Friday, July 31, 2015

Great New York Times writing - by Cook, McFadden, Dove, Mooallem, and Weiner

There's been some remarkable writing for the the New York Times I've seen over the past few weeks, including four recently done stories and one from 2012 that I not long ago saw linked to on Twitter.

The first story to note here was written by Gareth Cook with "The Singular Mind of Terry Tao," an interesting account of a math genius who also happens to be very normal and grounded.

The three other recent Times pieces share the common bond of being about people doing great things for others. "Nicolas Winton, Rescuer of 669 Children from Holocaust, Dies at 106" was an obituary written by Robert McFadden"Black South Carolina Trooper Explains Why He Helped a White Supremacist" a piece by Robert Dove and for the New York Times Magazine was "You Just Got Out of Prison.Now What" by Jon Mooallem. This last piece has the subtitle "Carlos and Ruby are two ex-convicts with a simple mission: picking up inmates on the day they're released from prison and guiding them through a changed world" and is just a very cool read.

The last piece to mention was by Eric Weiner from 2012 with "Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer," a piece about "thin places," those that as Weiner writes "transform us - or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves."

Business writing - on Mark Hurd, writing code, painting for fun, and high-priced medicine

Some really solid business stories over the past several months included a profile from Fortune Magazine and three different features from Bloomberg Businessweek.

The Fortune piece was by Adam Lashinsky with "The redemption of Oracle's Mark Hurd" and the Businessweek stories covered a lot of ground with one a magazine issue-length look at code, one a piece on painting and drinking for fun and one about an extremely expensive, and effective, treatment for hepatitis C.

The Businessweek pieces are "What is Code?" by Paul Ford, "How Paint Nite Is Saving the American Bar" by Joel Stein, and "Pharma Execs Don't Know Why Anyone Is Upset by a $94,500 Miracle Cure" by Paul Barrett and Robert Langreth. All are interesting and the Barrett and Langreth piece includes below...

"Gilead Sciences of Foster City, Calif., introduced Harvoni, which completely cures the vast majority of people with the most common type of hepatitis C and does it in just three months with few significant side effects. Gilead charges $94,500 for the 12-week treatment."

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild by Cheryl Strayed was a memoir of Strayed's life and her 1,100 mile hike on the Pacific Coast Trail and the book struck me as excellent for both the quality of writing and content it covers.

Her mother died when Strayed was 22 and then at 26, and coming off a failed marriage and time on heroin, she embarked on hiking the trail.

Even if someone may not have their life situation match up with that of Strayed's, the book is lyrically written and tremendously interesting from the perspective of someone overcoming obstacles in addition to simply a great piece of outdoor writing.

Also, I found fascinating how the movie (which I saw prior to reading the book) was also really good, and very true to Strayed's writing in the book.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Great sports writing about the Golden State Warriors - by Jenkins, Ballard, & Posnanski

There was a series of great pieces over the past few weeks on the Golden State Warriors and their championship-winning team and players.

Lee Jenkins wrote a number of them for Sports Illustrated with the June 8th issue having "Oracle Arena brings the noise for an NBA Finals worth screaming about," "Steve Kerr: The Warriors' Ringmaster" for the June 15th and "Andre and the Giant: How one veteran helped the Warriors turn the Finals" published in the June 22nd issue.

Additionally, Jenkins for the SI website wrote "Golden Hours: Inside the Warriors' nightlong NBA Finals celebration" after the series-clinching win over the Cavilers.

Also, two great pieces to note here from other writers were "Pursuit of perfection: Jerry West's fire burns as deep as ever with Warriors" by Chris Ballard for the SI site prior to the Finals and then after they were over, Joe Posnanski doing "The Right Steph" for the NBC Sports website.

It's a bit of a laundry list of pieces, but some great writing from Jenkins, Ballard and Posnanski on the Warriors.

On the Burning Edge by Kyle Dickman

On the Burning Edge by Kyle Dickman was a good book about the profession of firefighting and 2013 tragedy on the Yarnell Hill Fire where 19 hotshots lost their lives outside Prescott, AZ. Shortly after the deaths I did the post "Writing on Hotshot firefighters - by Kyle Dickman & Molly Hennessy-Fiske" linking to a few different pieces and then several months later Dickman wrote "19: The True Story of the Yarnell Hill Fire" for Outside Magazine, a feature which then led to him writing On the Burning Edge.

The book struck me as extensively reported and about people, circumstances and decisions. Dickman covers how fires are good in thinning out forests, but the drive to protect homes has led to a policy of fire suppression and increased the chances of cataclysmic blazes when they're not put out early. Additionally noted in the book is that few communities require defensible space around houses.

The 19 who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire were all part of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and it was interesting reading how they were a municipal hotshot team rather than forest service, and any role that may have played in Granite Mountain superintendent Eric Marsh being aggressive during the fire and leading the other 18 from a position of already burned over safety and attempting to move to a new location. Additionally noted by Dickman was some confusion and poor communication around the fighting of the Yarnell Hill Fire as it grew larger and more resources arrived to battle it.

The result of the fire left behind only one member of the Granite Mountain team, Brendan "Donut" McDonough who was serving as a looking apart from the rest, and two other hotshots who left Granite Mountain in the weeks prior due to medical and family reasons. It was a solid book from Dickman and included poignant description of people paying their respects roadside as the 19 men first were transported to Phoenix after their deaths and then back to Prescott two days later.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Tiger by John Vaillant

The Tiger by John Vaillant was a really good work of non-fiction about a man-eating Amur (Siberian) tiger in the Bikin River Valley in Far Eastern Russia in the Winter of 1997.

The book was just as much about the region as about the tiger itself and it was fascinating reading how many in the area forced to scratch out an existence living off the deep forest or taiga, with the effects of perestroika and it's freedoms not helping them at all.

In relation to tigers, Vaillant describes well the relationships between people and the animals and how they can co-exist, but also how the actions of people often throw that relationship out of balance.

It was an excellent book and more about it can be found in a New York Times review by Edward Lewine.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Memorable writing - on grief, mass shootings and a papal document on climate change

A few pieces of recent writing on different subjects have struck me as particularly powerful.

On grief was a Facebook post by Sheryl Sandberg written 30 days after her husband Dave Goldberg died and for the Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin wrote "What it was like to cover Beau Biden’s funeral" about her experience as a White House pool reporter. The Sandberg piece obviously more personal, but both really profound.

About the recent murder of nine in a Charleston, SC church were two pieces, one written and one for TV, with similar refrains. For Esquire, Charles Pierce wrote the incredibly good "Charleston Shooting: Speaking the Unspeakable, Thinking the Unthinkable" and there's six amazing minutes from Jon Stewart with this link containing both the Daily Show video and a few sentences out of him talking.

In another totally different category was writing on the recent Pope Francis document around climate change with another Charles Pierce piece for Esquire titled "Pope Francis Drops the Hammer on Climate Change" and Bill McKibben for the New York Review of Books writing "Pope Francis: The Cry of the Earth," with both pieces about just how influential this document from the Pope could be.

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance was a well-written and really interesting biography on someone with a combination of brilliance, drive for himself and employees, and willingness to bet big.

Musk is unique among business leaders with his leading role in three huge and potentially impactful companies, SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity and it's written about in the book that SpaceX is really the big thing for Musk as his overarching goal is to put someone on and then colonize Mars. Vance wrote a really detailed portrait of Musk and some of what struck me as particularly important or interesting is below...

Musk's grandfather was Joshua Norman Haldeman, who in 1950 decided to emigrate from Canada to South Africa, then along with Musk's grandmother in 1954 flew a private plane from Africa to Australia, believed to be the only private pilots to have done this. They also did bush expeditions in Africa and one of their children was Maye, who married Errol Musk, with one of their offspring Elon, born in 1971. He was a bright child who read obsessively and constantly corrected people, but with him not really understanding why they didn't like it. When Elon was around 8, his parents divorced and he went to live his father, someone described in the book as an intense and unpleasant man. When Musk was 10, he got his first computer and loved it, but around the middle school years was picked on relentlessly and had a miserable time, with things then improving in high school.

At 17, Musk left South Africa for Canada and then enrolled at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. In 1992, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue degrees in economics and physics and Musk today talks about then being interested in solar energy. In 1994, Musk and his brother Kimbal took a road trip to California and Musk had internships in Silicon Valley at Pinnacle Research Institute and Rocket Science Games and after graduating Penn, he and Kimbal moved to Silicon Valley. In 1995 they formed the company that would become Zip2, a web-based Yellow Pages type service, with it purchased by Compaq in 1999 for $307M, leaving Musk with $22M. Also in 1999, Musk used $12M of his money to found, a finance startup that would become PayPal. In 2000, Musk was pushed out of the leadership of the company by employees and investors and in 2002, PayPal was sold to eBay for $1.5B, with Musk getting $250M.

In 2001, Elon became actively involved in space exploration, developing contacts in the industry and founding the Life to Mars Foundation. Musk tried to buy rockets from the Russians to explore space but got nowhere, then decided to build his own. The idea would be to build rockets that would serve the low end of the satellite industry, doing launches cheaper than had been done, with Space Exploration Technologies founded by Musk in June 2002. The first successful SpaceX rocket launch was in September 2008, but not with an actual customer payload onboard and the survival of the company was uncertain until it in December 2008 received a $1.6B payment from NASA to take supplies to the International Space Station. SpaceX has now become a truly solid company, selling satellite launches for less than competitors, and doing so as an American company in a largely non-American industry. In May 2012, SpaceX docked with the ISS for the first time and SpaceX wants to next send astronauts to the ISS by 2017 as well as move to reusable rockets. a first in the industry and idea that many view as impossible. Another interesting thing noted in the book about SpaceX is how it's a privately held company and Musk wants to keep it that way for a while, something that makes sense in enabling freedom of decisions, but would of course limit the huge paydays that employees of a publicly traded SpaceX might receive from selling stock.

As SpaceX was in it's early years, Musk in 2003 met J.B. Straubel, someone who shared Musk's interest in electric cars. Shortly after, Musk was courted as an investor by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, who had an electric car company, Tesla Motors. Musk in 2004 put in $6.5M and became the largest shareholder as well as Chairman and also got Straubel hired. In 2007, Eberhard was taken out as CEO by investors and replaced by an interim chief who wanted to sell Tesla, with this not taking place and Musk later becoming CEO. In late 2008, Tesla was having financial problems at the same time as SpaceX and even though the financial markets had imploded, Musk was able to secure additional financing for the company. Tesla then was selling just enough roadsters to survive, previewed the Model S in 2009, went public in 2010 and then began shipping the Model S in mid-2012. In November of that year, the sedan was named Motor Trend's Car of the Year and in early 2013, Consumer Reports gave it their highest rating ever awarded. In April 2013, Tesla was having difficulty delivering Model S's and had discussions with Google CEO Larry Page about Tesla being acquired. Then in May 2013, impressive results were given to Wall Street and the stock soared, making the sale not needed. Next up for Tesla is the Model X SUV in 2015 and due out in 2017 is the Model 3, a four-door car with around a $35K price tag.

Musk's three companies, with two in Tesla and SpaceX that he's CEO of and SolarCity that he's the largest investor in and non-executive Chairman of, seem to be starting to intertwine somewhat with Tesla and SolarCity both to build products at the forthcoming Tesla battery Gigafactory in Reno and the success of SpaceX and Tesla coming in part from hardware and software working together.

Whether it's from one of these companies and current core products or other ideas Musk has put forth more recently around the Hyperloop for transportation or a space Internet, it'll be extremely interesting to see what's to come from Musk in the future and Vance wrote a very solid book on what he's done so far.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Great sports stories - by Wilner, Wertheim & Fagan

Three pieces of great recent sports writing were on an NBA coach with a remarkable past, U.S. Olympians who competed in Berlin and later fought the Nazis, and the tragic suicide of a freshman runner at Penn.

The coach's story was "A dad's legacy: Warriors' Kerr guided by father's example" by Jon Wilner for the San Jose Mercury News and it's a fascinating piece on Steve Kerr and the the impact of his father, Malcolm, who was assassinated by terrorists in Beirut while Steve at the University of Arizona in 1984.

The Olympian feature was by Jon Wertheim who wrote "Dive Bombers: American Olympians defeated Axis Powers in peace & war" for Sports Illustrated. About divers Frank Kurtz and Marshall Wayne, it's a detailed narrative that very much brought to mind the brilliant Laura Hillenbrand book Unbroken.

The third piece to note here was "Split Image" by Kate Fagan, who for ESPN wrote of the life and death of Madison Holleran. Such a sad tale of someone overcome by depression, with that depression likely exacerbated by her believing she supposed to be having the time of the life while away at college.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Profound pieces of writing - by Kruse, King, Marantz & Shapira

There's a few pieces of writing I've seen lately that were particularly touching and heartfelt, with each about distinct phases of life.

For the Tampa Bay Times in 2007, Michael Kruse wrote "On her own two wheels," a beautiful 300-word piece about a father teaching his eight-year-old daughter to ride a bike that featured the quote "I'm supposed to let go, I can't hold on forever" and for his Monday Morning Quarterback column for Sports Illustrated, Peter King wrote of his 31-year-old daughter Laura marrying her partner Kim under the title "Happily Ever After."

Also incredibly moving were two pieces in past weeks that dealt with a much different phase. Robin Marantz for the New York Times Magazine wrote "The Last Day of Her Life" on Sandy Bem, a Cornell University professor diagnosed with Alzheimer's and who wanted to die on her own terms and Ian Shapira for the Washington Post wrote the lovely story "Americans gave their lives to defeat the Nazis. The Dutch have never forgotten" about multiple generations of people in the Netherlands tending to the graves of U.S. soldiers who died during WWII.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough was a solid book by the noted historian who among many other books, wrote three I previously enjoyed immensely in John Adams, Truman and 1776. The Wright Brothers was interesting to me in that I found it a bit dry at times while reading, but then upon skimming back through after finishing, my estimation went up as I saw the depth of information that McCullough passed along in the book, with some of the details noted below:

Orville and Wilbur grew up in Dayton, Ohio and their mother died in 1889 when Wilbur 22, Orville 18 and their sister Katherine 15. The siblings then continued to live with their father, Bishop Wright, for decades to follow. The family read heavily and widely and in 1896, Wilbur became interested in human flight after reading about German glider enthusiast Otto Lilienthal. In 1899, Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian in Washington inquiring about available reading on aircrafts and human flight and the assistant secretary of the Smithsonian provided pamphlets on aviation as well as a list of books.

In 1900, the brothers for several months left Dayton and the bicycle shop they had opened and went to Kitty Hawk, on the North Carolina Outer Banks, to start the path towards flight by working with a glider they built. The Wrights saw flight as being controllable through the concept of "wing warping" (or "wing twisting") with movements of the wings enabling airflow to cause movements of the plane. They then returned to Kitty Hawk in 1901 and while back in Dayton the following winter, had huge advances forward with a wind tunnel they built, a wooden box 6 feet long and 16 inches square that they used it to test how glider wings should be set to get them to operate as desired. In the spring of 1902 they built a new glider using what they learned from the wind tunnel and from successful glider trips, then started on the step of building a motor.

In December 1903, they flew for the first time with the motor providing power, each brother going up separately so that in case one killed, the other could continue the work and in 1904, they began flying outside of Dayton. The flights were successful, but didn't attract a lot of media attention, with in September 1904, Amos Ives Root for his company's beekeeper trade journal writing of Wilbur's first attempt to fly in a complete circle. The plane was catapulted in the air, then flew 20-25 feet above the ground and landed successfully, with the article appearing in January 1905 to little notice. Around this time the Wright brothers tried to get the U.S. Government interested in their efforts, but to no avail, even though nothing was asked for, and by the fall of 1905, the brothers knew how to fly and were doing flights of 25 miles or more. With the lack of interest from the U.S. Government, the brothers were negotiating the sale of a plane to the French and Wilbur in May 1907 sailed for Paris to negotiate and then Orville sailed for Paris and brought a plane with him. The brothers returned home, leaving the Flyer in storage in France and in Feb 1908 signed a deal selling it to the French contingent upon a public demonstration that summer.

By May 1908, Wilbur and Orville were in Kitty Hawk flying and starting to get press attention, then both returned to France and in August, Wilbur did a successful flight for the public which led to huge media acclaim. He continued doing demonstrations and they were big news in the U.S. as well and Europe and that same year Orville began doing more public demonstrations in the U.S. In 1909, the brothers as well as Katherine were in Europe and sensations with demonstrations in front of huge crowds and they returned to the U.S. heroes in May of that year, with continued public demonstrations of flying, including for luminaries and around New York City. Wilbur died of typhoid fever in May 1912 at 45 and Orville continued flying until 1918 when he stopped at 46 due to lingering pain from injuries suffered in a plane crash, and then he died of a heart attack at 77 in 1948.

The details from McCullough were interesting and what struck me about Orville and Wilbur's story from the book was how the brothers knew that while the calculations and technology had to be right to enable human flight, what was just as important was practice, through many hours spent flying, they were become proficient at it.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Outdoor writing - by Holland & Zimmermann

There's been some great recent outdoor-oriented writing I've seen with a feature for SB Nation Longform and several stellar pieces from the latest issue of Outside Magazine.

The SB Nation piece was by Eva Holland with "Unclimbable," a first-person account of a trip to the Cirque of the Unclimables, a remote area of stunning-looking granite peaks in Canada's North Territories, and it's a really cool story of friendship, loss, adventure and acceptance.

Two features from the latest Outside Magazine that stood out were "Rory Bosio Doesn't Really Train" by Nick Heil on the 29-year-old long distance (100+ miles) runner from Truckee, CA and the "The Piscivore's Dilemma" about the sustainability of fish as a food supply. It's an extensively researched and detailed report from Tim Zimmermann which covers different types of fish that can be consumed as food along with the source (i.e. farmed vs. wild) of those fish.

From the same issue of Outside was "The New Adventure Library," a feature not currently available online, which briefly overviewed 33 different tales of adventure. With the forms ranging from books to movies to daredevil adventures, there were featured things I've seen and loved as well as not previously aware of, but now wanting to check out.

Solid business writing - on Elon Musk & Tesla, wine thieves, ILM & Dr. Charles Arntzen

Some of the pieces are from a week or two ago, but there's been some really interesting business writing that I haven't posted on up until now.

From Businessweek were two excellent features, starting off with "Elon Musk's Space Dream Almost Killed Tesla," excerpted from the recently released Ashlee Vance book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. It's a fascinating look at the Tesla and Space X CEO and related to Tesla were two additional interesting pieces, first a transcript of Musk's speech introducing Tesla Energy and then San Jose Mercury News article "Is Tesla's Powerwall home battery worth the price?" by Jonathan Fahey.

The other Businessweek story to note here was "A Pinot Noir: Hunting the Thieves Behind a Rash of Six-Figure Wine Heists" by Claire Suddath, a highly interesting read which brought to mind the Max Potter book Shadows in the Vineyard: The True Story of the Plot to Poison the World's Greatest Wine.

The other two pieces of really interesting recent business writing to mention were from other sources with Alex French and Howie Kahn for Wired writing "Inside the Magic Factory: The Untold Story of ILM, a Titan That Forever Changed Film," an oral history of the George Lucas created Industrial Light & Magic, and Adam Bluestein for Fast Company writing "Meet Ebola's Soft-Spoken, Plant-Loving Arch Nemisis" on Dr. Charles Arntzen, who came in at number one on the Fast Company "100 Most Creative People 2015" list.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Atul Gawande feature on unnecessary medical care

There's a really fascinating piece of writing by Atul Gawande (who I've posted about a few times previously) from a recent New Yorker with "Overkill" on unnecessary, expensive and often harmful medical care provided. In terms of the scope of the problem, Gawande writes below...

"In 2010, the Institute of Medicine issued a report stating that waste accounted for thirty per cent of health-care spending, or some seven hundred and fifty billion dollars a year, which was more than our nation’s entire budget for K-12 education. The report found that higher prices, administrative expenses, and fraud accounted for almost half of this waste. Bigger than any of those, however, was the amount spent on unnecessary health-care services."

The reasons for the waste, or no-value care as Gawande describes it, include tests and treatments both unethical recommended (with providers trying to collect all available insurance and Medicare dollars) and simply not needed, often as a result of there being so many tests and treatment paths available. What occurs is doctors, with patients buy-in, often test for problems that really aren't likely to have a terrible result if the problem found in someone, and then treat the problem because it's been discovered. The issue from this is the care costs money for someone, whether an individual paying out of pocket, an insurer (who as a result may raise rates) or government. Additionally, testing can bring complications for patients, not to mention problems that can result during procedures; and treatment for a given ailment can preclude different, and perhaps more needed, treatment for the same or another ailment.

Just as interesting to me as the problems that Gawande presents is the better path that he provides in the piece, with two examples including one driven from a corporate perspective and one out of a government act. Gawande tells the story of a Walmart employee with back problems who had surgery recommended to him and could have had the procedure done locally, with large out-of-pocket expense incurred, or follow a path Gawande wrote about...

"Taylor had heard about a program that Walmart had launched for employees undergoing spine, heart, or transplant procedures. Employees would have no out-of-pocket costs at all if they got the procedure at one of six chosen “centers of excellence”: the Cleveland Clinic; the Mayo Clinic; Virginia Mason Medical Center, in Washington; Scott and White Memorial Hospital, in Texas; Geisinger Medical Center, in Pennsylvania; and Mercy Hospital Springfield, in Missouri. 

Walmart wasn’t providing this benefit out of the goodness of its corporate heart, of course. It was hoping that employees would get better surgical results, sure, but also that the company would save money. Spine, heart, and transplant procedures are among the most expensive in medicine, running from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Nationwide, we spend more money on spinal fusions, for instance, than on any other operation—thirteen billion dollars in 2011. And if there are complications the costs of the procedure go up further. The medical and disability costs can be enormous, especially if an employee is left permanently unable to return to work. These six centers had notably low complication rates and provided Walmart a fixed, package price."

Gawande writes of how Taylor went to Virginia Mason in Seattle, and after examination there, was recommended to not have back surgery, and instead focus on recovery through rehabilitation, an approach that Taylor agreed to and as Gawande quotes him saying, "within a couple of weeks, I was literally pain free." It's a fascinating story and not entirely unexpected one as Gawande writes of the Walmart program around spine, heart or transplant procedures...

"Two years into the program, an unexpected pattern is emerging: the biggest savings and improvements in care are coming from avoiding procedures that shouldn't be done in the first place. Before the participating hospitals operate, their doctors conduct their own evaluation. And, according to Sally Welborn, the senior vice-president for benefits at Walmart, those doctors are finding that around thirty per cent of the spinal procedures that employees were told they needed are inappropriate. Dr. Charles Nussbaum, until recently the head of neurosurgery at Virginia Mason Medical Center, confirmed that large numbers of the patients sent to his hospital for spine surgery do not meet its criteria."

As a wrap-up to Taylor's story, Gawande provides the following...

"If an insurer had simply decreed Taylor’s back surgery to be unnecessary, and denied coverage, the Taylors would have been outraged. But the worst part is that he would not have got better. It isn’t enough to eliminate unnecessary care. It has to be replaced with necessary care. And that is the hidden harm: unnecessary care often crowds out necessary care, particularly when the necessary care is less remunerative. Walmart, of all places, is showing one way to take action against no-value care—rewarding the doctors and systems that do a better job and the patients who seek them out."

Another thing Gawande writes of as leading to optimism for care in the future is out of a provision in the Affordable Care that "allows any group of physicians with five thousand or more Medicare patients to contract directly with the government as an 'accountable-care organization,' and to receive up to sixty per cent of any savings they produce." Gawande writes fairly extensively of McAllen, TX and how "two McAllen accountable-care organizations together managed to save Medicare a total of twenty-six million dollars. About sixty per cent of that went back to the groups. It wasn’t all profit—achieving the results had meant installing expensive data-tracking systems and hiring extra staff."

It's a fascinating piece from Gawande and as he towards the end writes "waste is not just consuming a third of health-care spending; it’s costing people’s lives."