Dear Bill

What Gates should be reading this summer

Art by Bob AulTo: billg@microsoft.com

From: herself@agunn.com

Re: Vacation reading list

I hear you're the kind of guy who not only reads business and science texts on vacation but also actually reads the stuff writers write about you. Moreover, I also hear that many people are completely obsessed with your every move, no matter how personal or private. So, in order to increase readership for my roundup of tech-related books, I propose the following:

I, Angela, will tell you, Bill, about the books you will find most personally significant—a Bill-o-centric view of important tomes from the past few months.

Since I also know from my reading that you like hedging your bets, I'll present these books two-by-two, head-to-head by category. That's taxonomy in action, Bill, and you know how those kids at Yahoo! made taxonomy pay off. (The head-to-head-clash thing will also give you that sensation of being in a Redmond staff meeting—can't let these vacations unwind a guy too far.)

Deep Dish: The Plot to Get Bill Gates vs. Infinite Loop

Like Sinatra said, here's to the losers. They certainly make for livelier reading.

Now, you may be asking yourself: How can a book about me, Bill Gates, be about losing? But The Plot to Get Bill Gates is about you as seen through others' eyes. Envious others. Dishy others. Others with long, long memories. Exactly the kind of people folks want whispering in their ears about your quirks and foibles, not to mention your money.

Gary Rivlin has less technical savvy than other cyber writers, but he knows from conflict—his 1995 book Drive-By, which examined the ruinous effects of an Oakland drive-by shooting on the four families involved, was riveting. Turf wars and random acts of violence are excellent preparation for covering the loose coalition of industry players out to get you, Bill; Ray Noorda (Novell), Scott McNealy (Sun), Larry Ellison (Oracle) and even Ralph Nader show up in The Plot to Get Bill Gates, all with axes to grind. And Bill watchers will adore this book. All the dish about your personality makeovers, your eating habits (BurgerMaster? Hermano!) and resultant weight gain, your extravagances and your penny-pinching (coupons play a major role in your budget), your teary-eyed reactions when the Department of Justice started poking you with sticks—that, Bill, is the stuff that beach reading is made of.

Infinite Loop, meanwhile, is about beautiful losers—Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and all those other funksters who contributed to the rise and fall of Apple Computer. If you enjoyed Pirates of Silicon Valley (and if you didn't, you should have, Bill; you came out looking relatively good), this is 597 pages of bigger, longer and uncut. And where the movie ended with Jobs' first expulsion from Eden, this tome takes us right up to the iMac, and plenty of bodies fall along the way. Subterfuge! Politics! Bad management! Bad code! Bad grooming! Feckless idealism! Reckless spending! Egos bigger than your house!

First BG reference? The Plot to Get Bill Gates, right on the cover; Infinite Loop, page viii (the introduction). But really, Bill, this kind of brain candy ought to be beneath you. I understand from The Plot to Get Bill Gates that you like to take an occasional Think Week to get your head around Big Thoughts, and these two are a little lightweight for that. You ought to be wrapping your brain around the vision thing, around . . .

The Past, the Future: The Visionary Position vs. Dealers of Lightning

Now, here's the kind of thing you can wade into without feeling like you, Bill, are attending a class reunion gone bad. Michael Hiltzik attends to the ghosts of the past in Dealers of Lightning, a gripping tale of the legendary Xerox PARC (birthplace, in myth if not in fact, of the concepts ruling both the Mac and Windows). Meanwhile, the Seattle Weekly's Fred Moody looks into the virtual-reality future that might yet be in The Visionary Position, which follows the industry's fabled dandelion effect as a group of virtual reality pioneers set forth from UW's Human Interface Technology Laboratory into the cold, cruel world of Seattle start-up culture.

These are also both lively reads, with nice balance between tech observations and insights into the personalities on the scene. Hiltzik's book is a real treat, since Xerox PARC is the Camelot of the computer industry—oft-invoked in legend but not part of the current political landscape. A great many of the PARC players have retired or drastically changed careers, which gives this fine (if slightly overlong) history a thoughtful, elegiac tone.

Moody, meanwhile, seems to have unearthed a colony of enfants terrible, a raucous group of characters providing bone-jarring quotes and anecdotes, not to mention a couple of mental images I'd personally pay to have excised from my mind's eye. Most of his players are still industry figures, if not the revolutionaries they dreamed of becoming; they speak in the hyperactive, excitable voices of people still in the game. If virtual reality ever takes off on a recognizable trajectory, it'll be interesting to revisit this book and see how these brilliant, fractious folk fit into the saga; as it stands, it's an elegant story about inelegant folk, and a great deal of fun.

First BG reference? The Visionary Position, page xv (first page of intro); Dealers of Lightning, page xvi (introductory timeline).

But Bill, why limit yourself to histories? I have two last books for you. They may just jar you into really Big Thoughts about . . .

The Ghosts in the Machine: The Meme Machinevs. My Tiny Life

Susan Blackmore spent a quarter-century pursuing the paranormal and contemplating the meaning of life. After much thought, she arrived at the classic activists' bromide: you can kill a person, but you can't kill an idea. The Meme Machine puts forth the thought that we humans are merely walking, breathing, replicating carriers for virus-like fragments of cultural data—memes. (The song "Happy Birthday" is a meme. The peace sign is a meme. The word "meme" is a meme.) Memes replicate like genes—survival of the fittest, mutation and so forth—and humans are but their vectors of transmission. Over time, memes have evolved us into having bigger brains, speech capabilities, concepts of personal identity and so forth—all to ensure the continued propagation of memes. In other words, Bill, you only think you have thoughts, big or small; really, we're all just a bunch of idea-hauling meat. They're not even our ideas. They belong only to themselves.

Julian Dibbell almost reached the same conclusion but swerved into another lane. His tale of life in the chatworld/shared hallucination of LambdaMOO is beautifully written, and the questions he raises about responsibility and community resonate long past his relatively brief MOO experience in 1994. (MOO—multi-user dimension object-oriented—worlds are variations of online worlds wherein people interact in a fictional universe.) With no soapbox in sight, he makes a case that virtual lives and identities are as compelling and real as those in real life—maybe even more so, since he left LambdaMOO when the intensity of his virtual life threatened to knock his real one off the rails. When I picked up My Tiny Life, I remembered what I found so mesmerizing about chat and Usenet discussions years ago. By the time I finished it, I was back on both. This is a beautiful, provocative, dangerous book, and I'm going to regret having read it when I re-emerge from my virtual haze in September 2006.

Both books are about the absolute primacy of ideas. The Meme Machine claims that our physical entities are merely the devices by which ideas replicate. My Tiny Life suggests that maybe those physical entities aren't necessary for that replication—but that they do make the process worthwhile.

And best of all, Bill—if either book mentions you, I sure didn't notice. How's that for a Big Thought?

The Plot to Get Bill Gates: An Irreverent Investigation of the World's Richest Man . . . and the People Who Hate Him by Gary Rivlin; Times Business/Random House. 360 pages. $25;Infinite Loop: How the World's Most Insanely Great Computer Company Went Insane by Michael S. Malone; Currency/Doubleday. 597 pages. $27.50;Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Computer Age by Michael Hiltzik; Harper Business. 448 pages. $26;The Visionary Position: The Inside Story of the Digital Dreamers Who Are Making Virtual Reality a Reality by Fred Moody; Times Business/Random House. 353 pages. $27.50;The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore; Oxford University Press. 264 pages. $25;My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World by Julian Dibbell; Owl/Henry Holt & Co. 304 pages. $14.95.

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