Thursday, January 31, 2013

"Because I Said So!" by Ken Jennings

In Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings examines the scientific evidence around 125 different Mom-and-Dad-isms and rates each as true, false or somewhere in the middle.

I really liked the Jennings book Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, but this latest effort didn't read much like a book with the different vignettes, some of them not terribly interesting to me. That said, some were and the following are those that stood out:

1. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."
2. "Chicken soup will help you feel better when sick."

Mostly True: "Don't pop a blister."

Mostly False:
1. "Feed a cold, starve a fever."
2. "Don't talk to strangers, it's dangerous."

1. "No swimming after eating or you'll cramp up."
2. "Don't cover a cut with a band-aid, air makes it heal."
3. "Bone and joint pain in kids can just be growing pains."
4. "If you crack your knuckles, you'll get arthritis."
5. "Young kids shouldn't lift weights as it will stunt their growth."
6. "You need to drink 8 glasses of water a day."
7. "You should clean your ears out with Q-tips."
8. "Reading in low light will hurt your eyes."
9. "It's bad for kids sit close to the TV when watching."

There were certainly some interesting dogmas looked at, just it felt less like a book and more like a list to peruse for the ones of personal interest (which of course isn't a terrible thing).

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Writing & Reporting on Manti Te'o

It's now been a week since Deadspin published "Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax" and just as interesting to me as the story reported and written by Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey has been the subsequent writing around how the Te'o dead girlfriend myth was reported as fact.

To this end, "Manti Te'o in his own words" by Pete Thamel for the Sports Illustrated website a day after the Deadspin feature was by the writer of an Oct 1 SI cover story on Te'o. In this piece from a week ago, Thamel writes about the reporting process he went through and posts transcripts from interviews conducted with Te'o as well as multiple teammates, coaches and Notre Dame staff. Reading Thamel's thoughts looking back as well as the interview transcripts (and this story shows just how important verbatim transcripts are), it's understandable that a reporter wouldn't doubt the story even if it couldn't all be verified.

A day after the Thamel piece went online (and now two days after Deadspin broke the story), there was an excellent SI web column "Manti Te'o hoax should spark thirst for answers, not retribution" by Stewart Mandel. The title certainly gets at the content, but as facts were starting to become more clear (and pointed towards Te'o first being duped and then perpetuating the myth), Mandel wrote of just how overboard were the people vilifying the 21 year old. From his column was "Te'o didn't cheat his way to seven Tour De France titles. He didn't allow a child molester to roam a school's locker room. He didn't have an affair with his biographer while overseeing a national military operation."

Later that day ESPN got the first post-Deadspin piece interview with Te'o as respected reporter Jeremy Schaap interviewed him off camera for 2 1/2 hours. An interesting and fairly brief Q&A with Schaap about the interview was done by Ed Sherman for his sports media site Sherman Report and ESPN published an edited for clarity transcript of the Te'o-Schaap interview as well as a story "Manti Te'o denies being part of hoax" for the ESPN site.

Taking the bit longer view of the reporting on Te'o (if 4-5 days after the Deadspin report can be considered a long view) were two interesting pieces published on the Sports Illustrated site. Senior writer Tim Layden provided the column "For better or worse, Te'o hoax will alter sportswriting" and made a point around how writers may be forced to no longer include description that provides great color to a piece, is almost certainly true, but also not able to be 100% verified as factual. Additionally, SI writer Richard Deitsch (who frequently writes on the topic of sports media and coverage) posted "Pulitzer Prize-winners discuss Manti Te'o" with Ken Armstrong of the Seattle Times and Amy Nutt of the Newark Star-Ledger. There's a number of interesting thoughts from Armstrong and Nutt both, but two that stand out are the bigger picture danger of mythologizing and practical view danger of single-source stories.

It's been a fascinating story and will be I'm sure much more to come around both Te'o himself and the process of reporting and writing what's supposed to be non-fiction.

Monday, January 21, 2013

"How Will You Measure Your Life?" by Clayton Christensen, James Allworth & Karen Dillon

How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton Christensen is an interesting book from the renowned business professor and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, a work praised by luminaries such as Andrew Grove and Michael Bloomberg.

Christensen’s latest work was co-written with James Allworth, a student of his at Harvard and Karen Dillon, editor of the Harvard Business Review and I heard about the book from the Businessweek piece “Clay Christensen’s Life Lessons” by Bradford Wieners.

The book is a blend of business and life lessons (with many covering both areas) and has a number of interesting points made throughout.

The first part of the book is more business focused and an initial idea put forth is Christensen espousing frameworks, how to think and solve problems rather than more narrowly focusing on what to think or the solution to any one quandary. Related to this is his view of job satisfaction being driven by both hygiene and motivation factors. The first factor contains often very necessary things like money, but not necessarily the motivating things that would cause someone to excel.

Looking a bit past just the individual to include a company view as well, Christensen notes the importance of assumptions in pursuing a goal (again, either for a person or a business), specifically the question of what has to prove true for a plan or approach to have the results you seek?

In the next section, the book focuses more specifically on individuals and their relationships. To this end, the peril of sequencing is brought up, specifically being willing to push aside important life or relationship investments now with the belief that you’ll get to them later. It’s noted that this approach will often result in important moments simply passing someone by. An example of sorts is given with the story of babies and language. Christensen writes of language dancing, adults carrying on real conversation with an infant and how the frequency of this interaction and sheer volume of words exposed to can have a large impact in the mental development of a child.

Another idea that stood out from this portion of the book is one that could be taken as a business lesson, but perhaps has more impact in relation to personal relationships. The question of what job does something serve? is brought up and Christensen then covers some interesting and important points on the subject. He writes that "the two fundamental jobs that children need to do are to feel successful and to have friends- every day" and then encourages the reader to “think about what jobs your spouse is looking to you to do” and follows that up with the idea of seeking not to find a mate who will make you happy, but one whose happiness would be important enough that the investment of time and energy to make that happen would be worthwhile to you.

The next idea of note from the book was also one that could be about either work or family and covered the danger of outsourcing important things (whether tasks for companies or personal development for children). Along with this was covered the importance of capabilities and how they’re made up of (A) resources, (B) processes and (C) priorities… basically what, how and why. If parents are always on with their kids, they’ll help them develop good processes (goes back to the how to think framework noted earlier) and hopefully take on the priorities both spoken of and that they themselves model for their children. It’s a fairly obvious point, but certainly an important one Christensen makes around setting examples all the time with the idea that "children will learn when they're ready to learn, not when we're ready to teach them."

Through this example setting and lesson teaching can come the right processes and priorities, including things like determination and kindness (there’s a nice anecdote from Christensen about teaching his kids that their family should be known for kindness) and collaboration with others. Very much related to all of this was an excellent quote made around children (but, frankly, would apply to anyone) with “self-esteem comes from achieving something important when it’s hard to do." Last thing covered in the book is yet another idea that would apply at both a business or individual level and that’s the importance of a defined purpose, one that’s comprised of (A) a likeness or end goal, (B) a commitment to pursuing that and (C) metrics to measure progress against the goal.

All in all, I thought it a very solid book with excellent ideas both around businesses and individuals.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Richard Ben Cramer Appreciations - by Alex Belth, Ryan McGee, Joe Posnanski & Tom Junod

Last week Nonfiction writer Richard Ben Cramer passed away and there was some really remarkable writing done by people appreciating his work. Cramer's most well known books were What it Takes: The Way to the White House and Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life and he was also a longtime newspaper and magazine writer.

The appreciation pieces done last week most frequently referenced two Cramer works, What it Takes and "What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now?" from Esquire and included in the magazine's list of seven greatest stories published. While The Williams piece is certainly a remarkable one, I was struck even more by what I believe was the first story of his I saw, "The Ballad of Johnny France" for Esquire and which I posted on back in Jan 2012.

In terms of the appreciation pieces, there was varying levels of personal connection to Cramer, but each writer was very much impacted by his work and that definitely comes across in the pieces written.

For Esquire, Tom Junod wrote "What Do You Think of Richard Ben Cramer Now?" and most striking for me were sentences Junod quoted from the Ted Williams piece including the opening "Few men try for best ever, and Ted Williams is one of those." The second quote (which Junod noted as being on "Williams's simultaneous need for fame and distaste of celebrity") was Cramer's observation "this is a bitch of a line to draw in America's dust."

The second appreciation piece to mention here was by Joe Posnanski on his personal blog with the simply titled "Richard Ben Cramer." What I particularly liked about this piece was the quoting of passages from Cramer and Posnanski's commentary on how he felt about the writing.

Another noteworthy piece of writing on Cramer was done by Ryan McGee for ESPN. "Richard Ben Cramer: A Hero Missed" was about McGee's experience working with and becoming friends with Cramer. Just some really cool stuff contained within about the writing process and thoughts on it that Cramer passed along to McGee.

The last piece to note here was not so much an appreciation piece, but rather a great story about Cramer told by his Esquire editor, David Hirshey. "What it Takes" was reprinted on the site Alex Belth's Bronx Banter (which is the same place I found "The Ballad of Johnny France") and it's on Cramer's subterfuge employed to get the 1986 Ted Williams profile published at his 15,000 words written rather than the 13,500 allotted to it by Esquire. Perhaps it's not a story that would happen today, but it's entertaining and enlightening about Cramer and how he felt about his work.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the first book from New Yorker writer Katherine Boo and won the 2012 National Book Award for Nonfiction writing.

It carries the subtitle Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity and Boo is an acclaimed chronicler of disadvantaged communities and notes at the conclusion that she first went into the Mumbai slum of Annawadi in Nov 2007 and completed reporting in Mar 2011. The depth of research that she put into the book very much comes through and the detail provided so well written that the book reads like a novel with the richness of characters (who she notes are all actual people who lived the events portrayed).

One quibble I had reading the book was there were so many different people featured that it at times was hard to keep straight in my head who was part of which family and what the various relationships were. I found myself wishing there was a listing of each person at the beginning that I could refer back to while reading.

That said, it really was a powerful work that takes a bad situation and seems to portray it for exactly what it is... something horrible that each person living it works to survive as best they know how. It was amazing reading of how cutthroat people can become when they have nothing and to make matters even worse, the people tasked with helping instead view those below them as marks to profit from.

Towards this end, I was struck by a paragraph from the final chapter (which also was noted in the Janet Maslin New York Times book review that contained a number of views I'd echo)...

"Powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes, like Fatima, they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate, like Asha, they improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other people."

What made Behind the Beautiful Forevers so interesting to me was how Boo told matter of fact (and true) stories of people acting in ways that certainly weren't always admirable, but made sense given their lives born into and forced to navigate. People still tried to lift themselves up and improve their lot (which kept the book from simply being a long tale of despair), but the external forces seemed to be at best not helpful and at worst restrictive of those efforts. Some level of success could still be achieved, but often in spite of most everyone and everything around them.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Writing on Writing (it's Work) - Leitch, Smith & Verducci

There's been a few writer interviews I've come across lately that stood out as interesting and reinforced an idea from a post I did last May, "Writers on Writing (it's Work) - Chris Jones on Robert Caro / Gary Cartwright / Mark Kram Jr." This central idea of work and it's import stood out to me in recent interviews with Will Leitch, Gary Smith and Tom Verducci.

The website TVFury provided the first new interview to note here with "The Fury Files: Will Leitch" and the part of greatest impact to me was at the end with Leitch on the effort he feels compelled to put in...

"I feel like I always just have to be a couple of steps ahead of the coroner. I figure if I type really fast, if I always turn in everything in time, if I keep doing things that I enjoy doing (and therefore make sure this never gets stale for me or the reader) … maybe I've got a chance. But I spent a long, long time writing thousands of words that nobody paid me for, that nobody read."

The Gary Smith interview was actually from 2008, but perhaps it's fitting to link to something a few years old here as Smith has for such a long period been doing great features for Sports Illustrated. On the Poynter Institute website was a post by current ESPN writer Jamele Hill titled "‘Going Deep’ with Sports Illustrated‘s Gary Smith." Background was Hill had written Smith back around 2000 asking about his approach to journalism and while there was a number of interesting responses passed along here, I particularly liked Smith on the subject of reporting and getting a source to open up...

"A lot of times it’s rephrasing a question three, four or five ways. A lot of us have the pat answer or the safe answer or the quick answer, [which is] is the first answer we’ll give. Sometimes it takes that many times of coming back at it in a slightly different way to unlock a little something more."

Finally, Jeff Pearlman on his website last month did the interview "The Quaz Q&A: Tom Verducci" with the Sports Illustrated writer / MLB Network reporter / FOX game analyst. Just as Leitch and Smith provided, there's a ton of solid content from Verducci, but (similar to from the Smith interview) the part I found most interesting was on reporting...

"Patience is a requirement. Anybody with a credential and a pen or a microphone can get “a” quote. You've seen it, Jeff: the scrum around the star of the game and the stock questions that typically feature phrases such as “how surprised were you . . . ,” “the mindset,” and “what pitch.” The worst are the non-questions. They almost always start like this: “Talk about . . . .” It’s sheer laziness. The point is that you ask a stock question you get a stock quote. I don’t want mere quotes. I want information. And I want what’s true. You have to be patient if you’d rather drill closer to bedrock than the surface layer."

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Sports stories that matter - by R.A. Dickey, Gary Smith & Matthew Jeffers

A topic I've thought a lot about through the course of watching, reading about and writing on sports is how much it exactly matters. I've been a fan of sports since childhood, but as time has gone on and life experience and children added to the equation, it's become more and more clear that wins and loses just not that terribly important. There's lessons to be learned through sports (many bad, but some good and I'll think about the good ones for now), shared experience that can be gained (and just like good vs bad lessons, let's focus on positive shared fandom experiences), but really me thinks that being a grown-up sports fan is about simple entertainment value. Not to speak dismissively about entertainment value as it's an important part of life, but far down the list in terms of most important things.

With this in mind, the sports stories I love the most are those that take the construct of sports and then use it to provide something of greater heft. I recently did a blog post on my favorite writing linked to in 2011 (yea, I know, it's 2013) and the six pieces of sports writing included all were in different ways about things much more important than wins and loses.

On this same theme of sports as a vehicle to a more important story were three different pieces of writing I've come across recently that stood out.

For the New York Daily News last month, MLB pitcher R.A. Dickey wrote an essay thanking New York fans after his trade to the Blue Jays. It would be a well written and nice letter in and of itself, but more than anything for me, it's a reminder of the his past and the good Dickey has tried to accomplish. Eloquently described in the Sports Illustrated cover story "Stand Up, Speak Out" by Gary Smith was the story of Dickey and Judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison using their respective platforms as athletes to bring more light on the topic of sexual abuse each a childhood victim of.

The second piece of recent sports writing on something of great import was also by Gary Smith with his Sports Illustrated column "After Newtown: Change Has Gotta Come." It's written with the same what's possible if people speak out approach that Smith used when writing on Dickey and Harrison and in this case is on gun violence and the impact that sports figures can have if they make the effort.

Finally, the last piece to note here was similar to that by Dickey in two respects, it was both only sort of sports writing and not by an actual sports writer. Posted to the Baltimore Ravens official website by Community Relations VP Kevin Byrne was "Ravens Fan's E-Mail Inspires Team" which included a message from 21 year-old Matthew Jeffers. It's not in the same vein of using an athlete's public platform to accomplish good (though at least one Ravens player has been doing this, as Gwen Knapp writes about "Flipping the Script" for Sports on Earth), but rather the idea of doing your best under trying circumstances. Winning at a competition is certainly something to attempt, but not as important as the battles that life can bring.

Really a powerful message from Jeffers and along with those from Dickey and Smith it shows well for me a perspective towards sports along with the potential for it to impact change. May be a bit of a reach to bring these pieces and ideas all together here, but nah... I don't think so.

Businessweek pieces - Hannan on Dish Network & Borrell on Maple Syrup

The latest issue of Businessweek had two really interesting feature stories with one on satellite TV provider Dish Network and one on Maple Syrup (that's right, Maple Syrup).

Caleb Hannan wrote "Dish Network, the Meanest Company in America" and it's a well done story that focuses on founder and CEO Charlie Ergen and his not so particularly nice approach to running the company. Some pretty amazing anecdotes in the story ranging from docking employees pay if they over-tip an expensed meal to fingerprint readers for nabbing late-arrivals to work at corporate HQ. All this and a stock that's historically performed well... hopefully there's not a huge lesson there, but regardless, it makes for entertaining reading.

The other feature that stood out was by Brendan Borrell with "The Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist." It (along with the Dish Network one) is an example of a story that Businessweek seems to love to run, something offbeat that still very much deals with large money in the world of business. Borrell does a solid job in this piece on a story that brings to mind prohibition-era whiskey and our friends Nucky Thompson and company.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Best writing linked to in 2011

As I was about to embark on the process of posting on my favorite writing linked to from 2012, it occurred to me that I never looked back at the best pieces linked to in 2011, with my last "best of" post being Close to Best 2010 Writing Linked To - Business. So, skipping 2012 for now and going further back...

Best writing on writing linked to in 2011

"Yesterday's News" by J.R. Moehringer for 5280: The Denver MagazineWritten on and linked to in July 2011.

"The Most Beautiful Word" by Joe Posnanski for his personal blog. Written on and linked to in Jan 2011.

"The Loading Dock Manifesto" by John Hyduk for EsquireWritten on and linked to in May 2011.

"Four Nights at Elaine's: The Last Will and Testament of a Great Saloon" by Wright Thompson for GrantlandWritten on and linked to in Aug 2011.

Best writing on sports linked to 2011

"Terror, Tragedy And Hope In Tuscaloosa" by Lars Anderson for Sports IllustratedWritten on and linked to in May 2011.

"How To Become An American" by Charlie Pierce for Sports Illustrated. Written on and linked to in Dec 2011.

"Born to race, Dan Wheldon found happiness in town's slower pace" by Michael Kruse for what is now the Tampa Bay Times. Written on and linked to in Dec 2011.

"The Wheels of Life" by Gary Smith for Sports Illustrated. Written on and linked to in April 2011.

""Beat, Play, Love" by Michael Rosenberg for Sports Illustrated. Written on and linked to in Feb 2011.

"The Heart Of Football Beats In Aliquippa" by S.L. Price for Sports Illustrated. Written on and linked to in Jan 2011.

Best other writing linked to in 2011

"Heavenly Father!" "I love you all!" "I love everyone!" "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!" "I love all of you!" by Luke Dittrich for Esquire. Written on and linked to in Oct 2011.

"The Bomb That Didn't Go Off" by Charlie Pierce for Esquire. Written on and linked to in Aug 2011.

"Torn Asunder: How the Deadliest Twister in Decades Ripped Through Joplin, Mo." by David Von Drehle for Time Magazine. Written on and linked to in June 2011.

"Nina & Kristopher: A story of great love, great loss" by Tommy Tomlinson for the Charlotte Observer. Written on and linked to in June 2011.

"Diner for Schmucks" by Alan Richman for GQWritten on and linked to in Aug 2011.

All 15 pieces linked to here were excellent and the ones that stood out the most to me the most were the following: on the Tuscaloosa tornado by Lars Anderson, on the Joplin tornado by Luke Dittrich (with his piece winning the National Magazine Awards feature of the year), on the bomb that didn't go off by Charlie Pierce and on working for a Denver paper by J.R. Moehringer (with that piece from 2008, but I wrote on and linked to it in 2011).

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Stories of meticulous work- Weiner on Seinfeld & Green on a pickpocket artist

There were two pieces of recent feature writing that seemed to group together with both about performance artists and the meticulous work put into their crafts.

For the New York Times Magazine, Jonah Weiner wrote "Jerry Seinfeld Intends to Die Standing Up" on the comedian. It's remarkable reading about the hours and effort Seinfeld puts in to comedy when he financially wouldn't have to work another day of his life. From the amount of time that he works on perfecting jokes to his internet video series "“Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," Seinfeld definitely puts in the hours to be great. This is shown very well by Weiner in the piece and also included was a fair amount of background history on the comedian's formative years and where this approach developed.

The piece of writing that seemed closely related was also on a performance artist with "A Pickpocket's Tale" on Apollo Robbins. For the New Yorker, Adam Green wrote a profile on the Vegas-show and corporate gig performer and similar to to piece on Seinfeld, it's interesting to see what a performer puts in to make their show look effortless. Also fascinating from the piece was Robbins on the larger idea of human attention and how it relates to something like pickpocketing.

The pieces from Weiner and Green were both just excellent in-depth looks at two performers putting in the work to be exceptional.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Writing on Sports Phenoms - by Pablo Torre & Dave Sheinin

Great sports writing on phenoms can often be more compelling than pieces on established sports stars because the phenoms represent potential not yet fully realized. Granted, that hoped for greatness may not come to pass, but it just might.

Athletes in their teens or early 20's I've linked to pieces on include baseball players Mike Trout, Stephen Strasburg, Trevor Bauer and Bryce Harper and recently I've come across two excellent pieces of writing on young stars playing two other sports.

"The Making of Kyrie Irving" was written by Pablo Torre for the Jan 7 ESPN The Magazine and is a really solid look at the Cavaliers second year point guard. Irving has performed extremely well on the NBA level after his injury shortened single season at Duke and the Torre piece is a revealing look at what got him to this point. Irving's mother passed away when he was five and Torre tells well the story of his father helping develop both Irving's game and confidence while raising he and his sister. Just a very heartwarming tale of a great athlete with potential to become even better.

The second piece of excellent sports writing to mention here was by Dave Sheinin for the Washington Post. "Robert Griffin III emerges as the Washington Redskins’ leader despite rookie status" was done prior to the Redskins recently winning the NFC East and shows the steps taken by Griffin to earn his role as a team captain and someone team veterans want to follow. It's tremendously interesting reading from Sheinin and Griffin's both calculated and completely authentic approach towards assuming leadership could serve as an example for other young stars moving up to the next level of competition.

It was solid writing from both Torre and Sheinin on two athletes that come across in the respective pieces as stars easy to root for.