Monday, April 25, 2011

Businessweek Pieces: Groupon / Innovation / FIELDf/x

Couple of interesting features from BusinessWeek lately that almost serve as point-counter point articles.

From the Mar 17 issue was "Are Four Words Worth $25 Billion for Groupon?" about the Chicago company that turned down a $6B purchase offer from Google. The Brad Stone and Douglas MacMillan article chronicles the history behind the site... and delves quite a bit into the coming development from Groupon that may help make their refusal to sell a great business move.

To whit... what Groupon is looking to do is move beyond coupons and to point in time and point in location deals. Concept is that consumers would use a Groupon app on their phone and select either "I'm hungry" or "I'm bored" and then receive targeted local offers. A time window would likely be associated with each offer... making it more valuable for companies looking to immediately reduce inventory or have non-prime table times utilized.

It's an interesting piece on an interesting company, but as noted at the top... there's a second BusinessWeek story that serves as a counter-point of sorts. It's not that the prospects of Groupon are marginalized, but rather that the business impact is questioned. From the Apr 14 issue of BW was "This Tech Bubble Is Different" by Ashlee Vance.

As a piece of writing, it's probably not the greatest in the world as it seems to wander a bit, but does have a compelling idea put forth and examined. What Vance and the experts she quotes look at is the true innovation (or lack thereof) from companies like Groupon, Facebook, or Zynga that don't really create anything new... other than perhaps a new experience to spend time or money on.

It's not to be overly critical of a business with this model or intent (companies exist to make money after all), but perhaps there is something to the words put by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Perlman...

"Facebook is not the kind of technology that will stop us from having dropped cell phone calls, and neither is Groupon or any of these advertising things," he says. "We need them. O.K., great. But they are building on top of old technology, and at some point you exhaust the fuel of the underpinnings."


Another piece from BusinessWeek lately that was interesting enough to bear linking to was "Baseball: Running the New Numbers". Written by Ira Boudway, it looks at the company Sportvision and it's FIELDf/x system of cameras and data analysis designed to truly quantify the performance of a fielder.

Similar to the companies noted above, it's not curing cancer... but is something that could impact baseball and the business around the game.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Charles Fishman on Water - from Fast Company Magazine

Excellent piece from the April 2011 issue of Fast Company, which brought to mind some other interesting writing on the same topic of... water.

The recent article was "Why GE, Coca-Cola, and IBM Are Getting Into the Water Business" by Charles Fishman. Adapted from Fishman's book The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, it's an interesting look at how cheap and easy water is becoming more scarce... and what that means for both society and business.

It's really interesting reading and I imagine the book came out of Fishman's 2007 Fast Company article "Message in a Bottle".... with this original piece linked to and written on in this post also about bottled water and the found in plastic bottles industrial chemical BPA.

Solid writing on an important topic.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Time Magazine Cover Stories: David Von Drehle on the Civil War & Jon Meacham on Pastor Rob Bell

Each of the past two Time Magazine issues featured cover stories which stood out as having really interesting content.

From the Apr 18 issue, David Von Drehle penned "150 Years After Fort Sumter: Why We're Still Fighting the Civil War".

Von Drehle is an excellent writer who I've linked to a number of times on this blog and in this story he investigates what caused the conflict leaving 625,000 Americans dead. Specifically, what he looks at and debunks is the notion (which I've heard before) that the Civil War was about something other than slavery.

It's a fascinating read for anyone interested in history... specifically the actually happened kind of history rather than revisionist looking view subscribed to by some (in this case for the purpose of aggrandizement of the Southern states who were fighting for the perpetuation of slavery).


From this week's (Apr 25) edition of Time came the cover piece "Is Hell Dead?" by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jon Meacham.

Basis for the story is Evangelical Pastor Rob Bell and his recently written Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (a heavy-sounding title to be sure).

Bell blends solid evangelical credentials (in the form of a 7,000 person congregation at Mars Hill Bible Church about 3 hours outside both Chicago and Detroit) with strong youth following (in part because he's just 40 and started Mars Hill at 28).

What inspired the Time cover story, though, is the idea put forth in Bell's book. In short, he questions the existence of Hell as a place long described in Christianity and wonders instead if the intent of God isn't instead to bring everyone into a place in Heaven. It's a bold idea that for those who take stock in it, changes much current dogma about what it means to become a Christian.

A really interesting idea... and one being put forth by someone deeply within the Christian community that's having a principle tenant of it's belief questioned.

"Under the Banner of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer

After reading half of "Under the Banner of Heaven", I decided that was enough for me.

It's not that Jon Krakauer a hack author... to the contrary, I enjoyed from him the books "Into Thin Air", "Into the Wild" and "Where Men Win Glory" (reviewed here).

The issue I had with "Under the Banner of Heaven" is how distasteful is was to read about true wackos who do something horrible and at the same time pervert religion (in this case the Mormon religion) by using it as the basis for their twisted actions.

I understand Krakauer's intent to explore the basis behind a heinous crime, but for myself as a reader, it's both not worth it and the connection isn't there. Not worth it from the perspective of there being little redeeming in reading about said crime (yes, I know the world not a shiny, happy place). As to the connection... while the actions perpetrated did come from people who were at one time devout Mormons, they were also kicked out of the church before committing their crime.

I did find interesting reading about where the Mormon religion came from and can see how it's views could be peculiar to someone not in the Faith, but it would seem patently unfair to hang the blame for this deranged behavior on the Church. Kakauer didn't seem to have this goal, but for me as a reader... if they're just wackos, then the background of the Church has to stand by itself apart from what turned these guys into said wackos.

Definitely not a poorly written book... just one about people I didn't care to read about.


To the subject of the author himself... pretty fascinating recent 60 Minutes piece (featuring commentary by Krakauer) on "Three Cups of Tea" author and Central Asia Institute charity founder, Greg Mortenson.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Gary Smith SI Profile on Dick & Rick Hoyt

Really remarkable feature written by Gary Smith for the latest issue of Sports Illustrated.

Titled "The Wheels of Life", it profiles Massachusetts native Dick Hoyt and his athletic endeavours with 49 year-old son, Rick Hoyt.

Rick was born a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy and since the 1970's, he's participated in over a thousand 10Ks, marathons and triathlons... while either in a trailer pushed, bike pedaled or raft towed by his father. The story is a powerful one and traffics in important themes ranging from the love of a family to import of not discounting the handicapped.

In terms of the telling of their journey, challenges and achievements, Smith seems well suited to the task as his stuff is nothing if not solid on sentiment. I suppose much of this is going to stem from the topic being written about, but find that invariably if there's a story with the author's byline, it's going to be be an emotion-inducing read. Seems a tough proposition for a writer to sign him or herself up for this type of work, but not get lost in flowery hyperbole when telling the story. I'd say Smith, however, does it well.

To the topic of Dick Hoyt and his son Rick... the Team Hoyt website can be found here and below is a story from the The Today Show on the duo.

Monday, April 11, 2011

"The Investment Answer" by Daniel Goldie & Gordon Murray

Recently finished reading "The Investment Answer" and found it a solid book. Written by Daniel Goldie and Gordon Murray, it's a basic (about an hour to read) primer on investing co-written by a Financial Advisor (Goldie) along with a Wall Street guy (Murray).

I heard about it through the Mike Cassidy piece Gordon Murray dedicated his final days to giving us 'The Investment Answer' from the San Jose Mercury News. As could be gathered from the Cassidy title, Murray has since passed away and Cassidy's story behind the book and the authors is an interesting one.

To the book itself, here's the basics of the recommendations provided around making investment decisions:

- Don't get caught up in past performance as an indicator of future success.

- Don't go it alone... use a Financial Advisor, but a Fee-Only Advisor, not a Retail Broker.

- Asset allocation decisions are more important than choices around individual stocks... and play heavily in the area of risk/reward decisions around an investment strategy.

- Diversification (multiple asset classes) and passive investing following a strategy trumps going all-in on a stock or asset class and frequently changing courses.

Simple stuff to be sure, but probably not simple to people who might have been burned by polar opposite approaches towards investing.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Profound Thoughts on Writing - from Chris Jones Blog

I've written on it previously, but some really interesting stuff on writing (and the process of) at the Son of a Bold Venture blog from Esquire writer Chris Jones. Since the above mentioned last post I wrote, what's really resonated with me from the blog has been the content written around something I'll call "becoming a writer, and then a great one".

First Jones posted HOW I GOT MY JOB (PART I) about... well, that. This was followed up immediately by his post FEAR... on his perspective around the struggle to get the right words on the page.

Really interesting stuff from both of these posts (and I'd say most of the posts and subsequent comments on this blog). Where me thinks the ante was upped was with a still ongoing discussion that started with the Son of a Bold Venture post LOSING'S REWARD... about the author's disappointment at not getting award recognition for an Esquire feature on Roger Ebert.

This launched a slew of interesting post comments both for and against said disappointment. People's commentary delved into subjects ranging from motivation to validation and took the various forms of concurrence, honest disagreement and snarkiness (it is the Internet, after all). In the "disagreement with writing about disappointment" category... Esquire writer Scott Raab posted a note which linked to his interesting and well written Try Selling Shoes blog post. Gist of both his post comment and blog post was that if you're doing the work you want to for a living, you shouldn't complain... at least not to people outside of your sphere who may actually aspire to your relative level.


Jones wrote I felt reasoned comment responses (including to Raab) and followed up with the post THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH. This missive contained more of his thoughts on validation of writing, but also had something else. While not to discount the original (and still important) topic of what makes a writer feel recognized, it seems to me infinitely more valuable in a discussion of writing to look at what makes a writer great.

On this producing of great work subject, Jones wrote of desperately wanting something and desperately working towards it. This concept of going all in is me thinks what makes someone great at a chosen profession. Howard Stern talked about it as recently as last week in relation to radio and now Jones references it in relation to writing... it's a dedication approaching manic level need for success.

Granted, this whole discussion started around the topic of what signifies success, and the role award winning plays in that, but to me... this thing of what it takes to reach whatever level might have the shiny baubles of "success" (whether they be jobs, awards, or simply great prose), that's the big rock there.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Thomas Lake on the Death of Darrent Williams

Really good long form piece from the latest Sports Illustrated.

Written by Thomas Lake, "Bad Nights In The NFL" is a narrative report (yes, I just made up the description, but me thinks it fits) on the circumstances surrounding the New Years Eve 2007 death of Denver Broncos cornerback Darrent Wiliams.

It features some pretty lyrical and interesting prose from Lake, but also a ton of detail around his killing and what led up to it. With this, one thing that stood out in the piece was the telling of secondary story arcs to contribute to the whole. Best example of this was the focus around teammate and friend Javon Walker. As someone who had lived the star athlete life for a few years longer than Williams, Walker's tale was an excellent one to tell around this "celebrity with new money to show off" lifestyle.

The one qualm I have about the story is I found myself getting lost as Lake recounted the minute by minute events immediately before Williams was shot. It could well be that I should have paid better attention, but that's the thing about great writing... it's great writing for the individual person reading it. While someone else may have had the same level of interest and appreciation of the story as I did, but not had the same issue around following the details... I did and so, there you go.

All in all, an excellent piece on a tragic event that hopefully (but, not likely) serves as a cautionary tale for someone else in the public eye with money and acclaim.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Assembling New David Foster Wallace Book - From Time Magazine

Interesting piece from the latest issue of Time Magazine in "Unfinished Business" by Lev Grossman... about "The Pale King", David Foster Wallace's posthumously published novel.

What struck me wasn't necessarily writing about the book itself, but rather the compilation of the work. As I've been reading about (and posting on) the process of writing lately, one thing that's come out repeatedly is the import of editing in the process.

This (presumably) final work from Wallace presents a remarkable example of that import with Grossman's description of how the book came together. After Wallace's passing, reams of pages were found with scattered chapters, notes, vignettes and story fragments... and out of this, the book was assembled. Over the course of two years, longtime Wallace editor Michael Pietsch pored over the work and through an exercise in "extreme editing", made what he felt were the best decisions possible about how it should all fit together into a narrative.

This endeavour by Pietsch (and him winding up with the finished product as described by Grossman) is remarkable to me from the perspective of how both incredibly creative and highly process oriented it must have been. Now, this of course wasn't editing under normal circumstances, but maybe it is a statement on what editing as an activity can be.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Frequent Blog Tag: "Writing"

After early last month doing a post about blog tags used, I a few weeks back posted "Frequent Blog Tags: "Customer Service", "Social Media" & "Work" to highlight the more "about or pertaining to business" topics often written about and tagged here. Looking further at this concept of things frequently posted on... another process/topic tag oft used here is "Writing".

Out of these 15 posts I've done with this a tag, three different categories seem to emerge as "the point of what I've getting at" with this tag (categorization of these not a scientific process, but little on this blog is):

Posts about the writing process - Included is this category is both my own ramblings and those of some of my favorite writers (i.e. Chris Jones, Joe Posnanski, Eric Weiner, Roger Ebert, J.R. Moehringer). Not coincidentally, many of these guys have blogs or twitter accounts that give them an avenue to "write about writing".

Posts about words and how great they can be - This is after all the point of this blog (see: blog heading just below the title) and often times the aforementioned writers get into words and their import at the same time they write about putting them down on a page. Also included are my own ruminations (it is my blog, after all) on what words placed together into meaningful order can do.

Posts about writing as an end in itself / career - A two part concept... with one being the act of writing getting accomplished and the other actually getting paid for it. Wisdom I've gathered (and linked to) is that to become a writer as an end in itself, you just... you know, write. This act done and then repeatedly done again more than anything else is a writer someone makes.

Now, if only things were as clear cut around how to then go from being a writer putting words on page for it's own sake to one doing it for a living. That said, those people putting in the effort to write, but who haven't yet made it a career should take heart. Without first "writing for the sake of writing", the making it a career part wouldn't stand a chance (not to mention you wouldn't have the writing for writing's sake thing).

Small victories... one at a time.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Gary Smith & Jeff Greenfield SI Baseball Pieces

Two pretty compelling stories from the Sports Illustrated 2011 Baseball Preview issue.

Cover story is written by Gary Smith and on the Philadelphia Phillies fabulous four (plus solid fifth) starting pitchers. The collection of talent makes for an interesting topic, but Smith's "The Legion Of Arms" takes a unique approach to the storytelling. Each of the pitchers is labeled as a particular superhero and the piece is written in an over the top comic book style.

It's an entertaining approach and one very befitting the remarkable and somewhat unbelievable rotation talent. Smith is also well-suited to write this type of story as his writing can be somewhat over the top. In short, he tries to pull something new and creative off and... it works. Any author deserves kudos for that.


In same vein of "departure from straight reporting" was another baseball feature from this issue. "It Was All Just A Bad Dream" is penned by Jeff Greenfield and chronicles the fictional events after Steve Bartman didn't interfere with Moises Alou catching that ball in the 2003 NLCS.

Pretty rollicking and entertaining stuff based on the premise that something which happened (the interference which precipitated the Cubs collapse), didn't. Similar to the Smith profile on the Phillies rotation... very original and entertaining writing.