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.

Burying the Lead

Every time I reread my blog posts, the same thought comes to my mind – “man, I buried the lead again”.

I learned about leads from “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath. It is a short book, but one that influenced me deeply. Every blogger out there should read it.

Burying a lead“, in the jargon of journalists means boring the reader before getting to the juicy part. A “lead” or “lede” is the first sentence of the story.

In the book, there’s an anecdote about a journalism teacher giving his students an assignment:

” … They would write the lead of a newspaper story. The teacher reeled off the facts: “Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Amnong the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown. ”

Apparently, most students produced a lead that lumped all these facts into a single sentence. The teacher read all the submissions and then announced:

“The lead to the story is ‘There will be no school next Thursday’ ”

I am having a huge problem with writing in “inverted pyramid” style. The juicy parts of my posts are usually at the bottom.

Think about it, most blog readers, especially the ones that matter suffer from add, and often do not get to the bottom of the article. This means they won’t link to it, won’t digg it.

I am trying to improve, but writing is a difficult art to master. I just wish I took more writing classes.

I only play a doctor on TV

So, those magnum Jupiter brains at Crispin Porter + Bogusky managed to crap the bed with their Microsoft ads instead of making Microsoft cool. For some reason this made me remember these three factoids:

According to Wikipedia, PC Guy John “PC” Hodgman is a Mac user, and Justin “Mac” Long is computer illiterate.

Kazuo Kawasaki, the Japanese designer for Sarah Palin’s glasses, is grateful to the Republican vice presidential candidate for making his product famous, although he acknowledged he also likes Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama“. Palin’s frames without lenses cost as much as John Edward’s haircut.

I’ve read somewhere that Norm Abram hates plaid shirts. A person who worked for the show told me that his shirts are mostly from Land’s End, by the way.

I don’t know, I guess this is how my puny Pluto brain works…

O’Reilly Book Covers

Joel Spolsky wrote about an interesting limitation that he encountered when choosing a cover design for his book:

“And although they would not put a doggie on the cover of my book as I requested, because a certain other book publisher threatens to sue his competitors when they put anything animal like within 90 feet of their covers, their graphic designer worked overtime to create underground cover art called “User Interface Design for Doggies” complete with three golden retrievers, which they framed and sent to me. All in all a classy operation and highly recommended if you’re thinking of writing a computer book.”

The publisher is, of course, O’Reilly Media. The are famous for publishing computer programming books with engravings of animals on the covers. Like any programmer’s, my bookshelf holds a pretty sizable zoo of these critters. The question that always comes to mind is what guides the selection – how the publisher decides which animal to match with which technology. Here’s what O’Reilly editors say:

“Our look is the result of reader comments, our own experimentation, and feedback from distribution channels. Distinctive covers complement our distinctive approach to technical topics, breathing personality and life into potentially dry subjects.”

Well, with some books it’s clear – a spider for a webmaster book and a python for a Python book, for instance. But why does the Perl book have a camel? Wouldn’t an oyster make a lot more sense?

Update: Joe Grossberg commented that camel was chosen “because Perl uses camelCase for capitalizing variables”. John (website or last name not included) said that “camel was picked for Perl because of the quip that it was a ‘horse designed by a committee'”. I like John’s version much better :)

Joe also started a Wikipedia article on the subject.

One of the more understandable conventions is using Javan animals on Java-related books. For instance, the Java book has a Javan tiger and the JavaScript book has a Javan rhino.

O’Reilly colophons rarely give too much insight into why that particular animal was chosen for the cover, but sometimes you might read between the lines:

“Like the crustaceans after which they are named, crab spiders walk sideways or backwards. They feed on bees and other pollenizing insects, often laying in wait for them by hiding on flowers.”

“Both male and female pythons retain vestiges of their ancestral hind legs. The male python uses these vestiges, or spurs, when courting a female”

“Folklore has long held that the horn of the rhinoceros possesses magical and aphrodisiacal powers, and that humans who gain possession of the horns will gain those powers, also.”

“Tigers are the largest of all cats, weighing up to 660 pounds and with a body length of up to 9 feet. They are solitary animals, and, unlike lions, hunt alone.

There are some tigers, however, who have developed a taste for human flesh. This is a particularly bad problem in an area of India and Bangladesh called the Sunderbans.”

The ironic thing is, Javan tigers are extinct and there are only about 100 Javan rhinos remaining. Is that a dig at these languages?

One of the most ironic, yet clearly unintentional choices was that of a stingray for the cover of ASP.NET in a Nutshell.

Dare and Do

Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Murray Hopper coined the expression “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” Just that alone justifies naming a ship and a park after her, but she did a few extraordinary things and coined some other expressions as well. Her motto, “Dare and Do” is also rather inspirational.

Unfortunately I do not own RADM Hopper’s autograph, but I have the next best thing. You see, a Brooklyn-based aviator and mechanic, one of the builders of “The Spirit of St. Louis”, Corrigan became famous in his own right by practicing Dr. Hopper’s prescription. He modified his own plane for a transatlantic flight, but spent years battling the bureaucracy. Finally he took off from Floyd Bennett field on a trip to California, but due to a “navigational error” (which he never admitted to be a ruse) ended up in Dublin, Ireland. Amused and impressed New Yorkers gave him a ticker tape parade, the Post printed a headline in reverse and for the rest of his life he was know as “Wrong Way” Corrigan. And here’s an autograph from my collection:

Corrigan and Hopper were born and died around the same time. They were a part of the Greatest Generation (by the way “American Generations” articles at Wikipedia are outstanding). Did something die with them? Why is the Canyon of Heroes so infrequently hosting ticker tape parades? Why didn’t Burt Rutan, Steve Fossett and Co. get one? Are there fewer non-sports heroes or is my generation, or is this all a result of the decline of the ticker tape machine?

Moon Over The Paramount

The skyscraper with the globe on top is called the Paramount Building. The building has a mountain like shape and the little stars on the illuminated clock face look like the stars on Paramount Pictures logo:

That building used to have a kick ass movie theater on the ground floor, the kind described in my favorite sci-fi story of all time, Henry Kuttner’s “The Proud Robot”. Now it houses WWF store and NY Times offices. WWF undertook an amazingly complex project of rebuilding the original theater marquee:

Working with the New York City Landmark Commission was a prolonged challenge in replicating the historic sign. Purists on the Landmark Commissions often push for exact replications ­ right down to the materials involved. But Tobin & Parnes had ideas for bringing the epic sign into the 21st century using new materials and technologies.
The commission initially rejected the idea to use LED technology in 1996, but later approved the concept as more signs in the surrounding area started incorporating LEDs. “

Multimedia Signage Inc. in California manufactured the signage that boasts the highest resolution ever achieved. The LED pixels and cells have a .45 pitch. The highest resolution before this sign was created was .75 pitch.

In order to get TV quality resolution on these screens we needed to go with that .45 pitch, otherwise the resolution would only give you a clear image of someone from their shoulders to the top of their head,�? said Ms. Dibner. “Using the .45 pitch we can get almost the whole person in there.�?

But how do you use technology without distracting from the historical detail of the sign? It was something that many were not sure could be achieved using LED technology because the sign curved up and down. But the Landmark Commission demanded that the sign’s original curvature be replicated.

The solution: using very small diodes and arranging them to match the curve. The result: any image on the sign curves with the curvature of the marquee with no distortion, another requirement of the Landmark Commission.

I just love the topic of new technology meeting the old. But Landmark Commission people are nasty engineer hating snobs.