Friday, April 21, 2017

Marcus du Sautoy and an Appreciation of Science

For all the talk today about science and technology, it seems that sometimes the frontiers of science are simply a new app, a new way to shop or play games. All of which somehow does a disservice to the real value of science to change the world.  It can make us forget the wonder of discovery, and how science has allowed us to know what we know, about the world around around us.

This appreciation for science is at the heart of today marches around the country, and in the work of Oxford Professor Marcus du Sautoy. His latest is The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science

My conversation with Marcus du Sautoy:




Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Story of a Deranged Narcissist

Imagine a paranoid narcissist who can read a crowd. One who would invent crises to create apprehension among his followers and immediately strike back at those who opposed him. One who made a pledge to his loyalists that ”they are going to make history.”

If all of that sounds frightening and very familiar, it should. It is the predicate for any deranged individual who thinks that he alone has the answers.

That was the underlying psychosis that drove Jim Jones, of Peoples Temple fame,  and that ultimately lead to his death and the deaths of nine-hundred men, women and children in Guyana, in November of 1978

A story of derangement, of politics and of a unique place and time, it is now brought back to life by award-winning investigative journalist and bestselling author Jeff Guinn in The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.

My conversation with Jeff Guinn:




Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Cold War, Psychic Phenomena, Psychokinesis and ESP


It’s a little chilling that there is so much deja vu talk these days about the Cold War and even about Nazis and the Third Reich.

You may recall that the race for space grew out of this period. The German rocket scientists, people like Werner Von Braun, who were responsible for the German V2 rockets, were after the war divided up between the Russians and Americans.

But there was another war that grew out of this period. The war for inner space. It was for drugs and for psychic phenomena that could give one side or the other a competitive advantage in the battlefield of the mind. Whether it was LSD, or the quest for what was called “remote viewing,” it was a serious part of the military's Cold War efforts.  Best selling author Annie Jacobsen takes us back in time in Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government's Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis

My conversation with Annie Jacobson:



Tuesday, April 18, 2017

How History Has Shaped China's Push for Global Power

Just prior to Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, was asked how he thought the visit might turn out. He answered “for us, it is all right if the talks succeed, and it is all right if they fail.” A little inscrutable for sure. But also a reflection of a China that was very cautious about it’s place in the world. A nation focused on its own internal issues and that on the global stage, has seen it all.

It’s an almost unspoken sense of history. Of a nation that has seen its fortunes rise and fall. A sense of a scope of time, often unimagined in the West.

But today, that seems to be changing. China, now seems to want its rightful and earned place in the world.  Howard French helps us to understand this in Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China's Push for Global Power.

My conversation with Howard French:



Monday, April 17, 2017

Why the French Think Differently and Why It Matters?

Right now all eyes are on France. Can they rise above the electoral mistakes we’ve already made?

The French often get a bad rap in American popular and political culture. Even though we seldom realize it, appreciate it, or even acknowledge it, France is a nation and a culture that has given us the foundation of some of our central ideals of citizenship,  progress, social justice and of arts and culture.

It has respected rational thought and has even given us what’s now our obsession of left and right in politics.

Award-winning author and academic Sudhir Hazareesingh talks to me about How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, and the ideas behind France's political and cultural history.  He tries to answer why this nation, which was once so globally influential, has lost that influence?

My conversation with Sudhir Hazareesingh:




Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Boston Marathon Bombing Cover Up: My WhoWhatWhy Conversation with Michele McPhee

Four years ago, on April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs detonated 12 seconds and 210 yards apart at 2:49 p.m., near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon.  It killed three people and injured several hundred others, including 16 who lost limbs.

Beyond these facts, the story of the Tsarnaev brothers, and the complex web of events that lead to that day are very much an open question. The official narrative, long touted by authorities, of the the lone wolf Muslim extremists, has long since been discredited.

The story that is emerging of what really might have happened in Boston has some eerie parallels todays headlines. They involve Russia, the FBI, FBI informants, and counter terrorism agents not informing the FBI, etc..

A new book, Maximum Harm: The Tsarnaev Brothers, the FBI, and the Road to the Marathon Bombing, by long time Boston based investigative journalist Michele McPhee, brings new light to the story and reinforces what many have been trying to point out for years.


Click here to listen to my conversation with Michele McPhee on Radio WhoWhatWhy.org 



Friday, April 14, 2017

Imagine Looking Back fondly on Nixon?

44 men have served as President of the United States. Each came to office with unique ambitions, desires, and skills, or lack thereof. Few sought the office as passionately and as desperately and came so far to achieve it as Richard Nixon.

The real tragedy is that in that passion, that desire, that ambition ...coupled with his upbringing and his setbacks along the way, he sowed the seeds of his own destruction.

Perhaps if Nixon had been elected in 1960, both Vietnam and Richard Nixon might have evolved differently, and the world today just might be a different place. Such is the power of character, of the people we place in that office. As the late journalist Richard Ben Cramer explains, what it takes it win has not always given us Presidents we may want to govern us.

This is the story of Richard Nixon. So much has been written about Nixon. Much of it has come in waves. There was the period after his resignation, of the bad Nixon. Then after his death, the better Nixon. Now writers, journalists and historians are trying to tie all the threads together.

Perhaps Bill Clinton put it best in his eulogy for Nixon, when he said that “the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career must come to a close.”

John Farrell gives us that overview in Richard Nixon: The Life

My conversation with John Farrell:




Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Jonathan Lethem reminds us why books, literature and art still matter

I know it’s hard to believe in these times, but amidst the low IQ circus parading before us most days, books are still alive and well. Business considerations and disruption aside, great writers are writing, classic writers are being read and literature still seems to be alive.

Doing his part to keep all that in place is bestselling author Jonathan Lethem. His latest is More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers.

My conversation with Jonathan Lethem:



Friday, April 7, 2017

Are You Smarter Than An Algorithm?

Lately there has been lots of talk about artificial intelligence, about the implanting of microprocessors in humans and the essential human/machine interface. While not the stuff of science fiction, we are not quite there yet.

However where we are, is at point that we humans can begin learning from how machines think. More specifically, the programs or algorithms we use.

In the process, we ourselves can make better, faster and more efficient choices. Or so we hope. That’s the idea of Ali Almossawi, a data visualizer at Apple and the author of Bad Choices: How Algorithms Can Help You Think Smarter and Live Happier.

My conversation with Ali Almossawi:



Wednesday, April 5, 2017

There's No Place Like No Place

As nationalism sweeps much of the West, it brings into bold relief the question of what really constitutes a country. Some argue that it’s about borders, language and culture. Others argue that they have to be a defined or sanctioned by the United Nations or some other international authority.

The fact is that there are sovereign nations that don’t meet any of these criteria. Yet they still are countries, at least in the eyes of those that live there.

These unique places on the map are the focus of a new look by my guest Nick Middleton in An Atlas of Countries That Don't Exist: A Compendium of Fifty Unrecognized and Largely Unnoticed States

My conversation with Nick Middleton:




Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Play Ball....Laboratory Style

We are in the glorious first days of baseball season. And of course we hear the usual debates about tradition vs. the multiple efforts to bring young people into the game…. about the way it used to be, vs. the way it really is for 21st century baseball.

While few games cling to tradition more than baseball, the game IS changing. One of the ways is with respect to the cybermetrics we’ve all heard and read about. Some have embraced and others have pushed back on.

But imagine a living baseball laboratory in which numbers were the ONLY rule. Imagine if a whole team could be constructed not on a fantasy baseball program, but in real life and in real time. That what my guest Sam Miller got to do with a minor league time, the Sonoma Stompers.

He tells his story in The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team



Monday, April 3, 2017

Sometimes Tyrants can be Elected

As we are quickly finding out here in America, having leader who are democratically elected is not a bulwark against authoritarianism. The need for a sense of security, populist anger about dramatic change, and push back against the established order by those left behind, all contribute to an often popular desire for strong authoritarian leaders.

If what we are seeing here in America isn’t example enough, all we need do is look to Turkey and to India to see the impact.

The encouraging thing is that where this move to authoritarianism has been the case, citizens, journalists and political leader have pushed back. Often at great personal cost and sacrifice. This is the world that distinguished journalist Basharat Peer shows us in A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen

My conversation on WhoWhatWhy.org with Basharat Peer:





Friday, March 31, 2017

The Battle over Gentrification and Future of Our Cities

Decades ago the young and the middle class abandoned cities for the soul deadening suburbs. The result was a long term weakening of the fabric of cities and of urban life.

Suddenly, as trends and attitudes changed, as the young, the hip, the affluent and empty nester boomers returned to cities, gentrification has come to these once troubled metropolitan centers. Cities like Oakland, San Francisco, New Orleans and even Detroit have come alive.

Today, the push back to gentrification from long time city residents, from those impacted by increasing rents and increasing prices, has become a crusade. Developers and city government, essentially responding to market demands, have become the villains.

But what impact is gentrification actually having on cities and who should decide what a city is and what’s best for it? That what Peter Moskowitz looks at in How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood.

My conversation with Peter Moskowitz:



Thursday, March 30, 2017

Will Your Child Be Selected?

Millions of you are checking the mail every day waiting for that envelope that you think will determine the fate of your child. In almost all cases the kids will be fine no matter which excellent college they go to.  In India however, the stakes are higher. Not for college, but for cricket.

Millions of words have been written about helicopter parenting, about tiger moms, and dads pushing their sons in sports. This is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Throughout the world, as parents aspire for their children, these behaviors, good and bad, sensible and extreme, are everywhere.

Today we go to India, to Mumbai, to see a father as determined for his son's success in cricket as we would see an inner city father in Chicago, drilling his son on the basketball court, as maybe the only way out.

Perhaps, by seeing this all filtered through another culture, we can see it’s value and it’s absurdity. Booker Prize winning author Aravind Adiga does this in Selection Day.

My conversation with Aravind Adiga:



Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What We Can Learn From the Fall of an American Energy Oligarch

The price of oil, energy sources, and energy policy, always seem to be a part of our conversations.

In part because the energy world is changing. The US is becoming less dependent on international oil, even as Europe becomes more dependent on Russian oil. Alternative energy holds great promise, but that transition is difficult, to say the least. Even Saudi Arabia is trying to get off oil as the bedrock of its economy

Amidst all of this, it's worth looking back at what history tells us about changing energy sources. How the world shifted from coal to oil, how new monopolies emerged and great wealth was created and sometimes lost.

This is part of the story that my guest Peter Doran tell in Breaking Rockefeller: The Incredible Story of the Ambitious Rivals Who Toppled an Oil Empire.

My conversation with Peter Doran:



Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Lab Girl's Lesson for Us All

Back in the 60’s there was that expression that “the personal is political.” Today, it’s also possible to say that the personal is professional.

Ideas like project based learning in our schools, and the celebration and encouragement of young people doing the work they love, combine these ideas as never before. And when this all happens in the service of science and discovery, it is even more magical.

All of this takes us into the world of author, geobiologist and renaissance woman Hope Jahren. She’s the recipient of three Fulbright Awards and has been named one of the “Brilliant 10” young scientist in the US and Lab Girl is her memoir of science and personal discovery.

My conversation with Hope Jahren:



Monday, March 27, 2017

Sex and the Constitution

It’s always amazing to realize how many political debates that are supposed to be about other policy issues, are really about sex. And this isn’t just a conceit of our sexualized age. It has been such since well before the founding of the republic.

Even as health care is being debated, with reference to Planned Parenthood, maternity, contraception and abortion, it’s really all about sex. Our founders might actually be appalled hearing this debate.

Most of the founders rejected the Puritan's repressive views about sex and and it’s sister religion. They felt it only divisive and counter to the rule of reason

So how did we get here and why, after 240 years,Geoffrey Stone lays it out in Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America's Origins to the Twenty-First Century.
are we still conflating sex and pubic policy? University of Chicago Law Professor

My conversation with Geoffrey Stone:



Wednesday, March 22, 2017

We Don't Know What We Think We Know

Imbedded in the cultural DNA of America is the idea of the individual. Whether it’s the Horatio Alger story, or Gary Cooper taking on the bad guys in High Noon or the current President bragging that he alone can fix America's problems.

Nothing can be further from the truth. To carry the movie analogy a step further, Hidden Figures is closer to the real world than Dirty Harry. From the classroom to Silicon Valley we are learning that collaboration and cooperation are what works today.

But there is a reason it’s working. Not just as a trendy social construct, but because we are finding out that knowledge itself is a collaborative process. Not just on the internet or in shared google docs, but because we actually rely on the people around us to know what we think we know.

To expand on this I’m joined by two cognitive scientists who have taken this idea to a new level of understanding. The are Dr. Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown and Dr. Philip Fernbach, a cognitive scientist and professor of marketing at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. Together they are the authors of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone

My conversation with Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman:



Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Can Democracy Survive Social Media?

There are many forces transforming our modern world. Some driven by technology and some by increased knowledge.

On the one had we are relearning the value of collaboration. In classrooms, in Silicon Valley and in successful partnerships of any kind. We are discovering that knowledge and success rely on sharing experiences and shared information.

Concurrently technology and it’s child social media, has given us the world's most powerful tools to communicate and collaborate with each other. It seems like it should be the perfect marriage

Unfortunately in the context of the social and political times we live in, these two forces have come together in an almost perfect storm, to drive a deeper wedge into the way we are divided politically, economically, racially and socially.

The result is devastating for the institutions of democracy. Rather than enhance what the founders gave us, the long tail of the internet has sliced and diced our biases and given us the ultimate tool for self reinforcement. What it means for the future of democracy and of this republic is an open question. One taken up by Harvard law and former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein in his new book #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media.

My conversation with Cass Sunstein:



Monday, March 20, 2017

Jimmy Breslin R.I.P

In this time when we are appreciating great journalism one again, we should celebrate one of our greatest and most original journalists Jimmy Breslin, who passed away this weekend.

Twenty year ago, I spoke to Breslin for the first time. He had recently had brain surgery for an aneurysm and he turned that surgery into his book I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me: A Memoir.

We talked about this surgery, but we also talked about the modern journalist. He admonished today's journalists not smoking, for not engaging in bad behavior, for going to health clubs and drinking wine instead of booze and how dare they, for going home at nigh to their families instead of the local saloon.

Breslin was one of kind. I feel privileged to have known him over the years and privileged to share this 1996 conversation with all of you.



Friday, March 17, 2017

Silicon Opioids

We check our phones hundreds of times a day. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram images fly by, as were always afraid we’ll miss something “important.” Snap, a company losing tens of millions of dollar a year, is suddenly worth over twenty billion dollars.  It’s betting on our obsession with seeing what others are doing.

Curiosity, envy or addiction? Every generation has its addictions. The invention of radio, television, the long playing record, the walkman, Pac Man, all had their day and their fans. But is there something different, something more addictive about our modern technology?

These are some of the questions asked by Adam Alter, an Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, in his book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.

My conversation with Adam Alter:



Thursday, March 16, 2017

It's High Noon Once Again

We still care what does well at the box office. Yet Oscar ratings have hit a new low. We still go to the movies and gossip magazines still shout out to us from the checkout line. But the influence of movies has waned since the heyday of Hollywood.

Long before the long tail of the internet, before five-hundred channels and social media, movies were once the principal popular entertainment that shaped attitudes, mores, styles and even politics.

Back in the early 50’s, the movies were politics. It was a time when the first stitches were sewn between politics and entertainment. And while the legendary studio boss Samuel Goldwyn is reported to have said to his filmmakers that “if you want a send a message, use Western Union,” many filmmakers of that time had a lot to say.

The country was still coming out of WWII. The Cold War and the Red Scare were were as prominent as news about Russia is today. Filmmakers like John Frankenheimer and writers like Carl Foreman were deeply engaged in the politics of the day.

One of the films that reflected that was the classic legendary High Noon. Released in 1952 it’s a powerful allegory for events then and now. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Glenn Frankel takes us inside the film and the times in High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.

My conversation with Glenn Frankel:




Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Brief History of Time

As you are reading this, time is going by. Perhaps the degree to which you are engaged, will determine how long that time feels. That is just one aspect of the complexity of our experience of time.

There is a reason there are no clocks in a casinos. That most of us wake up at the same time everyday, whether we set the alarm or not. That time seems to go faster as we age and that our technology seems to get slower as we get accustomed to it.

Time is both a physical, psychological and biological constrict. The way in which they operate in both singular and parallel universes is the stuff that has kept both philosophers and scientists up many a long night.

Pulling all of this together is Alan Burdick in Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation.

My conversation with Alan Burdick:




Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Did The Boomers Get Us Where We Are Today?

Taking to the streets and traveling to the deep south, the boomer generation once played a major role in advancing civil rights in America

The voices of protest of the boomer generation helped end the Vietnam war and drove Richard Nixon from office.

In music, culture, movies and books, the boomers have made the world a richer place.

The rights of gays, woman and those with disabilities all blossomed under boomer initiatives. Boomers did much to push for improvement of the environment. For boomers inclusion and tolerance have always been a true north

Today, as a retrograde administration seeks to undo so much of that progress, there should be perhaps no better time to pay homage to what the boomers generation has accomplished.

Bruce Gibney sees it differently.

Perhaps he would have been happier if we had frozen in the 1950’s? Perhaps the self absorbed world of Mad Men had more appeal?

Bruce Cannon Gibney is a venture capitalist and writer. He was an early investor in PayPal, and later joined Founders Fund. His new book is A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America

My conversation with Bruce Cannon Gibney