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.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The Divide by Matt Taibbi

The Divide by Matt Taibbi is a thorough and well-written book that definitely deals with income inequality, but beyond this is about how in America today we have laws that are supposed to apply to all, but completely different sets of consequences for breaking them depending on income level.

The book appears to have come out of, or at least is related to, Taibbi's 2011 Rolling Stone piece "Wall Street Isn't Winning – It's Cheating" and is richly packed with examples and details how white-color financial crime by the wealthy rarely leads to the arrest and prosecution of individuals, but punishment for nuisance offenses and other crimes perpetrated by the poor are often pursued zealously by the police, courts and government. Taibbi makes the point that neither the harsh nor lenient approach wrong, just that they shouldn't simultaneously exist depending on income class.

In terms of why white-color crime so infrequently leads to jail time for individuals, and more often to no-admission-of-fault settlements with financial institutions, Taibbi offers a number of different reasons why. More than anything else, it seems that it comes down to prosecutors wanting easy cases to win and that financial crime can often be both complex and made out to be even more complex by legions of defense attorneys arguing technicalities and reasons for exclusion from prosecution. Additionally, the courts have frequently used the argument that to punish too severely either a guilty company or individuals within those companies could have a detrimental impact on markets and jobs, with the courts citing “industry experts” as being those arguing against criminal charges within the same industry. The examples from Taibbi are fairly brutal in the fraud committed, ranging from Barclay’s giving $112M in bonuses to nine Lehman Brothers executives while they were negotiating a $5B profit on the sale of Lehman assets to Barclay’s, to financial titans employing thug-like tactics in their attempts to destroy a company they had shorted and would profit greatly from it going under.

Taibbi writes in the book of how if white-color financial crime can often be complicated to prosecute and at times difficult to pinpoint the guilty individuals to blame, the crimes of the poor can be much easier to see and prosecute, or to just accuse someone of the crimes and then make their lives difficult. It’s noted that over the past 20 years, violent crime has dropped heavily, poverty has risen, and prison populations have skyrocketed, the result of aggressive policing methods against the poor, basically spreading a huge net and seeing what sticks in it, based on the idea that the poor are probably doing something wrong anyways. From nuisance arrests for things like loitering or obstructing traffic (basically standing on a sidewalk) to the zealous pursuit of welfare frauds and illegal immigrants, it does appear to be a wide scale denigration of the poor and application of the Bill of Rights as being on a class basis rather than applied to all.

Similar to how Taibbi writes that it’s not wrong to have either lenient or strict standards of justice, just wrong to have both depending on income level, he writes that it’s not that welfare fraud shouldn’t be policed and not that illegal immigrants shouldn't have consequences from being here illegally, but rather it’s a question of how we treat those that may be guilty and what rights we give to them. The assumption of guilt and zealous pursuit of the perhaps guilty poor matched up against the too-complicated-of-a-tale to find guilt with the wealthy is where the concept of The Divide comes in. Along these same lines, the point is made that people on one side of the divide in general have no idea how bad it is on the other side.

Taibbi closes the book with a touch of optimism about the prosecution of financial crimes at the same time that New York City's stop-and-frisk laws are being challenged in courts, but even with that, it’s definitely a sobering and well-told story of two different ways treating people based on class.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Great sports writing - by Pollak, Ballard & White

There's been a few recent pieces of sports writing I've seen that I found particularly noteworthy, with two of the pieces very much profound and the third an entertaining tale.

The first piece was from the Baltimore Sun with the 1997 Pulitzer Prize winning "The Umpire's Son" by Lisa Pollak on MLB umpire John Hirschbeck and his family. In 1992 they learned of the rare genetic disease Adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD, that would claim the life of eight-year-old John Drew Hirschbeck and leave his younger brother Michael afflicted with the disease, along with his two sisters as carriers that could pass it along to any males they might eventually give birth to. It's an empathically written story from Pollak that becomes even more profound with the Hirschbeck family's tragic news from April of this year.

The second story of heft to note here was from the recent July 28 issue of Sports Illustrated with Chris Ballard writing "A First-time Skydiving Experience, a Fall to Earth and a Terrible Accident." The piece is a detailed account of the cataclysmic 2009 injury suffered by instructor Dave Hartsock as he saved the life of his first-time jumper client Shirley Dygert and a great retelling of a heroic act.

The final piece to mention didn't necessarily have the same gravitas as the first two, but was a well-done story on an topic geographically close to my heart. Set on the Richardson Highway between Glennallen and Delta Junction (middle of nowhere Alaska sort of between Anchorage and Fairbanks) is the annual race and party Arctic Man and written about it was "Artic Man: Wild Rides and Crazed Nights at America's Most Extreme Ski Race" by Matt White for SB Nation Longform. It's an entertaining story and brought to mind the also entertaining segment on Arctic Man by the Adam Richman show "Fandemonium" on the Travel Channel.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Assorted excellent writing - by Flynn, Kruse & Sloan

There's a few pieces of excellent writing I've come across recently that don't necessarily have a huge connecting thread between them, but all really well done on interesting topics.

Each story I came across via Twitter and by far the oldest of them was from the July 2000 issue of Esquire with "The Perfect Fire" by Sean Flynn. It's about about a giant warehouse blaze fought by firefighters in Worcester, MA and remarkably tense writing that brought to mind some of the best works of authors like Sebastian Junger or Jon Krakauer.

The second piece to note here was from the August 2014 issue of Charlotte Magazine with "Period.
The man who writes obituaries, the people who hire him, and what we learn from our last words" by Michael Kruse. It struck me as as well-written and kind of quiet piece about death, and about a writer in Ken Garfield who attempts to describe well the lives lived by others.

The third story was published in June with Robin Sloan writing "The secret of Minecraft: And its challenge to the rest of us" for the site Medium. If the Flynn piece could be characterized as being about tension and drama and the one from Kruse about reverence and meaning, that from Sloan strikes me as being on secrets and exploration. There's something about the tone of how he describes Minecraft and the appeal and positive of it for kids that really resonated with me. Additionally, description of the game and its creative element for players made me think back to a 2008 Esquire story by Jason Fagone on game designer Jason Rohrer and how he "turns video games into art."

Excellent business writing - by Riley, Vance & Thurston

Three interesting and well-done pieces of recent business writing included two stories from Businessweek and a post done to the site TechCrunch.

The larger of the two Businessweek pieces was by Michael Riley with "How Russian Hackers Stole the Nasdaq." It's a fascinating in-depth look at what appears to be a government-sponsored break-in to Nasdaq, done for reasons unknown. It was a really compelling and somewhat chilling story that brought to mind for me the Michael Lewis book Flash Boys that I wrote on a few months ago.

From a more recent BW issue was "Netflix's Ken Florance: The Man Who Keeps the Video Streaming" by Ashlee Vance. It's a short and interesting piece that covers how Netflix paying Internet Service Providers (ISPs) for better connectivity... something that wouldn't be required were there net neutrality.

The last solid piece of writing to note here was "Christensen Vs. Lepore: A Matter Of Fact," posted by Thomas Thurston to TechCrunch. Thurston is a guy who I worked with back when he was in college and his essay done in response to criticism of Harvard professor and author Clayton Christensen by a fellow Harvard professor. I've a few times posted on work from Christensen (best known for his writing around "Disruption Theory" in business) and Thurston provides some solid logic in support of  the theory as a way to predict the success or failure of a business.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Writing on careers - by Horwitz, Woolever, Hoffman, Cashnocha & Yeh

There's been a few interesting pieces of writing I've come across over the past month that dealt with the subject of careers & work, each piece doing so in a very distinct way.

On writing as a career, there was the fascinating New York Times opinion piece "I Was a Digital Best Seller!" by Tony Horwitz a month ago. In it, the author wrote of his experience in online publishing and how the exciting new digital world of the writer not all he dreamed of.

Also a few weeks ago was "From Botanical Gardens Intern to Anthony Bourdain’s Assistant" for The Billfold. Written by Laurie Woolever, it's a remarkable first-person walk through Woolever's career and all its twists, turns, ups and downs.

The third piece to note here isn't traditional writing, but rather a slideshow about the new book The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age from LinkedIn Founder and CEO Reid Hoffman and his co-authors Ben Cashnocha and Chris Yeh. One idea from the book that's covered in the slides is how employers and employees should focus on a mutually beneficial relationship based on what each gets from working together and the knowledge that the working relationship won't continue if no longer mutually beneficial to both parties. This approach of "we're both benefiting for now" is in opposition to the idea of employees feeling a company owes them jobs or companies viewing an employee as disloyal if they leave for another job.

Again, each of these pieces very different than the other two, but there's fascinating stuff in all three.

One thing that reading these makes me think of is in relation to my own career I feel good having this blog and three books compiled from it as a body of work. I'd rather have my career progress and work opportunities come from what I've done rather than what I say I can do and the blog is as much if not more of a representation of what I've done than my education or actual work experience.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Great sports stories - by Jenkins, Wickersham & Jones

A few of the great sports stories I've read since my last post a few weeks ago on solid sports writing included large feature stories for Sports Illustrated and ESPN respectively as well as two shorter and really well done World Cup pieces for the ESPN website.

The latest issue of SI had as it's cover story a piece titled "Back to the Future" and it's a look by Lee Jenkins at the return to the Caviliers of LeBron James. Jenkins is an excellent writer and it totally made sense to me that James chose Sports Illustrated through Jenkins as the place to annouce the Cavs as his choice given the extremely thorough profile on James that Jenkins wrote in December 2012 for SI (and which I did a lengthly blog post on it's construction).

The recent ESPN issue had as it's largest feature story the great piece "Awakening The Giant" by Seth Wickersham on long-retired NFL star Y.A. Tittle. Each of the stories from Wickersham I've posted on previously were related to football and this probably my favorite story by him as it's a riveting telling of Tittle's life at 87 and the effects of dementia... and correspondingly on his daughter who helps care for him.

The two ESPN World Cup pieces were both by Chris Jones and marvelous storytelling with first "U.S. campaign reaches end of the line" from July 1st and then "Memories of the World Cup" written just prior to the final between Germany and Argentina. Both stories are creatively put together with the U.S. team piece going man by man through many of the players and the Cup wrapup sort of walking a path (well, actually very much walking a path with how Jones wrote it) through the tournament.

Monday, July 14, 2014

My ruminations on writing & work

I've been thinking lately about the point of this blog, specifically  in relation to the labels "writing" and "work" that I've used for some of the posts throughout my six years of regular posting here, with the hyperlinks representing posts in which I had a label of one or the other.

To take these one at a time, perhaps the best way to look at usage of "writing" as a label is through some of the text of my post done in Feb of this year, "My new book compilation - More Words Written Down"...

More Words Written Down is a follow-up effort to the compilation book projects Words Written Down and 111 Books Reviewed with all three coming out of this blog and each an appreciation of words put down on a page in a meaningful order. The blog itself was begun 5 ½ years ago and my approach to it has been to read things of interest and then attempt to describe those pieces well and make connections between them. The result of this is hopefully both a repository of great writing and body of work with my thoughts on the pieces. As part of this body of work idea, the blog and book compilations out of it are also intended to serve as a tangible record for my two boys of what things I found interesting or important early in their lives.

Links noted throughout the print version of the book can be found at the referenced blog post and have as their criterion for inclusion the concept of Interesting. If writing was deemed interesting, it’s noted along with my ruminations on the topic and view of what makes that particular set of words grouped together into a book or story so good that they acquire permanence. The goal of Words Written Down is to highlight and pay homage to this permanence of words. Everybody's gotta have a thing, and for me, one of my big things is words. Here's to hoping that as my boys get older they find the things that have importance for them and get to spend their time pursuing and working on those.

In short, I like words, and that's why I've written this blog.

So, with that, the other label noted above is that of "work." In terms of work, I feel like I've come to the realization that I love reading, love coming across pieces of great writing, describing what it is I like about a particular piece of writing and making connections between it and other pieces of great writing, but I don't feel a particular drive to become a writer producing the type of journalism I love.

Rather, it's the idea of effective communication that I find cool, and to do that for work wouldn't require me to become a journalist, but could well be simply someone helping craft compelling business messages. To this point, one of my more memorable (at least to myself) posts I've done with the label of "work" was titled "The Ethereal Nature of Stock Valuation & Much Corporate Work Activity," with the conclusion to that post noted below...

Me thinks there's also way too much etherealness (yep, it's a word) in the corporate work done at many of the public companies out there. Just as stock valuation can be a matter of (often wrong) perception, corporations can too frequently have their best employees identified on the basis of not terribly important indicators like "being busy." I touched on this phenomenon in the Sept 2010 post "Urgent vs Important Work," but so frequently time gets spent on things that don't really move the success or failure dial much (and this is even using the public company success/failure dial of income/profit).

It's not to say all corporations are filled entirely by employees doing busy work 100% of the time as some corporations (and employees) are going to be much more productive around things of import than others, but it is an interesting morass to try to avoid, both as a corporation and it's employees. Corporate level success or failure at this busy work avoidance isn't going to change the stock increase chasing game, but is probably going to result in the companies that have employees focused on important rather than ethereal/urgent work performing better overall. Not a paradigm breaking statement to be sure, but important nonetheless.

To sum it all up, or as much as I can in this missive, I love great writing that tells an effective story, always will and hope that my boys are going to as well and while business communication may not necessarily carry as much heft as other types of communication, there is a need for people who can both craft and manage it's production effectively and doing this can very much tie into my overall love of great writing.

Great feature stories by Kleinfeld, McCrummen & Baron

Three great recent pieces of feature writing included a story of heroism, one of mental illness and one of a near disasterous situation.

For the New York Times was the story of heroism with "Baptism by Fire" by N.R. Kleinfeld. Just a captivating piece on a rookie New York City firefighter and him in a rarely encountered situation. The story of mental illness was by Stephanie McCrummen for the Washington Post who wrote the incredibly sad "Behind the yellow door, a man’s mental illness worsens" and for GQ, Zach Baron wrote "Cliven Bundy's War: Inside the Rancher's Independent Sovereign Republic," a piece that stood out with it's depiction of an armed standoff between the government and U.S. citizens that could have gone horribly horribly wrong.

Very different topics to be sure, but great writing in each piece.

"The Girl Who Played with Fire" by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson was from the fiction category that I don't read a heck of a lot, but a really fast-paced and entertaining book.

The book is the second in the Millenium Trilogy from Larsson and picks up largely where The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo finished off. The Girl Who Played with Fire was really an excellent read and it's a shame that apparently there may well not be U.S. movies made of this or The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Businessweek writing on HP & Monsato

Some recent interesting Businessweek writing included pieces on corporate behemoths Hewlett-Packard and Monsato.

The cover story of the latest issue to arrive was "Inside Monsanto, America's Third-Most-Hated Company" by Drake Bennett and it provided a balanced look that covers Monsato's technology to aid farmers as well as GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) used in food production, their many detractors as well as benefits of GMO usage.

On Hewlett-Packard were two different pieces by Ashlee Vance, first a short story for the web and then an even shorter, but still with new information, piece for the magazine. "With 'The Machine,' HP May Have Invented a New Kind of Computer" was followed up by "Can HP Build the Computer of the Future?" and they covered the company's long-range bet on new hardware technology based on memristors and silicon photonics. Really fascinating stuff that will be interesting to see how it develops.

Outdoor adventure writing - Jones on Antartica & Jacobsen on the Colorado River

Really enjoyed two recent outdoor adventure pieces with "The Day We Set the Colorado River Free" by Rowan Jacobsen for Outside and "Beyond Belief: A Journey to Antartica" by Chris Jones for AFAR Magazine.

The article by Jacobsen is a sort of travelogue of his time floating on the Colorado combined with an interesting dissertation on water availability and usage in the West, both now and what's to come and the Jones piece an almost dream-like read on time in a remarkable place.