Anirvan Chatterjee and Charlie Hsu, BookFinder.com
To start off, Anirvan, you’ve been generous with information about yourself, somewhat generous with information about Charlie (let’s see if we can’t get you out and talking about yourself, Charlie) and very generous with information about BookFinder.com.
If I may, though, I’m going to dig a bit deeper.
You’re both twentysomethings living in a high tech area, based as you are in Berkeley, CA, doing high tech work and, in many ways, living the “good life.” From what you’ve written, Anirvan, can we assume that running BookFinder.com doesn’t leave much time for either of you to be party (or family) animals? Is it all work and no play, aside from work and reading, though? Some questions for you both follow.
Anirvan and Charlie, do you see yourselves continuing to run BookFinder.com for many years, or forever, or??? Do you think, since you have so many of the programming problems solved and have the site running smoothly, that it will continue to be gratifying emotionally, financially and intellectually for both of you?
Anirvan: Many things get easier over time, but there are always new challenges to be met. For example, we’ve been working for over a year now on a set of infrastructure improvements to BookFinder.com that (among many other things) will help users search for books in languages other than English. I’m currently working on a project to figure out how we can best improve new users’ experience with the site. This stuff goes on. I love what I do, and I’m fortunate to be able to work with good friends. I can’t imagine being bored anytime soon.
Charlie: I think Anirvan has said a lot of what I would say. While many problems are solved, there are always more problems to tackle, more interesting things to try.
Anirvan, when you originally conceived of the idea of a multi-database book search, what triggered the idea, i.e., was it being unable to find books you personally wanted, or what? How did you go about deciding what would work as a metasearch through book databases? Was it a trial and error process, or one of those inspired ideas that seem to sprout full-grown into your consciousness? Did you talk this idea over with Charlie at the time?
Anirvan: I got interested in developing a book search tool based directly on my experiences as a book shopper. I’d been buying books online for some time, particularly stuff that I couldn’t find locally. Jumping between sites in order to check on prices and availability got frustrating very quickly. Developing a metasearch system was a way of scratching that itch.
In the fall of 1996, while I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, I took an information science seminar on the theory and practice of network agent systems. We had to develop a prototype network agent system as a class project; I chose to build a network agent that would help me find and buy books. The site grew from there. I got an ‘A’ in the class, and I put a version of the software online in January 1997. I made pretty heavy use of the software early on to help me complete my collection of Doonesbury titles — nearly fifty volumes in total, most out of print.
Most of the improvements to the site came incrementally. I didn’t initially think of including options to search for signed books or first editions, or even a keywords field. We’ve continuously been making little tweaks here and there, often based on user feedback.
Charlie, when did you first start working with Anirvan on the book-search database? And does BookFinder.com, as a mental and professional challenge, suit you still?
Charlie: Officially, I started working with BookFinder.com after I graduated from UC Davis in 1999. Unofficially, I’d been helping out since even before the site was launched in 1997. I even built the site’s first server, back in the very beginning. BookFinder.com suits me as a challenge because it lets me do things I wouldn’t normally get to do. Running a small business, you have to become proficient in a lot of skills. BookFinder.com helps keep me from being pigeonholed into just being a coder.
Charlie and Anirvan, is one or the other of you the “idea” person and the other the “programming person”? Or do you both work on all functions of your business?
Anirvan: We both do programming and planning/design stuff. We handle different parts of the technology — Charlie works with the databases and the complex guts of the system, I work with the interface and search code. Otherwise, I’m more involved with marketing, advertising sales, bookseller relations, etc. Charlie handles the financial and legal side of the business. That’s just us; we also have part-timers and consultants working on support, marketing, design, accounting, etc. Running a site like BookFinder.com is a big job!
Anirvan and Charlie, can you foresee BookFinder.com morphing into metasearches for other products besides books?
Charlie: We’ve thought about metasearching other types of products, but decided against it. Every kind of product has its own complexity. The technology is only one part of building a comparison shopping engine and, at least to a technologist like me, the easier side. There’s a huge amount of knowledge about books and the online book industry that we’ve accumulated, which we use while working on the site. It would take a long time to get that knowledge in other fields.
Anirvan and Charlie, has the overall super-abundance of more common books and part-time booksellers affected your business negatively or positively (aside from requiring more computing resources, of course)?
Anirvan: Compared to two years ago, we’ve found that when given the choice, somewhat fewer users opt to buy new books, perhaps due to the greater availability of cheap used copies. Not much else. We identify a lot with booksellers but, in the end, our allegiance is to the customer; the presence of “kitchen table” booksellers and larger online inventories helps consumers by increasing selection, and driving down prices.
Anirvan and Charlie, I read in one of your press releases that there are 40,000 of us booksellers online now: was this a mistake or are there truly that many people listing used books online now (last I’d heard was around 10,000)? For instance, I wondered if many of us listing on several databases had inflated the apparent number of booksellers.
Anirvan: We include in our count the most active “kitchen table” booksellers from sites like Half.com; the figure’s not inflated.
Both of you, again. Do you have any plans (that you wouldn’t mind giving away, of course) about other types of businesses, whether computer or book-based or not, that either of you are considering or would be interested in for the future?
Anirvan: We see a lot of room for growth in the used book area. Most of our future plans revolve around that sector.
Both of you, why do you continue with BookFinder.com Insider? Even with it being an essentially unmoderated list, it must take many hours of your time and add to your work week. Do you get ideas about what’s needed for your business from the list? Do you just enjoy the chatter of book people? Even though we all love having the list I know we must drive you nuts at times, and I’m curious about why you put up with some of our antics.
Anirvan: We love the list. It’s frustrating to run at times, but we get a lot out of it. As with many list members, being involved with the Insider list is a way for us to keep an ear to the ground of what’s going on in the world of online bookselling. We’ve also really gotten to know some of the list members. The community’s crucial; the BookFinder.com Insider started off as a stale tech support mailing list — it’s the list’s members that give it some soul.
Charlie, how did you and Anirvan meet (I know it was during high school, but what brought and kept you two together)? Were you both “into” information technology as it existed then?
Charlie: We actually met in the locker bays of our junior high school. The lockers were assigned alphabetically by last name. I had a good friend whose last name was Chang. Anirvan’s last name is Chatterjee, so the three of us met by my friend’s locker. We all started talking, and eventually became friends. We had a great computer science teacher in high school, so we were learning how to run our school’s Unix network back in the days of the pre-commercial Internet (this would be the early 90s). I still remember when we first saw Mosaic (the first graphical web browser), and how surprised we were the first time we saw a URL advertised on TV.
Anirvan, how did your reading about and the reality of India coincide when you visited your grandparents? Was that your first trip to India, by the way?
Anirvan: I’ve been visiting my extended family in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) every year or two, all my life, so I’ve always felt pretty connected to the place. I can’t say that I’ve ever had to deal with any substantial culture shock, either in the US or in India.
Anirvan, why mysteries? Is solving problems such a deep part of your personality that it is fun for you even when relaxing and reading? Or is reading mysteries when you can turn off your brain and really relax?
Anirvan: Definitely the latter. I’m an embarrassingly unsophisticated mystery reader. I miss obvious clues, and have to wait till the conclusion to find out whodunit. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries set in Berkeley, California (where I live and work). I’m enjoying seeing how different writers take on the city’s quirks in print.
Anirvan, I’ve seen your lists of books read on the BookFinder.com site. What are your favorites, current and past? Is there a particular type of book or author you collect?
Anirvan: I read pretty widely (and buy books accordingly). Stuff I’ve been into over the past few years include Isaac Asimov novels, 1960s radical librarian literature, black science fiction, Russian novelists, anti-technology commentary, graphic novels, and punk music history. But to the extent that I can say that I collect anything, I’m probably most into English language fiction from the South Asian diaspora — authors like Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy.
To indulge my compulsive need for list-making, here are some of my favorite underhyped lit titles from the South Asian diaspora:
* “The Shadow Lines” by Amitav Ghosh (India) * “Afternoon Raag” by Amit Chaudhuri (India) * “English, August” by Upamanyu Chatterjee (India) * “Anita and Me” by Meera Syal (UK) * “Once Upon An Elephant” by Ashok Mathur (Canada) * “Junglee Girl” by Ginu Kamani (US) * anything by Ved Mehta (US)
Charlie, I’m assuming you are a reader, also? What do you like to read, and what appeals to you about those choices?
Charlie: I’m a really big fantasy/sci-fi fan. It probably comes from my interest in ancient and medieval European history. On the other hand, maybe it’s because I’m such a big fantasy fan that I’m so into history. One of those chicken and egg things, I guess.
Charlie, have you made up a `books read’ list like Anirvan’s? If so, what are some of those books (and even if you don’t have an official list, what do you like to read)? Which are your favorites, and why? And do you read much about your cultural or ethnic heritage?
Charlie: Anirvan, as you may have noted, is very much a list person. He keeps lots of lists in his life, and a reading list is very natural for him. I, on the other hand, am not a list person; I’m far too disorganized to do something like that.
Favorite books? Well, let’s see, it’s hard to say, there have been so many…I’ve always enjoyed humor, the books in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series are some of my favorites. More recently, I discovered Terry Pratchett and am quickly on my way through reading all of his Discworld novels. “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco — murder, mystery, monks, a Sherlock Holmes-like character, all set in medieval times — what’s not to like? Finally back to the classic fantasy genre, the Thomas Covenant series (“Lord Foul’s Bane”, “The Illearth War”, “The Power That Preserves”) serves up a slight twist to the generic fantasy world.
Charlie, Anirvan has written that he had pretty much an upper middle class U.S. upbringing. How about you? My understanding is that you were born in Taiwan, but grew up mostly in the San Francisco Bay area. Did you grow up with mostly Western values and heritage, a mixture of Twaiwanese and Western, or a traditional heritage? Have you visited Taiwan since moving to the U.S.?
Charlie: When I think of my upbringing, the best way I have to describe it is to say that I’m a second generation immigrant from Taiwan. I grew up with a mix of values, both American and Taiwanese, with many of my friends around me growing up the same.
Charlie, I understand you have many hobbies besides books and your programming. Anirvan has said he’s seen you juggling flaming torches, for instance. How did you get interested in juggling, and how long did it take you and how many different types of objects being juggled to get to the flaming torches level? Any burns along the way???
Also, Charlie, I understand you’ve dabbled in fencing, whittling and woodworking. Are any of these still hobbies? Could you tell us how you got interested in each, and how proficient you became at them?
Charlie: Fencing, juggling, woodworking all came about after high school. During college, I decided that I wanted to do something else besides just taking classes every quarter. UC Davis had a great program called the Experimental College, with classes taught by members of the community. I tried fencing because I wanted some sort of exercise to keep me in shape. A good friend of mine also fenced and encouraged me to join. (Also, you can’t tell me there isn’t something cool about the idea of swashbuckling.) After about 3 years of fencing, I still consider myself pretty much a beginner, and I haven’t fenced in several years now.
Juggling was just something I’ve always wanted to learn. My roommate and I signed up for juggling classes together. The funny thing about juggling is that once you learn to pass clubs, juggling becomes a very social event as people get together to play together; it’s not just one person off doing tricks alone. I can juggle up to four balls at a time, or three clubs, or three torches, which can be thought of as clubs with flames at the end. No major burns, though I lose knuckle hair every time I try it.
As for woodworking, I’ve always been a craft-oriented person. Programming is fulfilling in many ways, but what you create is so ephemeral, I wanted something solid, thus whittling and woodworking. I’m still a rank beginner, but my eventual goal is to make my own furniture.
Anirvan, you write beautifully and eloquently. Are you ever intending to try to write a book? Have you had papers or books published? If you did ever decide to write professionally, what would you write about?
Anirvan: Thanks. I dabble with an article here and there, but haven’t done much writing otherwise. As with so many things, it’s a matter of not having enough time.
I idolize the technology/culture journalism from about 1992 to 1996 — that’s something I wish I could have been involved in (the fact that I was still in high school at the time was something of an impediment). Most mainstream journalists didn’t even know which stories to investigate; others fell into the trap of recycling existing metaphors. But writers like Paulina Borsook, Steve Silberman, Simson Garfinkel, and Howard Rheingold were part of the first wave of smart internet-savvy journalists writing about the social implications of these new technologies, trying to write critically about a medium that was changing by the day. Exciting stuff. There’s a Library of America anthology of American journalism during the Vietnam War; I won’t be terribly surprised if, some decades from now, there’s a similar anthology of journalism from the early networked era.
Anirvan and Charlie, aside from reading and working, what do you like to do? Do you enjoy art, traveling, concerts, animals, sports, or???
Anirvan: Nothing out of the ordinary. I try to spend time with friends and family, and attend concerts, plays, and movies. I end up making three or four film festivals a year (the San Francisco Bay Area’s a great place for the arts).
Charlie: Aside from the hobbies I mentioned, I enjoy watching movies — comedies and (not surprisingly) period pieces. I boot up the occasional video game, and enjoy hanging out with friends.
Anirvan and Charlie, I just finished reading “The Blue Nowhere” by Deaver, and was quite surprised to find so many supposed characteristics I shared with hackers (and I’m not at all a programmer, just a compulsive computer user). Do you “legal” programmers do the same things as hackers? Like eat sweets or drink the strongest caffeine drinks you can find to keep alert for long hours at the computer (that one I share), never drink alcohol or use “anything” that would make you drowsy and unable to function at the computer, have to shave off calluses on your finger tips from keyboarding so many hours (makes me glad I learned to type (pardon, keyboard) with fingernails), wander around at 4:00 a.m. in online chat rooms looking for other computer-compulsive night owls even after your “official” work is over, wear out keyboards at a fantastic rate, be able to “feel” if your computer is being hacked or interfered with in some way from response time either in the drive or monitor, drive noises, etc., or program for 36 hours straight with no sleep? How much of this stuff is correct for you true computer mavens? And hey, is either of you going to admit to ever hacking – in your younger, wilder days, of course? :>)
Charlie: Well, as with many such portrayal of hackers, this contains a grain of truth, but some of it is exaggerated for dramatic effect. Many of my friends who are coders do tend to be habitual coffee drinkers, but these days, who isn’t? I don’t think my keyboard wears out any faster than most. Almost all the coders I know, including myself, are night owls. I’ve tried to cut back on the all-nighters (I’m not as young as I used to be, you know.)
Hacking in our younger, wilder days? <laughs> Can I take the fifth? No seriously, because we became system administrators to our high school network, we spent a lot more time keeping our system running than trying to go out and “hack.”
Anirvan, you’ve written about feeling “racialized” after 9/11 because of your Indian appearance. Was this a phenomenon that you felt primarily immediately after 9/11, and were there actual occurrences of discrimination against you or any of your Indian friends? Does this feeling (or do these occurrences) still persist today? Would you care to comment on how this felt to a U.S. citizen of Indian descent?
Anirvan: My parents are from India, but that’s only one part of who I am. When I talk about feeling “racialized,” I mean that in the days and weeks after 9/11, it was very difficult to think of myself as anything other than someone of the wrong skin color. I’ve encountered explicit in-your-face racism a couple of times, but it tends to be something I can ignore. I’ve rarely felt physically vulnerable. The domestic backlash after 9/11 changed that.
My parents called me the morning of 9/11 to let me know what was happening. In the midst of our shock, it was very clear to all of us that there would be a huge backlash. Through websites, newsgroups, and mailing lists, I kept hearing about Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage getting attacked, people being jeered at, schoolchildren assaulted, businesses threatened. There was a rock thrown through the window of one of my favorite Pakistani lunch spots in San Francisco. A friend’s brother was refused service at a restaurant. Everyone got glares. It wasn’t a good time. I got involved with a group doing hate crime education in the South Asian community; a lot of people were scared to report incidents, for fear of calling further attention to themselves.
It’s unfortunate that as thousands were dying after the terrorist attacks, we immediately started turning on our own. If the aftermath of the 1997 Oklahoma City bombing had been anything like that of 9/11, Irish-Americans and Gulf War veterans would have had to fear for their safety after bomber Timothy McVeigh was identified. Just goes to show far we have to go as Americans to overcome our -isms. It takes a long time to shed the stigma of being the “Other”; it may take another fifty years before Indians are as accepted as Italians, Hinduism as accepted as Judaism.
Both of you, I have some questions from my personal point of view. I grew up in an era when typing and data entry was primarily a low-paid woman’s job. Now, with computers affecting almost every aspect of our lives, we’ve all been turned into “typists” and for much longer hours than typists worked in the old days (and in many instances, for less pay per hour). I realize it is called “keyboarding” these days, and that modern day keyboarding is, for programmers at least, simply the current method of getting the machine to do what you want it to do. But do you ever get the feeling that you’re chained to that darned keyboard? Do you really get those calluses on your fingertips? Do you both have carpal tunnel syndrome? Do you think the day will soon come when you can program by speaking, rather than keyboarding? And, in that vein, what advances in computer technology do you anticipate in the near future?
Charlie: I don’t think it’s so much chained to the keyboard as chained to work in general. The computer is nothing more than a tool to get things done, and the keyboard is just an input tool. I could sit here and talk for hours on end about what I think of the future of technology (and no doubt be mostly wrong), but briefly, I don’t think that voice technology for programmers will be ready anytime soon. There have been many interesting developments in the pursuit of lighter, smaller, flat screens that are easier on the eyes. Once they can get something thin, light, and approaching the resolution of printed text, ebooks will look that much more appealing.
You asked about typing calluses. So far, that hasn’t been a problem. My biggest worries are actually carpal tunnel syndrome, and possible damage to my eyes from staring at a monitor for 9+ hours a day. Luckily, nothing has happened so far but it’s always a concern.
Thanks to you both, Anirvan and Charlie!