Category: Books

Apr 10 2005

Book Review: Sight Hound

If you love dogs, strong women, Colorado, hockey, ranches, complicated yet lifelike characters, and beautiful writing, Sight Hound is a must read.  I haven’t read Pam Houston’s other books, but they are also highly acclaimed.  It’s a little tough getting your bearings since each chapter is told in first person from a different character’s point of view, including several dogs and a cat, but once you put it together it’s a fast ski ride down a huge snow covered mountain on a warm spring day.

Mar 27 2005

Book Review: Ultramarathon Man

Dean Karnazes, the writer and subject of Ultramarathon Man, is a wild man.  As the leader of Team Dean (which has a nice support crew consisting of his family, but only one athlete), Karnazes describes in great detail several of his ultramarathon feats (feets?) including his first Western States 100, a failed Badwater Ultramarathon, the first marathon at the South Pole (and one of two people to run around the world naked – try to figure that out), and his first (and the first) solo effort of The Relay (199 mile relay race from Calistoga to Santa Cruz). 

In the middle of the running stories and descriptions of his feet, his digestive challenges, his food intake (if you burn 600 calories an hour and you run for 48 hours, how do you manage to choke down 29,000 calories just to stay even? – see p. 280 of the book), he takes a crack at talking about how he does it, why he does it, what he eats, and whether or not he is sane.  His philosophy is good, the running stories are awesome, and the motivational lift (yeah – I’ll be running a lot this week) is huge.

If you are a marathoner, you’ll love this book.  If you want to be a marathoner, you need this book.  If you are a soul searcher, you’ll enjoy this book.

Thanks Team Dean for bringing us Dean.

Mar 26 2005

Books: On Intelligence

There was plenty of buzz last week about the new company – Numenta – that Jeff Hawkins (inventor of Graffiti and the PalmPilot, Visor, and Treo products) and Donna Dubinsky (CEO of Palm and Handspring) have started.  It was coincidental that I was reading Hawkins book – On Intelligence – which describes his theory of intelligence, the working of the brain, and how he thinks it will lead to the creation of truly intelligence machines.

I haven’t spent any time studying neural science, the brain (my biggest effort was probably not very successfully grinding through the Scientific American issue on Better Brains), or any of the contemporaneous efforts at “next generation Artificial Intelligence” (I was at MIT in the 1980’s during the peak of the last wave of AI research and subsequent commercialization attempts – I fondly remember being amazed at Symbolics – they are still around in a new incarnation called Symbolics TechnologyMacsyma has been hard to kill off) .

So – I don’t know much about brain research, theories of intelligence, the biology behind it, or much of anything else.  As a result, I thought On Intelligence was superb. I don’t expect that it’s right (nor does Hawkins) – he’s clear that it’s a framework and work in process (as it should be).  I found it extremely accessible, very provocative, and mostly internally consistent (which is important whenever you are trying to learn about something you know very little about – it can be wrong, but at least it hangs together in a way you can understand it.)

The book and theory is based on the work being done at the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, of which Hawkins is the founder and director.  Beyond just doing research, part of RNI’s mission is to “encourage people to enter and pursue this field of research.”  Hawkins is consistent in his message in the epilogue of his book where he says “I am suggesting we now have a new more promising path to follow.  If you are in high school or college and this book makes you want to work on this technology, to build the first truly intelligent machines, to help start an industry, I encourage you to do so.  Make it happen.  One of the tricks of entrepreneurial success is that you must jump head first into a new field before it is one hundred percent clear you can be successful.  Timing is important. If you jump too early, you struggle.  If you wait until the uncertainty lifts, it’s too late.  I strongly believe that now is the time to start designing and building cortical-like memory systems.  This field will be immensely important both scientifically and commercially.  The Intels and Microsofts of a new industry built on hierarchical memories will be started sometime within the next ten years.  It is challenging doing new things, but it is always worth trying.  I hope you will join me, along with others who take up the challenge, to create one of the greatest technologies the world has ever seen.”

Hawkins thoughts and writing are fused with his obvious entrepreneurial energy.  He approaches things as an ultimate pragmatist (unlike so many scientists, his examples and analogies are extremely understandable – very reminicient of Richard Feynman), an outsider (he acknowledges that mainstream brain research has huge problems with many of the things he is saying), and recognizes that any fundamental breakthrough typically requires a paradigm shift in thinking about the specific domain.

If you are an entrepreneur who likes to challenge yourself intellectually with things you know nothing about, you’ll love this book.  If you are a brain researcher or scientist, you’ll probably be frustrated, but it’ll stretch you in good ways.  If you are a brain expert, you’ll probably hate it.  In any case, it’ll be fun to watch what Hawkins, Dubinsky, Numenta, and RMI do next – remember, they’re the ones that brought you the Palm Pilot / Handspring Treo based on the revolutionary notion that humans should learn to write different (e.g. Graffiti), not the ones that brought you the Go Whatever or the Apple Newton who thought that the computer should be able to recognize your handwriting.

Mar 6 2005

Books: Mental Muscle and Mental Floss

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.

Feb 21 2005

Book Review: On Bullshit

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?

Feb 19 2005

Book Review: Nightwork

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.

Feb 5 2005

Book Review: Lucky or Smart? Secrets to an Entrepreneurial Life

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.

  1. Lucky or Smart?
  2. Entrepreneurs Are Born, Not Made
  3. Entrepreneurs are B-Students.  Managers are A-Students.
  4. Great Is the Enemy of Good
  5. Start-Ups Attract Sociopaths
  6. Practice Blind Faith
  7. Learn to Love the Word “No”
  8. Prepare to Be Powerless
  9. The Best Defense Is a Gracious Offense
  10. Don’t Believe Your Own Press.  In Fact, Don’t Read.
  11. Always Be Selling Your Stock
  12. Know What You Don’t Know
Feb 5 2005

Book Review: A Million Little Pieces

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.

Jan 16 2005

Must Read Book: Joel on Software

I just finished Joel on Software.  It is fabulous!  Joel Spolsky – CEO of Fog Creek Software – has written a must read book for everyone in the software industry.

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.

Jan 4 2005

Book Recommendation: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Business Law

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.