Sunday, August 31, 2014

Abundance by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler

Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by X Prize founder and Singularity University co-founder Peter Diamandis and author and entrepreneur Steven Kotler was a solid read about actions around earth's available resources. The book early on contains the statement "technology can make the once scarce now abundant" and Diamandis and Kotler write throughout the book about exponential technologies, with the solving of one problem then serving as a multiplier and having positive downstream impacts in other areas.

Covered as the probably the most important basic need is that of access to clean water. If this can be solved, people’s health can improve, hunger be reduced and time freed up to do other productive things. The authors note how we need entirely new approaches to water, not simple conservation and some of the innovations both here now and potentially to come are inventor Dean Kamen’s company DEKA Research in New Hampshire and its Slingshot that generates clean water from anything wet, no matter how dirty, a smart grid to allocate water usage and smart toilets that can generate freshwater, fertilizer and power. In relation to food supply, it’s noted that we spend too much money and energy moving food, and the solution is to "move the farm" and do vertical indoor farming through hydroponics. Additionally, fish farming, genetically engineered seeds and in-vitro meat grown from stem cells (as meat from animals can both be a source of disease and requires roughly 2,500 gallons of water per pound) are all written about as things that can bring about abundance in relation to food, with the science of designing food systems that mimic the natural world being known as agroecology.

Diamandis and Kotler cover how some of the areas of improvement in energy availability are solar power, biofuels, like those being worked on by Craig Venter and his company Synthetic Genomics Inc., and nuclear power. Also covered is both a local level smart energy grid that can store energy during the day and then release it at night and a large scale energy grid for widespread distribution of power based on demand. Robotics was additionally noted as an enabler of abundance, with mention of the company Willow Garage in Menlo Park and Intuitive Surgical in the Bay Area that makes the da Vinci system surgical robot. Also in relation to health was stem cell treatments and growing artificial organs out of cells using 3-D printers, which are a fascinating innovation even if not using cells to build stuff. In terms of information and education, Diamandis and Kotler mentioned the internet's ability to disseminate information quickly as a key enabler of abundance and in the future, the potential benefit of the Internet of Things, basically devices in the home that all have unique IP addresses, along with education advances and personalized learning like through the Khan Academy and game learning.

Also noted was the new philanthropists, those like Jeff Skoll, Pierre Omidyar, Warren Buffett, and Bill & Melinda Gates putting huge sums of money towards fixing difficult problems and one interesting thing in the book was the distinction between the top and bottom of the pyramid in terms of people globally and their standards of living, and how large improvements may well come from the bottom. These individuals collectively have great spending power, huge needs and likely more than wealthier people in developed countries would benefit from force multipliers, like when someone get a basic need like clean water, it frees up time to be productive in other areas.

All in all, it was a very interesting book and makes the case well that prospects for the future not as bad as they sometimes seem.

Great sports writing on college football and tragedy

Two recent pieces of great sports writing about college football included a feature story for SB Nation and book excerpt published in Sports Illustrated.

The SB Nation piece was "The right thing to do vs. the state of Florida" by Michael Kruse about the death of 18-year-old Devaughn Darling during a 2001 Florida State University off-field practice and what's occurred since. Darling's family sued the state of Florida over the circumstances of Darling's death and agreed to a $2M no-fault settlement, with $1.8M of it still not paid to them as it's up to the discretion of the Florida state legislature whether they actually pay the settlement money. It was a maddening piece to read at times due to both the money and details around and after Darling's death, but Kruse wrote the story incredibly well.

The book excerpt by Anderson for SI was from The Storm and the Tide: Tragedy, Hope and Triumph in Tuscaloosa and a riveting account of the tornado that hit in 2007. The book followed up on a feature Anderson wrote for the magazine and posted to the SI website earlier this month from Anderson was "writing The Storm and the Tide was a deeply personal experience."

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Writing on interacting with the world - by Brand, Jones, Finkel & Breznican

There's a few different pieces of great writing I've seen recently that grouped together for me under the subject of how people interact with the world.

The first two pieces to note were profound and well-written essays, one by Russell Brand for The Guardian and one by Chris Jones for Esquire. The Brand piece was "Robin Williams’ divine madness will no longer disrupt the sadness of the world" after Williams' suicide and was great writing remiscent of the piece "For Amy" that Brand wrote after the passing of Amy Winehouse in 2007. The piece from Jones was "Some Days You Just Want to Kill Yourself" from a 2011 issue of Esquire and posted online earlier this month after the death of Williams. It's a highly personal piece about depression and one I wrote a pretty lengthy post on after first reading.

The other two pieces of great writing to mention here weren't about depression, but covered well people leading theirs lives in a fascinating manner. For GQ Magazine was the Michael Finkel piece "The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit" on Christopher Knight, who spent close to 30 years by himself in the woods of Maine off supplies he pilfered. Knight's story is a tremendously interesting one and Finkel wrote the piece with himself in it as someone who visited Knight in prison. This first-person approach definitely worked in the story and was made even more interesting with Finkel's own back-story as a journalist fired for creating a composite character, and Finkel then having his identity assumed by a murderer. It's a remarkable tale that Finkel wrote of in the 2006 book True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa that's the basis of an already filmed movie starring Jonah Hill and James Franco.

The last piece to note on someone with a unique approach to life, or at a minimum to his career, was "Zen and the art of casting Bill Murray in your movie" by Anthony Breznican for Entertainment Weekly. Really an entertaining look at the famously difficult to get reach and get attention from comedic genius.

Interesting business pieces - on high-end coffee, stealth boats and Twitter

Three different interesting pieces of business writing I've seen recently ran the gamut of subjects included coffee, a new boat engineered to evade radar and Twitter.

The latest issue of Businessweek had the Caroline Winter feature "This Stealth Attack Boat May Be Too Innovative for the Pentagon" on entrepreneur Gregory Sancoff and his company Juliet Marine, maker of an invisible to radar small winged boat, Ghost. It was a fascinating read on some remarkably engineered technology and will be interesting to see if it's adopted by the military.

For Fast Company Magazine, Danielle Sacks wrote the excellent feature "The Multimillion Dollar Quest to Brew the Perfect Cup of Coffee" on artisinal third wave coffeemaking efforts (with the standard offering from Starbucks as second wave). The piece from Sacks covers everything from heavily venture capital funded Blue Bottle Coffee to the company Alpha Dominche and its up to $16K Steampunk coffeemaker as well as Starbucks' increased rollout of the high-end Clover cofeemaker in it's stores.

The final piece to note here is one I came across a few months back and was actually written three years ago. For his venture capital focused site AVC in 2009, Fred Wilson wrote a short post on Twitter usage titled "The Logged Out User (continued)" and it's an interesting look on how Twitter is used in different ways by different people, and what a great thing that is for the company.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Stories on parenting, education & kids - by Hewitt and Rosin

Two excellent stories I've seen in the past few months dealt with the topic of kids, how we let them play and have them learn and whether a reader agrees entirely with what's featured in the pieces, they're both well written and interesting.

The more recent of the two was "We Don't Need No Education" by Ben Hewitt for Outside Magazine and it's a fascinating piece that the author writes about his 9 and 12 year old boys and their "unschooled" education. The family lives on a farm in Vermont and are a subset of homeschoolers, with "unschooled" kids learning subjects only when they say they're ready and not having a formal cirriculum. It's an interesting read from Hewitt on an education concept that seems a bit like Montessori learning, but to a different level. 

The piece from The Atlantic was by Hanna Rosin back in March and titled "The Overprotected Kid" about The Land in Wales, an adventure playground for kids that's somewhat reminiscent of a junk yard and lets kids play with and use things they never would in a traditional swing and monkey bars type playground. It's a tremendously interesting idea and one that's also being done at some U.S. locations, like the adventure playground in Berkeley, CA.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Great pieces from and related to events in Ferguson, MO

I've found myself riveted lately by what's been going on in Ferguson, Missouri over the past nine days and there's been some amazing writing on what's happened there, as well as other great writing and a speech that come to mind as I follow the unfolding events.

The most detailed piece I've seen about the shooting death of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson that precipitated everything was "In Ferguson, three minutes — and two lives forever changed" for the Washington Post by Manuel Roig-Franzia, DeNeen L. Brown and Wesley Lowery. The story was published on August 16th so additional details have and will continue to come to light, but it seems a really solid account.

In terms of the police action both that August 9th day and since, two pieces of writing I keep thinking of that weren't about Ferguson and the events there, but seem very much related, were by Jason Fagone and Matt Taibbi. For Mother Jones, Fagone wrote "How a Squad of Ex-Cops Fights Police Abuses" on retired cops working as investigators for a Florida Public Defender's Office and Taibbi authored the book The Divide (which I wrote on a few weeks ago). Taibbi provided an excellent and infuritating look at the application of justice in America and how there's different sets of consequences for breaking laws depending on what group someone a part of.

Two really well done pieces of writing done as a result of police reaction to protestors in Ferguson were both political in nature, and from two people perhaps often on different ends of a political spectrum. For Time Magazine was "Rand Paul: We Must Demilitarize the Police" by the Kentucky Senator and for his own company site, Venture Capital investor and Barack Obama backer Chris Sacca wrote "A few thoughts on race, America, and our President" about what the unfolding situation calls for.

The last thing to note here on something that I've seen posted in relation to Ferguson and which has stuck with me was video of the speech Robert F. Kennedy gave in which he annouced the death of Martin Luther King Jr. I six years ago linked to an audio-only version and the speech more powerful today than ever.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey

After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey was an interesting and at times lyrically written book about Hainey as both a journalist and son looking for information on the circumstances of his father's death decades ago. It wasn’t so much a question of whether foul-play involved in the death, but rather why the details provided around his father’s death didn’t make sense to Hainey, and what the actual truth of where he died and with whom was.

There was definitely an element of “is it worth it trying to find out?” to this question of what happened some thirty years prior and at times the story felt to drag a bit, but it mattered to Hainey and was interesting to see what he would learn. Also, the book itself was a fairly impressive read in terms of the dexterity with language used and duality in relation to words and their meaning throughout, with everyday events serving as metaphors or indicators of much larger quests ongoing.

Hainey was able to find the truth of where his father was at time of death through dogged reporting and it was interesting reading of both his quest for information and the power someone can still hold long after they're gone. There’s also a fascinating and profound conclusion to the book as the author shares with his aging mother what he learned, leading to a discussion of who people were, how we remember them and how we work through the things that are most important at any given point in time.

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald was an interesting book from the writer who Snowden provided untold numbers of classified NSA documents for Greenwald to publish stories on.

The book feels to be split into thirds, with the first two chapters about Greenwald and Snowden and their lives intersecting (as a result of Snowden reaching out to Greenwald), chapters three and four being on the surveillance of largely U.S. citizens done by the NSA and then chapter five containing Greenwald’s thoughts on the response of the media to Snowden as well as Greenwald when the stories began to publish.

I did find myself skimming the two middle chapters on data the NSA collected, but all in all, it struck me as a good read, especially for anyone interested in the role of government as well as that of journalism in our society. I found particularly noteworthy the final chapter in which Greenwald wrote of both Snowden and he having their characters impugned as an attempt to discredit the sources of the information, and distract from an examination and discussion of NSA surveillance and its legality.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Great Esquire writing - by Paterniti & Richardson

Two sensational pieces from Esquire that I've seen recently including one from an issue that hasn't arrived in the mail yet and one from a September 1999 edition.

The older of the two features is "The House that Thurman Munson Built" by Michael Paterniti on the New York Yankees catcher from the 1970s and it's a remarkable story on the man who died in 1979 and his impact on the author who grew up a fan of Munson. Paterniti reports some amazing details throughout the piece and similar to other stories I've his I've posted on, it's great writing and tacked on after the conclusion of the piece was a writeup by Paterniti about doing the story, taken from the writing site Gangrey and with the full post including story reprint and comments here.

The other piece to note here is "The Abortion Ministry of Dr. Willie Parker" and it's an account from John H. Richardson of the doctor at the only remaining Mississippi abortion clinic. Really excellent storytelling from Richardson on an important topic.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The Divide by Matt Taibbi

The Divide by Matt Taibbi is a thorough and well-written book that definitely deals with income inequality, but beyond this is about how in America today we have laws that are supposed to apply to all, but completely different sets of consequences for breaking them depending on income level.

The book appears to have come out of, or at least is related to, Taibbi's 2011 Rolling Stone piece "Wall Street Isn't Winning – It's Cheating" and is richly packed with examples and details how white-color financial crime by the wealthy rarely leads to the arrest and prosecution of individuals, but punishment for nuisance offenses and other crimes perpetrated by the poor are often pursued zealously by the police, courts and government. Taibbi makes the point that neither the harsh nor lenient approach wrong, just that they shouldn't simultaneously exist depending on income class.

In terms of why white-color crime so infrequently leads to jail time for individuals, and more often to no-admission-of-fault settlements with financial institutions, Taibbi offers a number of different reasons why. More than anything else, it seems that it comes down to prosecutors wanting easy cases to win and that financial crime can often be both complex and made out to be even more complex by legions of defense attorneys arguing technicalities and reasons for exclusion from prosecution. Additionally, the courts have frequently used the argument that to punish too severely either a guilty company or individuals within those companies could have a detrimental impact on markets and jobs, with the courts citing “industry experts” as being those arguing against criminal charges within the same industry. The examples from Taibbi are fairly brutal in the fraud committed, ranging from Barclay’s giving $112M in bonuses to nine Lehman Brothers executives while they were negotiating a $5B profit on the sale of Lehman assets to Barclay’s, to financial titans employing thug-like tactics in their attempts to destroy a company they had shorted and would profit greatly from it going under.

Taibbi writes in the book of how if white-color financial crime can often be complicated to prosecute and at times difficult to pinpoint the guilty individuals to blame, the crimes of the poor can be much easier to see and prosecute, or to just accuse someone of the crimes and then make their lives difficult. It’s noted that over the past 20 years, violent crime has dropped heavily, poverty has risen, and prison populations have skyrocketed, the result of aggressive policing methods against the poor, basically spreading a huge net and seeing what sticks in it, based on the idea that the poor are probably doing something wrong anyways. From nuisance arrests for things like loitering or obstructing traffic (basically standing on a sidewalk) to the zealous pursuit of welfare frauds and illegal immigrants, it does appear to be a wide scale denigration of the poor and application of the Bill of Rights as being on a class basis rather than applied to all.

Similar to how Taibbi writes that it’s not wrong to have either lenient or strict standards of justice, just wrong to have both depending on income level, he writes that it’s not that welfare fraud shouldn’t be policed and not that illegal immigrants shouldn't have consequences from being here illegally, but rather it’s a question of how we treat those that may be guilty and what rights we give to them. The assumption of guilt and zealous pursuit of the perhaps guilty poor matched up against the too-complicated-of-a-tale to find guilt with the wealthy is where the concept of The Divide comes in. Along these same lines, the point is made that people on one side of the divide in general have no idea how bad it is on the other side.

Taibbi closes the book with a touch of optimism about the prosecution of financial crimes at the same time that New York City's stop-and-frisk laws are being challenged in courts, but even with that, it’s definitely a sobering and well-told story of two different ways treating people based on class.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Great sports writing - by Pollak, Ballard & White

There's been a few recent pieces of sports writing I've seen that I found particularly noteworthy, with two of the pieces very much profound and the third an entertaining tale.

The first piece was from the Baltimore Sun with the 1997 Pulitzer Prize winning "The Umpire's Son" by Lisa Pollak on MLB umpire John Hirschbeck and his family. In 1992 they learned of the rare genetic disease Adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD, that would claim the life of eight-year-old John Drew Hirschbeck and leave his younger brother Michael afflicted with the disease, along with his two sisters as carriers that could pass it along to any males they might eventually give birth to. It's an empathically written story from Pollak that becomes even more profound with the Hirschbeck family's tragic news from April of this year.

The second story of heft to note here was from the recent July 28 issue of Sports Illustrated with Chris Ballard writing "A First-time Skydiving Experience, a Fall to Earth and a Terrible Accident." The piece is a detailed account of the cataclysmic 2009 injury suffered by instructor Dave Hartsock as he saved the life of his first-time jumper client Shirley Dygert and a great retelling of a heroic act.

The final piece to mention didn't necessarily have the same gravitas as the first two, but was a well-done story on an topic geographically close to my heart. Set on the Richardson Highway between Glennallen and Delta Junction (middle of nowhere Alaska sort of between Anchorage and Fairbanks) is the annual race and party Arctic Man and written about it was "Artic Man: Wild Rides and Crazed Nights at America's Most Extreme Ski Race" by Matt White for SB Nation Longform. It's an entertaining story and brought to mind the also entertaining segment on Arctic Man by the Adam Richman show "Fandemonium" on the Travel Channel.