Friday, March 26, 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

750 Words

I'm trying a new website writing program, oh, just for the heck of it, I guess. It's called 750 Words and the idea is that each day you write 750 words. It can be about anything. I imagine I'll write little stories mostly. 750 words takes me about 15 minutes. It's the equivalent of 3 double-spaced pages, they say. The first entry was about the idea of writing 750 words a day. The second one was about a guy telling a bunch of Japanese businessmen a bullshit story. We'll see how this experiment goes.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Call tech support

I made these awhile back. I was going to do a whole series. I guess three is a series.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Monday, February 8, 2010

How the Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In by Jim Collins

I picked up Jim Collins’ Good to Great a couple years ago while on vacation. It was an easy-to-read, research-based, insightful look at how companies make the leap from, as the title suggests, good to great. This book examines the opposite phenomenon, category leaders that make a series of mistakes and plummet into irrelevance or non-existence. With the same diligent research, Collins and his team find five stages of decline and the warning signs that a company might be headed down that path:

1. Hubris born of success. The company enjoys success and develops an arrogant belief that they have it figured out or an attitude that they no longer need to innovate and can rest on their past successes.
2. Undisciplined pursuit of more. A company’s success in their core business leads them to a reckless pursuit of growth in other areas, often over-committing financially and/or simultaneously neglecting the core business that bore them success in the first place.
3. Denial of risk and peril. Although warning signs start to emerge that a company’s current path is untenable, they ignore the risk in hopes that they will overcome it or that, in another show of hubris, their previous success makes failure impossible.
4. Grasping for salvation. With their impending demise staring them in the face, the company makes drastic, often ill-advised changes in an attempt to pull out of their nosedive. They might hire a new superstar CEO, rebrand themselves, or implement a series of company-wide reorganizations. Collins makes the point that it actually is possible for a sinking company to recover from Stage 4 and even come back stronger than before, but it requires, at the very least, a disciplined return to their core competencies, not just a reshuffling of the deck chairs.
5. Capitulation to irrelevance or death. In a final death rattle, the once-great company resigns to being irrelevant, is swallowed by another company, or closes its doors for good.

These are the commonalities in the process of demise from company to company, but Collins points out that the specifics that lead a company down this dark path can vary. He quotes Tolstoy: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Like in Good to Great, the most interesting part of this book is these specific case studies. Across industries, Collins examines companies that got it right, and then got it spectacularly wrong.

While Good to Great was probably a more helpful book with more concrete answers, as Collins points out, sometimes it’s more about the questions than the answers. And “What should I not do?” is a good question. There’s also something tragic (in the Shakespearean sense) to the company that rises to greatness only to collapse under the weight of its own arrogance. And that can be enjoyable to read about.

The audiobook is read by Collins, who can be over-the-top at times, but he obviously feels passionate about what he’s saying, so it’s tolerable.

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan [audiobook read by Scott Brick]

Most of what we eat is not food. That’s the simple premise in Pollan’s follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Most of what we eat are food-like substances (and that might be generous), packed with preservatives, artificial flavors, fillers and other chemicals that don’t exist in nature. Pollan makes the point that if our grandparents walked into the modern supermarket, they wouldn’t recognize many of the things on the shelves. This is not good.

It’s the Western obsession with nutrients as opposed to food that has led us here. Sometimes flaky dietary science, a culture desperately seeking out the “magic bullet,” big-budget marketing campaigns from American food manufacturers and laws and regulation that place the financial health of the agricultural industry above the physical health of the population have all contributed to a situation where people really aren’t sure what they should and shouldn’t be eating. As Pollan points out, that’s a uniquely human dilemma.

Although he give the disclaimer that he’s nobody to be telling anybody what to eat, he does give some good, common sense rules of thumb: Eat mostly plants (mostly green plants). Eat less. Think of meat as more of a side dish. Don’t eat things with ingredients you can’t pronounce. Paradoxically, avoid foods that make health claims on their packaging (which implies, firstly, that they have packaging—something else to probably avoid). Shop around the edges of the grocery store. All of these direct us to eat food, not food-like, processed, manufactured food-like substances. It’s a great message, and with all the confusing health claims out there, it’s nice to have a call for simple common sense.

The audiobook is read by Scott Brick who does a fine job.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane [audiobook performed by Tom Stechshulte]

Lehane is a fantastic writer of thrillers. All of his writing has an intense quality that keeps you on the edge of your seat with the pervasive sense that something terrible could happen at any time. This book, probably more than any of his other books, is laced with that paranoia. And although it starts off as a crime story, it’s really further down the spectrum toward psychological thriller, borderline gothic horror at some points. Somewhere close to Silence of the Lambs, perhaps.

The book opens in 1954, with two U.S. Marshalls taking a ferry out to Shutter Island, the location of Ashecliffe Hospital, a mental hospital for the criminally insane in Boston Harbor, to investigate the escape of a patient. The whole story is told from the point of view of Teddy, one of the Marshalls, as he delves deeper and deeper into the dark secrets of the island and the even darker mysteries of his own psyche. The twists and turns of the plot, at which Lehane is a master, are what make the story so interesting, so I won’t give any away here.

Lehane’s writing is as good as it always is, though the characters felt a little more stock than normal. While incredibly creepy, I didn’t connect with them as much as I did in his past stories. And perhaps because much of the book deals with the inner workings of the mind, I found pieces of it pushing the bounds of believability. Worth the read, although not Lehane’s best.

The audiobook is performed by Tom Stechschulte, who does a fantastic job at voicing multiple characters with distinct personalities. It’ll be interesting to see how the movie is (directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio).