Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good: Book Review

December 29, 2010 1 comment

I avoided this book for the longest time – after all, I said, who the hell needed to read a fawning tale about a bunch of Silicon Valley Web 2.0 hipsters? I went to the same parties (fewer in number, to be sure) and read the same blog posts to know better.

I was wrong. The book is very readable, very entertaining, very good. If you follow the tech industry and scene closely, most of the information is well-known in broad strokes. But Sarah Lacy (author) managed to score detailed and excellent interviews with several folks at the forefront of the renaissance of the web, including Max Levchin, Kevin Rose, Marc Andreessen, Gina Bianchini (disclosure: a friend and a mentor), Jay Adelson, Evan Williams, etc. The personal back stories are compelling. Their reasons for starting companies and building great products make for a great read for any Valley junkie. A lot of fine details that weren’t covered in blog posts are perfectly suited to the longer book format. If you’re a student of human behavior especially as applicable to this weird little place we call home – this book is well worth the quick romp. The book is also fun for those of us who aspire to be entrepreneurs – no matter what your opinion of Digg/Slide and other companies, these guys were the first to capitalize on the Web in the last 5-6 years. They did more than most of us. Kudos to them and to the author for capturing that.

What’s more fun, however, is reading the book 2-3 years after publication. The author spends a bunch of time talking about Slide versus RockYou, a very appropriate discussion for the time. As of today, however, who gives a shit about the great slideshow rivalry? Slide got sold for a respectable $228 million but a nice strong climb down from the heady $550 million valuation. RockYou is now billed as a “social ad network”. Other parts of the book seem….well, simply quaint in hindsight. There’s a decent bit of discussion on the “widget economy”. Yeah you never hear about that anymore.

A quick final point: do not expect detailed discussions about product strategy, execution challenges at the companies discussed, etc. This is, by and large, a compelling set of portraits of a set of people and the times they lived in and the things they built.

Long story short, read this book. Well worth the few hours for any Valley junkie.

Categories: life

The Four Hour Work Week: Review

December 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Let me get right to it – this book is awful. It is made far more awful by the fact that I, over-consumer of all variety of news, Twitter gossip, technology blogs got suckered into reading something so simplistic, so poorly written, so ridiculous in its overall execution of a (promising) premise and so narrow in its end goals.

Now, let me qualify that. If you work in a soul-crushing job that teems with unimaginative management – the kind that won’t ever let you work remotely, the kind that expects that you delight in your own micromanagement, the kind that won’t let you visit “personal websites” while at work (I’ve actually worked in a company that did this), you may find several choice nuggets of wisdom in this book. You may be inspired by Tim Ferriss’ admonitions to live now, find a way to upward-manage your bosses, etc. I grant the book that and I’m sure it has been valuable to a particular set of people.

But if you work in most enlightened places, especially in Silicon Valley, this book is a joke. Most of us love and value our work. We want to build technology at startups. We want to build great teams. Our managers don’t care if we work remotely or not. Hell, NetFlix doesn’t even have a vacation policy!

So with that being said, I find it incredulous that the book was actually read and discussed – and not with a sense of irony reserved for “Snakes On A Plane” – in Silicon Valley. I mean, seriously, folks? The book spends a whole chapter outlining how the author shilled sports supplements on the Internet, and NOW YOU CAN TOO (Billy Mays, RIP). I can understand folks who don’t understand AdWords or A/B testing deriving value from this, but is this what *we* are about? We obsess over whether the new web companies are “dipshit companies” (quoting Arrington here) but take this informercial at face value.

One final caveat: the book was published in 2006, only a year or two after Tom Friedman’s “The World Is Flat”. The ideas on hiring virtual assistants were fresh at the time, and outsourcing was actually a topic that more people cared about at the time. I read this in 2010 when several friends of mine actually have VAs so I found the detailed chapter repetitive and childish.

Bottom line, don’t waste your money. If you really want to read this infomercial, come take my copy. I refuse to send this to the library, have a strict anti-book-burning policy and don’t need paper weights in my line of work.

Categories: life

One More Irrelevant Article to the Twitter Canon

July 31, 2010 2 comments

It feels like early 2009 all over again. The New York Times is pushing an article about an author’s discovery of Twitter and the gems of realization that followed therefrom. You can read it here. It spends a bunch of time discussing how people are now becoming performers as they package their lives up for Twitter, and so forth.

Fair point.

But the article fails, miserably so, at distilling the other side of the “packaged stream of thoughts” coin. What about the psychology of the *follower*? I’m on Twitter, primarily, because it has become the default way to overhear the smartest people in my industry. Its like being at a tech conference without the terrible food and the panelist bloviation. In fact, Twitter has now replaced Google Reader as the quickest way to get to news and information of value. The fact that I also use it to rant about the Seinfeldian absurdities of life is quite secondary.

Or maybe I should shut up and expect no more or less from The Times, which after all is not out to cater to just the XKCD audience. Either ways, let me know on Twitter. I’m @saumil.

Categories: life

The Bridge: The Life And Rise Of Barack Obama (Quick Book Review)

July 22, 2010 1 comment

In spite of multiple policy disappointments, I remain a big fan of Barack Obama. Combine that with a propensity to make impulse purchases courtesy of Amazon Prime, and this 572 page biography of Obama landed with a rather intimidating thud on my desk a few weeks ago. The book is written by David Remnick, the editor of hoity-toity mag The New Yorker.

The book is compelling for a variety of reasons, but the primary reason to pick it up is that its not a singularly focused bio of Barack. It actually interleaves Barack’s rocket rise in the American body politic against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the narrative of race in this country. It paints a rich picture of African-American autobiographical styles, for example (when discussing Dreams From My Father) that you’d normally not come across unless you were widely read in African American studies.

Coming back to the purely biographical aspects of the book, Remnick is horribly well sourced and researched on his primary subject. The book is richly detailed and textured, beginning all the way back from Barack’s ancestral home of Kogelo, Kenya and culminating with his inauguration in January 2009. Remnick has interviewed key characters like Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, high school friends, colleagues from The Illinois State Senate, etc. in significant detail and is able to present a relatively complete picture of 44.

The book also shines in outlining Obama’s key temperamental qualities and how he came to acquire them. In a world that generally celebrates leaders and alpha dogs who scream like a banshee (Jamie Dimon, Ari Gold), it is simply wonderful to see Obama in action in a variety of circumstances large and small. It should give young aspiring leaders hope and pause before they flout The Asshole Rule.

The book is definitely VERY light on issues of the 2008 race so if you’re looking for a blow-by-blow on the campaign, the book will be a waste of your time. In fact, the book actually covers the 2008 campaign exclusively through the lens of race – a jarring shift as you’re reading but a worthwhile one for the narrative in the end.

All in all, a wonderful read for anyone that considers themselves a student of leadership and American history.

Categories: life

Only in Silicon Valley: Neighborhood Toughs Who Debate

Scene: I’m stuck on El Camino Real at the stop light on Stanford Avenue, right next to that Starbucks. I pull up right next to this Piece Of Shit bright orange Eclipse. A moment later, a gorgeous, jet-black Audi R8 pulls up right behind the Eclipse.

I always love to see guys in piddly wannabe sports cars like The Eclipse get p0wned. I pray for a badass machine like the R8 to pull up alongside, simply daring The Eclipse to a Fast And Furious kind of race. So in anticipation of The Eclipse Boys eating crow, I roll down the window and peer slyly into the car, past the eye-gougeworthy orange color.

A couple of young neighborhood “toughs” blaring indistinguishable hip hop. What a surprise. Windows rolled down…this ought to be good.

But instead of focusing on their rearview mirror with a clear visual of the Audi, they’re trying to read a damn bumper sticker…on the minivan in front. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

And then all of a sudden, one of them goes, “You Can Bomb The World Into Pieces…But You Can’t Bomb The World Into Peace”. And the other one pipes up, instantly, “Actually I’d argue against that…if there’s no one left to bomb, wouldn’t we have peace after all?!”

Struck by the profundity of the argument, and disgusted at the quality of Palo Alto’s teenage thugs, I roll up my windows and wait. I miss rough-and-tumble Kansas City sometimes.

Categories: life Tags: ,

Cutting The Cord: On Life Without Cable TeeVee

July 10, 2010 1 comment

Like most of you, I’ve had a longstanding hatred of Comcast’s TV services. You want me to pay WHAT for this piece of junk Fisher Price DVR?! Loving your Apple products and hating Comcast’s stultifying services are 2 sides of the same coin.

So when I moved recently, I decided to cut the cord and not get TV at all. Here’s how I’m doing it, in bullet point format:

  • I bought a 300 dollar HTPC (home theater PC) from Acer. Its just a Windows 7 box in a compact form factor and comes with a wireless keyboard/mouse.
  • The HTPC has an HDMI out which goes directly into my LCD. I also connected it via Ethernet to my router.
  • I got the baseline Netflix subscription
  • I’m going to get Hulu Plus
  • I downloaded and installed Boxee for Windows.

And here’s the end result of all of this, also in lazy bullet point format:

  • Windows 7 stinks to the high heavens. Unlike Macs, things don’t work seamlessly.
  • Not having sports is pretty challenging.
  • Hulu Plus and Netflix together can get the job done for TV shows and movies.
  • Boxee isn’t as great as its made out to be. I was impressed, no doubt, but there’s definitely more heat than light here.
  • All in all, cutting the cord is a bitch and I don’t feel like the sharpest tool in the shed for having gone down this path.

Thus far, though, its worth it to not get price-gouged by Comcast. Let’s see how long I can hold out!

Categories: life

Conspicuous Consumption for Nice Silicon Valley People

June 20, 2010 2 comments

I was sitting in the office the other day when the following conversation ensued:

Coworker One: Wow, I just noticed your sweet (insert_nice_car_here)! What kinda 0-60 you seeing on that?

Coworker Two (nonchalantly): Hey thanks. Yah its all dinged up now.

Silicon Valley is filled with people who are fantastically driven, talented, hard-working and happen to live in an industry that specializes in wealth-creating disruptions. It is also generally filled with highly educated progressive people who are – to put it mildly – slightly less comfortable displaying their wealth than, say, 50 Cent. Or T.I. Or every other idiotic rapper out there.

Now, that’s not to say that we don’t LOVE our BMWs and our SF Marina sailboats, our big-time Palo Alto homes, our Porsches or even (in my relatively impoverished case, right out of college) our tacky red Nissan 350zs. We just don’t want to look like dicks while loving them. That’s so….LA. Barf.

So how’s a fundamentally nice Silicon Valley person to square this awkward social situation circle? BitBubble’s here to help with this handy list of tips:

  1. Self Deprecate: When confronted with a social situation that points out your latest sweet toy in a cloying/envious manner, simply turn attention to your own flaws. A few examples:
    1. “Oh! I bought that car to get over a quarter life crisis!”
    2. “I wear a Rolex because I’m just a douchebag at heart!”
    3. “Yah I won the lottery at Google and blew all my cash on this giant house. Not smart financial planning but what the hey! Maybe I should go look for a job at AIG!”
  2. Tarnish Latest Toy: Its also useful to wipe the psychological luster off the shiny new house/car/bling by finding some horrendously minor flaw with it. A few examples:
    1. “Oh look. There’s an invisible scratch on the underside of my Rolex!”
    2. “You know, I know its a Porsche convertible but the top takes 30 seconds to drop! Guess who has two thumbs and got ripped off on the deal?! THIS GUY!”
  3. Compliment Envious Complimenter: File this one under deflection mechanisms. When confronted with a compliment on your bling, find any way to compliment the complimenter. Try not to patronize them but this is secondary. Being patronizing is better than the ugly feeling that accompanies privileged guilt. Examples include:
    1. “Wow, your Honda Civic is AMAZING! No power windows either!!! You’re so retro cool, really.”
    2. “I love the deals at Target! That Mizrahi fellow really does it do it better than Marc Jacobs, no?!”

Of course, you can mix and match from the 3 categories above. I’ve seen compliment deflection and self deprecation combined to very useful effect.

Happy Consuming!

Categories: life

Book Review: The Ascent Of Money (by Niall Ferguson)

June 14, 2010 2 comments

The epic clusterfuck of 2008 has since encouraged in me a desire to learn the arcana of the financial world. Collateralized debt obligations? I can tell you all about it. Chinese savings glut? Got you covered. Something to throw in the faces of relatives who still spout nonsense about “YOU SHOULD BUY PROPERTY IF YOU DON’T WANT TO DIE POOR”?¬†Oh yeah. Check.

But most of the news articles and books have focused on the here and now. If you want to cast a wider net, be sure to pick up Niall Ferguson’s “The Ascent Of Money: A Financial History”. While poorly named (especially since it was published in early 2008, a few months before Lehman), the book walks the reader through the earliest conceptualizations of money – whether on physical tablets or on silver and gold coinage. It covers European expeditions to South America such as Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca empire.

Ferguson then speedily moves on to medieval Europe, the birthplace of so many of the financial innovations we take for granted today. Which brings me to an interesting digression – in Silicon Valley, we’re so warped in our own sense of self that if it doesn’t involve something built with Twitter Annotations or geolocation data, it doesn’t “feel” like innovation. But its safe to say that the modern economy exists because financial innovations such as banking, joint stock companies, promissory notes and bonds/securities came into being.

But I digress. In the book, we visit early 13th century Europe – when Fibonacci (of the eponymous sequence fame to computer scientists) published his pathbreaking Liber Abaci which introduced Europe to Arab (Indian, really) numerals and did away with the disastrous Roman numeral system and reduced friction in trading and currency conversion. Yup, I thought it was fascinating too.

We then discuss the introduction of banking (derived from the Italian “banco” or bench where business was conducted) and the Medici banking dynasty of the Renaissance – yes, the rich hedge fund guys were arts patrons and douchebags hundreds of years ago too. Some things never change.

Bonds and public debt – also invented in Italy, much to my surprise – follow the discussion on banks. Did you know that bonds were first invented to finance wars? I especially loved the quote in the book: “War Is The Father Of All Things” even though its not quite accurate and a deliberate exaggeration. The chapter on bonds is hellish fun.

At a fast clip, we arrive at the origins of the stock market, first invented by the Dutch as they sought to pool together finances for The Dutch East India Company (you can thank us Indians for our important indirect contribution on this one at any point now) – conquest is risky business, after all, especially when you’re sailing thousands of miles and when there’s no call centers (get it?) to complain if shit goes wrong. It made sense to pool finances and buy “shares” of a company. It made further sense to create a secondary market to create liquidity since it took several years for the initial “shareholders” to recover their investments in the trading company.

We then take a more modern turn and cover the measurement of risk, and more specifically, insurance. Did you know that insurance policies as we know them today were invented by a pair of Scottish priests?! WTF?! And that the British (Ferguson is a Brit) take out more insurance than anyone else? This is a great fact-filled chapter.

Then, we cover real estate – that most misunderstood of asset classes – and the political invisible hand pushing Western consumers towards purchase of property with every imaginable bribe possible. Nothing gives me more joy than reading a lucid argument against property being a “sure thing”, especially since my relatives love nothing more than to lecture me about how “real estate is how you make money in America” with a condescending know-it-all look. An illiquid, one-way bet on a market is risky just like most other bets – as a lot of people found out to their detriment after signing ridiculous no-doc loans.

Finally, CHINA. I won’t say too much about this chapter except that its mostly covered in the press and that you won’t derive as much value from it as the previous chapters. But a fun gallop nonetheless.

All in all, this is a cool book for all business and history buffs. Read it!

Categories: life

On Amazon Prime

June 6, 2010 3 comments

Update: Looks like good ol’ Bezos has been reading BitBubble in his spare time (yes, I’m kidding. No, I’m not that delusional). Amazon Prime comes free for college students for a year! Way to hook ’em! http://www.amazon.com/b/?node=668781011

The day-to-day tech world tends to think of innovation primarily in terms of products and features – Foursquare’s “checkins” and game mechanics being an example of lauded innovation that’s being ripped off by others at an alarming pace.

On the flip side, we tend to simply ignore or discount great process innovations that produce fundamental behavior change. For me, this was the case with Amazon Prime. I always thought it didn’t make a lot of sense to pay 80 dollars for free 2 day shipping if you were an infrequent Amazon shopper. After all, you’d have to be already buying 2o or more items a year, roughly, for it to make economic sense.

It turns out that I got the whole thing exactly backwards – Prime *turns* infrequent shoppers into rabidly frequent shoppers. Amazon Prime isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – aimed at the people who were already heavy shoppers. It should be aimed at people like myself. You see, last year a friend got me on his friends/family Amazon Prime account (20 dollars instead of 80 since we pooled) and I then realized how powerful/addictive Prime can be. I’ve since quadrupled my annual spending on Amazon and actively try to not walk into brick-and-mortar stores. Point, click, ship-to-office, done.

So what Prime has done, instead, is produce serious behavioral change by reducing online buying friction. I know I won’t pay for shipping anymore, so I don’t have to worry about nebulous S&H pricing. I don’t have to try to package my purchases together to get over the 25 dollar limit – packaging frequently delays transaction consummation and i end up driving to Target. I now buy early and often and with disorganized impunity. The end result: I have the honor of paying Amazon 20 dollars a year so I can buy four times as much stuff as I did 2 years ago. Who’s the smart one in this equation?

The final question, then, is: Why doesn’t Amazon push Prime more aggressively? Why is the entry point to Prime 80 dollars? Why can’t there be Amazon Subprime (okay, bad name choice) that does free 3 day shipping for a lower price point? I’m sure Amazon could extend this to the logical conclusion by looking at the spike in yearly purchase volume after a user acquires a Prime subscription. Is it foolish to imagine a world where 80% of all Amazon customers are all on Prime and buying more and more with free shipping? And why haven’t other general retailers like Walmart.com (with the exception of Overstock) adopted this innovation en masse?

Categories: life

A Few Thoughts on Tynt and Daring Fireball’s Takedown

May 30, 2010 5 comments

I spend my waking hours thinking about online content publishers (both print leapsters as well as pure plays that started out as a blog in Mom’s Basement), monetization of content and how monetization interacts with users. I therefore watched with fascination as John Gruber published an angry memo against Tynt, a company that helps publishers track copy/paste and appends deep links back to publisher content when content is shared.

With my obvious monetization bias declared, I’ll make my rebuttal short and to the point:

  1. There is absolutely nothing wrong with publishers deciding to “break” copy/paste if you grab content from their site. On the scale of intrusion of advertising, this one is one step worse than the right rail Google ads (gold standard for great experience coupled with greater monetization). Most in-text advertising is FAR worse, and don’t even get me started on the quality and efficacy of display advertising. I actually *like* advertising and most display ads make me want to gouge my eyes out.
  2. Tynt’s opt-out process will likely have to be made easier/better/more-discoverable sooner than they anticipated, but hey, that’s life.
  3. Content publishers aren’t in the content business. They’re in the audience business – a fundamental flaw with all advertising-based businesses that manifests itself with in-game advertising, product placements and every other way an audience is going to be “forced” to see an ad no matter how good DVRs or AdBlock Plus gets. Tynt is simply free advertising for the content author when the content is sent around over the Interweb wires. So why so much anger over it? Most advertising (except for search ads and Super Bowl ads) is a necessary evil anyways.
  4. Blaming the issue on dead tree publishers who “don’t get it” is a cop-out. Tynt does billions of pageviews a month, so clearly they’ve identified a widespread *publisher* need that goes beyond the weird New York types who think editorial still matters (okay, I kid, I know it does). Let’s find other ways to heap scorn on print dinosaurs, really, its like shooting fish in a barrel.

Am I missing something here? I’m all for working folks up into a lather over Punch The Monkey banner ads but getting ticked over copy/paste? Really?

[ And let me state the obvious disclosure again; this post has no affiliation with my employer Kosmix or my work with them. If anyone’s crazy enough to think they’d pay me for my opinions, call me. Have I got a scheme to lighten your wallet for you! ]

Categories: life