The Devil’s Teeth

There’s a cluster of islands in the Pacific, only about 30 miles from San Francisco, that happens to be an annual gathering place for great white sharks. This rocky outcrop of islands is called the Farallones, and if you want to study sharks, these islands have no equal. There isn’t another place on the globe where you can see so many sharks in their natural habitat.

Now, there are a few curveballs for the average shark watcher. First, the sharks only show up from about September through November. Second, access to the islands is severely restricted by the government. And finally, it’s a particularly inhospitable place beset with nasty weather and a cliff-like shoreline that makes getting on the islands from a boat very difficult.

However, this did not stop Susan Casey from becoming obsessed with the Farallones. She was sitting at home one night and caught a BBC special about the two scientists that were performing groundbreaking shark research on the islands. She was hooked immediately and began scheming to get to the Farallones to be close to these awesome creatures.

Let me tell you a little about Susan Casey. She’s a writer, lives in Manhattan, and spent much of her life as a competitive swimmer. She likes REI outdoor gear, Gucci heels, and Patagonia capilene underwear – size small. Hey, that’s what she said.

She starts out getting a one day pass to the islands. She likes it so much that she pushes and finagles a couple of longer stays on the islands. She befriends Peter and Scott, the ultra-cool scientists that are superstars in the shark world, who willingly assist her in her efforts to spend even more time near the sharks of the Farallones. After the government steps in to mediate a nasty feud between the researchers and some tour operators, access to the islands gets even more restrictive. But the scientists and Susan concoct a plan to stay on a borrowed yacht off the coast of the Farallones since she is expressly forbidden from setting foot on the islands. Ah, not a good idea. It’s about this time that Casey ceases to be the athletic, attractive, writer-adventurer and turns into a whiny outsider that really starts who may start to grate on your nerves.

So yes, I eventually became disinterested in the trials and travails of Susan Casey. But, there’s still a lot of great stuff in this book. The shark lore and history of the islands is fascinating. These creatures, especially the great whites, captivated me throughout. Casey does a great job of vividly describing the people and scenery, and these descriptions give this story some heart and soul.



The subtitle, The Discipline of Getting Things Done, drew me into this book. It’s a common theme these days; David Allen’s book Getting Things Done (GTD) has a cult-like following amongst the internet set, popular websites like Lifehacker and 43F espouse the benefits of GTD and personal productivity, and it has become popular to say things like “git ‘er done” with a fake southern accent (I’m guilty).

I did not expect this book to address any aspect of personal productivity, and it doesn’t. What it does address is how a CEO gets the job done. It’s basically CEO 101 by a rock-star CEO (Bossidy) and an accomplished consultant/academic (Charan). It’s a management book; a treatise on the ingredients that your company needs to consistently deliver results. Bossidy and Charan detail the building blocks and processes that they feel will allow your company to bridge the gap between what your company wants and what your company eventually gets.

I drew a picture:


This book is laid out in a straightforward manner. Chapter 1 begins by identifying the problem, referred to by Bossidy and Charan as “the gap nobody knows.” They follow it up with a chapter recounting the real-world execution successes and failures of three companies (Xerox, Lucent Technologies, and EDS). These examples drive home why the authors feel the discipline of execution is so important for your company. The rest of the book provides specifics, with lots of examples, for the three building blocks and three processes outlined in the picture above. Your company’s leadership and staff must achieve excellence in all of these areas in order to have the best chance of achieving execution success.

The target audience for this book may appear to be grad students and middle managers that aspire to be a CEO some day. However, I think this book is also appropriate for first-year staffers that are embarking on any sort of career in an industrial corporation. It gives an excellent description of the internal workings of a business entity and how processes like strategic planning, budgeting, performance reviews, and quarterly management reviews are linked. These processes, along with all of the informal, cross-departmental dialogue a company has, are referred to as the “Social Operating Mechanism.” By linking all of this, Bossidy and Charan take some of the mystery out of why people have to participate in such apparently mundane things as departmental budgets, monthly variance analyses, and annual people assessments. If I would have read an overview like this when I joined corporate America after leaving public accounting, it would have accelerated my learning curve on many aspects of management.

This is not a complicated book. Just by the nature of the topic, it’s more practice than it is theory. Bossidy and Charan clearly explain the nuts and bolts of how to excel at each aspect of execution without a lot of business jargon. I think this book has a place in your business library because you need something that links the big picture to the bottom line, so to speak. It may fit nicely somewhere between Competitive Advantage and The Goal.


The Elements of Style

This is a reference book and I read it from cover to cover, as if it were a novel. The average person may think I’m nuts. Unfortunately, they’re right. The worst of it is, this is probably the third or fourth time I’ve owned this book, but only the first time I’ve cracked it open. I’m embarrassed, but hopefully you won’t make fun of me, to my face at least.

Ah, Strunk and White, as it’s usually referred to. I bought it in college (one). It was given to my whole department in 1998 by the CFO of a company I was working for (two). Additionally, I think I purchased it one other time when I was in the mood to better myself (three). All of those were sold, tossed, or given away.

I identified the need to rehash some basic grammar and stylistic items about a month ago. My sister was looking through one of these blog posts and noticed that I used the word less when I should have used the word fewer. This blew me away because I had no idea what she was talking about. She tried to make me feel better, like any loving sister. She said that she noticed Wal-Mart had made the same error some time ago on a sign to their express lane. That did not console me. I went out shortly thereafter and bought the book again (four).

You may ask, why did you read a reference book from cover to cover? Well, now I’ve at least rehashed a litany of rules, principles, and approaches that good writers use. Hopefully, I’m better equipped to recognize when I’ve committed some error or stylistic gaffe. For example, now I know when I use the word aggravate, I should be sure I don’t mean irritate. Or if I use the word partially, I should be sure I don’t mean partly. Plus, there are some gems like this:

The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.

You can’t deny the beauty in that statement. I didn’t consider these things before today.

Hey, I’m a quant jock trying to make it in a blogosphere filled with lit majors and lawyers. I need some help, and Strunk and White is there for me.



I saw the movie Short Cuts about a decade ago. It was the first time I recall seeing a movie in that style…the ensemble cast, the handful of stories that were either implicitly or explicitly connected, the mixture of humor and sadness, sorrow and joy. Because of Short Cuts, I rented Grand Canyon, which is much lighter, but similar. Crash and Me and You and Everyone We Know are more recent examples, both of which I enjoyed. I’ve always liked these movies but I have not read any books comparable to this style. Well, now I have.

It began last summer when my wife walked up to me in Borders, handed me Train, and said, “Do you think you would like this?” The first thing I do when I get an unfamiliar book is flip to the About the Author section. I do this because I have no literary background and I need some validation that the author is accomplished and respected. Many people would have recognized Pete Dexter, but I didn’t. I never start with the synopsis on the back cover because that’s all marketing hype. I’m sure the About the Author section also has plenty of marketing hype, but you can’t fake things like National Book Awards or New York Times Notable Books. Can you? Maybe, but besides getting recommendations from people you trust, I don’t know of a better way to help me assess a book for consumption. Do I sound like a literature snob? I hope not. But when something totally unfamiliar hits the screen, I start by qualifying the author, so to speak.

Train was written by Pete Dexter. He also wrote Paris Trout, which won the National Book Award. Paris Trout was made into a TV movie and I remember it being advertised a lot on HBO or Showtime. I also think it received some critical acclaim. Of course, these things drew me in. Couple those items with a plot that included golf, and I basically had no choice but to buy it.

The book is set in Los Angeles – year 1953. Amongst the ensemble, there are three primary characters. There’s Train, a black caddy with a special gift for golf. He has a big heart, but makes some questionable decisions. There’s Miller Packard, an enigma. He’s a cop, a part-time criminal, and a golf course hustler – at least, that’s the best I can tell. He’s nurturing and violent at the same time. And finally, there’s Norah Still. She’s a former human rights activist who finds her way to Southern California and gets embroiled with this lot.

I was immersed and interested throughout, but I can’t really say it was fun. The situations that the characters get themselves into are downright strange. I’m talking weird, gut-wrenching, horrible, humorous…you name it. It’s a dark, depressing story. There is a lot of violence and a lot of sex. And you don’t get a lot of clarity. The sensation of reading this book is totally different from reading something with a protagonist, an antagonist, a plot line, and the words THE END on the last page.

Dexter doesn’t ever let you feel like you have a grasp on what’s going on. He just throws these characters at you and starts telling a bunch of short stories. Problems don’t get resolved, apparent criminal actions don’t get investigated, and certain story lines don’t get concluded. Something big and important may happen, but you may not find out about it until afterwards, in the recollection of one of the characters. You sense connections, you get to know the characters, you get hints on what’s next, you look forward to simply getting some clarity. Sometimes things get clarified and sometimes they don’t. I was never bored because the anticipation of some sort of conclusion keeps you turning pages.

Like I said, this book is dark, but there is some hope. At times, amidst all the pain and suffering, the characters show themselves to be kind, giving, and understanding. I personally found a lot of hope in the golf aspect, but please don’t look at this as a golf book. Golf is always there, but rarely the center of attention. You can tell that Dexter has played some golf because he has a few keen insights into the game, which were entertaining for a fan of the game like me.

I will, at some time in my life, read more Pete Dexter. I’m not going to run out tomorrow and blow my Borders gift certificate on Paris Trout. However, it’s good to know that there is a National Book Award winner out there that I will probably be interested in reading.


Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Whoa, this five hour plus audio book absolutely consumed me during a 48 hour period from noon on Feb 9 to noon on Feb 11. Anytime I could squeeze in a little car time or iPod time, I did so. Everything was about my main man Aron Ralston.

I’m sure you’ve heard the story. Man goes canyoneering alone in Utah. Man gets arm stuck under rock. Man had not told anybody where he was going. Man was immobile for 5 days and nearly dies of dehydration. Man breaks ulna and radius and frees himself by cutting through soft tissue of forearm. Man gets home safely and has interview with Tom Brokaw.

This is an amazing story. It works well as an audio book because it’s Ralston himself doing the reading. It’s equal parts re-enactment, memoir, and narration. He starts the book re-enacting his mountain bike trip to the trailhead before his hike into the Utah canyons near Moab. At certain points he breaks from the re-enactment and recalls parts of his life story or adds some detail that explains how he got to this point. Then, in the second half of the book, he narrates the story of his friends and family organizing his rescue. The story bounces back and forth between these perspectives and it never ceased to hold my rapt attention.

During the re-enactment, not only does he explain what he did for just about every minute of his ordeal, but he delves deeply into the thoughts and reflections he had during this time. It’s a little strange that he recalls this level of detail and that his thoughts were so rational and organized. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising though. He is extremely intelligent. He took pictures and video with his free hand, which I am sure he used to jog his memory. Additionally, he is passionate about his outdoor pursuits and very introspective. Therefore, I choose to believe every last detail of the story. Not just because I trust the guy, but also because this story got huge media coverage. We know how the media likes to tear down our heroes (and rightfully so), so we would know by now if these were lies. Man, am I being a little guarded or what after this James Frey vs Oprah ordeal?

I could not stop listening. Usually I only listen to audio books in my car during my commute. But this one flowed over into the weekend and I listened as I worked out and did laundry. Maybe I was so involved because I feel like I have a connection with Ralston. I too once fancied myself an outdoor athlete. Of course, I was a little more fancy and a little less athlete, but I still had a Camelback hydration system like Ralston. Those days have come and gone and I have since sold the Camelback, the waterproof tent, and the sleeping bag rated for subzero temps. However, I still read Backpacker magazine occasionally and I harbor dreams of hiking the Appalachian trail with my wife when we retire (at least parts of it…if there’s a JW Marriott near the trail for my wife…so she can go to the spa).

Ralston is a pretty cool guy. He loves mountain climbing, margaritas, and rock and roll. At age 27, he quit his job at Intel as an engineer and became a mountain guide. He just followed his true calling and it appears to have worked out well for him. It seems like he is well grounded, has a loving family, and has many great friends. He has a good sense of humor also. At one point, while he is contemplating cutting his arm off, he says something like, “hacking off a limb, like living east of the Rocky Mountains, is something I never thought I would do.”

Even if you don’t have an outdoorsy bone in your body, you will love this book. It’s an un-freaking-believable story of survival and perseverance.


The Little Red Book of Selling

I’ve been compiling a list of business books that are keepers and I thought this one might have potential. I heard about it at, which is worth checking out. It was on the site’s reading list of 40 books that are supposed to mirror the course work in your average MBA curriculum. On the site they have message boards and discussions for each of the books and a host of other topics.


A Conspiracy of Paper

I’ve had David Liss on my reading list for a long time. I’m not sure how I heard about him. I think maybe there was a write-up in the Chicago Tribune book section, or maybe even Newsweek. Who knows, but I finally pulled the trigger. This came with a lot of deliberation, but it was a New York Times Notable Book so I wasn’t taking that big of a risk.

I’ve always been a big fan of the mystery/thriller genre but I am pretty selective and fiercely loyal to authors like Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis, and Sue Grafton. I need to be comfortable that I’m not wasting my time and once I settle on a “brand,” so to speak, I don’t really deviate. I own just about every Hillerman in hardcover and I have never been disappointed with any of his books. With Hillerman, I know I’m going to get deep and interesting characters, a keen insight into a different culture or time period, and an intricate, challenging, yet understandable plotline. I think the same goes for Francis and Grafton. Let me say right now, David Liss did not disappoint.

The main character is Benjamin Weaver, a Jewish thief-taker (private detective basically) in London – year 1719. Weaver is a former champion boxer who now lives comfortably in London chasing down criminals in a discrete and professional manner. He has led a rough life and spent most of it estranged from his family and his overbearing, cruel father.

The story begins shortly after his father is killed in the streets of London by an out of control carriage driver. It is deemed an accident by the relevant authorities and Weaver shows little remorse given his rocky relationship with his father. However, certain instances give rise to doubts about the nature of his father’s death and Weaver’s interest gets piqued enough such that he begins to investigate.

I’m not giving anything away, this all happens within the first 20 pages.

His investigation sets off a series of events in London that brings Weaver in contact with corrupt corporations, seedy street criminals, a prolific mob boss, the beautiful widow of his dead cousin, and an enemy from Weaver’s childhood that may be an ally. The most colorful character of the bunch is his buddy, Elias, who happens to be a doctor, aspiring playwright, drunken playboy, and part-time philosopher. The novel is set in a very anti-Semitic, early 18th century London, a city that during this time was leading the world in the conversion from gold to paper as a medium of finance. Most of the action takes place in and around the exchanges and the London financial markets.

Liss was a doctoral candidate at Columbia University and wrote his thesis on “the ways in which eighteenth century Britons imagined themselves through their money” (Historical Note, page 438). So as you can imagine, he mixes in some real characters with his fictional characters and attempts to capture the cultural and political atmosphere of the time. This historical backing does not impinge at all on the intrigue and violence of the story. It is a great mystery with plot twists throughout.

Finally, not only is it a great mystery, but it also has a great main character in Benjamin Weaver. It is told from his perspective. He is a tough yet reflective gentleman. He wrestles with the demons of his childhood, the British class structure, anti-Semitism, and his own insecurity. He questions the moral implications of his actions and second-guesses his methods of investigation. He is not infallible but certainly resolute once he sets his mind to something. This was a great read and I look forward to reading the other two books, which continue the adventures of Weaver.



The trend of nonfiction continues. I have not read or listened to much fiction lately but there is some on the agenda immediately following this book. My wife bought Blink but I rudely grabbed it before she got to read it (I’m dealing with the guilt, thanks for asking). I was in a hurry to read it because I had just finished The Tipping Point by Gladwell and I liked it, so I thought it would be good to follow up quickly with his other book.

Gladwell sets out to explain that “there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis” (page 17). He is not advocating hasty decisions and he is not tearing down long, arduous, analytical thought. In general, he is just working this “blink of an eye” angle in an effort to teach us how to manage and use our first impressions despite the general perception that they usually lead to less than desirable outcomes.

Who doesn’t agree that first impressions can be dangerous? It kind of goes along with what mom and dad always warned, “you only get one chance to make a first impression.” But, then they would say something like “don’t judge a book by its cover.” How confusing is that? On one hand they advocate looking beneath the surface to uncover true character in others, but when you dye your hair purple before your first job interview, they overrule your personal grooming decisions. “But mom, once they talk to me and understand how smart, caring, and responsible I am, won’t they look past my purple hair and still hire me?” Uh, NO. Mom and dad were smarter than you thought but they just did not have all the data that Gladwell has to convince you that first impressions are both harmful and helpful and that we need to understand more about how our mind works before we can assess whether to listen to our gut or not .

Gladwell digs heavily into a concept he calls “thin-slicing,” or, as he describes it, “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience” (page 23). There are times, in certain situations, given the right environment, where you can immediately hone in the relevant information and make a sound decision almost instantaneously. This can be an extremely powerful, life saving, and productivity-increasing talent. But, you have to understand when the circumstances lend themselves to this because if they don’t, you are going to do something stupid.

To illustrate what I think he is saying, let me give you an example from my own life. I am passionate about the game of golf. I participate in it, read about it, watch it, discuss it, surf the net for information on it, dream about it, love it, hate it, and am generally consumed by it. This is not necessarily something to be proud of, but it’s true. Ask my friends. Okay, now, I can drive by a golf course, glance at it, and almost immediately discern if it is an excellent course (4 out of 5 stars) or a great course (3.5 out of 5 stars). Furthermore, based on a few snippets of text on the internet I can tell if my group will enjoy playing a golf course that we have never even seen before. When it comes to rating a golf course using standards agreed on by pretty much anybody, I can “thin-slice” with the best of them. Why? Well, because it’s within my “area of passion and experience” as Gladwell puts it. So I can be confident in my abilities to use my first impressions in this matter, be they gleaned from a small sample of text or a split-second observation.

The same cannot be said about my ability to “thin-slice” fine wines. I will falter under the pressure of the waiter hovering over my shoulder while I look at a wine list. If it’s red and has a picture of a horse on it, I’m probably going to like it. So if I do the tasting, there is a good chance that I may choose a poor vintage because of bad weather or something. Or maybe I’ll pick a red wine that has too much oak flavor for the delicate fish that my party has ordered. I don’t even know what I’m talking about. I certainly don’t have the palate to tell the waiter to take it back and bring me the 1998 coastal cabernet after that little pour that they do at expensive restaurants. There’s a good chance I’m going to ruin the meal and thereby set the tone for a horrible evening. This could be “thin-slicing” gone bad and I need to recognize that so I can decline the tasting, and let someone more knowledgeable make the call.

These examples are trivial, so please read the book because I am sure I do not do Gladwell justice. He has some very thought provoking examples of how first impressions are harmful in the real world, especially regarding race, gender, and age. He backs the examples up with detailed statistical analyses that read like an econ book. He was touched by a negative experience with first impressions in his own life (see the Acknowledgements) and that set him on the path to writing this book. It is a call to arms for people to say, I don’t know because I have never walked in those shoes so I will attempt to understand my bias and analyze the issue before I act.

But he does not focus only on the harm caused by quick decisions. He has plenty of examples of highly successful snap decisions and this can be educational if you are interested in reading this book to improve your decision-making. I keep seeing this book in the business section but in my opinion it isn’t a business book, per se. I guess there are applications of many of his theories in the areas of management and marketing, but if you’re looking for a how-to on making quick business decisions this book is not the right one for the job. If anything, it proves that there is no universal formula you can adhere to for quick decisions. But if you are an expert, thoroughly trained in the subject, and you build this huge reservoir of experience that results in an intuitive grasp of certain situations, then you probably have the ability to make very important decisions with just a two-second observation. Who knows, if you have achieved this level of expertise, maybe this ability could save someone’s life someday, so be ready to trust yourself.


Big Russ and Me

This is, for the most part, an autobiography of Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press. It is more than just a retelling of his life though because it focuses a lot on his father’s life story and how his father has affected his own life (the subtitle is “Father and Son: Lessons of Life”).

I have only recently become a Tim Russert fan. I never get to watch Meet the Press because my Sunday mornings are usually filled with golf, worship, or both. But with the purchase of an iPod and the adoption of iTunes as the main focus of my digital life, I am now in complete control of my intake of news and entertainment in audio format. I religiously download the Meet the Press podcast every Sunday afternoon and usually listen to it on the treadmill or elliptical trainer on Monday or Tuesday.

On Meet the Press, the guy just asks tough questions – of everybody. I don”t sense any bias. I feel like the guy is trying to get answers, that’s it. I was mildly surprised to learn during the book that he admired the Kennedy family (John and Bobby), was DP Moynihan’s chief of staff, and protested Vietnam at John Carroll University in Cleveland. The only time his personal views come through on Meet the Press is when he is talking about his two favorite sports teams, the Buffalo Bills and New York Yankees. He is more than worthy of being my top source of political news and analysis and Meet the Press will always be 45 minutes of time that is never, ever wasted. So I bought the (audio)book and listened during my commute.

His roots are in Buffalo, NY. South Buffalo to be exact. He grew up the son of a garbage man in a working class, Irish Catholic family. He relates his life experiences with plain talk and a humbleness that I think is genuine. Even though he is one of the most powerful newsmen on the face of the earth, if I met him in an airport I could see us talking about football and baseball for hours. That is just how he comes across. He seems approachable and thoughtful.

I found it easy to identify with his childhood. He describes in great detail two items that really hit close to home for me. First, he attended many sporting events with his dad, especially in Cleveland, OH. Like Russert, I vividly remember the whole process of my dad preparing the vehicle with sandwiches, snacks, pop, beer, lawn chairs, umbrellas, etc…for the trip to St. John’s Arena (Buckeye hoops) or Municipal Stadium (Indians baseball). I was going to Cleveland because I loved the Tribe, but Russert was coming from the other direction to see his beloved Yankees playing in the closest park to Buffalo. Recalling the atmosphere of a bunch of guys sitting in a car for a trip to the game, talking about sports for hours while shoveling finger food into their mouths, is as special for me as it is for Russert.

Second, the Russerts love to eat and he told stories about how much they appreciated food for more than just fuel. Now granted, one member of my family diverges from the Russerts a little in this instance because my dad is not a big fan of food like Big Russ is, but the rest of my family sees food as the Russerts. We definitely are NOT food snobs, or foodies as they are called, but we have a keen appreciation for all sorts of culinary delights. Making a decision on something as simple as where to order pizza resulted in deep analytical thought and plenty of debate in our household. I am just glad that we were not the only family where the main topic of conversation while eating one meal was the plan for the next meal. Here’s to you Big Russ.

Russert has had an interesting life. The cool thing is that with all of his rich experiences, I didn’t detect even a hint of arrogance. I also think he treats the rich and famous the same way that he treats his buddies. His stories about playing jokes on Al Gore or George Bush sound like the stories my dad tells about playing jokes on business colleagues or friends. It is devoid of pretentiousness, which makes the audio book very easy to listen to.

This is maybe the third or fourth audio book that I have purchased and until now, I was NOT sold on the medium. Books are meant to be read…It’s an art form and you denigrate it by listening to someone else read it to you…blah, blah, blah. Whatever…I’m an idiot. Audio books are the way to go if you want to increase your volume and they are a must for commuters. My theory is that one should listen to non-fiction only, preferably read by the author. At some points, I was actually happy to get stuck in traffic so that I could get through more of this book.

It gets a strong recommendation from me.