Tuesday, August 30, 2011

GQ September 2011 Issue - Will Leitch on Michael Vick & Other Features

I've not been much of a GQ Magazine reader in the past, but found the most recent issue to have some solid content as well as (at the risk of being a bit hyperbolic) borderline spectacular.

What got me to purchase (and it's the first magazine I've bought from the rack in probably years) was seeing that J.R. Moehringer wrote the cover story. Author of the brilliant memoir The Tender Bar (which I reviewed here) as well as co-writer of the equally brilliant Andre Agassi memoir Open, Moehringer pens for this issue a profile of New York Jets Quarterback Mark Sanchez.

The piece is titled "Broadway Mark" (currently available online just in excerpt form) and while good, didn't necessarily strike me as great. To this point, I kind of like when my favorite writers do stuff that I like, but not as much as other work of theirs. Reminds me that everybody's human and while you strive to do your best work at all times, you're simply not going to have everything you do in life be your best work. When it is, that's great, and when it's not... you know you did what you could and then move on to the next project.


What I felt was the best piece of writing from this issue was another quarterback profile... this one written by Will Leitch (he off the book God Save the Fan that I reviewed here). His piece "The Impossible, Inevitable Redemption of Michael Vick" is really good writing on an interesting subject... and has the additional cachet of having created news itself. Leitch's reporting of Vick being directed towards the Philadelphia Eagles by the NFL is likely not something the league office would want put out and there and a pretty remarkable detail assuming it's true (and I have no reason to think it's not).

Back to the writing itself, though... Leitch takes the approach of portraying Vick as more than just a caricature of someone who was a bad guy who hated dogs and now is a good guy that loves dogs. Really interesting look at someone who is both an ideal (good or bad) that people assign to him and an actual guy.


Another piece from this GQ that featured a compelling story was a restaurant review (that's right, a restaurant review as compelling) by Alan Richman. "Diner for Schmucks" details his experiences at and with the proprietors of the New York eatery M. Wells. It's remarkable reading that traffics in the concepts of service, customer expectations and the power of accusation.

Postcription to the M. Wells piece... restaurant lost their lease and now closed. Don't feel bad for the owners in the slightest.


Finally, this issue contained the Chris Heath piece "Tell: An Intimate History of Gay Men in the Military". It featured accounts from various gay current and former Servicemen and what struck me was an anecdote towards the end of the piece.

From an unnamed member of the military who will soon be able to serve his country without his sexual orientation being grounds for dismissal if publicly known...

"Since I'm a single officer in the Marine barracks and I've got the highest security clearance you can get, I also serve at the White House in close quarters with President Bush and President Obama at social events. Very seldom was the president ever alone, but one time the president had said, 'Go and get the vice president,' and all the straphangers went, and the president went in the Blue Room and was just standing there waiting for Biden. And there was no Secret Service around or anything, and I went, 'Fuck it, I'm going to go and talk to the president about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." ' He was looking out south—there's an incredible view down past the Washington Monument to the Jefferson. And I just stepped in and said, 'Sir?' and he turned around and walks to me and I just started: 'You know, sir, I want to let you know that there are a number of us that work very close to you who appreciate very much what you're doing on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"—more than you probably realize.' And he was shaking my hand, he looks up and it's like...he got it. I said, 'I want to thank you for this.' And he goes, 'No, I want to thank you. Thank you for your service, and thank you for your courage.'"

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Interesting Companies Posted On

A post that I've wanted to do for a while now has been on interesting companies and the below list represents alphabetically the businesses (large and small) that I've found of note and posted on from the past year...

1. Airbnb - company website here and blog search results here

2. Amazon - company website here and blog search results here

3. Apple - company website here and blog search results here

4. Ford - company website here and blog search results here

5. Google - company website here and blog search results here

6. Hewlett-Packard - company website here and blog search results here

7. Khan Academy - company website here and blog search results here

8. LinkedIn - company website here and blog search results here

9. Rearden Companies - company website here and blog search results here

10. Salesforce.com - company website here and blog search results here

11. Subaru - company website here and blog search results here

12. TED - company website here and blog search results here

Granted, this blog is still primarily about great writing (both found and the process around producing it), but there are me thinks some interesting companies out there doing cool things.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Five for Writing Posts from Son of a Bold Venture Blog

I first mentioned it in a Feb 2011 blog post and lately have thought more about the Five for Writing Series done by Chris Jones on his Son of a Bold Venture blog. Concept as introduced in this blog post by Jones is five questions he e-mails to a writer and then their responses... with the writers covered (and each Series post) hyperlinked below:

1. Gene Weingarten - a Washington Post columnist and humor writer... winner of two Pulitzer prizes for feature writing. Notes the absolute need to get correct the details of what's been written.

2. Wright Thompson - an ESPN website writer who also provides some excellent and heavy on sentiment work for the ESPN/Bill Simmons site Grantland. Provided both links to some of his past work and content about the writing process and concept of becoming interested in a topic, hopping on a plane and go learn about it, and then recording it's details in print. Thompson also covers his seeming penchant for producing first person writing (reminds me J.R. Moehringer in this regard).

3. Jeff Pearlman - columnist for the Sports Illustrated website and author of multiple books about famous teams or athletes... Dallas Cowboys, New York Mets, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and now Walter Payton. Blog post has some solid writing process stuff both in relation to physical act of writing (where it works for Pearlman) and what type of book subject is (and isn't) going to attract readers.

4. Charles P. Pierce - highly esteemed Esquire and Boston Globe writer. Makes some interesting points in this post about writing the perfect words to describe something. Somewhat related to this, the post also had some good content on the power of language and rhetoric (which Pierce then expands on really really well in this Esquire piece).

5. Glenn Stout - editor of the Best American Sports Writing series and himself a book author. Post contains Stout's mention of the unequivocal need for a writer to tell a story with confidence and in a manner that doesn't let the reader's attention wane. Also of interest from Stout was his writing about words as his job... not that he doesn't enjoy it, but he's got to work to get paid. Also linked to this piece was an SI story "Heavyweight Championship Of The Word" by Jeff MacGregor on the writer W.C. Heinz.

6. Gregg Doyel - CBS Sports columnist. Nothing specifically stood out from Doyel's responses to the Five for Writing questions, but as Jones writes, he deserves definite credit for the incredibly fast turn-around answers provided to the questions posed.

7. Drew Magary - writer for the websites Deadspin and Kissing Suzie Kolber... now author of the novel The Postmortal. Almost counter to some of the other Five for Writing authors who wrote about the power of words, Magary writes about about the notion of words arranged on a page for the enjoyment of readers... and financial gain for the writer. As part of this is his commentary about viewing a novel as being a promising track to wealth given the (free) availability online of so much sports commentary or humor writing out there.


Not to forget the blog host himself, there was a similar Q&A blog post done with Jones by the aforementioned Jeff Pearlman... this time on Pearlman's blog. Big take-away from this piece was late in the Q&A how Jones described the experience of writing in the flow... just as Charlie Pierce's above noted description of writing the perfect words.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"Wonder Girl" by Don Van Natta Jr.

Recently finished reading Wonder Girl: The Magnifcent Sporting Life of Babe Didrikson Zaharias by Don Van Natta Jr.

Didrikson was an incredible athlete (listed in the top 10 of the Sports Illustrated listing of best athletes of the twentieth century - male or female) and the book is a solid account of both her achievement and life as a whole. At times I found my interest in Didrikson waning with the accounts of her over the top cockiness to the point of extreme rudeness, but the account of her latter years really brought her back into the realm of someone I wanted to care about. Van Natta I'm sure portrayed her as his research revealed, it was just nice to feel some semblance of warmth towards someone time as a reader has been invested with.

Completely setting aside how nice Didrikson may or may not have been at different points of her life, one thing that struck me reading the book was her struggles with eligibility for amateur competition due to her attempts to actually make a living at sports. Different times than now to be sure, but I really saw correlation between what she faced and the environment modern day college athletes compete and live in.

All in all, a good book on a remarkable athlete and competitor... one who faced adversity along the way and when all was said and done, seemed to have her heart in the right place.

Politics of Discontent Writing - Time Magazine, Laurie Penny & Charles Pierce

I've come across from a few different sources lately some excellent writing that definitely shares a common theme and seems to also offer the same take away idea.

The theme is around violence perpetuated at least to a degree by politics and examples of it have been way too common. In the US there's been the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and other innocents and in Europe recently both the attack in Norway and riots in London. Now, these atrocities are all distinct events and care should be taken to not link them too tightly, but they do all traffic at least somewhat in social standing and politics.

In terms of political discourse, the Charles Pierce Esquire feature "The Bomb That Didn't Go Off" examined the prevalence of right-wing violence and how what Pierce describes as an us vs them fragmentation of politics feeds the fire. I previously posted on the story, but it was just fascinating stuff that looks beyond the superficial causes people like to attribute atrocity to in order to make them feel better.

Not long after this piece came the aforementioned London riots and some excellent writing on them from both Time Magazine and a blog by UK-based writer Laurie Penny.

Latest issue of Time featured two really solid pieces on the London riots... one on the violence itself and one about the causes of it. "London's Long Burn" was by Nathan Thornburgh on the first subject and the more lengthy "The End Of Europe" from Rana Foroohar looked at some of the systematic causes and raises definite flags about prospects for stability in the future.

Naming convention for the story is obviously on Europe, but reading Foroohar's words towards the end brought to mind the political climate in the US as both described by Charles Pierce and evidenced by the recent budget debates and political entrenchment. Point is made in the story of the role Germany could play in the financial stability of the continent... but, both in Germany and elsewhere, the trend towards a politics of polarization would have to give way to a discourse around the greater good.


Closely related to both Time features and that by Pierce was the aforementioned Laurie Penny blog post "Panic on the streets of London." It's good writing that in a short space conveys both the violence that was happening and how it's wasn't simply "mindless acts perpetuated without cause." This of course isn't to say they were justified acts, but just as Pierce wrote... to simply call a heinous act something heinous done by crazies and nothing more is to not look at the conditions behind them and whether steps can be taken to improve and prevent.

As George Santayana told us (according to Google): "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Businessweek Pieces: Steve Perlman / Google+ / Most Popular Things

Quite a few interesting stories and mentions in Businessweek lately... particularly in this week's edition labeled the Popularity Issue.

The cover feature looks at an eclectic blend of companies and products and below are three which had fairly sizable write ups in this BW... and three with only brief vignettes, but that still stood out as interesting.

- "Behind Five Guys’ Beloved Burgers" profiles the expanding burger chain noted for it's simple menu and "authenticity" (perhaps like Chipotle).

- "Vibram's shoes: the next best thing to nothing?" is about the FiveFingers shoes that were heavily mentioned in the excellent Christopher McDougall book Born to Run (posted on here earlier this month).

- "How Nordstrom Bests Its Retail Rivals" features the department store with the exceptional customer service reputation. As part of this, the piece has some interesting content about how the family (three brothers and a cousin) runs Nordstrom.

Three additional products mentioned in this Popularity feature that stood out as interesting were the all-electric Nissan Leaf, the not killed by the iPad Amazon Kindle and Story Cubes... the dice game where people make up stories based of the various images on each die rolled.

From this same issue of Businessweek was also mention of an interesting retail product and restaurant chain... neither of which I had heard of previously and both of which are coming soon to the US market. The story "Toys 'R' Us Wants a Robot (to Sell) for Christmas" is about the My Keepon toy and "A Spanish Starbucks for Sandwiches" details the casual dining chain 100 Montaditos and it's planned (major) expansion into the US.


Two other stories featured in Businessweek lately that stood out...

From the July 21 issue was "Google+’s Circle Logic" on the latest Social Networking foray from the search giant (and what appears to be their best effort yet to compete with Facebook in this space). Finally, the July 27 edition had "Steve Perlman's Wireless Fix" on the successful inventor and his latest company.

Perlman's previous ventures include WebTV (sold for half a billion to Microsoft), the graphics company Mova (whose technology has been used in a number of studio movies) and streaming video game venture Onlive. Pretty remarkable background and the BW story subtitle gets at both Perlman himself and the subject of this piece...

"Silicon Valley’s self-styled Thomas Edison has found a way to increase wireless capacity by a factor of 1,000."

It's very interesting stuff about Perlman's DIDO wireless technology and the guy himself (who is also noted in the BW story as having founded the business incubator Rearden... as in Ayn Rand's Hank Rearden from Atlas Shrugged).

Friday, August 12, 2011

Sports Illustrated Pieces: Dustin Pedroia / Toomer's Corner Trees / Pitching Prospect Trevor Bauer

Three excellent stories from the latest issue of Sports Illustrated.

Cover story was "The Muddy Chicken Hits It Big" on Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. Solid piece by Senior baseball writer Tom Verducci that really gets into Pedroia, who he is and what he does. The story does a good job of covering both Pedroia's personal and professional lives, with the professional being grounded in his love of the game and how that helps him be a leader on a team full of personalities. Lot of ground written about well by Verducci.


Another profile piece from this issue was "Trevor Bauer Will Not Be Babied" by Lee Jenkins. No slight at all intended towards the writing, but what stood out here was the subject covered. Similar to Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper (SI cover stories about each posted on here and here, respectively), Bauer represents the idea of potential greatness in baseball. As Jenkins details, the 20 year old Diamondbacks prospect could see Major League time as soon as September for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

What makes the story even more interesting is Bauer's single-minded ownership of and contrarian approach to his pitching development. Pretty fascinating content both in terms of what Bauer has done and how baseball thinking has adjusted somewhat in his direction around training and conditioning practices.


Final story that stood out in this SI was the Tommy Tomlinson feature "Something Went Very Wrong At Toomer's Corner". About the University of Auburn oak tree poisoning, the piece features the type of compelling writing that can often be found in the last feature of each SI issue. Tomlison goes beyond the crime itself and delves deeply into football in Alabama and what it means to people... both for better and much much worse. Excellent "slice of life different than known by many" prose.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Wright Thompson Pieces from Grantland

Some remarkable pieces I've seen recently by Wright Thompson of ESPN and Grantland. Thompson is I guy whose I first heard mention of in this Five for Writing feature with his responses to writing process questions posted by Esquire writer Chris Jones on his Son of a Bold Venture blog.

A few months after that Feb 2011 interview, I came across the lengthy ESPN Outside the Lines story "Deadly Games" on the Macacos slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Pretty remarkable piece whose subtitle tells the story of it's content - "In Rio, where the next Summer Olympics and World Cup will be held, nearby neighborhoods have become war zones."


The writing I've seen lately by Thompson, though, was the trigger to post about and link to him. For the ESPN/Bill Simmons website, Grantland, he's done a series of heartfelt and well written pieces about loss and remembrance.

The last two pieces posted were "On Whiskey and Grease: A Yoknapatawpha Wake" and "On Whiskey and Grease: Drinking the last bottle of Jim Beam". Each is a really good blend (no booze pun intended) of the solid and the sentimental about someones passing and how their lives are celebrated.

Reading these stories then sent me back to looking in the Grantland archives (not that vast since the site is only a few months old) for other Thompson stories... two of which I recall having read and thinking "man, that's good writing." "On Whiskey and Grease: Pappy Van Winkle" (yep, more booze) was about the hard to find Pappy Van Winkle bourbon and then "Four Nights at Elaine's: The Last Will and Testament of a Great Saloon" about the heavily writer-frequented New York bar closing for good.

Really good writing that brought to mind the piece "Last Call at Elaine's, ft. Kevin Van Valkenburg" from the Son of a Bold Venture blog. Similar pieces from these young writers who were part of a group having their last night at Elaine's... and which both had some excellent stuff on being a young writer.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Politics Writing from Esquire - Pierce, Marche & Jones

Latest Esquire featured three different excellent pieces that dealt with politics.

One of them was a solid Presidential candidate profile, one a commentary on the President and one a ridiculously profound look at our country's political discourse and the violence it's wrought.

The profile is by Chris Jones and titled "Romney Doesn't Scare Obama. This Guy Does" on Republican challenger Jon Huntsman. It's a solid look at someone who could be a formidable general election opponent. On the subject of the President, Stephen Marche penned "How Can We Not Love Obama? Because like it or not, he is all of us". Oftentimes I find myself skimming Marche's monthly 1,000 words column, but here he provides a really interesting piece.


Best of the three, though, is "The Bomb That Didn't Go Off" by Charles Pierce. It's a thought-provoking look at domestic terrorism and how it's caused in part by a poisonous climate of political conversation. Pierce begins the piece with the gripping tale of an attempted Martin Luther King Day parade bombing earlier this year in Spokane, WA.

That story in itself was compelling and worthwhile narrative, but it's then tied to what Pierce terms a fragmentation of politics into an us vs them combat rather than conversation between people and parties. The point is made that the perpetrators of such terroristic acts are simply labeled nut jobs and we go on with our lives, but perhaps a closer look should be paid to what's bringing so many cases out of the woodwork. Pierce references journalist David Neiwert who counts close to 30 such acts of right-wing violence (completed or foiled) since 2008 and uses that as backing for his point that ignoring the cause of the attempts and climate that ferments them just keeps the cycle going.

Pierce strikes me as home-run type of writer who I at times read without taking much away from and sometimes am practically awestruck by how good a piece he has written. This story definitely falls into the latter category with his combining together of an extremely human story of an attempted terrorist act with a larger take-away message. As stated in the beginning of this post... ridiculously profound writing.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Joe Posnanski & Gary Smith for Sports Illustrated - on Baseball & Lyndon Baty

Two really good pieces from the last two issues of Sports Illustrated.

For the July 25 issue, Joe Posnanski wrote "Loving Baseball" about a cross-country road trip he took visiting different ballparks and spending time with icons like Dodgers announcer Vin Scully. Posnanski is an excellent writer who traffics very well in sentiment (more on that topic with the second piece) and he hits the metaphorical home run with this story.

The subtitle is "What Keeps the Grand Game Great? Everything Old is New Again" and topics covered range from Derek Jeter's epic game in which he got hit number 3,000 (story posted on and linked to here) to the bat Wonderboy from Robert Redford's The Natural. As Scully said upon reflecting on The Meaning of Baseball... "dreams and escape", and Posnanski does a really good job of putting that idea into print.


Out of last week's SI issue came another good piece from acclaimed writer Gary Smith (and the blog post on Jeter by Posnanski also links to a Smith article). "A Boy And His Bot" is about 15 year old Lyndon Baty and his life attending high school via robot (from VGo Communications). Baty suffers from polycystic kidney disease (PKD) and given his weak immune system any exposure to germs could prove deadly.

The story makes it into Sport Illustrated as Baty pursues his dream of being a sports announcer, but really it's another case of Smith penning a tale that on the fringe of sports, but squarely in the heartfelt. I've seen pieces by him before that went too far towards the sentiment, but the majority of his stuff seems more like this... well written and telling stories with a sports bent of people fighting through obstacles.

Quite solid writing from Messrs Posnanski and Smith.

Monday, August 01, 2011

"Bossypants" by Tina Fey

Recently finished "Bossypants" by Tina Fey and found it an entertaining read. The memoir from the 30 Rock creator covered a lot of ground and was frequently pretty funny.

Point of the book wasn't necessarily to impart lessons on work, but it included that and I particularly liked some of what Fey attributed to Saturday Light Live from Lorne Michaels...

- "The show doesn't go on because it's ready; the show goes on at 11:30."

- "You're gonna do some great stuff, but also some crap - it's ok, just know the difference."

- "Don't make big decisions when you're in the thick of things."

- "Don't hire anyone you wouldn't want to run into in a hallway at three in the morning."

- "Never tell a crazy person he's crazy - get the best you can out of people and don't alienate or show them up."

Pretty solid stuff on working and working with others.

"Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall

Recently finished one of my favorite books of the year thus far... Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (author website here). Published in 2009, it's subtitled A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen and combines a compelling story with well researched detail about running as a pastime.

The book extends on a piece done several years ago by McDougall for Runner's World Magazine and starts with the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico's remote (and dangerous) Copper Canyon region. The Tarahumara then serve as a center for the book while different topics and areas (detailed below) are examined and then brought together for the aforementioned race.

Running - how

McDougall writes early on of being a runner with the personal question of why his feet hurt from running. He then did extensive research and the writing on running here gets into both the technical and conceptual.

In terms of actual how to run advice, there's the ideas of staying below your aerobic threshold and running with a straight back, from the gut and light on the feet. Additional ideas are given around a low meat, low carbohydrate diet (heavy on fruits salads) and using minimalist running shoes.

On this topic, McDougall writes of staying away from new and heavy cushioned running shoes and instead using older broken in shoes. Along these lines, barefoot running or the use of Five-finger shoes is spoken off as definite options that could be worked into. Barefoot running is a fairly controversial idea, but one of the main benefits as trumpeted by it's proponents would be to encourage running light on the feet and help keep the legs under the hips while running. The idea behind beat up or less padded running shoes has the same basis with the striving towards the goal of the natural foot working with you and seeking to find an optimal landing point at each step.

Running - why

McDougall writes both scientifically and through examples from runners themselves of the health benefits of running with it serving to lower disease, help bring about better sleep and serve as an anti-depressant. Additionally, he writes of endurance running as an evolutionary step that our bodies are built for.

Running - how (again)

In terms of conceptual ideas on how to run effectively, McDougall broaches the topic of enjoyment and love of running. Whether it's the Tarahumara, Czech Olympic runner Emil Zatopek or the American runners featured in this book, there's a definite thread of people running well who truly love it. The struggle may certainly be there as people push themselves, but that's enjoyed as part of the overall experience.

Characters in the book

The Tarahumara are the center of this story around running and life, but there's some remarkable Americans featured as well. Early on in the book McDougall introduces Caballo Blanco... the man who came to live among the Tarahumara (and previously went by the names Michael Hickman, Gypsy Cowboy and Micah True). Also central to the story are the ultra marathoners Scott Jurek, Jenn Shelton, Billy Barnett and the iconoclast (though, they all are in one way or another) Barefoot Ted.

Race that ties it all together

There's a lot of interesting content in the book and what keeps it driving forward is the compelling narrative of the Copper Canyon race put together by Caballo Blanco with the Tarahumara and the American ultra marathoners (as well as McDougall himself).

It's fascinating stuff that brings together running (both the how to do it, why to do it and how to feel about it) with the human drama of those competing at the highest level, but with that competition being grounded in a brotherhood of sorts. It's remarkable (and serendipitous at times) content about incredible people and achievements.

Really good book... and in addition to simply reading the the thing, more can be learned about both McDougall and the Tarahumara via a quick YouTube search.