Monday, December 28, 2020

Walking Home by Lynn Schooler

Walking Home by Lynn Schooler is a compelling travelogue about the 2007 solo trek he took north from his hometown of Juneau, Alaska. He went via his single engine boat 170 miles from Juneau up to Lituya Bay and then by foot 60 miles up the wild and uninhabited coast towards Dry Bay and the Alsek River. 

Lituya Bay where Schooler first went is a fascinating area he notes as being treacherous to enter. Due to the tides, it can be like falling off a shelf as the water drops so precipitously between the open ocean and the Bay, and it’s easy to be thrown against a berm of rocks in the water. Schooler also writes about the 1958 8.3 magnitude earthquake in the region that triggered a rock slide at the end of Lituya Bay, causing a 1,720 foot high tsunami, the largest ever recorded. There were three boats in the Bay at the time of the tsunami, the Edrie piloted by Howard Ulrich with his son, the Sunmore with Orville and Mickey Wagner, and the Badger with Bill and Vivian Swanson. The Sunmore was lost and the other two boats made it. Schooler also tells the story of James Todd Huscroft, who arrived in Alaska in 1915 and several years later went to live in Lituya Bay as a hermit, welcoming visitors that would pass through in the summer months. Huscroft was sixty-four in 1936 when a 490-foot tsunami of unknown origin destroyed his garden, and he died three years later.

Leaving from Lituya Bay, Schooler trekked the coast over glacier rubble and river crossings requiring an inflatable boat he carried, enduring horrible weather rolling in from the Pacific, all with the knowledge that if he got hurt, there wasn’t a way to call for help. He went up past Cape Fairweather, crossed Grand Plateau Lake and then saw the first vestiges of where people had been somewhat recently, less than ten miles from Dry Bay, and decided to turn around for home. While walking back to Lituya Bay he came across a grizzly bear, spotting it standing perfectly still looking out to the ocean, behavior not normal for a grizzly, and then catching a scent of Schooler and walking walking at him, with almost a sideways gait. As it got within a few yards, it became clear that the bear had a deep cut over one eye, and stalked Schooler, who was told later by a biologist that the injured animal likely starving and had neurological damage. Schooler survived by making himself appearing large by raising his canopy up high and charged the bear, causing it to turn tail and run away. 

Along with the history of Lituya Bay, Schooler also writes about the Tlingit people that lived in the lands he traversed, and the book wraps up with him motoring the 170 miles back to Juneau, arriving the afternoon of the memorial for his friend Luisa Stoughton. It's an interesting travel story and well-told personal account.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Breath by James Nestor

Breath by James Nestor is an interesting book subtitled The New Science of a Lost Art. I came across Nestor from his book Free Divers and in this work he delves into the importance of breathing correctly, with his personal experience of how breathing incorrectly can impact health and how to do it better.

Breath through the nose - Nestor details the harm that came to his body from ten days of only mouth breathing, and then recovery after he switched to breathing in primarily through the nose. Problems stemming from mouth breathing include: sleep apnea, snoring, hypertension, cavities, periodontal disease, and bad breath. The book covers how many people have some form of breathing difficulty or resistance and focusing on breathing in through the nose can alleviate that. The nose cleans, heats, and moistens air for easier absorption. Nestor notes how forcing nose breathing at night can be accomplished by something as simple as a postage-sized piece of cloth medical tape over the center of the mouth.

Build lung capacity – Along with how we breath in air, the book covers the importance of building lung capacity, through both physical exercise and breathing exercises. A slow and full exhalation of air is important as we need to get stale air out, and big, heavy breaths deplete our bodies of carbon dioxide, something beneficial to us in balance with oxygen. Slower, longer breaths is noted as what should be done, with Nestor extolling the benefits of breathing in through the nose for 5.5 seconds and out (can be through the mouth) for 5.5 seconds, totaling up to 5.5 breaths a minute. Doing this as a daily breath practice is described as a sort meditation for people who don’t want to meditate, and something that can be developed into a breathing habit.

Breath less – Nestor covers how hypoventilation training, breathing less, something that's been done by world class athletes back to Czech running star Emil Zatopek in the 1950s. Exhaling very long breaths, trying to keep the lungs roughly half full, trains them to do more with less. Also, this helps maintain that balance of carbon dioxide to oxygen, and can be an effective thing to do for people suffering from respiratory diseases. 

Chew more – It’s detailed how in prehistoric times, people breathed better, in part because their brains were less developed so the sinus cavities more developed. Additionally, they subsisted on a raw diet that required much more chewing, which developed the jaw, allowing full breath. As people evolved, nasal congestion became more prevalent due to small sinuses, a lack of space through which to breathe. Nestor covers how something as simple as chewing gum (he notes the hard sugar-free gum Falim) can help develop the jaw. This along with breathing exercises can help alleviate nasal congestion and make breathing easier. 

Try advanced techniques – Nestor covers Breathing+ techniques like Tummo or over breathing, exhaling all your air out, then holding the breath, to jump-start how you breathe. 

There’s a number of interesting ideas in the book, with perhaps the most basic and effective that of breathing in (very importantly, through the nose) for 5.5 seconds and out 5.5 seconds, totaling up to 5.5 breaths a minute. 

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Pappyland by Wright Thompson

 Pappyland by Wright Thompson is an excellent book subtitled A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon, and the Things That Last. Thompson is a writer for ESPN whose work I've posted on many times and in the book he covers Julian Van Winkle III, maker of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. Along with writing about the person who would become his friend in Van Winkle, Thompson writes about his own life and family, with both men from the South, Thompson raised and living in Mississippi and Van Winkle in Kentucky. 

Thompson details how Van Winkle's grandfather started in whiskey in 1893 with a job at W.L. Weller & Sons distillery. He then made Old Fitzgerald whiskey at Stitzel-Weller and Van Winkle's father took over the company in 1964. The whiskey business went through a decline and the Van Winkle family sold Stitzel-Weller in 1972. 

The family didn't leave the business entirely, with mention of Julian Van Winkle III's friend Jimmy Russell of Wild Turkey helping him keep things afloat. Thompson notes how a conglomerate that owned old barrels of Van Winkle whiskey didn't realize their value and sold to Van Winkle a large amount of what would turn into widely acclaimed bourbon. Buffalo Trace then reached out and formed a partnership to jointly make Pappy Van Winkle Private Reserve. It's also covered in the book how bourbon has to be made. The ingredients, or mash bill, have to be least 51% corn, and beyond this, most bourbon makers use rye or barley, but Van Winkle uses wheat.

As Thompson tells the story of Van Winkle and his friendship with him, he also writes personal narrative about his own life. He covers living in the South with all the connotations that carries, his father who he wrote about in the ESPN piece Holy Ground, and the pending birth of his daughter. The book is a powerful read about fine bourbon, place, family, meaning, and myth. Related to myth, one part of the book that struck me was about how in Van Winkle, Thompson writes of someone with a tremendous amount of mythology associated, but that doesn't let it consume him and overshadow living and enjoying life with those dear to him.

No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer

No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer is an interesting book co-written by the founder and CEO of Netflix along with the author of The Culture MapNo Rules Rules is about how Netflix looks to have top performance with a culture of what the authors describe as "freedom and responsibility." It's detailed in the book that this is to come from three concepts that enable and build on one another.

1. Build up talent density The idea put forth in the book is to not have adequate performers in the company, but only exceptional ones, or "stunning colleagues." Part of the principle behind this is less than stunning employees will bring down the performance and morale of the rest of the team, and result in most of the management time required. Trying to have this talent density comes from both how hiring is done and how employees are managed. If someone not performing exceptionally, they may be let go and the authors describe Netflix as like a professional sports team, always seeking to have the very best in any role. The "keeper test" is that a manager should consider if they would fight to keep an employee if that person said they got an offer to leave. If they wouldn't fight hard to keep them, that person should probably be replaced. Tying into this, it's written that employees on a regular basis should ask their managers how hard they would fight to keep them. Around compensation, it's noted that Netflix for any creative role seeks to pay top of personal market, if the market for someone increases dramatically, the objective is to increase their salary dramatically. People are encouraged to take calls from recruiters, find out what they're being offered, and report that information back to Netflix so that people don't leave because of money they're worth, but not getting at Netflix. Additionally, Netflix doesn't pay bonuses, rather pays higher salaries, in part because as the business changes, what should be the bonus criteria can change as well. 

2. Increase candor It's detailed how to help improve performance within this talent-dense workforce, there's a focus on having employees having a high level of candor with one another. The idea is for people to say what they really think (with positive intent) and give candid and actionable feedback to people, feedback that can help the recipient and help the company. This should be done not just during performance review cycles, but frequently and in-person. Also, feedback provided to someone should take into account any regional differences in how feedback best delivered. Additionally, it's covered that feedback should go upwards in the management hierarchy as well as down and laterally. People are described as hired for their opinions, and part of their job is to provide them. The concept of "open the books" is put forth, being transparent and letting people know all the details of what's going on, including potential job losses due to restructuring and profit and loss information about the company that can only be released externally at certain times. 

3. Remove controls The third large concept from the book, one that certainly requires a high level of talent density to work, is to remove controls on things including vacations, expenses, and approvals. It's covered that the goal is to instill in managers the notion of leading with context, not control. Set the context of what good behavior is and if done effectively, people will model that behavior. Around expenses, the guideline described is "act in Netflix's best interest." Make sure there's decision-making freedom, just as how people were hired for their opinions, they were hired for their decision-making ability. It's noted that Netflix runs on the "informed captain" concept, people who spend the time on something are the ones who make the decisions on it, with the company designed to be loosely rather than tightly coupled and not have everything run top-down.

These three principles of increase talent density, increase candor, and remove controls are of course easier said that done, and it's interesting reading in the book of how Netflix is said to go about the effort.