Category: Books

Aug 22 2004

Everyday Matters

Everyday Matters is a remarkable book. If you live in New York; have a family member who has had a tragic accident or a crippling disease; or are subject to bouts of depression, you must read this book.

I came across the book while I was browsing in my local bookstore in Homer. The cover caught my eye but the excerpt on the back captured my attention. It was a drawing of the eight stages of an apple being eaten with the quote “Two years before I started drawing, my wife was run over by a subway training and nearly killed. Well, this book is about how art and New York City saved my life.”

Danny Gregory has created a beautiful book with his words, drawings, and ideas. Thankfully he has a blog so I can get a dose of him on a regular basis.

Aug 20 2004

Your marketing sucks.

I bought the book ‘Your marketing sucks” because of the title. While I didn’t expect much from it, it was worth reading. It’s a quick and easy read that I recommend it to any CEO who thinks marketing isn’t working as well as it could for his company.

I’m the second guy to admit that I don’t really know jack about marketing (Steve Bayle is the first – he’ll readily admit that I don’t have a clue.) I came to this realization in the middle of the Internet bubble. I was sitting at my desk in Colorado one day when I received a giant overnight package from one of my investments that I’ll refer to as YACOTWTF (“Yet Another Company On The Way to Failing”). It was an unusually large overnight package and I wasn’t expecting anything, so I was curious. When I opened the package, inside was a giant picture frame with a note taped to it. The note said “Congrats on the great ad we’ve placed in Red Herring Magazine.” I looked at the picture and it was a giant (poster sized) framed (in glass) replica of the ad. My first thought was “why the fuck did they send this to me?” I read the ad. My second thought was “what a shitty ad – it doesn’t say anything about what YACOTWTF does.” My third thought quickly followed, “What did we pay for this?” You can see where this was going. “Did I approve the marketing budget”, “Who is the VP Marketing again”, “I better call the CEO to fire the guy.”

After this ran its course, I called up my doctor, made an appointment at a special top secret medical facility for entrepreneurs and venture capitalist (there are two separate buildings but the dining hall and gym are shared), and had an operation that replaced the phrase “marketing” with the phrase “demand creation” in my brain. Oh – and the ad campaign – which cost $2 million in total (unfortunately, Red Herring wasn’t the only place a full page ad was run) – generated ONE lead and ZERO customers. The company went out of business about a year later. If YACOTWTF was the only company on the planet that did something as dumb as this it’d be one thing, but they had plenty of company as many of the Internet bubble companies spend grotesquely more than $2m on “marketing” that had zero return.

It should be no surprise to you that I didn’t hang the ad on my wall in my office. Our building is two stories high – glass makes a neat scatter pattern when dropped from that height (although it was a pain in the ass to clean up.)

This book reinforced a lot of messages around using that thing that I refer to as demand creation to generate value in your business. I knew I’d at least enjoy the book (even if it wasn’t good) when the first chapter started out with the rule that “Marketing is not about spending money on such things as advertising, direct mail, and P.R. Those are just tools. Marketing is about growing your business – its revenues, profit, and valuation.” Ok – well – duh – but it’s often overlooked. When the author started the next chapter with “Most companies make salesmanship the last step in the marketing process. Most companies are wrong: Salesmanship should have come first” I was hooked – at least for the hour it took me to read the book.

While the book has all the flaws of today’s typical business book (author platitudes followed up by mediocre and often self-serving examples, desperate need of a better editor, and reader fatigue after about 150 pages), it’s still a worthwhile book for a CEO struggling with demand creation (I mean marketing).

Aug 1 2004

Adventures in Tokyo

Amy and I go to a different foreign city every year on her birthday. Last year it was Rome; this year it will be Tokyo.

Even though I spent six years working with or affiliated with Softbank, I never managed to make it to Japan. So – this will be our first trip. Once we decided to go, I emailed Jenny Lawton and asked her to send me a typical stack of Tokyo tourist books.

She included a couple of gems, including a book by Rick Kennedy of Tokyoq called Little Adventures in Tokyo: 39 Thrills for the Urban Explorer. I’ve gobbled this one down (ignoring the several other “here’s what to see and do in Tokyo books” – I’ll leave those for Amy to look at.) Instead, I’ve learned about kohdo (incense cerimony), kyudo (archery), tea in temples, the Shinjuku Station Rush Hour, pachinko, hydroplane races, retro Tokyo, banana splits, skiing inside, miniature formula-1 racing, and a bunch of other off the beaten path things to do.

I expect this will be a weird trip.

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.