Sunday, November 30, 2014

Well done stories of deception - by Ronson, Tower & Moore

Three really well written stories of great deception from the past month included pieces from The Guardian, GQ and the BBC.

Written for The Guardian was "The Big-Eyed Children: The Extraordinary Story of an Epic Art Fraud" by Jon Ronson on the painter Margaret Keane, who used to be held in virtual captivity by her husband with him saying he did work actually painted by her. It's a remarkable story that's been made into the upcoming feature film, Big Eyes directed by Tim Burton and starring Amy Adams as Margaret.

The GQ piece was "The Great Paper Caper" by Wells Tower on Canadian counterfeiter Frank Bourassa and the last piece to note here was for the BBC website with Melissa Moore writing "My Evil Dad: Life as a Serial Killer’s Daughter" on her life and that of her father, Keith Jesperson.

All three pieces were excellent writing and the one from Moore... just an absolutely crazy story.

Interesting business writing - on Tesla & Google related topics

Some interesting business writing I've seen lately included two large features from Fortune along with several short pieces of note published elsewhere.

The Fortune stories were "Inside Elon Musk's $1.4 Billion Score" by Peter Elkind and "Google's Larry Page: The Most Ambitious CEO in the Universe" by  Miguel Helft. Both were interesting pieces of writing with the Elkind story having the particularly intriguing tale of how Tesla Motors went about deciding on Reno as the location for the forthcoming electric car battery gigafactory.

The first of the smaller pieces to mention here was also Tesla related with Ashlee Vance for the Businessweek site last week posting "Tesla Grabs a New (Old) Spokesman From Square" about Ricardo Reyes returning to head Communications at Tesla. The background that Reyes has is fascinating, particularly in relation to the idea of narrative and storytelling within business communication.

The last two pieces to cover are very much connected to one another with Jordan Shapiro for Forbes writing "Is Everything Good About 'Minecraft' Gone?" about "active vs. passive computer time" in relation to viewing Minecraft videos on YouTube and then James Hong posting "Introducing Cakey: A better way for your kids to watch YouTube" to the site Medium.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain was a bestselling autobiography from 2000 that covered a lot of ground, including: Bourdain's path to becoming a chef and then experience in the industry, what the kitchens he worked in and the people he worked with were like, how difficult the business can be, what's required to do well and how for Bourdain and many others who succeed against long odds, it really is about the food.

There's a lot of fascinating and at times salacious stories of the restaurant business and people in it, but the chapter that resonated the most with me was on his former boss who he referred to as Bigfoot. As a manager of Bourdain and many others, he was extremely demanding and on top of all aspects of his business and in working with employees, what mattered to him was character, people showing up early, doing what they say they will and being willing to do whatever's needed. Bourdain wrote of the impression that Bigfoot and his approach made on him and wrote multiple times throughout the book of how he could train people to cook, or do any aspect of the business, so what he valued the most in employees was dependability, people who were always there, would listen and do what was asked.

All in all, it was a good book and it's understandable that Bourdain has succeeded with the work he's put in.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Writing on space travel - by Chris Jones and others

After growing tired of waiting for the print edition of Esquire to arrive in the mail, I purchased for $2.99 the story "Away" written by Chris Jones and found it to be a great piece with the below opening...

"In March, astronaut Scott Kelly will undertake the longest space mission in American history. He and a cosmonaut will begin an uninterrupted year aboard the International Space Station—a year exposed to the strange and deep effects of weightlessness, acute stress, isolation, and cosmic radiation. It is the most ambitious manned space mission in years. And it will also be the first step in a human expedition to Mars."

Reading the name Scott Kelly brought to mind a past story from Jones on an astronaut with the same last name and finding that piece gave me the thought of linking here to other great space related writing I've posted on...

- "Mark Kelly, American" by Jones for Esquire in Nov 2011... about the husband of Gibby Giffords & brother of Scott Kelly.

- "Go" by Jones for Esquire in Jan 2009... about the importance of the U.S. manned space program.

Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space, a 2007 book by Jones... about the astronauts on the International Space Station at the time of the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, a 2013 book by Chris Hadfield, retired Canadian astronaut, known by many for his rendition of David Bowie's Space Oddity song, a video now with 24M and counting views on YouTube.

"Welcome to the Real Space Age" by Dan P. Lee for New York Magazine in May 2013... on private space travel.

"The Hardest Thing to Do in Space" by Mike Sager for Esquire in Dec 2012... on NASA Mars Curiosity rover engineer Tom Rivellini.

"Triumph of His Will" by Tom Junod for Esquire in Nov 2012... on Elon Musk, founder of Space X.

- "Astronauts Ready for Rescue Mission They Hope Never Happens" by John Zarrella for CNN in May 2009... about space shuttle Endeavour and its crew on standby during a mission of shuttle Atlantis.

Writing on actions in the face of danger - by Brooke Jarvis & William Langewiesche

Two great pieces of recent writing very much dealt in the areas of danger and actions taken in the face of danger, with one about people forced to act heroically and one about a guy whose career about stepping into difficult situations.

The story on danger forced upon people through tragic circumstances was "Collapse: The Oso Mudslide and the Community That Survived It" by Brooke Jarvis for Seattle Met. Really compelling writing on the mudslide that earlier this year killed 43 people north of Seattle.

The other piece to note here was for Vanity Fair with "Salvage Beast" by William Langewiesche.  It's a remarkable tale written about Nick Sloane, a salvage master ship captain who comes in when vessels are in distress and works to either save them, recover goods aboard or reduce the environmental impact of a wreck. Langewiesche is a writer who I first came across with his amazing October 2014 Vanity Fair story "The Human Factor" about what led to the crash of Air France Flight 447 and a listing of features he's written was recently posted on Longform. The Sloane story also struck me as particularly interesting in that it brought to mind Susan Casey's great book The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Great sports writing - by Mooney, Price & Ballard

Three recent great pieces of sports writing included work by some of my favorite sports writers in Michael MooneyS.L. Price Chris Ballard.

For ESPN, Mooney wrote "Is J.J. Watt the next Texas legend?" on the Houston Texans star defensive end and two powerful Sports Illustrated pieces were "Max Lenox's amazing journey to much-admired Army hoops captain" from Price and "Ryan Anderson tries to move forward after girlfriend Gia Allemand's suicide" written by Ballard. This piece on Anderson was particularly moving and just really poignant and important.

Interesting business writing - on Keyssa, Anthony Bourdain & income equality

Three different pieces of interesting business writing I've seen included stories from Fast Company, New Republic and Businessweek.

The Fast Company piece was "Anthony Bourdain Has Become the Future of Cable News, and He Couldn't Care Less" by Rob Brunner. It's an interesting look at Bourdain, the chef, author and television host of the Sunday night CNN show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

From Businessweek was "Keyssa Promises to Let You 'Kiss' Your Cords Goodbye" by Brad Stone on Keyssa, with Nest CEO Tony Fadell as Chairman of the Board, working on extremely fast wireless data transfer.

The last piece to note here was by Michael Lewis for New Republic with "Extreme Wealth Is Bad for Everyone—Especially the Wealthy" on the book Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust by Darrell M. West. It's great writing from Lewis on an important subject.

Skink - No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen

Skink - No Surrender by Carl Hiaasen was an easy and entertaining read from the humorist that I've now read close to a dozen books from over the years.

This latest one is his first written for teens, explaining perhaps why though it's still a good book, it did seem a bit more tame than past efforts from Hiaasen I've read.

Hiaasen books I've read so far: Skink - No Surrender, Bad Monkey, Star Island, Nature Girl, Skinny Dip, Basket Case, Sick Puppy, Lucky You, Native Tongue, Stormy Weather

The ones from this genre I don't believe I've read yet are the oldest: Skin Tight, Double Whammy (where the character of Skink introduced), Bass Season

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande was a remarkable book with the subtitle “Medicine and What Matters in the End” from a doctor and author I've posted on a number of times in the past. The book covers a lot of ground on the subject of health choices for people aging or with catastrophic medical conditions and seems it can be broken down into three related categories of (1) doctors who treat the elderly, (2) where those in need live and (3) the decisions that are made around care.

Doctors who treat the elderly

Gawande fairly early in the book writes of how when people in the past died of illness it was more frequently a sudden death, but now illness leading to death is often a case of peaks and valleys until there then becomes one calamity after another as the body stops working. With there now being more ways to prevent death, the doctor-patient relationship becomes more important and Gawande notes how the approach of a given doctor to their patient can either be paternalistic, informative or in the best scenario, interpretive based on someone's desires about their care. This is especially the case with the elderly, but the branch of medicine that deals with aging, geriatrics, doesn't get enough attention and doesn't have enough doctors. People are less interested in going into geriatric care in part because patients don't have one discrete and interesting problem to try and fix, rather they have fifteen that are being pushed forward by the aging process. Additionally, care for the elderly is typically not really about the devices or expensive procedures that would be covered by Medicare. Rather it’s about looking for common problems and attempting to head them off in a quest to preserve quality of life for as long as possible. It’s noted in the book that the biggest danger facing many elderly is falling and risk factors for falling are poor balance, taking more than four prescription medications and muscle weakness.

Where those in need live 

Gawande also writes extensively about how and where the elderly live, often in their homes for as long as they can, then with younger family members, in assisted living facilities or communities and nursing homes. In relation to assisted living facilities and nursing homes, Gawande notes how many hate living there as in the quest to provide a safe environment, caregivers can take away from the elderly their basic rights to privacy and making their own decisions, even if those decisions not always the healthiest. The result can be a dehumanizing with the elderly finding themselves in situations they simply don't want to live, safe or not. Gawande does note there’s another path that can be sought out and gives examples. There’s services like Athens Village in Ohio that people can join and which help them stay in their homes, "living centers with assistance" that were started by Keren Brown Wilson who then created the Jessie F. Richardson Foundation, New Bridge on the Charles in Boston, Peter Sanborn Place and the Green House concept, with one of its facilities the Leonard Florence Center for Living that all about not forcing the elderly to sacrifice autonomy to live in some form of assisted living facility. In some cases the facility will also include pets and frequent visitors, something to help the people living there both feel empowered and have a purpose. There might be a slight drop off in safety from more regimented facilities, but studies have shown that people are happier, require less emergency care and tend to live longer.

Decisions about care

Related to this idea of people being empowered to make decisions about their lives is the notion of people having frank discussions with doctors and especially family members about what choices they want made on their behalf, including what level of risk they want taken and what amount of pain and infirmity they're willing to suffer in order to have a shot at getting better. For some people they’re willing to take huge risks to have better health, but for others, they’d rather not take as large of a chance that they could get worse as the result of treatment, especially if that treatment may not buy that much more healthy time. The choice is all about one’s life and what it could potentially be like, for better or worse, and having the patient set the direction based on guidance from the doctor, with the alternative medical professionals or family members having to make the decisions on behalf of someone incapacitated. If left to doctors and family members, the natural inclination is going to be to press forward for a cure, but too often this may be bullheadedly pursuing a medical fix to a problem that's simply going to result in death. At the same time, it could well be that a patient has given direction that they’re willing to proceed with risky procedures that could make them worse, but as long as they understand, it’s the choice they’re making. This is where the idea of the doctor as someone who provides guidance based on a patient’s wishes, things that matter to them and risk tolerance, becomes so important. The role of medicine is to heal, but also to provide council based on the wishes of patients.

A key part of this discussion and patient decision around their care has to do with hospice care, which is often provided in the home. Covered by Gawande is how hospice care not something that’s simply the last step before death, but something that’s designed to have people feel as good and fulfilled as possible for each day they’re still alive, a concept of living for the best possible day. Additionally, hospice care doesn't have to mean giving up curative treatment as it could be done concurrently with treatment for the illness at the same time there’s palliative care designed to make someone as comfortable, fulfilled and happy as possible. Studies have shown many cases of patients receiving hospice care actually living longer than those without it.

The big take-away from this discussion of hospice care is that patients should hopefully be making the decisions themselves on their care after discussions with medical professionals willing to advise on the best options based on people’s wishes for how they want to pursue treatment. People need medical help, they need council and they need to live their lives in a way that they've got as much control as possible over what happens in it. It’s fascinating reading from Gawande that definitely goes way beyond the idea of a doctor and the medical community as simply being there to try to fix a health problem. Great book, highly recommended.

Boy On Ice by John Branch

Boy On Ice by John Branch is a solid book that was written out of a lengthy three-part series on the late NHL player Derek Boogaard that Branch wrote for the New York Times.

The magazine series and then book show how the pressure is bad enough in someone trying to become a professional player, but seems to take it to a whole new level when they're early on put onto the track of being a hockey enforcer. They've got one role as a fighter all the time, don't know when they’re going to do it, aren't directly getting points that lead to winning and losing and can suffer repeated concussion head trauma through the process of it, along with normal injury risk that other skaters take. Related to this idea of the hockey enforcer as a specific subset of players different than the rest, I found interesting how in reading of Derek’s minor hockey career, the same names of fighters kept popping back up, and they were often people who I recall then going on to play in the NHL as he did.

Branch split the book into thirds, with the first part about Derek growing up and then playing minor hockey, the second on his time as an NHL player in Minnesota and third his brief time as a New York Ranger prior to his death. Derek grew up in Saskatchewan and it’s covered in the book how it was challenging growing up the son of the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police representative, never staying one place long, as well as being a bigger hockey player than others. Derek played top level youth hockey due to his size, 6'4" and 210 pounds at 15, but wasn't a great skater or player and other parents would complain about him. At the age of 15, Derek had an incident playing youth hockey where he fought someone, then went into the penalty box of the opposing team and sent them scattering. From this, he was invited to the training camp of the Regina Pats Western Hockey League team and then at 17 was traded to a team in Prince George, British Columbia. Again, it’s got to be tough for any kid to make that kind of move away from family at such a young age and seems particularly hard for someone like Derek who was playing in the leagues he was simply for his ability to be the team enforcer. When Derek was 19, he was drafted in the seventh round by the Minnesota Wild, went to training camp with the Wild in 2001, then was sent back to Prince George and subsequently traded to a team in Medicine Hat, Alberta. Twenty year old Derek then wound up playing with the Louisiana Ice Gators, an East Coast Hockey league affiliate of the Wild and at 21, Derek was sent to the Wild's American Hockey League affiliate Houston Aeros, with the Wild sending instructions to Aeros coaches Todd McLellan and Matt Shaw that Derek was to be groomed as the future enforcer for the Wild. In Houston, Derek began to get injuries and was first prescribed pain relievers, then after two seasons in Houston made the Wild roster out of training camp in 2005.

Derek instantly became a popular player in Minnesota, both because of his fighting and how he was a mild-mannered and nice kid. At the same time that he was having success on the ice, again as an enforcer who played little and fought regularly taking and receiving blows, his body started to betray him and he began being prescribed by Wild team doctors lots of drugs, ranging from Ambien for sleep and Toradol, Oxycodone and Hydrocodone pills for pain. Additionally, Derek supplemented his readily available supply of drugs he was getting from team doctors with illegal sources for pain medications. People began to see changes in Derek’s personality with him becoming more sullen and withdrawn and an additional interesting note that Branch made about Derek’s time with the Wild was how even as he was loved in the community, he as an enforcer was treated differently than other players, he was the one fans wanted to have a picture taken where he pretended to punch them. Derek in 2009 was put in the NHL/NHLPA substance abuse program and after that he didn't get team doctor prescriptions for some painkillers, but still got prescribed lots of other drugs. Really, the amount of drugs that team doctors would prescribe him in the NHL, both before and then while he was actually in the NHL/NHLPA drug treatment program, was astounding.

After the 2009-2010 season Derek was a free agent and signed with the New York Rangers. Following an injury he suffered from a December 9, 2010 fight with Matt Carkner, Derek poured himself into his use of Ambien and pain medications, now heavily supplemented by a local illegal source for OxyContin. Derek for the rest of the 2010-2011 season was injured, not part of the team, lonely, depressed and addicted to painkillers. Additionally, his behavior was becoming increasingly erratic, likely exacerbated by the mix of toxins going into his body and the abuse it had taken over the years. The Rangers sent Derek back to rehab in April 2011, but he appeared to have different rules than everyone else, coming and going as he pleased and was back in Minneapolis in May with team approval to go there for physical therapy. During that trip he overdosed on painkillers and alcohol, double the legal alcohol limit for driving, and died.

After his death, Derek’s parents gave permission to have his brain examined for CTE, a degenerative brain disease that can only be diagnosed posthumously and is caused by repeated blows to the head. Examination of his brain showed stage two (of four) CTE, more severe than the doctor looking at his brain had ever seen in a 28 year old. While doctors couldn't say for sure what led to Derek's behavior, manifestations of the disease are memory loss, impulsiveness, mood swings, disorientation and addiction and Branch notes that Derek may well have had dementia in his 30's had he lived. The idea of the hockey enforcer could be seen as culpable, but more specifically, the role of team doctors and the NHL/NHLPA drug treatment program seems to bear examining. The amount of drugs Derek was prescribed was astounding, as was how he abused legally and illegally obtained drugs throughout his time in the treatment program. As a result of this Derek’s family in 2013 filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NHL.

His story is a sad one on many levels and in both the book and shorter New York Times series, Branch tells it very well.

Great sports pieces by Powell, Saslow & Parrish along with ESPN video segment on Lauren Hill

Three recent pieces of great sports writing were from the New York Times, CBS Sports and ESPN, with an additional powerful ESPN video segment.

The ESPN article was "The Long Way Home" by Eli Saslow on Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. It was the same type of brilliant and detailed storytelling that Saslow regularly provides for ESPN and the Washington Post and this particular piece began with an 11-year-old Thomas being woken up by police bursting into the house and arresting his mother and grandmother for manufacturing and distributing crack cocaine.

The Times piece was an interesting one in that it came from an approach so different than traditional sports writing. "‘OMG. You’re So Much More Than Awesome.’" was done by Michael Powell out of time he spent in rural North Carolina with Kevin Bumgarner who was proudly watching his son Madison Bumgarner make history with his World Series pitching performance against the Royals.

For CBS Sports was a story by Gary Parrish with "More Than a Game" on John Redman and Brittany Huber. Redman is a 24-year-old assistant basketball coach at Dalton State near the Georgia-Tennessee border and he last May barely survived a car accident, caused by a blown tire, that took the life of Huber five days prior to their wedding. Just really well done and solemn writing from Parrish.

Also very much worth noting here was the ESPN video segment "Lauren Hill: One More Game." Filmed leading up to and including her first collegiate basketball game, moved up by the NCAA so she could play prior to dying of cancer, it's a great story told well.