Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Great writing on life and death - by Justin Heckert, Chaz Ebert & Chris Jones

Throughout the process of writing this blog, I've tried to make connections between great writing come across and three recent excellent pieces are around different time periods related to death.

A feature story that focused on the time just prior to someone passing was "Susan Cox Is No Longer Here" by Justin Heckert for the Dec issues of Indianapolis Monthly. It's a fascinating piece that begins with details on someone dying and a wonderful hospital program that provides companionship for those who need it. The story then takes a sharp turn into events that makes one think about tidy narratives, what we expect to happen with things and what actually can occur instead. Heckert writes something that doesn't lend itself to a simple take-away for the reader, but that seems to be what makes it such a great and though-provoking story.

The second piece to note here was "Oral histories of 2013: Roger Ebert's wife, Chaz, on his final moments" that was "as told to Chris Jones" for Esquire. It's a short missive from Chaz Ebert and very heartfelt.

The last piece of great writing to note here was by Jones and about work that gets done after cataclysmic events of death and devastation. "Kenneth Feinberg: The Nation's Leading Expert in Picking Up the Pieces" was for the Jan issue of Esquire on the lawyer who handled disbursement of funds to 9/11 victims and since then has continued to administer money to victims after major disasters. It's a fascinating topic and Jones writes a very well-done look at someone who seems to be doing the best they possibly can in the face of difficult circumstances.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Crash and Burn" by Artie Lange

Crash and Burn by Artie Lange was a book that would be sure to be interesting for anyone that's a fan of the comedian and is a pretty amazing tale of his life and drug and alcohol addiction.

The book follows up on Lange's original memoir Too Fat to Fish from five years ago and confirms what seemed to me to be the case back then, that Lange was very much addicted at the time the first book published.

Especially in this follow up effort, it's remarkable to read of the number of second, third, fourth, fifth (and so on) chances that Lange has had in life. It's not to at all begrudge him these opportunities, but I kept thinking how if not for the money he's earned for both himself and others a lot of  others, he wouldn't have the same number of second chances nor financial resources that his various efforts at recovery have cost. Definitely good for him that he has had those chances, just they're many more than most people in normal jobs making much less money for themselves or their employers would have. That said, here's to hoping he can actually stay clean and continue to both entertain and be healthy.

Sports Illustrated pieces on Newtown - by S.L. Price & Gary Gramling

Two recent Sports Illustrated features that really stuck with me both were about a subject I've previously written on and linked to under the post label "Newtown."

From the December 9 issue of SI was "What We Lost: Remembering Newtown victim Jack Pinto" by S.L. Price and it's the typical excellent work I've come to expect from him as a writer and closes with mention of the charity Kids in the Game Jack's family has partnered with.

The other piece was "A boy helps a town heal" from Sports Illustrated for Kids Gary Gramling. About fourteen-year-old Jack Wellman of Newtown and winner of the SI 2013 SportsKid of the Year award, it's a great story that also struck me as a result of one of the people noted in it. The youth wrestling team Wellman helped with was coached by Curtis Urbina, one of the subjects of the amazing Jim Dwyer New York Times piece "Running and Hoping to Find a Child Safe" from a year ago.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Writing wisdom & resources from Nieman Reports, Fischer, Fagone & Nadler

As it's been a month since I last wrote about and linked to writing wisdom, a whole entire month (!), there's a few interesting pieces about writing and the writing process to note here.

The first two things to link to were a Nieman Reports free e-book download Writing the Book: How to Craft Narratives, from Concept to Content and the piece "Breathing New Life into Old Stories" for the American Journalism Review. Written by Mary Clare Fischer, it's an interesting look at the number of great sites that link to (and in some cases, make available on the web) both current and past pieces of exceptional longform journalism.

Also Nieman-related was "Writing the book: Jason Fagone and Ingenious" for Nieman Storyboard by the author of a recently published book I enjoyed quite a bit. This Storyboard piece has fascinating commentary from Fagone on book writing and below is the stuff that struck me the most...

About the writing of a full-length book (his first, prior to Ingenious) manageable:

"I imagined splitting the book into three 25,000-word sections. Maybe I couldn’t write a book, but I could write a third of a book. Twenty-five thousand words: That was equal to four long magazine articles. It didn’t seem so daunting. I think it took me four months to grope my way to 25,000 words. When I hit the 25,000 mark, I felt this rush of relief. Then I started to write faster. I came across a David Mamet quote: 'It doesn’t have to be calm and clear-eyed. You just have to not give up.' I printed it out and taped it to the wall next to my workspace."

About coming up with a book topic:

"In 2008, I called a friend, a magazine writer and bestselling author in New York, and asked him how I should proceed. 'I think it’s simple,' he said. 'It’s about the topic. Pick a topic that people already like.' In other words: Don’t waste time trying to make people care about something they don’t already care about." 

About starting to write (after at least some research and reporting done):

"In retrospect, I should have just written a shitty draft earlier. That’s what I try to do these days. I follow the advice of Pixar Director Andrew Stanton and write bad drafts faster. The first draft is going to suck anyway, so you may as well do it fast. I believe Vonnegut once said that he enjoyed writing as opposed to speaking because he could edit himself into coherence. This will sound banal, but I think most truths about writing are banal: Book writing is mostly about giving yourself as much time as possible to rescue and absolve the stumbling you that wrote the first draft, and the second draft, and the third, and the fourth. 

A couple of things jolted me out of my troubles on Ingenious. One was a wise piece of advice from a journalist friend, Chris McDougall, who had written a book so successful, so enduringly popular — Born to Run — that it basically created a religion. It transformed the footwear industry, convincing tens of thousands of runners that they should ditch their bulky Nikes for shoes that looked like gloves. I drove out to see him one weekend — he lives in Amish country, surrounded by chickens and goats — and told him about my woes. He suggested I divide my chapters into small chunks. Two thousand words each. Make it easy on yourself, he said. That’s what he’d done for Born to Run. Two thousand words is just enough to paint a little picture and convey one small idea. The word limit prevents you from droning on and on. Later, you can flesh out a few chapters, as needed — 4,000 words, 6,000 words. And then you’ve got your 70,000 words. 

The first thing I did when I got back home from McDougall’s was go to Staples. I bought some index cards and a corkboard and put the board on the wall of my office. I wrote the numbers 1 to 25 on a bunch of cards, tacked them to the board, started writing chapter titles on other cards, and placed them beneath the numbers." 

About editing the manuscript (a process to me as fascinating as the writing itself):

"I added a historical tangent in Chapter 3, and shifted Chapter 9 into the slot where Chapter 4 used to be. It all felt sort of precarious. A book is a puzzle; any change to a piece affects the whole in unpredictable ways. I’m not a big outliner, so I tried to do the puzzle in my head. I realize this sounds insane. I really did try to hold the entire book in my brain, shifting pieces around mentally, trying to hear the click as they snapped into place."

"My editor told me she felt like a mechanic, making sure all the joints were tight, all the parts correctly fitted."

It was really great stuff from Fagone and the final piece to note here was a very short missive on writing from author Stuart Nadler posted here (but with his name misspelled) and reprinted below...

"You will always feel like your work isn’t good enough. As a salve, or simply as a way to stay sane, be in the world. Ride the train. Listen to strangers. Occasionally, if you’re brave, speak to them. Walk in the city you live. Pay attention. Don’t bother with taking notes, or buying fancy notepads. Try to remember as much as you can. Have just enough confidence in yourself to not be an asshole. Then, get up and go to work and try again."

Writing on NSA & CIA activities and people impacted - by Reitman, Apuzzo & Goldman

Two fascinating stories recent stories fell under the topic of government secrets and the lives impacted by them. "Snowden and Greenwald: The Men Who Leaked the Secrets" was by Janet Reitman for Rolling Stone and a great in-depth profile on both Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. I posted a few months ago on Greenwald's forthcoming media venture backed by Pierre Omidyar and there's really interesting detail in this Reitman piece.

The second piece of excellent writing to mention here was "Missing American in Iran was on an unapproved mission" by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman for the Associated Press. The story an almost unbelievable, but meticulously reported account (which the AP several times held off on printing at government request) about Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran back in 2007. Levinson was long said by the U.S. government to have been in Iran as a private citizen, but actually working for the CIA on a contract basis. CIA leaders were denying this fact to Congress, and may not even have been aware they were lying as Levinson's work was arranged by CIA analysts rather than field agents, a violation of known Agency protocol.

It's an amazing and somewhat sobering story and definitely feels related to the actions taken by Snowden and Greenwald as written about in the Rolling Stone piece.

Friday, December 13, 2013

"The Smartest Kids in the World" by Amanda Ripley

The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley was a really interesting book on world education told in large part through the stories of three different U.S. exchange students who studied abroad for a year, and the results in those countries from a standardized test taken by students across the world.

Ripley began the book by covering this standardized PISA test which started in 2000 with 43 countries and measures 15-year-old students’ abilities to think critically and make reasoned arguments. The countries that the three students Ripley chronicled went to were Finland, Poland and South Korea and students in each of these countries scored better on PISA tests than did U.S. students. Shown in the book are definite differences in how each country achieves that success, with the success of students in South Korea coming from a brutally competitive and pressure-filled South Korean standardized test (other than PISA), Poland from a top-down initiative that radically overhauled education and Finland the most organic approach with a particular focus on having the very best teachers possible.

Even with these differences in how various countries were achieving high PISA scores, especially compared to the U.S., the overriding thing from Ripley’s book was that learning for students largely a function of how seriously they take school, and that in turn from how seriously students see adults taking their learning. 

The first example of this that Ripley noted was the aforementioned one from Finland and how students there see how challenging it is to become a teacher and the level of earned prestige accorded teachers in Finland. In opposition to this, the profession of teaching in the U.S. has much less cache and lower barriers to entry.

A second example from Ripley of how U.S. schools don’t give students reason to take learing as seriously as schools in other countries do is the importance of sports in middle and high school here. Sports are a much smaller aspect of the school experience in other parts of the world so the message elsewhere is a clear one that school is for learning and it’s important. This same idea of sports and their import in U.S. schools also relates to the prior example of teachers with U.S. high school teachers who double as coaches, in some cases with them having gone into teaching in order to coach sports at the school.

Ripley lays out the additional reasons of expectation and consequence for U.S. students to not take school as seriously as it’s taken elsewhere. While one all-important test in South Korea determining people’s futures may be a bit much, there’s no question that students there are expected to put their all into the test and understand the negative ramifications of scoring poorly on it. In the U.S., it’s all too common for students to be set up to pass academically, through either early on being put on a remedial track with lower standards or teachers giving passing marks based on effort and helping students stuck during a test. The idea of course is to not have kids fail (both for their self-confidence and because it could reflect poorly on the school and the empire-like administrations built up around many schools), but the result of course is that students both aren't having as much asked of them and know they’ll get bailed out if stuck on something in school.

Also covered by Ripley in the book was how rather than focusing on what can be done to improve education in the U.S., an approach gets taken by many school administrators and teachers of blaming external factors like poverty or parents not being involved enough. Ripley noted that these things in no way have to lead to a poor education, but it’s simply easier to talk about variables beyond control rather than to fix things that can be improved. In relation to parental involvement specifically, her research found no correlation between a student’s success and parental involvement in things like PTAs. Ripley noted that it’s not that parental involvement in education not important, as reading to kids when they’re young and then having real discussions with them about what they’re learning, current events, books and movies can have a huge impact on learning, just that oftentimes simple involvement doesn't necessarily do much.

The concept that seems to keep coming through in Ripley’s book is that kids are smart and figure out what's important to adults in relation to education, whether those adults are parents, people who set curriculum, people who hire teachers or teachers themselves. If an adult doesn't clearly have education as the be-all end-all reason for school, why should the student? To this end, one anecdote from Ripley that I loved was about the Finnish stoner kid encountered by one of the three U.S. exchange students. The stoner kid looked like U.S. high school stoner kids, only difference was the one in Finland took school just as seriously as everyone else there.

A couple of additional things I noted out of this excellent book were that there’s apparently additional information available on the author’s website and that Ripley gives BASIS school students as the only example of alternative U.S. school students doing better than similar students in public school.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Great outdoor adventure writing - by Kearns & Holland & Donnellly

Three recent pieces of outdoor adventure writing struck me as noteworthy with each from a writer I haven't linked to previously.

For Field & Stream, Colin Kearns wrote "Life, Death and Steelhead" about Joe Randolph, a fishing guide in Oregon who took his life in November of 2012. Similar to a feature on Randolph in Outside Magazine a few months ago, the story by Kearns is about both the renowned river guide and the writer fishing with him. It's an excellent portrait that Kearns provides and also interesting to me was seeing a feature story by someone who I'd previously known of as an editor rather than longform writer. I haven't looked to see if he's published many other features, but it was really solid work on Randolph.

The second excellent piece to mention here was also written by someone I was familiar with (in this case as a writer for Outside), Eva Holland. Posted to the AOL Weather site, she did "Chasing Alexander Supertramp" and just as in the piece by Kearns, the writer is in the story as Holland went to the interior of Alaska to write about people taking the oftentimes dangerous path to the abandoned bus where Supertramp died in 1992. Born as Christopher McCandless, his story was told in the 1996 Jon Krakauer book Into the Wild that in 2007 was made into a movie. It's such an interesting piece of writing from Holland in it's portrayal of people connecting with an ideal and the ramifications of that on their safety as well as on other people.

The last outdoor story I found of note lately was more of a straight reported piece rather than narrative, but tremendously interesting nonetheless. For the Detroit News, Francis Donnelly wrote "Michigan hunter survives 7 days in Alaska wilds" about Adrian Knopps and his tale of survival in Southeast Alaska. Just amazing that Knopps made it through and the story was definitely compelling reading.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Great writing on the NFL, warrior culture and walking away - by Keown & Phillips

An excellent recent piece for ESPN brought to mind for me two essays done a month ago after the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin story broke.

From the December 9 issue of ESPN The Magazine was "Off the depth chart" by Tim Keown. The piece has a subtitle of "John Moffitt left $1 million on the Mile High turf to pursue happiness" and is a fascinating look at the 3rd year Denver Broncos guard who retired mid-season from the NFL.

Very much related in that they're about the league Moffitt left were two pieces from a month ago on Ingcognito and Martin. Also by Keown for ESPN was "Failure lies with Dolphins leadership" and Brian Phillips wrote "Man Up" for Grantland. In his story, Phillips did a sensational tear-down of the warrior culture in the NFL that in many corners, defended Incognito and criticized Martin. Among other great sections in the piece was below...

"There will always be locker-room assholes. They should be curtailed. And when a player says he needs time off for mental reasons — again: in a sport with a suicide problem — it shouldn't spark a national conversation on whether he's soft."

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Writing on discontent in Brazil & on Nelson Mandela - by Thompson, Posnanski, Jones & Gingrich

Two days ago there was a great piece of writing on political discontent in Brazil that felt to be connected to other excellent work I've seen since the passing two days ago of Nelson Mandela.

The piece on Brazil was by Wright Thompson for ESPN and a fascinating look at the country's highly volatile social climate fed by government corruption and violence along with huge income inequality. "Generation June" will be in an upcoming issue of ESPN The Magazine and was named out of the million-plus protesters who took to the streets last year during the Confederations Cup tournament leading into the 2014 World Cup hosted there. The piece brought to mind for me both Thompson's earlier this year feature "When the Beautiful Game Turns Ugly" (which I wrote about in a post that also linked to my prior blog entry on writing about political discontent) and below is from Thompson's recent piece leading into next summer's World Cup...

"Last month, when I went to Brazil looking for clues about what might happen next summer, I found all the players assembled for a battle that happens over and over again. It's reborn in every place and in every time, yet it still manages to surprise us, whether it's the cafés of Paris in 1788 or the mountains of Cuba in 1957, or perhaps, San Francisco in 1967. Brazil in the shadow of the World Cup is one of those places, and right now is one of those times. The weird energy makes sense after a while: the alchemy of a dedicated minority of a generation first believing it can change a country, and being willing to derail the world's most famous sporting event to do so, set against the menace and authority of a nation willing to use violence to protect itself from the folly of youth."

Related to this concept of battling oppression, inequality and injustice, but doing so in a way almost too magnanimous to be believed if in a movie, was writing done after the recent passing of Nelson Mandela. Prior to becoming President of South Africa, Mandela spent decades in prison for his activism against apartheid and upon his release he very publicly forgave his oppressors and by setting aside the injustices done to him showed his country a model for reconciliation. Impactful writing I've seen in the past few days on Mandela included pieces by Joe Posnanski, Chris Jones and Newt Gingrich.

For the NBC Sports website, Posnanski wrote "Honoring Mandela's Resolve Through Bleak Lens of Robben Island" about visiting the prison where Mandela held for 18 years and prior to Mandela's death, Jones for Esquire wrote "Nelson Mandela's Dream Will Prevail" on how his legacy should hopefully continue to maintain relative piece in South Africa despite the income equality and legacy of oppression. The last piece on Mandela to note here was from a source I wouldn't have expected to to be linking to, but Newt Gingrich posted to his website the interesting "What Would You Have Done? Nelson Mandela and American Conservatives" that began as follows...

"Yesterday I issued a heartfelt and personal statement about the passing of President Nelson Mandela. I said that his family and his country would be in my prayers and Callista’s prayers. I was surprised by the hostility and vehemence of some of the people who reacted to me saying a kind word about a unique historic figure. So let me say to those conservatives who don’t want to honor Nelson Mandela, what would you have done?" 

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Interesting business writing - by Ford & Stone for Businessweek and McMillan for Wired

Three different pieces of recent business writing that struck me as particularly interesting were on companies I've written about and posted on a number of times previously in Twitter, AmazonHewlett-Packard.

From the Nov 11-17 issue of Businessweek was "The Hidden Technology That Makes Twitter Huge" by Paul Ford and it featured tremendously interesting information about the amount of detail that each and every tweet contains, and how that detail can then be sliced, diced, categorized and segmented. Past pieces of writing on Twitter I've noted and linked to can be found here and the company strikes me as just remarkable in its value as a platform for information dissemination.

Another interesting piece of writing also from Businessweek was done earlier this week for the website with "Amazon's Drone Fleet Delivers What Bezos Wants: An Image of Ingenuity" by Brad Stone. The story was written on the heels of a much talked-about 60 minutes segment on the company and Stone very well qualified to write the piece given his recently published book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. I've written about and linked to pieces on Amazon quite a few times and it's so interesting to me how on top of its consumer efforts, Amazon Web Services cloud computing offering also a large business.

The final piece of business writing to note here was a recent piece for Wired with "HP Hides Monster 3-D Printer in Its Basement" by Robert McMillan. The company seems to be on the right track now after a number of board and executive stumbles and bumbles over the past few years (with me having linked to stories both positive and negative about HP) and it will be interesting to see how 3-D printing efforts go.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Great writing by Wollan for the NYT, Grann for The New Yorker and Junod, Warren & Granger for Esquire

Three feature stories I've seen recently that struck me as exceptional were written about a major street gang that took on the branding of a major university sports program, the authentication of art work as having been done by masters and the cutting edge of cancer treatment with one specific person as the test case.

The first of the features was "Fresno State Loves Its Bulldogs, but So Does a Gang" by Malia Wollan for the New York Times. It's maybe the most straightforward of the three pieces noted here, but remarkable nonetheless in how the branding of a university and it's sports teams was in many ways taken over.

The second piece of great writing to note here was by David Grann for The New Yorker. From 2010, "The Mark of a Masterpiece" was a 16,000 word story on the world of fine art and a man, Peter Paul Biro, who declared himself able to authenticate works of art as being done by a particular artist based on fingerprints within the works. It's a fascinating read and what Grann did so well in it was laying out details and facts for the reader to then form conclusions, rather that telling a story and stating what a reader should take from it. Additionally, it was fascinating to read three years after the piece was done some of the aftermath from it and the fairly recent ruling on a lawsuit that came out of the feature.

The last piece of exceptional writing to note was done for Esquire by Tom Junod and Mark Warren"Patient Zero" was about Iraq war widow and mother of two Stephanie Lee, her initial diagnosis of terminal cancer and subsequent groundbreaking treatment. While reading the piece, I was struck to see that the cancer research genius who took her on was Eric Schadt, the subject of another Esquire story I remember well, and the confluence of these two people and what their interactions could potentially mean for future cancer treatments is nothing less than amazing to think about. 

One thing I felt at the conclusion of the story was that it felt incomplete, an assessment that then made complete sense to me after I saw the front-of-issue note from Esquire editor in chief, David Granger, and realized that the story felt incomplete because that's precisely what it is. The narrative about Lee and her life and then Schadt and his research is captivating reading, but what will come of Lee's treatment unknown... and what could then carry over to the treatment of countless others as they battle cancer... unknown and tremendously exciting.

The aforementioned Granger one-page note is titled "A Second Chance" and while it's not something I typically do when writing about something, I've included roughly the first half of it below as it doesn't appear to be posted online now and for me provides great big picture perspective on the story (especially after having read the feature by Junod and Warren)... 

"October 18, 2013: We've never done anything like this before.
   I've been working at Esquire for more than 16 years. I've been doing magazine journalism for almost 30. I'ts not only that we-especially executive editor Mark Warren and writer-at-large Tom Junod-made a connection between two people. It's not only that a story we published two years ago, about an eccentric math-driven biologist, allowed us to introduce two people who needs each other very much. It's also that we, especially Mark and Tom, are all in on this one. We're involved. We saw an opportunity to arrange for a man in New York who is on the cutting edge of math and science and medicine and has endless resources to help a young mother of two girls from Mississippi whose husband was killed in the Iraq war and who was told earlier this year that her cancer is terminal... to maybe live.
We don't know how the story ends. We know Stephanie Lee has fought every way she knows, with the help of a military hospital in Mississippi, to stay alive for her daughters. And we know when we first talked to Eric Schadt, who runs the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at Mount Sinai hospital, he told us there was virtually no chance he could help Stephanie. And we know that at each of the dozens of points at which hope and possibility could have been derailed, they were not. And now Stephanie is here, in New York, staying with Mark and his family, visiting the city for the first time, to hear what Eric and Several of the best minds in cancer treatment have to tell her about her cancer and about the course of treatment they developed for her through the application of a combination of techniques that she is one the first patients to receive, ever."

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Interesting sports pieces - on Jovan Belcher, John Harbaugh, Andy Hershock & Marcus Smart

Some of the sports writing I've seen recently that struck me as particularly interesting included stories by Jeff Pearlman, Kevin Van Valkenburg, and Brian Phillips... with the Pearlman and Van Valkenburg pieces having separate website posts done on how the stories came about.

Two of the pieces centered around the NFL and to me showed the all-encompassing and often mentally (not to mention physically) unhealthy nature of the league. For the site Bleacher Report on Nov 26, Jeff Pearlman wrote "A Year After Jovan Belcher's Final Act, Friends Offer Clues to Tragic Downfall" about Belcher's life before he killed himself and the mother of his young daughter and Pearlman posted to his website "On Jovan Belcher." Certainly not as tragic of a story, but also about what it's like to be in the NFL was a piece done for the December 9 issue of ESPN The Magazine. In "A week in the life of a coach" Kevin Van Valkenburg listed out a game-week schedule for John Harbaugh of the Ravens and a few days ago the ESPN website had a Q&A with the writer.

Additionally from Jeff Pearlman was "Late ABA ref made call that still lasts" for ESPN and then Pearlman wrote "A story finally runs" on his website. The piece on Andy Hershock and his death 43 years ago while referring a basketball game struck me as particularly interesting with how the writing of that story impacted Hershock's children so many decades later.

The last piece to note here was by Brian Phillips for Grantland with "Smart's Choice" on Oklahoma State star basketball player Marcus Smart and his return to school for a  sophomore year. The story felt to me to be about the culture of sports debate, what people expect someone to do and then what they actually choose. It was I thought a really well-written story and the ending struck me as particularly strong...

"He made a choice for himself, one that fell outside the collective consensus-logic of the sports-culture machinery. It's a good choice if he thinks it is, because he's living his own life. Isn't that how we're all supposed to live? I'd like to think Smart's independence, and not the chattering about his NBA stock, could become the defining characteristic of his season. But the world is very cold."

Thursday, November 28, 2013

"David and Goliath" by Malcolm Gladwell

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell was a book that had a number of interesting stories and ideas that could be pulled from them, but also that seemed to make connections and draw conclusions just a bit too easily.

The book covered a lot of territory and a main point from Gladwell seemed to how apparent advantages can actually be disadvantages, and vice versa. Some of the examples of this included ones on school class sizes, attending the best college possible, someone having to endure dyslexia and either losing a parent or simply not having good parental influences while young.

The idea of someone (and then those around that person) actually benefiting from an exceedingly difficult childhood was told through the story of Dr. Jay Freireich and his work to try to cure kids with cancer. The hurdles that Freireich had to try to overcome early on gave him what Gladwell described as a disagreeableness that prevented him from simply acquiescing to the status quo of treatment and in essence giving in the large hurdles faced by his patients.

Also interesting from Gladwell was some the writing he did around motivation for people and what circumstances caused them to act differently than expected. The phrase used in the book for things that actually would embolden rather than demoralize people was “remote misses” and stories included the German bombing of London and how well the citizens held up during the attacks as well as how blacks fighting for civil rights in the U.S. would often face danger fearlessly.

One of the last concepts that Gladwell wrote about was around consequences of actions and limits of power and he told stories about British troops in Northern Ireland, police interaction with potentially criminal New York youth, hiding of Jews in France during WWII, the California three-strikes law and people not becoming consumed by vengeance after a personal tragedy.

I've written about and linked to pieces and books from Gladwell many times in the past and have liked his stuff, but going into reading this book have seen quite a bit of criticism of his work as being overly simplistic. Granted, I then read the book with that in mind and after finishing David and Goliath, I’m a bit torn... I think there’s interesting stories to be sure; just I can also see how someone would feel the conclusions are too easily arrived at. Tom Junod noted this in an Esquire review of the book and perhaps Gladwell picking obvious things that he labels as not obvious, and having people feel smart for seeing how obvious they are. If someone likes Gladwell's work, they'll likely enjoy David and Goliath, just one can't go too far is accepting as fact the conclusions he draws from some pretty fascinating, and I imagine much more intricate stories than are briefly covered in the book.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Writing on different times & different places - by Colloff, Mogelson & Goldberg

There's been a few pieces of writing I've seen in the past few weeks that struck me as excellent and which felt to be about the themes of "different time" and "different place."

In terms of different time was the tremendously well done "96 Minutes" by Pamela Colloff for Texas Monthly in 2006. It was an oral history on a mass shooting on the University of Texas at Austin campus in 1966, when mass shootings were pretty much unheard of. Colloff wrote a riveting piece that made me think about the topic of gun control, as written about both in past posts I've done with it as a label and a Jan 2013 New York Times editorial by former Australia Prime Minister John Howard "I Went After Guns. Obama Can, Too." Also related to both the subjects of guns and a different time was the Time website piece "Symphony Learns President Kennedy Is Dead" from 1963 and which contains an embedded audio file that has a staggering first 40 seconds.

The other two pieces of great writing to mention here weren't about guns and events from 50 years past, but rather about places in the world that are horrifying in terms of how people there live, and just how different their lives are than for those in the developed world.

For the Nov 17 New York Times Magazine was "The Dream Boat" by Luke Mogelson and then the Nov 25-Dec 1 issue Businessweek cover story was "Drowning Kiribati" by Jeffrey Goldberg. The two pieces center on islands some 6,700 miles apart from each other (on opposite sides of New Guinea above Australia) and both portray worlds that people would never hope to be born into. The Mogelson feature is about refugees who attempt to take the treacherous boat trip from Southern Indonesia to the Australian territory of Christmas Island and Goldberg writes about the sinking into the ocean islands of Kiribati and its 103,000 residents. The Businessweek cover text notes how climate change causing the sinking, but really what struck me from the story was how the people there now live. The short lifespans, high infant mortality rates, severe malnutrition and infectious diseases noted by Mogelson are just staggering and it's incredible to read of how people live in some other places.

"Vanished" by Wil Hylton

Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II by Wil Hylton was a book that I was excited to start and then glad to have read.

Vanished covered well a lot of ground, including it being a history lesson on U.S. airmen in the Pacific during WWII as well as a look at one man's quest first to find B-24 bomber crash sites around the island of Palau and then to help the military recover remains of those missing in action. The story from Hylton has as central figure Pat Scannon, a U.S. civilian who became interested in bomber crashes in the South Pacific and then spent years searching for the wreckage of a particular plane. It was cool to to read about how this effort became so much Scannon's "thing" and interwoven by Hylton into the narrative around Scannon was detailed information about the servicemen that went down and their families back home. With remains not found, it became difficult for many to have closure about the deaths in combat and particularly featured in the book was WWII airman Jimmy Doyle and his son Tommy Doyle who was only a baby during the war.

One thing I found was the story felt to drag on at times, but looking back after finishing it, I think that it wasn't really that anything wrong with the book. Rather, I found while reading that I was comparing Vanished to another non-fiction book around a WWII plane going down in the Pacific, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. That story of Louie Zamperini and his life probably was more more compelling for a reader as the subject such an amazing one, but Vanished was a really well done work on people that might have been otherwise forgotten. Also, it doesn't seem a stretch at all to say this idea of not forgetting people who sacrificed their lives to be one of Scannon's primary motivations.

The research by Hylton into the book felt to be pretty exhaustive while reading it and this showed in the notes and list of sources, which included mention that the cover photo for the book taken by combat photographer Tim Hetherington who died during an attack two years ago in Libya.

Both before starting and I was reading, I came across a number of positive mentions of the book by other writers whose work I find to be excellent and the tweet below from Hylton contains a short and seemingly spot-on review by Luke Dittrich.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Profile pieces - Scheiber on Warren, Junod on Clooney & Eells on Cyrus

Three great profile pieces recently were on quite the wide variety of subjects, none of whom I've previously linked to pieces about.

For the Nov 25 issue of New Republic was "Hillary's Nightmare? A Democratic Party That Realizes Its Soul Lies With Elizabeth Warren" by Noam Scheiber. Really interesting stuff about someone who may not have much yet in the way of foreign policy experience, but who definitely cares about the increasingly important issue of income inequality.

The December issue of Esquire has another well-done celebrity profile by Tom Junod with his "George Clooney's Rules for Living" that follows up on past features on Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon (with my having posted earlier this year on them).

The last profile piece to mention here was from the October Rolling Stone with "Miley Cyrus on Why She Loves Weed, Went Wild at the VMAs and Much More" by Josh Eells. It's highly entertaining immersive writing that may or may not make a reader like Cyrus if they didn't before, but I'd say shows that she's very much aware of herself and her image.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Interesting pieces on writing and the writing process

There's been some excellent pieces on writing to note here including ones I've seen in the past week and two from earlier this year.

The two most in-depth ones were the Q&As "A conversation with Paige Williams from Nieman Storyboard" from the Columbia Journalism School blog and "Brendan Koerner storyboards a hijacking tale" from The Open Notebook, a site about science journalism. I found Koerner's recent book The Skies Belong to Us to be particularly excellent (with my post on it back in July) and fascinating from this Q&A was the description of his storyboarding process while writing, which began leading into a meeting with Spike Lee about a movie script adaptation.

Additionally of interest lately was the short Mike Sager piece "How a Man Should Navigate a Fork In His Career Path" from the site Playboy: Safe for Work (yes, it exists) and the New York Times piece "‘City on Fire,’ a Debut Novel, Fetches Nearly $2 Million" by Julie Bosman on 34-year-old writer Garth Risk Hallberg. Not as recent as the other pieces, but two additional interesting ones to mention were on ESPN The Magazine and it's editor Chad Millman, with one from Forbes and one from the Sherman Report.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Writing by Saslow, Gawande & Cowen - on the Navy Yard shooting, food stamps, health care & Texas

There's been a few pieces of writing I've come across lately that were all linked together in a fairly circuitous route.

A writer I find to be one of the best working today is Eli Saslow as his pieces so frequently use great detail to tell an emotional and often heart-wrenching story and two recent Washington Post works of his very much fit that description. Published last month after the gun deaths of 12 people in Washington D.C. was "At Navy Yard, the ‘Cube Farm’ had settled into its reassuring Monday routine. Then, a jolt." and just yesterday was "Too much of too little", a piece with the subtitle "A diet fueled by food stamps is making South Texans obese but leaving them hungry."

Very much related to the Saslow piece on food stamps both because of the topic and with it being by a writer whose byline I'm always interested to see was "States of Health" by Atul Gawande for the New Yorker. About the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare) the piece is from a noted physican and excellent writer and just makes me bothered by what seems to be the fervently held opposition by some to more universally provided health care.

The final piece to note here also relates to Saslow's piece set in South Texas as the October 28 issue of Time Magazine featured the interesting cover story "Why Texas Is Our Future" by Tyler Cowen, economics professor and author of Average is Over. Noted up front in the story is that "three of the five fastest-growing cities are in Texas" and what I also found interesting in the story, and also connected it to the pieces by both Saslow and Gawande, was the mention of how stratified Texas is in terms of it's upper, lower and increasingly small middle class. There's been a lot written about the concept of income inequality, a shrinking middle class and an upper class living in a completely different America than the lower class and Cowen's piece (which requires a Time account to read online any of the nine web pages it split into) shows a state that's both emblematic of the dynamic and driving it.

Pieces on writing: screenwriting, work from Glenn Stout, craft of writing & writing for free

It's been over a month since I last posted on pieces with writing wisdom so there's a lot of great material about writing to note here.

About the screenwriting slice of the writing field were two interesting pieces from a few weeks ago with the first a blog post by Brandon Sneed titled "Here are Brian Koppelman's 50+ 'Six Second Screenwriting' lessons, in full. (Updated!)". It was tremendously interesting stuff from Koppelman as a Hollywood screenwriter and followed up on a post Sneed did with 13 quick writing lessons from Koppelman (with that post deleted given the updated lesson list, but my having written about it here). Also with screenwriting wisdom was "How To Write An Awesome Movie, According To Some Of Hollywood’s Best Writers" from BuzzFeed and which featured 17 different writers and directors providing feedback with content under the following headings:

How Ideas Are Born…and Then Stashed Away in Drawers, Creating a Structure, Knowing Your Characters, Writing (Non-Expository) Dialogue, Write Your Own Rules, Writing Yourself Out of a Corner, Rip It Up and Start Again, Ask for Help — and Partner Up!, Dealing with Interference, Keep Writing. And Writing. And Writing.


Another category of pieces on writing could be lumped together as being by or about Glenn Stout, series editor of The Best American Sports Writing books that come out annually, with the 2013 edition recently released.  From Alex Belth's The Stacks on Deadspin was a first-person account by Stout titled "How The Best American Sports Writing Happens" that featured some very cool stuff about discovering fairly unknown writers and the impact appearing in BASW has had on their careers. Unrelated to the compilation series edited by Stout were two additional pieces of interest with "15 Ways to Survive as a Freelancer" from Stout's blog Verb Plow and a piece for an Indiana University School of Journalism website. "Glenn Stout: Long-form sports journalism is ‘exploding’" was by Ed Sherman and primarily about Stout's work editing the SB Nation Longform site.


On the craft of writing was a host of interesting pieces starting off with two from Nieman Storyboard"Storytelling is magic" by Chris Jones at the annual “Power of Storytelling” conference in Bucharest and "Storyboard 75: The big book of narrative", a compilation of great Nieman writing wisdom over the years. Additionally of note were a few older pieces on writing: an interview with Karl Taro Greenfeld for The Review Review, an essay by Seth Kantner for the Anchorage Daily News, and a short New Yorker piece "Notes from Underground: Gay Talese's office" with accompanying three-minute video.


The final piece on writing to note here was sort of in a category of it's own with Tim Kreider for The New York Times writing the interesting opinion piece "Slaves of the Internet, Unite!" about how writers and other creative types shouldn't give away their work for free.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Writers whose books I look forward to

A topic that's been kicking around in my head for a while now is around the writers whose books I look forward to reading. This follows on the heels of my 2011 post (like I said, kicking around for a while) "Waiting on Writing: Good Authors - Good Books."

Looking back at the reviews that made up my 111 Books Reviewed from October 2012 and then my favorite books since then, below is the alphabetical list of 15 authors whose past work struck me as so excellent I'd be definitely interested in any new books from them:

Brendan Koerner - last book was The Skies Belong to Us from June 2013
Chris Ballard - last book was One Shot at Forever from April 2013
Chris Jones - last book was Out of Orbit from Mar 2007
David Von Drehle - last book was Rise to Greatness from Oct 2012
Eric Weiner - last book was Man Seeks God from Dec 2011

Erik Larson - last book was In the Garden of Beasts from May 2012
J.R. Moehringer - last book was Sutton from Sept 2012
John Grogan - last book was The Longest Trip Home from Oct 2009
John Jeremiah Sullivan - last book was Pulphead from Oct 2011 
Katherine Boo - last book was Beyond the Beautiful Forevers from Feb 2012

Laura Hillenbrand - last book was Unbroken from Nov 2010
Michael Lewis - last book was Boomerang from Sept 2012
Michael Paterniti - last book was The Telling Room from Aug 2013
S.L. Price - last book was Heart of the Game from May 2009
Susan Casey - last book was The Wave from May 2011

This of course not an exhaustive list and I'm sure there's other great current writers I've left off it, but some darn good work that's been done and likely to come from these 15 people.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Compelling sports writing - by Ballard, Layden & Sneed

There's been three different pieces of sports writing I've seen lately (each of which covered well an interesting subject) that between them had a connecting thread about storytelling, what a piece could be, what it actually is and writing narratives that don't lend themselves to being tidy.

Two of the features were for the new Sports Illustrated Longform site with "Lost Soul" by Chris Ballard on former NBA player Bison Dele and "Out of the Darkness" by Tim Layden on Jeff Lukas, son of legendary horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

The Ballard feature examined the life of Dele: born with the name Brian Williams, retired young from basketball, and then died in Tahiti, most likely at the hands of his brother, Miles Dabord. The feature struck me as a fascinating one that covered big-picture type themes around life, death and identity, and did all of that without absolutely knowing the details of Dele's passing or the two others that died along with him.

One thing to note about the Dele feature is, just as with the one on Lukas, it was published in the magazine as well as on the SI Longform site, and that on Dele was trimmed by I believe several thousand words for the print version. I'm sure this cutting was to fit within the magazine space allotted, and probably done about as it could have been, but the unfortunate thing is it took out much of the Tahiti narrative. That portion was fascinating to me and also made the web feature have much more of a storytelling feel to it, and different than most other pieces I've read.

Another tremendous work, the piece by Layden on Jeff Lukas was about his life before and since a horrific accident two decades ago. The parallel I found to the Dele feature is that both pieces written about something that not everything known about. In the case of Dele, there's the unknown details of his death and with Lukas, there's the question of how his life changed with the accident. The narrative of Lukas' life doesn't seem as simple as him "having great life circumstances which were cruelly taken away," nor that he's "taken the lemons life handed him and made lemonade," but rather that he had a moment in life that had to, and will continue to have to, be dealt with and the best made out of. Layden definitely introduces positives that came out of the accident for Lukas along with the obvious negatives, but what I loved from the writing was how he laid out everything without trying to fit it all into a tightly answered and conventional narrative arc.

Really excellent writing in both SI Longform pieces and hopefully the site continues to develop. There's of course a lot of things that could be done with it, but one thing that comes to mind is as they continue to post new features (and some or all of the time also publish them in print), it would be cool to see some of the past great Sport Illustrated longform writing added to the site. The ability as a reader to for instance select Gary Smith as a writer, baseball as a topic and then the 1980s as a time-period would be a nice functionality.


The other piece to mention here that was fascinating to me was by Brandon Sneed for SB Nation Longform. "Andre Dawkins Has A Story" was about the Duke basketball player who went through tragedy with his 21-year-old sister passing away in 2009 after a car accident. The story on Dawkins and his struggle to deal with the death of his sister while being a a major-sport college athlete was interesting in it's own right, but what was further interesting to me was how Sneed wrote the piece as being partially about Dawkins and partially about the idea of writing a feature on a young athlete who would rather not be profiled, especially when the reason for the profile is his working to overcome such a tragedy.

To this end, there were a number of comments about the piece and writing approach both below the story and in a thread to the writing site Gangrey. My opinion is that I follow what Sneed ran into with the story and his difficulty, but find myself conflicted about whether it made sense to write such a lengthy "inside baseball" portion about the writing process. This story wasn't written for a general interest sports print magazine, but rather for a great site devoted to sports writing... and to have it include a piece of sports writing that was in part about... sports writing, makes sense. Just it seems that the story could have still had all the narrative about Dawkins and also included Sneed's deliberations as a writer, but done so in a shorter fashion with less in the sections on Sneed and the alternate endings (below being what I saw to be word-count math)...

roughly 6,000 words total
first 100 about Sneed
next 2,000 about Dawkins
next 2,500 about Sneed
next 400 about time with Dawkins
next 1,000 about different alternate endings to the story... with two of the three based on time with Dawkins

It's not that I know I could have written a better story and feel like I understand what Sneed wrote about with his internal struggle in writing on Dawkins, but (without my actually working in the field) also imagine it part of the job. It seems to me a non-fiction writer should seek out the truth, but also do so in a manner that's as fair and compassionate as it should be to the subjects. Granted, this allows for a great deal of latitude, but I'd think that comes with the job to figure it out and act appropriately. Dawkins as a college kid may well warrant a different threshold than perhaps a professional entertainer in terms of how dogged someone should be in writing about him, but regardless, he warrants a threshold that should be met when writing for the public about a private individual (which of course, everyone is). Basically, we're all characters in narratives and there's nothing wrong with those of us in the public eye being written about, as long as the authors write honestly and as appropriately (in both the writing and reporting) as should be done about them.

Sneed wrote very interesting stuff about Dawkins and also raised very valid questions about the writing of a feature on him, just I wonder both if it's part of the job to be report and write appropriately and if whether a shorter piece would have kept the story more about Dawkins rather than what felt to be a feature first about Dawkins and then about the writing on him. Related to this, I found interesting the long-sought interview with Dawkins which then led to the alternate endings written to the story. The time with Dawkins wasn't profound, but it didn't have to be. I don't think there any evidence that Sneed as a writer wanted to force this to be so, but Dawkins as a subject of course not required to be profound nor fit into a convention or have a particularly tidy narrative to have a solid story written about him, which even with my quibbling about the writing dilemma portion, I think was delivered by Sneed.

"The Signature of All Things" by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert was a novel that featured great prose from Gilbert on an interesting subject and may have been a bit longer than I would have liked, but definitely finished strong.

In terms of the overall plot, there's excellent reviews out there that describe it, like that by Clare McHugh for the Wall Street Journal and what struck me from the book was both the description (including a cave scene that brought to mind a somewhat similar setting in the Bryce Courtenay book The Power of One) and a piece of the story that was introduced towards the end.

The primary character in the book was named Alma and tremendously interesting to me was a scene where she fought off drowning, and then had that serve as a partial foundation to her writing an unpublished treatise very much in line with On the Origin of Species that was being written by Charles Darwin. Also interesting on this topic was Alma's struggle with how human behavior that goes against the idea of natural selection (or competitive adaptation) relates to the concept written on separately by herself, Darwin and another.

Back to the scene in which Alma had to fight to survive, it brought to mind past writing that I found to be excellent. The late public policy expert John Gardner (who I wrote about in 2009) wrote (among many other things) about carrying on in the face of adversity and Esquire writer Mike Sager in a piece on mental heath (which I wrote about in 2011) provided the powerful and true words "how much can one man take? As much as need be."

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Business of writing - on Omidyar, Greenwald & new media

There were some fascinating pieces in the past few weeks covering the business of writing, in particular stories on a forthcoming startup news site backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar (who I posted about back in 2009) and with noted investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald as a key principal.

The first piece that stood out to me as interesting on the venture was for the New York Times by David Carr. "An Interview With Pierre Omidyar" notes how Omidyar looking at an investment in the $250M range and in his now hometown created Honolulu Civil Beat, a site Carr described as doing "public affairs reporting with an eye toward giving citizens a look into the affairs of government."

Also about the new site was for Nieman Journalism Lab with Adrienne LaFrance writing "What does Pierre Omidyar see in journalism?" It was tremendously interesting stuff from someone who worked at Honolulu Civil Beat alongside Omidyar and whose description of that still ongoing site fairly closely matches that from Carr, with LaFrance saying "Omidyar’s goal for us was simple and neutral: Ask tough questions on behalf of the public to make this community a better place."

In terms of Greenwald as a lead investigative journalist for the new venture, he's known for receiving and reporting on NSA surveillance documents from Edward Snowden and just today, Greenwald did the interesting essay "On Leaving the Guardian" in which he wrote about journalism, it's role and importance.

Only in part about the site backed by Omidyar was an interesting short piece by Hamish McKenzie and Sarah Lacy to the website PandoDaily. "Vox’s new mega-round puts a bow on content’s 'holy shit' moment" covered the abundance of new media sites in recent years and high valuations on many of them. It was fascinating stuff and brought to mind Lacy's 2008 book Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good (which I reviewed in the first few months of my writing this blog). On this same theme of hot new media companies, I was reminded of the service that to me helps make it possible for them to thrive, Twitter. The best writing I recall on the company and the power of it's links (literally) was by Clay Travis with "2011 belonged to Twitter, so does the future of sports media" for his college football focused sports website Outkick the Coverage.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Great sports writing - by Flinder Boyd, Lee Jenkins & David Fleming

There's three different pieces of sports feature writing that struck me as outstanding lately, with two of them reminding me of other stories I've posted on.

For SB Nation Longform was "20 Minutes At Rucker Park" by Flinder Boyd on 24-year-old TJ Webster Jr. and his trip to the famed Rucker Park basketball courts in New York City. Webster hoped to play well enough in the pickup games that he might get a shot at playing professionally and Boyd (who was a pro player and now solid writer) traveled by bus from Sacramento with Webster to chronicle his experience. What results is a compelling look at Webster taking his shot at glory (not to get too hyperbolic) and Boyd does a great job of writing the piece in a way that would make a reader care, but not losing his objectivity as could happen in a piece such as this.

It was excellent stuff that reminded me of a previous SB Nation Longform piece by Brandon Sneed, "The Prospect" on Montaous Walton and his attempts to fashion himself as a professional baseball player. The story on Walton was more about his fabrications and that on Webster more about hope, but definite parallels between the two well written stories.

The second recent piece to note here was the Sports Illustrated cover story this week, "Kobe Bryant: Reflections on a cold-blooded career" by Lee Jenkins. Really a terribly interesting feature that made me think of another piece by Jenkins, the 2012 SI Sportsman of the Year story on LeBron James in that both pieces on gifted and driven basketball players, and both written well in a very segmented style (with me posting last year on the structure that Jenkins employed in his story on James).

The third piece of recent excellent sports writing to mention was "The Marathon of Their Lives" by David Fleming for ESPN. About two separate runners in the 2011 Chicago Marathon, Will Caviness and Amber Miller, it was a fascinating piece to me in that early on, I expected it to end with a climactic moment that involved both runners, but instead was a completely different and a more nuanced story that surprised me. It's of course great to read something that you're immediately hooked into from the beginning, but this piece was a different type of great in that it was really memorable to me after reading it.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón & writing on the movie by Jones & Lee

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón has been a much talked about and written on movie since it's release and after seeing it a few days ago, it seems all the attention for good reason. It's a remarkable film and two pieces I've since read about it's director and the movie struck me as excellent.

For the Sept 30th issue of New York Magazine, Dan P. Lee wrote "The Camera's Cusp: Alfonso Cuarón Takes Filmmaking to a New Extreme With Gravity" and it's a fascinating 6,000 word feature. Another solid piece of writing, and more on the movie itself, was the fairly short Esquire website post "Gravity Isn't Quite Accurate, and That's Okay" by Chris Jones.

In terms of my own views on the movie, the visuals were stunning in 3D (and perhaps more so in IMAX), but the big thing about the movie for me was the tension and drama. In fact, there was a portion of it where I found the emotional drama perhaps too much with the choice Cuarón made in having Sandra Bullock's character in Dr. Ryan Stone having experienced a particularly horrific moment in her past. Watching things unfold on screen as Stone in pretty much ceaseless peril and combining those with her past, it felt both that the tragic backstory might be excessive and given that backstory, logical that Stone might just say "no más" (guess I couldn't get enough of the accent in Cuarón's name) and stop trying to figure out a way to survive. Related to this, I was watching and thinking there no way NASA would have sent to space anyone in Stone's emotional state.

From that point of skepticism I had, though, I thought her past then well dealt with by Cuarón in the film, and as Jones wrote about, whether something would have actually occurred the way it was portrayed (whether a technical detail about space or selecting of science specialists for the mission) doesn't have to detract from the movie.

The other thing I loved about the piece by Jones was his mention of the attempt to make a movie out of his book Too Far From Home, the subject of the first real blog post I wrote five years ago. Not that my blog writing has been like performing life-saving surgeries, but this book kind of got me started with it.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Esquire & Time Magazine writing - by Junod, McCracken, Walsh and Scherer

The most recent issue of Esquire and last few issues of Time Magazine had some great feature writing (with the Time site typically requiring a subscription to read online) that can be at least somewhat grouped together under the topics of business and it's impact.

The piece from Esquire's 80th Anniversary October issue was "Google: The Celebrity Profile" by Tom Junod and a look at the company, it's power, and the potential for abuse of that. To that end, Junod included in the story the interesting sections below...

"'Google is a data company that monetizes the collection of data through advertising,' says Rob Norman, the chief digital officer of GroupM, the world's largest buyer of online media. "The scale of data capture is massive, and the ability to match data with the likely intent of an individual is unparalleled." Does Rob Norman trust Google, working with Google, as he does, nearly every day? 'I happen to believe that Google is a nuclear power. One's feeling about nuclear powers depends on one's belief in their ability to use the weapons. In my view, Google is as responsible a nuclear power as you can expect a nuclear power to be.'"

"The most famous thing Google ever said was not to the world; it was to Google. "Don't be evil" — it sounds like a warning or an injunction. But it turned out to be a form of permission, a conflation of innocence with intention. Google didn't want to be evil, so Google wasn't evil. Google wasn't evil, so when Google started doing something that seemed morally dubious, Google wasn't selling out; Google was improving a morally dubious practice by the magic of Google's presence."

Junod also wrote in the piece about Google X and Google X-like efforts within the company around current programs such as Google Glass and not current, but also not out of the question, things like storing of biological data... which may be a great thing or may be troublesome if that data and accompanying power misused. From a bigger picture perspective, Junod wrote of how Google leaders looking for people to trust them to make the right moral decisions is somewhat similar to how our government looks for us to trust them to make the right decisions (which I think in the case of the current Presidential Administration they generally are). I've previously done posts which included stories on the CIA-funded data-mining company Palantir and on the world we live in and while Google, Palantir or the government having power certainly doesn't mean that power getting abused, the potential for abuse is something to keep in mind and written well about by Junod.

On the same topic of Google and huge initiatives at the company was a Time Magazine cover story written by Harry McCracken"Google vs. Death" is about a new company it's launching that's in the vein of current Google X "moonshots" Glass, Makani Power (which puts wind turbines on wings), Project Loon (which beams wireless internet access from large helium balloons) and self-driving automobiles. Calico as a new Google initiative differs in that it's separate from Google X, but as McCracken writes, Calico "will focus on health and aging in particular," very reminiscent of how Junod wrote of Google potentially getting into the field of biological data.

The second Time Magazine story to note here is on a different topic entirely with "The Challenges of America's Energy Revolution" by Bryan Walsh. I've posted a number of times on pieces by Walsh and he often does great work often on the subjects of energy and/or the environment. From this latest piece was the following...

"The same innovations that have resurrected oil and gas production in the U.S. have extended the age of fossil fuels, making it that much more difficult to break free of them. A number of independent studies have suggested that the world has to stop emitting carbon dioxide by midcentury to avoid dangerous climate change. We're not likely to get there if we keep inventing ways to extract and then burn the hydrocarbons still in the ground. 

The last Time Magazine piece to mention here was the excellent  "Michael Bloomberg Wants To Be Mayor of the World" by Michael Scherer. It's tremendously interesting stuff that details, among other initiatives, Bloomberg's work to reduce smoking rates. Also from the piece by Scherer is how this philanthropy by Bloomberg within the context of private benefactors and and their impact...

"Over the past 30 years, the world has been transformed by globalization and technology, and from that tumult has emerged a new class of billionaires who profited from the change, innovators, business leaders and heirs. In the prime of their lives, many have turned their attention to remaking the world, often through policy and politics. It's a return to the era of great benefactors like the Rockefellers, Mellons and Carnegies. It's their world. You just vote in it. The examples are so many, they crowd together. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg gives $100 million to rewrite the rules for Newark public schools, spends millions more on political television ads and then travels to Congress to demand immigration reform. The casino magnate Sheldon Adelson bets $100 million to elect Republican candidates who mostly lose in 2012, and then publicly vows to do it again. Without financiers George Soros and Peter Lewis, marijuana legalization would not have proceeded so far in so many states. Without the generosity of conservative industrialists David and Charles Koch, the groups now organizing to defund Obamacare would be a shadow of themselves. Without billionaires like Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and Jim Walton, the revolution now taking place in K-12 education--charter schools, standardized tests, Common Core, merit pay, the end of tenure--would be years behind schedule."

Businessweek writing - by Vance on Ramona Pierson & Stone on Jeff Bezos

Businessweek recently had two great pieces by writers who I consistently find excellent work from, Ashlee Vance and Brad Stone.

"Declara Co-Founder Ramona Pierson's Comeback Odyssey" was written by Vance and is one of those stories that makes me want to read another 10-80 thousand words about the subject. As Vance wrote, Pierson out of college was in the U.S. Marines (who paid for her final years at U.C. Berkeley) and "worked with algorithms to help calculate the position of Russia’s nuclear silos and guide F-18 fighter missions" until she in 1984 was hit by a drunk driver and spent 18 months in a coma. About this cataclysmic injury (and related to me wanting to know more), Vance wrote "Passersby saved her life. One massaged her heart to keep it beating; another used pens to open her windpipe and vent her collapsed lung so she could breathe. The crude handiwork kept Pierson alive long enough to get her to a hospital."

Next in the story Vance wrote of Pierson's rehabilitation, including the equally fascinating time she spent in a senior citizens center with the residents helping her get better (and the anecdote very much having a Curious Case of Benjamin Button vibe to me). Still seeming to be in line with the Benjamin Button theme, or perhaps that Tom Hanks movie in which he sees the world and does amazing things, Vance wrote of how Pierson became an accomplished blind blind rock climber, cross-country skier, and cyclist. Additionally, she after leaving the senior citizens center enrolled in a community college, studied psychology and received a master’s degree in education and then PhD in neuroscience.

In terms of her Pierson's work efforts, Vance covered in the piece how she served as CTO of Seattle public schools and developed database software around the students and their learning. Still utilized today, this software led Pierson to forming and then selling the educational company SynapticMash prior to starting last year in Palo Alto, CA her current company, Declara. Geared towards both education and businesses, Vance notes how Declara "a type of social network that links everyone in a company or an organization. With the help of algorithms developed by Pierson and others, Declara’s system learns how people interact, what types of questions they’re looking to answer, and who can best answer them."

It's a fascinating and well-written tale from Vance about someone who has been through more than almost all of us and doing tremendously interesting work.

Another great recent Businessweek piece to note here was by Brad Stone with "The Secrets of Bezos: How Amazon Became the Everything Store," excerpted from his just published book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. There's a lot of interesting material throughout the excerpt (and without having read it yet, I imagine the book as well), but what really struck me from the perspective of Stone as a reporter was his mention of finding Ted Jorgensen, the biological father of Bezos, and who agreed with the request of Bezos's mother Jacklyn to allow three year-old Jeff's adoption by her new husband Miguel Bezos. Stone writes of how Jorgensen also agreed to not have contact with the family, but the section below from the book excerpt still remarkable...

"I found Ted Jorgensen, Jeff Bezos's biological father, behind the counter of his bike shop in late 2012. I’d considered a number of ways he might react to my unannounced appearance but gave a very low probability to the likelihood of what actually happened: He had no idea what I was talking about. Jorgensen said he didn’t know who Jeff Bezos was and was baffled by my suggestion that he was the father of this famous CEO. I mentioned Jacklyn Gise and Jeffrey, the son they had during their brief teenage marriage. The old man’s face flushed with recognition. “Is he still alive?” he asked, not yet fully comprehending. “Your son is one of the most successful men on the planet,” I told him. I showed him some Internet photographs on my smartphone, and for the first time in 45 years, Jorgensen saw his biological son. His eyes filled with sorrow and disbelief."

Again, there's quite a few other interesting stories about Bezos, how he built Amazon and his style, but this particular portion was just remarkable.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

"What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" by Haruki Murakami

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was an interesting memoir about running and writing from novelist Haruki Murakami.

The book struck me as having some of the elements of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott and Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall and Murakami in the Afterword wrote of his intent...

"I see this book as a kind of memoir. Not something as grand as a personal history, but calling it an essay collection is a bit forced. Through the act of writing I wanted to sort out what kind of life I've led, both as a novelist and as an ordinary person. I so think I can write something substantial."

Murakami's book is a sort if reminiscence on being a writer and a runner, and how the two pursuits enable each other, with him first becoming a runner as a way to keep fit while being a writer. He also describes how his work put into running had parallels with work put into writing.

About running, he wrote of how pain is inherent, but suffering is optional and the benefits to getting the body to do something it didn't know it could do. In terms of schedule, he noted running roughly 6 days a week and not taking too off in a row. Related to this, he makes the point that it's been good for him that he's had to run to stay thin, as people who don't gain weight easily don't have as much impetus to get in shape overall. Murakami also mentioned the social benefit of running for him being a shared experience with those who he runs with in races or simply sees frequently on the trail.

About writing, Murakami covered that when he was young, he had the idea that he wanted to write a novel and finished the book one year between spring and fall, sent it in to a literary magazine's new writers contest and then forgot about it. The next spring he received a call saying he made the contest short list and his book won and was published in the summer. At this time he was managing a bar and continued to do so while writing and publishing his second novel. He then sold the business to write full-time with the idea that if it didn't work out after two years, he could always go back to running a bar again, but published his third novel A Wild Sheep Chase and continued his career as a full-time writer.

Just as Murakami had a schedule for running he also had a schedule for writing, which while he still ran the bar involved writing late at night and then when writing full-time had him going to sleep early and then waking up early to write when he could be most productive. Murakami notes in the book his view of becoming a great novelist requiring talent, focus and endurance... with the first of these being something that can't necessarily be taught, but the second and third both things that can definitely be developed, and make up at least to an extent for any shortcoming in natural talent (with late-blooming writers often people whose focus and endurance paid off for them). Related to this idea of putting in work (just as being a runner requires), he describes the process of writing a novel as being a kind of manual labor.

I haven't previously seen any of Murakami's novels, but would say this really a solid book for anyone interested in either writing or running.