Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Permanence of Words

A topic I've thought about quite a bit and have written around, but never quite about, is why I like writing.

Now, this blog is all about writing (note the blog title) and I've gone beyond the book reviews and magazine article links a few times to get at what I'm doing with the blog. Perhaps it's even been a somewhat annual process... with Like To Write Stuff: Why & How Thus Far from August 2008 and Wherefore the Blog... Again December of last year.

So I've certainly thought about what I'm doing with the blog and have established what it's about, but have not (least I don't think) written about why I like writing.

The answer to this is arrived at through a bit of a progression...

Starting off, I'd say that I think everyone should have a thing that's of import to them. When I say that, I'm thinking of that thing being something greater than simply liking a given sports team (as Joel Klein wrote of in this Time Magazine piece (which I posted about here) or being say... good at video games. I'm thinking more along the lines of something with some heft and meaning to it.

Now, this isn't to marginalize the huge significance of being a good parent or friend as someone's thing, but me thinks there's a lot to be said for people having something that serves as a creative outlet. Some people's creative type thing is to paint, some to make movies, some to excel at a particular sport... I simply like the idea of my thing being words.

When I think about words, the feeling I have is that they matter (least the ones that are put together into a meaningful order). They influence, they entertain and when you take 'em and put them down on a page, they acquire permanence. There's a certain gravitas about something that remains behind in written form... whether that be on a printed page or out on the interwebnet superhighway of information. Either way it's stored and delivered, something written down leaves a metaphorical vapor trail.

It may be a crazy good trail in the neighborhood of F. Scott Fitzgerald level prose or it may be less than one of the great books, but either way, words written down have permanence.

This concept of permanence very much relates to what I've tried to do thus far with this blog... to create a record both of good writing I've come across and why I like it (and have that be hopefully in a somewhat entertaining fashion). This record may be something that someone else reads on the blog and finds of note, it may be something that I look back on to remember cool stuff I've read, or it may be something the the chillen see in future years and find interesting that their Pa did.

Now, in terms of more traditional narrative writing (fiction or non-fiction both), would I love to be able to at some point answer the "what do you do?" question by saying "I'm a writer?"

Darn tootin' I would. Even if that doesn't take place, though, I like words. I like what they can do and I like creating a record of myself in relation to words... both ones arranged well by others and my own original ones.

Yep... I like to write (and read... and link to good) stuff.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Fast Company Magazine - 100 Most Creative People in Business

In it's June 2010 issue Fast Company published it's annual list of the "100 Most Creative People in Business".

I expected to find it of interest after there being tons of good content (and people covered) in the 2009 iteration (posted about and linked to here) and found that this issue didn't disappoint. One interesting thing about the content is FC made the editorial decision to not feature anyone that has been previously profiled in the magazine (much less a prior "100 MCPiB" type person).

For reasons known only to me (nah, actually for reasons that I'll note here), below are the people and stories of those people that stood out:

#17 - Reid Hoffman - Founder and Chairman of LinkedIn. Profile features quotes from him that "people need to run their careers like real businesses" and in speaking of entrepreneurs... "I want to know that they care about people more broadly than themselves."

#21 - Josh Sapan - CEO of Rainbow Media... the umbrella company over AMC (which brought viewers "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men") and IFC. Interesting piece for it's mention of Sapan's outside interests... including being a published poet. I gotta be impressed with a corporate exec with such a creative bent.

#26 - "Shmuel "Mooly" Eden - VP/GM at Intel. Cool from the perspective of Eden's focus on consumer use of future technology.

#53 - Soraya Darabi - Product Lead for She got the cover of this FC issue and at 23 was responsible for social media marketing at The New York Times and now at 26 helps lead the efforts of in the field of cloud data storage and sharing. Would be fascinating to know both how she landed the gig at the NYT and what she did to be successful there.

#60 - Fred Wilson - Venture Capitalist. Have heard of Wilson previously through his widely read blog A VC. Very cool this concept of transparency about what you're doing in business.

#68 - Caterina Fake - Past founder of Flickr and now Hunch. I find very interesting the idea behind Hunch... basically a recommendation engine that pulls from the likes and dislikes of over 1.5 million users to help guide said recommendations.

#69 - Charlene Li - Founder of Altimeter Group and social media guru type... and author of the book "Groundswell: Winning In a World Transformed By Social Technologies". Yep, she definitely had me at "social media" and "author"...

#73 - Scott Belsky - Founder and CEO of Behance... a platform designed to bring together creatives and people looking for said creative talent. FC piece includes mention of the Behance "Action Method" project management product/system/way to help get stuff done.

Also from this issue, but not the 100 Most Creative list (though it seems he at least a candidate) was this short piece on Aviv Hadar... the 25 year old Portland resident behind the web design studio Think Brilliant.

All in all, lots of really interesting stuff from Fast Company this past month.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Petraeus Assignment & Kagan Nomination - Time Magazine

Two pieces of note to me from the July 5 issue of Time Magazine.

Both were about personnel decisions from President Barack Obama and while the writing took different approaches, each piece told an interesting story.

In "Judging Elena", Adam Cohen gave a really well written look at prospective Supreme Court judge Elena Kagan leading into her upcoming Senate nomination hearings. It's that type of writing that's short (one page) and manages to cover salient details and do so in a compelling manner.


Also from this issue of Time was "Can Obama and Petraeus Work Together?" by Joe Klein. It's a different type of writing than that from Cohen in that Klein's writing feels to be more commentary based, but is interesting in the content covered.

The heart of it was around relationships between the Executive branch and the military. The micro level view detailed was between Obama and his top military commander, General David Petraeus and macro level the overall working together of Democratic political leaders with leaders of the Armed Forces. Interesting stuff...

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sports Illustrated Stories - the Macon Ironmen & Stephen Strasburg

Couple of stories of note from the last two issues of Sports Illustrated. The first was interesting for the topic covered and second for the writing itself.

For the June 21 issue, Albert Chen wrote "National Treasure" on America's favorite phenom pitcher (yea, it's a bit of hyperbole, but not a lot), Stephen Strasburg.

Strasburg fascinates me from the perspective of both his potential and how he actually seems to live up to it (as referenced in this previous blog entry). Maybe something will go wrong and his anticipated brilliant career won't materialize, but it's cool to think of seeing the beginning of what could amount to baseball greatness.


The second piece that I really liked was from SI's basketball guy (least it seems that way), Chris Ballard. Here he branches a long ways out to write about 1971 high school baseball in small-town Illinois. His feature "The Magical Season Of The Macon Ironmen" is excellent writing and paints a vivid portrait of an interesting story. The sub-headline gets at the gist of things covered with "Hoosiers, anyone?"

Alright... I just can't resist, gotta post this video...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Lost in My Own Backyard" by Tim Cahill

Finished reading earlier today "Lost in My Own Backyard" by Tim Cahill (author wikipedia page here).

Cahill is a travel writer who I heard about from this interview with the San Jose Mercury News... which noted that he just finished a semester teaching at SJSU. This being enough to send me scurrying off to the library, I found "Lost in My Own Backyard", published in 2004 about Yellowstone National Park. Cahill notes right from the start that it's not intended as a guidebook, but rather his reminiscences on time spent there.

It was a good and very short read which if I lived closer to Yellowstone would make me want to go spend time there (likely the intent of Cahill). With my being in Northern California, though... Cahill's short book made me want to go back to Yosemite (which I also suspect the author might well be pleased with as a result of his work).

The easy comparison to make is of Cahill to Bill Bryson (author website here) and while I find Bryson to be funnier (and I suppose more entertaining as a result), Cahill's writing is solid in that it's able to inform without being dry on the subject at hand.

"Fire" by Sebastian Junger

Recently finished reading "Fire" by Sebastian Junger.

Junger is best known for writing "The Perfect Storm" (excellent book made into a very good movie) as well as the compelling "A Death in Belmont". I came across "Fire" after hearing about Junger's recently recently non-fiction work "War" about his time with U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Published in 2001, "Fire" is a collection of short non-fiction... most if not all of which was first published as magazine features. The title of the collection comes from the largest piece in the book and while some of the other stories in the book I wasn't as interested in, this work about those who fight wildfires in the Western U.S. was pretty riveting.

What struck me the most from the book, though, was actually from the author introduction. Junger left behind a job waiting tables and apprenticeship as a tree cutter and flew to Boise, Idaho where he presented himself to the National Forest Service as someone wanting to write about fighting forest fires.

Out of this non-magazine representing basis, Junger was granted access to the fire zone and proceeded to create a well written and interesting narrative about the men who battle in it.

While I imagine Junger's writing career wasn't immediately successful right after finishing "Fire", I find very cool the description of him starting this way and out of that creating such solid work.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Gulf Oil Spill Cover Story from Time

Good cover story from Bryan Walsh in the June 10 issue of Time Magazine.

Titled "The Gulf Disaster: Whose Asses Need Kicking?" the piece is a follow up to Walsh's cover story from last month (posted about and linked to here) about the catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

I liked the first piece from Walsh for the same reason I found this one to be solid writing... it's orderly, yet interesting. He very much covers the basics of the story with examinations from multiple angles (the cause, the immediate impact, the subsequent fallout and what should happen next), but does so in a compelling fashion that doesn't lose sight of the people impacted and involved.

Perhaps an odd comparison, but I found it to be almost like a really good school report... one which would hold the reader's attention.


Two other pieces from Time lately that I found of note dealt with the category of creative stuff. First there was "Altered Beast" about popular novelist Justin Cronin and then the review "Breaking Bad: TV's Best Thriller" from Time writer James Poniewozik.

The piece on Cronin interested me from the perspective of how a writer... writes and Breaking Bad just sounds like a good show.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Doing it Right: SI Pieces on John Wooden & Joyce/Galarraga

Two good (and very related to one another) features from the June 14 issue of Sports Illustrated.

The cover story from Alexander Wolff is "Remembering The Wizard" about coaching legend John Wooden who recently passed away at the age of 99. I've been extremely partial to anything Wooden after receiving a card in response to a fan letter some 10 year ago, but also found Wolf's piece to be really well written.

If one of the aims of good prose is to impart something new and interesting to the reader, this was very much accomplished in the SI story. Fascinating stuff within about both the coach's devotion to his wife who passed in 1985 and the author's role in convincing Wooden after her death to reengage with the sport of basketball that valued him so much.


Thinking of Wooden as someone who tried to impart life lessons rather than just basketball coaching (which isn't a stretch at all if you consider his Coach Wooden website), I'd surmise that he'd approve of the actions shown by the subjects of the a different piece in this SI issue.

"A Different Kind Of Perfect" is written by Tom Verducci and about MLB umpire Jim Joyce and Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga. I posted about it previously, but the actions of these two men were remarkable in their approach to a very unfortunate situation (caused by Joyce) and seemed very much in line with some of the maxims that Wooden taught.

Investing Approaches... & BusinessWeek May 6 Market Drop Piece

Interesting piece in BusinessWeek recently that made me think of the larger question of investing and how to go about it.

People work hard (presumably) to get money and then once gained, they have to decide what to do with it... options ranging from using it to purchase gold bullion, bury in a shoebox or invest in the market. Regardless of how they go about it, people's decisions are geared towards the end of having money (or more money) later.


From the perspective of having money for retirement, the historical approach was that employees would rely in their later years on benefits provided by lifelong employers. However, as more and more companies exit the pension providing to employees business, the 401K is oft trumpeted as the way to accumulate the nest egg that will be needed for retirement. However, as this 2009 blog post details and links to articles about, the 401K is speculative in nature and comes with the inherent risk (and potential reward, of course) that any investment in the market contains.

With this in mind, one thinks about the markets... and how sound investments there are. If a measure of soundness is logic, then perhaps there is cause for concern. One good example of this was the Michael Lewis book "The Big Short" (reviewed here) about the madness of the housing market (and related CDOs and credit default swaps) prior to it's recent crash.


So... with this as the background, I came across the recent BusinessWeek story "The Machines That Ate the Market" about the stock market's 6% drop in a 20 minute span on May 6. Yes, the market then bounced back to recover much of that drop, but the stability (and sanity) of the whole thing could certainly be questioned.

When you couple this with the idea (written about on this blog post) of how public companies often have to be run towards the goal of short term investment value... investing can be pretty pause inducing stuff.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Loss of Control: Running (or Hoping to Run) a Public Company

So... you start a company and want to run it a certain way... and take venture capital fund and go public. Sounds like a logical (though still challenging) goal.

However, there's a few different things I've seen lately that make me think about this idea of public companies (and ones that may hope to become public) and what's expected/required of their leaders.

In a Inc. Magazine book adaptation piece, Tony Hseih wrote "Why I Sold Zappos" about his perspective on what made the company and what then compelled him to agree to a 2009 sale to Amazon (with Hseih still running Zappos as an Amazon owned business).

In short, Hseih built Zappos on the belief that Zappos was primarily a customer service company... and the best way to have great customer service is to have really really satisfied employees. This belief came into some conflict, though, with Sequoia Capital... the source of some $50M in VC funding for Zappos. As a VC firm, Sequoia's charter (presumably) is to maximize return on investments and while satisfied employees can help grow a company, extraordinary expenses around things like employee development and health care can also reduce that return on investment.

It's not a knock on Sequoia, but I took from reading this article (which made me want to read Hseih's book) that the money they provided Zappos both helped fund the company's growth and prevented it's founder and CEO from running it how he wanted to.


Also in this category of running a business (in this case one that's already public) was this DSCC (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committe) ad against Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina:

As a Democrat (perhaps even a liberal), I hope that Barbara Boxer gets reelected and Forina defeated. Furthermore, as someone that worked at the company she was fired from, I heard a common refrain from people describing her as "great on vision and getting people excited, poor on execution" and don't think this experience (which is what she seems to hang her hat on) is enough to qualify her for work in the Senate).

This said, I viewed the ad as related to the Zappos piece in that Fiorina is criticized for getting tons of money from the company and laying off a large number of employees. While neither thing endears her to me, I don't view them as character flaws, but rather functions of good contract negotiating on her part and following the mandates of the market and board.

In terms of a mandate, she to my knowledge was basically required as the CEO of a public company to have her actions all be towards the ultimate goal of maximizing shareholder value... i.e. bumping up the stock price. One primary way to do that (at least in the short term) is to cut expenses through the form of employee headcount. Doesn't make it fun for the people being pushed out the door, but Fiorina could certainly make the argument that if laying people off looked to drive up the stock, she was compelled in her role as CEO to do so.


Thinking about this topic reminded me of a book I was required to read upon starting business school over a decade ago. From Eliyahu Goldratt, "The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement" is told in parable form and makes the argument that a company exists for one reason... to make money. The concept is that if the company doesn't make money, then any altruistic purposes it may serve don't matter because a money losing company isn't a self-sustaining enterprise.

My thought from this is that the idea may well be true, but perhaps there's an additional statement that could be made about companies that are traded publicly. The presence of shareholders (whether they be of the public corporation or venture capital variety) often compel a leader to take on the singular goal of making as much money as possible. In most cases this is still a fine goal, but starts one down a slippery slope if that's neither the be all end all intent of the business or if the founder/leader wants to invest now in a fashion that shareholders don't agree with.


One avenue that could be pursued to help a leader run a company in a certain way is benefit corporation status (as described in the BusinessWeek piece "New Legal Protections for Social Entrepreneurs"), but this is only going to be applicable in a limited number of cases.


None of this unequivocally says that public companies or the people that work at them are bad places, but it does say to me that people either working at a public company or one aspiring to become public need to have their eyes open about what they're getting into.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Roger Ebert Blog Essay on Race & Racism

Great great piece from Roger Ebert on racism. Titled "How do they get to be that way?" the essay focuses first on the mural flap in Prescott, AZ and then goes wider to the experiences of Ebert himself with race.

I liked Ebert quite a bit after reading this Esquire profile of him (which I posted about here) and am glad that someone was good enough to link to Ebert's essay via Facebook so I could read it.

I've written about this a bit on this blog (most recently in this post about a Charles P. Pierce SI story), but the thing that really strikes me in writing is when an author can combine together great content and great writing.

Great content can be about something important (as Ebert's racism piece is), something interesting (as is the Pierce piece) or something profound (as is the Chris Jones story about fallen American soldiers returning home).

Great writing, however, is in how it's delivered to the reader. To this point, Ebert's writing on racism and his own experiences with race struck me as almost lyrical in his choice of words and phrasing. Sometimes I read a piece like this and am torn between being inspired to try to reach that level of prose and deflated in feeling I never could. Course, I then tend to "reinflate" when I think about all the bad writing out there and how I can do better than that.

All this said, just a great story by Ebert that can be best summed up in this quote from it...

"I believe at some point in the development of healthy people there must come a time when we instinctively try to understand how others feel. We may not succeed. There are many people in this world today who remain enigmas to me, and some who are offensive. But that is not because of their race. It is usually because of their beliefs."

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Sports Illustrated on Baseball Phenoms Strasburg & Harper

Love me the idea of a phenom in sports.

So interesting to think about athletes with practically limitless potential and then to see what they do with it. Possibilities range from the very little (see: Leaf, Ryan) to quite a bit with more to come (see: Crosby, Sidney... with this post linking to an article about him) and everything in between.

Perhaps more than in football and hockey, baseball lends itself to the idea of phenoms and potential to singularly impact games. This is particularly the case with pitchers as a great starter can every five games (or 3 out of 7 games in a playoff series) shut down an opposition... and reminds me of the Earl Weaver quote "momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher."

To this end, the June 7 issue of Sports Illustrated has two different pieces that deal with this idea of phenoms in baseball.

First was "Wave Of The Future" by Tom Verducci. The beginning of the piece is about the great equalizer potential of the MLB draft and the end about can't miss (in the eyes of many experts) 3rd base/outfield prospect Bryce Harper (who last year was the 16 year old subject of an SI cover story).

One interesting quote from Verducci's "Wave of the Future" piece was this statement a year ago by uber-agent Scott Boras in talking to Washington Nationals ownership...

"There is a thing called a 50-year player—a player so extraordinary that he comes along once every 50 years. This year there is a 50-year pitcher and next year there is a 50-year player. And they both may be available to you."

Yep... Boras was right, the Nationals next week are pretty much a lock to take Harper with the first pick and last year took starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg with the first pick. It doesn't happen a lot that one team can draft superstars in back to back years, but as the Pittsburgh Penguins experienced with drafting Evegeni Malkin and Crosby in 2004 and 2005 respectively, it does happen sometimes.

From this same June 7 issue of SI comes the Joe Posnanski piece "What Took You So Long?" on Strasburg. Intriguing stuff about a highly anticipated prospect leading up to his MLB debut Tuesday June 8 vs the Pirates.

Of course, success is not guaranteed for either Strasburg or Harper (they are both still "prospects" after all), but the anticipation of what may be possible... that's pretty cool stuff.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Tom Verducci & Matt Lauer on Armando Galarraga / Jim Joyce episode

Really compelling theater from MLB in the last few days that goes beyond sports to being what President Barack Obama might refer to as "a teachable moment."

Starting things off, umpire Jim Joyce got wrong the call that would have completed for Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga the 20th Perfect Game in MLB history. From this came a series of interesting events.

To whit... Galarraga maintains his cool and completes the game; Joyce see the video and realizes his error; Joyce tearfully apologizes to Galarraga; the pitcher accepts his apology and gives him a hug; Joyce speaks to the media and acknowledges his mistake; Galarraga takes the lineup card to home plate for the next day's game and shakes hands with Joyce (who could have taken the day off, but didn't).

In terms of after the fact analysis, I really liked and agree with Tom Verducci from his CNNSI piece "Selig should review Joyce's blown call for the future, not the past" as well as Matt Lauer in his Today Show interview with Joyce.

It was a remarkable sporting event made more remarkable in that out of it, two people acted respectively as forthright and understanding adults. Sports are great, but something like this is just plain cool beyond a mere sporting event.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

"The Age of Wonder" by Richard Holmes

I wanted to like it... I really did.

Recently stopped reading (didn't finish the book, just stopped reading) "The Age of Wonder" by Richard Holmes.

The book is account of experimental science at the end of the 1700s and I had high hopes for it after reading this review from Time in which Lev Grossman described it as as "the most flat-out fascinating book so far this year."

Additionally, I tend to like books about exploration type stuff from days of yore... as evidenced by my enjoying "A Sense of the World" by Jason Roberts (reviewed here) and "Thunderstruck" by Erik Larson (reviewed here).

However, "The Age of Wonder" didn't really do it for me. It's a series of 10 chapters on 10 different scientific explorer types and I only made it through the first tw0.... with the first being on Joseph Banks and his time on the Galapagos Islands and the second William Herschel and his astronomy work (including the discovery of the planet Uranus). In his review, Grossman wrote of particular interest in the account of Herschel, but I actually found that chapter to be less interesting than the one on Banks.

I imagine that Grossman isn't the only guy out there who enjoyed "The Age of Wonder" as both chapters struck me as interesting subject matter (and I believe the book has sold well), but the writing was just a little bit dry for me.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Recommendation Pieces from Time Magazine

A couple of interesting pieces from the last two issues of Time around the concept of recommendation... with the first being from the May 31 cover story on Facebook.

The story by Dan Fletcher is titled "How Facebook Is Redefining Privacy" and looks at the concept of sharing information online via Facebook and how the company enables (or as some privacy advocates assert, forces) that sharing.  One very interesting area that Facebook is getting into is that of recommendation with the company making a concerted effort to enable users to easily click a button on other websites saying they "like" a product or service.  With this information then broadcasting to the friends of that user, you've got a powerful influence mechanism. 

In this same category of recommendation, the June 7 issue of Time contained the Lev Grossman piece "How Computers Know What We Want — Before We Do" about Internet music company Pandora.  The concept is the company breaks a song down to the presence or absence of some 20-30 specific attributes and then uses the results to recommend/play songs for users. Basically you have users who say they like a song (or group), then a database of now 740,000 songs which Pandora algorithms use to match up other music with the same characteristics.

It's pretty ingenious stuff (with additional details about Pandora and concept on the below video)...

The examples from Facebook and Pandora are different in that one handles recommendation based on individual feeling and one on technology and defined characteristics, but both cases are about influencing perception and then purchase decisions.  Coupling these examples with recommendation efforts from other companies like Amazon and Netflix (with Netflix and their recommendation engine being fairly heavily featured in the Grossman piece)... you've got a whole new world around purchase decisions.


On a completely different note, but something that also struck me from Time lately was the Nancy Gibbs essay "TAPS: Help for the Families of Fallen Soldiers."  Powerful stuff that's also profiled in this ABC News story...