Monday, July 25, 2016

Could Star Wars Help Us Solve The World's Problems?

It’s no surprise that the influence of western popular culture is everywhere, even in our affairs of state. Remember when Ronald Reagan spoke the phrase “evil empire?” It was just five years after the release of the original Star Wars. The Empire was on all of our minds and the comparisons were immediate.

When was the last time your were pulled over and wished you could just wave your hand and call on the power of the the force?

When George Lucas created Star Wars he was fully aware of the primal power of narrative. He was a long time devotee of Joseph Campbell and knew that Star Wars would become a palette of archetypes that would burrow deep into our consciousness.

The only questions is how much Lucas and Star Wars reflected the culture of the time, or in fact, through its successes, helped to create and expand its own iconography.

Today, almost 40 after that premiere, legal critic and behavioral economist Cass Sunstein, deconstructs Star Wars in light of 21st century in The World According to Star Wars.

My conversation with Cass Sunstein:

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The War at Home

Confucius may have said it first, but the oft quoted and repeated phrase, “wherever you go, there you are,” can certainly apply to families in the military.

Even in a culture as mobile and connected as ours, the reality of constantly moving, long separations, anxiety, stress, and danger are all realities that are not easily offset by Skype or Facetime.

We’ve seen and read a lot about military families. But what’s it like today in a mobile/global culture and with warfare, not cold but hot, as an almost permanent condition?

Rachel Starnes has lived this life and writes from the heart in The War at Home: A Wife's Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible): A Memoir

My conversation with Rachel Starnes:

Friday, July 15, 2016

Success and Luck

As a society, we’ve all been brought up to believe deeply in the idea of the self made man. The power of persistence and hard work. The Horatio Alger mythology of pulling oneself up by your own bootstraps. In modern political theology we hear about “makers” and “takers,” and Randian and libertarian ideas.

We embrace that quote by Jefferson that, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

What we leave out of the equation is the role of pure dumb luck. Being in the right place at the right time. The existential circumstances over which we often have no control and often account for good things happening. That the jumping for point for Robert H. Frank in his book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.

My conversation with Robert H. Frank:


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Bobby Kennedy

For those of us that old enough, when we think back to JFK and Camelot, we think of a time of innocence, of renewal and of possibility. And then the 60’s happened. There has been a lot of talk lately about the 60’s. About the fissures it opened up, and about the fact that we are still trying to heal them. Sydney Schanberg, the great reporter who died last week, once told me in an interview that he thought Vietnam represented the end of consensus politics in America.

Since then we have been seemingly searching for the politician or the leader that could bridge that divide. The irony has been that in a time of polarity it’s been impossible for that leader to emerge. So we look back to what might have been. And when we do, the image and mythology of Bobby Kennedy rises as almost an apparition from the body politic.

Why? What was it about Bobby that made us think he was different? It wasn’t his conviction, or his ideology or his morality or his intellect or his manners. Perhaps it was a unique ability to empathize, to see all sides, to shape-shift in ways that allowed him to find truth, or at least consensus where none had existed.

This is the Bobby Kennedy we get in Larry Tye new biography
Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon.

My conversation with Larry Tye:

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

White Trash: A History

While politicians often talk of all those things that unite us as Americans, there are equally powerful forces that divide us. At the center of that divide is the often taboo subject of class.

Even more than race, the class divide lies at the base of the chasm that separates what John Edward once called “Two Americas.” The symbols are everywhere. Starbucks America vs. Dunkin' Donuts America. Educated vs. non educated. Walmart vs. Whole Foods, etc. But these symbols are but the latest manifestation of a 400 year history of class conflict in America.

That the story told by Nancy Isenberg in her new book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

My conversation with Nancy Isenberg:

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Campaign 1776 - The War That We Almost Lost

On this day, upon which we celebrate the birth of the “American Experiment,” it’s important to remember that it was not preordained.

In spite of today's overheated patriotic rhetoric, the revolution, the victory of the Continental Army, the success of Washington and the country that followed, could have easily gone another direction. There were many times when the revolution might have failed. (Given the state of our politics today, that may not have been such a bad idea)

Just as important and just as surprising are that there are still so many untold stories from that effort. Stories that, particularly on this day, prove instructive, informative and most of all inspirational.

Patrick O’Donnell is the master of telling the stories of our military heroes and as O’Donnell shows us in Washington's Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution, it was the revolutionary generation that was indeed our greatest.

My conversation with Patrick O'Donnell:

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Life and Death in Palestine

One of the things we have been hearing lately, with respect to our own domestic politics,is the debate between conscience and politics. Sometimes our desire to see our own side win, has to be tempered by a broader view of the moral and human dimensions of an issue.

The ongoing struggle in the Middle East between Israelis and the Palestinians is no different. No matter the depth of our appreciation for the remarkable miracle that is Israel, the matter of the Palestinian people and some of the decisions and actions taken by Israel must be viewed in a larger moral context. In order to do that we have to really understand what’s happening on the ground, in places like the West Bank and Gaza.

Ben Ehrenreich has been there. Following the first rule of journalism he has gone there to live among the people and learn first hand the enormity of what’s going on. He writes about what he’s seen in The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine

My conversation with Ben Ehrenreich:

Monday, June 27, 2016

Love Wins

Oliver Brown, the lead plaintiff in Brown v. the Board of Education was a parent of a child denied access to a Topeka Kansas School. Clarence Gideon changed the way poor defendant are treated in court. Ernesto Miranda and Jane Roe both, in their own ways, were part of cases that expanded the rights of individual citizens.

The latest name added to that pantheon is that of Jim Obergefell. He was the named plaintiff in the Obergefell vs. Hodges which , just one year ago, enshrined the civil right of same sex marriage in all 50 states. Jim has recently written about his experience in Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality

My conversation with Him Obergefell:

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Who Started the War On Government?

In 1953 in his first Inaugural Address, Dwight Eisenhower talked about the positive impacts of government. Thirty years later Ronald Reagan castigated the role of government. Twelve years after that we heard this from Bill Clinton that “the era of big government is over.”

So what happened? What happened to the partnership between business, the government and citizen that resulted in so much success and prosperity in the post war years? What happened to the progressive agenda once embarrassed by Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt? And what is the price we are paying today for the absence of that partnership?

Author and Professor Paul Pierson talks to me about all of this in on discussion of American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper.

My conversation with Paul Pierson:

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Future is Inevitable

If there is one overriding meme today it’s about fear. Fear of change, fear of a shrinking world, fear of the impact of technology; in short fear of an unknown future. Regardless of that fear, the future is inevitable. It’s the place we are all going to be living.

Even for those that are afraid to embrace it, they should at least understand it. Few see the future more clearly and are better able to explain it than WIRED founder Kevin Kelly. He lays out the agenda for future in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.

My conversation with Kevin Kelly:

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Before the Play, There Was the Book

Before Lin-Manuel Miranda, before the Play there was the book.  Miranda has talked about how his inspiration was Ron Chernow's 2004 book about Hamilton.

Here is my May 2004 conversation with Ron Chernow about HAMILTON.

Monday, June 13, 2016

GRIT

We are a nation that believes deeply in the Horatio Alger story of hard work and pulling oneself up by their bootstraps. In political terms this has translated into an ethos of individualism, which arguably has been corrosive to our body politic.

In part, it grew in response to the culture of monarchy and inheritance that America was founded in opposition to. It is certainly far more egalitarian to believe that we are the masters of our fate. In economic terms, the Right has taken this to the extremes. But what does it mean in terms of learning, education and personal success.

In this context, we see how the classic argument about nature and nurture has been extrapolated to talent vs. perseverance. Or, in the words of MacArthur Fellow and Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Angela Duckworth, into Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

My conversation with Angela Duckworth:

Friday, June 10, 2016

What Really Helps Children Succeed?

We know that children living in poverty generally tend to do worse academically than middle class kids. We also know that even some kids from wealthy backgrounds fail or breakdown. We’ve come to learn, in part through the writing of my guest Paul Tough, that it’s more than IQ or temperament. There is something else. Something that has to do with innate character, perseverance or just plain old fashioned grit.

But are these traits preordained? Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why.
Are children merely geographically and genetically predisposed to succeed or fail, or are these attributes of success something that can be multiplied, embedded and programmed into children in ways that increase the likelihood of success in school and in life? This is part of what Paul Tough now writes about in

My conversation with Paul Tough:

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Tribal Bonds of Soldiers

“We hear of of war and the rumor of war.” We thank our soldiers for their service and we think that we are welcoming them back into society. But what are actually welcoming back into? They return often with an experience we cannot really comprehend. An experience that often bonds them together into their own tribe. One that makes them different from us.

In fact as many of us work hard to breakdown the tribal bonds that divide us as a society, as globalization continues to homogenize us, both domestically and internationally, the experience of war often forms new, personal and deeper such bonds among the soldiers. In so doing, it makes it so much harder for them to be among us.

Sebastian Junger the bestselling author of The Perfect Storm, A Death in Belmont and Fire takes a look at this phenomenon in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

My conversation with Sebastian Junger:

Monday, June 6, 2016

The end of humans

If anything represents the new new thing in our technological age, it's the arena of artificial intelligence. From the factory floor to the glittering glass office of law firms, smart machine are doing job, after job, after job.

The conversation about jobs going offshore is so yesterday. Today it’s robots and algorithms that are the threats.

Manufacturing is only the beginning. Service sector jobs, clerical jobs, accounting, paralegal, are all starting to be done by machines. Drones will soon do deliveries and driving, perhaps the largest bastion of blue collar jobs, will, within 10 years, be replaced by the autonomous vehicles.

So what’s left for humans? As machines start to program themselves, as we’ve seen with autonomous cars, as more and more higher level functions are done by machines, what’s a human to do?

That the subject of Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines, a new book by Julia Kirby.

My conversation with Julia Kirby:

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

How to deal with conflict all around us

Look around us. Conflict is everywhere. In our culture, certainly in our politics, in the broader world and in our interactions with institutions. Sometimes, to try and seek shelter from that sea of conflict, we look into our own personal relationships for solace. When we do, we place even more pressure on those relationships and often the seeds of more conflict are sown.

So with all of this conflict how do we negotiate our way out of it? How do we break the habits of pervasive conflict, prevent or dampen conflict with those we care about, and are those skills applicable to the large framework of conflict.

These are some of the issues that Daniel Shapiro, the founder of Harvard’s International Negotiation Program takes up in Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts.

My conversation with Daniel Shapiro:

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Finance vs. American Business

Recently I had a conversation with a Professor at UC Berkeley about the subject of Power. In the course of the conversation he referred to what he saw as key centers of power. People who he saw as exercising real power. He referred to great generals, political leaders and Wall Street.

Wall Street was once a reflection of America's business. It was there to serve business. Today Wall Street and the business of finance is it’s own power center. It’s often greater than and in control of the whole of American and even global business.

Wall Street has become THE symbol of corporate greed. Railed against by politicians, analyzed 24/7 on several cable channels, the focus of it’s own newspapers and it’s stars, people like Stephen Schwarzman and Lloyd Blankfein, gracing the covers of magazines.

So how did this happen? How did Wall Street and the business of money become bigger, more powerful and more important than the business it was originally there to serve.

Rana Foroohar, the Assistant Managing Editor in charge of Economics and Business for Time magazine takes us through the history and future in Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business

My conversation with Rana Foroohar:

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Power...it’s not what it used to be.

Whether we want to believe it or not, every relationship we have...with a friend, a spouse, a child or co-workers, has a power dynamic as a part of it. Power may shift and morph, but it’s a part of every relationship and often a force for good.

In understanding power at this most intimate level, we can better understand how it plays out, or should play out, on a more macro scale. It’s not something that comes from the barrel of a gun, or from bullying, but from empathy and social intelligence. As UC Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner points out, power is not something that’s won, but something that’s earned and given. The problem or paradox is that once we have that power, we act differently; often counter to the ways in which we earned it.

That what Dacher Keltner call the The Power Paradox

My conversation with Dacher Keltner:

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation

We throw around the word globalization without really thinking about all of its impacts. The instant and free flow of goods around the corner and around the world comes with a cost. The iPhone delivered overnight from China, the speciality coffee from around the world, the stores filled with goods from hundreds of countries.

Rarely do we stop to think how all of this gets to us. Sure we see or even complain about all the trucks on the road. But that’s only the end of the journey, sometimes the last mile. Many of items of daily life travel hundreds of thousands of miles to reach us. Think about all those container ships at every major port in the world.

Beyond this, the story of traffic and of our cars, only compounds the problem. What successful community is not dealing with the scourge of traffic?

That’s the hidden story that Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ed Humes tells in his new book Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation.

My conversation with Ed Humes:

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Susan Cain and The Secret Strengths of Introverts

We live in a world of bombast and noise. Sometimes it seems the volume is turned up full blast, all the time. A quick look at our Presidential campaigns is ample evidence.

We forget that for leaders, or just average folks, sometimes quiet can have amazing power. The power of thoughtfulness, of creativity and competence

For young people, trying to find their place in the world, sometimes growing up amidst this cacophony of a boiler factory is not the healthiest thing.

This is the world that Susan Cain took us into in her bestselling book QUIET: THE POWER OF INTROVERTS IN A WORLD THAT CAN’T STOP TALKING.

Now she looks specifically at young people in Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts

My conversation with Susan Cain:

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Surfing Life as Art

The poet William Blake talked about art as “seeing the world in a grain of sand.” I suppose that what he also meant was the ability to move in so tightly on something, that inside of it, we could construct an almost fourth dimension, through which to view the world and our experiences in it.

In a way that’s what New Yorker Staff writer, author and Pulitzer Prize winner William Finnegan has done with surfing.

Living the surfing life alongside the literary life, Finnegan has reached the apex of that duality in his autobiography Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life

My conversation with William Finnegan:


Monday, May 16, 2016

Are Riots and Insurrection on the Horizon?


Not since the 1960’s have we lived in a time of more public anger. Today, issues of race, economic disparity, power imbalance and distrust of traditional institutions, have all conflated to bring us to what some believe is the brink of insurrection.

But should we be surprised? Insurrection, riots, strikes have long been an instrument of policy for the disaffected. It was a central form of protest in the 17th and 18th centuries and we saw our own examples in the 1970’s

But given the anger, given technology, given the immediacy of communication, what might riots look like today and are they on the horizon.

Joshua Clover, a professor of critical theory at UC Davis, thinks they are. He looks at the history in Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings.

My conversation with Joshua Clover:


Friday, May 13, 2016

Why Physics Matters! - Part II

A Scottish writer, back in 1915, coined the phrase “think globally, but act locally.” While it was about grassroots movements, it could just as easily have been about our understanding of the universe.

The fundamental laws of physics which govern the workings of the cosmos, are not some abstract untethered set of rules. They have a direct impact on how we live and on the very meaning of human existence. It has to. After all, it’s the only way we can look out on the vastness of space and time, and ask ourselves what’s it's all about, and what's my place in it.

Few ask these questions and find answers as well as Sean Carroll, a renowned physicist at Cal Tech and the author of The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.

My conversation with Sean Carroll:

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Why Physics Matters!

For better or worse, particularly for those of us here in the Bay Area, we have come to think of science in rather utilitarian terms. A better phone, a better app, or a better car.

In fact science, especially theoretical physics, is or should be the real lens through which we see the world. It is our understanding of the larger universe that shapes how we see our place in it and that more than the latest gadget, shapes our times.

It’s why we need to understand that world and why we need guides along the way like Stephen Hawking and Christophe Galfard. Galfard, a protege of Hawking and has just published The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond.

My conversation with Christophe Galfard:

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Even Burglar's Prefer the City

Think about our built environment and how much of it is designed around safety and security. The gated communities, the numbers on top of office buildings, the entrances and exits, garages and elevators. eyes on the street.

Now imagine seeing our daily landscape through the eyes of someone that wanted to break into our homes and our offices. Suddenly architecture takes on a whole new dimension. One that my guest Geoff Manaugh conveys in his new book A Burglar's Guide to the City.

My conversation with Geoff Manaugh:

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Silicon Valley Business Model, Circa 1920

Ask any of the 20 and 30 somethings working in tech in San Francisco and Silicon Valley and I assure they think they are inventing the world. But the fact is that most, including some that have become household names, are merely leaving footprints in the shadow of David Sarnoff.

David Sarnoff born in 1891, had a visionary understanding of everything from the telegraph to the future of the internet. And just as Steve Jobs had Wozniak, Sarnoff had Edwin Armstrong. Not surprisingly, that relationship ended in an even worse way.

That story, the idea of everything old being new again and that history does repeat itself, is at the heart of .The Network: The Battle for the Airwaves and the Birth of the Communications Age, by Scott Woolley

My conversation with Scott Woolley:

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Can You Remember When Bipartisan Public Policy Once Mattered?

It’s hard to believe from the rhetoric coming from both sides of the campaign trail this year, but there once was a time when policy mattered. When candidates on both sides talked about programs and public policy.

Perhaps it was Reagan wanting to shrink the size of government and drown it in a bathtub, or Bill Clinton declaring that the era of big government is over. The fact is we have stopped looking to government as an institution of proactive change. While it still may have a role in crisis, as we saw in 2008 and 2009, its larger role, to shape the betterment of life in America, has long ago reached a kind of perigee.

Perhaps the last time policy mattered was during the time of LBJ and the Great Society. A time when bipartisan politics really worked. This is the era that Randall Wood takes us into in Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism.

My conversation with Randall Woods: