Friday, February 28, 2014

Is Cold War strategy relevant to dealing with Russia today?

Amid the violence and upheaval in the Ukraine, and the Russian response, a debate has broken out in Washington about the relevance of Cold War strategy. Whether it still should be relevant to viewing Russian actions and geopolitics?

It would be interesting to know what George Kennan might think about it. He was after all, the architect of America's cold war policy of containment and perhaps our greatest political and diplomatic strategist with respect to the Russia and the former Soviet Empire.

He was both a man of letters and a man of action. But his views, on domestic politics, and on modernity were far less prescient and far out of step with the changes taking place in America. In short, he was a complex man, the likes of which we seldom see in public life today.

He also kept a diary for almost 90 of this 101 years. University of Connecticut historian Frank Costigliola has edited those diaries into The Kennan Diaries.

My conversation with Frank Costigliola:

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Batter Up

As sports stories go, the legendary rivalry between the Giants and Dodgers, is one of the best and most enduring. Yet it’s a rivalry that has had it’s had its dark and ugly moments. One of the those moments came a couple of years ago as Giants fan Bryan Stow was attacked and beaten in the parking lot at Dodger Stadium. A sad incident that perhaps reflects the mean-spiritedness of our times.

Another ugly incident happened back in 1965. It had a better outcome. One where the rivals, Juan Marichal of the SF Giants and John Roseboro of the Dodgers, would turn to violence. A violence that reflected the tensions of that time. Yet it would also turn to forgiveness and redemption.

That’s the story that John Rosengren tell in The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball's Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption

My conversation with John Rosengren:

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In politics, demographics are destiny

We know that there are powerful demographic trends taking place in the US. That the economic divide in America is widening at an almost geometric pace. That certain groups repeatedly, in spite of powerful evidence to the contrary, vote against their own economic self interest.

We’ve seen and continue to see examples of the ways in which Big Data and the vast amount of individual information available today, make it easier to define the electors.

Back in 1964, journalist Eugene Burdick first took up this issue in a seminal novel entitled The 480. A story where computers could slice and dice the electorate to give one candidate an electoral advantage. Today, that’s no longer fiction

Tony Fairfax. a demographic consultant and CEO of CensusChannel LLC, has been looking at these trends for decades and he’s come to some interesting new conclusions in The Presidential Trend.

My conversation with Tony Fairfax:

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Twilight of the American Enlightment

For those that didn’t live through the 50’s and early 60’s, Mad Men has given us a clearer idea of so many of the changes that were impacting the nation and the culture.

The post war period freed up Americans. We were no longer bound by the needs of the war and the depression that preceded it. Television, labor saving appliances, medical breakthroughs and a new sense of tolerance would begin to change America.

George Marsden, in his new work The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief, argues that the 1950’s marked the end of an era. That we became a much more pluralistic culture and that the ways in which the political and social leaders of the time approached these changes, has
given rise to many of the problems and divisions we face today.

My conversation with George Marsden:

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Why the collapse of Detroit matters

Jane Jacobs, writing about the life and death of cities, reminds us that people living in vigorous cultures typically treasure those cultures and resist any threat to them. So how and why, she wonders, can a people so totally discard a formerly vital culture, so that it becomes virtually lost.

The city of Detroit was such a culture. Once the heartland of industrial America, now it sits as an urban corpse. What does it say about America, about Detroit, but more importantly about the people that built it and watched it crumble?

Few understand Detroit better than reporter Charlie LeDuff, whose Detroit: An American Autopsy is a cautionary tale for cities everywhere.

My conversation with Charlie LeDuff

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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Still Life with Bread Crumbs

When we hear talk of the reinvention of our lives, I think re reflexively think this is something we do in our 30’s or 40’s or even 50’s. Today though, men and woman are both reinventing themselves into their 60’s and beyond. Sometime it’s to pursue new dimensions of ourselves as we get older and wiser, sometimes, it’s because of death or divorce, and sometimes, as we live longer, its because we face new financial imperatives. That’s the journey for Rebecca Winter in Anna Quindlen's’ new novel Still Life with Bread Crumbs.

Anna Quindlen, in addition to writing seven novels, winning a Pulitzer Prize, being a successful journalist and being only the third woman to write a regular column for the New York Times, has been for the past 30 years a cartographer of our daily life experience, always providing a kind of decatur projection of our contemporary existence.

My conversation with Anna Quindlen:

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Twenty two years ago a relatively unknown Governor of Arkansas was on the ropes in his presidential campaign. He had been accused of marital infidelity and with his wife by his side, went on 60 Minutes to plead his case to the American people.

His wife, was even less known to the American people, so her comments in that interview with Steve Kroft, had particular resonance.

Today, that woman, Hillary Rodham Clinton, has served eight years as First Lady, as a United States Senator from New York, in the seat once held by Bobby Kennedy and for four years as Secretary of State. She came just a few cracks in the glass ceiling short of the Democratic presidential nomination.

It’s a remarkable story, by any political standard. Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes tell the story of Hillary from the 2008 campaign forward, in their new book HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton.

My conversation with Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes:

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Could we have won the space race without the German scientists?

Few questions occupy us more today than what do we need to know and when do we do we need to know it, with respect to what our government is doing. How much should we know, particularly in times of war and what might really jeopardize national security?

These questions haunt us today, but they are nothing new. In the closing days of WWII America recruited scores of German scientists that became the bulwark of our space effort. These scientists had shady pasts and were far more connected to the Third Reich than we were ever told.

If we knew, might the nation have objected, and if so, might the Soviets have beaten us in the space race and to the moon? And what broader implications might that have had for the cold war and for global geopolitics?

Annie Jacobsen is a journalist and author, and uncoverer of secrets. She’s the author the NYT bestseller Area 51 and now she turns her attention to the story of Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America.

My conversation with Annie Jacobsen:

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine

Years from now, we will look back on the way we treat cancer today, with poisons and chemo and radiation, and we’ll look at it exactly the same way we view leaching and snake oil. Today, many look for alternative cutting edge cures, they may be the precursors of future medicine.

Back in the 19th century as patients looked to avoid leaching and bleeding and things like induced vomiting, their search gave way to a host of alternative practices that have become some of our most fundamental practices of health and medicine today. Erika Janik takes us through the history in Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine.

My conversation with Erika Janik:

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Careless People

When we deconstruct the essential elements of our culture today, celebrity culture, the privilege of wealth, the importance of popular culture in shaping the broad national conversation, even our obsession with the automobile, we find it all had its roots in the 1920’s.

Perhaps the endurance of Gatsby, is that it represents a time that was a kind of line of demarcation for the country. One world before the early 1920's and another after.

This is the world that Sarah Churchwell takes us into in her book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great GatsbyA story about a story,  it captures the ethos of the 20’s, the origin of the times and the great American novel that still defines it.

My conversation with Sarah Churchwell:

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The Up Side of Down

How many of us have taken great leaps out of fear? How often has a failure, or being fired, or jilted resulted in being forced to take actions that turned out to be positively life changing? Often in our personal journey, when we get lost in the wilderness, that is what finally brings us home.

As Bill Gates, unquestionably one of our most successful entrepreneurs has said, “it’s fine to celebrate success, but more important are the lessons of failure.”

In the startup world, entrepreneurs are taught to fail quickly, learn and move on. We all get advice, but it’s life experience and usually failure that teaches us the bigger lessons.

Journalist Megan McArdle explains in The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.

My conversation with Megan McArdle:

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Writers, Musicans and other Fans Remember

We are often quick to use the term “cultural phenomenon.” Through the back lens of history though, few things truly are. Yet fifty years ago we experienced something that lives up to that idea. By now we’ve all been regaled by memories of the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan show fifty year ago last week.

But with that as the backdrop, what is the larger cultural significance? Perhaps it's fair to say that the Beatles transformed music, pop culture, fashion, and movies. They also created something we rarely see today. A cultural experience that brought the entire nation together in one shared set of emotions.

Penelope Rowlands was there, literally on the barricades.  Now in The Beatles Are Here!: 50 Years after the Band Arrived in America, Writers, Musicians & Other Fans Remembershe’s culled some of the most interesting retrospective thoughts of today, trying to examine Beatlemania then, and even what it might mean for us in 2014.

My conversation with Penelope Rowlands:

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Friday, February 14, 2014

The new era of competition with China

Great powers ebb and flow. A random walk through history shows the Turks, the Germans, the British, the Japanese, the Spanish have all, at one time, shaped geopolitics. For most of the past century, America has stood atop the world. Now China, after three amazing decades of internal growth, is looking to secure its place in the world.

But is geopolitics a zero sum game? Does American influence have to wane in order for China to expand? Can China effectively shape and use its economic growth to expand its sphere of influence in Asia and Africa and as it does, how should the US respond?

Geoff Dyer, a veteran journalist who’s covered China for years for the Financial Times, examines all of this in The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China--and How America Can Win.

My conversation with Geoff Dyer:

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Silent Cal and American prosperity

When FDR became president in 1933 he called for “bold, persistent experimentation.” He believed that it was essential to do something! This was a far cry from Warren Harding, who said in 1920, “that any experimentation will add to the confusion. Our best hope lies in the administration of our proven system.”

Upon assuming the office of President in 1923 Calvin Coolidge world take these works very seriously. He would actually and literally carry out the policies that Harding and Coolidge were elected on. A policy of NO and of austerity. It was a far cry from the politics of action what characterizes our modern presidency.

What it wrought for the nation is still being debated today. Amity Shlaes gives us a new take on all of it, in her new biography of Coolidge

My conversation with Amity Shlaes:

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Lincoln astride the world: America's first age of globalization

America has long gotten itself involved in civil wars around the world. In Korea, Vietnam, Spain, on the African continent and more recently in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq and Syria. It should not be surprising then to realize that other nations were engaged in the outcome of America's Civil War and that it provided Lincoln ample opportunity to engage in foreign affairs.

We think of Lincoln as our domestic president. Lincoln saving the union so that this nation would not perish. But he also straddled the world during what might be called America's first age of globalization.

Kevin Peraino, a veteran Newsweek journalist looks at this side of Lincoln in Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power.

My conversation with Kevin Peraino:

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Sunday, February 9, 2014


We look to technology as the panacea to solve so many of today's problems. Yet we fear technology. When it goes wrong, like stealing our credit card information, or not allowing easy access to a government website, we get angry. Clearly, our emotional nexus with technology is out of balance with our intellectual understanding of it. The price we pay is fear, alienation, confusion and a degree of appropriate paranoia.

Few understand this better than bestselling novelist Dr. Robin Cook. He has used this imbalance to scare the bejesus out of us in his books like Coma, Cure, and Fever. Now in his latest work, Cell, he once again walks us through the cost benefit analysis of medical technology falling into the wrong hands.

My conversation with Robin Cook:

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The Ghost Particle

Even in the world of physics, celebrity culture often rules. We’ve all heard about the search for the so called God particle, the Higgs Boson and the large Hadron Collider.

Yet those in the know, in the astrophysics community, have had their eyes focused on another subatomic particle, the Neutrino. These may really possess the secrets to the inner workings of the planet and the universe.

Ray Jayawardhana is one of our leading astrophysicist and in Neutrino Hunters: he looks into this ghostly particle.

My conversation with Ray Jayawardhana:

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Repression of Putin and The Passion of Pussy Riot

In just days the Winter Olympics begin in Russia. In some respects the world comes to a nation that may be even more repressive than the Moscow of the 1980 Summer Olympics.

While President Putin has released some political prisoners, including two members of the group Pussy Riot, the release itself was a kind of de facto acknowledgement of the corruption and repressiveness of its political and justice system.

Masha Gessen has been a long time activist journalist in Russia and recently moved to the US in light of Russia’s ongoing crackdown on the LGBT community. In  Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, she gives us an up close view of what’s really going on inside Russia.

My conversation with Masha Gessen:

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