Jul 30 2004

# e raised to the power of pi i equals -1

If you recognize that, you probably have at least a basic interest in mathematics. If so, Count Down : Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World’s Toughest Math Competition is for you.

This is a fascinating book that combines the story of the American team for the 42nd International Mathematics Olympiad in 2001 with a set of well-written essays on human intelligence, creativity, talent, and competitiveness. Olson does a great job of combining the story of the Olympiad with basic math theory; math education in America; the emotional, intellectual, and social issues these kids face; and a few very clever math jokes.

In junior high and high school I was pretty good at math. The math club I belonged to was nerdily called Mu Alpha Theta; we competed in state wide math contests, and I remember proudly taking home the first place trophy for the Algebra section at a state wide competition at Rice University in Houston my junior year (that was the best I ever did.)

When I went to college at MIT, one of my friends suggested I take some serious math classes. In the first semester of my sophomore year, I took a course called 18.701 – Algebra 1. I figured – hey Algebra – how hard could it be. This was not the algebra of my high school – I knew I was in trouble when the professor would write a bunch of geometric equations on the board and then ask, “Now, pretend you were standing on the other side of the board, what would happen to …?” I was completely lost and had the typical humbling experience that most MIT students have at some point where they realize they aren’t going to make it in the class. After getting a 4 on my second test (yes – a FOUR out of 100 – that would be failing, even when graded on a curve – I must have gotten some credit for getting the course number correct), I dropped the class and decided that I wasn’t quite so good at math.

Fortunately, this book brought back mostly good math memories. Today, the most complex math I do is adding up a column of numbers or occassionally having to multiply two numbers together, so it was fun to puzzle through the problems (which I could at least understand, although I had no clue how to begin to solve them.)

Jul 26 2004

# Agile Software Development with SCRUM

Erg. Chewy. But – useful, interesting, and educational (kind of like eating shredded wheat for breakfast – it’s tough going down but you know it’s good for you.)

Ryan Martens at Rally Software recommended Agile Software Development with SCRUM as part of my continued education on Agile software development approaches and methodologies. If you’re interested in learning about SCRUM – which was first presented as a methodology to the OMG at OOPSLA95 – this is the book for you.

Jul 21 2004

# Young Jackasses of the Post-New Economy

That got your attention, huh? There it is – on page 233 – as our intrepid authors speculate on the title of their upcoming Inc. Magazine interview (which was – thankfully titled – An American Start-Up – subtitled “We’re motivated, passionate, excited, terrified, and, at many times, have absolutely no idea what we’re doing.”)

When I was starting my first company, I read all kinds of books from entrepreneurs and founders of companies that “seemed successful.” Many of these were autobiographical, self-promoting drivel. I eventually gave up and rarely read these today.

Matt Blumberg’s review turned me on to this one. The MouseDriver Chronicles is a great story, well written, fast paced, and has a very “blog-like we’ll share everything” feel. The authors – who co-founded a business to create a mouse that looks like a golf driver immediately upon graduating from Wharton Business School – tell all. They spare no one, least of all themselves.

Since the business was started in 1999, they spend a lot of time reflecting on how their buddies are doing in the dotcom explosion while they toil away in obscurity at a markedly low tech business. A chapter aptly titled Schadenfreude near the end of the book allows our fearless entrepreneurs a small measure of satisfaction to have created a successful, albeit modest, business in the midst of what became the dotcom implosion.

This is a must read for any entrepreneur – first time or otherwise. Their stories are great and their lessons are clear. For example, the chapter titled Darkness, Darkness, Darkness, Darkness is about – well – when everything completely goes to shit early in the life of the business. It’s an experience that any entrepreneur that has survived the creation of a company will recall clearly (possibly with glee that it’s in the rearview mirror, it’s happened a bunch of times since, and Mr. Entrepreneur has survived). Out of this, our fearless leaders realize that Making and Selling – that’s all any business is, really, from Boeing to the corner lemonade stand. The rest is dreaming, description, and distraction.”

Great stuff. I wish there were more books in the world like this one.

Jul 15 2004

# Educating Esme

Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year is my new best book of the summer. It’s a diary of Esme Raji Codell’s first year as a public school teacher (fifth grade) in Chicago. It is hilarious, sweet, sad, inspiring, disheartening, uplifting, and deeply insightful.

Esme’s got a great web site at Planet Esme – A Wwwonderful World of Children’s Literature. This woman needs a blog!

Esme Codell has a new fan – me.

Jul 14 2004

# Eats, Shoots & Leaves

I appear to have several people in my life (Amy Batchelor, Dave Jilk, Chris Wand, and Steve Bayle) who view correcting my grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word usage as part of their role on this planet. I did not ask for this; however, I tolerate it because they have other useful traits (Amy just looked over my shoulder and said, “Great use of the semicolon; hot!”)

In an attempt to lower their workload, I read Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. I learned a lot which will hopefully be reflected in my future punctuation efforts. Unfortunately, the author is a brit so you might get some foreign usage.

This book is a ton of fun and a must read for anyone that writes anything (including text messages). One of my chronic problems is the placement of punctuation when quotes are involved. Truss, the author, has a good section on this where she enumerates the rules (with examples – although I’ll just give you the rules so I don’t spoil the book for you.)

1. When a piece of dialogue is attributed at its end, conclude it with a comma inside the inverted commas.
2. When the dialogue is attributed at the start, conclude with a full stop inside the inverted commas.
3. When the dialogue stands on its own, the full stop comes inside the inverted commas.
4. When only a fragment of speech is being quoted, put punctuation outside the inverted commas.
5. When the quotation is a question or exclamation, the terminal marks come inside the inverted commas.
6. When the question is posed by the sentence rather than by the speaker, logic demands that the question mark goes outside the inverted commas.
7. Where the quoted speech is a full sentence requiring a full stop (or other terminal mark) of its own, and coincidentally comes at the end of the containing sentence, the mark inside the inverted commas serves for both.

For the Americans in the crowd, a full stop is the same as a period and inverted commas are the same as quotation marks. Oh – and Truss graciously says something to the effect of “none of this applies in America since American grammarians insist that, if a sentence ends with a phrase in inverted commas, all the terminal punctuation for the sentence must come tidily inside the speech marks, even when this doesn’t seem to make sense.” If you’ve followed all of this, now you understand why Her Majesty’s Kingdom lost the Revolutionary War.

Does this remind you of the interminably long hour a day of ninth grade honors English you had to endure from Mrs. Dowdywonker? I’ve decided on a new rule which is “do whatever the hell you want with the punctuation near ending inverted commas!”

Jul 13 2004

# Who’s Looney Now

I don’t read much history – for some reason I don’t get into it. I do like biography and get most of my “history reading” from it. So – it’s always special when I can get a bunch of biography, history, and – well – CHARACTERS – all in one book.

Amy and I were with our friends Nick and Helen Forster at The Kitchen in Boulder about a month ago. Somehow the topic turned to our families and genealogies. Nick was talking about growing up in this old mansion in upstate New York and eventually suggested that I read The Astor Orphans: A Pride of Lions. Nick’s a fascinating guy that – with Helen – runs etown (a weekly radio show produced in Boulder) – so I figured it’d be fun to find out more about his ancestors, especially a group he referred to as “eight kids who were direct decendents of the Astor’s who lost their parents when the oldest was a teenager and rattled around in this huge house I grew up in.”

What a book. The Astor Orphans are the ten owners of Rokeby who were bequeathed the property by their mother – Margaret Astor Ward Chanler – for them to “share and share alike.” The next year, the children (aged fifteen to three), lost their father John Winthrop Chanler. These kids were direct decendants of John Jacob Astor (the richest man in America at the time). They belonged to America’s social and economic elite (which you can infer from their names – Winthrop, Stuyvesant, Livingston, Astor, Beekman, Armstrong, White, Ward – you get the picture).

The book traces their lives. Several died young, so the main characters were the eight kids who lived to be 50 or older. They accomplished amazing things in their lives, had great adventures, and were hugely entertaining and – in many cases – scandelous characters for the age they lived in.

After I finished, I dropped Nick a note saying “It was fabulous – definitely a different world then the one I grew up in. Now that I have all the relationships / context, tell me how you fit.” Nick wrote back “My great grandfather is Lewis Chanler, the one who was Lieutenant Gov. of New York and one of the brothers who committed Archie to Bloomingdales asylum. He was also the pioneer of Legal Aid, apparently, going down to the Tombs and representing clients for free. The house, Rokeby, is where I lived before I moved to Colorado in ’75. Oddly, the current batch of cousins in Rokeby are equally related (by marriage) to both my mother and father.”

What fun! The Archie that Nick refers to was the oldest (and wildest) brother. His younger brothers decided he was crazy and put him in an insane asylum named Bloomingdales. Given the laws at the time, Archie ended up getting stuck for four years! He eventually escaped to Virginia and was declared sane there, but couldn’t go back to New York for fear of being put back in the asylum. Seventeen years later he was finally declared sane again in New York, after waging a huge legal war on his situation and the “lunacy trust” of the United States. He coined the phrase ‘Who’s Looney Now” and – ironically – turned into a major eccentric as he got older. In a complex, magnanimous gesture, he “forgave” his “ex-brothers and ex-sisters” (as he referred to them) after he was declared sane, saying “let bygones be bygones.”

This book is 300 pages of riotous stories around the history of this incredible group of wealthy and eccentric orphans. As with any biography, there are tedious parts, but precious few, as the flavor and history of the time they grew up in is a fascinating contrast to our always connected email cellphone airplane (eventually teleporting) world.

There are also great lessons, as Nick finished his note to me with “My mother, Clare Chanler, also was raised in England and then came back to NY in the 30’s. She had the full glory of the family fortunes, but it pretty much ran out on her generation, which was fine with me – truly. I went to some good schools and grew up around a lot of beautiful houses, but I could see that the dough was not the secret. I have the benefit and the burden of learning that early and then trying to combine ambition with purpose, a tricky balancing act. ”

May we all be so lucky, talented, and humble as Nick.

Jul 9 2004

# More Stephen Frey – The Legacy

Now that I’ve chowed down a bunch of Stephen Frey books, if there’s one you read, it should be The Legacy. It combines light Wall Street stuff with a giant JFK / government / mafia conspiracy. It’s well written, lots of twists, turns, unexpected surprises and – yes – a happy ending.

In contrast, The Day Trader sucked. I didn’t finish it, but I’m going to count it as read since I bailed more then half way through.

Jul 5 2004

# Free Prize Inside – Seth Godin (and More PowerPoint Hints)

Seth Godin is magnificent and his new book – Free Prize Inside: The Next Big Marketing Idea – is a winner.

This book takes you on a romp through the way to help you understand how to make your product or service remarkable. I’ve often been (mis)quoted saying things like “marketing is useless” when in fact what I mean is “the way most people do marketing is useless and a waste of money.” Seth has always approached marketing in a revolutionary way under his thesis that everything we do is part of marketing. If you aren’t a Seth Godin fan, try his blog and his books.

In addition to his rants on marketing, Seth – like me – has strong views on PowerPoint. He’s written an Ebook called Really Bad PowerPoint that you can buy on Amazon or download free if you’ve bought Free Prize Inside (using the honors system).

As your Free Prize Inside this post (and part of my continuing quest to make the world a safer place for venture capitalists), following is an excerpt from Free Prize Inside (with Seth’s permission, of course). It’s called Special Bonus Tactic: Avoid Really Bad PowerPoint.

“…
PowerPoint was developed by engineers as a tool to help them communicate with the marketing department – and vice versa. It’s a remarkable tool because it allows for very dense verbal communication. Yes, you could send a memo, but no one reads anymore. … PowerPoint could be the most powerful tool on your computer. But it’s not. Countless soft innovations fail because their champions use PowerPoint the way Microsoft wants them to, instead of the right way.

Bullets Are for the NRA

Here are the five rules you need to remember to create amazing PowerPoint presentations:

1. No more than six words on a slide. EVER. There is no presentation so complex that this rule needs to be broken.

2. No cheesy images. Use professional stock photo images.

3. No dissolves, spins or other transitions.

4. Sound effects can be used a few times per presentation, but never use the sound effects that are built into the program.

5. Don’t hand out printouts of your slides. They don’t work without you there.
…”

Go ahead – just try to follow rule #1. Thought provoking, isn’t it? Get the book – read it – and make something happen. It’s worth it.

Jul 5 2004

# Book Review – The Inner Sanctum – Stephen Frey

In my attempt to read all of Stephen Frey’s books in record time and subsequently rate an entry in Guiness Book of World Records, I read The Inner Sanctum today.

Not so good. Don’t bother. Enough said.

Jul 4 2004

# Book Review – The Republican Noise Machine – David Brock

The Republican Noise Machine : Right Wing Media and How it Corrupts Democracy was a depressing book. I first noticed it from a post by Jerry Colonna. I had it shipped up to my house in Alaska where I settled in for a long read yesterday after my run.

In some ways, it seemed appropriate to read this over the fourth of July weekend. I read a bunch of mental floss on Friday and decided I needed to chew on something serious. I’m back to mental floss…

Until recently I was very apolitical. For whatever reason, I just didn’t engage – I felt that things worked themselves out over time and – rather than get wrapped up in the endless political debate – I figured I’d focus on issues that I cared about and support them, independent of their political affiliation. As a result, I told whoever asked that my political affiliation was “my own little party of one.”

A couple of years ago, I stuck my toe publicly into the political scene in Colorado. A close friend of mine – Jared Polis – decided to run for the Colorado State Board of Education (he won and is now the chairman). Jared is an unabashed democrat and has become a strong force in the otherwise very conservative state of Colorado. Several friends were running for office in the 2002 election cycle as democrats and I decided to get more actively involved. Everyone (except Jared) lost and – in addition to being bummed out by the candidates that were elected – I was disgusted by the way both parties acted near the end of the election cycle. I remember telling my wife “that’s it – I give up – I’m done with organized politics” (of course, that lasted about a week).

The Republican Noise Machine had me sitting in my chair with my mouth hanging open. Brock – a former right-wing insider – has written an incredibly substantive book that tells the story of how the GOP has systematically co-opted the media over the last few decades – starting wtih Nixon and rolling forward to today. This is not a “balanced book” (“balanced view” being one of the fallacies that Brock does a superb job of demolishing) – Brock is unapologetic as he tells his story.

It’s quite amazing how organized, effective, and ultimately successful the Republican Right has been. I’ve experienced this directly in Colorado. A year ago, JB Holston called me and told me about the Independence Institute, a conservative Colorado “think tank” that I was vaguely familiar with. While the Independence Institute isn’t mentioned in Brock’s book, it’s equivalent to many of the conservative “think tanks” that Brock discusses. JB suggested that Colorado needed a “progressive alternative”. I agreed and helped rally a crew of folks, including Jared and Rollie Heath (who lost his run for governer against the incumbent Bill Ownes in 2002), to help start the Rocky Mountain Progressive Network. It’s a year later and RMPN has done a great job of counterbalancing the Republican Right in Colorado. My experience watching from the background (and learning about the antics – expecially those in the media – by organizations like the Independence Institute) made the story Brock tells even more poignant.

This is a powerful book for anyone that is open minded about the political dynamics in our country. If you are conservative, read it to get an ex-conservative insider’s view on what is going on. If you are progressive or liberal, read it to get a much deeper historical understand of how things played out so that you can be more effective contending with them in the future. If you aren’t open minded, don’t bother – it won’t matter to you anyway.