The Everything Store

October 31st, 2013

We all know, or have heard about life in Silicon Valley.  The perks, the collegiality, the PowerPoint, the team ethos.  In fact, perhaps the most successful company to master the Internet is none of those things.  It engages in predatory pricing, it is fiercely competitive, it eschews both PowerPoint and perks.  Its leader was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 1999 and and yet, is just now 14 years later, reaching the zenith of his power.  The company is Amazon and its leader and founder Jeff Bezos.  Clearly the company is doing something different and doing it very, very well. Now we have the very best picture of Bezos and Amazon in Brad Stone's fascinating new book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.

My conversation with Brad Stone: 
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New York as a metaphor for America in the 50’s

October 30th, 2013
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Mark Helprin, whose novels include Winter's Tale, A Soldier of the Great War and Freddy and Fredericka, is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute.

Helprin holds degrees from Harvard College and Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and did postgraduate work at the University of Oxford. He served in the British Merchant Navy, the Israeli infantry, and the Israeli Air Force.

In his latest novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow,  he take us to New York in the post war years.  Helprin, who wrote speeches for Bob Dole when he was a Presidential candidate, gives us what some might consider to be an idealize version of the times.

In a wide ranging conversation, Helprin and I discuss Mad Men,  The Greatest Generation, irony, sex in the workplace and the power of love and counter culture.

My conversation with Mark Helprin:
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Minerva Schools at KGI

October 30th, 2013
Higher education, like so much else in education is beginning to change.  While the American higher education system is the envy of the word, it still needs some modernization. 

Just like other form of education, it has remained pretty much the same throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st.   Think about it.  100+ years of creative destruction has impacted virtually every aspect of society, but University education has not fully adapted.

It has started to. First by addressing that we live in confusing times.  Our personal connections and our world is becoming both more bifurcated and more interdependent, both a the same time.  We need to understand each other better, but we also need to understand the wider world much better. So what kind of higher education do we need to try and square this circle?

Former US Senator and former head The New School, Bob Kerrey, is a key part of the new Minerva School at KGI.  

My conversation with Senator Bob Kerrey:
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“A riddle wrapped in an enigma, inside of a mystery.”

October 28th, 2013
Back in the days of the former Soviet Union, we use to look to any public clue to try and understand what went on behind those Kremlin walls.  It gave rise to a whole group of people who were referred to as Kremlinologist.

Today, it seems we look at the Supreme Court in much the same way.  At a time when the other branches of government talk about transparency and are exposed by leaks, when we often know too much about Members of Congress and the White House, the court often remains that enigma wrapped in a mystery.

Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet helps us shed some light on the current court with, In the Balance: Law and Politics on the Roberts Court.

My conversation with Mark Tushnet: 
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The panic, pleasure and history of CANDY, in one bite

October 26th, 2013
This week marks the official start of candy season.  The bags of Halloween candy, followed by chocolate turkeys, chocolate gifts,  the Chanukah chocolate, endless Christmas candy, all portend to a season of secret consumption by adults, a watchful eyes on kids and endless candy guilt.  Plus the requisites articles about how sugar is more addictive than cocaine and seemingly every disease studied by the CDC, amplified by sugar.  

In fact, the story of candy is a story of American industrialization, sensuality, the beginnings of artificial food, the seduction and independence of children, as they first use candy to control their own pleasure. It’s a story told by Rutgers University professor Samira Kawash in Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure.

My conversation with Samira Kawash:
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Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House

October 25th, 2013
At the Harvard Business School, which George W. Bush attended, there are many case studies about business partnerships.  One of the recurring themes is that in tough times partnerships are easy. When everyone is struggling for a common goal, unity is always easier.  But when a business starts to succeed, the partnership is always a lot tougher.

Political partnerships are different, but still similar.  There is no bottom line to worry about, but when one partner starts to succeed politically,  ahead of the other, usually there is trouble and strain on the relationship. The Bush/Cheney partnership is a good example.

It seems that every modern Presidential aspirant, when he picks a Vice-Presidential nominee, says that it’s going to be a unique and special partnership.  The Bush /Cheney partnership was certainly true to that, especially given the events of 9/11 and the impact that the partnership had on the nation, in ways that we’ll be living with for decades to come.  

That’s why New York Times, Chief White House correspondent, Peter Baker's new book, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House is so important and so central to understanding the history of the Bush administration.

My conversation with Peter Baker:
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Occupy Wall Street…two years later

October 24th, 2013
The "one percent," "occupy," "income inequality," are all ideas and phrases that have become part of our national political conversation and all born of the movement that started in Zuccotti Park, in lower Manhattan, two years ago.  The degree to which politics, from President Obama to New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio are talking about these issues, should be a sign of success.  But is it? Does this two year old movement feel like it has succeeded and if not, what’s left to accomplish?

Recently Bill Ayers talked to me about how movements should eschew ordinary political success in favor of organizing in communities, in neighborhoods, in school and in the workplace.  So what’s the legacy of Occupy Wall Street?  Nathan Schneider was present at the creation and he takes us back in Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse.

My conversation with Nathan Schneider: 
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Where They Were From

October 23rd, 2013
Usually when we all have conversations about race and poverty, it's usually in a very abstract way. We often loose sight of how these realities impact peoples lives. Not in a political or policy sense, but simply with respect to what life is like in the poor and rural parts of the American South.

Few have a better ear or better understanding of this reality than National Book Award winner and Stegner Fellow Jesmyn Ward. Now she looks back at the loss of five men that she grew up with in her memoir, Men We Reaped:

My conversation with Jesmyn Ward:  
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Palling around with Bill Ayers

October 22nd, 2013
During the government shut down, many commented that the radical elements of the Republican party were acting like terrorists.  Even if we might have disagreed with their goals, the Tea Party ideas of direct action, grassroots organizing and commitment to their ideas of social change, were very reminiscent, in the minds of some, to the efforts of many groups in the 1960’s. However, most didn't like the analogy. In fact Sarah Palin commented that the Tea Party groups were specifically not like Bill Ayers and the "terrorists" that the President "palled around with."

Well, Bill Ayers, who became Public Enemy number one in the eyes of Republicans in 2008, is still deeply committed to social change.  The President doesn't pal around with him or take his advice, anymore than he does with Ted Cruz.  But Bill Ayers has now written a  second memoir, picking up where his last, FUGITIVE DAYS, left off.

My conversation with Bill Ayers: 
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League of Denial

October 19th, 2013













We worry about too big to fail.  Yet bank losses pale in comparison to the degree to which the National Football League, has been too big to tell the truth.  Its denials have seemingly directly resulted in the death of NFL players.  Even worse, it has created untold dangers to young kids playing football, because their parents believed the leagues denials about the risk of brain injury coming from concussion and repetitive head trauma.  When seen in its totality, it’s  hard to deny that this ten billion dollar Park Avenue business, that is the NFL, does not have blood on its hands.

We’ve all heard the debate questioning the impacts of repeated concussions and head trauma on NFL players. But the facts are are not up for debate.  This is not a case where the cover up is worse than the crime.  For the NFL, the cover up is the crime.

Two of the top investigative journalists, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru look inside twenty years of denial on the part of the NFL in their book and Frontline documentary League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth.

My conversation with Mark Fainaru-Wada & Steve Fainaru:
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Why Social Media is the norm and why mass media was the fad

October 17th, 2013
We look at social media today, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, as if it’s something new that could revolutionize the world. In fact, the antecedents of social media define the very evolution of civilization. It is the mass media, newspapers, broadcasting and the one way dissemination of information, of the past two hundred years, that is the exception, not the rule. Today, the sum of all of our technology actually takes us back to our roots, as a more social and interconnected society.

Tom Standage, the digital editor of the Economist gives us historical context for social media and shows how it perfectly echoes past centuries, in his new book Writing on the Wall: Social Media - The First 2,000 Years.
My conversation with Tom Standage:
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Fear of pain and other stories

October 16th, 2013
We all remember, or have learned about, FDR telling the nation that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  In fact, it along with a clip from The Kings Speech is being used in a commercial for a new technology that might help us overcome, what is considered everyone's worst fear, that of public speaking.  

Perhaps we remember Woody Allen fearing that the universe was expanding, and how that seemed  like a good enough reason to skip school, in 50’s era Brooklyn.

The country is on the brink of disaster because we have elected officials who are afraid of voters, and most of all, afraid of not being reelected.

The bottom line is that in a macro world view, or in the intimacy of our personal lives, fear is a powerful motivator. But what would happen, how would the world change, how would we change, if we could mitigate or eliminate that fear.

That's what  Patty Chang Anchor set out to find in Some Nerve: Lessons Learned While Becoming Brave

My conversation with Patty Chang Anker:
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It really does take a village

October 15th, 2013
Edwidge Danticat's new novel, Claire of the Sea Light is set in a small seaside town in Haiti where a little girl, the daughter of a fisherman, has gone missing. Claire's  mother died in childbirth, and her father wonders if he should give away his young daughter to a local shopkeeper who could give Claire a better life. Before he can make his decision, she disappears.

Every hour of every day, parents and children separate so that the child might have a better life.  It’s not a concept that comes easy to understanding in the West.  Edwidge Danticat, gives us a strong understanding that love means sometimes having to say goodbye.

My conversation with Edwedge Danticat:  
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Having it all in 2013

October 15th, 2013
In 1982, at the height of the feminist movement, Helen Gurley Brown, published a book entitled Having It All, love, success, sex and money.  A popular TV movie of the time, was also entitled Having  it All and had Dyan Cannon  with a high powered job on both coasts. 

Oprah has said that women can have it all, but not all at once.  And now 31 years after Helen Gurley Brown's book, the debate still rages on.  Sheryl Sandberg has recently talked about the efforts of woman in the workplace, and now Debora Spar, the President of Barnard College, in her book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, takes a fresh look of what is possible and and not for the woman of the 21st century.

My conversation with Debora Spar:
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How we think we do it!

October 11th, 2013
While talk of sex is all around us, the fact is that  the origins of our reproductive lives are still a mystery.  And while 50 years ago Masters and Johnson set out to try and find the science of sex, much has transpired since in our understanding of science, and evolutionary biology.

In his new book  How We Do It: The Evolution and Future of Human Reproduction Field Museum of Natural History curator Robert Martin draws on 40 years of research in biological anthropology to locate the roots of everything from our sex cells to the way we care for newborns. He examines the procreative history of humans, as well as that of our primate kin. His findings are a constant surprise.

My conversation with Robert Martin:
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Proof that Hollywood or Broadway is really High School with money

October 10th, 2013
Although the provenance is somewhat sketchy, it has often been said that show business is High School with money.  The point being that the battles, the cliques, the backstabbing, and yes even the deal making that consume Hollywood, are often the same skill sets that are required for a successful High School career.

Journalist Michael Sokolove has found another more important link:  A group of High School students and a remarkable teacher who turns it all around and brings the positive things of show business to High School.  A sense of participation, an appreciation for narrative and story, a kinship in a bigger cause and a need to reach deep inside ourselves to do good work.  If only we all had that teacher.
Michael Sokolove did!  And he returned to his High School in Levittown, PA to tell us the story of Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater.

My conversation with Michael Sokolove:
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The spy who was forced in from the cold

October 9th, 2013
Spies and covert agents are, by their very nature required to live lives of secrecy.  So when some spies, for whatever complicated reasons, become household names like Aldrich Ames, Kim Philby, or Robert Hanssen, it's a big deal. 

In 2003, the outing of  covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, by columnist Robert Novak, brought an end of her CIA career. But it also brought all of us, in ways not seen since the Cold War,  into better harmony with the symbiotic relationship that exists between politics, espionage, and government bureaucracy.

The outing of Plame triggered a political scandal that would truly make her, the spy who came in from the cold. Now 10 years later, Valerie Plame is back, but this times masquerading as Vanessa Pierson, in her novel Blowback

My conversation with Valerie Plame: 
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When Politics Worked

October 7th, 2013
Our founding fathers created a system of government that respected opposing points of view and was designed to work even across differences. Throughout most of American history it has worked.  One time it did not was in 1861, when Abraham Lincoln, said the following: 

“What is our present condition? We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum." 

After the Civil War and for 150 years the system worked.  Today we are in danger of what Lincoln called “the end of us.”

Perhaps it is ideal to look into contemporary history for what was perhaps the last time that our system of government worked as it was intended.  That would be in the 1980’s.  It was in part the personalities of people like Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil and it was also a different time and a different context.  Chris Matthews is one of our keenest political observers. He sorts through it all in his new book Tip and the Gipper: When Politics Worked

My conversation with Chris Matthews: 
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Vietnam 1963…Finding Madame Nhu

October 4th, 2013
From the days of Caligula, right on through to the Clinton's, the role of First Ladies has always been complex, political and sometimes exotic.  What’s interesting is how often we ignore the role of First Ladies, in nations other than our own. In fact, they have often played a key roles in determining US foreign policy.

Perhaps nowhere has this been more true than in Vietnam in the early 1960's.  There, Madame Nhu, the young and glamours First Lady of South Vietnam, would play a key role in one of the darkest chapters of American history. Her perception has the Dragon Lady  only added to the US decision to support the coup that would topple the South Vietnamese government, in 1963.  Her husband and brother in law were murdered and the war in Vietnam would be forever escalated.

For years no one really knew had happened to Madame Nhu. That is, until Monique Brinson Demery would dedicated herself to Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu

My conversation with Monique Brinson Demery:
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Calcutta

October 3rd, 2013
Jane Jacobs, in writing about the rise and fall of great cities, talks about a quality even meaner than urban ugliness or disorder.  That is, the idea of “pretend order,” achieved she says by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.  This real order “is what make cities flourish and diversity sprout and makes them strange and unpredictable.” This, as Jacobs explains, is not a drawback, it is the point of cites.  

A city that for a long time embodied this ethos, is Calcutta.  And while it may be changing and homogenizing today, esteemed author Amit Chaudhuri, captures its essence in his newest work Calcutta: Two Years in the City

My conversation with Amit Chauduri:  
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