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.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Writing on journalists & government secrets - by Fagone and Paterniti

Two fascinating pieces of recent writing from authors I like quite a bit dealt with the topic of writers and government secrets.

For the June issue of GQ Magazine, Michael Paterniti did a Q&A (including a fairly lengthy intro) with Glenn Greenwald titled "The Man Who Knows Too Much" that featured some tremendously interesting detail on Greenwald's interactions with government whistleblower Edward Snowden (who I've linked to stories on here).

The other piece to note here was posted a few weeks ago to the website Medium by Jason Fagone with "The Secret to Getting Top-Secret Secrets" on freelance journalist Jason Leopold and his practice of constantly filing FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests for government documents. It's really remarkable reading on the seemingly secret government information that may become available if asked for (and asked for, and asked for).

Great sports writing - by Thompson, Norlander, Keown & Chen

Four pieces of excellent recent sports writing included one on the World Cup, one the NBA draft and two the Oakland A's.

The World Cup piece was by Wright Thompson for ESPN with "Costa Rica 1990 squad's special bond" and it was just really cool work that showed what a team can mean to people, as shown through a powerful story of the team flying back home and seeing mirrors down below sending a message of appreciation.

For the CBS Sports website, Matt Norlander wrote "Isaiah Austin wins the night at the NBA Draft and starts a new life" and provided great in-depth reporting on the riveting details around Austin learning of his Marfan Syndrome diagnosis, ending his basketball career before he could begin it as a professional.

The other two pieces of really good sports writing to note here were on the Oakland Athletics with Tim Keown for ESPN The Magazine providing "How Scott Kazmir came back" on the starting pitcher and Albert Chen for Sports Illustrated writing "In Oakland, Brandon Moss emerges as unlikely star for Athletics" for the SI website a month ago and then expanding that into the longer (and not yet posted online) feature "Business As Usual" from the June 23 issue.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Favorite soccer writing so far - by Phillips, Ballard, Thompson & Jones

There's of course been a tremendous amount of writing on soccer since the World Cup began June 12th and my favorite pieces so far have been by Brian Phillips, Chris Ballard, Wright Thompson and Chris Jones.

The Phillips story is the one I saw most recently with him writing "Train in Vain" for Grantland and it's a remarkable look at the games themselves juxtaposed against the problems in Brazil and just brilliantly done work.

For Sports Illustrated Longform a few days ago, Chris Ballard provided "Coming of Age," an excellent piece on U.S. soccer fandom, told through the lens of the author's trip with longtime friends to watch the Americans play Ghana and that compared to travelling with much the same group to France for U.S. World Cup games in 1998.

As would be expected, there's been a huge volume of writing done for ESPN so far during the tournament, with a big chunk of that provided by Wright Thompson with incredibly frequent posts of stories (and salsa recipes!) to his ESPN World Cup blog. So many of the pieces are well-written features that he's pumping out constantly as he's been travelling through Latin America and the story of his so far that stands out the most as I scroll the blog is "A place that God forgot," written from the "murder capital of the world," San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

The last really good piece of soccer writing to note here wasn't actually on the World Cup, but totally captures the idea of soccer fandom, and to that adds a dollop of fatherhood. "How a Kid Becomes a Fan" was by Chris Jones for the latest issue of Esquire and is just a really nice short piece.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Fast Company writing - on AirBnB, Google X, Preet Bharara & All Power Labs

Some interesting Fast Company Magazine writing from recent issues included looks at Google X, Airbnb, the Berkeley-based energy startup All Power Labs and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

The first piece to note here was by Jon Gertner with "The Truth About Google X: An Exclusive Look Behind the Secretive Lab's Closed Doors" and it brought to mind a Businessweek feature on Google X that I linked to and wrote on a year ago.

A story written by Austin Carr was "Inside Airbnb's Grand Hotel Plans" and it included lots of interesting content on CEO Brian Chesky and newly named head of global hospitality Chip Conley.

On U.S. Attorney Bharara, Max Chafkin wrote "The Most Dangerous Man in Bitcoin Isn't a Criminal," with a part of the story that stood out to me being mention of Bharara having hired Palo Alto-based data mining company Palantir.

The final piece to note here was by Josh Dean with "Meet the Radical Berkeley Artist Whose Company is Turning Trash Into Electricity" on Jim Mason whose company All Power Labs makes the Power Pallet that works through a process called gassification.

"Pilgrim's Wilderness" by Tom Kizzia

Pilgrim's Wilderness by Tom Kizzia was an interesting book with the subtitle "A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier." Kizzia lives in Homer, Alaska and through Pilgrim's Wilderness he chronicles the story of Bobby Hale and his family that settled in the remote town of McCarthy.

Hale named himself Papa Pilgrim and portrayed to others his role in the family as being all about homespun Christian values, but really he was just an evil loon who used religion as an excuse to control, brutalize and molest his family and take advantage of the charity of those outside his wife and fifteen children. Pilgrim's Wilderness was an interesting book that at first glance could just be dismissed as a horrific story about a madman, but there's also a ton of interesting backstory and subplot to it, both about Hale himself and the people in Alaska who seemed to latch on to him for their own purposes.

Kizzia details in the book how Hale taking his family to Alaska was just another step away from troubles he created, more recently in New Mexico, where they lived on property of Jack Nicholson's, and then back to his time in Texas. Hale grew up the son of an FBI agent and friend of J. Edgar Hoover and later ran off with and married Kathleen Connelly, the daughter of John Connelly, a three-term governor of Texas best known for being shot by Lee Harvey Oswald in the front seat of the JFK limo. Before Kathleen could give birth to Hale's child, she died under suspicious circumstances, officially ruled a suicide, with Hale the only other person in the room.

In terms of people in Alaska wanting to use the Pilgrim Family narrative for their own purposes, the tiny (just a few dozen full-time residents) town of McCarthy is in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve and after Hale bought land within the Park, he then portrayed  the National Park Service and anyone representing it as being out to get his family, which was a great narrative to use for those who feel the government and Park Service overreach and meddle in the affairs of private citizens.

Really an interesting book overall that's about a horrific individual who terrorized his family, but also contains a lot more and additional details can be found in an interesting New York Times interview with Kizzia after publication of the book last July.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Interesting Fast Company writing - on GoPro, DonorsChoose and Dutch flood prevention

A few different interesting pieces from Fast Company Magazine included two features and one brief mention of a company.

From the November issue was the fairly long "Against The Tide" by Jeff Chu on flood prevention measures in the Netherlands and the March "50 Most Innovative Companies" issue included two interesting stories, one on DonorsChoose and one GoPro.

The feature was "Beyond School Supplies: How DonorsChoose is Crowdsourcing Real Education Reform" by Peg Tyre on the #9 company on the list and later on was a short missive on GoPro, the #39 company and a fascinating one to me in how they've built a lifestyle brand to sell a piece of hardware (reminiscent of how Red Bull has created a lifestyle around an energy drink).

ESPN writing - Jones on lessons from his column & Pirlo and Thompson on Messi and Maradona

Three different pieces of ESPN writing recently struck me as particularly excellent with two short works by Chris Jones and a not all that long feature story by Wright Thompson.

The Thompson piece was from the ESPN The Magazine World Cup preview issue with "Shadowed by the Hand of God" on Argentinian soccer legends current and past Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona.

The other two pieces to note here were "Chris Jones' lessons learned," his final back-page column for ESPN The Magazine and "Another architect in Manaus," posted today to the ESPN World Cup blog and about a play made by Italian player Andrea Pirlo.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Businessweek writing of note - on IBM, MLB Advanced Media & Tankchair LLC

Recent issues of Businessweek included three stories that stoood out to me as particularly interesting, with one on an absolutely inspiring small company.

The May 26-June 1 issue featured as its cover story "The Trouble with IBM" and it was a fascinating piece by Nick Summers that noted how the once high-flying technology company now known in some circles more for its financial engineering of performance results than actual growth.

The June 9-22 "Global Tech" issue included two pieces to mention here with the smaller of them "How Major League Baseball Helps ESPN Stream World Cup Soccer" by Ira Boudway about MLB Advanced Media (or BAM), which I two years ago linked to a Fast Company article on.

Additionally in this issue was a story noted by Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel as one that may be his "favorite story we've published in 2014." The piece was by Joshua Green and titled "The Incredible Stair-Climbing, Self-Parking, Amphibious Wheelchair" on the company Tankchair LLC. Really a great story about Brad Soden and the company that came out of his desire to improve quality of life for his paralyzed wife and now helps many seriously injured veterans. 

Excellent basketball writing - by Lee Jenkins & Flinder Boyd

Two really good recent pieces of basketball writing were "New NBA commissioner Adam Silver is his own man" by Lee Jenkins for Sports Illustrated and "The Birdman's Vengeful Ghost" by Flinder Boyd for Newsweek.

The thing I appreciate most about writing from Jenkins is how he includes tremendously interesting anecdotes in his stories and this feature definitely no exception. The piece from Boyd stood out to me as something that was well-written, but really told just an amazing tale of catfishing or internet deception that could have unjustly landed now Miami Heat player Chris Andersen in jail.