Saturday, June 23, 2012

Excellent Investigative Writing - Harden on North Korean Prison, Friel on Unsolved Murders & Keefe on Drug Cartels

Three fairly recent pieces of writing I've seen share the commonality of being extremely well done work on painful topics. Stories were published in The New York Times, Outside Magazine and The Guardian... with that from The Guardian being a book excerpt since removed from the website.

The New York Times piece was by Patrick Radden Keefe and titled "Cocaine Incorporated" with the subtitle "How A Mexican Cartel Makes it's Billions". Keefe is noted as being a former policy adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and he wrote an incredibly detailed look at the drug trade and specifically Joaquín Guzmán, C.E.O. of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.

Story from the July issue of Outside Magazine was also a thorough look at a difficult topic, but with the subject likely more chilling than Mexican drug cartels (less removed from most people's lives). "The Vanishing" by Bob Friel is about the large numbers of women who have been murdered or simply vanished over four decades in a remote area of British Columbia. It's captivating writing from the the author of The Barefoot Bandit: The True Tale of Colton Harris-Moore, New American Outlaw.

Final piece to note was a book except published in the British newspaper The Guardian (and since removed from the site due to copyright expiration). Written by Blaine Harden, the excerpt showed Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West to have remarkable writing in the sense that it showed the complete lack of humanity in a North Korean political prison camp. To use the same word as applied to the Friel story... just chilling content, and which is also written about in a Washington Post review of Harden's book.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"The $100 Startup" by Chris Guillebeau

I recently finished reading The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau and thought it an excellent book about starting a business.

This is the second book I’ve read by Gillebeau with my finishing (and reviewing here) The Art of Non-Conformity a couple weeks ago. He comes across as a fascinating guy who seems to have a very solid personal approach (writes quite a bit of giving back) along with significant experience in world travel and small business (and product offer) creating.

The $100 Startup came out of an online workshop series that Guillebeau did called Empire Building Kit and the book a combination case study chronicle of people who built small businesses (with from one to five employees) that provide a living and Guillebeau’s thoughts on how to go about it.

A lot of additional content is available at Guillebeau’s $100 Startup website (or his overall site) but the concepts that struck me are below…

Initial business idea

Guillebeau writes about the book as being about freedom and value, with value coming from the idea of convergence... which he defines as the overlap between your passion and what others care about and will pay for. The import of consumer perception is hit repeatedly throughout the book as the intent is to offer a product or service that helps, but also something that people both view as needed and will pay for.

To the idea of need identification, Guillebeau writes about critical thinking on the part of the business owner as if someone thinks a need or gap exists, others probably do as well.

Offer availability

There's a lot of advice provided in the book, but some of the simplest and probably most important is to get your product or service out there and give people a way to pay for it. On the topic of offer creation, Guillebeau writes of the need to go specific and narrow (which is a theme I've written about others noting) and that you can't spend too much time trying to perfect the offer, have to just launch it. That launch (or offer availability) can be as simple as setting up a website (with WordPress being one way) and putting a PayPal account widget on it.

Also covered in the book is how the description of the offer should focus on core benefits (emotional) rather than technical features and that cost should come from consumer value provided, not time spent creating or providing the service. The offer and pricing models can include one off products, fixed period offers and recurring subscription business models... with it noted that there's a lot to the idea of creating something with an ongoing revenue stream from existing customers. All this said, Guillebeau repeatedly notes the basic idea of just getting starting... get that first sale and then go from there.

Examples & my take aways

It's both written by Guillebeau and obvious to a reader that a ton of research went into all the business examples provided (some briefly, some as longer case-study type profiles) and the ones that struck me as most interesting were in the area of information publishing (a good fit for someone like Guillebeau who travels as the business can by run from anywhere). Two were Brett Kelly and his Evernote Essentials book and Benny Lewis and his language hacking guides. Both businesses are portrayed as doing well, what I find myself most fascinated by is the idea of each guy simply selling through his respective website rather than something like Amazon. It could well be that they've done the research and just going through a created site by far the best way to go, it's just an interesting question to me.

All in all, it was an excellent book and has me both interested in learning more about Guillebeau's writing (both offers and otherwise) on his websites and continuing to think critically about writing I've done and the path I've taken to create it. To this point, I've viewed for a while now the book I've written as a being less of a final product and more something on a continuum... with there still being room for take aways from the writing (as well as writing process) and then something new out of it all.

Writing on Fathers - by Tommy Tomlinson & Baxter Holmes

Today being Father's Day, it seems only right that I've seen two great pieces of writing by sons about their fathers.

The first was from Charlotte based writer Tommy Tomlinson with "Father’s Day" on his dad who passed away 20 some years ago and the second "My Dad" from Baxter Holmes (who noted this essay helping him get hired at the L.A. Times).

Great pieces both... and which reminded me of some of the writing linked to a post "Writing on Fathers & Sons - from Thompson, Jones and McCann" I did a few months ago.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Businessweek writing - Ashlee Vance on TechShop, Brad Stone on Amazon & other pieces of note

It's been close to a month since I last posted on Businessweek writing and there's since been one feature and a number of smaller pieces that stood out as interesting.

The feature was by Ashlee Vance from the May 28 issue with "TechShop: Paradise for Tinkerers". I've been seeing a number of stories lately on manufacturing innovation and this definitely fit into the category with it being on the facility chain where members have access to expensive equipment to build things from plastic, wood, metal or other materials. Seems a compelling offering if someone (whether they be a hobbyist or entrepreneur) would get enough use to justify the $100/month membership cost.

It took a little bit of rooting around on the Businessweek site to find both the Vance story and other pieces as BW changed its site design, but eventually I came across the search by cover page and then tracked down the pieces below...

- "HP Innovation, One Pricey Giant Screen at a Time" on high-end product offerings (powered by Photon Engine software) in the area of large immersive displays. Interesting technology in a space sure to grow.

- "Apple, the Other Cult in Hollywood" about technology equipment and its product placement in television and film. Struck me as pretty remarkable that Apple "says it never pays for its products to appear on television or in movies."

- "Disney Bets on 'The Avengers' After 'John Carter'" on the various marketing efforts around The Avengers prior to opening day. Interesting both how important a movie's opening weekend is to its success and how much of a role Social Media plays in advance promotion.

- "Amazon vs. Publishers: The Book Battle Continues" is a longer piece than the prior three and looks at the concept of print on demand for book titles. It's solid writing from Brad Stone and is a fascinating topic as I've had excellent firsthand experience with the CreateSpace print on demand division of Amazon.

- "Hard Drives That Stretch to Infinity" on the huge and growing Cloud Computing market and offerings from large companies like Apple, Amazon and Google to smaller more established in Cloud storage market firms like Box and Dropbox.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Excellent ESPN Writing: by Saslow, Jones, Thompson, Friend & Wickersham

There's been a few pieces from ESPN over the past month that stood out as excellent writing on interesting topics.

The June 11 issue of ESPN The Magazine had two stories of particular note to me... one a feature by Eli Saslow and the other the Chris Jones back-page column. The Saslow piece was "One light will not go out" on freestyle skier Sarah Burke who passed away as a result of head trauma suffered Jan 10 while training in Utah. Burke's story is a pretty remarkable one and Saslow tells it extremely well. The Jones piece "Best Day Ever" is much shorter in being an 800 word column and tells of a day he spent with the Stanley Cup. Very cool stuff about the impact of the experience on both the writer and people he shared the Cup with in his small Ontario town.

Another recent ESPN piece that struck me as extremely well written was by Wright Thompson for the website. "A slow walk back to normal" was posted not long after it announced that the horse I'll Have Another wouldn't race in the Belmont Stakes. The piece is about the horse's trainer Doug O'Neil and is captivating in its expression of the disappointment he felt having his horse get so close to the Triple Crown (winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont), but then getting injured just prior.

Finally, the ESPN The Magazine NFL Draft Preview issue from a month ago had two solid features on compelling athletes. Tom Friend wrote "Third and gold" on ex Baylor and now Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III and "The Stanford predicament" was by Seth Wickersham about the #1 draft pick Andrew Luck and the also extremely talented linemen that protected him at Stanford last year. Excellent writing in both pieces on some seemingly grounded and ready to succeed football players.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

"The Art of Non-Conformity" by Chris Guillebeau

After learning about it from The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss (which I enjoyed quite a bit), recently finished reading The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau.

Really solid book by Guillebeau that has some excellent stuff around living and working and some of the things that stood out to me (which I may be restating for my own use) are the following:

The often harmful idea of working to live

Concept from Guillebeau is that too many people view work as a have-to-endure slog to achieve some distant future goal of then enjoying life. The opposing view he trumpets is that life short and someone should think of how they want to live and start doing that.

The often excellent idea of taking a different tack

Direction given in the book prologue is to "think for yourself instead of following the crowd" and follow on idea that it ok to dream of unrealistic things... even if they don't come to pass (and they could), usually no harm done. To this point, Guillebeau writes about the concept of worst case scenario planning and whether said worst case really enough to not do something considered (with this same idea in the Ferriss book).

Approaches to a work

Guillebeau notes that regardless of whether someone works for a boss or is self-employed, their best job security is own competence. As someone who has done well with self-employment, he describes it as self-reliance and notes that many businesses can be started very cheaply (and may not make someone rich, but perhaps enough to make a living)... an idea which almost certainly led to Guillebeau's recently released The $100 Startup book. In relation to working for others, he writes about someone hiring a boss rather than being hired by a company. Even if not taken as far as in the book example, there's still something of heft there around someone targeting the type of work desired to do.

Recommendations of additional resources to check out

People, books and websites noted by Guillebeau include the Anne Lamott book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, the Seth Godin blog (or his website), the Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, Zen Habits by Leo Babauta, and Guillebeau's own Art of Non-Conformity website (which includes his "A Brief Guide to World Domination" document that led to the book).

Really a solid book overall from Guillebeau and an interesting life he's created for himself with his writing, speaking and teaching... all stemming from an unconventional approach towards his work and time. A final thing I found of interest was an anecdote told in the book Postscript about someone unsubscribing from Guillebeau's blog and leaving a "thanks for everything, but I need to go it alone now" note. Interesting story that to me hits on a point about how-to and self-help type books... just ruminating on them is good and well, but the import of action and forward movement (even if the destination not known) can't be overstated.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Esquire & GQ features: by Chris Jones, Jonathan Segura & Drew Magary

There were a few feature stories in the latest issues of GQ & Esquire that stood out as particularly interesting and worth remembering.

For Esquire, Chris Jones wrote "The Strange Thing About Bruce Jenner" on the 1976 Summer Olympic Decathlon Champion, known to a younger generation as the dad on the reality TV show Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Best word to describe the piece and Jenner by extension is interesting... it's just interesting to read of someone who reached the pinnacle in an endeavour and has now completely pushed that aside to play a backseat role in what appears (at least in my mind) an illusory public life. Where the real interesting comes into play for me is how Jenner feels about it all. Because the Kardashian public life seems fleeting and vapid doesn't necessarily mean that actual life he leads is, so I can't help but read the piece and wonder whether Jenner satisfied and happy with what he's carved out for himself. He very well may be, just seems an interesting question...

The two GQ pieces of note from the recent issue different greatly from one another in the subjects covered, but both struck me as excellent writing in their own way. Higher on the profundity scale was "The Game of His Life" by Jonathan Segura about his now deceased neighbor, and passed along fandom of Manchester United football. Very heartfelt writing that works in the areas of relationships people can have both with one another and their team affiliation.

Also from this issue of GQ was a piece of writing from Drew Magary that stood out as a different than expected approach. "Man Up, Bieber" is a celebrity profile that reveals the bizarro world of Justin Bieber by detailing Magary trying to write an interesting profile of him. Someone could still like, dislike or have no particular opinion of Bieber as a person after reading the piece, but the overarching thing I took from Magary is what a strange, cloistered and contradictory (with control and impetuousness both at play) world an uber-famous 18 year old pop star lives in.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

"Steal Like An Artist" by Austin Kleon

Started and finished (about an hour cover to cover) yesterday the tremendously interesting book Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon.

Kleon appears to traffic somewhere in between being a writer and artist... with his website (which also links to Kleon's Tumblr page) containing the descriptions below:

"I’m a writer who draws." & "I’m a writer, artist, author, and speaker obsessed with the art of communicating with pictures and words on the web."

In terms of the book itself, Steal Like An Artist contains great ideas written down along with visuals to emphasize the points. Kleon in the beginning writes his view that all advice is autobiographical (usually intended for a younger self) and then gives 10 pieces of wisdom that are expanded upon throughout...

Kleon's 10 points are ones I've thought of, but which are fully formed within the book... and I particularly liked and have kicked around in my head the first two: "Don't wait until you know who you are to get started." & "Write the book you want to read."

Very cool stuff in the book that makes me interested in Kleon's other book Newspaper Blackout and learning more about him... like for instance through the article "Steal Like an Artist, A Night with Austin Kleon" on the blog The Contextual Life by Gabrielle Gantz.

Monday, June 04, 2012

"One Shot at Forever" by Chris Ballard

Finished yesterday reading One Shot at Forever: A Small Town, an Unlikely Coach, and a Magical Baseball Season by Chris Ballard and found it an engaging and well written book.

I met Ballard at a book signing a few weeks ago and just prior to that came across his Sports Illustrated column "Memories that last forever" about the book (which is based on an SI feature from a few years ago) and one its main characters. Granted, I wanted to enjoy One Shot at Forever as I liked Ballard and knew so much about the book going in, but it really was an enjoyable read.

I'm always fascinated by the idea of writing that combines the elements of lyrical prose and solid reporting (hopefully on a topic of interest) and Ballard really brings these together in the book. The prologue and first chapter of the book were posted on Byliner and I was initially struck by the landscape description from Ballard in the very first words. After this, the book proceeds to spin an interesting tale that flows really well and which had to have been thoroughly reported to have the whole story. To this point, the combination of Ballard talking during the book signing about getting quotes used and his notes in the book show just how much work (including hours and hours of audiotape generated) he put into the whole process.

In terms of the story itself, the point of reference to the book is going to be the movie Hoosiers with its back in the day tale of small town high school sports, but there was a couple of additional things in the book (which might or might not make it into a more compressed view movies usually entail) I found of particular note.

One was the whole picture view that Ballard provided... with the lead-up to this particular season in question and also the 40 years later lookback for those involved. From one player wrapped up in the results to another remembering back every year on the way to MLB Spring Training, the people and events told of in the book certainly had a lasting impact on many.

The second and most profound thing that struck me from the book was Coach Lynn Sweet and his completely different than usual approach to the players (who he viewed as people able to make decisions) and the game's relative importance. The scene from the book that particularly showed how Sweet viewed the game of baseball and his players was him warming up the 9th grader during the game against Lane Tech of Chicago. Just a brilliant anecdote to include in the book and for me one of those cases of one segment summing up a dominant overall theme.

Really cool read and highly recommended.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Most Intriguing People on the "Time 100 Influential" List

The Time "100 Influential People in the World" issue published April 30th was of course populated with a veritable who's who list of movers, shakers and otherwise incredibly important people in the world.

Of these individuals, below are the fourteen (with the Time pieces hyperlinked) that stood out to me as particularly interesting and people I'd want to know more about (making this my sort of "Most Intriguing Within the 100 Most Influential" list)...

- Sara Blakely: founder of Spanx - According to an earlier vignette in this issue, the world's youngest self-made female billionaire at 41 ... if that's not interesting, I don't know what is.

- Christian Marclay: artist behind the 24-hour long clip film "The Clock" - Sounds to be a fascinating movie and both it and Marclay are featured in "The Hours" by Daniel Zalewski for The New Yorker.

- Salman Khan: founder of Khan Academy - Remarkable story of free education tutorial videos from a guy whose work featured in both a Businessweek profile and Fast Company Most Creative People in Business list.

- E.L. James: writer of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy books - An author having the top four spots, including a 50 Shades box set, on the current New York Times Fiction Bestseller List is nothing if not interesting.

- Louie C.K.: comedian - Known for doing things completely his own way both creatively and in business with his television show Louie and self-produced and sold online comedy specials.

- Ben Rattray: founder of - The site which helps enable social change became much more well-known earlier this year with its petition asking for prosecution of George Zimmerman for shooting Trayvon Martin.

- Ann Patchett: author / bookstore owner - It I'm sure helps her cause to be a best-selling author, but was a cool story of Patchett seeing her hometown of Nashville, TN being without an independent bookseller and as a result, opening Parnassus Books.

- Barbara Van Dahlen: Runs the nonprofit organization Give An Hour devoted to assisting with the mental health of veterans and their families. Seems a great mission and reminds me of the Joe Klein cover story "The New Greatest Generation" for Time.

- Hans Rosling: Became known for a 2006 TED talk on worldwide socio-economic development told through statistical models... now with 4 millions views on the TED site.

- Walter Isaacson: Biographer who wrote both the bestselling Steve Jobs (which I reviewed here) and similarly acclaimed works on Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein.

- Erik Martin: 33 year old general manager of the site Reddit, which I first heard about a Jason Fagone piece for Wired written about in this blog post.

- Cecile Richards: The leader of Planned Parenthood and responsible for providing health care and advocating rights for many women in need nationwide.

- Virginia Rometty: IBM CEO who has helped the company to its current position of financial strength and (as the Time piece on her states) she's someone known for pushing the company in the area of corporate responsibility.

- Hillary Clinton: Someone who has obviously lived many lifetimes in terms of her influence and has by almost all accounts done an exemplary job as U.S. Secretary of State.

Business Topics of Interest (& Companies) Written On So Far

Since self-publishing a few months ago my blog compilation book, I've been thinking about its content... basically ruminating on what exactly I've been writing about for these last four-odd years.

The book was segmented into six segment areas (1. Writing 2. Work 3. Sports 4. Business 5. Everything else & 6. Book reviews) and of these, Business in particular can be segmented down further into sub-segments. To this whole "identifying business topics posted on idea", I've actually done it previously... with posts (hyperlinked below) on the following areas:

1. Workplace culture (which at least for me includes the area of customer service)

2. Touch-screen technology

3. Social media

4. Business concepts of "special" & "simplicity"

5. Cloud computing (linked here is the tag search result)

Well, it's been a few years and few hundred blog posts since many of these business topic area posts, so it's probably high time to look again at interesting (you know, to me) business topics posted on. All of the above areas still hold true to me as important and interesting and there's a few new concepts I've posted on that seem to carry a bit of heft:

6. Business tools (particularly data analytics) – There's a lot of fascinating work being done in the areas of big data as well as business tools with some of the companies involved that I've written on here including Tableau Software, Palantir, HP (through Autonomy & Vertica acquisitions), Tibco Software, Clearstory Data and Asana (less data analytics and more business productivity for Asana).

7. Information availability and dissemination – This to me is the step beyond Social Media to more purposeful information sharing (yea, just social is still sharing, but I'm thinking about more productive purposes (and including education in the mix). Organizations I've posted on that come to mind first are Twitter (allows for instant feedback and sharing of opinion), LinkedIn, Amazon (customer opinion sharing), Salesforce, TED, and Khan Academy.

8. True innovation – There are some very interesting and pretty revolutionary things being done in business today with companies and concepts I've noted previously including Rearden (business incubator started by Steve Perlman that includes DIDO wireless technology... with Perlman being someone that's talked of the need for true business innovation), Augmented reality (Google glasses and Layar as examples), and Manufacturing innovation (with 3D printing, DNA fold origami and Pacific Biosciences having been written about here).

9. Written delivery of information – This business topic (with a Time cover story on it noted in this post) screams Amazon with its delivery innovation as well as gorilla in the room heft needed to push said innovation.

10. Innovation in sports – I've written about and linked to a lot of solid sports writing on this blog, but what fascinates me in relation to sports business is technical innovation (with much of it designed to enhance fan experience (and consequently sell more stuff). Some of the companies I've blogged about include MLB Advanced Media, Pac-12 Conference (headquartered in San Francisco), Sportvision and its FIELDf/x system of cameras, Cisco and Red Bull (particularly through its Red Bull Media House).

11. User interface - It's a fascinating topic (and one somewhat linked to that of "special" noted above), this idea of how a product or service is built to be used by consumers. Along these lines, there's companies I find that do exceptionally well in some areas of business that seem to falter when it comes to user interface. Examples of this include Amazon (how their Kindle for iPhone app doesn't seem to allow searching through the Amazon catalog), Twitter (feels like it offer better options around retweeting and sorting feeds) and Netflix (with it's insistence on pretending a title simply doesn't exist if not currently available in the streaming catalog). Again, all good companies and services... but, ones who could have better user interfaces (and corresponding user experiences).

12. Interesting products - It's a bit of a catch-all category to be sure, but I've tried to write about here companies creating products or services that have a new approach towards existing business areas. Some companies I've previously noted here are Square, Nest (for their thermostat), Airbnb, and Kickstarter.

With all of these business areas now noted, it occurs to me that I've also written about a few interesting approaches to business...

13. Narrow market targeting and entry - The idea was written about by Evan Williams (linked to in this blog post) and focused product targeting and entry is basically a company figuring out the smallest possible problem possible (going narrow) and going after that.

14. Creating brand new markets - Concept is deciding what you would buy and creating a product from that and a front of mind example of a company creating markets that didn't exist previously is Apple. As was written about in a Businessweek piece I linked to in this post, it creates a situation of difficulty for competitors because consumers will likely stick with the company that created the market unless there's a truly revolutionary alternative product.

There's certainly much more that could be written about each of these companies and concepts, but lots of interesting things going on in business.

Friday, June 01, 2012

"I Suck at Girls" by Justin Halpern

I recently finished reading I Suck at Girls by Justin Halpern and thought it a good book, not great, but pretty good.

Halpern previously wrote the hilarious Sh*t My Dad Says, an extremely fast read that's probably one part author memoir and four parts quotes from his gruff, profane and loving father. The new book has the content equation flipped with it being much more of a memoir around Halpern's adventures and failures with girls. Definitely still included is his dad, but in story rather than quote form and much more of a secondary focus than in the first book.

One thing that did strike me from this latest effort was mention at the start of the book of how just a few years ago, Halpern was a struggling screenwriter who created a twitter feed to post his dad's quotes and "within two months had more than a half a million followers, a book deal with a major publisher and a TV deal." Pretty sweet career ascendancy to be sure, but (even though Halpern couldn't have known this would occur) seemed to me that it came from him writing something interesting with commercial appeal. The idea of slaving away at a craft people couldn't possibly understand is one way a writer could view their work, but this alternate "interesting with commercial appeal" that Halpern came up with... that's the cool career move.

To this idea of writing about something that will resonate with others, Halpern's dad is no doubt entertaining, but (as mentioned earlier) also someone easy to like. He comes across as a loving father who allows his kids plenty of room to become their own people. Not to over-mythologize, but Halpern's father bring to mind for me a "writing on raising kids" post I did last month, with included John Jeremiah Sullivan story quote...

"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."

All in all, I'd highly recommend the book Sh*t My Dad Says and if someone enjoys that, they could do much worse than reading I Suck at Girls.