Saturday, May 09, 2020

Gridiron Genius by Michael Lombardi

Gridiron Genius by Michael Lombardi is an insightful book from the former NFL GM who started in 1984 as a scouting assistant for the San Francisco 49ers, with one of his primary duties to be Bill Walsh's driver.

The book is subtitled A Master Class in Building Teams and Winning at the Highest Level and Lombardi notes that he wrote it to go over football strategy and tactics, but even more so philosophy and theory that can be applied outside of the game. He covers that a successful coach a good leader, and there's interesting content on what he learned about leadership from Walsh as well as Bill Belichick. From the Patriots' coach, Lombardi notes the principles of always looking forward, especially after a decision made, combating complacency, preparation, and attention to detail.

Lombardi wrote how he learned from Walsh the importance of culture and that Walsh introduced him to the writing of management gurus Warren Bennis and Tom Peters. Also noted are Walsh's book The Score Takes Care of Itself, and the former 49ers coach's "Standard of Performance" leadership maxims:

1. Exhibit a ferocious and intelligently applied work ethic directed at continual improvement.
2. Demonstrate respect for each person in the organization.
3. Be deeply committed to learning and teaching.
4. Be fair.
5. Demonstrate character.
6. Honor the direct connection between details and improvement; relentlessly seek the latter.
7. Show self-control, especially under pressure.
8. Demonstrate and prize loyalty.
9. Use positive language and have a positive attitude.
10. Take pride in my effort as an entity separate from the result of that effort.
11. Be willing to go the extra distance for the organization.
12. Deal appropriately with victory and defeat, adulation and humiliation.
13. Promote internal communication that is both open and substantive.
14. Seek poise in myself and those I lead.
15. Put the team's welfare and priorities ahead of my own.
16. Maintain an ongoing level of concentration and focus that is abnormally high.
17. Make sacrifice and commitment the organization's trademark.

It's a good book and Lombardi closes with the principles he's learned and feels most important in any field:

Culture comes first
Press every edge all the time, because any edge may matter anytime
Systems over stars
Leadership in a long-term proposition
You're never done getting better

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

This is Chance by Jon Mooallem

This is Chance by Jon Mooallem is an interesting book about the 1964 Good Friday earthquake in Anchorage, AK, with focus on Genie Chance, a part-time local news reporter who valiantly served as the the focal point for reporting, coordination, and communication in the period right after the quake.

Chance had moved to Alaska from Texas with her husband and three children five years prior and was downtown on March 27 with her thirteen-year-old son when the quake struck at 5:36PM, lasting four and a half minutes. It had a magnitude of 9.2 on the Richter scale, the most powerful quake recorded at the time and still the second most powerful. Felt far outside of the Alaskan epicenter, it shook water in wells around the world and triggered a tsunami that killed eleven in Crescent City, OR.

Chance was near the Fourth Avenue Theatre headquarters of her KENI station when the quake struck and saw the devastation that occurred, taking down the year-old JCPenny department store and causing a large section of road to drop some ten feet. She then took her son back home, saw her family safe, and went back downtown and worked. Chance started broadcasting from a VHF shortwave radio while in the Public Safety Building, as she later said, talking pretty much constantly for the next thirty hours. The power was out, but KENI able to put out a radio broadcast and Fire and Police Chiefs turned down her offer for them to speak directly via the airwaves, rather they had her serve as the voice to the people.

She served as a hub of both recovery efforts and connection, letting people know when and here help needed, and giving notice of people that were safe. Additionally, phones were out in Anchorage, but the broadcast was going to Fairbanks, and people there communicating with the lower 48 to pass along word that the city did need help, but hadn't been completely destroyed. A big part of the book was also the tales of how just like Chance did, many people stepped up with kindness and heroism, getting things done. The latter third of Mooallem's effort covers some different territory, including a local production of the play Our Town, the remainder of Chance's life, and disaster experts who visited Anchorage in the aftermath of the quake and saw the brave and orderly behavior of people that they'd witness after disasters elsewhere.

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson was an excellent read about Winston Churchill and focuses on his opening year as U.K. Prime Minister. Hitler invaded Holland on Churchill's first day in office, May 10, 1940, and the Dunkirk evacuation ordered May 26.

The book provided a view into how Churchill during this crucial year both held the country together and convinced Franklin Roosevelt to offer much needed aid to the United Kingdom while it unclear if the United States would play a role in the war. Churchill had to manage a fine line with Roosevelt as well as the American public, showing that Britain needed help, but also that the aid wouldn’t be in vain and they could overcome the German bombing campaign. The first air raid on London was September 7, 1940 and last May 10, 1941, with that final attack killing 1,436 people. Over the course of this period, there was a stretch that bombing went on for 57 straight nights, and the Blitz killed some 45,000 British people, 29,000 in London.

Churchill was demanding of the people who worked for him, both in terms of hours required and mandating an economy of words in reports, people having brevity and getting directly to the point. He also understand gestures, having anti-aircraft guns positioned in London and firing skyward during raids. Even though the chance of doing damage were minimal, it showed Brits that they were fighting back. 1940 was a US Presidential election year and Roosevelt won reelection with his opponent Wendell Willkie in the months just prior to the election running as an isolationist. The Lend-Lease Act was proposed by Roosevelt in December 1940 and in early 1941, he sent the first of two emissaries to the U.K. to assess Churchill and the state of things against the Nazis. Churchill would later describe Harry Hopkins and then Averell Harriman as key allies in making his case to Roosevelt.

It’s detailed in the book how a reason the feared ground invasion of the U.K. never came was that Germany never took control of the air, with the British Air Force fighting back valiantly against the Luftwaffe headed by Hermann Goring. Germany then diverted attention to invading the Soviet Union, fighting the two-front war that Hitler had said shouldn’t be done, and in December 1941 Russia was getting bogged down with its Russia invasion, and then came Pearl Harbor on December 7. The US declared war on Japan the next day and on December 11, Germany declared war on the US. The war in Europe ended May 8, 1945, a week after Hitler committed suicide, and the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

10 Stories Great Leaders Tell by Paul Smith

10 Stories Great Leaders Tell by Paul Smith is a short book that covers well how to communicate a compelling message and he makes the point early on that it's more important what a story is than how it's told. A story is to be a narrative, and include a time, place, main character, goal, and obstacle to achieving that goal. Smith then provides ten types of stories, with examples of each:

1. Where we came from - a founding story: The story is told of Gary Erickson, living in the Bay Area in the late 1980s and running his own bakery. Erickson was a passionate bicyclist and in 1990 out for a long ride and eating poor tasting and hard to digest energy bars. At the top of Mount Hamilton east of San Jose he had eaten five of the six and was still hungry with 50 miles left to ride. From this, he got the idea to work in his bakery on a recipe for a healthy and tasty alternative, which led six months later to him forming CLIF Bar.

2. Why we can't stay here - a case-for-change story: Smith recounts the tale of a ten-year-old Gainesville, Florida boy diagnosed in 2013 with a rare form of kidney cancer. There were immunotherapy treatments available in clinical trials, but nothing approved for a child to take part in. Then in mid-2014 a new drug was approved for use and he got his first injection in October, over a year and a half after being diagnosed. The drug started working, but the boy died less than a month later. It wasn't that it not effective, it was that he started too late on the drug. Smith in the book writes of how a corporate client of his who produces lifesaving products that take a long time to get to market saw the story as a way to rally their company’s effort to get to market faster, it was putting a human face on the effort.

3. Where we're going - a vision story: Smith notes how "a vision is a picture of the future so compelling people want to go there with you." A particularly effective way to tell a vision story is through one person and describing what things are like for them after a vision has been realized. In the example Smith provides, it's of a sales forecaster who has the information people need, and how that impacts both the results and how she feels about providing them.

4. How we're going to get there - a strategy story: Just as in the vision story, Smith covers how a strategy story can be told as a future look back. The example given was of the manufacturer of a cold medicine detailing all the innovative things they "had done" to achieve a specific success metric, in this case passing competitors. Smith notes it can also be an "imagine if" story rather than future dated one.

5. What we believe - a corporate values story: Smith recounts a story of Sam Walton in a store of his about to meet with a fellow CEO, and having them wait while he was talking with a customer looking at ironing board covers. The fact that he did that conveys through a story how important customers were to Walton.

6. Who we serve - a customer story: Told is the story of a marketing manager meeting in house with a poor mother in Chennai, India, and how the story of this person and their relationship to the product so much more impactful than simply a listing of functions and features.

7. What we do for our customers - a sales story: To illustrate a sales story showing how customers can benefit from an offering, Smith writes of a company that puts on reverse auctions for buyers.

8. How we're different from our competitors - a marketing story: The story told is of a commercial cleaning company and how the effort they put into a new contract impacts the actual people who clean, through making their jobs both easier and more effective. A key part of this story is focusing on new customers and how their experience different than it was with the prior vendor.

9. Why I lead the way I do - a leadership-philosophy story: Smith recounts the story of a U.S. Army tank commander in a training exercise making a quick decision that was the wrong choice. Because the decision made quickly, others that he led learned from his mistake and it resulted in a successful effort in the exercise. Smith shows how this story more effective than simply saying people should make decisions quickly.

10. Why you should want to work here - a recruiting story: The story is told someone about to graduate with an MBA deciding between different corporate offers, including one from Proctor & Gamble. They talked to a recruiter who told them that people he placed there didn't later tell him that they worked with smarter people elsewhere, and that P&G promoted from within, so now as a new grad would be the time to be there. This type of story is more memorable than a listing of employee benefits.

Smith closes by noting that stories told should answer the following questions, preferably in this order:

1. Why should your audience listen? (hook)
2. Where and when did the story take place? (context)
3. Who is the main character and what did that person want? (context)
4. What was the problem or opportunity the main character ran into? (challenge)
5. What did he or she do about it? (conflict or struggle)
6. How did it turn out in the end? (resolution)
7. What did you learn from it? (lesson)
8. What did you think your audience should do now that they've heard it? (recommendation)

Becoming by Michelle Obama


Becoming by Michelle Obama was a compelling read from the former First Lady of the United States, with it containing a remarkable amount of detail about her childhood and the experiences that shaped her.

The book also covers well her time in the White House, including her advocacy for healthy food options and active lives for children, and provides a very thorough look at her life.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger

The Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger is a solid business book subtitled Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company.

Iger early on covers how after college he worked for a year as a weatherman and news reporter at a tiny cable TV station. Then he got hired at ABC as a studio supervisor on a daytime soap opera, with the job coming from a chance meeting his uncle had with an ABC manager. Iger has now worked at the company for 45 years, roughly half prior to the acquisition by Disney and half since. He's been CEO for 14 years, the 6th person to hold that office since the company founded by Walt in 1923.

Iger's next job after working on the soap opera was in sports, and he details how from working for Roone Arledge on Wide World of Sports, he learned about storytelling, using technology, and perfectionism. Also from this time is a story Iger tells about the importance of owning a mistake, something he notes later as an important principle, part of the aforementioned lessons learned to pass along.

Some of the most interesting content in the book is around how hard he worked to convince the board to give him the CEO job. He met with a political consultant who urged him to focus on only three priorities, any more is too many. The three that he pitched to the board were (1) the need to devote time and capital to the creation of high-quality branded content, (2) the need to embrace technology, both in content creation and distribution, and (3) the need to be truly global company.

 Right after becoming CEO, Iger worked to resurrect the relationship between Disney and Pixar, that had grown fractured due to former Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs. Iger reached out to Jobs, developed a rapport with him, an openness to working together, and in his first Disney board meeting as CEO, suggested an acquisition of Pixar. This led to a purchase of the company for $7B in Disney stock, with Pixar creative heads Ed Catmull and John Lasseter also leading Disney Animation and Jobs becaming the largest shareholder in Disney. It was fascinating reading Iger surmising of how if Jobs, who he became close friends with, had lived longer they likely would have at least investigated combining Apple and Disney.

Iger also details the acquisitions of Marvel for $4B, LucasFilm for $4.05B, and then 21st Century Fox for $71B. Disney also acquired BAM Technologies, first paying $1B for a third of the company, and then acquiring the rest and using it to develop the Disney+ over the top, or OTT, service going directly to consumers. Overall, it was a solid book about someone who certainly seems a hard worker, waking daily at 4:15, and who also really good with the creative people who produce the content, recognizing their attachments to their work, backing them up when needed and even if it means release delays, having good work really matter.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

The Mastermind by Evan Ratliff

The Mastermind by Evan Ratliff is the nonfiction account of Paul Le Roux and his global enterprise he built that trafficked in illegally prescribed painkillers, hard drugs, and weapons.

Le Roux grew up in Zimbabwe and started out as computer programmer, writing code that would become the basis for True Crypt, a file encryption program used to preserve secrecy. He then started an online pharmacy operation, with hundreds of websites to order from and network of pharmacists and doctors shipping prescription painkillers worldwide with little medical oversight. Based out of the Philippines, Le Roux branched out into methamphetamines, cocaine, weapons and explosives, with an operation in Somalia and mercenaries who committed murders on command.

The U.S. government started investigating Le Roux in 2007, when DEA investigators looking into a pharmacy that appearing to be filling prescriptions illegally saw that the FedEx account it used was shipping orders from pharmacies all over the country, with some 57,000 orders filled over a three week period that year.

Le Roux was arrested in 2012, with the Department of Justice using him to "cooperate down," keeping his business afloat to try to nab his subordinates, perhaps in the hope that he would lead them to terrorist organizations, something that never materialized. Le Roux is currently awaiting sentencing and his tale is a remarkable one told in great detail by Ratliff.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk

Consider This by Chuck Palahniuk is a memoir subtitled Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different. Palahniuk was a 1986 Journalism graduate from the University of Oregon and working full-time on the assembly line at Freightliner Trucks when his best known work, Fight Club, published in 1996.

Consider This is described within as a scrapbook of Palahniuk's writing life, including detail about his long-time writing workshop group and how the instructor Tom Spanbauer noted that "99% of what writing workshops do is give people permission to write." Spanbauer was also the source of the book's subtitle with his direction to "write about the moment after which everything is different."

Other advice from Consider This is to write in short, choppy sentences filled with active verbs. Palahniuk noted direction from a former mentor, Bob Maull, with "don't use a lot of commas. People hate sentences with lots of commas. Keep your sentences short. Readers like short sentences."

Also throughout the book were a series of illustrations and accompanying quotes:

"For a thing to endure, it must be made of either granite or words." - Robert Stone
"Action carries its own authority." - Thom Jones
"Language is not our first language." - Tom Spanbauer
"Readers love that shit." - Barry Hannah
"What dogs want is for no one to ever leave." - Amy Hempel
"No two people ever walk into the same room." - Katherine Dunn
"Great problems, not clever solutions make great fiction." - Ira Levin
"Never resolve a threat until you raise a larger one." - Ursula K. Guin
"You don't write to make friends." - Joy Williams
"If you can't be happy while washing dishes, you can't be happy." - Nora Ephron
"When you meet a reader, it's your turn to listen." - David Sedaris
"All workshops suck at some point." - Ken Kesey

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott

The Ghosts of Eden Park by Karen Abbott is a solid work of non-fiction subtitled The Bootleg King, the Women Who Pursued Him, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz-Age America and tells the story of George Remus, the aforementioned bootleg king and murderer of his wife Imogene.

It's noted that Prohibition allowed for liquor to be used for medicinal purposes, and Remus as a bootlegger would buy both distilleries and wholesale drug companies, bribe officials to obtain withdrawal permits to remove the whiskey, then hijack his own trucks and resell the liquor. By the summer of 1921, Remus owned 35% of all the liquor in the United States, with he and Imogene living in Cincinnati like royalty, throwing lavish parties including a New Year's Eve party that year which featured Remus giving $1,000 bills to each guest and a new car to every woman there.

Remus eventually is arrested for his crimes and while in prison, Imogene started an affair with Bureau of Investigation agent Franklin Dodge. The two of them siphoned off the family fortune and when Remus released from prison in April 1927, shortly after Imogene filed for divorce, he returned home to find the mansion emptied out.

Imogene almost certainly had attempted to enlist people to kill Remus and immediately prior to their divorce trial in October of that year, Remus shot and killed her. The remainder of the book is about the murder trial, with Remus defending himself based on plea of temporary insanity, and he often made huge scenes during the trial, wailing and sobbing uncontrollably. He was acquitted of the charge of murder, and then successfully argued that the insanity was in fact just temporary so neither went to prison for the murder nor was institutionalized. It was a compelling tale told well by Abbott and Remus as a character was written into the fictional HBO series Boardwalk Empire about whiskey running during Prohibition.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Longitude by Dava Sobel

Longitude by Dava Sobel is subtitled The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time and details the life of John Harrison and his clocks built between 1730 and 1770 that enabled sailors to determine their longitude and navigate more safely across the oceans.

The book notes how latitude and longitude originally plotted in A.D. 150 by the cartographer and astronomer Ptolemy, with latitude lines running the width of the globe and longitude lines from pole to pole. The parallel of latitude lines are based on the equator so fixed by nature, whereas meridian of longitude lines set from an arbitrary spot, for the past several hundred years Greenwich, England.

Sobel notes this difference in how the lines set made it so that sailors could fairly easily gauge their latitude by the sun and length of the day, enabling easy straight east to west travel or vice versa, but it was much more difficult to determine one's longitude.

The two ways to ascertain longitude at sea were via a lunar method, tracking against the stars, but this difficult to do effectively given cloudy nights and the amount of calculation required, and via keeping time aboard ship as well as the time at a separate place of known longitude. From this time difference, one could calculate the degrees traveled and know the location. The problem with this method was having a timepiece that worked as it should, with them rendered unreliable by changes in barometric pressure, temperature extremes, or simply rolling of the ship.

In response to this situation, English Parliament offered the Longitude Act of 1714, stipulating the award of a large monetary prize to anyone that could make possible the accurate determination of one's longitude while at sea. Sobel details how the aforementioned John Harrison accomplished this task via the timekeeping method, building over four decades five revolutionary chronometers, H-1 through H-5. Also noted in the book was how Harrison's had to contend with people who advocated for a lunar solution trying to thwart his superior effort.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Working by Robert Caro

Working by Robert Caro was an excellent book on his approach to writing from the acclaimed author of The Power Broker on Robert Moses and The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master of the Senate, and The Passage of Power, all on Lyndon Johnson. This latest book felt to have two different main ideas covered in it, what Caro wanted to show in his prior works, and how he went about producing the writing.

Goal of his works

Caro noted how he wrote on Moses as well Johnson to provide a view into political power, how it's gained, wielded, and the impact it has on people, first at a regional level with Moses and then national with Johnson.

Moses shaped New York City and surrounding areas for some four decades as an unelected public official, both for good in spearheading the building of roads and parks, and for bad in displacing hundreds of thousands from their homes. One example written of by Moses was the taking apart of the East Tremont neighborhood to build the Cross-Bronx Expressway, with it's routing not negatively impacting business interests held by powerful allies.

Similar to in his writing on Moses, Caro detailed the positives as well as negatives from Johnson's influence. He as a young congressman helped bring electricity to the rural Texas Hill Country he grew up in, then led the Senate for six years, getting more accomplished there than anyone else ever has, including on Civil Rights, but also winning offices and accumulating power through illicit means and presiding over the Vietnam War.

His writing process

Caro also covered how he went about his work, with early in his career learning from a boss the need to "turn every page" in investigative reporting. This resulted in things including Caro spending seven years, and doing at least 522 interviews, writing The Power Broker, and he and his wife moving to the Texas Hill Country east of Austin for three years while researching Johnson's childhood growing up in the area.

Caro noted the importance of extensive document reading on both Moses and Johnson as well as the effort he put into tracking down interview subjects. Then when doing the interviews, he would dig into areas such as what it was like for the person at a specific time they with either Moses or Johnson, and what things that saw around them... with Caro using this detail to try to help readers visualize a sense to place. He also noted wearing a suit to his office to write, as a reminder that it's a job he's paid to do, having a daily word count goal to hit, and outlining extensively. Additionally covered was his time writing in the New York Public Library and being part of a small community of writers there, and how important it is to have good narrative writing in nonfiction, not something that should only be in fiction.

All of this effort was noted by Caro as being towards the goal of telling the story of where someone came from, what shaped them, and how that influenced the shaping they then did, with the overarching effort being to use the stories of first Moses and then Johnson to explain how things worked.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski was an interesting book by a writer whose work I enjoy quite a bit and have posted on a number of times back to 2009.

Posnanski writes of how Houdini compelling in part because of how he's managed to stay so relevant to this day, with staying in people's consciousness through books, movies, television shows, and simply mentions of him, his name synonymous with escapes, so often in descriptions of how someone "pulled a Houdini." Also covered well in the book was how Houdini had many contradictions in his life, including lying about having been born in 1874 in Appleton, WI, when he born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, and being known as a brilliant magician, rather than the master escape artist, promoter, and all-around performer who gave himself challenges and won at them, but not necessarily magician, that he was.

Posnanski covered how Houdini may not have done the impossible, but he very much did the amazing, and virtually every illusionist, magician, or escape artist after Houdini would have been influenced or inspired by him. To this end, the book covers star performers in the field including the late Ricky Jay, David Copperfield, Joshua Jay, and the duo Penn and Teller, bringing to mind a great 2012 Esquire article on Teller.