Monday, August 31, 2015

Current writers whose work I look for

Related to a post I did back in 2011 titled "Waiting on Writing: Good Authors - Good Books," I wanted to list out the current writers whose work I most look for.

So, with the arbitrarily chosen cut-off line at 22 people, here's the alphabetical list (which of course may be overlooking someone):

Ashlee Vance, Atul Gawande
Bill Bryson, Brad Stone
Chris Ballard, Chris Jones
David Von Drehle
Eli Saslow, Erik Larson
J.R. Moehringer, Jason Fagone, Joe Klein, Joe Posnanski, Justin Heckert
Lee Jenkins
Michael Lewis, Michael Paterniti
S.L. Price, Susan Casey
Tom Junod, Tom Verducci
Wright Thompson

Voices in the Ocean by Susan Casey

Voices in the Ocean by Susan Casey was a solid book on how we as a people treat the environment, animals in it and specifically as the subject of this book, dolphins.

I was excited for the book after loving Casey's previous books, The Devil's Teeth and The Wave, which I wrote about in 2010, and this one was well-written and interesting, but also depressing.

Casey covers how dolphins are incredibly smart creatures, but oftentimes are either treated poorly for our amusement in places like traditional marine parks, subject to the effects of sonar tests conducted by the U.S. Navy, or slaughtered by people to make a few dollars, even to the point of basically putting a ransom on their heads. From places like the town of Taiji, Japan, where The Cove was set, to the Solomon Islands off Australia, Casey shows the atrocities people will commit against dolphins.

Casey writes a really thorough book that's as appreciation of dolphins, and also lament for them.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Great business writing - on MLB Advanced Media, Tesla, Amazon, and working a career

There's been some really interesting business writing lately to note here, including several company profiles as well as pieces around the topic of the work people put into their jobs.

The first company profile to mention was for The Verge by Ben Popper with "The Changeup: How baseball’s tech team built the future of television," a fascinating piece on Major League Baseball Advanced Media. The company (known also as BAM) started out as MLB's technology division and has since done extensive work for HBO, just signed a technology and rights holder deal with the NHL, and is almost certain to spin off from MLB into it's own company.

Another profile I found excellent was "Decoding Tesla's Secret Formula" by Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen for Forbes Magazine. The company a fascinating one to me and as with other piece I've read on Tesla, this story paints a picture of the cars as remarkable feats of engineering.

Additionally of interest recently was another solid company profile, "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace," one that has in the past week generated a huge amount of discussion. For the New York Times by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, the piece has the subtitle "The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve it's ever-expanding ambitions." I found it to be a well-balanced story and part of me reads it and thinks that it fine for people to be pushed so hard if those employees feel the positives outweigh the negatives from the hours and pressure. However, the larger part of me then thinks of how unsustainable it seems to have a large company made up of people either young enough to not have family to go to after work or older people willing to spend so much time in pursuit of work goals and away from family. It just feels like that abandonment of balance is eventually going have a detrimental impact on one's work. Granted, those people can then be forced out when their work suffers, but it's a cycle that it seems would eventually hit it's limits and negatively impact the company.

A couple of other pieces that the Amazon story inspired and which I found interesting were "Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Way," a column by Joe Nocera for the New York Times and "Work Hard, Live Well," published to Medium by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. The Nocera commentary is about Amazon following the lead of Bezos and that from Moskovitz on the negatives, to both employees and the company itself, that can come from too many hours put into work.

Related to the idea of how someone goes about their job, there was a great career advice post to his blog done last month by entrepreneur and angel investor Jason Calacanis"The most important piece of advice for folks starting their careers" contains a number of interesting and highly relevant suggestions. To say it's simply a counter-argument to the idea of balance in work and life would be to miss many of the ideas Calacanis puts forth, but a theme throughout his post is about hustle and how to succeed especially when starting out in something, you gotta hustle.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Great sports stories - by Bissinger, Beech, Delle Donne & Doyel

Some fairly recent sports writing to note here included ones were about heartwarming and amazing stories as well as two pieces that very much brought to mind past writing I've posted on.

Buzz Bissinger for Sports Illustrated had an excerpt from the 25th anniversary edition of Friday Night Lights, a fantastic book that spawned a movie, television series and follow-up ebook that I wrote about two years ago.

Also from SI was the Mark Beech feature "Catching up with the dogs of Sochi," about dogs rescued out of the Russia Olympics by people including snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis, hockey players David Backes and Kelli Stack and slopestyle skier Gus Kenworthy.

Another recent piece that reminded me of past writing on the topic was "Lizzie" by Elena Delle Donne for The Players Tribune. Delle Donne is someone I last wrote about two years ago and the story of she, her sister, and rest of their family is a remarkable one.

Also involving a sibling was the absolutely wild piece "Officer back on the streets, with a story to tell" by Gregg Doyel for the Indianapolis Star. About Indianapolis-area police office Marty Dulworth, it's an amazing story told very well by Doyel.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides was an excellent adventure yarn with the subtitle The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette.

Sides is an author who I first learned about from his 2013 Outside Magazine piece "Wake-Up Call: Surviving an Attack by Flesh-Eating Bacteria" and in his book on the Jeanette and her men getting trapped in the ice north of Siberia, he wrote a fascinating tale.

I'm definitely glad to have read the book and additional information can be found in this Wall Street Journal book review by Howard Schneider.

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.