Monday, September 29, 2014

Pieces on writing - about Jeff Pearlman, interviewing subjects & giving yourself permission

There's been a few different pieces I've seen lately that seem to group together as being about both the want to and how to of producing great writing.

The most recent of the pieces was "The Making of a New York Times Bestselling Sportswriter: The Jeff Pearlman Story" by Jon Finkel for the site ThriveWire and it featured the interesting tale of how Pearman became a successful writer. On one hand, I find it somewhat flummoxing to read of someone who knew at a young age what they wanted to do and then did it (I mean, if only we all knew when young what we wanted?!), see Stephen King from his excellent book On Writing, but on the other hand, there was great stuff from Pearlman on both his repeated and creative efforts to eventually get hired at Sports Illustrated and about the importance of reporting, rather than just writing.

This idea of reporting and interviewing very much ties into another interesting piece I've seen recently. "The Art of the Interview, ESPN-Style" was by David Folkenflik for NPR in 2006 and about Jack Sawatsky, a writing professor turned interviewing guru that was hired by ESPN to teach the craft.

The last piece to note here wasn't on the how to in becoming a successful creative, but very much the want to as Brian Koppleman on his person website wrote "Permission Granted!" about career advice he gave to a young writer/director and Koppleman finished his piece with...

"You are the only one who can give yourself permission. I am the only one who can give myself permission. And this young man is the only one who can give himself permission. And that is great news. That is freedom. If we let it be. We just need to listen to ourselves, to speak honestly to ourselves, to permit ourselves. And then, we are off and running."

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Great sports writing - by Moehringer, Van Valkenburg & Rushin

A few different pieces of great recent sports writing included from Sport Illustrated an opus out of the 6oth anniversary issue and from ESPN, a shorter opus on Derek Jeter and feature about offensive football mastermind Hal Mumme.

The Sports Illustrated 60th anniversary review was written by Steve Rushin and unfortunately isn't online now, but the 20,500 word story is a remarkably written piece on the events and people that shaped the world of sports through the past six decades. The piece from Rushin followed up on his SI 40th anniversary piece from 1994 and very much reminded me of the great SI 2012 Sportsman of the Year profile of LeBron James by Lee Jenkins that seems to not be online anymore, but I wrote about here.

The two recent ESPN pieces are both online and excellent work with J.R. Moehringer doing some 9,000 words in "The Final Walk-Off" on Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter and Kevin Van Valkenburg writing "Yoda of the Air-Raid Offense, He Is" on former Kentucky football coach Hal Mumme. This piece by Van Valkenburg was published about a week ago for ESPN The Magazine and brought to mind for me the Chuck Culpepper story "Uniquely Memorable" about former Pacific Lutheran coach Frosty Westering, another coach who worked to have the game be fun for his players.

Interesting business pieces - by Stone, Carr & Ringen

Three compelling pieces of recent business writing included cover stories from both Businessweek and Fast Company as well as an additional Fast Company feature.

The Businessweek piece was "Tim Cook Interview: The iPhone 6, the Apple Watch, and Remaking a Company's Culture" and an interesting look by Brad Stone and Adam Satariano at Apple and it's CEO.

The Fast Company pieces were "The $3.2 Billion Man: Can Google's Newest Star Outsmart Apple?" by Austin Carr on Tony Fadell and Nest as well as "Tastier, Healthier, And Animal-Free: Can Ethan Brown Reinvent Meat?" by Jonathan Ringen on the company Beyond Meat. This last story in particular was a fascinating one with Brown's company offering a becoming widely available substitute for meat that has all the flavor and proteins, but without the negative ramifications of meat. Ringen in his story noted it taking 1,800 gallons of water to produce one pound of steak, a figure that seems high, but is actually lower than the 2,500 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat that was noted in the book Abundance that I reviewed a month ago.

Writing on the CIA and Secret Service - by Leonnig, Burt & Wax-Thibodeaux

Three recent excellent stories seemed to group together with the CIA being the topic of two of them (one a heroic tale and one simply an interesting story) and an extremely poor response by the Secret Service the topic of the third.

The larger and more gravitas-having of the two CIA stories was for Slate by Andrew Burt with "Your Future Is Very Dark," a remarkable tale that carries the subtitle "The incredible story of former CIA agent John T. Downey, the longest held American captive of war." Downey is now a judge and the story of him being held by the Chinese for 20 years until his 1973 release is simply an amazing one.

The other CIA story to note here certainly an entirely different one than that on Downey, but Emily Wax-Thibodeaux wrote a pretty interesting short piece with "At CIA Starbucks, even the baristas are covert" for the Washington Post.

Also published in the Post was "Secret Service fumbled response after gunman hit White House residence in 2011" by Carol Leonnig and it's a sobering tale of bumbled response by those in an extremely important job.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Shadows in the Vineyard by Maxamillian Potter

Shadows in the Vineyard by Maxamillian Potter was an interesting tale with the subtitle "The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine."

The book is about the poisoning and ransom demands put to the famed French vineyard Domaine de la RomanĂ©e-Conti and its winemaker Aubert de Villaine. While the book could be interesting to many, it's also an "inside baseball" sort of account of wine, with a ton of compelling to oenophiles material about the industry, famed Burgundy region and RomanĂ©e-Conti, a wine so sought after, bottles can go for thousands upon thousands of dollars.

In a way the conclusion to the story is a bit of a letdown, but seems more a function of just what the story told is rather than anything wrong done in the writing, and Potter wrote an interesting book that would likely be especially appreciated by wine lovers.

Great sports pieces - by Van Natta Jr., Drehs and Thamel

There's been a few sports stories I've seen recently that I found to be excellent, including two long profiles for ESPN and a story for Sports Illustrated that related to a fantastic ESPN video.

The profile pieces were "Jerry Football" by Don Van Natta Jr. on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and "Two in a Million" by Wayne Drehs on MLB superstars Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout. Two exceptionally well done features from Van Natta and Drehs on compelling people.

The other piece of writing to note here stood out to me due to what it was about with Pete Thamel for Sports Illustrated writing "Boston College uses emotion and its running game to shock No. 9 USC" on the heels of BC honoring at the game Welles Crowther, the former Eagle lacrosse player who perished saving others on 9/11 and the subject of a great ESPN video segment.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Interesting Businessweek writing - by Waldman & Vance

There's been a number of interesting pieces from Businessweek recently with feature stories out of the September 8-14 issue by Ashlee Vance and Peter Waldman and two additional short pieces by Vance.

The story from Waldman was "How to Get Into an Ivy League College—Guaranteed" on Steven Ma and his Bay Area-based ThinkTank Learning. It's a pretty fascinating read that shows the lengths some families will go to in order to help get kids into the best schools.

The Vance feature was "Silicon Valley's Most Hated Patent Troll Stops Suing and Starts Making" and an interesting look at both why the Seattle-based Intellectual Ventures so reviled in tech circles and new initiatives at the company.

Also by Vance, the same magazine issue had the short pieces "As Software and Hardware Advance Together, the Next Innovation Wave Rises" on the great advantage held by companies like Apple, Tesla Motors and Nest (now part of Google) and for the BW website Vance did "Why Microsoft Might Pay $2 Billion for Minecraft," with this last piece bringing to mind Robin Sloan's excellent "The secret of Minecraft" piece for Medium.

Great writing on outdoor danger / adventure - by Sundeen, Murphy & Sanchez

Three really excellent recent pieces of writing that seemed to group together for me were on travel deep into Mexico, attending a wilderness survival course and calamitous flooding in Colorado last year.

For the New York Times, Mark Sundeen wrote "Ignoring the Warnings for a Honeymoon in Mexico" and it's a short piece that pulls the reader in with the question of what's going to happen next. Really well written from Sundeen and brings to mind for me his 2012 feature "Why Noah Went to the Woods" for Outside Magazine.

Another interesting recent short piece was "I Will Survive: Going Wild at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy" by Austin Murphy for the Sports Illustrated website and a great recent lengthy feature was from Robert Sanchez with "The Rising" for 5280 Magazine. Sanchez wrote of the September 2013 cataclysmic flooding of the Big Thompson River near Loveland, CO and it's a great tale of danger and heroism. Seeing the piece in the Denver-based 5280 brought to mind for me the excellent essay for 5280 "Yesterday's News" by J.R. Moehringer about starting out as a writer at the Mountain News.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Abundance by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by X Prize founder and Singularity University co-founder Peter Diamandis and author and entrepreneur Steven Kotler was a solid read about actions around earth's available resources. The book early on contains the statement "technology can make the once scarce now abundant" and Diamandis and Kotler write throughout the book about exponential technologies, with the solving of one problem then serving as a multiplier and having positive downstream impacts in other areas.

Covered as the probably the most important basic need is that of access to clean water. If this can be solved, people’s health can improve, hunger be reduced and time freed up to do other productive things. The authors note how we need entirely new approaches to water, not simple conservation and some of the innovations both here now and potentially to come are inventor Dean Kamen’s company DEKA Research in New Hampshire and its Slingshot that generates clean water from anything wet, no matter how dirty, a smart grid to allocate water usage and smart toilets that can generate freshwater, fertilizer and power. In relation to food supply, it’s noted that we spend too much money and energy moving food, and the solution is to "move the farm" and do vertical indoor farming through hydroponics. Additionally, fish farming, genetically engineered seeds and in-vitro meat grown from stem cells (as meat from animals can both be a source of disease and requires roughly 2,500 gallons of water per pound) are all written about as things that can bring about abundance in relation to food, with the science of designing food systems that mimic the natural world being known as agroecology.

Diamandis and Kotler cover how some of the areas of improvement in energy availability are solar power, biofuels, like those being worked on by Craig Venter and his company Synthetic Genomics Inc., and nuclear power. Also covered is both a local level smart energy grid that can store energy during the day and then release it at night and a large scale energy grid for widespread distribution of power based on demand. Robotics was additionally noted as an enabler of abundance, with mention of the company Willow Garage in Menlo Park and Intuitive Surgical in the Bay Area that makes the da Vinci system surgical robot. Also in relation to health was stem cell treatments and growing artificial organs out of cells using 3-D printers, which are a fascinating innovation even if not using cells to build stuff. In terms of information and education, Diamandis and Kotler mentioned the internet's ability to disseminate information quickly as a key enabler of abundance and in the future, the potential benefit of the Internet of Things, basically devices in the home that all have unique IP addresses, along with education advances and personalized learning like through the Khan Academy and game learning.

Also noted was the new philanthropists, those like Jeff Skoll, Pierre Omidyar, Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates putting huge sums of money towards fixing difficult problems and one interesting thing in the book was the distinction between the top and bottom of the pyramid in terms of people globally and their standards of living, and how large improvements may well come from the bottom. These individuals collectively have great spending power, huge needs and likely more than wealthier people in developed countries would benefit from force multipliers, like when someone get a basic need like clean water, it frees up time to be productive in other areas.

All in all, it was a very interesting book and makes the case well that prospects for the future not as bad as they sometimes seem.

Great sports writing on college football and tragedy

Two recent pieces of great sports writing about college football included a feature story for SB Nation and book excerpt published in Sports Illustrated.

The SB Nation piece was "The right thing to do vs. the state of Florida" by Michael Kruse about the death of 18-year-old Devaughn Darling during a 2001 Florida State University off-field practice and what's occurred since. Darling's family sued the state of Florida over the circumstances of Darling's death and agreed to a $2M no-fault settlement, with $1.8M of it still not paid to them as it's up to the discretion of the Florida state legislature whether they actually pay the settlement money. It was a maddening piece to read at times due to both the money and details around and after Darling's death, but Kruse wrote the story incredibly well.

The book excerpt by Anderson for SI was from The Storm and the Tide: Tragedy, Hope and Triumph in Tuscaloosa and a riveting account of the tornado that hit in 2007. The book followed up on a feature Anderson wrote for the magazine and posted to the SI website earlier this month from Anderson was "writing The Storm and the Tide was a deeply personal experience."

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Writing on interacting with the world - by Brand, Jones, Finkel & Breznican

There's a few different pieces of great writing I've seen recently that grouped together for me under the subject of how people interact with the world.

The first two pieces to note were profound and well-written essays, one by Russell Brand for The Guardian and one by Chris Jones for Esquire. The Brand piece was "Robin Williams’ divine madness will no longer disrupt the sadness of the world" after Williams' suicide and was great writing remiscent of the piece "For Amy" that Brand wrote after the passing of Amy Winehouse in 2007. The piece from Jones was "Some Days You Just Want to Kill Yourself" from a 2011 issue of Esquire and posted online earlier this month after the death of Williams. It's a highly personal piece about depression and one I wrote a pretty lengthy post on after first reading.

The other two pieces of great writing to mention here weren't about depression, but covered well people leading theirs lives in a fascinating manner. For GQ Magazine was the Michael Finkel piece "The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit" on Christopher Knight, who spent close to 30 years by himself in the woods of Maine off supplies he pilfered. Knight's story is a tremendously interesting one and Finkel wrote the piece with himself in it as someone who visited Knight in prison. This first-person approach definitely worked in the story and was made even more interesting with Finkel's own back-story as a journalist fired for creating a composite character, and Finkel then having his identity assumed by a murderer. It's a remarkable tale that Finkel wrote of in the 2006 book True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa that's the basis of an already filmed movie starring Jonah Hill and James Franco.

The last piece to note on someone with a unique approach to life, or at a minimum to his career, was "Zen and the art of casting Bill Murray in your movie" by Anthony Breznican for Entertainment Weekly. Really an entertaining look at the famously difficult to get reach and get attention from comedic genius.

Interesting business pieces - on high-end coffee, stealth boats and Twitter

Three different interesting pieces of business writing I've seen recently ran the gamut of subjects included coffee, a new boat engineered to evade radar and Twitter.

The latest issue of Businessweek had the Caroline Winter feature "This Stealth Attack Boat May Be Too Innovative for the Pentagon" on entrepreneur Gregory Sancoff and his company Juliet Marine, maker of an invisible to radar small winged boat, Ghost. It was a fascinating read on some remarkably engineered technology and will be interesting to see if it's adopted by the military.

For Fast Company Magazine, Danielle Sacks wrote the excellent feature "The Multimillion Dollar Quest to Brew the Perfect Cup of Coffee" on artisinal third wave coffeemaking efforts (with the standard offering from Starbucks as second wave). The piece from Sacks covers everything from heavily venture capital funded Blue Bottle Coffee to the company Alpha Dominche and its up to $16K Steampunk coffeemaker as well as Starbucks' increased rollout of the high-end Clover cofeemaker in it's stores.

The final piece to note here is one I came across a few months back and was actually written three years ago. For his venture capital focused site AVC in 2009, Fred Wilson wrote a short post on Twitter usage titled "The Logged Out User (continued)" and it's an interesting look on how Twitter is used in different ways by different people, and what a great thing that is for the company.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Stories on parenting, education & kids - by Hewitt and Rosin

Two excellent stories I've seen in the past few months dealt with the topic of kids, how we let them play and have them learn and whether a reader agrees entirely with what's featured in the pieces, they're both well written and interesting.

The more recent of the two was "We Don't Need No Education" by Ben Hewitt for Outside Magazine and it's a fascinating piece that the author writes about his 9 and 12 year old boys and their "unschooled" education. The family lives on a farm in Vermont and are a subset of homeschoolers, with "unschooled" kids learning subjects only when they say they're ready and not having a formal cirriculum. It's an interesting read from Hewitt on an education concept that seems a bit like Montessori learning, but to a different level. 

The piece from The Atlantic was back in March and titled "The Overprotected Kid" about The Land in Wales, an adventure playground for kids that's somewhat reminiscent of a junk yard and lets kids play with and use things they never would in a traditional swing and monkey bars type playground. It's a tremendously interesting idea and one that's also being done at some U.S. locations, like the adventure playground in Berkeley, CA.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Great pieces from and related to events in Ferguson, MO

I've found myself riveted lately by what's been going on in Ferguson, Missouri over the past nine days and there's been some amazing writing on what's happened there, as well as other great writing and a speech that come to mind as I follow the unfolding events.

The most detailed piece I've seen about the shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson that precipitated everything was "In Ferguson, three minutes — and two lives forever changed" for the Washington Post by Manuel Roig-Franzia, DeNeen L. Brown and Wesley Lowery. The story was published on August 16th so additional details have and will continue to come to light, but it seems a really solid account.

In terms of the police action both that August 9th day and since, two pieces of writing I keep thinking of that weren't about Ferguson and the events there, but seem very much related, were by Jason Fagone and Matt Taibbi. For Mother Jones, Fagone wrote "How a Squad of Ex-Cops Fights Police Abuses" on retired cops working as investigators for a Florida Public Defender's Office and Taibbi authored the book The Divide (which I wrote on a few weeks ago). Taibbi provided an excellent and infuritating look at the application of justice in America and how there's different sets of consequences for breaking laws depending on what group someone a part of.

Two really well done pieces of writing done as a result of police reaction to protestors in Ferguson were both political in nature, and from two people perhaps often on different ends of a political spectrum. For Time Magazine was "Rand Paul: We Must Demilitarize the Police" by the Kentucky Senator and for his own company site, Venture Capital investor and Barack Obama backer Chris Sacca wrote "A few thoughts on race, America, and our President" about what the unfolding situation calls for.

The last thing to note here on something that I've seen posted in relation to Ferguson and which has stuck with me was video of the speech Robert F. Kennedy gave in which he annouced the death of Martin Luther King Jr. I six years ago linked to an audio-only version and the speech more powerful today than ever.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey

After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey was an interesting and at times lyrically written book about Hainey as both a journalist and son looking for information on the circumstances of his father's death decades ago. It wasn’t so much a question of whether foul-play involved in the death, but rather why the details provided around his father’s death didn’t make sense to Hainey, and what the actual truth of where he died and with whom was.

There was definitely an element of “is it worth it trying to find out?” to this question of what happened some thirty years prior and at times the story felt to drag a bit, but it mattered to Hainey and was interesting to see what he would learn. Also, the book itself was a fairly impressive read in terms of the dexterity with language used and duality in relation to words and their meaning throughout, with everyday events serving as metaphors or indicators of much larger quests ongoing.

Hainey was able to find the truth of where his father was at time of death through dogged reporting and it was interesting reading of both his quest for information and the power someone can still hold long after they're gone. There’s also a fascinating and profound conclusion to the book as the author shares with his aging mother what he learned, leading to a discussion of who people were, how we remember them and how we work through the things that are most important at any given point in time.

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald was an interesting book from the writer who Snowden provided untold numbers of classified NSA documents for Greenwald to publish stories on.

The book feels to be split into thirds, with the first two chapters about Greenwald and Snowden and their lives intersecting (as a result of Snowden reaching out to Greenwald), chapters three and four being on the surveillance of largely U.S. citizens done by the NSA and then chapter five containing Greenwald’s thoughts on the response of the media to Snowden as well as Greenwald when the stories began to publish.

I did find myself skimming the two middle chapters on data the NSA collected, but all in all, it struck me as a good read, especially for anyone interested in the role of government as well as that of journalism in our society. I found particularly noteworthy the final chapter in which Greenwald wrote of both Snowden and he having their characters impugned as an attempt to discredit the sources of the information, and distract from an examination and discussion of NSA surveillance and its legality.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Great Esquire writing - by Paterniti & Richardson

Two sensational pieces from Esquire that I've seen recently including one from an issue that hasn't arrived in the mail yet and one from a September 1999 edition.

The older of the two features is "The House that Thurman Munson Built" by Michael Paterniti on the New York Yankees catcher from the 1970s and it's a remarkable story on the man who died in 1979 and his impact on the author who grew up a fan of Munson. Paterniti reports some amazing details throughout the piece and similar to other stories I've his I've posted on, it's great writing and tacked on after the conclusion of the piece was a writeup by Paterniti about doing the story, taken from the writing site Gangrey and with the full post including story reprint and comments here.

The other piece to note here is "The Abortion Ministry of Dr. Willie Parker" and it's an account from John H. Richardson of the doctor at the only remaining Mississippi abortion clinic. Really excellent storytelling from Richardson on an important topic.