data: Quoting a Microsoft engineer Blum writes that with data centers "…eight-five-ish percent of your cost is in the mechanical and electrical systems inside the building."

And in trying to see the guts of one of Google’s storied and astronomically large data centers in Oregon, he learns that, well, Google’s much vaunted openness has its limits. He didn’t get past the foyer and parking lot. The infrastructure, its hardware and power needs were deeply proprietary. "They [Google] seemed to agree that hiding their data centers was no longer the best policy. So the farce that came next surprised me." (We coulda saved him that trip. Google is right; the guts, the power and mechanicals are where deep competitive advantages do in fact reside, and are unsurprisingly proprietary.)

It is somewhat ironic – perhaps intentional – that Blum finishes his book at the Facebook data center, and writes: "In fact, Facebook had come under fire from Greenpeace for relying too heavily on coal power. But for Patchett [Facebook director of infrastructure], it was tied up in a broader vision about the future of data centers, and America." To that I say, amen.

Happy end-of-summer reading.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/markpmills/2012/09/02/books-of-note-killer-drones-tech-jobs-and-the-internets-birth-on-labor-day-1969/

 

 
 
 

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