Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sports Illustrated Writing: from Alan Shipnuck, Chris Ballard, Tim Layden

There's been a few excellent pieces from Sports Illustrated in recent weeks that stood out as solid.

From the October 17 issue came The Invisible Fastball by Chris Ballard and Owen Good. The piece chronicles the life and 1950s era career renaissance of minor league pitcher (Kelly) Jack Swift in rural North Carolina. It's a solid read on baseball as I wrote about it here and reminds me again of how hockey is my favorite sport, football the one I'm most easily entertained by and baseball the one I find to be the best.

For the November 7 edition of SI, Tim Layden wrote The Forgotten Hero on former Williams College football player Mike Reily and why his jersey has been retired since the 60s. Excellent piece that combines together a thorough reporting job with profound story.

Finally, the recent Nov 28 issue had Tim Tebow's Wild Ride by Alan Shipnuck. Tebow's story is fascinating given how polarizing he is to both the media and general public and Shipnuck uses the tactic of writing the piece through quotes in and by the media. It's the same approach as was taken in a recent book on the history of ESPN (which I reviewed here) and seems to perfectly fit the breathlessly reported on overall Tebow story.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Writing of Profundity - Posnanski, Kruse, Brooks and Simpson

While most of the individual posts on this blog have story links pulled from either one writer or website, lately there's been a few pieces I've come across from different writers and sources that both share a leaning towards the profound and are really darn good.

With this idea of profundity as the common thread (why the heck not?), the first piece to note here was the Joe Posnanski blog post I Hope You're Happy With Your Husband. Very cool and heart warming story about his youngest child... and which brought to mind this equally cool and heart warming piece about Posnanski's oldest.

Other three pieces pieces to link to here all have a retrospective on life slant to them... beginning with Born to race, Dan Wheldon found happiness in town's slower pace. Written by Michael Kruse for the St. Petersburg Times, it looks at the Indy car driver who died as a result of injuries suffered during a Las Vegas race. The story is well told here in part through vignettes and anecdotes of people who interacted with Wheldon (with this story approach being something I've previously seen employed successfully by Kruse).

Given that Kruse's subject in the link immediately above was Steve Jobs, it seems fitting to also highlight A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs by Mona Simpson. Extremely poignant and well written piece (Simpson is a novelist and English professor) for the New York Times on the brother she didn't meet until in her twenties.

Also in the New York Times, I also found noteworthy The Life Report by David Brooks. It was written about a month ago and asks readers over 70 to provide Brooks with written evaluation of their lives and what they've learned. It's an interesting request that Brooks wrote of making to then post some reader responses online. There may well be more coming, but as of today, Brooks has posted to his Times blog ten of these reader Life Reports.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Fast Company Pieces - 3M Design Chief / Serial Entrepreneurship / Ads on the Web

Three different stories from the past few months of Fast Company that stood out as being on interesting companies and/or business topics.

From the recent November 2011 issue came Bill Nguyen: The Boy In The Bubble on the founder (or co-founder) of at least four different startups, including Lala (sold to Apple) and now the much talked about, but uncertain as to it's eventual success or failure, Color.

The piece is written by Danielle Sacks and a pretty fascinating read not so much because of the verbiage about Nguyen himself, but the article's description of the ethos of Silicon Valley and the startup culture. Interesting content on seed and venture capital investors backing founders who have had multiple successes (defined by exit with money for investors) and a business idea in an area considered hot at the time. While both of these things do certainly carry an import to them, what's often not taken into effort account is the particulars of the idea itself.

Also interesting from the piece was the description of how investors don't necessarily put a mark against the company founder's track record if not all ventures succeeded. Concept being the business failure looked at as simply a shot that didn't work out and not a big deal as long as other efforts did succeed.

As to Nguyen himself, Sacks details his bona fides in the areas of wealth creation and deal-making (in both the initial cash raising and then end-game business selling phases) and how this past success led to such large amounts of money invested in Color as a business idea. This outlay by investors takes on greater import given the underwhelming launch of Color and subsequent repositiong (with that so called pivot being another acceptable and almost expected thing in startups). Whether the company eventually succeeds or not, Nguyen is wealthy from past successes... and likely would resurface with another business idea, and investors willing to back him.


From the October 2011 issue of Fast Company was another solid feature... this one dealing not with a startup culture, but rather someone creating change in a large corporate environment. The Nine Passions Of 3M's Mauro Porcini is written by Chuck Salter and details the design chief at the Minnesota based conglomerate. Porcini is described as succeeding at 3M by trumpeting the process involved with outstanding design work as well as it's pure aesthetic value. Beyond this, he's developed credibility within the company by doing the all-important trick of being behind design work that's increased sales.


Additionally, Adam Lisagor Is Advertising's Quietest Pitchman was an interesting short piece from the September FC issue. Written by Bill Barol, it's about Lisagor's small production company, Sandwich Video and the straight-forward and well received online product videos (web ads) produced for the likes of Groupon, Airbnb, and Flipboard (with the Airbnb spot below and four other videos linked from the Fast Company piece).

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Esquire Mental Health Writing - Chris Jones & Mike Sager

There were two excellent pieces of writing from the November 2011 issue of Esquire Magazine with Panic (posted online in 2014 after the suicide of Robin Williams) by Chris Jones and Depression by Mike Sager.

The Jones piece covers his own past suicidal thoughts to the point of first contemplating jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge and later superficially cutting himself with a knife. Each episode was described as something of a culmination of spiraling emotions involving excessive anger, stuck thoughts of problems not improving, or runaway thoughts of those same problems getting much worse.

It was remarkable reading because of the level to which the author gave himself up to readers and a positive conclusion of sorts to this story comes in the form of a post by Jones towards the bottom of this SportsJournalists comment thread.

It wouldn't be true to write that I understand how he felt because that’s just dumb and I've never been in the place he describes. That said, life can be a challenge at times and it's almost inspiring to read of how it's not easy for those that one might think live a charmed life (and I've had that view of Jones with his writing ability and career).


The Mike Sager piece differs in that it's about someone who was not actually sick with depression, but very well could have been giving his life circumstances. Sager was going through a divorce and accompanying time apart from his teenage child and actually diagnosed with major depressive disorder. He fought the diagnosis which drove up insurance costs and was able to overturn it as incorrect. Sager’s writing certainly seems to indicate a lack of depression as he keeps his life moving forward and makes the all-important statement “how much can one man take? As much as need be."


While the two pieces come from very different places, it seems the aforementioned Sager quote in line with how Jones closed his story by writing that he wished "we would always be terrified of death... and spend the rest of our lives running from it."

Other thing I keep thinking about in relation to both pieces is the distinction between two different ways of viewing situations… one being to imagine how much better things could be (bad view) and the other how much worse the possibilities (good view).

This relative ranking of viewpoints doesn't advocate for perpetual status quo, but rather for an appreciation of things good and/or really not that bad.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Clay Travis Writing on College Football

As a college football fan and fan of good sports writing, I'm surprised I haven't heard of him until recently, but glad I've come across Clay Travis and his website Outkick the Coverage.

According to the Bio page on the site (which lists eight different writers), Travis is a Nashville afternoon radio show host in addition to writer and I first came across his stuff with the hilarious Les Miles and LSU Make Alabama Frat Boys Cry about the game in Tuscaloosa.

On the more serious (not you know... serious, serious, but more in-depth reporting serious) note, I last week saw the profile Kirk Herbstreit: The Face of College Football on the ESPN/ABC announcer and College Gameday host. I found both this and the LSU piece to be very well written and had planned on doing a post on College Football writing that doesn't make you ill, but then learn that lo and behold... both pieces from the same guy.

With the first two pieces of his I've seen being highly funny/entertaining and detailed/insightful respectively, the trifecta completed with now the third story of his I've seen (all on Outkick the Coverage) being reasoned/informative. Starting 11: If LSU Splits Arkansas, Georgia, it's in Title Game is on this year's BCS Title Game possibilities and includes the analysis from Travis that "there is a 95% chance -- potentially even greater than that -- that this title game will be LSU-Oklahoma State or LSU-Alabama."

Businessweek Pieces: Workplace Productivity Software / Apple Supply Chain / Rare Earth Metal Mining

Several interesting pieces from Businessweek lately with the largest of which on a new productivity software startup. Asana: Dustin and Justin's Quest for Flow was written by Ashlee Vance and profiles the company started by two beginning stage ex-Facebook employees (with Dustin Moskovitz at eight days younger than Mark Zuckerberg being the world's youngest billionaire). As detailed by Vance, Asana is offering a free version for smaller groups (with the idea that even personal tasks will be managed via Asana) and then building larger demand.


Other recent feature of note from BW recently was Alaska’s Billion Dollar Mountain on entrepreneur Jim McKenzie and his mining company, UCore. Focus is on Bokan Mountain near Ketchikan, Alaska and the large support of valuable rare earth metals held deep underground. It's an interesting story written for Businessweek by Daniel Grushkin in the efforts of McKenzie to gain mining access and in how the land reached it's current valuation.

Previous attempts to mine Bokan were unsuccessfully trying to find and extract uranium and this is exactly what McKenzie was initially interested in and hoping to convince the old prospector (Bob Dotson) who owned the mineral rights to allow him access to. Through spending time together, McKenzie learned of it's rare earth metal potential and then brokered a deal with Dotson and his estranged children (to whom who he had granted shared rights) to be able to mine Bokan.

In 2010, China as the world's largest producer of rare earth metals then made the decision to dramatically cut it's exports of these minerals (that go into complicated electronics, jet engines and missiles) and as a result made prices skyrocket and dramatically increased the value of Bokan. It still remains to be seen whether the cost of deep underground extraction will make the investment pay off, but the potential is very much there. Interesting story from a lot of different perspectives.


Final Businessweek piece to mention is Apple's Supply-Chain Secret? Hoard Lasers. Apple combining great consumer experience with supply-chain competitive advantage... that's a pretty compelling proposition.

Time Magazine - Troops Coming Home / Progessive Messaging / Virus Hunting

Several features of note from Time Magazine over the past few weeks including the Nov 21 issue cover story on US Servicemen and Women returning home from duty.

Written by Mark Thompson, The Other 1% examines the ever-widening disconnect between those in our Armed Forces and the rest of the population (including our elected representatives). The problem detailed by Thompson is an important one, but short of a there being mandatory service (which hardly anyone advocates), it's not really clear how to fix the problem and bring more in step the military and rest of US society. Also, it's neither a backing for Thompson's points nor a rebuttal, but another piece closely related (and referenced in the issue's Editor's Note by Richard Stengel) was The New Greatest Generation by Joe Klein on contributions made by returning veterans.

The other story from this issue that stood out was the Michael Scherer written profile on former Obama Administration staffer Van Jones. The Return of the Rabble Rouser looks at the efforts by Jones around messaging of progressive issues and features interesting content related to both the Occupy Wall Street movement and President Barack Obama. Extremely simplified point around Obama was any sort of effort has to be led by ideals rather than an individual. It certainly didn't seem to be a slam at the President, but rather a statement that the man is not the movement. Whether someone agrees with Jones political views or not, the concepts from him as laid out by Scherer are interesting ones.

Final recent Time piece to mention was Virus Hunter from the Nov 7 issue. The Bryan Walsh story looks at Nathan Wolfe and his work as founder and head of Global Viral Forecasting. Fascinating efforts from Wolfe in an effort to identify early on future infectious diseases so outbreaks can be prevented prior to the level of a full-blown pandemic.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Penn State Crimes, Moral Failures & Journalism

While the typical path of this blog has been to link to and write about specific pieces or books that struck me as interesting, this post is about the Penn State scandal and it's mesmerizing (in mostly bad, but also some good) elements.

Details of the actual indictment and alleged crimes within are horrifying, but what's really captured attention has been the characters apart from the accused molester Jerry Sandusky, especially living legend and now ex Penn State coach Joe Paterno. In his case, you have someone who has done much good, but in this case (by all appearances) failed at the most important moment.

It's a fascinating subject, this concept of duality within an individual... his good deeds remain so, but one specific thing handled in entirely the wrong way impacted so much for the victims. Paterno is of course the most recognizable name involved that could have raised these allegations to police years ago, but there's also now ex Penn State President Graham Spanier and his head in the sand approach both years ago when Sandusky's crimes were raised and since the indictment came down over the weekend. If one can detach from the horrible nature of the crimes, it's a study in how people in power (now including the Penn State Board of Trustees that fired both Spanier and Paterno) react to events, create environments and set policy.


So... the story itself has been riveting, but what's also held my attention over the past week has been the words from sports journalists reporting on the story. Some writers I respect a great deal have had fascinating observations to make and they've first appeared as real-time twitter musings and then as published columns.

There's been so many good pieces written already, but what many sports journalists and fans of sports journalism are waiting to eventually read is the announced earlier this year book from Joe Posnanski on Paterno and this season (which of course nobody could have envisioned turning out like it has). Posnanski thus far has written two different blog posts on the scandal, first Darkness and then Curiously Short Posts and I doubt he knows what his eventual book on Paterno will contain, but I have to imagine it's going to be an enthralling read. Just a guess of course, but it may well be heavy on the aforementioned duality of how a good person (which Paterno certainly seems to be) can do a bad thing (specifically, the limits to his actions taken when allegations were brought to him).


Back to the subject of reporting and sports journalism... reading the columns and musings from good writers as this story has unfolded has gotten me thinking more about journalism and writing. To this end there's been three different pieces I've come across lately about the profession that all stand out as interesting.

First was an address given by Nate Silver to the Columbia School of Journalism. Silver founded the political blog FiveThirtyEight and in his speech imparts both his background and valuable career lessons for someone about the enter the field of journalism.

Second was a series of tweets from Tommy Tomlinson about an Ira Glass speaking event. I've also been at a live event by the This American Life creator and concur that Glass is a definite master storyteller.

Third was a tumblr site We Are Journalists I just came across today. Very interesting vignettes from people in the profession working to chase down and report well on stories... including things like the horrible crimes and subsequent inaction (and now action) out of Penn State.


Updated on 11/14 with additional pieces that struck me on the child sex abuse scandal (not a "scandal, not a "sex scandal")...

- Good Riddance, Joe Paterno by Buzz Bissinger for The Daily Beast
- Omelas State University by author John Scalzi on his website
- The End of Paterno by Joe Posnanski on his Sports Illustrated blog

A horrific and amazing ongoing story.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Boomerang by Michael Lewis & Matt Taibbi on Occupy Wall Street

Have come across some excellent writing lately on money and markets. Form of the works have been in a quote, a magazine piece and the Michael Lewis book Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World.

If Lewis's 2010 book The Big Short (which I reviewed here) looked at the recent financial meltdown at a corporate level in relation to things like Credit Default Swaps and CDOs, this new effort looks at financial train wrecks with a much larger country level. It's a riveting and fast read and separated into five sections (with my thoughts on each)...

Iceland - "Hey, let's all become heavily leveraged investment bankers assuming the markets will rise forever. What could go wrong?"

Greece - "I want services provided by the government, but see no reason to do things like pay my taxes since the government doesn't seem to mind me not paying."

Ireland - A bit like Iceland, but financial insanity through real estate development.

Germany - The adult in the room... needing to decide how much pain to take on themselves to try to rescue the irresponsible kids (or PIGS).

United States - Perhaps the most interesting simply because it's local (including Lewis writing on Vallejo and San Jose here in the Bay Area). Covers the concept of country level financial problems (like underfunded pension obligations) simply getting pushed down to the cities. Ramifications of this... bad.

Lewis has quite the talent for creating easy reading on complex topics and with Boomerang, writes an excellent (and frightening) book on bad money decisions run amok.


On the same subject of money, greed and decisions made at a high level impacting the common folk was a piece for Rolling Stone by Matt Taibbi. "Wall Street Isn't Winning – It's Cheating" is a look at Occupy Wall Street and offers a harsh indictment of the financial system and how it's structurally set up to reward the bankers who run it. Very well written and thoughtful story.

Finally, it's only a quote, but in the same vein as the Lewis book and Taibbi article was that below from Businessweek by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of The Black Swan about outside of normal financial events)...

"We're not living in capitalism. We're not living in Socialism. We're living in some wierd economic situation with the banks controlling more than their share. It's like we're serving them rather than them serving us."

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Wright Thompson on Good BBQ, Les Miles and Great Pizza

There's a few writers whose stuff I'm drawn to and Wright Thompson has definitely become one of them.

A few months ago I did a post linking to a number of his pieces and fairly recently I've come across some more of his writing from various sources. To this point, the story that stood out the most did so because it was published not by ESPN (or the ESPN property Grantland that Thompson also writes for), but in Garden & Gun Magazine.

The piece is titled Pork-a-Palooza and is about Thompson joining together / hanging on with a team of BBQ aficionados (like, they make their living doing it) competing in the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. It's really engaging writing that coupled together with the other Thompson stuff I linked to cements the concept of him as someone whose writing oft includes first person alcohol and food indulgences (sweet niche he's carved out).

In the same (completely fantastic) subject vein, another piece of his I came across earlier today was The Best Pizza in the South from Grantland. The story is about a hole in the wall joint in Baton Rouge and chowing down with LSU football coach Les Miles and the Miles family. Yep, as noted before... pretty sweet writing life he's got there.

Linked within the Grantland story was actually the point of Thompson's time in Baton Rouge... an ESPN Outside the Lines profile on Coach Miles. I suppose it's a bit of a cliche to say, but it's one of those profile pieces that stands out because the author goes deep and gives a nuanced look at the subject's personal as well as professional life. So, it's not all about the food and booze... it's also just solid research and excellent writing from Thompson.

Friday, November 04, 2011

2011 World Series Writing

Following on the heels of an incredible final day of the regular season was an equally astounding (more so given the stage) World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals winning in 7 games.

There was great writing done on that Game 162 (with pieces by Messrs. Verducci, Posnanski and Kruse linked to here) and as could be expected, also some excellent pieces on the World Series and particularly the epic Game 6. Starting things off with the widest (post World Series) view was the excellent Go Crazy, Baseball, Go Crazy by Tom Verducci story for Sports Illustrated.

It doesn't take anything away from the very solid Verducci piece, but the unbelievable if not real 6th game of the World Series provided the writing that stuck with me the most, with the three most memorable pieces below...

- 2011 World Series: David Freese caps Cardinals’ unbelievable comeback by Thomas Boswell for the Washington Post.

- David Freese, St. Louis force Game 7 by Jayson Stark for ESPN.

- Game Six by Joe Posnanski for his Sports Illustrated blog.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Michael McRae & Mark Jenkins in Outside Magazine

Having recently subscribed to Outside Magazine (after not getting it for the past few years), I found a couple of interesting features in the November issue.

Piece that stood out the most was How the Nomad Found Home on conservationist Mike Fay. Written by Michael McRae, it details Fay's work creating National Parks and championing conservation in Africa and more recently holing up in the Southeast Alaskan wilderness. It's an interesting portrait of a guy extremely dedicated to his causes... and who has been able to accomplish quite a bit in relation to them.

Other story from this issue of Outside that I noted was Amundsen Schlepped Here by Mark Jenkins. The piece is about Jenkins and his brother Steve skiing the path across the Hardangervidda Plateau taken 100 years ago by adventurer Roald Amundsen.

While the writing was solid and contents interesting, what got me was recalling my three years ago reading and then posting on The Hard Way by Jenkins. Seems a long time ago this blog was begun in earnest, but it's been enjoyable writing (and reading the stuff written on).