Monday, June 29, 2015

The Tiger by John Vaillant

The Tiger by John Vaillant was a really good work of non-fiction about a man-eating Amur (Siberian) tiger in the Bikin River Valley in Far Eastern Russia in the Winter of 1997.

The book was just as much about the region as about the tiger itself and it was fascinating reading how many in the area forced to scratch out an existence living off the deep forest or taiga, with the effects of perestroika and it's freedoms not helping them at all.

In relation to tigers, Vaillant describes well the relationships between people and the animals and how they can co-exist, but also how the actions of people often throw that relationship out of balance.

It was an excellent book and more about it can be found in a New York Times review by Edward Lewine.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Memorable writing - on grief, mass shootings and a papal document on climate change

A few pieces of recent writing on different subjects have struck me as particularly powerful.

On grief was a Facebook post by Sheryl Sandberg written 30 days after her husband Dave Goldberg died and for the Washington Post, Juliet Eilperin wrote "What it was like to cover Beau Biden’s funeral" about her experience as a White House pool reporter. The Sandberg piece obviously more personal, but both really profound.

About the recent murder of nine in a Charleston, SC church were two pieces, one written and one for TV, with similar refrains. For Esquire, Charles Pierce wrote the incredibly good "Charleston Shooting: Speaking the Unspeakable, Thinking the Unthinkable" and there's six amazing minutes from Jon Stewart with this link containing both the Daily Show video and a few sentences out of him talking.

In another totally different category was writing on the recent Pope Francis document around climate change with another Charles Pierce piece for Esquire titled "Pope Francis Drops the Hammer on Climate Change" and Bill McKibben for the New York Review of Books writing "Pope Francis: The Cry of the Earth," with both pieces about just how influential this document from the Pope could be.

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance was a well-written and really interesting biography on someone with a combination of brilliance, drive for himself and employees, and willingness to bet big.

Musk is unique among business leaders with his leading role in three huge and potentially impactful companies, SpaceX, Tesla, and SolarCity and it's written about in the book that SpaceX is really the big thing for Musk as his overarching goal is to put someone on and then colonize Mars. Vance wrote a really detailed portrait of Musk and some of what struck me as particularly important or interesting is below...

Musk's grandfather was Joshua Norman Haldeman, who in 1950 decided to emigrate from Canada to South Africa, then along with Musk's grandmother in 1954 flew a private plane from Africa to Australia, believed to be the only private pilots to have done this. They also did bush expeditions in Africa and one of their children was Maye, who married Errol Musk, with one of their offspring Elon, born in 1971. He was a bright child who read obsessively and constantly corrected people, but with him not really understanding why they didn't like it. When Elon was around 8, his parents divorced and he went to live his father, someone described in the book as an intense and unpleasant man. When Musk was 10, he got his first computer and loved it, but around the middle school years was picked on relentlessly and had a miserable time, with things then improving in high school.

At 17, Musk left South Africa for Canada and then enrolled at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. In 1992, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue degrees in economics and physics and Musk today talks about then being interested in solar energy. In 1994, Musk and his brother Kimbal took a road trip to California and Musk had internships in Silicon Valley at Pinnacle Research Institute and Rocket Science Games and after graduating Penn, he and Kimbal moved to Silicon Valley. In 1995 they formed the company that would become Zip2, a web-based Yellow Pages type service, with it purchased by Compaq in 1999 for $307M, leaving Musk with $22M. Also in 1999, Musk used $12M of his money to found, a finance startup that would become PayPal. In 2000, Musk was pushed out of the leadership of the company by employees and investors and in 2002, PayPal was sold to eBay for $1.5B, with Musk getting $250M.

In 2001, Elon became actively involved in space exploration, developing contacts in the industry and founding the Life to Mars Foundation. Musk tried to buy rockets from the Russians to explore space but got nowhere, then decided to build his own. The idea would be to build rockets that would serve the low end of the satellite industry, doing launches cheaper than had been done, with Space Exploration Technologies founded by Musk in June 2002. The first successful SpaceX rocket launch was in September 2008, but not with an actual customer payload onboard and the survival of the company was uncertain until it in December 2008 received a $1.6B payment from NASA to take supplies to the International Space Station. SpaceX has now become a truly solid company, selling satellite launches for less than competitors, and doing so as an American company in a largely non-American industry. In May 2012, SpaceX docked with the ISS for the first time and SpaceX wants to next send astronauts to the ISS by 2017 as well as move to reusable rockets. a first in the industry and idea that many view as impossible. Another interesting thing noted in the book about SpaceX is how it's a privately held company and Musk wants to keep it that way for a while, something that makes sense in enabling freedom of decisions, but would of course limit the huge paydays that employees of a publicly traded SpaceX might receive from selling stock.

As SpaceX was in it's early years, Musk in 2003 met J.B. Straubel, someone who shared Musk's interest in electric cars. Shortly after, Musk was courted as an investor by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning, who had an electric car company, Tesla Motors. Musk in 2004 put in $6.5M and became the largest shareholder as well as Chairman and also got Straubel hired. In 2007, Eberhard was taken out as CEO by investors and replaced by an interim chief who wanted to sell Tesla, with this not taking place and Musk later becoming CEO. In late 2008, Tesla was having financial problems at the same time as SpaceX and even though the financial markets had imploded, Musk was able to secure additional financing for the company. Tesla then was selling just enough roadsters to survive, previewed the Model S in 2009, went public in 2010 and then began shipping the Model S in mid-2012. In November of that year, the sedan was named Motor Trend's Car of the Year and in early 2013, Consumer Reports gave it their highest rating ever awarded. In April 2013, Tesla was having difficulty delivering Model S's and had discussions with Google CEO Larry Page about Tesla being acquired. Then in May 2013, impressive results were given to Wall Street and the stock soared, making the sale not needed. Next up for Tesla is the Model X SUV in 2015 and due out in 2017 is the Model 3, a four-door car with around a $35K price tag.

Musk's three companies, with two in Tesla and SpaceX that he's CEO of and SolarCity that he's the largest investor in and non-executive Chairman of, seem to be starting to intertwine somewhat with Tesla and SolarCity both to build products at the forthcoming Tesla battery Gigafactory in Reno and the success of SpaceX and Tesla coming in part from hardware and software working together.

Whether it's from one of these companies and current core products or other ideas Musk has put forth more recently around the Hyperloop for transportation or a space Internet, it'll be extremely interesting to see what's to come from Musk in the future and Vance wrote a very solid book on what he's done so far.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Great sports stories - by Wilner, Wertheim & Fagan

Three pieces of great recent sports writing were on an NBA coach with a remarkable past, U.S. Olympians who competed in Berlin and later fought the Nazis, and the tragic suicide of a freshman runner at Penn.

The coach's story was "A dad's legacy: Warriors' Kerr guided by father's example" by Jon Wilner for the San Jose Mercury News and it's a fascinating piece on Steve Kerr and the the impact of his father, Malcolm, who was assassinated by terrorists in Beirut while Steve at the University of Arizona in 1984.

The Olympian feature was by Jon Wertheim who wrote "Dive Bombers: American Olympians defeated Axis Powers in peace & war" for Sports Illustrated. About divers Frank Kurtz and Marshall Wayne, it's a detailed narrative that very much brought to mind the brilliant Laura Hillenbrand book Unbroken.

The third piece to note here was "Split Image" by Kate Fagan, who for ESPN wrote of the life and death of Madison Holleran. Such a sad tale of someone overcome by depression, with that depression likely exacerbated by her believing she supposed to be having the time of the life while away at college.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Profound pieces of writing - by Kruse, King, Marantz & Shapira

There's a few pieces of writing I've seen lately that were particularly touching and heartfelt, with each about distinct phases of life.

For the Tampa Bay Times in 2007, Michael Kruse wrote "On her own two wheels," a beautiful 300-word piece about a father teaching his eight-year-old daughter to ride a bike that featured the quote "I'm supposed to let go, I can't hold on forever" and for his Monday Morning Quarterback column for Sports Illustrated, Peter King wrote of his 31-year-old daughter Laura marrying her partner Kim under the title "Happily Ever After."

Also incredibly moving were two pieces in past weeks that dealt with a much different phase. Robin Marantz for the New York Times Magazine wrote "The Last Day of Her Life" on Sandy Bem, a Cornell University professor diagnosed with Alzheimer's and who wanted to die on her own terms and Ian Shapira for the Washington Post wrote the lovely story "Americans gave their lives to defeat the Nazis. The Dutch have never forgotten" about multiple generations of people in the Netherlands tending to the graves of U.S. soldiers who died during WWII.