Monday, May 22, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston was a solid read about the search for the ruins of an undiscovered city deep in the La Mosquitia region of Honduras.

Preston provides the history of this remote Amazonian rainforest region and archaeologists being interested in it and exploration done there all the way back to the 1930s, with legends out of that about the Cuidad Blanca, or White City.

Recounted in the book is how he as a writer got invited to join a 2012 aerial mapping trip of a specific area within La Mosquita that was seen as a promising location of the city's ruins. The mapping effort was led by filmmaker Steve Elkins and utilized lidar, a technology that works like radar, bouncing lasers off the ground, in this case from a Cessna airline, to determine distance and find the existence of geologic features as well as structures. This aerial mapping appeared to confirm the existence of the city ruins and their location and then in 2015, Preston also was part of a ground expedition to survey the area, with Chris Fisher leading a team of archaeologists and financing provided in large part by filmmaker Bill Benenson.

The time on the ground in the jungle was recounted as quite dangerous, with the area containing poisonous snakes like the fer-de-lance, jaguars, disease, and drug cartel activity. Ruins were found and even from that, little known about the people who lived there, other than they weren't Mayan and their society basically vanished around 1,500 AD, the time the Spanish came to the Americas, bringing Europeans diseases the locals had never been exposed to and which decimated populations, even those that never came in direct contact with European explorers. Preston notes how it's said that a third of the native population across Hispaniola and the Caribbean died between 1494 and 1496 and it appears that whoever lived within this city abandoned it.

The book wraps up with how some members of the expedition team after returning home began to show as having acquired the tropical disease leishmaniasis, a third world one that as such has received scant attention and funding, but is noted in the book as being part of a group of third world diseases coming to the first world as a result of climate change. The Lost City of the Monkey God was somewhat sobering with this mention of how quickly native populations were decimated by disease, and the tale of disease troubles modern day expedition members faced upon their return, but it's also a great adventure tale told well by Preston.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann was a really good book with the subtitle The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. The book is split into three sections, with the first the story of the Osage Indians and deaths of many in and around the 1920s, the second on the FBI pursuit of the killers, and third an important postscript on the murders close to 100 years later.

Grann writes early in the book of how the Osage were considered the wealthiest people in the world per capita due to royalties from oil drilling on their Oklahoma land, which they had purchased after being pushed there by the federal government in the 1870s. Individual members of the tribe had a headright, or share in the mineral trust, and collectively they received in 1923 more than $30M, the equivalent of $400M today.

With the wealth of the Osage, there was a systematic exploitation of them, both by whites grossly overcharging for goods and services and the government denying many Osage of the ability to control their money. The Office of Indian Affairs could determine whether a particular member of the tribe capable of handling their funds, and if not, guardians, usually prominent whites, would do it. Full blooded Osage Indians were almost always declared unfit to handle their money and had guardians appointed over them, which led to the murders of tribe members as guardians would consolidate power over the headright funds and get at the money.

The book begins with the murder by gunshot of Anna Burkhart in May 1921, notes how her sister Minnie had died from an unexplained illness three years prior, and not long after Anna’s death, mother Lizzie, and other sister Rita died, with Rita’s death coming from her house being blown up along with husband Bill Smith and their servant Nettie Brookshire. There were other murders as well around this time, with the methods including additional fatal gunshots, poisonings, and someone found dead after being thrown from a train. Following the house bombing, the Osage saw that local law enforcement seemed uninterested, if not complicit, in the crimes and urged the Federal Government to investigate what would become known as the Osage Reign of Terror.

The second section of the book details FBI involvement in the case, coinciding with the rise of J. Edgar Hoover, who was newly in charge of the Bureau of Investigation in 1925 and dispatched agent Tom White to investigate the murders. White and his team built a case for the house bombing against Mollie Burkhart’s husband, a white man named Ernest Burkhart, and his uncle, the prominent cattleman William K. Hale, seen as a friend of the Osage and well connected politically. Headrights got passed along by inheritance and Mollie's family being targeted meant everything was getting passed to her, with the money then controlled by Ernest and Hale.

While the first parts of the book interesting, the third takes it to a different level with how it reveals the government stating the murders solved, declaring victory, and moving on, when killers very much remained free. The section switches to first person writing by Grann, with him finding the murder of W.W. Vaughn likely committed by H.G. Burt, a businessman and confidant of Hale's. Additionally, government accounts of the Reign of Terror have it from 1921 to 1926 and all about Hale, but Grann found cases of Osage being killed for their headrights as early as 1918 and late as 1931, while Hale in jail. The Bureau estimated 24 murders, but the number likely much higher and the death rates were particular high for Osage who had guardians in control of the wealth of more than one in the tribe. It was a much bigger story than Hoover wanted told and the book's ending includes a quote from an elderly current Osage with "this land is saturated with blood."

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg was about an interesting topic in the science of productivity and the book an excellent one, broken down into eight different chapters.

Chapter 1: Motivation - Duhigg writes of how a feeling of control about things big or small can generate motivation, with examples given both from how in Marine boot camp, recruits would have to problem solve with little direction and people in nursing homes would defy orders by doing things like arranging their rooms a certain way or trading the food they were supposed to eat. From this, people would develop a feeling of control over their destiny, often with a corresponding bias towards action.

Chapter 2: Teams - In this chapter it's noted how teams work best when members feel a level of psychological safety, that it's ok to both be an individual and make mistakes. Additionally important is that people feel comfortable speaking freely, that their sentiments are heard by others, and are sensitive to how their teammates feel.

Chapter 3: Focus - The chapter on Focus has two interesting stories of commercial airline situations, with the first Air France Flight 447 that crashed after leaving Rio de Janeiro in 2009 and second Quantas Flight 32 out of Singapore in 2010 that had disaster averted due to decisions made by the cockpit crew. In Flight 447, the pilots should have easily been able to keep the plane flying safely, but didn't, with cockpit voice recordings showing the pilot in charge becoming the victim of cognitive tunneling, where he didn't have any mental models, or stories, of problems that might occur so when they did, he just became confused and didn't react well. The Quantas flight on the other hand featured a pilot and crew who talked through scenarios that might occur before even boarding the plane. When cascading problems then started to occur in flight, they saw that the problems were so numerous and severe that the best mental model to work with wasn't how to deal with each issue, but rather to focus on what still did work on the plane, with the pilot later saying he reframed his view to thinking of himself flying a very basic Cessena airplane, and what would be required to land one successfully. The whole notion as Duhigg explains it is around the benefit of narrating to yourself your life events as they occur and constantly building models of the situations you're in and may face.

Chapter 4: Goal Setting - Covered in this chapter is how goals need to be a combination of wide-ranging stretch goals, and to-do lists that make up those goals. Duhigg gives the example of how SMART goals from General Electric when done poorly were simply at the to-do list level, with people focusing on checking items off, and not enough on whether the goal a worthwhile one to do. This notion of having worthwhile big picture goals very much related to the third chapter on mental modeling and creating stories of where you both want to wind up and situations you may encounter.

Chapter 5: Managing Others - Duhigg in this chapter on managing others cited a study begun in 1994 by Stanford professors James Baron and Michael Hannon, in which they examined Silicon Valley companies and found five different cultures: commitment model, star model, engineering model, bureaucratic model, and autocratic model companies. The commitment culture firms were by far the most successful as a whole, with these investing heavily invest in training of employees and then putting a lot of responsibility on them, creating a sense of ownership in their situation, an idea that brings to mind concepts from Duhigg's chapter one. Covered in the book is the reopening of the NUMMI plant in Fremont, CA as a GM-Toyota partnership and how workers were encouraged to pull cords to stop the assembly line and fix problems, a practice that would have been unheard of under the prior GM-only factor. Also cited was the FBI database program Sentinel, and how it was developed from a basis of what individual agents requested it do.

Chapter 6: Decision Making - This chapter covered how good decision making is about thinking probabilistically, envisioning various scenarios and the odds of each occurring, with those scenarios and odds coming from past events, another harkening back to the chapter on focus and mental models.

Chapter 7: Innovation - The subtitle of the Innovation chapter is How idea brokers and creative desperation saved Disney's Frozen and written of by Duhigg is how in the case of Frozen, the musical West Side Story, and successful scientific papers, people were taking conventional ideas from other settings and combining them in new ways. Covered is a 2011 study by university professors Brian Uzzi and Ben Jones of close to 18 million scientific papers which showed that the most popular papers, those cited by others, had a combination of different ideas from elsewhere. Also noted in this chapter is the idea of being sensitive to your own experiences as you work the creative process.

Chapter 8: Absorbing Data - This final chapter of the book covers how data most powerful if it's worked heavily with by the people who can impact it. Duhigg tells the story of a failing Cincinnati public school and how much data there was even when the school failing, but then how when teachers forced to work with the information, they conducted trials and experiments to see if the data would reflect improvement. The basic idea is that data matters when ownership is taken by the people who can impact it, especially if they're coming up with ideas they think will have an impact, running with them, then evaluating the results and course-correcting.

Also around this topic of how people interact with data is the notion of how solid decisions are more likely to be made when there's fewer choices, with 401K plan selection as an example, and the idea of the Engineering Design Process, the breaking up of problems or questions into sub problems or questions that can be tested and worked on as a methodical search for potential solutions. This section on choices and data makes me think of how TurboTax software works, it's a series of questions that walks someone through a process. The final thing that struck me from this chapter was Duhigg's mention that research has shown taking notes longhand more effective run via laptop as it's harder to do that way, people are interacting more closely with the material.

There's a lot of material covered by Duhigg in Smarter Faster Better and he does it in an engaging way and provides a number of things to consider out of the book.

The Cubs Way by Tom Verducci

The Cubs Way by Tom Verducci was a really solid read from the Sport Illustrated writer who I’ve posted on a number of times. The book features the subtitle The Zen of Building the Best Team in Baseball and Breaking the Curse and details the 2016 World Series victory that broke 107 years of futility, with the Cubs last world championship in 1908.

The Cubs Way does an excellent job of avoiding the common sports book trap of just covering how "this happened, then this happened," as along with chapters on each of the seven games of the World Series, Verducci writes about the path taken around team construction, principles, and the personalities involved with the Cubs.

Detailed is how Theo Epstein took over baseball operations in 2012 after great success with the Red Sox in Boston and in Chicago built one of the youngest World Series teams ever around position players Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Addison Russell. Also playing a huge role were starting pitchers Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks, along with two relief pitchers acquired at the 2016 trade deadline in closer Aroldis Chapman and Mike Montgomery, who was on the mound for the final out of the World Series.

There was also quite a bit about manager Joe Maddon, who won the championship in his second season with the club and the book covers well how both Epstein and Maddon combined the best of modern and old school approaches to the game. Verducci noted work around things like the tracking of curveball spin rates and mental skills development and timeless concepts like the importance of empathy in working with people and building relationships, along with a focus on character in player evaluation and acquisition. Also interesting was how Maddon quoted in the book saying “you will remember 75% of what you write down and 90% of what you teach” and Verducci details the huge focus on communication, including individual player development plans, with management open and frank with players about their strengths and weaknesses.

From an actual game perspective, Verducci writes of how the Cubs were down 3-1 in the series, with then a close win in game five, a game six in which Chapman came out for the ninth with a 9-2 lead, and of course the seventh game, in which Chapman lost a lead in the eighth on a Rajai Davis two run homer and then held the Indians scoreless in the ninth. After a fortuitously timed rained delay, Kyle Schwarber (who played the first two games of the 2016 regular season, tore ligaments in his left knee, and then returned for game one of the World Series) led off the 10th with a single and became the first of two Cubs runs in the inning, leading to an 8-7 win.

It was amazing stuff to watch on television and written of very well in book form by Verducci, with also some excellent immediate aftermath of the game writing done, including "In Chicago, the final wait for a Cubs win mixes joy and sorrow" by Wright Thompson for ESPN.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

The Only Rule is it Has to Work by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller was an entertaining and fast read about two baseball writers who for a summer take over baseball operations for the independent minor league Sonoma Stompers.

Lindbergh and Miller write of how they're apostles of sabermetrics, coined by Bill James as "the search for objective knowledge about baseball" and their goal for the season to apply statistical based input and decision making to the team, impacting things including player evaluation and selection, lineup and pitching change decisions, and positioning of fielders.

The two work during the season with Stompers GM Theo Fightmaster, Manager and outfielder, Fehlandt Lentini, Assistant Manager turned Manager Yoshi Miyoshi, and of course the players themselves. It's an extremely entertaining read for anyone who likes baseball and while many of the goals Lindbergh and Miller set out with around the payoff of advanced statistics, or even the utilization of them, don't get fully realized, the book reveals how it's not always easy to do the things you'd like as you have to work through others to do them, and sometimes they just don't work. For example, their use of statistical analysis in evaluating players sight unseen turned out to much more effective when evaluating pitchers than position players.

Additionally, in the second half of the season, the Stompers lost many of the best players on their roster to teams in higher level leagues, and to this point, I found profound from the book the notion that "the other guy lives in a big house, too" and how that has a big impact on winning and losing. In addition, Lindbergh and Miller cover well how baseball can be a fickle game. Between things like what park a game played in or whether it's at night or during the day with the ball carrying out, events can have radically different results. Whether the end result of the season was what Lindbergh and Miller set out for or expected to happen, it's an interesting tale of how it all progresses.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid was a novel I was drawn to after reading (and then reviewing) How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia from Hamid and while this latest book didn't resonate with me quite as much as the first, it's definitely lyrically written and interesting.

The cover jacket for Exit West notes it telling the story of Nadia and Saeed, two young people who meet and fall in love in a country on the brink of civil war. The book then turns mystical with doors being available that people can enter through to far away places in the world. The result of these doors is a world of refugees, people fleeing one conflict-filled land in search of somewhere better, with that arrived at place torn by conflict being natives and immigrants.

Hamid writes of these conflicts, and how societies form and orbiting societies coexist, through the prism of two people finding their way together in an ever changing and dangerous world, all the while with exceptional prose, like about Saeed's father, and the arc of a parent's life along with the arc of their child's.

Two of the phrases from Mohsin that stood out to me from the book were around how the world featured "religions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart" and "depression is a failure to imagine a plausible desirable future for oneself." While the first of the phrases was at a macro level, the second very much about individuals and how they react to their circumstances, both negatively, and in many places throughout the book, positively.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Upstarts by Brad Stone

The Upstarts by Brad Stone was an interesting book on Uber and Airbnb, two still privately held companies that in the past decade have become behemoths in their respective spaces.

Stone is a Businessweek writer who also previously wrote The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon and while having The Upstarts be on two companies felt at times to make it harder as a reader to get a consistent flow from the book than was the case with that on Amazon, it also made sense to include both as Uber and Airbnb very much linked in their dual reliance on sharing economies and similar paths to success.

Stone details very well the founding stories of each company, with Airbnb from CEO Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nathan Blecharczyk, and how they early got attention Selling Obama O's and Cap'n McCains cereal around the 2008 Presidential election. This helped them get into the Y Combinator startup school in Silicon Valley as the story and mental toughness it showed impressed Paul Graham, the program's co-founder who told them "you guys are like cockroaches, you just won't die."

Uber was started by Garrett Camp, who made money from founding StumbleUpon then became interested in the idea of transportation and the woeful taxi industry in San Francisco, and Ryan Graves and now CEO Travis Kalanick joined early on. The company started out with licensed town cars delivering a premium service and then moved from being about luxury to more about time and convenience. Price also is an interesting factor around Uber's growth, with how Uber would utilize dynamic customer pricing to entice more drivers.

Stone wrote that while Chesky as CEO of Airbnb known as having a less publicly adversarial approach than Kalanick, both are fiercely competitive leaders and two huge factors leading to the success of each company have been fund raising and public demand. Each has raised huge amounts of money and it was interesting reading of how initial investments made by people would get diluted through later fund raising. In terms of public demand, especially Uber found footing through the sheer force of people wanting the service and the success of each company has been in part from building momentum and public will to overcome legal hurdles.

The story of Airbnb and Uber up to present day is a fascinating one well told by Stone and makes me think back to writing that I did on each years ago, with a May 2011 post on a Fast Company Sharing Economy piece on Airbnb and other firms and an April 2012 post on an interview with early Uber investor Chris Sacca that noted the hustle of Ryan Graves.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis was the latest book from the bestselling author who I've now read eight book by, with the others: Flash Boys, The Big Short, Boomerang, The New New Thing, The Blind Side, Moneyball, and Home Game. 

The Undoing Project has the subtitle A Friendship that Changed Our Minds and is about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Israeli psychologists credited as the forefathers or at least popularizers of the fields of Decision Sciences and Behavioral Economics. Lewis details in the book how the two men greatly influenced people including economists and writers Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, NBA General Manager Daryl Morey, and Lewis himself, with Moneyball being in many ways about the need to mistrust intuition, and the work of Kahneman and Tversky about where the bias behind that intuition comes from. Much of the contribution from Kahneman and Tversky was about how people make decisions, and how their choices get framed by circumstances. People develop beliefs and make decisions not in a vacuum, but out of the context around them that leads to those beliefs and decisions.

Along with The Undoing Project being on the work of Kahnman and Tversky, Lewis also very much wrote a biography of the two men, starting from childhood, then with each in the Israeli military, later close collaborators, and with their relationship strained prior to Tversky's death. It's noted in the book that Israelis were interested in people and what made them tick, and both men brave soldiers, with each brilliant, and yet having wildly diverging personalities. Kahneman at times felt like he wasn't developing fully his ideas, whereas Tversky's views commanded attention from early in his career and he certainly seemed both aware of that and to bask in it. Additionally, Tversky was combative about his ideas and decisive regarding his time and attention, with Lewis writing that "his likes and dislikes could be inferred directly and accurately and at all times from his actions." Part of the book by Lewis was very much about the difference between the men and how they drifted apart.

From later in Tversky's career I found compelling mention of how he was brought in by the Training Department of Delta Airlines to help improve pilot decision making, and the result of that was an encouragement of co-pilots to more readily question pilots and their actions, basically to work on the circumstances around which decisions are made to improve the odds of the correct ones resulting.

Lewis noted at the end of the book how after Tversky died, Kahneman continued producing well-received work and is the author of the best seller Thinking, Fast and Slow and The Undoing Project presents a really thorough look at the men, their work, and how they influenced those to follow.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss was a really good book with the subtitle The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers.

The book is split into into Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise sections and along with the wisdom and recommendations from well over a hundred people, Ferriss includes his own thoughts and highlights where ideas from one person intersect with another. This is the type of book that could be revisited many times over and the concepts and recommendations I found particularly of note, and then resources mentioned, are the following...

Within the Healthy section is the import of exercising, however briefly, first thing when you wake and mentioned a few times is the health benefit of both cold and heat exposure, like via a sauna, and the remarkable sounding exercise of AcroYoga.

Ferriss notes that more than 80% of the people featured in Tools of Titans have some form of daily mindfulness or meditation practice and noted multiple times in the book are Transcendental and Vipassana Meditation. Additionally on the subject of mental heath was the notion of if you can't make yourself happy, try to make others happy, or even just wish for specific people to be happy, and see the impact it has on you. Also mentioned was the idea of going first, being willing to make the opening friendly interaction with strangers, and if depressed, to express gratitude, and remember that you're not alone and are better than you think.

One thing I found particularly interesting from the book is the notion of writing morning pages, and the related idea of doing regular work before you worry about doing good work. Additional ideas around this are if stuck on something, to be willing to produce just one word at first if that's all that can be done, or if stuck at the beginning with something to start it in the middle. Also interesting was the story about how IBM developed their sales force by intentionally setting quotas low so people wouldn't be intimidated.

A recurring idea from the book was about spending your time doing the things you choose to do, rather than what people want you to do, in a way it's the difference between spending your time on offense or on defense. A notion from the book is we're only here a short time on earth, like monkeys on a spinning rock. Related to the idea of how to spend your time is you should either be saying Hell Yes or No to things, with the result of that you shouldn't be lamenting how busy you are as you're doing things you want to do. I also liked the concept that you shouldn't wait for inspiration and then act, just act and then inspiration has a chance of coming.

Also interesting was the concept of nerds at night, what people do outside of work and 1,000 true fans, getting a dedicated following. In terms of what one should be doing, an interesting idea from Tools of Titans was think small, be great at something thin. Related to this is the idea of picking what you're spending time on and are after, is it hunting mice or chasing antelope?

If things don't go well, it's noted that you shouldn't get upset about things, rather think about whether it happened for a reason and what can you learn from it. When something happens that's bad, it's ok to say "good" and move on, and when stuck on something, go around, try a different way. There are three options in life with any situation, change it, accept it, or leave it. Also, one should be willing to live poor, it's not that hard if you don't have people to support and your well being doesn't really require money.

About things to do at the of the day was the idea of writing at the end, noting what you're thankful for and happy about and taking notes before bed on what happened to you. Additionally, a couple of very tangible things from the book related to sleep are usage of the ChiliPad for cooling at bedtime and Sleep With Me podcast to fall asleep to.

Books of interest noted - haven't read

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
Dropping Ashes on the Buddha by Seung Sahn
Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur by Derek Sivers
Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert
How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield
10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story by Dan Harris
Joy on Demand: The Art of Discovering the Happiness Within by Chade-Meng Tan
Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

The Artist's Way Morning Pages Journal: A Companion Volume to the Artist's Way by Julie Cameron
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
Levels of the Game by John McPhee
I Seem to be a Verb by Buckminster Fuller
Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales
Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek

Books of interest noted - have read

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Show Your Work by Auston Kleon
Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feyman by Richard Feynman

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey
Not Fade Away by Peter Barton and Laurence Shames
How to Get Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

Other resources of interest

1,000 True Fans and Cool Tools by Kevin Kelly
Inviting Mara to Tea poem by Rumi
The Shortness of Life by Seneca on the site Brain Pickings
Don Wildman profile for Esquire

The Tim Ferriss Show podcast
Derek Sivers podcast with Ferriss
Hardcore history with Dan Carlin podcast
Neil Gaiman University of the Arts commencement speech

Monday, January 23, 2017

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight was an excellent memoir from the Nike creator, who served as CEO from 1964-2004, Board Chairman through 2016, and then Chairman Emeritus of the company. In addition to being a compelling story of business success, the book was really well written and in the acknowledgements, Knight thanked author J.R. Moehringer and noted relying on his storytelling gifts through drafts of the book. Learning of Moehringer’s involvement felt to make complete sense for me as I saw throughout how good the writing was, and Moehringer wrote along with tennis great Andre Agassi perhaps my favorite sports biography, Open.

Part One of Shoe Dog began after Knight’s graduation at twenty-four from Stanford Business School, with him embarking on what wound up being a solo backpacking trip through Asia, Europe, and Africa. Additionally, he went to Japan to try to start a business importing running shoes, based off a research paper written in an MBA entrepreneurship class. Knight visited the Japanese company Onitsuka, maker of Tiger shoes, convinced them he had an importing company called Blue Ribbon Sports, and placed an order for $50 in shoes. Knight then continued on with his journey around the world, from which he seemed to gain a great deal, and wrote in Shoe Dog of how he early on knew he wanted his work to be play, something where he could hopefully feel what athletes feel while competing.

After returning to Oregon from his trip, Knight was counseled by a friend of his father to get his CPA so that he'd have "a floor under his earnings," enrolled in three classes at Portland State and nine credit hours later took a job at an accounting firm. Knight noted that while later staffing his own company, he tended to hire a number of accountants and lawyers, both for the thinking skills they had acquired and that they showed they could pass a difficult test.

The shoes from Onitsuka arrived in December 1964 and Knight sent a couple of pairs to the track coach from his Oregon undergrad days, Bill Bowerman, who went in with him on the business, 49% to Knight's 51%. Knight placed a large order with Onitsuka and then quit his job at the accounting firm to sell shoes out of his car and hired Jeff Johnson as his first sales rep for Blue Ribbon. While the company was growing fast, cash on hand was always a problem and Knight took a job with another accounting firm, Price Waterhouse, with this one requiring less hours so he could continue growing Blue Ribbon at the same time. Additionally, he in this role met Del Hayes, who would work for Knight for years, and got experience learning what caused some companies to succeed, and others to fail. It was also interesting to read of how Knight spent so much time in a traditional job, while still growing his company outside of that. Blue Ribbon continued expanding and to free up more time, Knight left the firm for a job at Portland State, teaching accounting and it's maxim of assets equals liabilities plus equity, a principle Knight was often up against.

One quote about business that stuck with Knight was "don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results," and also of note from Shoe Dog was how many different times the company could have gone under, and still made it through. There were various inflection points and Knight battled in business like it was a race, one taking every ounce from him.

As Blue Ribbon continued to grow, it made a deal with a Japanese trading company, Nissho Iwai, and while Onitsuka was considering dropping Blue Ribbon as it's U.S. distributor, Knight made a football shoe in a factory in Mexico, and under the name Nike. A legal battle later ensued with Onitsuka and while it was settled in 1974, Nike battled supply and demand issues with the new waffle trainer shoe a huge hit. Then in 1975 the company had a cash crunch and lost it's local banking partner, with the relationship with the trading company saving the day and keeping them in business as Nissho paid the Oregon bank in full. Then after getting past this hurdle, Nike received a letter from the U.S. Customs Service saying they owed $25M in retroactive import duties, as the result of orchestration by competitors. A lengthy back and back with the government ensued and after a settlement of $9M was reached, Nike was able to continue forward, with going public at least in part to finally get past it's constant cash flow issues.

The ending of Shoe Dog is heavily about Knight's sons, including his first born Matthew, who as an adult died in a scuba diving accident, and the final chapter beautifully written and really brought everything together as a poignant and compelling read.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance was a really compelling memoir by someone born into difficult circumstances who with key help provided along the way, made it to his current state of being a 31-year-old Yale Law graduate working as a principal at a Silicon Valley investment firm.

Vance grew up in the Rust Belt city of Middletown, Ohio, with his grandparents from the Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky, and he notes that places like Middletown have over the years become practically feeder towns for those leaving Appalachia. Many of the problems of unstable home lives, alcoholism, and at least flirting with poverty have fed into the new communities and Vance writes how the problems of Middletown in many ways mirror those in the inner cities of metropolitan areas.

There's such a sense of upheaval and uncertainty for kids growing up in that region and Vance writes of how he doesn't view himself as a genius preordained to make it out, but rather someone shepherded during the times he most needed stability. When his mom would either be on a bender or otherwise busy switching from one failed male relationship to another, Vance was able to go his grandmother or even rely on his older sister. There was certainly entertaining reading in the book about hillbilly justice administered by his extended family, but the biggest thing that gave Vance a chance was this stability that wasn't coming from a more traditional mother and father present for him home life. Vance lived full-time with his grandmother the last few years of high school and then spent four years in the Army prior to attending Ohio State University and Yale Law School.

The book is a very fast read and interesting in that it tells the story of Vance’s upbringing, but also the themes related to his success. There's both the need for kids to have stability growing up and notion that even in areas where jobs are scarce, the larger problem can be a scarcity of a culture of hard work and idea that, especially with some help along the way, someone can overcome obstacles and have control over their life, effectively breaking out of a cycle.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Legends Club by John Feinstein

The Legends Club by John Feinstein has the subtitle Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry and covers well the three men, and particularly the relationships between them.

Feinstein notes in the beginning how Smith was hired by North Carolina in 1961 and in a nine-day period in 1980, Duke and NC State hired Valvano and Krzyzewski. The three men were very different from one another, with Smith the cover all bases in the pursuit of winning obsessive, Valvano the comet across the sky force of personality, and Krzyzewski the grinder, who adapted himself to succeed and improved in areas he needed to.

A commonality between the men seems to in their character, with one example Smith decades ago telling Feinstein that "you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing" and another Valvano's speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards just prior to his death from cancer. The interactions written of between Krzyzewski and Valvano prior to him dying and then later between Krzyzewski and Smith prior to the former North Carolina coach dying were the most compelling parts of the book, first with Valvano undergoing cancer treatments at Duke and Krzyzewski often at his bedside and then Krzyzewski spending time with Coach Smith as he suffered from Dementia prior to his death in 2015.

There was definitely some poignant scenes written of the book and Feinstein seemed to do a very good job writing about the men, their competition with one another, and their coming together.