I was totally fried from my week so I stayed away from my computer all day yesterday. I had a fun breakfast with Lucy Sanders of NCWIT and Krisztina Holly of the MIT Deshpande Center, got a massage, and then laid on the couch and chewed down two books.
The first was Guy Kawasaki’s The Art of the Start. Like all of Guy’s books dating back to The Macintosh Way, it’s a must read for all entrepreneurs as Guy continues to pile on anecdotes and lessons that everyone can learn from. And – in a move that is after my own heart, he spends the better part of a chapter explaining how to make better powerpoint presentations.
Adhering to my cycle of “two books of mental muscle followed by one book of mental floss” (ok – I don’t adhere to it – it’s merely a goal) I took on The Innocent by Harlen Coben. My friend Jenny Lawton who runs Justbooks sends me piles of advanced manuscripts and makes sure I get every one of Coben’s the second they show up in her store. Coben is one of my all time favorite mental floss writers – he’s deep, dark, romantic, twisted, violent, and logical all in one package, creates great characters, and always has some nerdy stuff in the mix. His books automagically come together in the last few chapters so they are simply a rapid romp through exotic brain candy for a couple of hours. Yum. The Innocent didn’t disappoint.
I must have a fascination with books with the word bullshit in the title, as On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt is the second I’ve read in the last twelve months (the other one was Another Bullshit Night in Suck City).
Frankfurt, a Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University, has written a delightful half-book (half-book =< 100 pages). In this book, Frankfurt proposes to “begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit.” You know you are in for a good time when the first sentence of the book is “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” Frankfurt asserts that even though bullshit is all around us, “the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.”
Given the massive proliferation of blogging, this seems like a highly relevant topic to explore, as anyone that reads blogs knows that bullshit is everywhere. The basis of Frankfurt’s discussion is that lying and bullshit are different constructs, as a liar cares about the “truth-value” (e.g. the notion that what he is saying is false) while the bullshitter doesn’t care about the truthfulness of the statement or idea he is discussing. Frankfurt suggests that “bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.”
Sound familiar – or is this just more self-referential or recursive bullshit?
I spent seven years of my life at MIT. I ended up with two degrees, an addiction to caffeine, the ability to do several things at once even when massively sleep deprived, a deep understanding of the phrase IHTFP, and an appreciation for a good hack.
I’ve spent the last two days in Cambridge and Boston showing my 15 year old nephew Drew the sights. We wandered around MIT, hung out at the Media Lab, got some demos from several of the researchers being sponsored by the Deshpande Center (and got to play with powered joint braces and the HexFlex nanomanipulator), ate lunch at the Other Side Cafe and breakfast at Sonsie, counted the Smoots on the Mass Ave Bridge (ok – Harvard Bridge), shopped at The Coop, ate dinner at Legal Seafoods, hung out in the Museum of Science, checked out the new Stata Center (Dr. Seuss would be proud), visited my fraternity (ADP), saw the location of my first office (Feld Technologies – 875 Main Street, Cambridge), wandered past NetGenesis’ first offices (56 Rogers Street, Cambridge), and walked the Infinite Corridor. It’s been a blast playing tour guide, revisiting some of my old favorite spots, hanging out with Drew, and starting to teach him how to program computers in Logo.
We tried to take a quick trip to New York to see The Gates today, but Logan was completely screwed up, all the computers at the Delta and US Airways Shuttle were down, the lines were 100’s of people long, and – well – it just wasn’t going to happen.
So – we did more MIT, eventually picking up a copy of Nightwork, the definitive book on the history of hacking at MIT. I remembered a couple of the hacks, including the infamous Harvard / Yale game that MIT won and the police car on the dome. The book is 40% pictures, 40% commentary on hacks, and 20% essays – and is a delight for anyone that’s either been involved with MIT in any way (including being on the receiving end of a hack) or finds hacking amusing. It’s an easy read – and well worth being a coffee table book.
Maybe someone hacked the Delta and US Airways computers. Or – maybe they are just incompetent.
I’ve never met Bo Peabody, but I know I’d like him. His half book – Lucky or Smart? – (Amy told me that if it only has 58 pages, it doesn’t count as a whole book) is a quick and delightful romp through his entrepreneurial brain. If you are too lazy to read a half book, you can try this Inc. Magazine article that will give you a feel for it.
Bo’s first company – Tripod (the one he sold to Lycos for $58m – maybe that’s why the book has 58 pages – and then was locked up for two years while Lycos stock went up 10x) – is still around. We were investors in Tripod’s competitor Geocities – also still around (and part of Yahoo) – which are both logical predecessors to the things we now call blogs.
Enough history – back to the book. Since it’s a short one, I’ll summarize by listing the table of contents. If you can’t figure out why you’d like this book from the table of contents, then it’s not for you.
- Lucky or Smart?
- Entrepreneurs Are Born, Not Made
- Entrepreneurs are B-Students. Managers are A-Students.
- Great Is the Enemy of Good
- Start-Ups Attract Sociopaths
- Practice Blind Faith
- Learn to Love the Word “No”
- Prepare to Be Powerless
- The Best Defense Is a Gracious Offense
- Don’t Believe Your Own Press. In Fact, Don’t Read.
- Always Be Selling Your Stock
- Know What You Don’t Know
I’ve been really busy so January was a slow reading month. I hurt my knee running today so I decided to lie on the couch, ice my knee, and chow down on some books. I consumed the second half of A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, which I had been slowly wading through the past two weeks.
This is one of the most intense books I’ve read in a long time. It’s Frey’s autobiographical account of his six weeks in rehab. The fly leaf sets up the story with the following: At the age of 23, James Frey woke up on a plane to find his four front teeth knocked out, his nose broken, and a hole through his cheek. He had no idea where the plane was headed nor any recollection of the past two weeks. An alcoholic for ten years and a crack addict for three, he checked in a treatment facility shortly after landing. There he was told he could either stop using or die before he reached age 24.
The first half of the book is just fucking bleak. I’m fortunate that drugs, alcohol, and addiction have not had a meaningful role in the play called my life. While I’ve got a friend who became addicted to drugs 20 years ago and I spent a decade trying to help him before giving up, the vast majority of my “one degree of separation” friends and family have not had any addiction issues. As a result, the impact of the book on me might have been amplified as the landscape was so unbelievably foreign to me. I worked my way through the first half slowly during the past two weeks – both because I was concentrating on other things – and it was hard to move through it very quickly.
The second half is a story of renewal. Slowly – painfully slowly – Frey starts to make progress. As the period of time that he’s sober and clean lengthens, he starts to address – with the treatment counsellors and lawyers – his legal issues, his parents, and some of his real demons. He is incredibly stubborn, yet extremely insightful, and admirable in how he takes responsibility for himself. When one of his counsellors – in treatment with his parents – suggests that the core of his problems may be a combination of genetics and a severe / chronic ear infection he has for the first few years of his life (unbeknownst to his parents) he rejects it.
James: It’s an interesting theory. It probably holds some weight. I can accept it for what I feel it is, which is a possibility. I won’t accept it as a root cause, because I think it’s a cop-out, and because I don’t think it does me any good to accept anything other than myself and my own weakness as a root cause. I did everything I did. I made the decisions to do it all. The only way I’m going to get better is if I accept responsibility for the decision to either be an Addict or not be an Addict. That’s the way it has to be for me. I know you’re going to try and convince me otherwise, but you shouldn’t bother.
Joanne (counsellor): … you are the single most stubborn person that I’ve ever met.
James: I just won’t let myself be a victim. … People in here. People everywhere, they all want to take their own problems, usually created by themselves, and try to pass them off on someone or something else. I know my Mother and Father did the best they could and gave me the best they could and loved me the best the could and if anything, they are victims of me. I could say I’m flawed in my genetic makeup, that I have this disease and my addictions are caused by the presence of it, but I think that’s a lot of shit. I’m a victim of nothing but myself, just as I believe that most people with this so-called disease aren’t victims of anything other than themselves. If you want to call that philosophy stubbornness, go right ahead. I call it being responsible. I call it the acceptance of my own problems and my own weaknesses with honor and dignity. I call it getting better.
This exchange reminded me of my favorite quote from Atlas Shrugged, “Nobody stays here by faking reality in any manner whatever.” Buried in this emotionally devastating and ultimately awesomely inspiring 400 page book about one man’s effort to overcome his addiction is a component of my own personal philosophy – “take complete responsibility for all of your actions.” Intense.
Joel has a popular blog by the same name as the book. While some of the book is a simple refactoring of his blog posts over the past few years, don’t be fooled – this is a well organized, often hilarious, and always insightful compendium of Joel’s thoughts. It’s fresh. And relevant. And – almost always dead nuts on.
If you are a software developer, I expect you’ll roll around on the floor in empathy while simultaneously gleaning new insights into why the world are you is so bizarre and the marketing people in your company are so stupid. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of the cause of the general cluelessness of venture capitalists and still wonder why Microsoft doesn’t have a .NET linker (but it’ll inspire you to go searching for one on Google.)
If you manage software developers, or are a manager in a software company, you’ll end up with a much deeper understanding of what a typical software developer worries about when he’s not smirking at the last thing that came out of your mouth. You’ll learn why you should never try to set software development strategy based on what you read in airline magazines and why it’s just fucking dumb to create incentive programs for software developers that treat them like they are still in kindergarten.
If you are the CEO of one of my companies, don’t bother buying this book. You’ll get one in the mail from me in the next week or so. However, if you are someone else, and want to learn about – in Joel’s words – “on software and on diverse and occasionally related matters that will prove of interest to software developers, and managers, and to those who, whether by good fortune or ill luck, work with them in some capacity”, buy it now.
P.S. I don’t know Joel, but I respect him, even if he worked at Juno.
I just received an email from a blog reader asking for a recommendation for a book that addresses the “importance of intellectual property with regard to building successful technology companies.” I’ve read several IP-related books in the past (one of the guest lectures I used to give at MIT Sloan School for 15.351: Managing the Innovation Process was titled “Copyrights, Patents, and Trade Secrets” – the online lecture notes from 2002 have some references to readings on Standards, Patents, & Open Source) but I’ve never found one that I would call my “go to book.”
I passed on the request to Jason Mendelson (our general counsel and my co-conspirator on the Term Sheet series of posts) and he recommended The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Business Law. While this book isn’t specifically about IP, there is a large section on general IP law. It’s also a superb book that should be in every entrepreneur’s library.
Craig Dauchy – one of the co-authors – is a long time friend and collegue of ours and one of the managing partners at Cooley Godward – one of the premium law firms for VC-backed companies. So – Craig knows of what he speaks.
I believe that one can never have enough books. As an avid reader, I’m always on the lookout for random lists of “favorites” of other people so I can stretch my palate. I’m not selective as I’ve learned that if I don’t like a book, I can simply put it down and go to the next one.
I got a nice note from a Steve Proper with a pointer to 20 Strange and Wonderful Books – a magnificent list by a guy named John Cartan. I don’t know John (and don’t think I know Steve, but he reads my blog) – but I am now the proud owner of 17 new books via Amazon (I already owned three of them – 2. Flatland; 11. Godel, Escher, Bach; and 20. The Tolkien Reader.)
One of my favorite piles (the “book pile”) just got bigger.
I’m been in Hotchkiss, Colorado with Amy the past few days enjoying the run up to Christmas. Amy has family here (on the western slope of Colorado near Grand Junction) and we’ve been hanging out in this town of 800 doing what you’d expect.
It’s pretty useful to head over the continental divide every now and then and remember what small town America is like. The houses do NOT have high speed Internet (so – I’m typing this at Weekender Sports – the local sporting good store owned by Amy’s uncle – surrounded by all the snowmobiles and guns one could ever want.) I managed to find the local coffee shop which does a nice Starbucks imitation, but I’m yet to find any democrats. That said, the people here are delightful and I always am welcomed as family, which takes the edge off this cranky jewish boy at Christmas time (years of therapy haven’t managed to cure me of my annoyance at not getting gifts on December 25th and I’m too stubborn to just accept fate.)
So – I’ve been reading.
I started with The Runes of the Earth – Stephen Donaldson’s newest book (book seven) in the Thomas Covenant Chronicles. This sent me back to eight grade sitting in study hall devowering Donaldson’s books between fantasizing about how I was going to kick all my friends butts at Dungeons and Dragons. Donaldson has mastered the epic fantasy – I’ve read them all – and I think he’s the best (Zelazny comes in a close second for me.) Thankfully Donaldson decided to write “the final trilogy” – this is the first book and it lived up to my expectations. If you are a fantasy fan, give Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Chronicles a try – but start with the first one – Lord Foul’s Bane
Next up – Wil Wheaton’s magnificent Just A Geek. I’m not a Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, so I missed the whole Wil Wheaton / Wesley Crusher thing. I saw Wil’s book referred to by enough bloggers that I grabbed it one day just to see what it is about. Wil is great – he mixes a real book, his blogs, and his personal evolution in a captivating, hilarious, and endearing way.
Since Wil managed his own Movable Type-based web site, I decided I should learn PHP (since I recently PHP-enabled my site.) PHP 5 was a good start and – as expected – PHP is pretty simple, but extremely powerful. Now – I’ve just got to figure out what I want to do with it.
Jenny sent me the publishers proof of Leg The Spread. This is a fascinating romp through the Chicago Merc (and other Chicago exchanges) from a woman’s point of view. While it reinforces a truism that male traders are generally disgusting creatures, it’s extremely well written, gets underneath the personalities in the trading pit, and highlights a handful of incredibly powerful women and how they’ve adapted and succeeded in a male-dominated, testosterone-laden scene. I’ve never been to the Merc, but whenever I see it on CNBC, I’ll think of it differently.
Ok – Amy’s been making me watch too much Jeopardy these days (although I’ve had a blissful week off from it since I banned TV from this trip.) Fortunately, I can read while it’s in the background (plus Ken just wins all the time – what’s the fun of that.)
So – I picked up Getting Everything You Can Out of All You’ve Got with my typically cynical point of view toward marketing. As I wrote in my post Your Marketing Sucks (the title of my favorite marketing book to date), I expected very little from this book even though it was recommended in a comment to the forementioned post by Troy Angrignon (who I don’t know, but did appreciate the comment.) Troy highly recommended this book so it went into the “read some day pile.”
Some day came. For a marketing book, it was a notch above sucking. The pretty little “bonus star” on the cover says “21 Ways You Can Out-Think, Out-Perform, and Out-Earn the Competition” – never, in my mind – a particularly good sign. However, while the book was pretty simplistic, I found myself getting into it after about 100 pages. Jay Abraham (the author and self proclaimed “master motivator”) loads it up with examples – many of them commonplace ones that ironically made me think “oh – that makes sense – duh – why aren’t we doing that at company X.”
The chapters on Internet and email marketing were pretty lame, especially in contrast to the final publisher proof of Sign Me Up! by Matt Blumberg and the Return Path folks that I read earlier this week. But the rest of the book had plenty of straightforward but useful ways to out-think, out-perform, and out-earn the competition.
Ok – I’m done with business books for a while – time to go for one last run on the beach this trip and then disappear into The Runes of the Earth – Stephen Donaldson’s first book in The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.