Entrepreneurship Heros I

To celebrate my 2 year anniversary of working for Fast Company and Inc magazines, I decided to write 2 posts about entrepreneurship. Here’s the first one.

The owner of super awesome HMS Beekeeper store recently complained that people told her that she should close “because it’s ‘buy nothing day'”. I’m pretty sure that these people would have enjoyed my childhood in the Soviet Union, where most days were ‘buy nothing day’. Soviet Union was the kind of place where reporting your father to the secret police could make you a national hero, while engaging in business activity was a crime.

I was brought up in an environment where 99% of non-governmental commercial activity was outright illegal, and the allowed kind was considered extremely unwholesome by association. Just about any item produced by the Soviet industry would be stamped with a price in order to discourage illegal arbitrage, like this condom, for example:

These days outside of California it’s hard to imagine a society that considers this much commercial activity evil, but when I was a kid, any schoolchild caught engaging in commercial activity of any sort could get in a lot of trouble. Personal entrepreneurship was literally a criminal activity. This kind of an environment tended to produce excellent jet fighters, but pretty crummy condoms.

In America entrepreneurs get a lot of respect (outside of government and hippie circles), and they tend to start early. You always read about the likes of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates having business ventures in high school and college.

My former co-worker told me a story about his daughter who got into trouble for her entrepreneurial activities in 2nd grade. She and her friend decided to cash in on the popularity of Webkinz. They went into the business of selling hand-drawn counterfeit Webkinz trading cards. Surprisingly they were able to sell a good deal of those. The trouble came when the teachers noticed that they were engaged in market segmentation and variable pricing (which is a topic of one of my favorite Joel on Software articles). You see, the girls were selling cards at a discount to the popular kids and at inflated prices to unpopular ones.

This episode only increases my dislike of schoolteachers. If I were in their place I would have praised the girls for entrepreneurship, and explained to them that it’s copyright infringement that is problematic, while market segmentation is perfectly kosher, even if a little sneaky. I’d teach them about premium vs generic branding and how some people happily pay a lot more for identical items in different packaging.

Treyf

I find Jewish humor to be one of the best ways to explain certain situations in programming. Here are two that I find particularly funny and useful.

The first is a true story told me by a friend. I use it when I’m told that good web developers don’t use tables. It goes like this: My friend’s aunt met her religious relatives for the first time after coming to America from the Soviet Union. Horrified at being served pork sausage, they told her: “But auntie, Jews don’t eat pork!”. She replied — “Nonsense, I eat it all the time.”

The second is an old and racist Soviet-era joke. A Chukcha serves in the Soviet Army, and is an exemplary soldier in border patrol. There’s only one problem — he tends to eat patrol dogs, considering them a delicacy (this untrue ethnic detail must have been created to make the joke setup work). An army psychologist offers to correct this. He sits the soldier down, takes out his watch, and hypnotizes him with the words “you are not a Chukcha, you are a Jew. You don’t like to eat dogs, you like to eat gefilte fish.” The patrol dogs continue to vanish even after the hypnosis seems to have worked. Authorities send another soldier to follow the hypnotized Chukcha around. This soldier reports that the Chukcha sits the dogs down, takes out his watch and hypnotizes them with the words “You are not a dog, you are gefilte fish.” I tend to tell it when I’m told that the act of turning a hack into a Drupal module somehow makes it “gefilte fish.”

My Advice to Russian Bride Hunters

I recently received an email from a reader who wanted advice about seeking a Russian bride. I decided to post my snarky, although relatively detailed reply here. After I sent the email, I realized that there’s a book on the subject

that according to one review is “simply ‘excellent’. It is factual without being offensive. It’s helpful without being overbearing. It is instructive without being condescending.” I don’t think I managed any of these feats, but here’s what I wrote:

Ancient Odessa, coin, erotic scene. II-III century BC.

Hey, ….. .

Your potential mailorder bride is most likely a scammer. I am about to give you and those like you some advice, which might turn out useful to some and entertaining to others (I plan on posting my reply on my blog).

Seeking a foreign bride is not a simple, risk free, or casual process. It is not impossible though: one of my female friends married an Australian, another a Briton. These two pairs are extremely happy together.

You claim that you are having problems finding a “normal chick to settle down with.” I think I know what you mean by that, but I am not sure that you do. In my interpretation you blame your inability to find a mate on the quality of the pool of potential dates available to you.

By definition, “normal” means standard, usual, average. Since the majority is never “not normal” (unless you are in a psychiatric institution), there must be another explanation. It’s probably a combination of your high standards in selecting a mate (model looks, high paying job, domestic excellence) and your lack of same qualities. In short you are looking for a girl out of your league.

So here you think: there are these places where the girls are super hot, live in poverty (and thus aren’t spoiled) and will jump at a chance of snagging a knight in shining armor who will whisk them away to America. Your thinking is correct. Being American with some money will let you fish in the deep end of the gene pool in many a foreign land.

Russian and Ukrainian cities are teeming with ultrahotness: Slavic female beauty is world famous. There is no obesity epidemic there due to superior quality of food, so sometimes it looks like city centers are overrun by hordes of supermodels. The ubiquitous blond hair and rare eye colors are a part of the local genetic markup.

Meanwhile, widespread alcoholism in men is far from being an untrue stereotype, and there are many men wearing purses in the street and speedos at the beach. Simply not being an alcoholic and having a modicum of fashion sense are great assets there. Basic hygiene is also not really a default in men there. Boldness and fatness is not as repulsive to women in those parts of the world, and an American citizenship is an outright aphrodisiac.

So, those are all the advantages that you have there. What about disadvantages? A shared background is a cornerstone of a healthy relationship. You and your potential bride grew up speaking different languages, reading different books, eating different food, watching different tv shows. There might be some overlap in music, but the overall experiences that the two you of had were vastly different. That gap has to be bridged somehow, and it seems very likely to me that you will leave this burden to the girl. She will have to suffer the tremendous cultural shock upon arriving in the US (I know I have), she will have to speak English. Based on your spelling and grammar you do not strike me as good with learning languages, and Russian is a difficult one to learn. You also show a good level of ignorance of Russian culture, geography and history. That is a big handicap.

So, yes, there are millions of “normal chicks” there, but you are limited only to English-speaking ones, of which there aren’t too many. Most “normal chicks” find it as hard to learn a second language as you are. So in practice the pool of girls that you are looking mostly consist of girls that have unrealistic expectations of life in the US, scammers (some of which are not actually girls), and those girls who can’t find “normal dudes” because of one issue or another.

Even if you get through all the logistical and bureaucratic nightmares, there are some tough odds to overcome. Imagine yourself in a freshly minted mailorder bride’s place: being a stranger in a strange land, feeling exploited and locked into a marriage, no old friends to lean on, having to speak English 100% of the time, homesickness etc, etc. That is some tough situation. If you are not god’s gift to women where you live, your foreign bride stressed by all the changes will probably not like you much better, but will be locked into staying married to you for a good while. It’d be exploitative of you, wouldn’t it?

The scammers are sometimes crude, sometimes very sophisticated. A friend of mine mentioned a girl that communicates in the way that you described with dozens of men, with the intent of scamming them. “She doesn’t ask me to send money, to go visit, or anything else like that.” That is a good sign, but this usually does not last: a good scammer does not want to set the hook too early. The fact that she does not own a tv or a computer and uses a friend’s computer at work seems suspicious to me. Her story – too smooth. You can’t be too careful in these situations.

Remember I mentioned my two friends who made their relationships work? The guys they married are very good looking, hard working, and have outstanding personalities. One pair met in an online game (true story), another at a university. Both girls spoke near-flawless English (the men did not learn more than a few phrases in Russian, very typically).

So here’s my final bit of advice: if you do want yourself a beauty from the former USSR — learn Russian, at the very least read everything you’ll find in Wikipedia about the places where you’ll be looking, but better thoroughly educate yourself about Russian and Ukrainian history, politics, current affairs. Then do some traveling. Then you might be ready for something like what you are attempting. If you will learn enough Russian and will travel there, you can get laid with impunity without having to go through with the whole marriage thing, unless the “sex tourist” label bothers you.

Alexander Hamilton

From National Book Award winner Ron Chernow, a landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who galvanized, inspired, scandalized, and shaped the newborn nation.

Ron Chernow, whom the New York Times called “as elegant an architect of monumental histories as we’ve seen in decades,” now brings to startling life the man who was arguably the most important figure in American history, who never attained the presidency, but who had a far more lasting impact than many who did.

An illegitimate, largely self-taught orphan from the Caribbean, Hamilton rose with stunning speed to become George Washington’s aide-de-camp, a member of the Constitutional Convention, coauthor of The Federalist Papers, leader of the Federalist party, and the country’s first Treasury secretary. With masterful storytelling skills, Chernow presents the whole sweep of Hamilton’s turbulent life: his exotic, brutal upbringing; his brilliant military, legal, and financial exploits; his titanic feuds with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Monroe; his illicit romances; and his famous death in a duel with Aaron Burr in July 1804.

For the first time, Chernow captures the personal life of this handsome, witty, and perennially controversial genius and explores his poignant relations with his wife Eliza, their eight children, and numberless friends. This engrossing narrative will dispel forever the stereotype of the Founding Fathers as wooden figures and show that, for all their greatness, they were fiery, passionate, often flawed human beings.

Alexander Hamilton was one of the seminal figures in our history. His richly dramatic saga, rendered in Chernow’s vivid prose, is nothing less than a riveting account of America’s founding, from the Revolutionary War to the rise of the first federal government.

Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr

A controversial challenge to the works of Ron Chernow and David McCullough

With Fallen Founder , Nancy Isenberg plumbs rare and obscure sources to shed new light on everyone’s favorite founding villain. The Aaron Burr whom we meet through Isenberg’s eye-opening biography is a feminist, an Enlightenment figure on par with Jefferson, a patriot, and—most importantly—a man with powerful enemies in an age of vitriolic political fighting. Revealing the gritty reality of eighteenth-century America, Fallen Founder is the authoritative restoration of a figure who ran afoul of history and a much-needed antidote to the hagiography of the revolutionary era.

Apple Confidential 2.0: The Definitive History of the World’s Most Colorful Company

Apple Confidential examines the tumultuous history of America’s best-known Silicon Valley start-up–from its legendary founding almost 30 years ago, through a series of disastrous executive decisions, to its return to profitability, and including Apple’s recent move into the music business. Linzmayer digs into forgotten archives and interviews the key players to give readers the real story of Apple Computer, Inc. This updated and expanded edition includes tons of new photos, timelines, and charts, as well as coverage of new lawsuit battles, updates on former Apple executives, and new chapters on Steve Wozniak and Pixar.

Freemasons For Dummies (For Dummies (History, Biography & Politics))

At last, a plain-English guide to Freemasonry-the secret society that’s reportedly at the center of Dan Brown’s forthcoming novel The Solomon Key

With Freemasonry featured prominently in The Da Vinci Code as well as the hit movie National Treasure, it’s no wonder that more and more people are curious about this ancient organization, and interest is sure to intensify when Dan Brown’s new blockbuster appears. This balanced, eye-opening guide demystifies Freemasonry, explaining everything from its elaborate rituals and cryptic rites to the veiled symbols and their meanings. The book profiles famous Freemasons throughout history including many of America’s Founding Fathers as well as prominent politicians and business leaders offers a balanced assessment of the many controversies and conspiracy theories that continue to swirl around Freemasonry. For anyone who wants an evenhanded overview of Freemasonry’s past, present, and future, this guide is the key.

Christopher Hodapp (Indianapolis, IN) is a Mason who has traveled extensively reporting on Masonic practices in Great Britain, France, and elsewhere. He is currently a Past Master and a Master of his lodge. Hodapp edits the lodge newsletter and has written for the Grand Lodge magazine, the Indiana Freemason.

The Nutcracker Season

This holiday season finds me once again working in the Rockefeller Center. This time I am in the building with the funny neon sign.

Most of the lesser Rockefeller Center buildings put up gaudy X-mas decorations up front: a giant present box, a huge mound of ornaments, and a scary animatronic jack-in-the-box riding a train. My building has giant nutcracker statues.

While giant copies of their CO stand outside, in the lobby a trio of toy soldiers sing carols and gesticulate. They seem to be enjoying themselves, well, as much as three costumed men in makeup can enjoy singing carols to an endless procession of salarymen, suits, techies, administrative assistants and other denizens of corporate America.

I, for one, is very thankful for a pleasant and interesting new gig and many exciting opportunities, but my thoughts are with those in terrible jobs. Those of you who aren’t happy – there’s always the Internets with wonderful sites like the Joel on Software job board.

Still, those of you who think that you are unhappy, I’d like to leave you with a haiku that I made by lightly editing a very real lament of a Burger King worker that I found on Livejournal’s bkstories community. I count BK as one syllable, not two which is probably wrong.

Holiday season.
I work at BK near Walmart.
Shoot me in the face.

De gustibus non est disputandum

In the former Soviet Union, cognac was the expensive booze of choice, while whiskey was relatively unknown. Technically, you can only call cognac the brandy from Cognac in France, but the Soviets did not care much about that, already abusing Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée with Soviet Champagne.

In any case, high end Armenian brandy was considered the ultimate drink. Armenians were one of the first to invent the alcohol distilling technology, and Armenian brandy, by the way was the very same drink that Odysseus used to knock out the Cyclops.

The reason I remembered all this, is because two news articles reminded me of a Russian saying: to a pessimist cognac smells like bedbugs, to an optimist – bedbugs smell like cognac. Good cognac has a rather peculiar smell, and some say that it smells exactly like squashed bedbugs. Although I smelled cognac often enough, I’ve never smelled squashed bedbugs. Thus I can’t really say if the saying is true, or just an artifact of crappy Soviet cognac.

Consider the contrasts:

In Zimbabwe people are eating rats:

“Twelve-year-old Beatrice returns from the fields with small animals she’s caught for dinner.

Her mother, Elizabeth, prepares the meat and cooks it on a grill made of three stones supporting a wood fire. It’s just enough food, she says, to feed her starving family of six.

Tonight, they dine on rats.

“Look what we’ve been reduced to eating?” she said. “How can my children eat rats in a country that used to export food? This is a tragedy.””

Zimbabwe’s ambassador to United States, Machivenyika Mapuranga, told CNN on Tuesday that reports of people eating rats unfairly represented the situation, adding that at times while he grew up his family ate rodents.

“The eating of the field mice — Zimbabweans do that. It is a delicacy,” he said. “It is misleading to portray the eating of field mice as an act of desperation. It is not.” “

It’s hard to be optimistic about rat eating, but I guess it’s not as difficult for Mr. Mapuranga.

On the other hand, it’s probably pretty hard to be pessimistic about gourmet food served in some Manhattan soup kitchens:

“The multicourse lunch that Michael Ennes cooked in the basement of Broadway Presbyterian Church last week started with a light soup of savoy and napa cabbages. The endive salad was dressed with basil vinaigrette. For the main course, Mr. Ennes simmered New Jersey bison in wine and stock flavored with fennel and thickened with olive oil roux.

But some diners thought the bison was a little tough, and the menu discordant.

“He’s good, but sometimes I think the experimentation gets in the way of good taste,” said Jose Terrero, 54. Last year, Mr. Terrero made a series of what he called inappropriate financial decisions, including not paying his rent. He now sleeps at a shelter. He has eaten at several New York City soup kitchens, and highly recommends Mr. Ennes’s food.”

The gourmet soup kitchen chef is an optimist though:

“Despite the care he puts into his cooking, he doesn’t mind a little criticism.

“They’re still customers, whether they’re paying $100 a plate or nothing,” Mr. Ennes said. “One thing we do here is listen to people and let them complain. Where else can a homeless person get someone to listen to them?” “

I grew up with the Soviet media feeding me horror stories about life in America, and I know that indeed, looking at the world through the eyes of reporters is “looking through a glass darkly“. I trust the CNN reporter over the Zimbabwian politician because the latter has a much keener interest in misrepresenting the reality. But on the other hand, the efforts of the New York Times reporter to find the several homeless critiquing the free gourmet cuisine seem a little artificial. I bet 99% of them were rather grateful for tasty meals. But then, I don’t doubt that the New York City homeless can be rather picky — I’ve seen some refusing and even throwing offered food at the would be Good Samaritans.