Sunday, September 14, 2014

Why Wilson matters

Last week President Obama, in addressing the issue of Syria, talked about America's unique role in the world. Russian President Putin would go on to criticize the idea of American exceptionalism. The fact is that Obama's commitment to and Putin's criticism of America's place in the world, has its roots in the ideas of our 28th President, Woodrow Wilson. Inaugurated 100 years ago.

In urging Congress to enter WWI, Wilson talked about the need to make the world "safe for democracy."  In so doing, he perhaps inadvertently laid the predicate for the next century of US foreign policy and an idealism that often went beyond America's direct national interests.

He would come to define the modern activist Presidency, and would lay the groundwork for a broader role for the federal government.

He did it all coming to office with a minimum of political experience, accusations of elitism, racism and a disregard for civil liberties. Still, he ranks as one of our great Presidents. The how and why of this is embedded in A. Scott Berg's sweeping biography Wilson, thirteen years in the making.

A Scott Berg is a best selling biographer, a winner of the NationalBook Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

My conversation with Scott Berg:

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Friday, September 12, 2014

The Boys In The Boat

Think about some of the great themes and conflicts of our times. Freedom vs. Tyranny, the 1% vs the 99%, East Coast values. vs the Western ethos, team effort vs individual effort, the US vs Russia, the triumph of the Greatest Generation, craftsmanship vs mass production, and the moral as well as physical victory of America in the Second World War.

All of these themes and more are part of the story that Daniel James Brown weaves together in his bestselling The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Reminding us that the story of Jesse Owens was not the only American triumph to emerge from the 1936 Olympics. The victory of the Boys in the Boat, the University of Washing crew team, would happen, right under Hitler’s watchful gaze.

My conversation with Daniel James Brown:

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The 9/11 generation

As we approach this anniversary of 9/11, it's worth noting that the Afghan war has become the longest in American history. Also, to think about how many of the men and women who have served in that war, were motivated and inspired to act, by those events thirteen years ago.

Michael Golembesky is one of those. He would go on to become one of the first members of the US Marines Special Operations Team, that was created in 2006.

His story, his eight years of service, is a telling snapshot of both the good and bad of our efforts in Afghanistan.

He shares the personal and military nuances of his story in his memoir Level Zero Heroes: The Story of U.S. Marine Special Operations in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan.

My conversation with Michael Golembesky:

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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Gold Rush...then and now

When we talk about success, be it on Wall Street, or Silicon Valley, or even the boom in natural gas, we always talk about it as “the new gold rush." In part because the Gold Rush represented the mobility, energy and adventure of Americans in pursuit of riches.

But those riches, that began in California in 1849, were anything but easy. While many made fortunes, many of those fortunes came to those who took care of the hundreds of thousands who would come looking to change their lives.
That’s the world that Edward Dolnick writes about in The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853

My conversation with Edward Dolnick:

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Do we need a constitutional amendment to take money out of politics?

Election day 2014 is fast approaching. At the end of the process, we will have spent over three hundred million dollars to decide if Mitch McConnell or Harry Reid will have a two vote margin.

While there are many social, political and psychological reasons for our current state of political gridlock and polarization, money is certainly at the core.

The next Presidential election could well cost over one and a quarter billion dollars. It costs ten million, at the very least, to become a US Senator and even House races cost millions.

We’ve long talked about the corrosive effect of money in politics, and Citizens United has only reinforced that. But both sides are raising and spending the money with equal alacrity, and the public shows no signs of being fed up enough, to do anything about it.

If it continues, what does it really mean for democracy has we have known it, what kind of government will it give us, and will there ever come a tipping point for an angry and disaffected public? Those are some of the question that Tim Kuhner raises in Capitalism v. Democracy: Money in Politics and the Free Market Constitution.

My conversation with Tim Kuhner:

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Friday, September 5, 2014

Does Football have a future?

Once upon a time, our national pastime had nine innings, a long season, a pastoral setting and the worship and appreciation of the Boys of Summer.

Today, that pastime has been replaced by 60 minutes of intense violence. With words like blitz and gridiron. Where once stadiums had an ambulance standing by for fans that might have a medical emergency, today, the ambulance is there for the players whose concussions and broken bones and worse, are the norm. What’s worse, is that is also a game that children want to play.

I guess we shouldn't’ be surprised that a culture that reveres “Bullets and Burgers” would turn to football as its new national pastime. Put more succinctly, is football driving the decay of our culture, or has our culture provided the perfect storm for the explosion of football's success?

Former sports journalist Steve Almond, in Against Football: One Fan's Reluctant Manifestotakes a look at the decay and corruption that is football today. A sport perhaps more in need of a warden than a commissioner.

My conversation with Steve Almond:

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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

We are deep in the heart of back to school season. Therefore, it's worth noting that while we have had dozens and dozens of conversations, on this program, about the improvement and mechanics of education, about its need to transform itself into a modern world, rarely have we ever stepped back to examine or even question the purpose of that education. In part, because the answer today, almost seems like a paraphrase of Bill Clinton,... It’s the career stupid!

But should it be? Should there be a higher and more noble purpose, particularly for higher education? As education moves more and more toward modeling the work force, that is being about collaboration and problem solving, are we losing something?

Has the worship of STEM and Wall Street, and the abandonment of the traditional Liberal Arts education left us in a lurch, whose implications have rippled out to impact almost every aspect of society.

If that’s true... then there is no app for that. There is only the conversation started by William Deresiewicz in Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

My conversation with William Deresiewicz:

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

What deeper learning is all about

While the world is changing around us, while creative destruction consumes so many areas, sometimes it seems like education stagnates. After all, many, if not most, of our schools still operate in a manner designed in an agrarian world; pre Internet, pre technology and long before we knew and understood how the brain was wired, how children or anyone else really learns.

The good news is we are beginning to see progress. All across the country bold, persistent experiments are taking place that are creating schools that set the stage for the future of education.

One such school is the Ron Clark Academy in Southeast Atlanta. It has been called one of the best schools in America.

It’s co-founder Kim Bearden has taught over 2000 student and has been involved in virtually all aspects of education. Now she distills much of what she’s learned in her new book, Crash Course: The Life Lessons My Students Taught Me.

My conversation with Kim Bearden:

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Change or perish in education...How to build a better teacher

Almost every aspect of our culture and economy has been touched by technology and creative destruction. Still, three areas have lagged behind, and all three are beginning to be addressed and changed. They are finance, healthcare and education.

Although incumbents still rule in healthcare and finance, the ground is beginning to shift. But in education, less so. The very fact that we are still debating the merits and sanctity of practices that date to the agrarian age, is telling.

But change is happening. Throughout the country small individual efforts are being made. Efforts that reexamine the questions at the very foundation of learning of understanding and putting knowledge to use.

One thing that hasn’t changed, is that teachers are still on the front lines. For them too, it will be change or perish.

Elizabeth Green takes a deep look into this change, in Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works.

My conversation with Elizabeth Green:

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Information....adapt or perish

So much of the way our brains and nervous system are hardwired, emerges as man did, from the primordial stew of life. Clearly, modern science tells us we are more suited to be hunter gatherers than we are multitasking and purveyors of Google Glass.

Yet no matter how much some may desire it, we are not going back to a simpler time. Information will continue to pore in on us, multilateral demands on our time will increase, and to succeed at anything, work, play or home, we will have to adapt or perish.

So the question becomes, do we try and shape this brave new world to fit the way we are, or do we move through life, knowing we are on the ramparts of the efforts to change human evolution?

The answer is really both. This is where esteemed neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin takes us in his new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

My conversation with Daniel Levitin:

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Monday, August 25, 2014

The Power of Creative Pairs - The Powers of Two

Ginger Roger once said, of her partnership with Fred Astaire, that she did everything he did, “but backwards and in high heels.” In many ways this gets to the heart of partnerships. Two people that have a similar mission, but see it perhaps in opposite and positively reinforcing ways.

The examples are course legend. Jobs and Wozniak, Lennon & McCartney, Parker and Stone, Larry and Sergei, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, Crick and Watson, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Hewlett & Packard, to name just a few.

When you look at the list, it becomes clear that there is something special about the power of two. Is it an accident, or something inherent in the creative process? That’s the focus of Joshua Wolf Shenk’s new book, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.

My conversation with Joshua Wolf Shenk:

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The Real Cost of Fracking

Across the country, fracking—the extraction of natural gas by hydraulic fracturing—is being touted as the nation’s answer to energy independence. Energy companies have repeatedly assured us that the process is safe.

But is there a hidden cost, a hidden danger? What really is the process of fracking and what are its consequence on people, the environment and those that come in contact with it?

Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald, combine their expertise in a new look at how contamination at drilling sites translates into ill health and heartbreak for both families and their pets.

In The Real Cost of Fracking: How America's Shale Gas Boom Is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Foodthey give voice to the people at ground zero of the fracking debate. They illustrate what they believe to be the consequences of fracking which, in their view, poses a dire threat to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and even our food supply.

My conversation with Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald:

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Has hyper connectivity lead to The End of Absence?

There once was a time before the internet, before the automobile, before air conditioning, and television and radio and even before the printing press. All these inventions and many others, dramatically transformed the ways in which we live. At the time each was criticized for the ruinous impact it would have. The printing press was thought to be the end of religion, air conditioning would keep us inside, and not allow us to connect with others. The automobile would destroy community and television would pollute our brains.

The fact is that each of these inventions changed us and changed the way we lived. And the result was not good or bad. It was just different. It was all part of the process of human evolution. Ever since man first emerged from the cave, we have been engaged in an ongoing effort to try and shape and define our man made environment, just as it continues to try shape and define us.

Michael Harris thinks we need to reclaim some of that lost world. He details his ideas in The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection.

My conversation with Michael Harris:

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The fall of Nixon and the rise of Reagan

We often think of the 60’s as a time when the left was in the ascendancy. When great social movements, like the women's movement, the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement were given their birth. In fact, arguably, the most lasting legacy of the 60’s maybe the rise of modern conservatism.

The history of modern conservatism and of the current Republican party has its beginnings in the early 1960’s and continues into the confusion we see in the party today.

Rick Perlstein has been one of our most astute chroniclers of that history, beginning with his examination of Barry Goldwater in Before the Storm, and through his look at the 60’s and 70’s in Nixonland.

Now Pearlstein takes us to the next phase, in his examination of the handoff of the party from Nixon to Reagan in The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.

But more than a political story, it’s the story of the transformation of America. A time when America suffered its first military defeat, was shocked by the oil crisis, the hostage crises, inflation, stagflation, a criminal Presidency, a rogue CIA, and more. But it also became a time when as a solution to our multiple problems, reality gave way to fantasy; when facts gave way to fiction, when like television or the movies, make believe would take us to the place we’d rather be. And leading that transformation was Ronald Reagan.

My conversation with Rick Perlstein:

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Have we reached the end of American community?

The world has changed. We can intimately and immediately know what's taking place in the far reaches of the world, or across America. But we often don’t know what’s going on with our neighbors and in our own community.

Today we are a part of many communities of interest, not necessarily communities of geography. And is it any surprise, really? The natural human tendency is to associate with people like us. But as mobility and tolerance have allowed a diversity of communities, it has, in fact, atomized us in ways that we seek the familiar, no matter where on the planet it might be.

But what is the consequence of this?  We were once a great and vast continental nation, that had to rely on community as a form of safety and self government. Today that’s not the case. The result has impacted our relationships, or politics, and the very way we govern ourselves.

Where it’s going and how we got here is the subject The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Communitya brilliant new book by Marc Dunkelman.

My conversation with Marc Dunkelman:

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Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Police Branch of the US Military

We ask a great deal of our police. On the one hand we want to see more community policing, more interaction with the citizens. At the same time we are training and equipping the police as if they were another branch of the US Military.

Drive into the vehicle section of any police department and you’ll see SWAT equipment and armored carriers that look like they are from a Terminator movie. Think about what Boston looked like after the marathon bombing; an American city in lock-down and an occupying force of police that was the model for police forces around the country.

But how did we get here? Was it the crime waves of the 70’s and 80’s, the drug wars, the post 9/11 fixation with security and politicians that suddenly couldn’t say no to funding police? The answer is that it was all of these and more. They would create the perfect storm for the militarization of America's police forces.

This is the subject of Radley Balko’s new book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces

My conversation with Radley Balko:

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Three Women at Home and at War

Those that have been through it, say that the experience of being in a combat zone is like no other. It is all consuming. In so many ways it eliminates the real world of life and its mundane everyday chores and problems.

Yet the men and women engaged in that effort, bring with them a life experience composed of precisely those problems. Sometimes the military is a means of escape, sometimes a training ground for life, frequently life changing. Yet most soldiers, men and women alike, must return to that real world. And when they do, everything changes once again.

That’s the story that Helen Thorpe tells about three women in Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War.

My conversation with Helen Thorpe:

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