This blog is all about words because they matter, they influence, they entertain and when you put them down on a page in a meaningful order, they acquire permanence. Contained here is my writing over the past 10+ years, primarily book reviews over the past ~5 years, and I also have a book review podcast, Talking Nonfiction, available on Apple or Spotify.
Thursday, May 24, 2012
The Avengers by Joss Whedon
The film was written and directed by Joss Whedon and while I haven't seen much of his prior work, he's got quite the following and I was interested to see The Avengers after reading recent pieces on him like "The Hero Whisperer" by Lev Grossman for Time Magazine.
The movie was entertaining and whipped through it's 2:20 run time and while the effects were good and all, the story was what struck me. I don't know modern movie-making well enough to know the directing process of a CGI-heavy movie like The Avengers, but the way Whedon's script had such rich mythology and character development as well as brought together the characters was impressive.
I'd be interested to read the movie script sometime and while watching the film, remembered a short July 2010 Esquire piece on Jon Favreau (who executive produced The Avengers). Quote that stood out from him was "I had a writing teacher who said, 'if you want to learn to write a screenplay, read "The African Queen" twice'."
"The Man Who Quit Money" by Mark Sundeen
I learned of the book after reading Sundeen's ridiculously captivating piece "Why Noah Went to the Woods" for Outside Magazine and unfortunately missed seeing Sundeen (along with Suelo) at a recent book signing here in the Bay Area (and he's since moved on to my old college towns of Eugene and Bellingham).
The book itself moved quickly in telling Suelo's life story up to now and had a number of things in it that stood out as interesting both on their own and in common with ideas from other solid books I've read.
Suelo is someone who at many points of his life prior to quitting money dealt with depression and struggled to find his place in the world. As such, this seemingly dramatic life decision was simply one that made sense to him within his interpretation of the world and how he wanted to live. A refrain that comes up repeatedly in the book is that he’s happy living in the immediate and as complete free will doesn't exist (we all die eventually), this is his way of having what free will he can. A concept I kept thinking of while reading was his living way outside of the norm echoed an idea from Tim Ferriss in his book The 4-Hour Workweek (which I reviewed earlier this week). Concept from Ferriss was a good way to make big life changes is to think in terms of worst case scenarios… and if the worst case scenario isn’t that cataclysmic (and it’s usually not), then maybe the big change should be moved forward with.
Also of interest to me from Suelo was his relationship with his community, his family and religion. One knee jerk response to the notion of a guy living without money would be that he must be a hermit, someone estranged from the outside world and especially those he grew up with. Reality of his life is this could hardly be further from the truth. He’s very community oriented and has a close relationship with his parents and siblings. Suelo has an appreciation of how we was raised and the decision to step away from money based on his beliefs is not entirely dissimilar to decisions his parents have made based on their principles.
One aspect of his relationship with his parents is religion, something also important overall in Suelo’s life overall. He was raised a fundamentalist Christian and it’s interesting reading in the book about his struggle in college and early adulthood to figure out whether religion would play the same front and center role in his life that it has for his parents. Suelo went to India to study eastern religions and while there found a reconnection with the beliefs of his parents and teachings of Christianity, but not necessarily with the leadership of organized Christian religion. Additionally, he talks in the book of wanting to live like Jesus and (closely related to this) there’s the notion of living as if heaven was not simply a pearly gate after-death finish line, but a place to live in here on earth. It’s an interesting idea that echoes almost exactly one expressed by Rob Bell in his book Love Wins (which I wrote about a year ago).
Last thing to mention that stood out from the book was something that helped drive Suelo to his life change decision, the concept of money and debt. Going back to the Ferriss book, he wrote in there of how he avoids investments over which he has no control (pretty much the entire stock market for most everyone) and Suelo takes this a step further in the Sundeen book to talk about the illusion of wealth and its negative consequences. This idea around money being the basis of debt and obligation is definitely an interesting one and whether or not the system one day collapses (as some predict), there’s something to the idea (from Suelo and many others) that there’s more compelling and meaningful drivers of behavior than money.
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Neil Gaiman Commencement Address & Wisdom Imparted
The speech transcript is posted on the University website and video from the graduation speech is below...
It's completely worth watching or reading and to grossly paraphrase/generalize/pick fruit from Gaiman's address, below are the three concepts from it that stood out most to me...
1. When you know what you want to do, should just start doing that thing... and you'll both figure out your path (concept from Gaiman of walking towards his goal represented as a mountain) and improve as you go along. For Gaiman, it was writing, but could be anything for anyone. This idea of spending time on and living in pursuit of something that personally resonates brought to mind the same (or at least similar) principle expressed in both the James Altucher book I Was Blind But Now I See and Mark Sundeen The Man Who Quit Money biography of Daniel Suelo.
2. It's often best to not know the rules of the thing you're trying to accomplish as the rules can be the restrictions on your ability to reach the goal. Concept reminded me of Tim Ferriss writing in his book The 4-Hour Work Week about setting less realistic goals so you'll be more excited and motivated to reach them.
3. You may well copy others in the beginning of your efforts, but continually try to find your own voice and unique thing that you can contribute. This idea echoed very much a recent missive from singer/songwriter Ben Folds.
Gaiman himself is an interesting guy (biography details on both his website and Wikipedia page) who initially trained as a journalist and has done significant writing in the mediums of comic books/graphic novels, traditional books, theater and film.
Monday, May 21, 2012
"The 4-Hour Workweek" by Tim Ferriss
Granted, it could be said that someones life situation not the same as that of Ferriss so they don't have the freedoms he does, but a lot of basic concepts from the book applicable to all. Additionally, a reader wouldn’t have to go all-in to get something out of the book - can pick and choose actions or do things incrementally.
The ideas from the book that most resonated with me are noted below… with them paraphrased and separated into strategies, tactics and things in between (categorization done by myself in a fairly arbitrary manner that could be quibbled with):
1. Life doesn't have to be a slog that you toil at until the promised land of retirement. Excellent parable told in the book of the Mexican fisherman who lives fully, but the investment-type guy wants him to build an empire so he can one day retire and then live fully.
2. Inactivity is not the goal, doing what excites you is. For away motivated people… goal is to not be bored.
3. Aim to be the owner of a business rather than boss or employee.
4. Leaving a job (especially one you don’t like) doesn't have the horrible worst case scenario outcomes one might think. The worst case scenario from most risk taking is usually something still recoverable from.
5. Mini-retirements can be the way to live…. and they’re both possible to do whilst raising kids and usually cheaper to do outside of the US.
6. Let financial investing be driven by things you can control (public stock gains or losses being outside of your control).
Strategies / tactics
1. Being "productive" (especially in relation to work) often means just making yourself busy (and especially, making yourself look busy). Don't do work for work's sake.
2. Should develop an almost maniacal focus on the 80/20 (or higher) rule in determining where to allocate time and resources. Part of this means being willing to miss out of things time spent on the 20% would have brought. This principle also relates to author James Altucher's notion of spending time on things and with people that lift you up or enrich in some way.
3. Retirement planning is like life insurance, worst case scenario planning. It's still good to do, but shouldn't be treated as a goal.
4. The timing to do new (and scary) things is never right; you just have to do it anyways.
5. When setting a goal, set it towards something that would excite you rather than something you see as achievable. It’s often easier to reach an unrealistic goal because you're willing to work harder in pursuit of it.
6. Ask for forgiveness when doing new things, not permission.
7. Emphasize your strengths rather than getting caught up in trying to fix weaknesses.
8. When thinking of a product or service to sell, think critically on what people would buy. Also keep in mind the principle (which I’ve been seeing come up time and time again lately) of the power of niche.
9. Eliminate and automate to live a life more free from clutter… and when you travel, travel light.
1. When it comes to work, avoid as much as possible having meetings.
2. Once your business up and running, you as the owner don't have to be terribly hands on. Empower others to fix problems - any loss in income or profit will e more than made up by your time now being free. Do this by creating systems and structures around availability and responsiveness.
3. Don’t let yourself become a slave to e-mail and voice mail… check both at set intervals.
4. Outsource tasks to someone else (perhaps in a low cost country) when the price you pay is less than the value of your time.
5. Be willing to let the hassle customers leave your business.
Lots of solid material in the book and I'd definitely recommend it.
Saturday, May 19, 2012
Writing on Family: by Skip Hollandsworth, Don Waters & Karl Taro Greenfeld
Most recently read piece was by Don Waters for the June issue of Outside Magazine. "Chasing Family History on California's Surf Breaks" is about Waters learning about and forming a posthumous connection with a father, Robert Waters, who left when his son three years old. It's heartfelt writing that has a number of interesting elements to it, including the unpublished autobiography a dying Robert Waters left to his writer son as an intended bridge, a love of surfing held at different points by both men, and the younger Waters spending time with surfing legend Greg Noll (heavily featured in the excellent movie Riding Giants) to understand better the father that Noll knew some 50 years prior. Also interesting from the time Don Waters spends with Noll is his interactions with son Jed Noll, as a compare and contrast situation between the two sets of father and son.
The other piece of writing on family that struck me recently was actually one from 2009, but I hadn't seen until yesterday. Written for Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth, "Still Life" is a long feature on high school football player John McClamrock and the life of he and his family after being paralyzed during a 1973 game. Very riveting piece which heavily shows the devotion of a mother and brings to mind for me a quote from the Mike Sager Esquire piece "Depression" (not posted online)... “how much can one man take? As much as need be."
Both stories are excellent work (with the Hollandsworth one particularly emotion-inducing) and the subject of family (particularly family devotion and sacrifice) made me think of a Karl Taro Greenfeld piece from Time Magazine. I posted briefly on it when in when I saw the story back in 2009 and "Growing Old with Autism" (excerpted from his book Boy Alone: a Brother's Memoir was powerful and very personal writing by Greenfeld.
Friday, May 18, 2012
The Ethereal Nature of Stock Valuation & Much Corporate Work Activity
Ethereal seems to describe stock valuation in that it feels such a squishy science (i.e. opposite of science). Stock valuation doesn't necessarily say a company is doing well or poorly, but rather predict whether the share price will go up or down from a given point. This may mean the company is well run, with solid employees and a great product, or... it may not. On the may not side of the equation is simply the up or down guess of investors (which, as the random walk hypothesis would have it, is often wrong).
Related to this idea of stock valuation seeming to be an overly arbitrary concept is the notion of necessary growth. From a financial performance perspective, there's income and profits for a given quarter or year (both important things), but tacked on to financial analysis driving stock buy or sell recommendations/decisions is growth. If a company made a bunch of profit on a bunch of income in a given quarter or year, that's nice and all, but how much growth over their profit or income from the last quarter or year?? You know, if not a big enough increase, then... Sell, Sell, Sell.
It's an interesting phenomenon, but seems to be the methodology chosen to run our largest (i.e. publicly traded) businesses. I wrote about this in a June 2010 blog post "A Loss of Control: Running (or Hoping to Run) a Public Company", but corporate executives are mandated by law to drive towards stock price increases... and it's just interesting that the speculation driving these sought after increases often driven heavily by quarter over quarter financial improvements or declines, even if a decline in quarter over quarter performance is within a larger context of solid financials.
In terms of this whole discussion and current events, Facebook today went from a platform used by some 901 million users as of March 2012 to a publicly traded company valued at at over $100B. Sounds a huge success as a company, but since the stock was priced to open at $38/share and closed the first trading day at #38.23/share, you get stories like the Associated Press report "Facebook falls flat in public debut." It's fascinating... the company was working on the same things at the end of the day as the beginning and I'm sure performed as a company (not a stock) much the same as on the prior day, but investors believing the shares were priced just about accurately at open means the company "fell flat." Yep, seems pretty darn ethereal as defined above.
To step back for a minute from the specific subject of stock valuation, me thinks there's also way too much etherealness (yep, it's a word) in the corporate work done at many of the public companies out there. Just as stock valuation can be a matter of (often wrong) perception, corporations can too frequently have their best employees identified on the basis of not terribly important indicators like "being busy." I touched on this phenomenon in the Sept 2010 post "Urgent vs Important Work", but so frequently time gets spent on things that don't really move the success or failure dial much (and this is even using the public company success/failure dial of income/profit).
It's not to say all corporations are filled entirely by employees doing busy work 100% of the time as some corporations (and employees) are going to be much more productive around things of import than others, but it is an interesting morass to try to avoid, both as a corporation and it's employees.
Corporate level success or failure at this busy work avoidance isn't going to change the stock increase chasing game, but is probably going to result in the companies that have employees focused on important rather than ethereal/urgent work performing better overall. Not a paradigm breaking statement to be sure, but important nonetheless.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
Businessweek Feature Stories: on Jay Heinrichs / DNA Fold Manufacturing / 3D Printing / Manufacturing Efficiency / Clayton Christensen
From the Mar 19 issue, Peter Heller wrote the feature "Jay Heinrichs's Powers of Persuasion" on the communications consultant who charges five figures for corporate sessions. Specifically, he teaches Aristotelian rhetoric to organizations doing either leadership development or message creation. Heller covers Heinrichs's use of Aristotle's persuasion tools of ethos (argument by character), logos (argument by logic) and pathos (appeal to the emotion) and the assertion by Heinrichs that ethos carries the most weight of the three (though all important). Heinrichs sounds to have interesting ideas about this important area of communication effectiveness and he published in 2007 the book Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About the Art of Persuasion.
The May 7 issue had two features of interest, with "Clay Christensen's Life Lessons" by Bradford Wieners and "Is Origami the Future of Tech?" by Drake Bennett.
This second piece was particularly fascinating and covers the topic of DNA fold origami manufacturing... and brings to mind some other interesting BW stories on the same topic of building stuff, like "3D Printers: Make Whatever You Want" by Ashlee Vance and "My Week at Private Equity Boot Camp" by Brendan Greeley on (among other things) efficiency gains in production.
Blog post addition: After continuing to think back on (and then reread) the Drake Bennett piece, it seemed this story and it's topic of DNA fold orgami as a manufacturing method merited more written on it here. It's an amazing idea that departs completely from manufacturing paradigms based on sculpture (take a block and chisel away what's not needed) or piece-together assembly. Instead, Bennett describes a process of manufacturing for objects (both large and nano-sized) based at least in part on the work of mathematician and computer scientist Erik Demaine...
"Fold-and-cut allowed you to make any shape in the world, any collection of shapes, even, as long as they had straight sides. One could, in an angular font, create the entire text of this page with the right folds and the right cut. In a paper published two years later, Demaine expanded on this idea, extending it into three dimensions: Any faceted solid, he showed, no matter how complex or irregular, could be folded from a single uncut sheet of paper. Start with a piece of paper big enough, and you could model Notre Dame down to the last gargoyle."
The idea seems outlandish, but is actually based on objects in the natural world like flowers or snowflakes (with the idea of folding illustrated by paper snowflakes usually made in school). Remarkable concept that seems to me likely the type of innovation Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Perlman had in mind when he said the following (from an April 2011 Businessweek story that I wrote about in this blog post)...
"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."
It's not to find fault with communication platforms like Facebook or Twitter, but rather to highlight this case of what could be real true breakthrough innovation in the field of manufacturing.
Chris Ballard Book Signing for "One Shot at Forever"
Ballard writes for Sports Illustrated and the story told in the book first appeared as the SI feature "The Magical Season Of The Macon Ironmen". I haven't read the book yet, but the magazine story was an excellent read about a high school baseball team... including its players, iconoclastic head coach, and impact on its small town of Macon, Illinois.
I've posted a number of times on Ballard with both his SI pieces and interviews on writing and was happy to see that he'd be doing the event. Though it was a bit of a drive to Books Inc. in Berkeley, I figured if I fancied myself as both a writer-type and someone who appreciates solid sports writing (affirmative on both counts), I should make the trip. Definitely glad I did as it was an interesting event that struck me on a few different levels...
Small world, this writing - Was somewhat surprising to me that an appearance by a Senior Writer for Sports Illustrated (who wouldn't be interested in that??!!) would wind up to be a fairly small (maybe 25 people) gathering... with many of the people connected to Ballard (he lives in the area) or the book. Along with family and friends were: a daughter of one of the books central characters (Coach Lynn Sweet), one of the opposing high school pitchers from 40 years ago and at least one other published sports writer, Jordan Conn, a 2010 UC Berkeley J School graduate and writer of an excellent ESPN profile I recall reading a few weeks back. I guess I figured that since excellent writing (both the reading of and hopefully producing) is of interest to me, than it is to everyone else. Not that the turnout was bad, all the seats were pretty much filled, just struck me that there wouldn't be more people similarly interested who would make a point of attending.
The mystical world of quoting - The portion of the book that Ballard read from was both interesting and really descriptive... with much of that coming from the quotes in the book. To this point, I've always viewed written quotes as a sort of Dark Arts that I haven't trafficked in so don't understand how to either get or utilize. I raised this "how to get quotes" question to Ballard and the answer both made sense and demystified things a bit for me. In short, he said that you're not always going to have available quotes (and there's stretches of the book without many), but the ones he does have often came from just a few sources... both interview subjects with detailed recollection of events (at least they thought they remembered) and old newspaper stories from the time. I took from the discussion that quotes are great as a writer, you work to get them, but then utilize what you have available.
Idea of an entire book on a 1971 small town high school baseball team - Yea, it's easy to bandy about how "it's like Hoosiers", but I was fascinated by the idea of Ballard selling to both an editor and himself that a book on the subject could be written and then appeal to a large enough audience. Prior book from Ballard was The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA and it seemed to me this subject much more obviously commercial. Ballard's response to this also made sense in that he said the magazine story generated a lot of reader feedback and interest from people wanting to have it made into a book or movie. He also made the comment of how writing One Shot at Forever was challenging at times, but... I feel the challenge at times in writing a simple blog entry so it makes sense to me.
Writing what you know and it can work out - This wasn't necessarily anything Ballard directly said, but I took from the event affirmation that things can get accomplished if you work at them. Specifically in relation to writing, Ballard was a perfectly normal and seemingly very nice fellow who has built for himself a solid writing career.
Extrapolating from this, my thought is that if I continue to work at writing (by continuing to write), the work I produce will continue to improve and increase the chances of making a living from words written down on a page (not, you know, from this Words Written Down blog, but from words literally on a page... well, not meaning I wouldn't want to sell anything via Kindle or on the web, but... well, never mind).
Back to the point... there's a lot to be said for things like Journalism School and writing conferences & resources (McSweeney's, Mayborn, Nieman and Creative Nonfiction to name a few), but there's also a lot to be said for becoming a writer by just writing about things you know that are of interest. Heck, it was Stephen King who said in his book On Writing something to the effect that people love to read about work... so, if someone is a plumber who loves Science Fiction, why not a Science Fiction novel about a plumber? Granted, I'm not that and don't love that so won't be doing that, but... the point still holds.
Wrapping things up... was a cool event with Ballard and I'm looking forward to reading his book (which is good since it cost a lot more to purchase than just get from the library). Also, I previously linked to an interview with Ballard about this new book and today saw another interview on the book posted to the blog of Ingram Content Group publishing CEO Skip Prichard.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Writers and the Writing Process - Wright Thompson, Chris Ballard, E.B. White, John Irving, Tommy Tomlinson & Ben Folds
I suppose it's only been a few weeks since my last post on the writing process, but there's been some great pieces I've seen about the subject.
Starting things off on writers on writing is some content around one of my current favorites, Wright Thompson. He writes long form pieces for ESPN and interesting mentions around his recent story "The Kid Who Wasn't There" were a post to the writing site Gangrey and interview he did for the Nieman Storyboard. The Nieman piece covered a lot of ground (struck me as a sort of long form version of the Gangrey post) and the parts I found most compelling were those on pure process. It's of course different for all writers (I recall Chris Jones noting writing late at night), but Thompson describes writing starting off first thing in the morning (6:30 being his first thing) and wanting to wrap up by 2:00. Also interesting was his following the same convention as Jones (and Chris Ballard for that matter) of listening to the same music over and over while writing.
Speaking of Chris Ballard... another writer on writing piece of note lately was from the blog TVFury with an interview with Ballard in advance of his book One Shot at Forever: A small town, an unlikely coach and a magical baseball season. It's a solid interview and the part that stood out the most to me was where he referenced working on his writing (and as part of this quoted an interesting missive around "figuring out your voice")...
"I’ll be stuck for a lede and make the mistake of reading an old Smith story, or a Moehringer story or something by Price or John Jeremiah Sullivan and then hate myself for doing so because the next hour is wasted as I spew out low-grade mimicry. That said, I think that’s a necessary and valuable period for any writer to go through. Ben Folds recently wrote a blog post — which I saw linked on Twitter — in which he talked about that process of discovery. He was talking about music but it really holds true for writing.
One excerpt: 'You will eventually find that it takes no effort to just be yourself, but the road to that place can be long and rough. The truth is that most artists would not want you to see the evolution of their Voice. It would be very embarrassing. Imitating your heroes, trying on ill-advised affectations. It’s all part of the trip. … While I couldn’t put my finger on why my singing sucked I found that I more easily identified the fake ass singer affectations in others and would encourage them to straighten up the delivery, as if they were sing speaking. As I heard myself coaching them on rehearsal tapes, I heard the Voice that would bring my songs to life. It took no real effort just to be me but it took some time and effort to realize that. We have to learn that we have no control over who we are musically but we do have the choice to be that or to try and be some other motherf*cker. The latter is a lot of work.'"
A couple of other pieces to mention here around the concept of writing included "Some Book: Celebrating 60 Years of ‘Charlotte’s Web’" by Michael Sims for the New York Times and a Time Magazine video with author John Irving. The piece by Sims overviews the inquisitive nature and subsequent research put in by E.B. White to write Charlotte's Web and the Irving interview included him noting a story approach of "seeing the ending and writing towards it." It's a fascinating concept that one would have to work hard to overstate the importance of in either story creation or simply working towards a goal.
Last thing to note around writing isn't necessarily on the writing process, but more on a writing career. Tommy Tomlinson wrote for his last column at the Charlotte Observer (leaving after 23 years to write for a new venture) "Moving on to the first day of the rest of my life." Very nice piece that shows for me the impact writing (and a career in writing) can have.
Thursday, May 10, 2012
Writing on Raising Kids: by Buzz Bissinger, John Jeremiah Sullivan, & Eric Puchner
The first was "You Blow My Mind. Hey, Mickey!" by John Jeremiah Sullivan for the New York Times. Sullivan is a ridiculously talented writer (who wrote the book Pulphead that I reviewed here) and this piece on going to Disney World with his family was one of five nominees for Best Feature Writing at the 2012 National Magazine Awards.
Since I brought it up... the category winner was Luke Dittrich for his amazing Esquire Magazine piece on survivors of the Joplin, MO tornado and I probably would have picked the Dittrich story as well with the subject of his exceptionally written piece having more inherent drama than that in Sullivan's exceptionally written piece.
Anyhoo, back to Disney World... the story is highly entertaining, but what really got me from it were two specific anecdotes towards the end. The first was about a huge storm that hit during Sullivan's time at the Park and it reminded me of the fascinating apocalyptic reference he made in the essay "At a Shelter (After Katrina)" from Pulphead. The other anecdote (which was the connection to the other pieces in this post) was the following...
"We don’t need to go crazy with guilt and worry about our children. We’re not responsible for them. For their upbringing, yes, but not for their existence. Destiny wants them here. It uses us to put them here."
Tremendously interesting few sentences that I thought of after subsequently reading "Buzz Bissinger on Raising a Special Needs Child", excerpted from his forthcoming book Father’s Day: A Journey Into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son. The part from Bissinger that seemed to parallel Sullivan on kids was his ending to the excerpt...
"But whatever happens with Zach, I know I cannot think in terms of my best interests, even if I think they are also in his best interests. Zach will be where and who he will be. Because he needs to be. Because he wants to be. Because as famed physician Oliver Sacks said, all children, whatever the impairment, are propelled by the need to make themselves whole. They may not get there, and they may need massive guidance, but they must forever try."
Bissinger may or may not be making the same point as Sullivan, but in the vein of "once the words are written, readers will do with them what they may", both concepts seemed to traffic in the idea that (while parents can and should still... you know, parent), children are their own people with their own path for life.
The final piece related to this concept was one I read a few weeks ago, but just recently saw a link to it posted online. The May issue of GQ Magazine featured "The Cooler Me" by Eric Puchner on time spent with his own doppelganger... the guy he might have become if not for taking on a life of family and associated responsibilities. It's really interesting writing with Puchner (his website here) comparing his life as a teacher, husband and father of two young kids to that of musician Kyle Field. The piece neither bemoans what Field has that he doesn't, nor props himself up in comparison to the singer, but rather takes an almost anthropological view of choices made.
Since the first two pieces had wisdom pulled out for this post, the following two quotes were first from Field in response to Puchner speaking of whether he should have taken a different path in life, and then Puchner concluding his story with an anecdote about time with his daughter...
"There's always something else you could be doing," he said. "We're wasting a life as we speak."
"If someone told me I was going to die tomorrow, I thought, I would still want to be sitting right here. Because it was going to happen someday—very soon, in fact, in cosmological time—and it mattered immensely where I was. There was no time not to waste."
Really great writing in all three pieces and definitely an interesting common thread between them.
Sunday, May 06, 2012
Excellent Sports Writing - by Dan Wetzel / Wright Thompson / Tom Verducci / Dave Sheinin
Favorite feature story I've seen was "The Kid Who Wasn't There" by Wright Thompson for ESPN. Thompson writes lengthy pieces that tend to appear on the longer form E:60 section of the ESPN site and this one is remarkable both in the amount of research put into it (as revealed in a post to writing site Grangry), and the story itself. Topic of the piece is an Odessa, TX high school basketball player living under the assumed name, Jerry Joseph (he was actually in his early 20s and grew up Guerdwich Montimere in Florida). It's ridiculously good writing that traffics heavily in the concept of identity and how fractured and shape-shifting it can be.
Another very solid lengthy feature piece was actually printed a year ago for Washington Post. The Dave Sheinin written profile "For the love of Bryce Harper: Get ready, Washington. You're about to fall head over heels for the Nationals' newest star." gives an excellent view into the 19 year-old baseball phenom. Also, and onn the occasion his recent major league league call up, Tom Verducci wrote the shorter piece "With Harper, future of Nationals -- and maybe the game -- has arrived" for the Sports Illustrated website.
Final thing to mention in this post is around a writer who consistently produces great work for Yahoo! Sports, Dan Wetzel. My favorite piece from him was "Bubba Watson won the Masters with his own brand of golf, but family trumps his green jacket" and two other stories that stood out were "Pat Summitt stepping aside as Tennessee coach could lead to her raising awareness of Alzheimer's" and "Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III go 1,2 in the draft, and now pressure really starts to mount." Wetzel's writing (at least that for Yahoo!) seems to tend towards blended player analysis/feature piece work and he publishes frequently... with 15 pieces (including those on Pat Summitt and Luck/Griffin) between the Apr 10 Bubba Watson piece and today.
Thursday, May 03, 2012
Business Success Pieces - Evan Williams / Chris Sacca / Paul Saffo / Asana / Jordan Cooper
There's been a few interesting business pieces I've seen lately that all seem connected enough to be pulled into one (hopefully coherently written) blog post...
Starting off with the oldest (by far) was "Ten Rules for Web Startups" from Twitter founder Evan Williams on his blog in Sept 2005. Williams track record is remarkable in that he co-founded both Pyra Labs (parent company that created Blogger) and Twitter. Additionally, he's referenced by venture capitalist Chris Sacca as someone to back in a venture regardless of the idea. The rules as laid out in the blog post from Williams were all interesting, but what really stood out to me was number one... "Be Narrow", with the first few sentences why noted below:
"Focus on the smallest possible problem you could solve that would potentially be useful. Most companies start out trying to do too many things, which makes life difficult and turns you into a me-too. Focusing on a small niche has so many advantages: With much less work, you can be the best at what you do."
With this (and since I so enjoy melding together different iterations of the same theme), it seems high time to bring in something from the excellent Ken Jennings book Maphead. I reviewed the book here and note how in it a collector was quoted saying "if you're going to specialize, specialize as much as possible." It's a tremendously interesting (and logical) concept that applies to map collecting, business creating and I'm sure many other ventures.
Continuing with this approach of blending and connecting together in this blog post, I saw from the same Chris Sacca Twitter feed that directed me to the Williams piece a link to the recent Wired Magazine story "8 Visionaries on How They Spot the Future" by Joanna Pearlstein. It's written as a wisdom compilation story and below are the people and their insights that struck me the most (or at least insights as I took them):
Paul Saffo (Technology Forecaster) - looks for things that seem out of place as an indicator of events to come. Yea, that's a bit nebulous of a statement, but he describes the idea well is his short missive.
Chris Sacca (aforementioned Venture Capital guy) - you don't need to be a seer (prophet - soothsayer - diviner - augur - clairvoyant) to spot (and potentially invest in) the companies that could be poised for success. Barriers to entry are low enough in many technology realms that evaluation decisions can be made based on the actual product or service experience (or at least an early stage iteration of it). Tied to this idea is how many ways there (Twitter as probably the largest) to discern customer experience (as I wrote about featured in an Oct 2009 Businessweek) with a company and it's offering.
With yet another "hopefully not a stretch" connection for the purpose of this blog post... rule number ten from Williams of "Be Balanced" reminded me of something else from Sacca in the same interview that he spoke of backing Williams regardless of the business idea. Point as I recall it was the import of working with people that he wants to spend time around as well as invest with.
This idea seems very much in evidence with two other pieces I've seen recently. Peter Delevett wrote "Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz brings new startup Asana into the marketplace" on the company started with a former colleague from Facebook, Justin Rosenstein and I also saw "In Pursuit of 'Brain Doppelgangers'" from the blog of an entrepreneur, Jordan Cooper.
I'm not familiar with Cooper at all, but his description of the power in being with like-minded people made sense and I was pretty amazed to see the title right after reading the excellent GQ piece "The Cooler Me" (haven't yet seen it posted online) by Eric Puchner about... yep, doppelgangers.
Categories of Sports Writing & Joe Posnanski Career Move
I may well be missing some, but those that come to mind are below:
1. The feature piece - something big (in both length and heft) that tends towards the profound... with the accomplishment of this being aided by the amount of space (and presumably time to write) assigned the writer.
2. The column - very short and often tough to be done great. One of the things that me thinks makes this a hard type of piece to do well is columns sometimes can suffer from a lack of heft due to the space allocated.
3. The player / game analysis - this is the type of work that for me has become not not necessarily a dime a dozen, but there's tons of outlets to find it, and oftentimes this type of piece doesn't go much beyond a rudimentary retelling of what happened (or what might happen if you know, other stuff happens). Statement isn't meant to be critical of writers who do player / game analysis (and there's a market for them as long as there are newspapers and ways for websites to make money), just it's perhaps the least interesting to me of various types of sports pieces.
4. The blended player/game analysis & feature - an interesting beast to me in that it combines together what happened with both why it happened and details about the people who made it happen. Sports Illustrated as a weekly has a number of these types of pieces and I find it to be tremendously impressive when I see one of these pieces done well (rather than the piece leaning too much towards simply what happened).
This idea of different writing categories brings to mind the idea of different writing sources (magazines, books, blogs, twitter) and a blog post I did two years ago about Joe Posnanski as a writer working across platforms. I enjoy his work quite a bit and heard a while back about him leaving Sports Illustrated and then came across a piece "Prolific Posnanski embarks on new pursuits with Project X, Paterno". It's written by Dave Kindred for the Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University and overviews both Posnanski's upcoming book and new gig with a joint venture between MLB Advanced Media (overviewed in this Fast Company story) and USA Today.
Very interested to see both the work Posnanski puts out and what exactly the venture will look like as a business offering centering around sports writing (presumably baseball) and how it's delivered in a "new media" environment.
Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Writers on Writing (it's Work) - Chris Jones on Robert Caro / Gary Cartwright / Mark Kram Jr.
Lengthiest piece was "The Big Book" for Esquire by Chris Jones on author Robert Caro. Written in advance of Caro's The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (his 4th of 5 planned volumes on the 36th President), the piece details Caro and his writing process. It's an excellent feature from Jones and the depiction of Caro is of someone who puts an almost obsessive amount of work into his reporting and seems to build a story brick by brick (with lots of outlining), rather than just "plopping down at the typewriter and letting magical prose flow". To this idea, a quote from Caro in the Jones piece is "you feel almost like a cabinetmaker, laying planks. There's a real feeling when you know you're getting it right. It's a physical feeling."
It was very cool stuff that emphasized for me the methodical labor involved in solid writing and Jones spoke of that and other thoughts on his piece in a Q&A with Jones for the blog TVFury. Also interesting from the profile on Caro was significant mention of the other people involved in the book process. From the publisher to the editor and book designer, there's a lot to it and Jones provides fascinating content around everything involved.
Two other writer pieces I've seen recently echo the same idea put forth by Jones on Caro about the efforts and steps needed write great content. Published by Texas Monthly, "A Lifetime of Achievement for Gary Cartwright" has a transcript of Cartwright accepting an award in his home state and features some solid words from the author. Of particular profundity was his statement that reminded me of that by Chris Ballard on the importance of writing things down immediately (from a Brandon Sneed interview)...
"Okay, say some thought or notion or wild dance of words pops into your head. If the moment makes you smile or in any way causes blood to rush to your brain, stop what you’re doing, take a shot of whisky, and write it down. Never mind that the odds of it being anything important are so staggeringly lopsided that only a crazy person would bother recording it. Having written it down, you will not be able to resist tinkering with the words, moving them about, standing them on their heads, turning them inside out until the combination seems satisfactory and maybe even pregnant with possibilities. At this point you will begin to wonder if it’s too early to make hotel and airline reservations to the National Book Awards. But first there is the problem of a second sentence. So you focus again on the task at hand and think of another batch of words. After a while, the process takes hold."
Final writer wisdom piece to mention here was "Bronx Banter Interview: Mark Kram Jr." It's a Q&A of Kram with Alex Belth and vividly shows the amount of work Kram put into reporting his recently published Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion biography of now deceased Buddy Miley. Moral I took from this is there's not always a guarantee of the outcome whilst you're putting in the work, but if the work doesn't get put in, it's a guarantee to have nothing at the end.
Tuesday, May 01, 2012
Businessweek Pieces on Apple (iPad) & Amazon (publishing and delivery of writing)
The Mar 26 edition had a tremendously interesting "Opening Remarks" essay by Peter Burrows and Jim Aley. Titled "iPad: The PC Killer" it covers Apple's dominance with the iPad and Burrows and Aley offered up some ideas that seem to make a lot of sense... with the first two being around why the iPad has done so well and third around business conditions it created. In terms of product success, the authors note both how Apple able to take a longer view approach to a market given fewer product offerings and that the iPad helped by being a follow-on product to the iPhone (a positive both in terms of consumer familiarity with the concept and Apple utilization of the iOS software and App Store).
Most interesting to me from the piece was the idea put forth by Burrows and Aley that the iPad so dominates the market that competitors can't expect to simply offer up a comparible alternative (like HP did with the TouchPad) and expect it to sell. If a product offering in the same pricing or performance ballpark as the iPad, customers will simply pick what they already know to be good. There is still success that can be had by other companies, but it either through breakthrough competing technology (which nobody has brought yet) or slicing off a piece of the market and going after that. This approach of "competing by not really competing" has been successfully done by Amazon with positioning its Kindle (and now Kindle Fire) at price points where consumers don't need to choose between them or the iPad.
Related to this idea of Amazon doing well, there was an interesting piece by Brad Stone on the Businessweek site. "Why the Amazon Naysayers Should Be Scared" looks at the recent excellent financial results from the retailer, with improving margins while at the same time making large investments in infrastructure (facilities and people). Pretty interesting stuff from Stone that also makes reference to Amazon focusing efforts on publishing and the Kindle with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently saying that "16 of our top 100 bestselling titles are exclusive to our store.”
It's pretty remarkable what Amazon has done in the area of publishing and an additional Businessweek story hammers this home with "Amazon vs. Publishers: The Book Battle Continues." Also by Brad Stone, the piece is primarily about Amazon wanting to move towards print-on-demand publishing (with one usage being their CreateSpace division that I used for my book) and the traditional publishing houses fighting them. I wrote about and linked to another Brad Stone story on Amazon from a few months ago and it really seems as if Amazon has a more profitable path forward than traditional powers in the publishing industry and these existing companies fighting an uphill battle to keep things as they have been.
Fascinating things going on in this industry and it takes me back to a blog post done here three years ago on a Time Magazine feature about the economics of written delivery.
"Drop Dead Healthy" by A.J. Jacobs
by A.J. Jacobs and found that it combined together solid information with humor and heart (literal reference not intended).
Jacobs previously wrote The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (about reading the encyclopedia) and The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible so this latest effort was very much in line with his style of books.
If the goal of Drop Dead Healthy to provide both entertainment and information, the first achieved through Jacobs being both a funny writer and including content about his family (wife, kids, grandfather Theodore Kheel, Aunt Marti). From an learnings/wisdom perspective, below are the things which stood out to me from the Jacobs book (derived over the course of two years consulting with health experts and using his body as a guinea pig)...
Overarching premise - True, stuff can still kill you regardless of your actions, but that shouldn't be used as a cop-out for not trying to be (at least moderately) healthy.
Body / Exercise:
- High intensity interval training for exercise - slow cadence weight training the same idea
- Don't worry about stretching - doesn't accomplish much
- An in-home treadmill an excellent thing to have - can build a computer station into it using stacks and a plank of some sort
- Walking as much as possible (wear a pedometer) - literally running errands
- Barefoot running can be good, but for all people nor at all times - Jacobs does 25% of running without shoes
Body / Other:
- Book recommendation - The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss
- Breath through the stomach (particularly while exercising) - exhale and flatten stomach, push stomach out on the inhale
- Take care of your hands - Greg Irwin YouTube Finger Fitness videos
- Walk right - Helping your back by walking with upright posture, leaning forward and breathing from stomach
- Wear headphones to reduce noise - Bose Quiet Comfort and SureFire Ear Pro Defender both good
- Develop the habit of massaging your own shoulders, arms, hands
- Wear sunscreen and brush/floss teeth well
- Small portion sizes for food
- No fish high in mercury (Marlin, Swordfish or others high on food chain), less sugar, less salt
- Chewing food thoroughly
- Lots of fruits and produce - organic better
- Drink enough water - doesn't have to be the famous 8 glasses a day, but you shouldn't get thirsty
- Protein for breakfast - egg whites, quinoa and walnuts all are good
Lifestyle / Activities:
- Don't drink to excess and don't smoke
- Be safe - smoke detectors, helmets, put knives away from kid areas, no-slip decals for tab, drive carefully
- Hand washing - not anti-bacterial soap
- Avoid using products with BPA - and don't microwave in plastic
- Get enough sleep - A good way to go to sleep is simple math problems like counting backwards by 3s
Lifestyle / Approach:
- Live a fulfilling and social life
- Meditation as a partial cure for pain, and acupuncture
- Think of things in a positive light - note sensations like pain or unhappiness and then move on
- Stay active mentally - do things that challenge your brain like crossword puzzles
- Holding hands as therapeutic
So... there's a bunch of content listed out and this could of course been done by someone without it being a several hundred page book, but Jacobs really does craft an entertaining yarn around being healthy. Good book and definitely recommended.