Friday, July 30, 2010
Good book... I wouldn't call it great, but definitely good and features insight into Zappos and the building of a company.
I first heard about the book from this extremely interesting Inc. Magazine piece from Hsieh titled "Why I Sold Zappos" (which I wrote about here). Regardless of whether or not someone reads the book, I recommend the Inc. story. Just an excellent tale of running a company in a desired way... and having to reconcile that with the interests of outside investors (which in this case were Venture Capital, but could also be shareholders of a public corporation).
From both the Inc. story and book, I've got quite a bit of respect for Hsieh and his approach... with additional credit going to the rest of the leadership at Zappos.
The book and what it covers
Hsieh was an extremely smart kid, and also one who had an interest at a young age in running businesses. His intelligence helped him get into Harvard and from there land a programming job at Oracle. After quickly becoming bored with corporate life, Hsieh quit to embark on running his own show.
What started out as a web design business turned into the banner ad company LinkExchange. Several months into the venture, Hsieh turned down half a million dollars for the company and then a few years later sold to Microsoft for $32M. Rather than remaining at Microsoft for a year to collect an $8M retention bonus, Hsieh realized he wasn't doing what he wanted and left the company.
He started an investment fund and early on put money into an online shoe website. Before long, the fledgling company reached a point of either failing or needing more investment. Hsieh then put in personal money and got actively involved in helping run things. It was certainly a struggle at times, but the company carried through.
If the first part of the book is the background of the author and what led to Zappos reaching it's current point, the second part is about many of the core beliefs that Hsieh and the other managements have made a part of Zappos. The evangelizing of Zappos was a bit much for my taste, but I can't take great exception with it... Hsieh believes in what he created at Zappos and wanted to write about that in this book.
Most interesting stuff for me
The decision was made to have Zappos be about the best customer service... as well as best workplace culture. I've written about these dual topics before and they're definitely easier said well than done well, but Hsieh seems to have genuinely built a company that tries hard to nail both goals.
This has been done through things such as a learning library of books that employees could borrow and more importantly, a general transparency within the company culture. Biggest manifestation of this openness is The Culture Book which is an actual unedited hardcover book with employees saying what the culture means to them.
I love this idea of an actual book with unedited content and this idea of transparency makes me think beyond just companies and to how the same openness can lead to effective writing (as I made note of in this review of "The Tender Bar" by J.R. Moehringer).
Back to Zappos... from reading the book (and particularly the Inc. Magazine piece), I think they probably made the best move possible with the Amazon deal, but suspect they would have preferred to continue on their own... which couldn't be done with Venture Capital investment looking to cash out and move on (an idea I wrote about in the same blog post in which I linked to the Inc. piece).
All in all, a good book about a guy that's built a solid company in what appears to be the best way he possibly could.
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Ebert's piece on his Chicago Sun-Times blog stems from him posing to readers the question "which of these would you value more? (A) a great video game or (B) "Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain."
The tally at the time that his blog post was written was 13,823 to 8,088 in favor of video games (or 63% to 37%). Ebert writes of the unscientific and open to interpretation nature of his question, but the results (and Ebert's take on them) are still very interesting and certainly worth a read.
As I think about the general popular opinion, it reminds me of a "Permanence of Words" blog post I did and how Ebert's poll results show that everyone has their thing (or things).
For my own personal "thing", younger me (not even that much younger) would have put sports above all other non-family things, but I now view my favorite sports more as entertainment and less as something of great import (due in large part to now having children, me thinks). At the same time that sports has moved down the list, words (both the reading and particularly writing of them) have moved up.
In many ways, my life would be easier if that weren't the case as I'd have available as free time that which I spend now on reading and writing... and I'd also get rid of that persistent nagging feeling I put upon myself of thinking I should spend more time writing. However, we all choose what dragons we want to slay, and as the aforementioned "Permanence of Words" post details, I've at least for the time begin (and presumably going forward) chosen mine.
Going back to the Ebert piece, it's a fascinating question to think about the "absolute value" of something. Is a great book such as Twain's of more value than a great video game?
My personal answer is yes, but what Ebert raises for consideration is whether a comparison such as this can be definitively answered in any context other than each person's individual view. Tough to answer, but interesting to think about...
The book is a combination of author relationship to his father memoir and quotes from the aforementioned Dad.
Gruff, to the point, profane, lovable and loving... all of these qualities come across in Halpern's quoting of and writing about his father. While one could debate whether the language used around his kids growing up should have been cleaner, he still comes across very favorably.
This Time Magazine piece gives some background on how the whole thing came out of a Twitter account created by Halpern and me thinks the best way to sum up the book is to say it's short, funny and good.
If the quotes from the book website strike someone as amusing, they'll I'm sure enjoy reading the whole thing.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
There's a duality in there which makes me think of other dualities like Jacques Derrida's "difference vs differance" (which I mention in this post on the words and their import) or the Bryce Courtenay quote (apparently borrowed from elsewhere) "together since the world began, the madman and the lover" from his book "Tandia" (which I reference in this post dealing with South Africa).
But, enough digression into dualities. What this post is about is about is great writing... specifically in the form of J.R. Moehringer's memoir "The Tender Bar."
Moehringer is the co-author of Andre Agassi's brilliant memoir "Open"... which I reviewed here. I wasn't really aware of Agassi's collaborator other than that he didn't want his name on the cover so as to not distract from Agassi. Really glad I did hear of "The Tender Bar", though, as it's good for the same reason that I enjoyed "Open" so much. The big similarity between the two memoirs is their honesty... each memoir lays the subject bare on the table for readers to examine and (to borrow a phrase) sift through the entrails of their lives and take as a reader what they will.
The Agassi book is more widely read with he being a famous athlete, but Moehringer's personal memoir is even more interesting to me in that it traces the events of his life that helped lead up to being a writer. Specifically, it's about growing up with a single mother and male role models who haunt the Manhasset, Long Island bar Dickens (which later became Publicans and eventually Edison's and is referenced in the book title).
What I took from "The Tender Bar"...
- Entertainment via a well told yarn about how other people live.
Moehringer's time growing up didn't seem to reach the dysfunction in that of Augusten Burroughs youth, but I will say that his story was similar in that he grew up in a completely different time, place and atmosphere than I know... which is me thinks a good thing for a reader.
- The idea of life events, people and their ability to impact... but, how that impact is not preordained.
It would be easy to read this book and conclude that Moehringer was destined to be a writer due to his introduction to literature at a young age, mentorship from zealot-like bookstore workers and time spent at a bar where people cared about great writing. Heck, keep in mind the place started out called Dickens.
I don't think that's a safe assumption, though, as throughout there's a number of metaphorical forks in road that Moehringer came to and which ultimately would up with he being a working author. Not to give away any portion of the book and it's events, but it's interesting to read of how some of those forks in the road are ones that the author chose and some were entirely chosen for him. I think the idea here is that it's simply really interesting to see the turns that one's life takes and how one event or choice can impact what's to follow. Got to try to take from things, people and places (including bars) what they have to give you and then move forward...
- Great stuff about writing... as well as the process around it.
There's frequent references to great works of literature such as "The Great Gatsby" (which was set by Fitzgerald in the Moehringer's hometown of Manhasset), "Great Expectations" by Dickens and "Finnegan's Wake" from Joyce.
Beyond this, there's some really profound statements made by Moehringer that bear noting here.
- Description of his various father figures and finding that the way to get close was through "words being their password."
- Quote from the author after reverentially describing the people at Dickens... "these exaggerations weren't false, they were what I believed."
- Story told Moehringer by a Priest... "Do you know why God invented writers? Because he loves a good story. And He doesn't give a damn about words. Words are the curtain we've hung between Him and our true selves. Try not to think about words. Don't strain for the perfect sentence. There's no such thing. Writing is guesswork. Every sentence is an educated guess, the reader's as much as yours. Think about that the next time you cur a piece of paper into your typewriter."
- Perhaps due to this "Divine lesson", there's mention from Moehringer fairly late in the book of how began to write well when he didn't focus on producing great prose, but rather simply getting words out on a page.
- How good writing is above all, truthful writing. This is I suppose mandatory for memoir writing (well, perhaps not for all), but me thinks it can be extrapolated as a statement about all good writing. Whether it's as interesting (to many) as the story of a tennis champion (Agassi), a writer who spent a lot of time at a bar (Moehringer) or a guy trying to build a career (me), there's a lot to be said for open and honest writing.
- A desire to read more from and about Moehringer.
Mention is made in the epilogue of how September 11 brought him back to Manhasset and then Moehringer writing a story for the LA Times about his cousin Tim who died in the Towers. Also referenced is another piece for the Times about Manhasset itself and the impact of Sept 11 on the town.
Additionally, there's bibliography links on Moehringer's Wikipedia page and the book website can be found here.
Great book, loved it.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Different vantage points that could be used to consider the movie begin with (a) director of the film (b) what he tried to do (c) how how well he did that and finally (d) what the response has been.
I don't typically post on movies... with this being only the third after one on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and then a post on Avatar.
One thing Inception and these films share is the involvement of a Director whose work I find interesting, if not groundbreaking. To Whit...
1. Curious Case of Benjamin Button by David Fincher - prior work including: Zodiac, Fight Club and Seven.
2. Avatar by James Cameron - who previously did Titanic... which a few people might have heard of. Also, Avatar had the distinction of bringing in an entirely new wave of technology. When I say these, I mean actual 3D, not the upconverted 3D that multiple movies since Avatar have been released in.
3. Inception by Christopher Nolan - previously did: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Insomnia, The Prestige and Memento.
Pretty heady stuff and these three guys along with M Night Shyamalan (yes, I am one of the people who liked Lady in the Water) are the directors whose new films I'm going to consider seeing based on filmmaker reputation alone.
Attempt made in the movie
If nothing else, Inception deserves huge credit for it's attempt. The movie is a visual tour de force ($160M can buy a lot of special effects), but where it differs from most other films is in it's layers of complexity. Stealing of dreams, dreams within dreams, 3rd level dreams within 1st and 2nd levels... lots and lots going on and me thinks Nolan as the Writer/Director should be commended for creating something truly original... especially in this era of the sequel as blockbuster movie.
Success at the Attempt
I found the action sequences (of which there were many) to be really solid and story arc of Leonardo DiCaprio's Dom Cobb character to be intriguing, but the aforementioned complexity made it harder for me to appreciate both the action and story. Just a lot of energy spent as the viewer trying to both figure out and validate that I knew what was going on. Additionally, I found myself wanting more back story about the dream infiltration concept in Inception... where it came from and why Ellen Page as a character introduced to it wasn't a bit more shocked by the idea. Was this a world where people knew all about the idea? If so, either I missed or mention could have been made of that.
Reaction to the movie
I hadn't heard about this prior to seeing the film, but there's been pretty interesting critical discussion of how good... or not good it was.
The long and short of it is some (seems to be many) critics really liked it and gave it huge credit for ambitious movie making and trying to accomplish something different. As the counterpoint to this, there's also been critics who thought it too muddled and perhaps overreached in it's attempt. Course, then the original positive camp critics criticized the negative camp critics... and on they go. Interesting stuff that's written about in the NPR piece "'Inception,' Art, Edelstein, And The Impossibility Of Accounting For Taste."
Perhaps the best way to go at this is for someone to say the movie tries something different and if it sounds of interest, to see that and then form an opinion... or simply see if you're entertained. Better this than to get worked up over whether someone else is of your same mind on the matter.
As Roger Ebert noted on his twitter page "Announcement: It is OKAY to dislike Inception"... which was in fact given four stars in Ebert's Chicago Sun-Time movie review.
Friday, July 16, 2010
Sunday, July 11, 2010
This particular putting up of his hand to block an end of the game goal resulted in Suarez being pilloried by many as having done something unsportsmanlike and morally wrong. An example of this I've seen in print has been from Grant Wahl who for Sports Illustrated wrote of the "cynical" play by Suarez.
Now, in considering whether Wahl is a bit over the top in his assessment of the Suarez play, one should consider the definition of the word... at least according to this source.
"An emotion of jaded negativity, or a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of other people. Cynicism can manifest itself by frustration, disillusionment and distrust in regard to organizations, authorities and other aspects of society, often due to previous bad experience. Cynics often view others as motivated solely by disguised self-interest."
Yea, I'd have to disagree with the depth of Wahl's commentary on the play and found myself fascinated by the Joe Posnanski blog post "Return of the Hand".
The approach in this piece isn't so much to look at whether the play was "morally acceptable", but rather the concept of rules in sports and motivation towards particular behavior. Comparisons of this play (and associated rule) are made against things like the goaltending rule in basketball, pass interference in football and even usage of steroids in baseball (especially the pre-testing era in MLB).
Really interesting stuff from Posnanski to consider...
Saturday, July 10, 2010
The feature story from the issue is "Don Coryell 1924-2010"... excerpted from the Tim Layden book "Sports Illustrated Blood, Sweat & Chalk: Inside Football?s Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today?s Game". I'm oft interested in book excerpts from the magazines I read (as they tend to pick interesting stuff) and this piece is no exception.
The particular topic of the excerpt centers around former San Diego Charger coach and offensive innovator Don Coryell who passed ear recently after a long illness. Layden writes two different angles on Coryell... one is on his impact on the NFL passing game and one on his visit with the aging ex-coach at his San Juan Islands (WA) home.
Was very cool to read of Coryell looking back on his life and career... and the legacy from that.
The second thing from this issue that stood out to me was a short piece by (primarily) soccer writer Grant Wahl on the upcoming World Cup Final between the Netherlands and Spain. "The Day That Lasts A Lifetime" is all about the impact of playing in the biggest sporting event in the world and what it's meant to some past winners.
Gives a sense of the scope of things when you consider that this particular game tomorrow will be giving one of these soccer-mad countries their first ever World Cup Championship.
Wednesday, July 07, 2010
This follows up on both my "Permanence of Words" post about words and what I like about them and "Words Written Down - The School Days" piece about writing. Main difference between those and this is I want to write here about reading.
I recall from his excellent book "On Writing", bestselling author Stephen King extolling the virtues of reading for any writer. He was referring I believe to fiction writers, but a non-fiction writer would me thinks have even more of a need to be well read. If you're writing about actual things (i.e. non-fiction), helps to actually know something about said things.
Through reading, you're going to be able to both envelop yourself in a story (whether it be real or fictional) and have time to draw your own conclusions and thoughts on it. If you compare reading to say, watching a movie... the experience of film I believe just isn't as immersive and as a result, the viewer has less opportunity for take-away than the reader.
This import of reading established, I think the question becomes what to read. There's obviously a lot of options ranging from novels and non-fiction books (and me thinks both type of books valuable) to magazines and newspapers, and then blogs and all the way down (in size) to Twitter posts.
In terms of online writing, one criticism I've seen is that a reader there not likely to think as deeply about and gain as much as from a book. While I do agree with this generally, I think it not a reason to skip reading online, just an argument to pick up a book as well as surf the interlyweb. In fact, a great thing that vehicles like Twitter and magazines can provide is a recommendation of books to read.
To that end... the July 12 issue of Time Magazine contained "What to Read This Summer". The article featured authors and other public figures saying what books they're reading now as a form of recommendation. Many of the books noted in this piece I'm not terribly interested in, but one that did jump out is "The Tender Bar: A Memoir" by J.R. Moehringer. Written by the co-writer of Andre Agassi's fantastic memoir "Open" (which I reviewed here), it's about Moehringer's time spent in a bar and how that related to his life and writing career. Man, by a guy who wrote (well, co-wrote) a book I love and this book involving stuff about becoming a writer... "The Tender Bar" sounds like catnip to me.Ok, that's quite a progression I ran through in this post. To whit...
(A) previously wrote about writing, now writing about reading, (B) writers should read stuff, (C) writers should read all different kinds of writing, (D) online writing can lead to books, (E) here's a link to an article recommending books and (F) hey, here's a book I want to read!
Again, lots of steps there, but ones I'm happy to have walked through reaching this point.
Closing thought around this whole reading theme is a link to a most excellent writer in Roger Ebert blogging about the value of a great video game vs great book ("Huck Finn" to be specific). Interesting comparison from the film critic...
Monday, July 05, 2010
For the purpose of this missive, I'm interested in looking back at the writings of note (you know, to me) that I did in school.
High School - not "The Wonder Years", but still a time I wrote some stuff that I remember to this day. As an aside... I was a voracious reader in elementary school and think it not a stretch to proclaim that the foundation of my interest in writing.
Two things written in High School I remember...
- An extemporaneous writing assignment for Yearbook Class. While it's true that I didn't do much else there, I do remember having my paper brought up in class as being really good. Who knew?
- My admission essay for University of Puget Sound. The topic was Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and I recall being told by the interviewer that it was one his favorite essays on the book. Maybe he was just humoring me because I didn't get into the school (course, I also blew off their social mixer), but I did like being told I could write well.
College - needs to be separated into Undergrad and Graduate writing.
As an Undergraduate English major, I recall a couple of things...
The process I would follow to write Freshman English papers. First step would be to do a free write on the topic... elapsed time, 4 hours. Next would be to take what I wrote and write a new document based on the original... elapsed time, 4 hours. Final step would be to rewrite and revise this new document... elapsed time, 4 hours. Now, perhaps I'm remembering spending more time than was the case, but that's how I recall it. Guess the lesson here is that it takes work to do good work... a concept written about in my last blog post.
Literary Theory class was another one that I remember for the writing. To generate papers for the class I would read something, take a specific nugget from it and then figure out how to write about that one sliver in a larger context... hopefully a completely different context than others might consider. While this was the process I enjoyed, the topic I remember being most interested in from this class was Jacques Derrida and his writings on "difference" vs "differance"... a very cool look at context and meaning.
Also have found memories of a paper I wrote for a Native American Studies class. For the content of the piece, I basically copied an encyclopedia entry on the native tribe in question, but did so as if I was telling a story through the eyes of a village elder. One might quibble and consider this a form of plagiarism, but I instead think of it as a preamble to my interest in historical fiction.
As a Grad Student, I recall most fondly an essay I wrote in class as part of an exam. I don't recall the exact assignment, but I know the end product I wound up with was a paper on how Major League Baseball at the time appeared to use business strategies taken out of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." Only problem was that MLB seemed to be using multiple strategies against themselves... not a great way to run a business. Was fun to write and yea... I was recognized for it which felt good.
In summary of the words on pages portion of my time in school: producing stuff you like to write and having people appreciate it... both very worthwhile things.
Sunday, July 04, 2010
The piece that stood out to me the most was "How to Raise Men" by A.J. Jacobs. He's a frequent contributor to Esquire and while I've enjoyed some of his writing, some I haven't cared for as much (such as his book "The Know it All" about reading the encyclopedia).
However, this story about some specific values in relation to his young boys (a 6 and twin 3 year-olds) is really solid. While it's true that it strikes a cord as a result of my having two boys, the writing from Jacobs is entertaining and poignant at the same time (always a good combo).
Some of the values he discusses are tribalism (in relation to cheering for a given team), brotherhood (just what you'd think) and delusional optimism (that all kids seem to have more of than adults). What really hit me, though, were the vignettes about two nightly rituals Jacobs has with his boys (probably more the oldest at this point)... (1) saying what you're thankful for and (2) talking about what you did right and wrong during the day gone by.
Other stuff I found particularly interesting from this issue...
From writer Cal Fussman was the cover story, "Tom Cruise: The Fixer". While I can understand why Cruise has developed a reputation as a bit of a wacko (see: his postpartum depression jag about vitamins and exercise), this piece provides a different view.
Beyond portraying Cruise as a normal(ish) guy, it attributes to him a pretty profound view of work and getting good at things. The basic concept is when you try to do something you haven't done, you first keep your mouth shut and listen and then you put in the work to figure it out. Boil that all down and... you put in the work.
Maybe Cruise is simply repeating a basic concept, but I respect him putting credit for his success there.
Also, financial writer Ken Kurson provided his one page essay "Why Saving Money Won't Save You". In it he covers two things that struck me. The first was the idea of income and expenses... and how income is something you often get by doing what you'd rather not do, that being work. If you like the work, that's great... but, if you don't always, you can still do it as a means to an end.
The second thing from Kurson that I really liked was mention of his financial guy turned doctor turned inventor (of the Zigo bike) friend. Thing to note here from Kurson was how the friend created the bike (and company to sell it, I imagine) in "his spare time."
Finally, this issue had something interesting from Jon Favreau in his "What I've Learned" piece. The quote was "I had a writing teacher who said, 'if you want to learn to write a screenplay, read "The African Queen" twice'."
Saturday, July 03, 2010
Here's the link to the ESPN search query for Jones and online now are a number of short World Cup soccer posts that he's done from South Africa. These blog posts are not as long as his features I've most enjoyed (and he probably didn't spend as much time on rewrites), but a lot of them I still consider really good writing.
Probably my favorite piece from his recent World Cup dispatches was "Not sad to see Paraguay go at all" on the heels of their defeat against Spain earlier today. It's got all the stuff I like in good writing... an interesting point of view, communicated well, and entertaining in the delivery.
As an aside, one thing I notice in writing from Jones is his phrasing leans towards the dramatic... but doesn't go over the top as I've noticed in some other authors like Gary Smith from Sports Illustrated.
As someone who fancies himself a writer type, me thinks the style from Jones one to try to emulate.
The feature story was "7 Days In The Life Of A Catastrophe" about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It's written by Gary Smith and is good in the same way that I've found other Smith work from SI to be good... leaning a bit towards melodrama, but interesting (and usually profound) nonetheless.
Just a nice story.
Friday, July 02, 2010
The piece is written by Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski and hits at what I love about great writing on multiple levels (a concept I previously posted about here)... the delivery, the topic and the prose itself.
In terms of delivery, I learned of the piece through a twitter update from Posnanski which included a link to the Quisenberry story posted on his personal blog. So interesting to me the concept of new forms of written delivery... and so cool someone like Posnanski who embraces said new forms (which, yea... I also posted about before).
From a topic perspective, I found this to be just a very moving piece on a a fascinating guy. As both Posnanski and Quisenberry's wikipedia page detail, the pitcher's career ended in 1990 and then post-baseball he became a published poet.
The final level mentioned above that I thought the story excelled on was prose. It's thoughtful stuff whose most meaningful section (I imagine to Posnanski as well since the italics are from him) was below...
"The thing that strikes me about Dan’s quotes, even now, is that they’re so perfectly worded. He was an artist. Take a simple quote like this one, from his acceptance speech at one of the Rolaids Relief functions: 'I want to thank all the pitchers who couldn't go nine innings, and manager Dick Howser for not letting them.' I mean, that’s just a little quote, mostly in fun, but read it again — it’s perfect, not a wasted word, Gettysburg Address concise.
Not a wasted word. I don’t believe I’ve ever written this before — for obvious reasons — but almost at the end of his life, Dan told me that he loved the way I wrote because it’s the way he tries to write. It’s one of the three greatest compliments of my life."
Really cool stuff.