Friday, June 17, 2011

Amazon Review: Little Bets

Do you ever read a book, then look back at the Amazon reviews and find them totally incongruent with your opinion? That's what happened to me with a business book I read this week. It's called Little Bets, and I have to admit the title drew me in.

But I found the book much less compelling than I anticipated - more of a synthesis of existing, better-known works. Definitely nothing groundbreaking. Yet there was not one review under four stars to be found. I have a sneaking suspicion the author tapped his extensive network to prompt some good reviews. Well, that had to change.

I toned down my criticism at the last minute; after all, the writer did put himself out there. Here's the result:

3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Anecdotes but Nothing Groundbreaking, June 17, 2011
By Blake Henderson - See all my reviews

This review is from: Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries (Hardcover)

This book has some interesting anecdotal stuff. I especially liked the stories on Pixar, and the creative process as it relates to learning in young children.

That said, most of the time when I flipped the page and saw the referenced person - Muhammad Yunnus, General McMaster, or Malcolm Gladwell - as I reader of Tom Ricks' Fiasco, Banker to the Poor, The Tipping Point, and books on Lean Start-Up and Customer Development, I already knew where the author was headed and was left underwhelmed.

I'm not usually moved to review books on Amazon, however, I honestly believe the book is overrated as it stands with a lot of four and five star reviews. The book has a great title that certainly drew me in, yet I didn't find anything groundbreaking inside.


It's oddly gratifying to write a review and immediately see your comments listed as the only three-star review. Still, I stick by the rating.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Disappointing DC Food Truck a Really Big Hit

A new food vendor generating quite a lot of buzz is the Pete’s Pita van now operating in the DC metro area. Pete’s is developing quite a following, not so much for the excellence of its food, but for its sub-par offerings. Indeed here are a few not-so-rave reviews from local publications:

“A tour de force of mediocrity.” - Washington Post

“I’d ask for my money back but I have to run to the men’s room.” - City Paper

“The soggy tomatoes cleverly masked the three-day-old lettuce and…wait, why am I writing about this? That was the worst food I have ever had from a food truck. I wouldn’t wish this eating experience on a malnourished indigent family. Pete’s sucks!” - Washingtonian Magazine

“That was the shizzle!” - Street Sense

The food truck epidemic is sweeping across the city here in DC, as with the rest of the country. It seems like every day there is something new being offered from the side window of an old truck – popsicles, Indian food, tamales, Asian fusion, and the ever-present cupcake trucks. Up to this point, most of the new food trucks have delivered quality, low-cost cuisine to the public.

The man behind the mundane cuisine is area man Freddy Gonzalez. Gonzalez worked as a construction foreman in his previously life, a life that gave him a good view of the food truck industry from the other side of the counter.

“I’ve been eating from food trucks most of my life, and most of the food has been pretty terrible,” says Gonzalez. “When I saw all these trucks showing up to the scene with exquisite food offerings, I knew there was an opportunity there to bring to the masses a truly crappy option at a truly low, but still disappointing price.”
He adds that they would one day like to be viewed as the Jerry’s of food trucks.

Customers seem to agree they are well on their way. When interviewed following her meal, customer Nicole James critiqued “I just threw up a little in my mouth, which tastes delicious relative to my Pete’s pita.”

Friend Todd James adds, “Yeah, I agree.” A very weak-ass, disappointing quote from a very disappointed food truck foodie.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pirate Taxis in DC

In San José, the Costa Rican capital, it is common to find unmarked taxis, popularly known as piratas, or pirate taxis, that will pick you up and take you anywhere in the city, just like a regular cab. These taxis are illegal, falling outside the normal permit system set up by the josefino authorities.

Riding in these cabs can best be called “sketchy.” You would often hop in the car amid torn seat cushions, with no safety belts or meter to be found, and subjected to whatever loud, blaring music the driver happened to be into at the time. Rates were best negotiated on the spot, lest you arrive at your destination and find the cabby demands an exorbitant fee, to which you generally have little recourse other than to grab a wad of bills, throw them in the front seat, and dart out the door into the night.

The piratas can be used as a metaphor for the Costa Rican capital in general – dirty, loud, random, filled with dark corners and unexpected sticky places, and sometimes dangerous. Riding in cabs in any country is almost always representative of the culture, and forms a special part of the travel experience. San José was part international travel hub and part Wild West, the piratas representing the latter.

Living in Costa Rica for two years, one often became jaded to these cultural idiosyncrasies. For that reason, it was always interesting moving through the city with new volunteers or visitors, watching them go wide-eyed as we passed scores of street entertainers and narrowly missed getting hit by a half-dozen cars on the narrow streets. San José had a special stink to it, and I suppose in some way we became more than a little used to it, which we wore with a sort of stubborn pride.

Returning to the U.S., I often became aware, like my Peace Corps peers, of how many behaviors we experienced in Costa Rica would be wildly unacceptable here in the U.S. For instance, it was not normal to wake up in the morning, open your fridge, and find yourself staring at a large, bloody cow heart and shelves stuffed with freshly butchered meat, the result of last night’s failed calf birth. It wasn’t normal to be asked to hold the baby of a complete stranger while they situated themselves on the bus, only to have the child later drooling and crying all over you during the rest of the three hour journey down the windy, dusty highway.

Thankfully, these things did not happen back in the states. But finding myself in the U.S., there were times when I wanted to share those experiences with my fellow Americans. I wanted to bring a touch of San José back to D.C.

It was for that reason that last Saturday, upon seeing a middle-aged woman outside of the Rayburn Congressional Offices holding up her arm to hail a taxi, I pulled over – directly in front of her. I rolled down the window, “Where you headed?” I asked.

Confused, and possibly thinking I was trying to help her with directions, she demurred, “Oh, thanks. I’m alright.” “No, really. Where are you headed? I can take you there,” I insisted.

“Ummm, no thanks. I think I’ll just hail a cab.”

“I’m a taxi,” I responded matter-of-factly.

“Excuse me?”

“A pirate taxi,” I said. “I’m not licensed by the city. I do this on the side to make a little money. I can take you wherever you like to go.”

She thought a moment. There was obviously a bit of internal debate going on. “Is this for real?” is probably what was going through her head.

“Where are you headed?” I said once again.

“Logan Circle,” she responded, as if in a daze.

“I know it. Come on.” I said. Amazingly, and I really didn’t think things would go this far, she acquiesced and opened the back door. In true pirate cab fashion, I had to move a half-dozen small odds and ends I was transporting in the back – some papers, an old wristwatch, a basketball, and a nine iron.

Her name was Sharon. I offered her my iPod in case she wanted to pick the music. This is the kind of special value only piratas can offer – a sort of homey feel. Naturally, I wanted her to have the full experience.

Mistake #1 (other than getting in the “cab” with me): Sharon forgot to negotiate a rate. I made a mental note to fully exploit this upon arriving at her destination.

I abruptly jerked the car around in an illegal U-turn across the better half of four lanes on an empty Independence Avenue, and proceed west down the gentle slope of Capitol Hill. I alternated between gunning the engine and braking at random segments of the road as we made our way towards 14st street, just for funsies.

Sharon was a legislative aide, whatever that means. She was working through the morning that Saturday on a special piece of legislation for her boss, whom she neglected to mention.

I took a right on 14th street, braked quickly at the next intersection, and leaned out the window, yelling a string of obscenities in Spanish at the passing pedestrians. “?Que cajones haces? !Muevese hijo de puta!” A portly gentleman crossing the street turned and looked at me, feelings obviously hurt. Despite the language barrier, he knew I was really screaming at him.

My passenger became distressed at this show of aggression, and I turned and assured her that everything was alright. Speaking in English now I assured her that no one would get hurt as long as these people moved quickly out the way. Disappointingly, she did not seem to be calmed.

It was at that moment that I began to talk to her in an overly familiar manner, which really makes people wary. Without receiving any clues that would make me believe she was interested in hearing anything personal about my life, I began talking to her in great detail about the plans my brother and I had to launch a web-based wellness business. This pirate taxiing stuff was only temporary, I said.

I asked Sharon if she was comfortable with the temperature, to which she responded no. I met her response with an awkward silence.

We moved down 14th street in silence, past Commerce Department, and up the hill by Franklin Square without saying a word.

At this point the heat in the car was unbearable, even to me. I rolled down all the windows in the car and cranked up the volume to the car stereo.

I took a quick right onto Rhode Island Avenue, and pulled off to the side as we neared Logan Circle.

“This is not exactly where I need to be,” said Sharon, “Can you please pull around the circle and go up 13th Street a block?”

Ughhh. I couldn’t believe she was being so demanding. I made a dramatic show of putting the car back into drive.

We pulled around the circle and she pointed me to the corner of the street. I pulled over.

“How much do I owe you?” Sharon asked.

“Twenty-two dollars,” I responded, trying hard to suppress a laugh. This was too easy.

“That’s totally ridiculous…here’s 10 bucks.”

At this point I became irate, reminding her how I pulled around the circle just because she asked me to. Sharon was unmoved and bolted out of the car.

I pocketed the $10, and continued down the road – my first mission as a pirate taxi complete.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Apps that are changing my life

Everyone has their favorite apps that they rave about to all their friends, and it gets so tiring that I almost can’t believe I’m even writing this post. I actually just rolled my eyes at myself. But the truth is, there is some really cool stuff out there. Here are a few applications – desktop and mobile – that have been rocking my world lately:

1. Dropbox – In addition to having a short, really cool name, which I can appreciate now after recently being in search of an available domain, Dropbox is incredible for file sharing. You just go to the site – – download the software, it loads a little icon onto your desktop, and you can start file-sharing immediately. My brother, sister-in-law, and I are working on a business project and it has been pretty clutch to have a common place to store files. It even notifies you on your desktop when files have been added or deleted. So it’s really nice for work and also…um…files that involve strings of words melodiously combined in ways that one might find agreeable. I’m not sure the technical term for those types of files, but you probably know what I’m talking about. In addition to the desktop version, they have a really solid mobile app for viewing files in your account.

2. Words with Friends – Everyone knows about this by now. I have six games going with friends. Sometimes I play games between myself in “Hand Off” mode when I get bored.

3. Remote – this is an Apple application that allows you to access your music library remotely through the home sharing function on iTunes. It gets really cool when you throw in an AirPort Express, hook it up to your surround system, and then your iPhone turns into a remote for your surround sound system. That is really sweet. I just converted my parents over to that, and I think they are pretty happy with it. It even has volume control.

4. Skype Videoconferencing – It’s just cool, and fun, to talk to friends, family, or work associates via videoconferencing. It’s even cooler when you know that it’s free. The only problem is that Skype is often prone to poor call quality. They still have some work to do on the software, and maybe it will get better now that Skype was acquired by Microsoft. Regardless, this is a cool application.

5. Prezi – a presentation tool accessible via the internet. Instead of showing things in slides (PowerPoint style), Prezi gives the presenter a canvas, which you can start throwing words, pictures, graphics, or any type of visual on to form a collage of material dedicated to a specific topic. Once you have all your content, you wire the presentation together by creating a “path” that allows you to highlight the different section when and how you want.

6. – I guess this qualifies as an application. Just go to the site, enter your name and email address, and an email will be routed to you with a phone number and access code available to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The conference line can be accessed at any time by up to 96 callers. After a conference call is completed, an email report of who participated and for how long is sent to the owner of the line. Pretty sweet, and totally free.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Changing Coffee Shops

I’ve decided to switch coffee shops. For anyone that has a regular coffee shop and knows the bond formed between barista and customer, this is a big step – one that involved many days of too bitter coffee.

My previous coffee shop is owned by a Korean family and located squarely across from the entrance to the building where I work. They all know my name, even if it is pronounced with a distinctive Korean accent that involves turning the L into a W. They are nice people. I eat lunch there as well sometimes.

One day, I came to the sudden realization that their coffee is actually quite terrible. For one, there is no barista (I use the female owner as the equivalent to a barista); there are only three big coffee machines in the corner brewing huge vats of coffee. The coffee comes out of giant unmarked bags, something like Folger’s brand.

I know about Folger’s. It’s what my dad used to drink way back when, before the coffee revolution took place and everyone started demanding organic, free trade Arabica at every sip. What my dad didn’t know at the time, and no one knew, Colombia is not a producer of quality coffee. It’s basically the Anheuser-Busch of coffee.

That’s right, Juan Valdez has been pushing a lot of crappy coffee all these years. Plenty of quantity…not a lot of quality. I learned this living in the bush of Costa Rica, listening to the farmers talk derisively of Colombian coffee, and then going home and listening to Shakira tunes on the radio. Colombian pop culture, good. Colombian coffee, bad.

So one fine spring day I stepped out of the coffee shop, found everything to be right in the world, and then took a long, slow sip of the mysterious brown substance many of us eventually become slave to. It was at that moment that I realized everything was fine in the world…except my coffee. A change needed to be made.

The next day, I got off the metro and instead of exiting out onto McPherson square, marched across the platform to the 14th St. exit on the opposite end. I had made the first big step. It felt odd, but comforting at the same time.

I walked out of the station, crossed the street, and made a bee line for…you guessed it – Starbucks. It was time to find out what had all these people lining up in droves in the morning. If there was a different option, I probably would have taken it, but there are only Starbucks off near my building – three of them – all on the same square.

It took me about five minutes to get to the front of the line to place my order. Advantage = Eye Street Grill. I didn’t quite understand the sizes at first but figure it out soon enough. Unfortunately, anything preceded with grande makes my mind switch to Spanish, and so my order came out grande café, which was met with an odd look. I quickly recovered, “grande coffee”, I countered.

The barista smiled at that and turned to fill my order. At that, another attendant took my credit card, swiped it, and then immediately handed it back to me. Apparently no receipt would be needed. This was fine by me, as I always threw it away anyway. I always hated the decorum that made people give you a receipt. I generally trust people to charge me the right amount. If not, I can raise hell after the fact. Advantage = Starbucks.

Finally, I took a sip of coffee. Advantage = Starbucks. It beats the heck out of the Folger’s-esque blend from Eye Street Grill. The Starbucks coffee is a strong, chocolaty blend that is forceful yet not overpowering.

The bill was $2.15, a full 57 cents more per glass. Advantage = Eye Street Grill. I still think it’s worth it though. I mean, why pay $1.58 for something that you don’t even like.

I have to say I like the fact that Eye Street Grill doesn’t try to sell me a bunch of random mugs and stuff. At Starbucks you may have noticed a book about the history of the company written by the founder. I find it slightly ridiculous that someone is trying to sell me a book while I’m in a line waiting to get some of his product, a book that will probably explain exactly how I came to be addicted to that same stuff. Isn’t it enough that you’ve got us all here standing in line at 7:30am in the morning? I don’t need to know the play-by-play on how that came to pass. Still…I’m sure the book is plenty good. Advantage = Eye Street Grill.

Despite all of these apparent advantages of Eye Street Grill, I’ve made the switch to Starbucks. The coffee is simply far superior. Yes, it’s been a little awkward at times with my friends at the Eye Street Grill. I remember a morning not long after I made the switch, buying a sandwich at Eye Street Grill for lunch I was asked, “Bwake…we’ll see you tomorrow morning, wight?” I could tell she knew something was up, and even though I answered in the affirmative, we both knew the truth.

My life has changed quite a bit. I now get on the Metro train at the opposite end of the platform. This is a big deal. I see completely different people each morning, walk slightly less after entering the station, check out different girls. It’s taken some getting used to.

Still, I think it’s been worth it.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Dear Graduate Schools,

I’m writing this as a conciliatory note, so that we might be friends going forward. I am not mad about your rebuttals. Oh no…there is no reason to have hard feelings. In fact, I’m just delighted that I got to know you, if only for a fleeting moment. It was very enjoyable visiting your nice, clean learning environs – getting to know the other students and professors that I might have come to know.

I suppose there is a part of me that wants to understand. What went wrong between us? We were getting along so great. Did I not name-drop or use the word “leverage” enough those times we met? I certainly tried to be intelligent and pleasantly affable…but where did I go wrong?

No matter, I’m sure we’ll both go on to bigger and better things. Me, especially. Yes, believe it or not, I know you will be disappointed to know, but it’s not so much that you shut me out, but that I had already decided we were not for each other. You see…you didn’t make my cut. I will not be seduced by your green LEED certified buildings or perfect looking…whatever. I don’t need your group-thinking, cardigan wearing , polo shirt dawning student body. In fact I’m taking back all of the cardigans I bought last month at Gap and J. Crew. Seriously…how do you like me now!

Unlike your crisp, perfect business suits and case studies I have something that is not so easily put in a box – a brain. I am actually smart enough to coherently write an incoherent letter. Try that out in your writing for business management class! It’s called being a free thinker, dude! Yeah, I’m start my own school! It’ll be called the school of Rock!...wait that’s already been taken…and made into a movie. Well, I’m going to think of something to call it, and we won’t have environmentally friendly facilities, or teachers with German accents, or cardigans. And when we call for applications, we might let you apply.

So it’s been good writing to you grad schools. I’m glad we can both put this behind us. Check ya later,


p.s. To any graduate school recruiters that find this in a random Google search: This is obviously a satirical work. Don’t take it that seriously.

p.s.s. That first postscript was written to be funny.

p.s.s.s. If you are still confused refer to my first post script.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Yesterday I Pulled My Groin Muscle, and That's Okay

Our co-ed DC alumni network softball league started up yesterday. Each year alumni from more than 70 schools form teams in the DC area. Divisions are set, new rule clarifications are issued by the league officers – it’s a pretty well organized affair.

Yesterday, we played Bucknell. It’s been three years since I last played on the team, and a lot has changed since I left. Mainly, we got good. Three years ago we barely eked out five wins (out of 20 or so games). Last season Georgia finished seventh in the league.

Two years ago we started acquiring some new talent, including a new pitcher that has special throws for each batter. Keep in mind this is slow pitch softball. I never know you could have throws in slow pitch.

He also hits the ball a mile nearly every time he steps up to the plate. If you couldn’t tell, this guy (named Marieo) is my new hero.

While I’m glad the team has risen so far in the ranks, I was disheartened to learn that when I guy goes off to the Peace Corps to serve his country, he doesn’t retain his place in the batting order like one does his job. Before I had been a solid top five hitter, and how I only merited eleventh place in the order.
My first at bat I swung too hard at the first pitch (a mistake in itself) and knocked a slow moving dribbler that rolled up to the pitcher. Out. End of the inning.

My second at bat I resolved not to swing until the pitcher put at least one strike on the board, forcing me to swing after that (two strikes is an out in our league). First pitch: ball. Second pitch: ball. Third: strike. Time to start swinging. The fourth pitch was pretty good, about waist high over the plate. I made an even swing and knocked a line drive between the shortstop and third baseman. I took my base. Now this is what I remember of softball.

The next batter hit another line drive and as I approached second base, I heard our third base coach telling me to continue on to third. Only I hadn’t given myself the right angle for rounding second, so instead, I tried to step on second and push off the base to begin my progression to third base.

Big mistake. I forgot our bases weren’t anchored to the ground. The base went sliding and my right leg went moving farther from the base of my body. I felt a pain run through my body, made a quick skip, and then hopped my way awkwardly to third base.

Groin pull. It was pretty obvious after stretching it a bit. This had never happened to me. A few teammates asked me if I was alright, and then our coach motioned for someone to sub-in and pinch run for me. I acquiesced.
Since then I’ve found my groin pull to not be such a bad thing. I can still move forward and back without too much pain – just a little discomfort. I get to make a joke when girls at the game asked me if I was okay, like “can you help me with this? I just need to warm it up a bit.”

I have an excuse for ambling along now, whereas before I would just be seen as a lollygagger.

Lesson Learned: Groin pull = acceptable excuse for lollygagging

Walking like a pirate or cowboy is enjoyable. I even find myself hoping this groin pull sticks around a few more days.

In the last inning we were down by two runs, and with one out we came to Marieo in the lineup. We knew the pressure was on him a little bit because he’d only hit one home run on the day (he usually hits home runs almost every time). He tightened his gloves and stepped up to bat. After letting a couple of balls pass him by, he let loose a massive cut and sent the ball rocketing over the center fielder. I think she was still running when Marieo crossed home plate. Georgia wins. A groin is pulled. Lollygagging is acceptable. All is right in the world.