Friday, October 31, 2014

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick was an interesting nonfiction account of the last voyage of the whaleship Essex and the fight for survival of its crew after being rammed by a huge sperm whale, with this sinking the basis for Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick.

Philbrick’s story was an historical tale of danger, resiliency and horrible decisions and definitely compelling reading. He wrote of how the Essex in August 1819 sailed out of Nantucket, 24 miles of the coast of New England, and then was rammed by a sperm whale on November 20th, 1820 and subsequently sunk in the middle of the Pacific. Twenty men then boarded three small whaling crafts and the captain of the Essex, George Pollard, wanted to sail these crafts to the Marquesas Islands some 1,200 miles away or the Society Islands (home to Taihiti) roughly 2,000 miles away but first mate Owen Chase and second mate Matthew Joy convinced Pollard that the dangers of cannibals there too great and they should return to South America, some 4,500 miles away.

The sailors had limited food and water and likely would have all perished if not for hitting land December 19th, roughly a month after the whale attack. Their first concern upon reaching the shores of Henderson Island, only 400 miles northeast of Pitcairn Island where they would have been rescued, was being attacked by natives, of which there were none, and after a week of finding and consuming limited food and water on Henderson, the ships (minus three men who decided to stay on island) left with a target of Easter Island, about a third of the 3,000 miles to the coast of Chile. The boats were unable to hit Easter Island and continued towards South America, with this being the point that sailors began to die of starvation and dehydration. Eventually the cannibalism that the Chase and Joy cited as the reason to not head towards Tahiti came about, only now it was the men eating those who passed as way to survive.

First mate Owen Chase and two additional sailors were the remaining crew of one of the boats and rescued February 18th off the coast of South America by the ship Indian and captain Pollard and one remaining crew member on his craft rescued five days later, also close to South America, by the crew of The Dauphin. As a result of this, a ship then went to Dulcie Island where the three crew members were said to be on, found it uninhabited, and then correctly surmised that they may actually be on Henderson Island 70 miles away. With five crew rescued from the two small boats, this left the whereabouts of the third boat unknown, until five years later when it was found up washed ashore of Dulcie Island, with three skeletons in it.

The book wraps up with the eight men returning to Nantucket and the captain of the Essex, George Pollard, being so accepted upon his return from disaster that he was made captain for another voyage and three months after his return sailed out on the whaleship, the Two Brothers, which then sunk several hundred miles west of Hawaii after hitting coral reefs during heavy winds. While this sinking effectively ended Pollard’s career as a whaleboat captain, he returned to Nantucket and lived out of the remainder of a full life. The story of the Essex and its men is a remarkable one and told very well by Philbrick with both huge detail and a focus on entertaining the reader throughout, and will be told in film by Ron Howard with a March 2015 theatrical release of In the Heart of the Sea.

Interesting feature writing - by Bissinger, Poulsen & Sager

Three different recent magazine feature stories were on different topics, but all well written and interesting pieces.

The most recent of them to note here was from the November issue of Vanity Fair with "The Stradivarius Affair" by Buzz Bissinger. It's a fascinating sort-of high crime piece about a $6M Stradivarius violin stolen in Milwaukee.

The October edition of Wired Magazine also had an excellent story on an attempt to make money, but through much less nefarious means. "Finding a Video Poker Bug Made These Guys Rich—Then Vegas Made Them Pay" was written by Kevin Poulsen and compelling reading that both tells an entertaining story and delves into the questions of whether actions illegal vs. just crafty.

The last piece to mention was from the October issue of Esquire for which Mike Sager wrote "Are There Still Boy Scouts?" on the 104-year-old organization and it's new volunteer national president, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. It's easy to find fault with positions taken by the national office of the Scouts, but the piece from Sager paints the portrait of an organization that appears to be doing a fair amount of good.

Stories of technology & the future - on Graphene and Space X

Two pieces of recent interesting writing very much dealt with future technology and also brought to mind some past stories of note.

Posted to Medium was "Materials That Will Change the World: Graphene" by Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize awarded for private spacecraft development and author of the book Abundance: The Future is Brighter Than You Think that I wrote about a few months ago. It's a fascinating piece on Graphene as a material that Diamandis notes as having potential applications in the following areas: energy storage, flexible screens, desalinization/filtration of water, medical applications/sensors, photovoltaics/solar cells, material composites and computing/electronics. Graphene is obviously written of as a material with breakthrough technological ramifications and it will be interesting to see what occurs with it.

The other story to note here was "What it took for Elon Musk’s SpaceX to disrupt Boeing, leapfrog NASA, and become a serious space company" by Tim Fernholz for the business news site Quartz. It's a pretty lengthy, but also solid piece on one of the efforts from a fascinating individual, with Musk someone that's at least in part the subject of multiple pieces I've linked to and written about.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Writers on writing - Gillian Flynn, Hunter S. Thompson & many on Gangrey

There's a few pieces on the subject of writing that I've seen over the past few weeks and found to be absolutely captivating. The most in-depth by far of the three was the post "Eating Jack Hooker's Cow" from the writing site Gangrey. About the 1997 Esquire story by Michael Paterniti, the Gangrey post really is a master class in writing with many great journalists giving their views on the piece and writing in general.

The other two pieces on writing to note here were much shorter ones with the much more recent being Joe Berkowitz for Fast Company Magazine writing on Gillian Flynn, author of both the book Gone Girl and screenplay of the excellent movie of the same name. Additionally, the site Boing Boing recently posted the highly entertaining "Hunter S. Thompson's 1958 cover letter for a newspaper job" from the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas among other well-known books.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Factory Man by Beth Macy

Factory Man by Beth Macy is an interesting book about offshoring, rural America and where income equality comes from.

The book tells the story of John Bassett III and his Vaughn-Bassett Furniture Company that employs more than 700 people in the South and manufactures entirely in America. While the book provides a largely positive view of both the man and company, which has a section about Macy's book on it's website, it's definitely not a puff piece, but rather an account of a family, company, industry and the costs of globalization on U.S. manufacturing and the works who used to do it.

The book was an excellent one and further information on it can be found in a New York Times review by Mimi Swartz and Businessweek Q&A with Macy.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Interesting sports pieces - by Wickersham, Anderson & Holmes

A couple of great pieces of recent sports writing included work from the Boston Globe, ESPN and Bleacher Report.

Two Bay Area-centric pieces were "Bill Russell, K.C. Jones treated like ‘Rock’ stars at Alcatraz" by Baxter Holmes, who is leaving the Globe to write for ESPN, and the Seth Wickersham story "Jim Harbaugh comfortable in chaos" for ESPN on the 49ers head coach.

Sticking with the football head coach theme (just in this case college and Ole Miss) was an excellent piece by Lars Anderson with "Good Guys Finish 1st: The Hugh Freeze Story" written for Bleacher Report.

Really excellent pieces all from Holmes, Wickersham and Anderson.

Businessweek writing - by Bennett, Stone, Vance & Homans

There's been a number of interesting stories from the past few issues of Businessweek, including one feature and a number of shorter pieces.

The longest of the stories was "What Can the McLaren Racing Team Teach the Rest of Us?" by Drake Bennett and it was a fascinating look at data science and decisions (in racing or any number of other pursuits) being made based on probabilities derived from a constantly expanding number of data points.

The shorter pieces of note included two from Brad Stone with "California Print Magazine Is Born From Pop-Up Storytelling Show" on California Sunday Magazine and "Thync Lets You Give Your Mind a Jolt" on the at first weird to me, but then more logical when the idea of drinking a cup of coffee considered, idea of mild electrical stimulation of the brain to improve cognitive performance.

The other two short pieces to mention here were "Stand Stand: A Portable Standing Desk for the People" from Ashlee Vance on the Kickstarter-funded standing desk company and a review by Jon Homans of the Walter Isaacson book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Airplane calamity stories - by Langewiesche & Bissinger

Two pieces of phenomenal writing I've seen recently were on airplane calamities with one a feature from the October issue of Vanity Fair and one a Longform reprint of a St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper story from 1981.

For Vanity Fair, William Langewiesche wrote "The Human Factor" on the crash of Air France Flight 447 in the Atlantic Ocean, a disaster that's written in this excellent piece as being one that both become more rare with automated flight systems and was caused in part by pilots not being prepared to deal with problems that arise, given due to their reliance on... automated flight systems.

The much older Pioneer Press story by Buzz Bissinger, who later became well known for writing the book Friday Night Lights and I've a few times written about pieces from, was also brilliantly written and fascinating in that the details recounted are almost the counterpoint to those told of in the Vanity Fair story. "The Plane That Fell From the Sky" told the story of TWA Flight 841, one that suffered severe mechanical failure (as opposed to the human failings from the doomed Air France flight) and then required herculean efforts from the captain to try to land the plane safely.

Both stories were remarkable, with the first featuring amazing pieced together detail from flight recordings and the second just amazing events retold really well.

American Hippopotamus by Jon Mooallem

American Hippopotamus by Jon Mooallem was an entertaining Kindle single (estimated by Amazon at 71 printed pages) about the seemingly fictional effort at the start of the 20th century to import hippos to live in the American South and become a cattle substitute.

The story has been optioned to be made into a film and features the larger than life characters of Frederick Russell Burnham, the inspiration for Indiana Jones and model for the Boy Scouts, and Fritz Duquesne, a spy and constant schemer.

The story was written about in a Q&A with Mooallem for Wired and as a Kindle single, it's definitely a short read, but an interesting and true one nonetheless.

Monday, October 06, 2014

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein was an entertaining novel from the author of the excellent 2008 book The Art of Racing in the Rain.

This latest effort from Stein is set in his home city of Seattle about tells a story of family, secrets, ghosts and big choices made by the book's 14-year-old narrator. I don't know I found myself terribly happy with the ending (as opposed to the writer of this Seattle Times review of A Sudden Light who found the finale "immensely satisfying"), but I thought the book an interesting and at times poignant read.

Atul Gawande essays - on Ebola & end-of-life care

Noted surgeon and author Atul Gawande had two solid pieces of writing publish recently in The New Yorker and New York Times, respectively.

I've read three of Gawande's books and posted on his writing a number of times and was particularly interested to see the Times piece as noted a new book Gawande has coming out. "The Best Possible Day" is excerpted from Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End and a fascinating personal story of an end-of-life care approach that came out of taking the time to understand what a patient really wants.

The other recent piece to note here was "The Ebola Epidemic is Stoppable" out of The New Yorker that Gawande is a staff writer for and it's a very measured telling of how the dangerous disease not easily transmitted from person to person.