Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Upheaval in the Middle East..The Sunni Diaspora

War always has unintended consequences. Since the early days of the American invasion of Iraq, millions of Iraqis have fled their country. Mostly Sunni and mostly from Iraq's educated middle class, this has had a profound impact on the country and the region. It has given rise to a Sunni/Iraqi Diaspora with their ability to either help stabilize or profoundly destabilize the Middle East. This is the backdrop for NPR correspondent Deborah Amos' new book Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East.

My conversation with Debora Amos:

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Why Doctors Still Matter

One of the things often left out of our health care discussion is the simple human equation. Doctors, often young and often new to America, are the link, that translates between a complex web of technology and information and a receiving person often in physical or emotional distress. The business model of medicine must, if it is to succeed, bend in some fashion to the human model. No one understands this better than Abraham Verghese. A doctor, a Professor at Stanford, his books and essays have helped us navigate what it really means to be a doctor. His latest, his first novel Cutting for Stone, looks at how a sense of place also shapes the destiny of healing.

My conversation with Abraham Verghese:

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Derivatives explained...sort of

Subject: Derivative Markets Explained

Heidi is the proprietor of a bar in Detroit . She realizes that virtually all of her customers are unemployed alcoholics and, as such, can no longer afford to patronize her bar. To solve this problem, she comes up with a new marketing plan that allows her customers to drink now, but pay later. She keeps track of the drinks consumed in a ledger (thereby granting the customers loans).

Word gets around about Heidi's "drink now, pay later" marketing strategy and, as a result, increasing numbers of customers flood into Heidi's bar. Soon she has the largest sales volume for any bar in Detroit. By providing her customers freedom from immediate payment demands, Heidi gets no resistance when, at regular intervals, she substantially increases her prices for wine and beer, the most consumed beverages.

Consequently, Heidi's gross sales volume increases massively. A young and dynamic Vice President at the local bank recognizes that these customer debts constitute valuable future assets, and increases Heidi's borrowing limit. He sees no reason for any undue concern, since he has the debts of the unemployed alcoholics as collateral.

At the bank's corporate headquarters, expert traders transform these customer loans into DRINKBONDS, ALKIBONDS and PUKEBONDS. These securities are then bundled and traded on international security markets. Naive investors don't really understand that the securities being sold to them as AAA secured bonds are really the debts of unemployedalcoholics. Nevertheless, the bond prices continuously climb, and the securities soon become the hottest-selling items for some of the nation's leading brokerage houses.
One day, even though the bond prices are still climbing, a risk manager at the original local bank decides that the time has come to demand payment on the debts incurred by the drinkers at Heidi's bar. He so informs Heidi. Heidi then demands payment from her alcoholic patrons, but being unemployed alcoholics they cannot pay back their drinking debts. Since Heidi cannot fulfill her loan obligations, she is forced into bankruptcy. The bar closes and the eleven employees lose their jobs.
Overnight, DRINKBONDS, ALKIBONDS and PUKEBONDS drop in price by 90%. The collapsed bond asset value destroys the banks liquidity and prevents it from issuing new loans, thus freezing credit and economic activity in the community.

The suppliers of Heidi's bar had granted her generous payment extensions and had invested their firms' pension funds in the various BOND securities. They find they are now faced with not only having to write off her bad debt but also with losing over 90% of the presumed value of the bonds. Her wine supplier claims bankruptcy, closing the doors on a family business that had endured for three generations, and her beer supplier is taken over by a competitor, who immediately closes the local plant and lays off 150 workers.

Fortunately though, the bank, the brokerage houses and their respective executives are saved and bailed out by a multi-billion dollar, no-strings attached cash infusion from their cronies in Government. The funds required for this bailout are obtained by new taxes levied on employed, middle-class, non-drinkers who have never been in Heidi's bar.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The very essential engineer

As we face a world of increasing complexity and increasing problems, it seems to always fall to science to find the answers. However, science is only half the equation. Certainly to understand and deconstruct our world, is the job of science. However to take that science and create real, practical solutions for our future, is the job of engineering. If science is about ideas, engineering is about putting those ideas into action.  Henry Petroski, a Professor of Civil Engineering at Duke, and the author of The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems is the Carl Sagan of engineering. He explains that it is engineering which really will allow our reach to exceed our grasp.

My conversation with Henry Petroski:
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stupidity, corruption and lots of money!

In addition to the fall of Lehman and AIG, last year's financial crisis also saw the economies of entire nations collapse. Iceland, Greece and most notably Ireland have been economically devastated. In Ireland, the Celtic Tiger, once the home of an economic miracle, now will take decades and billions to recover. How did this happen? What role did Wall Street play and what role did the Irish government play in propping up one of the worlds great real estate bubbles and how did it precipitated the crisis? Ireland's premiere financial journalist, Fintan O'Toole, in his book Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger explains how Ireland manged to achieve such a spectacular implosion. It's a cautionary tale of corruption, carelessness, and venality.

My conversation with Fintan O'Toole:

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The future of publishing - one way or another

Monday, March 15, 2010


He was the architect of Bill Clinton's efforts to make small issues add up to what some called the "incredible shrinking Presidency."  He has been attacked by the left for being to pragmatic, by the right for being to partisan.  He and the President have diverged on what should be the goals, aspirations and limits of the administration.  Arguably, with so many enemies, on all sides, he must be doing something right?  Rahm Emanuel is perhaps the most powerful chief of staff since Jim Baker served George H.W. Bush.  Yet his future may rest completely on the results of health care legislation this week.  N.Y. Times White House correspondent Peter Baker takes an inside look at "The Limits of RAHMISM" in his N.Y. Times Magazine cover story.

My conversation with Peter Baker:

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Friday, March 12, 2010

Extremism in the defense of everything...

In the 1980's our debates about religion turned from intellectual exercises among some of the nations greatest thinkers and philosophers to shrill cultural diatribes disconnected from from thought and context. In many ways it was the precursor to our political and cultural debates today; empty,extreme and fundamental.Will we ever again find a middle ground, or has the echo chamber, as David Brooks so clearly points out in his column today, subsumed any reasonable chance to separate the sacred from the screed?

Author and philosopher Sam Keen, in his new book, In the Absence of God: Dwelling in the Presence of the Sacred, examines the seemingly odd notion that religion, in its most traditional, non dogmatic form, may hold the secret to unite rather than divide us.

My conversation with Sam Keen:

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Monday, March 8, 2010

Learning from Catastrophes

Terrorism, tsunamis, earthquakes, war, drought and the unpredictability of geopolitics.  How can we ever be fully prepared for events that go far beyond anything we might anticipate in the course of normal, day to day decisions?  The past decade, even the past few years, have demonstrated that not only do disasters happen with increasing regularity, they are happening more frequently in our hyperannuated world. Howard Kunreuther Professor of Decision Sciences and Public Policy at The Wharton School, has edited a volume entitled Learning from Catastrophes: Strategies for Reaction and Response. In it, some of the worlds leading experts in risk assessment and management, discuss how we can successfully navigate the hazards of the 21st century.

My conversation with Howard Kunreuther:

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Look Both Ways - The Intersection of Life and Design

Branding, design, style, new technologies and social media.  We tend to look at all of them in isolation.  Little do we realize sometimes that their is a very personal narrative that connects the things we buy, admire, use and connect with.  Each of us is a part of a story with hundreds of tellers that represents the story of our lives. Debbie Millman, a leader in the design and branding community, brings all of this together in her new work Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design.
My conversation with Debbie Millman:

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Death of American Virtue

Thirteen years ago the nation was transfixed by a political scandal that resulted in the impeachment of a President for only the second time in our history. What started as a small tawdry story about a failed savings and loan in Arkansas, would ultimately consume a President, a nation and a public, hungry for gossip in a new internet age.  We became experts on a story with dozens of players, all of  whom would become household names, yet would do little to advance the cause of either policy or democracy. Now, the full, untold story of the Bill Clinton and Ken Starr's  battle of titans, is told in Duquesne University  law professor Ken Gormly's new book The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr.  Written with access to virtually all of the "players" Gormley connects the dots to a story and a history we all lived but perhaps never fully understood.

My conversation with Ken Gormley:

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Is America fixable

William Greider is the national affairs correspondent for The Nation. In his new book Come Home America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country he warns of the continued wrenching changes ahead, changes which he believes are too important to be left to the same people who have created many of our current problems.  For over 40 years Greider has been a voice of progressive causes.  Todays, even amidst the perils he sees, he maintains a wide eyed optimism for the future of America.

My conversation with William Greider:

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Red Families v. Blue Families - Two Americas

The growing divide between red and blue America is not just about politics.  It's far more than a debate about health care, the role of government or the war on terrorism. It is a divide that goes to the very fabric of the American cultural experience. It is so powerful precisely because it is the nucleus of the most intimate and private issues of the American family.  Is this gap bridgeable?  Can there ever be a common ground between blue, Starbucks America and Sara Palin's idea of America.

These questions are asked by two distinguished law school professors, Naomi Cahn and June Carbone in their book Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture.  

My conversation with Cahn and Carbone:

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