What I Read – August 2016

 

Non-Fiction

The Aspirational Investor by Ashvin Chhabra – I rarely read personal finance books because the advice is so repeated – savings more than you spend & balance your investment classes. Chhabra makes a run at doing something different. Most is the same advice but his take on what gets people on the Forbes 400 list and three tranches of investing is interesting. It needed more interesting. Could.

The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei by John Stevens – There are a set of monks outside Kyoto who practice by running.  Monks start by running 100 days of kaihōgyō and very select few continue into a 1000 day challenge that takes seven years to complete. In modern times, only 46 men have completed the longer challenge.  The book describes the history of the Tendai at Mount Hiei, the requirements of kaihōgyō, and the profile of the people who have completed. Fascinating. Could.

Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel – This book was one of the first to introduce Zen to the West. A German philosophy professor searches for a kyūdō master to teach him and satisfy his curosity in mysticism as he perceived Zen to be. Herrigel, in this short book, writes most of the narrative in disbelief and frustration by the seeming indirect and oblique instruction he receives. Even after he passes his teacher’s test, Herrigel worries the reader won’t believe or understand the journey he has taken. I can relate to the student in protest; his skepticism created a distance for me. Could.

The Theory That Would Not Die by Sharon Bertsch Mcgrayne – I have been fascinated by Bayes’ theorem for some time and this book covers the 325 year history of the concept. For a long time, many people thought you could only predict the likelihood of something happening after you observed it happen at least once. Thomas Bayes, Pierre-Simon Laplace and a host of others that followed showed you could take a host of variables and their probablities to help predict these unseen events. Even more importantly, you could keep feeding back new information to improve the predictive outcomes as you progressed. The theory has been used to find lost submarines, break German codes during World War II, show the underrepresented risks with flying large numbers of bomber flights with nuclear weapons onboard.  Heavy on history, my favorite material was in the latter half of the book with the stronger emphasis on modern application.  Could for most.

Graphic Novels

Aya of Yop City by Maguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie – I dropped into the second book in the six book series. The fictional story follows Aya and a cast of characters in Côte d’Ivoire during the 1970’s. I remember seeing a quote from the author saying the goal of the series was to create a more normal portrayal of Africans, one that breaks down the assumptions and stereotypes. The story has shunned relatives “out in the village”, searches for love, and people who are just trying to make their lives a little better. Should.

Other

Chef’s Table – Just finished watching the first season of this documentary series that introduces us to innovative chefs from around the world. This was amazing brain candy for me. I love watching people who do things differently and can explain why. And I love the food they make. I am heading into Season Two immediately. Must.

Kubo and The Two Strings – Fun. Beautiful. Loved it. Must.

The Many Lives of Books

There are so many ways books fit into our lives – big and small.

I bought a guide to craft beer in Japan prior to my trip two years ago. The book was clearly a project of passion for the author and so helpful for a English speaker in a kanji based country.

Aaron Draplin’s new book displays his body of work in full color glory. He is so prolific that the work itself creates the visual narrative. His dad is there. His dog is there.  I am there along side him.

Dan Roam has one page in the Back of the Napkin that is worth the entire cost of the book. It’s page 141 and it tells me exactly what kind of picture to make in answering any question that arises. Everything else in the book supports that idea.

In Cultivating The Empty Field, Hongzhi speaks to me with one line:

A rock contains jade without knowing the jade’s flawlessness.

My favorite book by Brene Brown doesn’t exist as a book. It’s an eight hour audio session that SoundsTrue published. She talked about all of her best ideas there. It’s not a book, but I still think of it like it is one.

I remember reading Tom Peters’ Re-Imagine and counting the different books he quoted and referenced.  He gave life to all of those books in the unique way he connected them together.

I have a book in a milk carton.

I have an unbook.

I have architectural portfolio that’s been depicted as a graphic novel.

I have the Birds of North America guide that my grandmother and I would use to identified what was at the feeder.

I have tiny Golden Books.

And of course, I wrote a book about books.

 

A Third Edition for The 100 Best

100BestBusinessBooks_3rdEd

 

The 100 Best is one of those projects whose path I never saw, whose trail disappeared for awhile and since its publication, has taken me to places I could never have predicted.

I wrote about some of the quirks and coincidences that have stayed with me. There are many more.

There were the author photos that never saw the light of day. There was the two weeks at a table double checking the cross-references with Jack. The guy who said our book was like Google on paper. We signed alot of books; one Saturday my oldest son came and helped. We got published in the Harvard Business Review. And who doesn’t love seeing their book in translated and interpeted into another language.

 

We held events at Harvard and Stanford with faculty authors from The 100 Best. I got up early on a Wednesday and drove eight hours from Milwaukee to Lexington, Kentucky for a book signing that no one showed up for.  Ryan Louie tweets me every time he finishes another book and he has read 88 of the 100 books to date.

With the publication of the third edition of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, I started to think back to what else I could share to show other views into the work we did.

I was searching back through old files I found a talk I did at the Commonwealth Club of California in 2009. I talk about some of the great anecdotes from the books organized around five themes that Jack and I saw show up over and over again. By this point, I have given this speech a couple dozen times.  It not perfect, but it conveys the material well.

 

I also remembered that I wrote an essay on how to get more out of the business books you read. The piece was published on ChangeThis and has been downloaded over 6500 times. We added the essay to the end of the paperback edition of The 100 Best.

HowToReadCover

 

So much to be grateful for in connection with this project.

If you’d like a copy, the new edition of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time is available fine book retailers everywhere.

 

 

What I Read – July 2016

Non Fiction

The Humor Code by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner – I have been intrigued by Peter McGraw quest to unlock what makes jokes funny since his profile in Wired. The book he co-wrote with Joel Warner doesn’t get you more or maybe it does but I stopped reading. The entire book is written from Warner’s perspective, so much so that he really should be the only listed author. This gives it the feel of a really long magazine profile that wanders too much and where Warner is a little too close to his subject. What I really wanted was to hear Peter’s authoritive voice like you find Daniel Ariely’s books on decision making or Jared Diamond’s works on anthropology. Skip.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg – I saw this book recommending so many times, I finally picked it up. Each chapter is one to three pages and shares a barrier or exercise that can help your writing practice. Natalie is a long time Zen practitioner and that is a large influence on the book. I like her emphasis on writing as a practice. Should.

Other

Scriptnotes – I am a semi-regular listener to this screenwriting podcast by John August and Craig Mazin. What I like is that they cover the craft and the business of writing for Hollywood.  They just celebrated five years of doing the podcast and they show there is so much to talk about in this space.  My interest lies in hearing how they discuss creativity and making money from it. In episode #256, they have this great rift on originality (start ~36:40) that applies to anyone working in the arts. Should.

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru – Robbins has a new documentary on Netflix. The two hour feature follows him and the 2500 attendees to his Date with Destiny seminar.  You also follow a handful of people who are deeply moved by the experience. Your level of enjoyment will be likely equal to your acceptance of Robbins and his transformative techniques. Could.

 

What I Read – June 2016

Non-Fiction

Not Invented Here by Ramon Vullings and Marc Heleven – This is a fun run through being better at taking ideas and inspiration from other places. Lots of going framing and examples. My favorite – “In Germany–companies such as Daimler, Bayer, Siemens, and SAP all have an entire department of Grundsatzfragen (in English: a department of Fundamental Questions). It’s clear these companies see questionsing as a strategic asset.” Should.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert – Many people will be drawn in and love the inspiration that Gilbert provides. We live in a world where many people need permission practice their art. This is a beautiful answer for them.  For me, I feel I might have read it at the wrong time or I too easily recognized her angle. Could.

Graphic Novels

Authority Volume 1 by Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary – This is a solid 12 issue run with a interesting set of heroes, a dimension traveling ship and bad bad guys. Should.

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque – I read on through Volume 2 and Volume 3. It was OK.  I felt the idea lost its legs and got a little predictable as the story went on. Could.

Both

Cool Japan Guide by Abby Denson – I really enjoyed this comics drawn travel guide to Japan. The book has a nice geek flavor to it with emphasis on manga, food and quirky places to visit. The book is also fun and personal. It is a nice read for anyone planning a trip. Should.

Other

Mozart in The Jungle Season 1 – The appeal for me is in both my inner band geek and the quirky, human way the story plays out. Should.

Drawing is Magic by John Hendrix and Draw Your Big Idea by Nora Herting and Heather Willems – I keep buying these cute books with themed drawing prompts. They are not enough to get over the bump to start; that is my own challenge. Could.

The Few and The Many

1.

In 1924, a young quality engineer named Joseph Juran went to work for Western Electric in their Hawthorne Works facility in Cicero, Illinois. If you were born after 1970, it is likely you won’t appreciate, or even know, Juran’s employer. Western Electric was the manufacturing arm of AT&T and responsible for supplying the entire technological platform that transmitted telephone calls in the United States for most of the 20th century.

Juran’s hire had to do with the growing installed base of Western Electric. With much of the telephony infrastructure buried in the ground, there came to be a high importance put on the quality of that equipment, as digging switches back out of the ground was expensive and time-intensive. Engineers devoted enormous efforts to improving the reliability of the transmission infrastructure.

The Hawthorne Works turned out to be a leader in this regard, an incubator for some of the most important management insights of the twentieth century. Walter Shewhart introduced the concept of statistical process control the same year Juran joined the company. Up to that point, the standard practice was to test every unit at the end of the assembly to be certain it worked for shipping into the field. Stewhart introduced the concept of control charts that could monitor the process and identify what variables influenced the end quality of the product.(Shewhart’s work also showed that when defects were detected, people often overreacted and made problems worse.)

Another set of studies started around the same time. Engineers decided to test how lighting levels affected worker productivity. Small changes in either up or down created short-term increases in productivity, but nothing that ever lasted. Further experiments were conducted with changes to pay rates, break times, and work hours. It took thirty years for Henry Landsberger to correctly identify that the subjects of these experiments were responding favorably to fact they were being watched and paid attention to. We now know this as the Hawthorne Effect.

Juran himself came to series of important conclusions in his near two decades with Western Electric. His most important and well known observation is one we have all experienced at one time or another. When the root causes of a given problem are categorized and sorted, “a relative few account for the bulks of the defects.” While some strongly associate this finding with manufacturing, Juran pointed to similar phenomenon managers experienced in looking at the causes for employee absenteeism or shop floor accidents.

This insight has been given several names over the years: the 80/20 Principle, The Vital Few and the Trivial Many, but for the most widely used moniker we need to wind back the clock twenty years and travel back across the Atlantic.

2.

In 1896, an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto started the process of publishing the lecture notes he was using to teach classes at the Laussane School in Switzerland. It would take two years and three volumes for Pareto to fully release Cours d’economie politique, a preview to his 1906 landmark work Manuel d’economie politique.

Economics as a field of study was just starting to coming into own and the same basic concepts that are still taught in college economics courses were formed during this time. The thesis that people make rational choices was presented and accepted. The motivation for these actors crystallized with the theory that individuals maximize utility and firms maximize profits. Pareto himself contributes the idea that prices reach a point of equilibrium in the tug between supply and demand, but Pareto made an even important observation in Cours, one that moves him beyond his cohort of nineteenth century neoclassical economists.

Pareto in his lectures had been pointing out that land ownership is significantly skewed to a small portion of the population. His research showed that 80% of the land was in the possession of just 20% of the people. Further research indicated similar patterns in other countries like England and that the same skewed distribution held for the distribution of income as well.

Pareto dies in 1907, never aware of what impact that insight would have.

3.

Juran in the late 1930s was promoted, becoming the corporate industrial engineer for Western Electric. Among his duties were sharing best practices with other companies. One of his visits led him to General Motors where he had a chance meeting with the manager in charge of executive compensation. The manager shared with Juran a model of salary distribution that matched the Italian economist’s findings. This was Juran’s first exposure to Pareto’s work and it would stick with him for a long time.

Juran, like many, spent the 1940’s in support of the war effort. The engineer took a job in the government as an administrator. The six week “temporary” assignment lasted four years. After leaving government, Juran pursued teaching and speaking.

In writing his first book, Quality Control Handbook, he was faced with the need for a shorthand description for section titled “Maldistribution of Quality Loss.” Juran showed a variety of graphs displaying the 80/20 phenomenon and under one attributed Pareto. Without the quality movement of the 1980’s and Juran’s rise to one of the period’s gurus, it is unlikely we would be using terms like Pareto’s Law or Partian distributions. Parteo’ Cours was never even translated into English from the original French.

Pareto and Juran always emphasized the importance of those Vital Few, but what if the Trivial Many weren’t trivial?

4.

The standard assumption in creation of most products and services is that demand will appear at random intervals, spread out evenly throughout the day.  The web server is designed to handle an average number of hits each day. Cellphone towers are erected to provide coverage based on the average number of calls users make given the demographics of the area. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi believes this thinking is flawed.

Barabasi is a scientist at Notre Dame who has been studying networks for last 20 years. What first brought Barabasi to prominence was his research into nodes and their connections within a network. The classic view in network theory stated nodes (which you can think of as people or websites) in a given network were connected to roughly the same number of nodes and that the variation in connections was random in nature, meaning some average number of connections with some nodes getting more and others less. In other words, everyone had roughly the same number of friends they stayed in contact with, plus or minus a few.

Barabassi’s insight was discovering the number of connection were not rough equally, but the exact opposite: they varied widely. True nature of networks are millions of nodes with a few connections and a few super nodes that had hundreds of millions of connections. The Internet with its millions of websites and handful of megasites like Google and Yahoo make this conclusion seems obvious, but ten years ago this was not as clear. This same phenomenon has since been seen in areas ranging from the distribution of protein interactions of yeast to how drug adoption is affected by the relationships physicians have with one another.  And again, the appearance of partian distributions with the many and the few.

The latest research from Barabasi takes an even more interesting step. Scientists have long wanted to create models for human activity. The idea of asking a million people to log what they have done and where they have been over last seven days makes the task impractical. But now the data collected by mobile telecommunications companies, credit card processors, and internet service providers is giving us exactly that view and again we see the emergence of the many and the few.

Barabasi’s analysis shows again there is nothing random about what we do. In a world of averages, we would send our email, evenly spaced throughout the day. Now think about how you really behave. Seven rapid fire email replies on your Blackberry, ahead of your first morning meeting. 20 clicks navigating the New York Times website to find out the midday news, followed by a lunch. Barabasi describes our pattern of activity as one of bursts and lulls, requiring a shift in emphasis from Juran’s Vital Few to Barabasi’s Vital Many.

Maybe the few and the many indicate something more?

5.

Pareto, Juran, and Barbasi all uncovered a different kind of phenomenon in their pursuits. The more we look the more we seem to find these situations that display the few and the many. Nature is full of them from the magnitudes of earthquakes to intensity of solar flares. Many sociological trends form with same distribution whether the loss of life in armed conflicts or sexual partners in social networks. In each of these examples, the Infinite Many and the Extreme Few are boldly evident. Yet, we act as if they are unfamiliar.

The Extreme Few are always a surprise whether it is a volcano erupting in Iceland or a Dow Jones decline of 40%. And the Infinite Many go unnoticed on the shelves of used bookstores or as small price movements in the companies of the Russell 3000.  So, why do we expect the world to be the same day in and day out? And what is the underlying model that we may not even be aware of driving that thinking? For the answer, we just need to watch to the longest running game show on network television.

6.

On November 5th 2009, The Price Is Right celebrated the airing of its 7,000th episode. The longest running gameshow on television now hosted by Drew Carey celebrated the anniversary by playing three games from the first episode that aired in September 1972 – Any Number, Bonus Game, and Double Prices. Missing from the festivities sadly was the most popular game in the history of The Price is Right.

Of course, I am talking about Plinko, the game that best combines the best of the classic game show: knowledge of product prices and random chance. In the game that debuted on January 3, 1983, each contestant is given the opportunity to acquire five round discs by guessing which number is incorrect in the two-digit price of a product. Each correct guess earns the player another disc.

After the pricing portion of the game is complete, the player takes the discs they won and proceeds up a small, seven step staircase to the top of the Plinko board. Looking down, the player sees 13 rows of pins, each one offset from the next, and a series of chutes at the bottom labeled with varying amounts of money. The player lays each disc flat on the board and lets go. With each pin hit the disc falls to the left or right as it bounced down the board until eventually landing in one of the chutes, each labelled with a dollar amount.

Those familiar with Japanese culture can’t help but notice the similarity of in both name and construction with the immensely popular game pachinko. Played in huge parlors, pachinko machines use steel balls that fall from the top of the machine and hit metal pins as they fall. Most balls fall to the bottom, while a select few drop into gates placed throughout the board which in turn releases more balls for the player to use.

The origin of both these games goes back even further though to an Englishman named Sir Francis Galton. A half-cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton was in his own right an incredible polymath developing one of first methods for classifying fingerprints, initiating some of the first scientific study of meteorology, and coined the unanswerable notion of “nature versus nuture.”

But Galton was also a teacher and one of his more difficult tasks was teaching students the concepts he was developing around probability theory. These concepts were difficult to convey in equation and theory, so Galton created his own Plinko board. He referred to his invention as The Quincunx, the name for the Roman coin with five markings arranged in the pattern of a four point square with fifth center point, the same pattern Galton used to arrange the pins on the board.  With the construction of the Quincunx, Galton could physically show students how random behavior manifested itself.

7.

As the beads fall through the pins of the Quincunx, they accumulate into piles at the bottom of the board. Most fall to the center, having bounced back and forth at each row. You can imagine the probabilities matching that of flipping a coin, with the equal likelihood of a head or tail resembling the chances of the bead falling to the right or left. And as you also know from flipping coins, you can get a run of heads or tails. This same mechanism means beads will from time to time end up at the edges of the board.

Piled up the beads make a familiar shape: the bell shaped curve. This picture is the visual indicator of the random world at work and there are important qualities to note.  The centered peak communicates both the average as well as the midway point or median of the distribution. The height of the piles falls to the right and left showing the quickly decreasing likelihood of beads falling onto those outlying piles.

Looking at the piles of those beads, randomness starts to take on a different meaning. The majority of the beads fall close to average. Human height is a good example of this.  The average male in the U.S. is 5′ 10″ and the average female is 7 inches shorter at 5’3″. Since height follows a bell curve or Gaussian distribution, we know where the peak lies. The more interesting part is that 99% of the population falls within nine inches on either side of the average. As you move away from the average, the probability of occurrences drops quickly. The bell curve predicts that only 28 people in the U.S. would reach a height of  7′ 1″, an altitude shared by basketball greats Shaquille O’Neil and Wilt Chamberlain.

So, when we use the word random, the popular intent is to describe when something unpredictable has taken place. Random in the real world is quite predictable and the realm of possibilities are relatively narrow. This is the predictable reality that Walter Stewhart used to anticipate and improve the quality of product coming off the assembly lines at Western Electric.

The other adjective commonly used for these distributions is normal. They appear so often and are such a part of how we view the world that their occurrence barely raises an eyebrow and that leaves us blind to other forces at work.

8.

Chris Anderson described the Infinite Many in his book The Long Tail. He concentrated on how the Internet would bring the obscure to the masses with the infinite shelf space of the digital world. On the other end was Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his book The Black Swan. Taleb pointed to the events that, when looked at through a lens of normal distributions, were nearly impossible and instead caught us painfully off guard with their more common than predicted appearances. Power laws are where the extreme few meet infinite many.

Power Laws curves aren’t “normal”. They aren’t ordinary. And they don’t take place in a narrow range.

In the world of Power Laws, the Extreme Few aren’t 8 feet tall. No, the wide ranges in which these curves operate would predict that at least one person on the planet would be 800 feet tall. That claim may sound preposterous in the realm of human height, but it illustrates the point that Extreme Few are much greater than anything we would expect in the world of the normal distributions.

9.

The experience curve is probably the best known occurrence of a power law equation in business. The topic was made famous by Boston Consulting Group in 1970’s when they confirmed earlier findings that showed costs fall 15 to 30 percent for every doubling of output. Moore Law’s represents the technology fueled version of this effect. Take disk drives: the cost of a megabyte of storage has been falling at 5 percent per quarter for the last thirty years.

The human senses operate on a scale that follows power laws as well. Imagine the holiday season approaching and a new determination on your part to outdo the rest of the neighbors with this year’s Christmas lights. While you’d think a trip to your discount retailer to double your inventory of stringed lights would solve the problem, the field of psychophysics has shown a more expensive solution is necessary.  Getting twice as many lights would certain make a difference, but it would not make your house twice as bright. The very idea simply doubling the number of lights implies a linear relationship between wattage and perceived brightness, another prominent mental model in how we think about the world.  Our sense of brightness instead works on a curve that says to light up the house twice as bright, we would actually need four times the number of lights. So, save up your money, you can always do it next year.

10.

There are two mental modals that dominate business. The first model is that of averages. Think about the questions we ask.  What’s the average order size for our customers? What’s the average wait time for customers who call? Albert-Laszlo Barabasi fought this thinking in his research to understand the frequency of human activity.  Bell-shaped, normal distributions with their average-based peaks become the de facto picture we use to see the world.

Linearity is the another crutch. The picture here is the X-Y chart with a line pointing upward at a 45 degree angle. Think of how often we assume that one more unit of input will get get us that additional unit of output.

Power Laws are about unequal outcomes and unpredictable extremes, and using these new models in business can fundamentally change how we operate every function of the organization.  Strategy, probably the most familiar with these dynamics, changes from a discussion of “do more to get more” to one that respects the position of the company in the market and leverages the unique advantages. Marketing becomes very interested in the perception of our senses and starts to realize that incremental shifts are barely noticeable. Innovation becomes a search that matches the foraging pattern of spider monkeys in the rain forest – many small moves punctuated by a few big moves to new areas.

Start looking around. Power laws are everywhere and they affect everything we do.

Best Tower Defense Games for iOS

Some people have a Candy Crush addiction. Others are into Angry Birds.

My pixelated drug of choice is tower defense. 

There is something simple and complicated about them at the same time. You play against time, position units in space, and build more capability constrained by the resources available. Those handful of variables create endless possibilities for how games unfold.  You play at the intersection of strategy and tactics.

I have searched many times for good list of the best tower defenses game. Most our link bait or dated or just a list of what someone found after a simple search.

So, from a fan to (potential) another, here are my favorites:

Kingdom Rush Series

Kingdom Rush is my favorite game of all time.

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Each game in the series shares the same formula of simple gameplay, creative missions and fun storylines. The enemies enter from one to three entries points and attempt to exit the field. Your job is to stop them. There are four types of towers (mage, archers, barracks, and artillery) that can be upgraded with increasing power and specialty. Finally, you are given reinforcements to place as you like, an area attack that recharges, and a choice of hero that becomes more powerful with experience in battle. The campaign screens can take 10-15 minutes to complete.

The original Kingdom Rush sucked me in and I played it clear through and then for second time, on veteran mode clearing the campaign, heroic and iron challenges on each level. I one hundred percent-ed the game, but they kept adding harder and harder levels.  I stand 15 stars short of a perfect 130.

Kingdom Rush Frontiers followed with better heroes and ability options (100%-ed).  The prequel Kingdom Rush Origins completed with trilogy with more magic (where I am one mission short of completion).

The reason I most like the series is the fun and humor Ironside has used in the game. Each cartooned character comes with a catch phrase, a few more if you’re a hero. There are easter eggs hidden throughout the three games that give nods to sci-fi and fantasy tales from Lords of the Rings to Predator to The Smurfs.

Start with this one.  You can’t go wrong.  10/10 for all three games.

Zombie Gunship   

Gamers call this Zombie Gunship a first person shooter, but I think it plays much more like a tower defense game.

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Your point of view is from the seat on a AC-130 aircraft flying in wide circles around one of four compounds. You play each round in endless style gameplay clearing the area of increasing waves of zombies, so that human survivors can make their way to a safe bunker. The aircraft is armed with a gatling gun, an auto cannon and a 105mm Howtizer – each with its pros and cons for different situations. There are a variety of objectives that keep the gameplay interesting and each round of play earns you coins that buy weapon upgrades.

The constantly changing location of the aircraft creates interesting challenges for keeping track of all of the zombies entering the area. The game designers have also created blind spots as you circle around the area, which make timing even more important.

A round of gameplay can last from 3-7 minutes before you are overrun and sent home.  Accidentally illing humans will also get you sent home early.

The game concept is clever and the randomness gives each play its own feel. 9/10

geoDefense

The first thing you notice with geoDefense is its 1980’s arcade style vectorized graphics.

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The retro look might trick you into thinking the game is a reboot from your old Atari 2600. Don’t be fooled. The ten second head start will quickly feel shorter and shorter with each round on new creepers enters the screen.

The game has five towers to work with – cannon, missile, lasers, shockers, and a tower collects energy from destroyed enemies and can augment the power of another tower. The paths are always interesting with weird bends or that lead offscreen or cross back over themselves. One helpful hint – You can lock tower in a fixed direction. This is very helpful with laser towers.

geoDefense is a just great tower defense game that will give you hours of great play. 8/10

There is also a sister game geoSwarm that was developed with freeform play where you placement of your towers to determines the path of enemy adding another dimension to your strategy.

OTTTD

Over The Top Tower Defense says it all.

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It is grotesque. It is ridiculous.It is cheesy (no really, there is cheese armor). And it has a sense of humor (but in a very different way to Kingdom Rush).

There is almost too much of everything – heroes, weapons, abilities and upgrades. But if you are fan of tower defense, you appreciate it all–someone going to the extreme to see what that might look like.

If you are a fan, you should try it. 7.5/10

Bad Hotel

This is a very different take on tower defense.

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As a budding entrepreneur, you have decided to go into the hotel business. The trouble is Tarnation Tadstock controls these parts of Texas and he is going to do anything he can to keep you out of business. All sorts of bad creatures from convicts to bomb laden seagulls will try to stop you have adding rooms to your hotel. The more rooms you can add, the faster you can earn money to upgrade. Each level brings different kinds of rooms with different abilities from guns to healing.

 The game is quirky. The colors are bright. Things explode in big blocky pieces.  And the music for the game changes based on each change to the size and shape of your hotel.  There is something a little maniac about the whole combination. Makes the game seems harder.

I still like it and recommend it to any TD enthuaist. 7.5/10

The Anomaly Series

Anomaly take the idea of tower defense and turns it on its head.  Rather than control the towers, you control the troops attempts to run the gauntlet. People sometimes call it “tower offense”.

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The storyline is an alien spacecraft has landed in Baghdad and your job is to go on a series of missions inside the city to see what is going on. You get a few different vehicle types that can be upgraded with monies earned. There are also power-ups for abilities like healing, smoke screens and decoys and they are very important to collect as you destroy towers.

The game is pretty good, but the options are a little limiting. The most interesting part is playing from the other side. It’s worth trying if you enjoy tower defense 7/10

The whole series has four titles – Anomaly, Anomaly Korea, Anomaly 2, and Anomaly Defenders, where you take on the role of the aliens tower defending against a human counteract.

Missing Mentions

If you are fan, you might find my list lacking some popular and well-liked games.

Plants vs Zombies – I was a big fan of the first game and played it all the way through. I never picked up PvZ2, which was another indicator for me that the original just OK for me.

Fieldrunners – I know. This is also a big fan favorite.  Many like the added challenge of being able to place your towers and determine the enemy path to the exit. I have never warmed to the free-for-all style of tower defense.

Bloons Tower Defense – I think it is built for kids and that treatment makes me discount it too much.

 What games am I missing?

#YearInReview 2015

In 2010, Seth Godin asked people to make a list of what they shipped that year. I did the exercise in 2010, 20122013, and 2014. I have come to believe that this is a important exercise, especially for solopreneuers to see what they have accomplished.

What did I ship this year?

And I helped 33 makers ship their own crowdfunded projects.

Doing Disneyland

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Photo Credit : Matthew Hansen

We took the kids to Disneyland during the holiday break.  Ahead of the trip, I spent some time researching the best way to take advantage of the time we had to spend at the parks.

Our group was two 40-ish year-old parents and three kids between the ages of eight and twelve years old. Our visit was the week before Christmas during the days of December 16th and 17th. We spent one day at Disneyland California Adventure and one day at Disneyland.

Here is our advice for others considering the a similar trip:

  • Do Some Planning – There is so much to do at both parks that you must do some planning before you get there. We had a good idea of the things we wanted to do on each day and deviated from that plan both days to take advantage of what was actually going on in the park. This may be obvious advice but it was really clear from watching other families that this piece was missing.
  • Buy One Book – I would wholeheartedly recommend The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland as a great starting point for that planning. The publishers claim if you if follow their advice you can reduce your daily waiting-in-line by four hours. I thought they were boasting but we had a very positive experience from following just a few of their recommendations.
  • Get There Early – *This is the single most important piece of advice.* You must be there at 8am when the gates open.  Some recommend 30 minutes before the gates open. If you are staying at the Disney hotels, take advantage of the 7am early starts.  On both days, we walked onto the most popular rides at both parks. Those first three hours were wonderful for getting around the park and getting to do the things we wanted.
  • Use FastPass – Disney has a system for their popular, high capacity rides that allow you to reserve a later time by claiming a special ticket.  When your time arrives, you enter through a special line and move to the front.  We never waited more than 10 minutes in a FastPass line.  Along with an early start, this is a big factor in reducing your time in queues. At DCA, we used five different FastPasses and at Disney, we used two. Space Mountain and Radiator Springs Racers are the popular rides and when you start your day, getting that FastPass at each park is the very first thing you should do. Period.
  • Think About Time of Year (and Week) – Do some research and think hard about the time of year including the days of week. If there is a school holiday or summer break, the parks are going to be really busy. We pulled the kids out of school a week early to avoid the Christmas crowds and it worked pretty well. We still saw a contingent of locals using their annual passes to enjoy the holiday festivities. Tuesday through Thursday are going to be better than Monday, Friday or the weekend.
  • Food Was Good (and Pricey) – We had lunch both days in the park and everyone thought it was good.  We spent between $50-$60 each day and ate early (around 11am) to avoid more waiting in lines. We also ate dinner at Ariel’s Grotto as a special request from our middle child who loves food.  The menu was a three course prix fixe that included preferred seating tickets for the World of Color show later that evening. The staff was very flexible to make the options work for the kids. The dinner cost closer to $50/person which is pricey, but it was also an unexpected highlight for everyone given the quality of the meal and the ability to recount the activities of the day.
  • See Some Shows – They are amazing. The Aladdin show at DCA was great. World of Color was incredible and the holiday version we saw was lots of fun. Watching padawan at the Jedi Training Academy was fun. Shows are also are a nice pause during these very busy days.
  • Find Time For The Random – We drew characters at the Animation Academy. The Redwood Creek Challenge Trail was fun to climb around on. My daughter and I got a chance to take a short canoe ride. We saw lots of things that hinted at the new Star Wars movie. Those small moments really added up.
  • Lots of Walking – We clocked 10 miles in our 14 hour day at DCA and 6 miles for our 9 hour day at Disneyland. We needed lots of fluids and lots of calories.
  • Two Days Is Enough – We got to see (almost) everything we wanted with one day at each park. Admittedly, we started to run out of gas on the second day at Disneyland, but the things we skipped were minor. Not sure what we would have done with another day or a whole week at Disneyland.

Disneyland is a magical place. You are transported to another place over and over again. Even with the long days and all of the people, it still feels special.  Hope our experiences help if you are planning a trip yourself.

What I Am Reading (and why i can’t tell you)

I started an effort at the beginning of of the year to read more books.

To keep myself accountable, I have been highlighting those books on the blog along with short reviews. You can find all the reviews here.

My pace has slowed up in the last three months. It became harder over the summer to find free time to sit down with a book. The kids were out of school. There was some travel. The temptation to be outside was pretty strong.

During that time, something else happened. Portfolio, the publisher of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, reached out to me and asked if we were interested in putting out an updated edition. We made some small tweaks when the paperback was released in 2011, but this time the thought was to update the list with some new titles. The selections for The 100 Best were made seven years ago and there are some great candidates for inclusion.

100 Best Cover

So, I am back to reading, but I can’t really say what. I want to wait to reveal the new books until we get closer to the new edition’s publication next year. So, I promise I am still reading and probably even more now. My new reviews are due at the end of January.

If I manage to fit in some other books, I will be sure to share them.

How To Build An Author Platform in 742 steps

I wrote this as a tie-in to a panel I sat on for the Willamette Writers Conference in August 2015. I hope this is helpful to attendees at the panel and rest of you who run across it.

(deep breath, here we go).

This photo is by Mika Ruusunen and was featured on Unsplash

Step 1: Write something that matters to someone.

Most of you know what that means because you have read beautiful, insightful, heart-breaking, hopeful books. Those tomes are on your bookshelves and in your devices. You wish you could read those books again for the first time to feel what you felt. You adore the audio and you curse the movie. You know what it is like to read something that matters.

You are somewhere on the journey to writing something that matters. Maybe you are figuring out voice or scene. Maybe the dialogue is stiff. Maybe the topic isn’t right or you need more research. I don’t know where you are.

What I do know is that you have a sense for what is good. You may not know how to make good, but you know what good looks like. That will be your beacon.

See Ira Glass on Good Taste.

Step 2: Keep writing.

I have written over 1000 blog posts about business books, two ebooks about business, two books about books, and 7500 tweets about all sorts of things.

After all of that work, I still struggle with voice, syntax and knowing if the words will mean something to someone.

Over time though, I have gotten enough feedback from readers that some of what I have shared has been useful. They see the world a little different. They make better choices. They discovered something they didn’t know.

So, I keep writing, because I am a writer.

You are a writer too. Keep writing.

Amanda Hocking wrote 17 books while working full time in a group home.

Seth Godin started writing online January 2002 and has been writing a blog post every day for the last ten years.

Jerry Seinfeld kept a calendar with red X’s to make sure he wrote jokes every day.

#DoTheWork

Step 3: Share your work

Please tell me you are showing someone what you write. I don’t care if it is across a dinner table with a gracious friend or into the ethers of the Internet. We are terrible judges of our own work and what it might mean to others.

“You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there,” Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automatic, “That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world.”

Putting your work out into the world will help people find you and it will naturally make your work better.

Step 4: The Equation

I appreciate the fact that you are still reading. We are 500 words in and many have left by now because I haven’t used the words ‘platform’ or ‘Twitter’ yet. We’ll get to tools, but bear with me just a little longer. We are going to do math.

Everyone who I have seen win in the post-Internet world of publishing follow this equation:

(Meaning)(Frequency)(Sharing) = Popularity

We already established that creating meaning is hard and unpredictable. This is the factor that you have the least control over. You should strive to create it, but never expect it.

Frequency is the factor you have the most control over. #DoTheWork. You are a writer. Write something every day. Writing every day is hard. Find a way to build the habit, because if you build a habit of writing, readers will build a habit of reading.

Sharing is a newly available variable to authors. Ten years ago, a relatively small group of people controlled what was shared. That is not true today. Nothing is stopping you from reading this blog post and sharing your latest thought, short story or photographic sunset in the next 15 minutes.

Each of these variables affects the each others. So, if any one of them is doing well, your popularity and platform will grow. If you can make all three happen, you’ll make big strides in building your platform.

FAQs

What about fear?

Fear is natural. If you are feeling that, you are heading in the right direction.

When I get asked this question, I think more often people are talking about shame. Someone said their writing wasn’t good and they are now waiting for someone else to prove the shamer wrong and pick them.

You don’t have to wait to be picked but you need to courage to post the first piece. The lizard brain is going to do everything it can to keep you from doing it, but you HAVE TO PUSH through it.

What tools should I use?

You need three things.

First, you need a website that will serve as your home base so anyone can find you at any time.

Second, you need to build an email list. This technique is 10 times more effective than anything you will do online. Tim Grahl is the best at this. Read everything he has to say about it.

Third, I recommend you pick one social media tool and get really good at it. I suggest experimenting with several to start. Take six months and see what you like. The big audiences are on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. I happen to be a Twitter guy and it works for me. Most importantly, go where your audience is.

But how do I stand out?

Start by finding people to stand next to; people who like what you like. They will be at conventions, meet-ups, and writer conferences. You will find them in twitter hashtag searches and in the blog comments in your favorite writer’s website. You know a few already; ask them to introduce you to their friends and host a party.

Besides sharing your work, talk about what you are doing. You will have to do this a lot at first, because no one probably knows that you are toiling away during every available moment on your important work. When someone says. “What have you been up to?”, you need to talk about your art. Practice doing that. It will be hard at first, really hard, but it will get easier.

What is really going to set you apart is your ability to ask others how you can help. And when they say, “I am not sure how you can help?”, you need three things in your back pocket that you can offer. You know things that can help others. The coffeeshop with the best wifi? The quiet (and cheap) place on the coast to get away for a weekend of writing? Tips on writing the jacket copy? Think about how you can help and be ready!

And when someone recognizes the amazing effort you are putting in and asks how they can help, accept their offer. Period.

Be ready with the things you need help with. Ask them to read your work. Ask them to watch your kids so you can write more on next Saturday. Ask them to introduce you to another friend.

How many people do I need?

You need what Kevin Kelly calls 1000 True Fans. Go read his post about it.

I know that sounds like a lot. So start with 10 fans. You already have 10 fans.

Make your goal to find 25 fans in the next 60 days. And use the formula above to do it.

742 steps? Really?

You are going to need to take 742 tiny actions to get your platform built.

And YES, it is going to take that many small things to move the needle.

And NO, I can’t tell you which one is going to give you the big break.

For me, the big breaks came from:

  • Cold calling a guy and getting hired for a job that didn’t exist.
  • Taking the train to Chicago to see a friend and have coffee with her and another friend. In that random meeting, I found the designer that could visually communicate the ideas I have. That was ten years ago and I still work with her, because she is amazing.
  • Taking the advice of an editor about writing the book that would sell versus the book I thought I wanted to write. He was right, I am proud of the book and we sold 50,000 copies.
  • Taking 90 days and just writing about the stuff I really cared about. People noticed. Doors opened.
  • Asking a friend to make an introduction to a business partner. They are now my business partner and I get to bring more value to the authors I work with.

There are more emails, meetings, and phone calls that I can count that lead me to those breaks. I always tried to bring passion to those interactions. I labored to thoughtful and honest in my feedback. And as much as possible, I offered to help and elevate the work of others.

***

So, there you go.

Create meaning.
Keep writing.
Share your work.

Good luck.
I know you can do it.

Figuring Out The Right Price

I have been doing most of my work with IT Revolution over the last year and we have been looking at a variety of factors that lead to successful outcomes in publishing.

The Phoenix Project has now sold more than 115,000 copies. Less than 1% of books published reach that level and because of that, we watch very closely what happens across our sales channels and publishing formats. One of the questions we return back to often is pricing.

 

Two Ways to Look at It

 

In regard to products and services, price is one of the most important decisions any business makes. McKinsey & Company did some well documented research back in the 1990s that showed a 1% increase in price produced an 11% increase in operating profits. We also know from Economics 101 that price plays a role in demand for a product. Economists refer to that relationship as the elasticity of demand. In the world of book publishing, the amount of demand elasticity there is for books is one that has been up for debate in the last several years.

 

Historically, book publishers have chosen price discrimination as their go-to market technique. Publishers offer the same product to the same set of customers but change features like when they can get it, where they can buy it, or how much they can buy it for. Similar to other media, publishers choose to stagger the release of formats, starting with the original hardcover edition, then releasing the ebook, paperback, mass paperback, and possibly a repackaged movie tie-in edition several years later. For a product like books that slowly declines in value, the biggest benefit to price discrimination is publishers can maximize their profit with the staggered release windows, allowing them to capture maximum value for different customer segments.

 

Amazon sees the world in a completely different way. As founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has said, “There are two kinds of companies—those that work to raise prices and those that work to lower them.” Amazon is clearly the latter, and you can see many of the company’s motives trace back to the school of price elasticity. Roughly translated, this economic concept says, when prices go down, people buy more.

 

Authors who self-publish on the Kindle platform know this well. Amazon has long established $9.99 as an important price point, and the retailer lowers the royalty rate from 70% to 35% if titles are priced at $10 or more. The company creates a huge incentive to keep ebook prices low because they believe that lower pricing creates higher demand for books and in turn more profit for the retailer.

 

Which is right?

 

For The Phoenix Project, we launched the book with a hardcover edition in January 2013. Our retail price was $29.95, on the high end of the range for a business novel. By the time Amazon discounted the price, most people bought it for around $20. The ebook price has always been $9.99.

 

As demand for the book grew in the first year, we started to contemplate a paperback release. Most publishers push to keep the book in hardcover as long as possible because the margins are better. The unit cost of production is about $1.50 more for a hardcover versus a paperback, but hardcovers retail at a higher price point than their soft covered counterpart, which leads to higher margins. This is a classic price discrimination maneuver. For us through, the question was how elastic was demand and could we sell more books to make up the difference in margin lost?

 

At the time, we were seeing continued strength in both hardcover and ebook sales. Another data point was the direct sales we were doing for The Phoenix Project, and we found that we converted more orders with a lower price point. We took the gamble and planned the release for 21 months after the initial hardcover launch and to coincide with our first DevOps Enterprise Summit.

 

We priced the paperback edition of The Phoenix Project at $21.95. The chart below shows the last 18 month of sales. Since we made the switch to paperback, we have increased average sales by roughly 1000 units per month The best part for us is seeing more people overall reading the book.

Phoenix_Project_Sales_-_Google_Sheets

Our conclusion from our switch is that demand for The Phoenix Project is elastic—when we lower the price, we sell more copies. In our case, that was a good decision because additional demand made up for the lower unit margin.

 

Price Matching: Good or Bad?

 

We were presented with a similar question last month when we made The Phoenix Project available through Google Play. The electronic version of the book has been available on Kindle from the very beginning, and we added Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Kobo. Most recently we added the book to O’Reilly and their Safari Online subscription service.

 

Google has been working to get consumers attention, having followed most retailers into electronic media market. Their most recent tactic has been to discount ebooks by 20% for customers but still pay publishers their royalties at the full retail price. This is an attractive offer except Amazon watches competitors’ sites very closely and matches a lower price if they find one. In Amazon’s case, the publisher is paid royalties based on the selling price. Since Amazon has such a large share of the ebook market, the lower royalties from their price matching can have a huge impact on publisher revenues. On the self-publishing forums, many have recommended raising the selling price on Google to offset their 20% discount and eliminate the problems with Amazon’s price match.

 

We decided to take a more open view and look at the data. The question again becomes whether the demand elasticity exists for the electronic version of The Phoenix Project.

 

In the following week after Amazon matched the price on Google Play, sales for the Kindle edition increased and they have stayed higher every week with the exception of one week (see graph below). On average, weekly sales have increased by 11%. At the same time, sales haven’t increased enough to offset the lower unit margins. Our average weekly royalties have decreased by 11% or around $200 per week. So, demand is again elastic, but not enough to offset the lost revenue. The data would support following the advice on the forums and increasing the Google Play price to push the Amazon pricing back to $9.99.

The_Phoenix_Project_-_Amazon_Pricing_and_Royalties_after_Google_Play_-_Google_Sheets

The other factor to consider is the sales activity on Google Play. Right now, we are selling about 17 units per week and making about $120 in royalties. We are not making enough on this newest channel for us to make up the loss at Amazon.

 

In this case, we are making a non-economic-driven decision and have decided to keep Google Play at $9.99 and let Amazon price match for now. We are getting more books into readers’ hands both with the new channel at Google and the increased demand on Amazon. The profit loss is around $100 per week, but we are selling an extra 100 copies.

 

For me, this has been a great exercise in economics, marketing, and experimentation for us in understanding how our decisions have a direct impact in what happens in the marketplace. I wouldn’t use our results to generalize that books as a category have an elastic demand curve, but instead encourage you to gather data, run experiments, and see what works best.

 

What I Read – April 2015

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For 2015, I decided to put an greater emphasis reading more books. Each month I share what I have been reading and listening to.

Non-Fiction

  • Give and Take by Adam Grant –  MY FAVORITE BUSINESS BOOK OF THE LAST FIVE YEARS! Just start reading. 10/10
  • The One Page Financial Page by Carl Richards – I have read lots of personal finance books.  Most set down rules and recommend exactly what you should do. As someone with a wife in medical school and a family now,  there are so many different factors to consider.  Richards says start with “Why is money important to me?” He walks the reader through that great question and gives the some solid ways to think about the important money decisions. 9/10
  • Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free by Cory Doctorow – The opening essays by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer are worth the entire price of the book. I have followed Cory’s work closely and the power of the book is seeing his provocative thoughts all next to each other. And I think I finally understand why I like his perspective–he writes at the intersection of economics, technology, and law, which means he appreciates decision-making, modern tools and the vastly outdated rules we are governed by.  The book is about the world right now and what should change to account for the new world of media. 9/10
  • Smart People Should Build Things by Andrew Yang – Such a great title and I was interested in hearing more about Venture for America. There is too much focus on Ivy League grads going to work on Wall Street. There is also too much emphasis on Yang’s story. The stuff worth reading starts in Chapter 13 and by then I lost my interest. Opportunity missed on this one. 5/10
  • Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff – Kristin’s work is often mentioned alongside that of Brene Brown. I am interested because her approach is directly influenced by Buddhist traditions. There are many important teachings shared in the book, but this approach didn’t make a big impression on me. 7/10

Graphic Novels

  • Low Volume 1 by Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini – The Sun is in its early stages of supernova and humanity uses the waters of the ocean to protect against the radiation. Stel Caine is trying to save all of humanity including her family and never gives up hope that she can do it. The story is built well for comics, but I had a hard time getting pulled into the fairly predictable plot. Maybe things happened too fast for me to really care about the characters. Not sure. 7/10
  • Lazarus by Freg Ruka, Michael Lark and Santi Arcas – This is good stuff and it is not just me thinking that, the TV rights just got picked up.
    • Volume One – The world has returned to fiefdoms and the ruling families are fighting for power. The Carlyle Family have a ringer, a super soldier named Forever. I liked this one but wasn’t sure. I ordered V2 to give it one more chance . 8/10
    • Volume Two – This volume covers some Forever’s backstory, what it is like for a ‘Waste’ family to live in this world, and the unrest created from those who don’t like it. I got even more drawn into the world and the creators made some good story choices. 9/10
    • Volume Three – The tensions between fiefdoms intensifies and Forever finds herself square in the middle. So much good stuff and it ends on a wonderful cliffhanger. I may have to start reading single issues. 9/10
  • Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke – This is an all ages comic about a girl who risks her life to save her friend Joseph after he gets sucked through an energy portal.  Zita meets a wonderful cast of characters as she tries to make her way through the alien world. The book is fun and full of surprises. There are two more books in the series with the third having just been released. So good. 10/10
  • Avengers by Jonathan Hickman, Jerome Opena and Adam Kubert – I decided to start reading the Jonathan Hickman’s run on Avengers. There is a much bigger cast in this series, anchored by cast from the Avengers movies. I read issues #1-#23 and it is messy. Too many characters make it difficult to care about any of them. And it suffers greatly from the crossover effect. 6/10