Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ghost Soliders by Hampton Sides

Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides was a really good book with the subtitle The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission. Sides is a writer who came across from the 2013 Outside Magazine piece "Wake-Up Call: Surviving an Attack by Flesh-Eating Bacteria" and who then wrote the book In the Kingdom of Ice which I enjoyed quite a bit.

Ghost Soldiers chronicles the fate of several hundred Allied Prisoners of War on the Philippines and while the heroism and selflessness written about was remarkable, also astounding was the cruelty of the Japanese soldiers. The largely inhumane treatment of Allied POWs likely stemmed from the official negative view of capture held by the Japanese, with Sides writing that "armies of Western Nations fighting in World War II typically saw a ratio of four soldiers captured to every soldier killed on the battlefield. In the Japanese Army, the ratio was one soldier captured for every 120 deaths." Sides went on to write in relation to the treatment of POWs that "the death rate of all Allied POWs held in German and Italian camps was approximately 4%. In Japanese-run camps, the death rate was 27%."

It was a story told well by Sides and important reading especially for someone not familiar with the atrocities, sacrifice and heroism of the war.

Interesting business writing - on hacking medical devices, building a self-driving car, and the Tesla Gigafactory

Three different pieces of business writing that struck me as interesting recently included an important look at medical device security and two pieces about automotive innovation.

From Businessweek in November was "It’s Way Too Easy to Hack the Hospital" by Monte Reel and Jordan Robertson with a sobering look at the danger that can arise from minimal security around both medical devices and internet firewalls in hospitals.

The two related pieces were from Business and Fast Company respectively with "The First Person to Hack the iPhone Built a Self-Driving Car. In His Garage" by Ashlee Vance and "Elon Musk Powers Up: Inside Tesla's $5B Gigafactory" by Max Chafkin. The piece by Vance is about a pretty brilliant inventor in George Hotz and for the Fast Company feature, Chafkin was apparently granted the greatest outsider access so far to the Tesla battery factory outside Reno.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall is his latest book, following on the heels of Born to Run from 2011, and I enjoyed Born to Run quite a bit and also found Natural Born Heroes to be a really interesting read.

The subtitle this recent book is How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance and, as McDougall notes in the afterword, it blends together two stories, one of heroic action with the capture of a WWII German General on the occupied island of Crete and one of how to set oneself up physically to be useful, and potentially heroic.

In terms of this idea of staying healthy and being someone who contributes, the descriptions of three things from Natural Born Heroes all tie together, a fighting art and self-defense based on fascia or connective tissue in the body, exercise that’s around natural movement of the body, and an approach towards nutrition that eschews simple carbohydrates and enables us to tap into more healthy fat reserves while exercising rather than just burning sugar.

About self-defense, McDougall writes of how the body twist, or utilization of one's fascia, can be the central movement to winning a fight, with mention of Wing Chun, a martial art, practiced by Robert Downey Jr. and related to the fighting art of Pankration, centered around the idea of power spiraling up through the center of the body. Additionally in the book is the story of Norina Bentzel, who in 2001 held off someone with a machete in an elementary school, in part by bear hugging him and utilizing this idea of twist power.

McDougall also notes that utilization of one's fascia works off the idea of muscle memory, teaching the body how to do a movement and that movement can then be called upon instinctively rather than through deliberate thought. This idea is mentioned as applying to something like firing a weapon and how just firing is likely going to be more effective than taking the time to aim and how in a fight, someone should throw the opponent off balance, charging when they expect a retreat and fighting dirty when they expect civility, basically treating self-defense as a survival and not spectator sport.

Around exercise, McDougall, writes of Natural Movement, which came out of Georges Hebert, a French naval officer in the early 20th century and his notion of heroic action and being useful through the Natural Method of training, and relates to the sport of Parkour with an emphasis on skipping and bouncing around outside. As part of this, McDougall notes the modern day practitioner of Natural Movement Erwan Le Corre, his idea of exercise as problem solving and staying alive and his YouTube video The Workout the World Forgot.

The last area McDougall covers in Natural Born Heroes is nutrition, with details on Dr. Phil Maffetone and the problem of processed carbohydrates, typically high in sugar, and how high fat foods and other staples of the Paleo Diet are much better for the body.

- Bad foods: pizza, juice, rice, bread, granola, cereal, beer, soy, fruit, beans, pasta, milk, yogurt.
- Good foods: meat, fish, eggs, avocados, vegetables and nuts (such as cashews), cheese.

McDougall notes how Maffetone prescribes a two week test of a changed diet and how we can in fact alter the body so it craves the food we've hunted and gathered, not processed foods and also mentioned in the book is that drinking too much water, especially during strenuous exercise, can actually be dangerous as diluting the blood sodium concentration can lead to brain swelling.

Tying this idea of nutrition back to exercise, Maffetone’s notion is to get your body to burn fat, not sugar, and to accomplish this, one keep the heart rate low (goal should be should be at age subtracted from 180) when exercising as if the body strains, it will dip into using sugar stored up. It can take the body some time to get used to having the heart rate low and workouts will be slow at first, but this idea of long, lower-impact training should lead to a higher level of fitness.

There was definitely a lot of material covered in the book and while I probably found the story in Born to Run more compelling, Natural Born Heroes was an excellent read with interesting ideas to consider.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Great stories on life & death - by O'Connor, Dubois, & Rosin

Three different pieces of writing I've seen over the past few weeks grouped together as being very profound and well written.

The two stories most closely related with both about reaction to a tragedy are each short pieces, with one for the National Post in Canada and one a book excerpt from a former staffer in the Barack Obama White House.

The Post story is "'If a star fell each time we thought of her, the sky would be empty': A Christmas lights tribute to dead teen" by Joe O'Connor about how a couple honors their daughter and the other piece "What the President secretly did at Sandy Hook Elementary School" for the site Vox Populi. Taken from the Joshua Dubois book The President’s Devotional, it covers the President meeting one after the other families of Sandy Hook victims two days after the mass shooting.

The third piece to note here is for The Atlantic with Hanna Rosin (who wrote "The Overprotected Kid" for the same magazine last year) with "The Silicon Valley Suicides: Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?" It's an important story from Rosin that reads as being really thoroughly reported and very inquisitively written.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Writers on writing - with pieces by Saunders, Murakami, Jones, Van Valkenburg & Fagone

There's been a number of excellent pieces I've seen over the past couple of months around the craft of writing, including ones on becoming a writer, the process of creating, and how to pitch stories.

In terms of becoming a writer, there were two great pieces from The New Yorker I've seen recently, with George Saunders doing "My Writing Education: a Timeline" and Haruki Murakami from 2008 providing "The Running Novelist." Both are compelling first-person pieces about starting out in writing and Murakami's missive brought to mind his great memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which I previously posted on.

The pieces about creating to note here were actually each transcripts of speeches given, with Chris Jones for the annual Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest doing "Nine Rules for Creative Work" and Kevin Van Valkenburg providing "Why Storytelling Matters" from his role as a visiting professor at the University of Montana Journalism School. There's great material in each talk and Van Valkenburg's address carried the additional heft of also being about his late friend from school, Anthony Pollner.

Also on the craft of writing, specifically on how to have it be a viable work endeavor, was "How do you pitch a freelance story to a site or a magazine?" Written by Jason Fagone, it's a short and seemingly very solid guide from an excellent freelance writer.