Monthly Archives: May 2008

Impressions of Prague, Czech Republic

Pragueatnight

(photo credit)

A friend and I spent a few nights the other week in Prague, Czech Republic.

I’d heard endless good things about Prague. Truly, I don’t know a person who has not liked Prague, with the most common adjective being "dreamy." It’s clear why: the main old town square is a remarkable sight. Standing in the middle, to your right are enormous facades and old buildings; to your left is the Astronomical Clock. Leave the square, wind your way through cobble stone streets and you’re soon at the Charles Bridge. The bridge, especially at night as pictured above, is stunning. And the views of the city from the bridge are second-to-none. Walk across the bridge and continue up the hill and you see Prague Castle, a soaring, amazing architectural construction, with stone lions jumping out the windows.

We went to the Kafka museum after the Castle — it’s very well done. By reading some of Kafka’s diary entries it’s clear that he was absolutely obsessed with writing. He couldn’t do anything else. A sign of genius. (I read this set of Kafka stories beforehand to get oriented. A fine introduction to his work.)

Czech food is heavy (dark meat, yummy thick bread dumplings, beer) but good. Because my friend had a somewhat weak Italian stomach — sorry Massimo, couldn’t resist — we made a couple McDonald’s runs along the way, and stumbled upon the McWalk. The McWalk is like a drive-through window except it’s a walk-through. Why someone would use the McWalk instead of walking in the front door is beyond me. Apparently, there are only two McDonald’s McWalk windows in the world: Prague and Haifa, Israel. See my travel blog for more. Also – in McDonald’s they charge for ketchup!

The Soviet influence remains. I met a business professor in Prague who told me that many officials in the current government are there because of the old communist power structure. The communist ideology still has a grip on the national psyche, he told me, and this is problematic on many fronts including efforts to stimulate entrepreneurship.

We had bad weather for our visit, and weather always makes a difference. This probably contributes to why I feel like Prague is a little overrated. Its beauty is stunning, but many parts of Western Europe have beautiful old towns, churches which inspire, cute hole-in-the-wall shops, etc etc. I’m guessing that 10 years ago, Prague was a hidden gem for Western Europe tourists willing to venture a little more east. It’s changed big time. Charles Bridge teems with tourists every hour of every day. The whole old town is packed with foreigners, and the cheesy shops selling fake tourist trinkets line virtually every street. Sure, you can avoid the tourists and explore new town (which Massimo and I did and it was well worth it). But the fact remains: Prague is now a tier two tourist destination in Europe (if tier one is Rome, Paris, and London), drawing visitors from all over Europe, America, and Asia. To me, Kiev, Ukraine has more charm and is less crowded than Prague, and only slightly less beautiful.

The Bottom Line: Prague is well worth your time as something that has a bit more Eastern European vibe. But it’s no longer off the beaten path and therefore contains all the annoyances of other top European tourist destinations.

The “McWalk” in Prague (and Haifa, Israel)

Massimo and I happened upon what I think should be a more recognized tourist attraction in Prague: the "McWalk" in McDonald’s! It’s like a drive-thru window; except it’s a walk-through open 18 hours a day.Mcwalksmall

According to my research, there are only two McWalk’s in the world: one in Prague, and one in Haifa, Israel.
I say this because the Prague Post claims that Prague is home to "the only McDonald’s in the known world with a ‘McWalk’ window." And yet a Google search turned up one other location, in Haifa, see photo below. All other results pointed to Prague.
Haifa

Kafka Musuem

Well worth visiting in Prague. The pic below is me in a mirror exhibit in the museum. With dark museum and weird mirror effects throughout the whole thing, it really gives you a sense of the depressed mood in Kafka’s writing.
Kfafka Mirrors

From Prague Old Town

Two pics from Prague old town. It’s a remarkable sight to stand in the old sq and take in the Astronomical Clock (pictured here) and then old facades and colorful buildings which surround the square…

Clock_2 Praguesquare_2

You Aren’t Criticized for Things You Fail to Try

 A subtle but powerful insight from Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, via this Q&A in Portfolio:

One of your big initiatives, a search engine called A9, fell flat. What happened? If you decide that you’re going to do only the things you know are going to work, you’re going to leave a lot of opportunity on the table. Companies are rarely criticized for the things that they failed to try. But they are, many times, criticized for things they tried and failed at.

 

Did you ever get criticized for some­thing you tried that worked out? When we pioneered customer reviews, it was incredibly controversial. I got letters from publishers saying, “You don’t understand your business. You make money when you sell things. Take down those negative customer reviews.” We’ve never done anything of real value that wasn’t at least a little bit controversial when we did it. But if you want to be a pioneer, you have to be comfortable being misunderstood.

The Components of Killer Instinct

Two years ago I asked, Is a killer instinct necessary in business and life? There were some good comments. But I’ve never thought hard about what the components of a "killer instinct" actually are. In this Sports Illustrated piece praising Kobe Bryant’s "freakish love of the game" and peerless tenacity, there’s this interesting graf:

Idan Ravin, a personal trainer who works with…Carmelo Anthony, Gilbert Arenas and Elton Brand and is known by some in the league as "the hoops whisperer" for his effect on players, has even broken killer instinct down into components: love of the game, ambition, obsessive-compulsive behavior, arrogance/ confidence, selfishness and nonculpability/ guiltlessness. He sees them all in Bryant.

Earlier there’s this:

There are no plus-minus stats to measure a player’s ruthlessness, his desire to beat his opponent so badly he’ll need therapy to recover. One thing’s for sure: You can’t teach it.

I wonder whether similar observations could be made in business. Are the big time CEOs freakishly competitive, mind-blowingly arrogant, and singularly focused on their business goals even at the cost of "balance"?

(hat tip: del.icio.us/chrisyeh)

Our Collectivist Candidates

Last night, at my favorite cafe in San Francisco, I said to a friend that Obama’s speech at Wesleyan kind of made me squirm. It’s the latest in a string of events that has made me less optimistic about his candidacy. Today, I was pleased to read David Boaz’s op/ed in the WSJ describing what I felt and why:

Sen. Obama told the students that "our individual salvation depends on collective salvation." He disparaged students who want to "take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy."…

John McCain also denounces "self-indulgence" and insists that Americans serve "a national purpose that is greater than our individual interests." During a Republican debate at the Reagan Library on May 3, 2007, Sen. McCain derided Mitt Romney’s leadership ability, saying, "I led . . . out of patriotism, not for profit." Challenged on his statement, Mr. McCain elaborated that Mr. Romney "managed companies, and he bought, and he sold, and sometimes people lost their jobs. That’s the nature of that business." He could have been channeling Barack Obama.

"A greater cause," "community service" – to many of us, these gauzy phrases sound warm and comforting. But their purpose is to disparage and denigrate our own lives, to belittle our own pursuit of happiness. They’re concepts better suited to a more collectivist country than to one founded in libertarian revolution – a revolution intended to defend our rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." …

They’re wrong. Every human life counts. Your life counts. You have a right to live it as you choose, to follow your bliss. You have a right to seek satisfaction in accomplishment. And if you chase after the almighty dollar, you just might find that you are led, as if by an invisible hand, to do things that improve the lives of others.

This is related to my Marketplace commentary on national service.

Do Men Have to Wear a Jacket in Restaurants in Your City?

Paul Graham’s latest essay on Cities and Ambition has some parts I agree with, some parts I do not (as usual), but I found this footnote particularly amusing:

How many times have you read about startup founders who continued to live inexpensively as their companies took off?  Who continued to dress in jeans and t-shirts, to drive the old car they had in grad school, and so on?  If you did that in New York, people would treat you like shit.  If you walk into a fancy restaurant in San Francisco wearing a jeans and a t-shirt, they’re nice to you; who knows who you might be?  Not in New York.

One sign of a city’s potential as a technology center is the number of restaurants that still require jackets for men.  According to Zagat’s there are none in San Francisco, LA, Boston, or Seattle, 4 in DC, 6 in Chicago, 8 in London, 13 in New York, and 20 in Paris.

(Zagat’s lists the Ritz Carlton Dining Room in SF as requiring jackets but I couldn’t believe it, so I called to check and in fact they don’t. Apparently there’s only one restaurant left on the entire West Coast that still requires jackets: The French Laundry in Napa Valley.)

In McDonald’s in Prague

They charge extra for ketchup.

Why???

How to Find New Books to Read

Tyler Cowen advises:

visit Borders every Tuesday to look for new books, go to a local public library every other day and scan the new books section, subscribe to TLS, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, noting that you should spend more time with the ads than the book reviews, read the blogs Bookslut and Literary Saloon, read the new magazine BookMark (recommended), read the NYT, FT, and Guardian and their books sections, review lots of books on your blog and peruse the numerous review copies you get in the mail (thanks, you mailers and yes I do look at each and every one; keep them coming!). 

It’s rare that I rely on recommendations from other people.

Oh, yes, you should get free shipping on Amazon.com.

Hmm. My reactions / thoughts:

  1. Don’t buy books at bookstores. You can get them cheaper online and of course find a more in-depth analysis. Using bookstores to find a new book (and then later buy online) is hit or miss; I usually find it inefficient.
  2. Follow 800CEORead.com for the latest business books.
  3. Read BookForum.com compulsively for general brain food and book review links.
  4. Read the LA Times, NY Times, FT, Economist, and WSJ book reviews sections. Some papers also have book blogs — here’s the LA Times Jacket Copy, NY Times Papercuts, New Yorker’s Book Bench.
  5. Ask publishers to send you books. You’ll be surprised how many say yes and comp you a copy, even if you’re a nobody.
  6. Use an Amazon.com Wish List to track all the books you want to read. I have over 300 books in my Wish List. Make a note in the "notes" section if someone recommended the book to you — so you can thank them if you read and like it.
  7. Why not rely on personal recommendations, Tyler? If it’s someone who knows your taste, consider their recommendation.
  8. Customer reviews on Amazon.com are generally unreliable.
  9. Go to book sales from your local library, where books should be priced at a dollar or two each. Buy a truckload, and sort through them at home.
  10. If in a bookstore, considering a purchase, don’t read the jacket copy of a book, which is often written by people in the marketing dept of the publisher who haven’t even read the book. Instead read the first few pages in the Introduction.
  11. MOST IMPORTANT: When in doubt, buy the book. You can always put it down if it’s bad (unless you have a compulsion to finish every book you open, which is indeed a tragic disorder). And there’s a chance the book will move you. Some of the best books I’ve read I almost didn’t buy.