Monday, September 30, 2013

Writing on guns, violence & our reaction to both

There's been a few pieces I've come across in past weeks related to guns, violence & our reactions to both. Each was excellent work and reminded me of past writing come across and blog posts I've done.

Around the anniversary of 9/11 I saw "Just Asking" by David Foster Wallace for The Atlantic in 2007 with him writing an essay questioning whether the government response excessive in the years since 9/11. It was definitely something to think on from the late writer and brought to mind a post I wrote last month titled "Esquire writing on the world we live in."

If the Wallace piece was about our reaction to violence and perhaps an overreach to terrorism, more recent writing was on there being not enough response by lawmakers to plain old-fashioned gun violence. Eli Saslow for the Washington Post wrote "Shooting massacre survivors: ‘Thoughts and prayers' aren't enough" and similar to how the Wallace essay took me back to a past blog post, this Saslow story made me think of my post "Writing on Boston & Guns" from April of this year.

On the same day the Saslow piece was published, there was an attack in Nairobi, Kenya mall by the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab. Three pieces I saw on that and the following day were "Witness to a Massacre in a Nairobi Mall" for the New York Times with an interview of and images by photojournalist Tyler Hicks"Terror at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya" by James Verini for The New Yorker and "At Nairobi mall, covering a war zone too close to home" by Sudarsan Raghavan for the Washington Post. Each was excellent work and the one by Raghavan and that with Hicks struck me as particularly personal accounts.

One shouldn't go too far in making comparisons between horrible events real and hypothetical, but I imagine an ideology-driven case of gun violence like this would definitely command our attention were it to happen in America. Beyond this, it seems such a shame that the level of official government action would likely be so much greater than that paid to to simple random gun violence, like that in Aurora, Newtown or the D.C. Navy Yard.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Writing education & wisdom

There's been a few great things to note here that I've seen recently that fall under the closely linked subjects of writing education and writing wisdom.

For his personal blog earlier this month, Tommy Tomlinson wrote "The Four Questions" about what he asks students in his writing workshops to help them guide what to write about. Really great things to think about from Tomlinson with the questions (written about more in his blog post) below along with a solid fifth question added by Chris Ballard:

1. What do you know about?
2. What do you care about?
3. What are you curious about?
4. What scares you?
5. What pisses you off?

Another great link around writing education and posted a few weeks ago to The First Bound was the syllabus for a narrative non-fiction course taught by Chris Jones. Included is a ton of interesting material from Jones with his thoughts on the course, resources in the form of published stories to review and weekly schedule. Some of the particular planned days that stood out to me as particularly interesting included the following:

9/21 - Your Ideas (Please come to class with three or four ideas for the "Best Story of Your Life So Far." The class will discuss the merits of each.)
9/28 - Reporting: Where to Begin?
10/05 - Cultivating Sources
10/07 - The Art of the Interview
10/21 - Reporting Finished (Please come to class with all of your reporting for your story, including transcripts. After this class, you should be able to begin writing in earnest.)
11/18 - First Drafts Due (During this class, you will submit a first draft of your story to me and exchange a second copy with a fellow student for peer review.)
12/07 - Final Edit Due

Also very much in the writing education area was a tweet sent out by Paige Williams about the upcoming Nov 8 deadline to apply for a Nieman Foundation Visiting Fellowship. Some of the details noted at the link include the following:

- The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard offers short-term visiting fellowships to individuals interested in working on special research projects designed to advance journalism.
- Applicants need not be practicing journalists, but must demonstrate the ways in which their work at Harvard and the Nieman Foundation may improve the prospects for journalism’s future.
- Successful applicants are invited to the Nieman Foundation for a period ranging from a few weeks to three months, depending on the scope of the project.

I hadn't heard before of the short-term Nieman Fellowships, but they're related to the 10 month long Nieman Fellowships which have had a number of well known writers participate in, including the aforementioned Tomlinson who was recently written about on Nieman Storyboard as a 2009 Nieman Fellow.

The last things around writing to mention on this post aren't necessarily as squarely in the category of journalism education, but definitely fall under the area of writing wisdom and start off with two posts to the writing site Gangrey"Letter to a Young Journalist" was from Tampa Bay Times writer Lane DeGregory and features some great advice on thoughts on people entering the field. Additionally,"I'd Like To Have Everything, You Know, Nice" was a post about what stories writers on the site view as great pieces to aspire to the level of writing in them and there's now 20-25 different pieces linked in the comments.

Also of interest lately has been a few mentions of the Gangrey podcast series with interviews by Journalism professor and writer Matt Tullis. Podcast episodes range from 20 to 50 minutes and the 9 recorded so far feature the following writers: Luke Dittrich, Jason Fagone, Brian Mockenhaupt, Jesse Lichtenstein, Stephen Rodrick, Kelley Benham French, Pamela Colloff, Michael J. Mooney and Justin Heckert.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Outside Magazine features - by Hampton Sides, Mark Jenkins & Kyle Dickman

There's a few great pieces I've seen lately from Outside Magazine, with two personal essays from the "Guide to Life" October issue and a feature story that will be in the upcoming November issue.

The first piece to note here was by Hampton Sides with "Wake-Up Call: Surviving an Attack by Fresh-Eating Bacteria." It was about his brush with calamity and also included a very cool paragraph about past travel adventures done by the 51-year-old Sides and his family...

"In our late thirties and early forties, Anne, the boys, and I spent as much time as we could traveling as a family to unfamiliar places: Costa Rica, Japan, Kauai, a fish camp in Montana, an off-the-grid spot on Andros Island in the Bahamas. We rafted the Gunnison, Dolores, and Rogue Rivers and put in some quality time at the summer ski camps at Whistler and Mount Hood. Maybe it was the Guinness, but for me, our time of deepest bliss was the four months we lived in a thatch-roof house beside a castle on the west coast of Ireland, in a limestone paradise called the Burren."

The second excellent personal essay from this issue was from Mark Jenkins, a guy whose writing I like quite a bit and have posted on a few times previously. Jenkins recounts his spur of the moment unplanned "dirtbag road-trip" at the age of 48 and the message of "How to Get Up and Go" could very much be taken as an encouragement to not let excuses get in the way of doing the things you want to do.

The last piece to mention here was the feature "19: The True Story of the Yarnell Fire" by Kyle Dickman. It follows up on writing I posted on and linked to a few months ago about hotshot firefighters and the tragedy in Prescott, AZ and is a really thorough look at the events of that day.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"Outcasts United" by Warren St. John

Outcasts United by Warren St. John was a book that I found to be a fairly interesting read, but may well have enjoyed more had I gotten the original rather than youth version available at the library.

The full title of the book was Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference and the story told was about Luma Mufleh and the youth soccer teams she put together and coached in Clarkson, Georgia.

Written by St. John out of his Jan 2007 New York Times feature "Refugees Find Hostility and Hope on Soccer Field", the book dragged on for me a bit at times, but that was primarily during game recaps, and may well have been written differently in the original non-youth version.

Regardless of the differences there may or may not be in the two book versions, the story is a great one and at a minimum, the Times story well worth a read.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lessons on writing - from Sager, Koppelman & Leonard

In the tradition of my ruminating on and linking to pieces on the subject of writing, there's a few great pieces to note here that contained lessons around writing well. Authors of the pieces were Esquire writer Mike Sager, screenwriter Brian Koppelman and novelist Elmore Leonard and each list of writing rules had some excellent things to keep in mind.

Posted to the media website The First Bound on September 9 was Sager's "53 Ways To Improve Your Reporting" and those that stood out to me the most were the following and seemed to all fall under the idea of being thorough and detailed in the information gathering portion of writing something:

#17 - It’s not about you (until the typing starts). 
#19 - Suspend disbelief during an interview. Reserve judgment for the keyboard. 
#20 - Tape interviews with a microcassette or digital recorder. Take pad and pen notes on specific and sensual details. Transcribe everything, time permitting. 
#30 - Don’t write your lede before you get there. 
#34 - Be present. Be in the moment. For the duration of the interview, it should feel like the universe consists only of you and your source.

The second piece of writing rules to note here came from the often-excellent website of Brandon Sneed as he earlier this month published "Brian Koppelman (writer of Rounders, Ocean's 13, The Illusionist, Runner Runner) gave some great screenwriting lessons on Twitter". It was solid advice that Koppelman provided via 13 extremely short video segments he tweeted out and then Sneed pulled together into a blog post. If the writing advice from Sager could be generalized to be about the importance of the up-front work, the stuff from Koppelman that struck me the most seemed to be about the idea of just putting pen to page consistently:

4. In what I thought was the beginning of a serious heartfelt convo, I told my dad I wanted to be a writer. He looked at me and said, "You want write? Write." 
5. Calculate less. Don't try to game the market. Write what you want to write. And drink plenty of coffee. 
6. Of the many supposedly bullshit rules of screenwriting, the only one that's legit is "write every day." 
8. The moment your screenplay leaves your hands, it becomes a commodity. So while it's with you, treat it like a piece of art. 
9. Instead of reading screenwriting books, read about your subject, the subject that fascinates, compels, and interests you.

The last piece to mention here with excellent writing advice was by Elmore Leonard for the New York Times in 2001 and then was tweeted out by many after Leonard's death last month. "WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle" featured 10 points from Leonard and the advice of his that resonated the most with me seemed related to the points from Sager I noted above. Sager wrote (among other things, of course) about up-front research and in the points from Leonard below, he covered putting details on the page without unnecessary flourishes or description:

3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. 
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'' . . . . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.'' 
 6. Never use the words ''suddenly'' or ''all hell broke loose.'' This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ''suddenly'' tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

Related to Koppelman's point #9 above, someone interested in writing shouldn't spend time on writing lessons if that at the expense of time researching, reporting or producing actual writing, but that said, there were some really solid lessons from the three writers.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

9/11 Story from Washington Post along with Welles Crowther & Boatlift videos

There's a few incredibly well done stories and videos I saw yesterday on the anniversary of 9/11 that struck me as inspiring about the events of that day and reminded me of past works of similar uplift. Writing I've written on and linked to previously included that from Scott Raab for Esquire with his now 9-story series "The Rebuilding" about the World Trade Center and great work from both Time Magazine and the Charlotte Observer that I noted in a post just after the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

A story I saw yesterday for the first time and which stood out to me as inspiring was "F-16 pilot was ready to give her life on Sept. 11" by Steve Hendrix for the Washington Post. Published two years ago, it details the story of U.S. combat pilots Col. Marc Sasseville and Lt. Heather “Lucky” Penney, who took off from Andrews Air Force Base on 9/11 with no ordinance, but an intention to take down United Flight 93 rather than have it used to attack Washington. It's a remarkable piece from Hendrix about the potential suicide mission that was averted by United 93 crashing in the Pennsylvania countryside.

The other two works about 9/11 to note here were both videos done several years ago, with one I had seen previously, and one I saw yesterday for the first time. The one I was familiar with but hadn't written on before was the ESPN segment "Man in the Red Bandanna" on Welles Crowther, a former Boston College lacrosse player credited with saving lives in the World Trade Center before he lost his own...

The video I hadn't seen was titled "BOATLIFT, An Untold Tale of 9/11 Resilience" and about the evacuation by boat of 500,000 people from Manhattan on 9/11. Narrated by Tom Hanks, it's an incredibly uplifting story of everyday people heading into danger after a Coast Guard call for help...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Great pieces that dealt with humanity - by Mooney, Harding & Deitsch

There's a few pieces of writing I've seen lately that were really well done and for me struck a cord in the humanity showed in them. Also very much related to this idea of humanity was a request on twitter that's generated a number of heartwarming responses very much worthy of keeping track of.

The first piece of great writing to to note here was by Michael Mooney for the September issue of D Magazine. "Signs of the Homeless" was about Dallas area man Willie Baronet, who as Mooney wrote "has been buying and collecting signs made by homeless people for 20 years" and it's a tremendously interesting read that trafficks in the ideas of charity, commerce and contribution.

Another piece of excellent recent writing was from the Washington Post on September 7th. "Hiding in N. Virginia, a daughter of Auschwitz" was written by Thomas Harding tells the story of Brigitte Höss, the now elderly daughter of Rudolf Höss, Kommandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The piece is a pretty amazing one and Harding towards the end of it included a quote that very much made me think of this aforementioned theme of humanity. Speaking of Brigitte, the son of a Jewish Virginia couple who employed her even knowing who her father was said "she is a human being, she was not responsible for her father."

The final thing to note on this subject of humanity came out of a Twitter request by Sports Illustrated writer Richard Deitsch with him asking people for pictures of the "single best moment in their lives". The resulting flood of images resulted in multiple stories on it with several of the pieces that included a number of the images being ones by CNN, by Fast Company, by The Chive and by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

There are a ton of great images that I've seen retweeted from this request and below are a few of the tweets that particularly struck me...

Monday, September 09, 2013

Great sports writing - by Ballard, Pearlman, Kluwe & Mailer

There's a few different excellent pieces of sports writing I haven't previously posted on with them from a wide variety of authors and sources.

Posted on August 9th to the Sports Illustrated site Monday Morning Quarterback was the personal essay "There Can Be Only One" by Chris Kluwe. The longtime NFL punter is known by many for his brilliant and profane takedown of a bigoted Maryland politician and in this piece for SI, Kluwe writes of his his competition with Marquette King for the Oakland Raiders punting job. It was a battle which Kluwe ultimately lost and the SI piece featured very cool writing from Kluwe about the responsibility he felt to (as he wrote) "be a human being" and act at times as a veteran mentor to the much younger King.

Two additional great pieces of Sports Illustrated writing to note here were from Chris Ballard a few months back. The July 22 issue bonus feature was "The Wizard Of Kabul" on Tom Gouttierre and from the Aug 12 issue was "Imagine Me And You..." on Wes Welker. The pieces were of course very different with Welker a pro-bowl NFL receiver and Gouttierre a university administrator who coached basketball in Afghanistan, but both really well done.

From SB Nation Longform was a really poignant work by Jeff Pearlman titled "Two Carries, Six Yards". Posted on Aug 20, it was about former Tampa Bay Bucs and then San Diego Chargers running back Ricky Bell and about the piece, Pearlman posted "Ricky Bell and the story I long wanted to write"

Finally, a short piece that I saw recently that struck me as remarkable was "The Death of Benny Paret" by Norman Mailer. Written in 1962, it's incredibly descriptive and shows why Mailer was such a renowned writer.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Interesting business writing - on Amazon, Palantir and the U.S. power grid

There's been three pieces of business writing I've seen lately that struck me as particularly interesting, with features from Fast Company, Businessweek and Forbes.

The Sept issue of Fast Company cover story was "Amazonfresh is Jeff Bezos' Last Mile Quest for Total Retail Domination" by J.J. McCorvey and it's a tremendously interesting read on the company and it's efforts around the connected areas of same-day delivery and groceries. As McCorvey wrote in the piece...

"It's the so-called last-mile problem--you can ship trucks' worth of packages from a warehouse easily enough, but getting an individual package to wind its way through a single neighborhood and arrive at a single consumer's door isn't easy. The volume of freight and frequency of delivery must outweigh the costs of fuel and time, or else this last mile is wildly expensive."

Amazon has already been moving forward in this effort, with huge investments in warehouses (and a willingness to no longer fight state sales taxes that typically get incurred with warehouse presence a state) as well as local delivery options that complete with existing carriers. As I read the piece by McCorvey, it looks as if Amazon building a hyper-efficient network around fulfillment of goods, just as they built networks around the cloud and running the websites of other companies with Amazon Web Services and networks around self-publishing with Kindle Direct Publishing.

The Businessweek piece of late that stood out was "Why the U.S. Power Grid's Days Are Numbered" by By Chris Martin, Mark Chediak, and Ken Wells from the Sept 22 issue. Detailed in this thoroughly researched  feature was the increased usage by individuals and companies of power that's generated outside the grid that the authors note provided via 3,200 utilities in the US alone.

This usage of power outside the grid is known as distributed generation and most commonly includes solar and wind power. Also cited in the piece is how one of the technological advances moving forward distributed generation is an advance in microgrids, the systems that enable switching between different power sources, both generated within and outside the utility company run grid.

The last piece to note here was from the September 2 issue of Forbes with "How A 'Deviant' Philosopher Built Palantir, A CIA-Funded Data-Mining Juggernaut" by Andy Greenberg and Ryan Mac. It's a fascinating piece on the company and it's founder, Alex Karp. I previously wrote about and linked to a Dec 2011 Businessweek feature on Palantir and the Forbes piece details how the company has continued to grow since then with it's early roots as a U.S. intelligence company now added to with significant work around non-anti-terrorist efforts like detecting corporate fraud, analyzing pharmaceutical data and tracking license plates photographed on behalf of local government.

Palantir gets this work done by mining enormous disparate data sets (also known as unstructured data) to ferret out connections and information and detailed in the Forbes article is how the company has many privacy advocates concerned about the level of information it's compiled on the public. It's noted in the piece that Palantir not blind to these concerns nor potential misuse of information and has technical safeguards that keep a record of who views what data, a team of privacy and civil liberties engineers on staff and the CEO Karp himself, about whom senior Palantir engineer Ari Gesher is quoted in the article as saying "he's our conscience".

While this statement could be viewed as troublesome, the potential for abuse doesn't mean that abuse there and Karp nor Palantir by extension shouldn't be excoriated just because of that potential, but one thing that struck me from the piece was that the firm may be going public. My misgivings about a public company (charged with maximizing shareholder value) having the type of information Palantir has seems to get echoed by the authors of the Forbes piece...

"Karp has also stated Palantir turned down a chance to work with a tobacco firm, and overall the company walks away from as much as 20% of its possible revenue for ethical reasons (it remains to be seen whether the company will be so picky if it becomes accountable to public shareholders and the demand for quarterly results)".

It's terribly fascinating company that certainly appears to do important work very well, just will be interesting to see what occurs as Palantir continues to grow and potentially becomes a publicly traded company.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

"Ingenious" by Jason Fagone

Ingenious by Jason Fagone was an interesting book the covered a group of remarkable automotive inventors.

Fagone is a writer who I've posted on a number of times and who sent me a galley copy of the book due out November 5th. When I first heard of the book a number of months ago, I thought it was going to be about the electric car industry, but the thread pulling together the aforementioned inventors was their respective efforts at winning the Automotive X Prize. The contest was started by Peter Diamandis out of his successful X Prize for private space travel, which featured teams attempting to win a $10M prize by sending three passengers to 100 kilometers into space and safely back, and then repeating it two weeks later.

The Automotive X Prize was an attempt by Diamandis to kick start an industry just as the original X Prize helped launch prize space travel, but rather the intent of this contest was to push forward automotive hyper fuel efficiency. The contest went through various iterations of how it would run and it wound up with a target of 100 MPGe, or MPG equivalents, and a $10M total prize purse split into three divisions with one $5M prize and two different $2.5M prizes available. Entrants had to satisfy the MPGe threshold along with meeting various performance and safety benchmarks. If multiple cars within a division satisfied all criteria for winning the prize, then a 100 mile race would decide the winner.

What stood out the most in Fagone’s book were terribly interesting characters, and great stories about them that clearly came from thorough reporting done. The people and teams featured most prominently were the West Philly Hybrid X team of high school students led by former math teacher Simon Hauger, Oliver Kuttner and the “Very Light Car” from his Edison2 team and Kevin Smith and his team Illuminati Motor Works. Towards the end of the book Fagone wrote about the electric car industry and its most successful entry to date in Tesla Motors and while Tesla certainly an interesting company led by a fascinating guy, what drives (no pun intended) Ingenious forward is the bootstrapping efforts and entrepreneurial spirit of people like Kuttner and Smith and their work with physical objects in their hyper-efficient cars.

If I were to quibble with Ingenious, the blend of different characters written about made it at times hard to keep apart who was being written about, but that was primarily a difficulty just in the beginning of the book, and perhaps was a function of the chapter titles not always being terribly descriptive of the topics or people they covered.

Regardless of this minor annoyance for me, it was definitely a compelling read on terribly interesting people trying to accomplish something great.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Excellent GQ pieces - by Laskas, Johnson & Paterniti

While there's a few excellent pieces from the latest GQ that I'll write on and link to later once they're online, past issues of the magazine had some great features I haven't previously posted on.

The July edition included two with "Have You Heard the One About President Joe Biden?" by Jeanne Marie Laskas and "Dear Leader Dreams of Sushi" by Adam Johnson. The feature on Biden is really well done by Laskas and portrays the politician as just incredibly human, someone who has endured tragedy and seems to be a very likable and empathic person. The Johnson piece is also well-written to be sure, but also nutty in terms of it's subject. Profiled (with the alias Kenji Fujimoto) is the former sushi chef and party companion to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and while the chef written about doesn't come across as someone to have sympathy for, his story, and that of North Korea and it's leader, is a fascinating one.

Another superb piece from GQ I've read recently was the Michael Paterniti feature "XXXL" published in March 2005. It was about Leonid Stadnyk, an 8 foot 5 inch man in the Ukraine and like some other great Paterniti writing I've seen and written about, it blended together tremendous storytelling with insight into Paterniti himself.

I came across "XXXXL" around the time that Paterniti's book The Telling Room was recently published and shortly after reading the story, I found (via the same Jeanne Marie Laskas) the webpage "Michael Paterniti's Best GQ Long Reads" that included links to ten Paterniti stories for GQ. They range from 2003 to 2013 and the only ones of the ten I've read before are the piece on Stadnyk (who is still alive and recently the subject of a short NBC News segment) and the two most recent features.