Saturday, January 28, 2017

Book review: "Best. State. Ever." by Dave Barry

It pains Dave Barry to say it, but say it he must:

"Florida has become The Joke State, the state everybody makes fun of."

As Barry figures it, Florida's joke status started with the 2000 presidential election when the state couldn't figure out who it voted for, launching a month of intensive news coverage of the state.

"This coverage did not present a positive image of Florida," he notes. "It featured endlessly replayed videos of deeply confused Florida election officials squinting at Florida ballots that were apparently designed by dyslexic lemurs and then turned over to deeply confused Florida voters, many of whom apparently voted for nobody for president, or voted for two presidents, or used the ballots to dislodge pieces of brisket from between their teeth."

From then, coverage of Florida progressed through an endless parade of weird news stories, like the shark that died in a highway accident, or the man who died in a cockroach-eating contest.

Dave Barry's heard them all, and as professional humorist who lives in Miami, he appreciates the good laugh. But he wonders: Do people really know Florida?

In "Best. State. Ever. A Florida Man Defends His Homeland," Barry takes us on a tour of all that is weird and wonderful about the state. As always, Barry is funny, but he also manages to go a little deeper.

Barry takes us to a variety of Florida attractions, such as the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs;  the alligators at Gatorland (aka "Orlando's Best Half-Day Attraction") and the chaotic bacchanal of Key West.

He.talks to the quirky characters that give Florida its, well, character, such as Dave Shealy, the operator of something called the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters. He draws people to his campground in the Everglades with stories of a mysterious "ape" that roams the swamps.

Barry acknowledges the strangeness of it all, but at the same time embraces it. The book offers a fond look at the state, along with plenty of laughs.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Book review: "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble"

Dan Lyons was 52, with a wife and kids to support, and suddenly needed a job.

Lyons had recently been laid off as technology editor at Newsweek in 2012. He could have sought another job in journalism, but that field was imploding. Besides, he was intrigued with the world of high-tech start-ups. He'd interviewed many people at such companies as a journalist, and even though many of them didn't seem that bright, everyone was getting rich.

He wanted a piece of it.

So Lyons accepted a job with a 5-year-old Boston company called HubSpot as a "marketing fellow." Thus began Lyons' strange odyssey that he describes in his 2016 book, "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble."  It's a book that, at turns, is funny, disturbing and sad.

Lyons had high hopes for his new job, but from day one -- literally -- things go awry. When he arrives for work, neither of the managers that hired him are there to welcome him and no one quite knows what to do with him. He is startled to discover that a 26-year-old who he first assumed was an administrative assistant is actually his new boss.

The average age of a Hubspot employee, Lyons learns, is 26, and he is twice that. It is a workplace designed for the young. The company stocks the cafeteria with snacks, beer and a "candy wall" -- all free. There's a foosball table, ping-pong table, indoor shuffleboard, and a set of musical instruments, "in case people want to have an impromptu jam session." Some employees work while sitting on large rubber balls; conference rooms have beanbag chairs.

Lyons struggles to fit it, but he never does. He's the "old guy" in the office and at any rate, age is only one of the things that set HubSpot apart. There is a forced perkiness in the work culture -- the "HubSpotty" way of doing things  and its own HubSpeak  When someone quits or is fired, it is called "graduation."

"HubSpotters talk about 'inspiring people,' 'being remarkable,' 'conquering fear,' and being 'rock stars' and 'superstars with super powers' whose mission is to "inspire people" and 'be leaders,'" Lyons writes. "They talk about engaging in delightion, which is a made-up word, invented by Dharmesh (a company co-founder), that means delighting our customers. They say all of these things without a hint of irony."

And: "They use the word awesome incessantly, usually to describe themselves or each other. That's awesome! You're awesome! No you're awesome for saying I'm awesome.
  
"They pepper their communication with exclamation points, often in clusters, like this!!! They are constantly sending around emails praising someone who is totally crushing it and doing something awesome and being a total team player!!! These emails are cc'd to everyone in the department. The protocol seems to be for every recipient to issue his or her won reply-to-all email joining in on the cheer, writing thing like 'You go,girl!!' and 'Go HubSpot, go!!!!' and 'Ashley for president!!!'"

To Lyons, it seems a lot like a cult.  His unease deepens whern he realizes that HubSpot -- for all its talk about "being remarkable" -- is in the unremarkable business of helping other companies send out spam email. Billions and billions of spam emails. Except they call "lovable marketing content."

A key question is whether HubSpot is a uniquely bizarre company, or whether it is representative of other start-up tech companies. There's mixed evidence in the book. Yes, there are some cases where HubSpot seems way outside the norm -- on Halloween, everyone dresses up in costume -- but in other areas, such as a preference for young, cheap employees, it seems to fit with others start-ups.

In some ways, Lyons' difficulty in fitting in with HubSpot is due less to the company being a start-up than the fact that it is marketing and sales. This is far from the journalism that Lyons was used to.

Lyons did, in some cases, contribute some of his work problems. When a top executive asks him to assess the company's blog, Lyons responds with a detailed email critical of the blog and, by implication, the people who run it. Guess what? The email is forwarded to the people who run the blog and they turn cold on Lyons.

(A good rule for any workplace: If you are going to criticize someone, don't put it in writing.)

There are larger issues that come to mind in reading "Disrupted": ageism in the workplace, the house-of-cards nature of the whole start-up world, and why we put so much of our personal information in the hands of such ditzy companies.

Still, what I enjoyed most about "Disrupted" is that it gives you an inside look at another workplace. Most of us, buried in our own jobs, have little idea how different the culture can be elsewhere.

Lyons puts you there,  as if you yourself were suddenly working at HubSpot. As Lyons went through this experience, I felt like I was there with him, feeling the confusion, the amusement, and the pain.

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Friday, January 6, 2017

Book review: "Dan Rooney - My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL"

By the time the 1955 National Football League draft reached its ninth round, all the big college stars had been taken. But 23-year-old Dan Rooney, who was helping make draft selections for the Pittsburgh Steelers, saw potential in a skinny quarterback out of the University of Louisville named Johnny Unitas.

"We gotta get this guy now because we don't want him playing against us," Rooneysaid.

Following Rooney's advice, the Steelers drafted Unitas, who would become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. But he never played at all for the Steelers.

Steelers coach Walter Kiesling thought Unitas was "too dumb to play" in the NFL, Rooney recalls in his autobiography, "Dan Rooney - My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL."

Kiesling never gave Unitas a chance in training camp and cut him before the season started. A year later, Unitas signed with the Baltimore Colts and began a stellar career in which he was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player four times.

This is one of many anecdotes Rooney tells in this enjoyable book. While not perfect, the book has enough going for it to qualify as a must-read for hardcore Steeler fans and a good choice for anyone with a interest in the history of the NFL or the City of Pittsburgh.

Rooney has a unique position in the NFL. He has spent virtually his entirely life immersed in professional football. His father, Art Rooney, was the original owner of the Steelers, and Dan Rooney started early working with and helping manage the team. Dan became president of the team in 1975 and took over the organization after his father died in 1988.

"Football is in my blood," he said.

Rooney describes his early years growing up in Pittsburgh, becoming a high school football star  while simultaneously working in the Steelers organization. At that time, the National Football League was a minor sport that struggled to attract players, let alone fans. During World War II, Rooney recalls, there were so few available men to play that the Steelers temporarily merged with the St. Louis Cardinals, becoming the unfortunately named "Card-Pitts."

Professional football grew in fits and spurts, but the Steelers were rarely successful on the field. One of the big problems was that his father simply hired his friends as coaches. Another problem, Dan Rooney says, is that his father was more of a baseball fan than a football fan. Yes, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers preferred to watch baseball.


The book is filled with fond, warm memories. Rooney doesn't dwell on the negative, and sometimes glosses over issues when you wish he would tell you more.  He tells stories about his family, crashing his private plane, the NFL's compromise selection of Pete Rozelle as commissioner, the merger with AFL and personal clashes with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.

He wanders occasionally off track to tell us the biographies of players, which we could get anywhere. The book is best when he tells his personal story.  The book has two co-authors, Andrew E. Masich and David F. Halaas, so it's hard to say how much of the writing was actually done by Rooney.

If you like stories on old-time football, here are two other books you might enjoy: "That First Season" by John Eisenberg, the story of Vince Lombardi's first year coaching the Green Bay Packers, and "Instant Replay,", Jerry Kramer's diary of the Packers 1967 championship season.
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