Buzz Bissinger on being OK with sucky first drafts

Buzz BissingerI’ve always been a huge fan of Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, one of the best narrative nonfiction books I’ve ever read. His recent appearance on the outstanding Longform Podcast is a great listen. He covers everything from his classic book, to his more recent work, to his own personal and professional challenges, and what it’s like to struggle with doubt and confidence as a writer.

Towards the end, his answer to a question about advice for struggling writers (it starts at about the 1:29 mark in the podcast), is memorable, valuable stuff:

The creative act is so fraught with peril. You can do something wonderful and no one will pay attention to it You can do something terrible and everyone will pay attention to it. There’s an agony to it. There’s a remoteness to it. There’s an isolation to it. And confidence is the key… It’s the key to everything…

When I just tell myself: “you know what, just do it… Get it out on paper… Just get it out, on paper… Don’t attach all this ‘is it gonna be good?’… ‘is it going to sell?'”…

Just relax. Be disciplined enough to write for a certain number of hours per day… whatever you’re comfortable with.

There’s no worse feeling… then you look at the computer screen and its empty four hours later. That’s a terrible feeling. And that only makes fear worse. And the only way to conquer the fear is just do it. And I guarantee you, even if it sucks — and a lot of times is DOES suck — you will feel so much better because now you have something to work with; now you have something physical to play with, to change…

Now you have that first draft and it may suck… and — forget the negative — you’re going to see… it’s not so bad… A shift here, a scene here, a section here… Maybe I see a better way to tell the narrative… And hopefully you’ll hit that curve of delicious, euphoric, orgasmic confidence…

Once you have something palpable and physical, it’s going to make you feel better, and then it gets fun…

Check out the rest of the podcast here.

Why writers should be using Evernote to make their lives easier

The shirt board Gay Talese used to organize his ideas for "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold"

One of the “shirt boards” Gay Talese used to jot down his notes for “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”

Whenever I talk to writers, I’m interested in how they work, but in particular, how they handle research: all the notes, ideas, documents, and details that they’ll later draw from to write a story. Gay Talese often speaks about how he started out taking notes on cardboard squares that came inside dry-cleaned shirts (and still uses them today). Roy Peter Clark talks about using note cards and hanging folders to organize research and make sense of all the pieces you’ve collected. I know writers who swear by Moleskine notebooks and cling to them as the extension of their brains.

When I work on a piece, I have a tendency to over-research, and wind up with massive amounts of articles, links, interviews, transcripts, and video clips. I used to keep stacks of stuff in big office folders and then group stuff together with binder clips. By then end of a big piece, I found myself with a stack of paper and dozens of documents with scattered highlights and margin notes: all very useful stuff, but hard to use.

At the risk of sounding like a product placement: that was before Evernote.

If you’re not familiar: it’s a free app you can install on your mobile devices and on your computer (you can upgrade to a “premium” account for a a larger amount of storage). You can type in text notes, record audio, or take a photo on the go. You can also save web pages to it, or drop in documents or PDFs you find, or throw in a photo and make notes on it. It even has advanced features that let you annotate charts or make quick sketches.

Screengrab from my evernote notebook viewBut its real value is in the ability to organize all this stuff, which is where shirt boards and file folders fall short. Anything you put in Evernote can be organized into virtual “folders” or “stacks.” In addition, you can “tag” any note you create so that you know what it was about; you can provide multiple tags for any piece of content. All of this becomes really useful when you need to sort and search your stuff.

But more than that, Evernote is really helpful when random ideas come into your head. Sometimes I think of something while walking the dog or waiting in line at the ATM, and I can use evernote on my iPhone to jot down ideas quickly. Or if I’m really rushed, I can hit record and just make a fast audio note. I can add a quick tag, too, so that I’ll know what the idea was connected to. Later, when I’m back at my laptop, that note is automatically synced, and I can flesh it out further. And when it comes time to write, everything I have on a topic or story — research, outlines, ideas, random thoughts — is organized, sorted, and searchable. I can go back to links or news articles I found easily, and add notes to them as I go. It also makes it easier to cut and paste quotes or numbers.

Finally, it’s a great place to start structuring a story. I’ll use evernote to create a document on a basic outline for a story, then refine it as I go. I’ll start a basic note with the structure of a piece, then refine it or reorganize as ideas come to me, whether that’s when I’m at work, or at the gym, or half asleep in bed. The syncing between evernote on all my devices lets me update and refine that outline wherever I go, without needing scraps of paper with scribbles on them in my pockets or valuable stuff thats likely to get lost on a steno pad.

To be clear, there are lots of note-taking/keeping apps available, so plenty of alternatives exist to Evernote. To me the brand is less important than the approach: being able to use notes digitally and keeping them synced has made it a lot easier to do work as a writer.

Here are a few useful links on how to start using Evenote:

What I Learned by Reading 31 Longreads in 31 Days

Now that I’ve wrapped up my 31 Longreads in 31 Days challenge, here are some thoughts, observations, and takeaways from the experience.

1. Longform nonfiction is alive and well

With the collapse of the magazine industry and the shrinking newspaper business, many have suggested that longform nonfiction feature writing is a dying genre, with business models favoring shorter, “web-friendly” content.

But I kept finding evidence to the contrary. Magazines may be vanishing, but other sources are taking their place. I found excellent longform nonfiction stories at places that didn’t exist a few years ago, such as Buzzfeed, Grantland, and SBNation. Smaller publications like Seattle’s The Stranger and Dallas’ D Magazine had two of the best stories I read.

I wrote up 31 stories, but I read twice that many last month. Some stories were disappointing. Others just didn’t seem a good fit. Some I couldn’t finish. But I never lacked for options. I wound up with dozens of other fine longreads I didn’t get to. I could have I made it 365 longreads in 365 days, and still left plenty unread.

To find a wealth of fine stuff to read, my three favorite starting points are longform.org, longreads.com, and byliner.com.

2. There’s no substitute for a great story; but it takes a great writer to tell it well

Some of the pieces I read were clearly driven by an incredible underlying story: the fight for the life of Kelley Benham’s four-month-premature baby; Bill Fong’s shot at perfection; the deadly tornado that ripped through Utica, Illinois. But it took skillful, smart writing to elevate each of these articles into something memorable. Dry news stories could have been written about any of these subjects, but instead, the stories used the power of classic storytelling techniques: scene, character, point of view, and vivid, concrete details to bring each of these narratives to life.

On the other hand…

3. Great nonfiction stories can take something seemingly ordinary and mine it for rich, complex ideas

In contrast to #4… some of the best work I read focused on topics that were relatively mundane, but explored them to reveal depth and meaning. Nick Paumgarten looked at the issue of commuting and explored its cultural, sociological, and personal impact. Eli Saslow’s look at the day in the life of a Virginia pool salesman told a broader story about the struggling American middle class and the ongoing economic recession. Malcolm Gladwell looked at the unlikely success of a pre-teen girls basketball team in California and connected it with broader ideas about underdogs and insurgent campaigns.

4. It’s the scenes, stupid.

When I look back at all 31 stories, a common element in almost every one was the use of scenes; a dramatic moment (or moments) that revealed a lot about the subjects and themes of the stories and provided the dramatic context for larger ideas and themes. Regardless of the topic or the writing style, great scenes anchored these narratives and elevated them from the page.

5. Reading apps are awesome

If you’re not already using Pocket, Readability, or Instapaper, you should. I used to lug around stacks of articles and magazines in my bookbag; no more. Reading apps make it simple to collect articles to read and sync them across multiple devices, as well as make them easier and more enjoyable to read on small screens. I traveled a lot during December, and being able to keep dozens of stories on-hand without printing anything out was extemely helpful. My only gripe with all of these is that none of them offer a way to annotate stories. I’d love to see that feature in 2013.

While I’m at it, one new tool I’ve started to use is readlists.com: add in a bunch of links to stories you want to read and it will create a single .epub file to read on your kindle, ipad, or mobile phone. For starters, he’re a readlist I’ve created with my 10 favorite longreads from the 31 I read in December. You can grab it can put it on your favorite e-reader or tablet.

6. The New Yorker is still the best starting place to look for longform nonfiction

I found incredible work in GQ, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, and a wide range of smaller publications. But again and again, I kept finding myself digging into longform stories from the New Yorker. As a designer, the magazine kills me; it looks like something for an old granny in Vermont. But week after week it delivers smart, thoughtful features and profiles that run the gamut of longform nonfiction. I can barely keep up with my subscription — I have a pile of unread New Yorkers in my office — but when I can steal the time to dig through them, I am rarely disappointed.

Speed Round:

7. Writers whose work I most want to emulate:
Nick Paumgarten. Malcolm Gladwell. Gary Smith. Gene Weingarten.

8. Writers whose work I admire like hell, but could never hope to replicate:
Julie Keller. Mike Sager. Kelley Benham. Tom Junod.

9. The best thing I read in 2012:
Never Let Go. Kelley Benham’s story is moving, thoughtful, beautiful, and extremely well written. Read it.

31

Dec

“The Loved Ones” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 31)

The best narrative nonfiction tells true stories with the crafts and elements of a short story, and that’s exactly what Tom Junod delivers in “The Loved Ones,” published in the September 2006 issue of Esquire.

It looks at the tragedy at St. Rita’s nursing home in New Orleans, where 35 residents died in the floods of Hurricane Katrina, and the charges of negligent homicide filed against the its owners, Sal and Mabel Mangano. It is a story rich with conflict, complex characters, and broader themes and ideas. It asks more than who was to blame; it considers the role we give to those who care for our elderly, the power and impact of mass media to distory the truth, and the cultural need for blame.

Abandoned wheelchairs and a flooded hallway at St. Rita's Nursing Home

Photo: The New York Times

Junod takes the time to make the people in the story vivid and real. Case in point: the Mangano’s if-he-wasn’t-real-you’d-think-Hollywood-invented-him defense lawyer, Jim Cobb. Here, he talks about one of the witness some think will send the Manganos to jail:

“Did you see Bertucci’s testimony?” he’s saying as he’s driving. “Was it good for my case? Fuuuuuuuck. It was awesome for my case. It was so good, I’m considering jerking off while reading it.” For one of the civil lawsuits against the Manganos, Cobb has just taken the deposition of Dr. Bryan Bertucci, the elected coroner of St. Bernard Parish and the man Cobb regards as the state’s star witness in its case against the Manganos. It was Bertucci, you see, who offered St. Rita’s two school buses for use in an evacuation, and Bertucci who told the world of the nursing home’s disastrous reply: No. “The state is trying to prove that Sal and Mabel were negligent,” Cobb says. “That means willful, wanton, reckless disregard. So I ask him, ‘Have you ever witnessed them treat their patients in a careless manner?’ ‘No.’ ‘In a negligent manner?’ ‘No.’ ‘In a reckless manner?’ ‘No.’ I mean, I’m practically reading from the statute, man. But wait, it gets better. He says, ‘No, as a matter of fact, in my opinion they ran the best nursing home in the parish.’ All right? This is their freaking witness.”

Later, we see Cobb in his own home, also mostly destroyed by Katrina. Junod does a fine job describing the scene. As Cobb surveys the destruction, he rages against the district attorney for prosecuting the Manganos:

There’s a lot of mold in Lakeview, indeed a lot of mold in Jim Cobb’s house, scavenging black mold with the characteristics of fire, stoked in the foul remnants of flood. Floodwater still fills his pool, still fills his crawfish pots and his turkey fryer, and he’s uncharacteristically quiet while he’s in his house, until he goes outside and starts walking toward the lake, where the vista opens to the wartime view: the black helicopters hovering static over what passes for a levee, the X’s spray-painted hastily on the doors of the houses, the occasional 1 or 2 mixed in with the zeros, noting how many bodies were found inside.

“You know who died in these houses?” Cobb says. “Old people. The storm wasn’t a black thing or a white thing; it was an old thing. Sixty-five percent of those who died were over sixty-five. Forty percent were over seventy-five. It was a complete fucking catastrophe for old people. And what does the attorney general do about it? Who are the people he arrests? Two senior citizens, Sal and Mabel Mangano. He arrests them for neglect while Michael Brown and Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco and Michael Chertoff and George W. Bush get a pass? No fucking way, man. They’ll have to kill me first.”

This is a story overflowing with anger. Anger from Cobb. Anger from the children of victims who drowned in St. Rita’s. Anger from talking heads on 24/7 news channels. Anger from the Manganos’ son, “Little Sal,” who rails against the lies repeated against his parents.

Junod paints a very sympathetic picture of the Manganos, detailing their attentive care of their residents, the extra efforts they made to care for those who didn’t have close family or relatives. He doesn’t excuse their decision not to evacuate the nursing home before Katrina hit, but he tries to understand why they decided to stay.

He recounts the harrowing and frantic events of the hours that water began to flood the home, and the Manganos’ desperate efforts to rescue their residents.

But he also paints a gruesome other side of the story, the perspective of Steve Gallodoro, who tried to return St Rita’s after the flood to rescue his father, and what he saw:

“I swam into the water,” Steve Gallodoro says. “I couldn’t open the glass door, so I had them bring me to the patio area. I climbed up on the patio; it had three feet of water, one of them glass doors was broken, and as I was walking to the door, I came across a body. I moved the body around to see sort of who it was, and it was an elderly female. I walked into a doorway, and as soon as I stepped in the doorway, there was another body floating. It was another female. I was in the TV room of the lobby in the north wing, and I came across another body about ten feet later, another elderly female. There was four feet of water or so, beds floating, furniture floating. It would have been impossible for me to walk any farther down the hallways. I hollered, ‘Fire Department, is anybody here, does anybody need help?’ and it just echoed.”

“The Loved Ones” offer no black and white answers, no easy-to-spot heroes or villains. It is a thoughtful, beautifully written look the moral complexity of a tragedy that was played for cheap melodrama on cable television. It underscores the depth and scope of loss in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina. Almost everyone in the story lost something in the water.

Junod seems to ask if there’s much more that can be taken from the Manganos that Katrina didn’t already wash away.

Read “The Loved Ones” →

30

Dec

“The Truck Stop Killer” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 30)

The Truck Stop Killer by Vanessa Veselka in the November 2012 issue of GQ is the account of a woman’s search to uncover the history of the death of a hitchhiker left in a truck-stop dumpster. The body may have been connected to a series of young women kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by a serial killer. Veselka, who herself had been a 15-year-old runaway at the same time, had a terrifying ride with a man who may or may not have been the same murderer. Nearly three decades later, she tries to find the identity of the girl abandoned in that dumpster, contemplates her own terrifying experience, and considers the incomplete or missing histories of other young runaways lost on the road.

A row of trucks at a truckstop

Veselka digs intro her own personal history and gives the story a rich sense of authenticity as she describes what it was like to be a 15-year-old woman drifting from place to place on her own as a hitchhiker:

I stuck to trucks because they were safer than cars. When you get in a truck at a truck stop, everyone notices. They chatter about it on the CB, and you are driving off in what amounts to a huge billboard advertising the name of the company. I needed visibility to stay alive. But it was also a dangerous form of brinksmanship, because if a trucker was going to cross the line, the higher stakes meant he was going to do it for real. There was a gap before that line, and most truckers wouldn’t take it that far. I lived in that gap…

I needed to find rides and usually couldn’t get into the restaurant. The general rule was that you were a prostitute until proven otherwise. And then you were still a prostitute. Waitresses were the first to kick you out. That forced me into asking for rides in the hallway by the showers. Over time, I learned safer ways of getting rides by having truckers navigate the CB radio for me. Women couldn’t really get on the “zoo channel,” as they called it then, because the sound of their voice would trigger twenty minutes of crass chatter. There was only one word for woman on the CB, and that was beaver. Even the guys who were trying to help had used it. They had to make up stories for me: “I got a beaver needs a ride to Flagstaff for her grandma’s funeral don’t want no trouble, c’mon back.” There was always a sick mom or dead grandparent involved, and I was almost always abandoned by my jerk of a boyfriend, who’d made off with all my money and my car.

Through these stories, I jumped from truck to truck. Like a lemur in a canopy of trees, I barely saw the ground. Even so, it still wasn’t safe to sleep. Adhering to my rule (that the only safe truck was a moving truck) meant I woke when a truck took an exit. I woke when it slowed for traffic. When it turned, when it downshifted, when it drifted toward the shoulder—I woke.

Early in the story, Veselka suggests that the truck driver who pulled a knife on her and demanded she go to the back cabin of the truck may have been Robert Ben Rhodes, a serial killer who kept a torture chamber in the back of his truck. He picked up runaways and hitchhikers at truck stops, kidnapped them, then typically tortured, raped, and eventually killed them. We was arrested in 1990 and sentenced to life in prison in 1992.

Veselka interviews former FBI agents who investigated Rhodes and Rhodes’ ex-wife to try and determine if he was the man who she rode with that night. She also gets insights into the depth of his sociopathic mindset. She tries to understand who he was and why he did what he did.

And as she tries to uncover more about his victims, it becomes increasingly clear that they have been mostly forgotten or erased from history:

The next morning, I drove to the Gateway Travel Plaza in Breezewood, Pennsylvania. I thought that maybe in a truck stop where known murders had occurred, people would be more forthcoming. Maybe they would remember something the others hadn’t. I parked in front of the family travel plaza, then walked back past a sign that read TRUCKS ONLY. The store for professional drivers was clean and quiet. I asked around until I found someone who had been there in 1985. It was a woman, probably in her midfifties. She came over and gave me an open smile. I asked her the same questions I was asking everybody: Did you ever hear about a hitchhiker in a Dumpster?

“No,” she said.

“Did you ever hear of anything like that at all, in other times, any other bodies of women found along this stretch of I-70?”

I was in the one place where I knew for certain women had been found, one less than a hundred yards away from where she was standing. “No,” she said, “I never heard of anything like that anywhere.”

Listening to her, it occurred to me that this investigation of mine wasn’t a detective novel. It was a ghost story.

This is a chilling, well-written story, and one that raises some troubling questions about how our culture overlooks or refuses to acknowledge people on the edges of society. It suggests that Rhoades got away with his crimes for years because, in part, his victims were largely invisible to society, that no one would miss them. He not only preyed on runaways as misfits, he depended on the indifference of strangers.

Read The Truck Stop Killer →

30

Dec

“Atonement” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 29)

There is a simplicity to Dexter Filkins’ Atonement in the October 29, 2012 issue of The New Yorker: a company of Marines got into a firefight and wound up killing a number of civilians, including many members of the Kachadoorian family. Ten years later, one of the men in that company tries to find them to try and express his sorrow and regret over what he did.

Nora and Margaret Kachadoorian

Photo by Andrea Bruce for The New Yorker

The opening to “Atonement” is brilliant. In the opening paragraph, the reader immediately understands who the key person in the story is, what happened in Iraq, and gets a clear, visceral sense of the horror of that night:

Almost every night was like this. Lobello couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop thinking about his time in Iraq. Around San Diego, he’d see a baby—in a grocery store, in a parking lot—and the image would come back to him: the blood-soaked Iraqi infant, his mother holding him aloft by one foot. “Why did you shoot us?’’ the woman demanded over and over. Other times, Lobello would see a Mercedes—a blue or white one, especially—and he’d recall the bullet-riddled sedan in the Baghdad intersection, the dead man alongside it in the street, the elderly woman crying in broken English, “We are the peace people! We are the peace people!” He’d remember that the barrel of his machine gun was hot to the touch.

The story introduces the reader first to Lobello, then, second, to Nora and Margaret Kachadoorian, who survived the gunfire that killed most of their family. And then it moves towards a possible meeting between all three, whose lives were irrevocably changed that night in 2003.

Lobello’s struggles and unresolved guilt make him a sympathetic figure in the story, but the morality of his actions remain murky and gray. Filkins includes a quote midway through the story is revealing and troubling:

Lobello had only the vaguest idea how many Iraqis they had killed and wounded; he could remember only the frenzy of it, the terrifying thrill, the streams of bullets going in. “A lot of times, I think what happened was, somebody would realize, Fuck, dude, we’re not shooting the right people. But it was like the beast was already going. You can’t say hold on, stop, wait—no way. No way. You can say, ‘Cease fire. Cease fucking fire!’ Well, fuck, all right, man, but let me get off a couple more rounds. It’s like having sex with a woman, and she’s saying, ‘Let’s stop right now.’ You can’t. You’re in it.”

It’s clear from many accounts of the incident during the story that panic and confusion played a large role in what happened, but Lobello’s description sounds like he is comparing it to (and justifying) rape. Lobello’s quote is disturbing, and I wonder if Filkins (or his editors) had reservations about including it in the story… or if they felt ethically obliged to keep it in the piece. Regardless, it is painfully honest and shows the reader a lot about the mindset of the soldiers that night as they opened fire.

Filkins writes small scenes that are rich with telling details. Here, he describes a meeting the Kachadoorians in their home, and in a small paragraph, we get a sense of both their quiet dignity and their ongoing sense of loss:

Nora brought out a tray of tea and lahmajun, the same Armenian dish that Margaret had served me nine years before. A framed photo of the Kachadoorian men—Nicolas, James, and Edmund—stood on a table next to the couch. “Every day when I put my head on my pillow, I remember this sight,” Margaret said, “how my eldest son, Nicky, fell in the street.”

The story is filled with tragedy. It’s also difficult to put down. Will they meet? What will they say if they do? Will a face-to-face meeting help either the family or the solider? The closing pages of the story are tense and riveting. It’s a powerful read you shouldn’t miss.

Read Atonement →

28

Dec

“The Trading Desk” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 28)

Michael Lewis is a prolific nonfiction writer, author of The Big Short, Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, as well as hundreds of articles for The New Republic, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times.

The Trading Desk, which appeared in the March 30, 2003 edition of the New York Times Magazine, was adapted from his book Moneyball, which would later be made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. But even if you never read the book or saw the film, this 8900-word feature article would stand on its own. It’s a great story about the changing business of baseball, Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, and the players who get moved around like playing pieces on a board.

Billy Beane

Photograph by Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

At the heart of the story is the way Beane defied conventional wisdom about how to evaluate baseball players and build teams. With limited money to spend and fewer star players to use as assets for trades, Lewis shows Beane to be gutsy and resourceful, relying on mathematics, data, and personal charm to do what he can’t with a large payroll.

Here, he frames the larger context for all the action in the story:

For more than a decade, the people who run professional baseball have argued that the game was ceasing to be an athletic competition and becoming a financial one. The gap between rich and poor teams in baseball is far greater than in football and basketball, and widening rapidly. In the middle of the 2002 season, the richest team, the New York Yankees, had a payroll of $133.4 million, while two of the poorest teams, the Oakland A’s and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, had payrolls of less than a third of that. A decade before, the highest-payroll team, the New York Mets, spent about $44 million on players, and the lowest-payroll team, the Cleveland Indians, a bit more than $8 million. The growing raw disparities meant that only the rich teams could afford the best players. A poor team could afford only the maimed and the inept, and was almost certain to fail. Or so argued the people who ran baseball.

But when you actually look at what happened over the past few years, you have to wonder. The bottom of each division has been littered with teams — the Rangers, the Orioles, the Dodgers, the Mets — that have spent huge sums and failed spectacularly. On the other end of the spectrum is Oakland. For the past four years, working with one of the lowest payrolls in the game, the Oakland A’s have won as many regular-season games as any other team except the Atlanta Braves. They’ve been to the playoffs three years in a row and twice taken the richest team in baseball, the Yankees, to within a few outs of elimination. How on earth did they do it? As early as 2000, Commissioner Bud Selig took to calling the Oakland A’s’ success “an aberration,” but that was less an explanation than an excuse not to grapple with the questions: how did they do it? What was their secret?

The story goes about the business of answering that question, using the example of one trade to reveal the thinking and strategy behind Beane’s maneuvers.

Lewis paints the big picture well, but he also zooms in to let us see Beane in action, wheeling and dealing:

He has two hours to find someone who will take Venafro off his hands. The Mets are a good idea. Beane picks up the phone and dials the number for Steve Phillips, the general manager of the Mets. A secretary answers.

“Denise,” Beane says, “Billy Beane, vice president and general manager of the Oakland Athletics. Denise, who is the best-looking G.M. in the game?” Pause. “Exactly right, Denise. Is Steve there?”

Steve isn’t there, but someone named Jimmy is. “Jimmy,” Beane says. “Hey, how you doin’? Got a question for you. You guys looking for a left-handed reliever?”

He raises his fist again. Yes! He tells Jimmy about Venafro. “I can make it real quick for you,” he says.

How quick?

“Fifteen minutes?”

Fine.

“I can give you names in 15 minutes,” Beane says. “Yeah, look, I’d do this if I were you. And I’m not [expletive] you here Jimmy. I’m being honest with you.”

Lewis’ work is great because he does two things very well: he’s a fine explainer, and he writes great scenes. He helps make sense of complex worlds of finance, professional sports, and business, but he doesn’t get buried jargon and acronyms. He doesn’t forget that ultimately, these stories are about people, and takes the time to give the reader a sense of who they are. He delivers a story about a big picture, but pays attention to the details of the people inside the frame.

Read The Trading Desk →

28

Dec

“How David Beats Goliath” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 27)

As I near the end of this 31 Longreads in 31 Days challenge, I’d be remiss if I didn’t focus on at least one story by one of my favorite nonfiction writers, Malcolm Gladwell. I dissected his story on dogfighting a few years ago on this blog. Another impressive Gladwell story is How David Beats Goliath in the May 11, 2009 issue of The New Yorker.

David squares off against Goliath on the battlefield

Gladwell often explores a big idea or concept and weaving it together with various strands of narrative. In this story, he works with a basic argument, that underdogs often have a better chance than you would expect vs. favorites, as long as they are willing to apply unconventional tactics. Effort, not ability, Gladwell argues, is often the key to victory, the equalizer that allows small armies to defeat bigger ones, that lets smaller basketball squads overcome taller, better-shooting squads. To support and explore his idea, he looks at the biblical story of David vs. Goliath, D.E. Lawrence’s attack on the town of Aqaba in 1917, and the unexpected dominance of a girls youth basketball squad in modern day Northern California. Each of these intriguing stories come together to underscore his over-arching point:

When they finally arrived at Aqaba, Lawrence’s band of several hundred warriors killed or captured twelve hundred Turks, and lost only two men. The Turks simply did not think that their opponent would be mad enough to come at them from the desert. This was Lawrence’s great insight. David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability—and substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life, including little blond-haired girls on the basketball court…

Lawrence attacked the Turks where they were weak—the railroad—and not where they were strong, Medina. Redwood City attacked the inbounds pass, the point in a game where a great team is as vulnerable as a weak one. Lawrence extended the battlefield over as large an area as possible. So did the girls of Redwood City. They defended all ninety-four feet. The full-court press is legs, not arms. It supplants ability with effort. It is basketball for those “quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets were movement, endurance, individual intelligence . . . courage.”

What’s great about Gladwell’s work is that he explores ideas and arguments with stories and people. In this piece, he examines the advantages and disadvantages of underdog strategies with not only the three stories mentioned above, but also the example of a 1971 Fordham vs. University Massachusetts NCAA basketball game, the coaching approach of Rick Pitino at Kentucky and Louisville, and the tactics used by a computer programmer to dominate a war gaming simulation tournament in the 1980s. In this story, like so many of his pieces, he uses narrative to set up the arguments he wants to convey to the reader. He ties these examples together gracefully, highlighting common themes and ideas that keep resurfacing.

Here, he shows how David uses the same strategy against Goliath that Fordham University used against highly favored University of Massachusetts thousands of years later:

“And it happened as the Philistine arose and was drawing near David that David hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine,” the Bible says. “And he reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.” The second sentence—the slingshot part—is what made David famous. But the first sentence matters just as much. David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up. “The sudden astonishment when David sprints forward must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target,” the poet and critic Robert Pinsky writes in “The Life of David.” Pinsky calls David a “point guard ready to flick the basketball here or there.” David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.

It’s a fine read. Gladwell bookends the article with the unlikely story of the Redwood City girls basketball squad. He starts and ends there, after exploring the historical, philosophical, moral, and physical elements of insurgents and underdogs over the course of human history. Few writers could tackle a topic like this from multiple levels and angles; Gladwell does it in an entertaining, though-provoking way.

Read How David Beats Goliath →

27

Dec

“Looking for Someone” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 26)

I’m an admitted Nick Paumgaten fanboy, already having raved about his story on elevators and, more recently, for this series, his story on commuters. So as I worked through my pile of longreads, I read his 10,300-word examination of online dating: Looking for Someone published in the July 4, 2011 issue of the New Yorker. And it’s another great story.

Match.com splash page

What impresses me the most about this story is the scope of the reporting. A lot of feature writers might look at something like online dating, interview two or three people, collect a few stories and anecdotes, mash it together and call it a day. But by my count, Paumgarten talked to at least 25 people for this story. And that doesn’t include the people he may have interviewed or met, but who didn’t make the final draft of the story. “Looking for Someone” is packed with the voices, ideas, and experiences of more than two dozen people.

Second, as always, Paumgarten weaves together a wealth of research, reporting, and analysis into a flowing narrative: he goes into the history of computer matchmaking and the evolution of online dating; he looks at the psychology and science behind attraction; he examines the sociological and cultural meaning of internet matchmaking; he looks at the business aspects of online dating sites and the CEO’s that drive them; he talks to a lot of people who have used Match.com or eHarmony or OK Cupid; and on top of all of this, he writes his own reflections on what it means:

It is tempting to think of online dating as a sophisticated way to address the ancient and fundamental problem of sorting humans into pairs, except that the problem isn’t very old. Civilization, in its various guises, had it pretty much worked out. Society—family, tribe, caste, church, village, probate court—established and enforced its connubial protocols for the presumed good of everyone, except maybe for the couples themselves. The criteria for compatibility had little to do with mutual affection or a shared enthusiasm for spicy food and Fleetwood Mac. Happiness, self-fulfillment, “me time,” a woman’s needs: these didn’t rate. As for romantic love, it was an almost mutually exclusive category of human experience. As much as it may have evolved, in the human animal, as a motivation system for mate-finding, it was rarely given great consideration in the final reckoning of conjugal choice.

The twentieth century reduced it all to smithereens. The Pill, women in the workforce, widespread deferment of marriage, rising divorce rates, gay rights—these set off a prolonged but erratic improvisation on a replacement. In a fractured and bewildered landscape of fern bars, ladies’ nights, Plato’s Retreat, “The Bachelor,” sexting, and the concept of the “cougar,” the Internet promised reconnection, profusion, and processing power.

I won’t dig deeper into this. Just read it. Another great story…

Read Looking for Someone →

27

Dec

“The Hacker is Watching” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 25)

From increasingly powerful mobile phones to free FaceTime or Skype video chats to inexpensive GPS navigation tools, we’re living in a time where a lot of science fiction of our childhoods has become reality. For tech geeks like me, we live in a golden age. We’re instantly connected with the rest of the world in ways unthinkable decades ago. But the flip side to this is the threat of viruses, malware, and hacking that stir up our worst paranoia and fears, sometimes with good reason.

A woman in her underwear, getting dressed

Photo by Jason Madara for GQ

The Hacker is Watching by David Kushner in the January 2012 issue of GQ looks at a chilling tale of someone who managed to hack into the webcams and personal files of hundeds of users around the world. And not only did he violate other people’s privacy, he connected them directly with demands and threats, terrorizing them, it seemed, wherever they went.

What makes this interesting and effective is that Kushner starts off the piece from the perspective the victims, facing an invisible, powerful threat:

How would you feel, how would you behave, if the devices that surround your life were suddenly turned against you?

It’s a question that James Kelly and his girlfriend, Amy Wright, never thought they’d have to entertain. But one instant message changed everything. Amy, a 20-year-old brunette at the University of California at Irvine, was on her laptop when she got an IM from a random guy nicknamed mistahxxxrightme, asking her for webcam sex. Out of the blue, like that. Amy told the guy off, but he IM’d again, saying he knew all about her, and to prove it he started describing her dorm room, the color of her walls, the pattern on her sheets, the pictures on her walls. “You have a pink vibrator,” he said. It was like Amy’d slipped into a stalker movie. Then he sent her an image file. Amy watched in horror as the picture materialized on the screen: a shot of her in that very room, naked on the bed, having webcam sex with James.

The story shift quickly to the other side of the camera, where the reader is introduced to 32-year-old Luis Mijangos, who grew up in Mexico City and immigrated to Santa Ana, California. He isn’t revealed as a mustache-twirling villain, but rather, a complex person whose story is, if not sympathetic, somewhat understandable. Mijangos, whose father died from torture by drug cartels, was paralyzed from the waist down when he was sixteen, a victim of a gang violence crossfire in the streets of Mexico City. You don’t have to condone or approve of what he did, but by the end of the story, the reader can see why he did it.

Kushner profiles Mijangos, from his childhood to the present, and as he traces the outlines of his story, conveys the sense of power the growing hacking skills gave Mijangos:

Mijangos had one thing to help make him an expert hacker: time, and plenty of it. He spent all day in his wheelchair, digging deeper online. Hackers coalesced as teams, just like his old soccer club, and Mijangos printed up a T-shirt with the name of his squad, cc power (as in credit card)…

He wasn’t getting rich, but Mijangos says he earned enough to buy a $5,000 titanium wheelchair that he tricked out with $400 wheels. He felt reborn. “When it comes to hacking, yes, I’m not going to deny it—it’s like you feel like you accomplish something,” he says. “Like you feel proud of doing something that not many people can do.”

And as Mijango’s hacking becomes more expansive and invasive, it fuels his ego. His activities continue to give him a sense of power he lacked in everyday life:

An infection that had started with one victim spread to hundreds. For a guy stuck in a chair, it was like playing a real-life game of The Sims. He spent his days alone, watching up to four webcams, each one trained on a different victim. Sex became just a part of the thrill. He saw them crying, studying, or sitting on the can (apparently a lot of people take laptops into the bathroom). Eavesdropping on the everyday moments of their lives, in a way, felt most intimate of all. “Those people that I was able to watch on a daily basis,” he says, “I felt that they become like my friends.” Mijangos watched for hours as women slept or read; he was living his own twisted version of Rear Window, the lonely guy in a wheelchair staring out his glowing portal.

The story is thought-provoking. It doesn’t make you like Mijango or feel he doesn’t deserve punishment for his crimes, but it does humanize a threat that most of us usually think of as remote and faceless. It’s a eye-opening read, and one that may prompt you to cover up your webcam lens, just to be safe.

Read The Hacker is Watching →

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