Thursday Reviews: One Click by Richard L. Brandt, 1491 by Charles C. Mann

One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon

by Richard L. Brandt

The contrarian (ie – “dick”) in me wanted to link the image to the right to Barnes & Noble or Google Books. Naw! The fact this book shows up on Amazon with no interference from Jeff Bezos shows that it’s all about business with Amazon.com’s founder. While not as in-depth as some other technology bios I’ve recently read (Steve Jobs, The Google Story, Microsoft First Generation), it does give a matter-of-fact overview of Amazon.com’s rise. Jeff Bezos is shown with warts and all, not unlike Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Amazon is, first of all, a book seller. Second, it is a retailer. So how is Amazon one of the great technology stories of the past twenty years? Jeff Bezos started out in life wanting to be a physicist. Had he followed through on that quest, it’s quite likely you’d see him on television shows with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Michio Kaku discussing string theory and black holes. Instead, Bezos went into business and finance, spending the late eighties and early nineties for something to indulge his entrepreneurial streak.

When he hit upon the idea of selling books, not the most original idea when the web exploded, he put everything he had into building the most customer-oriented web site ever created. The title of Brandt’s book refers to the “one-click” method that Bezos patented for Amazon. It’s a dubious patent, of course. I write similar functions to One Click everyday, but Bezos tied it to e-commerce. Since the one click button is so iconic to Amazon users, I linked to the Kindle edition, which you buy with a one click button after you’ve setup your Kindle or a Kindle app.

One Click shows Amazon as it goes from a garage start-up to e-commerce innovator to poster child for the dotcom bust to one of the biggest retailer in the world. Looking at Bezos himself, you see the pattern for most of the tech innovators for the past thirty years. They can be arrogant and demanding, but also visionary and tenacious. Like Microsoft fifteen years ago, many people wonder if Amazon will take over the world. But Brandt suggests Amazon’s biggest rival is not Microsoft, Apple, or Google. Instead, he see Amazon as something many people had prayed for:

A Walmart killer.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Charles C. Mann

Everything you thought you knew about America before Columbus is wrong. The idea that Indians (which, incidentally, is what most Native Americans call themselves) were noble savages barely changed from there Stone Age ancestors is patently false. Also, the idea that the first people came over the Alaska land bridge 5000 years ago is also wrong. Oh, people did come over the bridge, but they weren’t the first Americans. There are these things called boats that likely brought the first Americans to North and South America nearly 20,000 years ago.

Charles Mann takes recent findings by anthropologists and archeologists, writing of the first Europeans, and records left by American civilizations and paints a very different portrait of pre-Columbian America than we’ve been taught. For starters, the Inca were as powerful an empire as the Spanish who conquered them. So why didn’t they kick the Spanish off the continent? If you look at early writings of the first Spanish, French, and English explorers, you see depictions of abandoned villages and dead bodies. The culprit? Small pox. Whose fault?

Columbus’s, but not for the reason you might think. It’s not the Europeans who brought disease to the New World (though they do share some of the blame.) Try horses. The beasts of burden had not been seen in America for 5000 years. Europeans, Asians, and Africans interacted with horses since they migrated to the Old World 5000 years ago. So on the other side of both oceans, people were exposed not only to horses but all the bugs that horses carry. Hence, the plague only killed off 1/3 of Europe’s population. Small pox?

Think Stephen King’s The Stand.

Which is tragic, because the history of America before 1492 is every bit as interesting as what happened in Europe and the Middle East and China in that time. For instance, compared to the Incan kings, the Habsburgs were genetically diverse. If you were the Inca (the leader, from whom the empire’s modern name comes), no woman was pure enough to be your wife. Except your sister. Which makes conflict with the Spanish all the more ironic.

The Olmec – forerunners of the Aztecs – were masters at irrigation and urban planning, rivaling the Egyptians. And the Aztecs weren’t the only civilization Cortez found in Mexico. In fact, Cortez and his army were nearly wiped out by the Aztecs, only to discover that some of their neighbors were sick of Montezuma. (Not his actual name.)

There are suggestions that the Amazon is actually one big terraforming project. No, not by aliens. By a group from whom the Inca are descended.

And the US Constitution. Who inspired it? Rome? The British? The Greeks? Sure, they all had a hand. But the idea of a central federal government over a group of autonomous states actually comes from the group we now call the Iroquois.

Mann’s book may shake some people’s beliefs about America and its longer-term history, but it tears down the “noble savage” myth that most Indians I’ve met find annoying. The demographic collapse of the native population between 1492 and the mid-1500’s turns out to be a bigger tragedy than thought, worse since neither Americans nor Europeans were aware of what was happening and why. The Old World benefited from the cross-pollination of cultures from China to India to Mesopotamia to Europe. The sudden disappearance of the early Americans deprived both sides of that cross-pollination, leaving only centuries of conquest, mistrust, and bitterness.

On the other hand, at least we now have written evidence from the Maya that the 2012 prophecy is a total crock.

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