Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rebecca Goldstein: Why Plato (and Philosophy) Won’t Go Away.
Show for March 30, 2014

Rebecca Goldstein says some of her best friends are “philosophy jeerers,” convinced that anything philosophers can do, scientists can do better. She begs to differ, and offers the grandaddy of Western philosophy as exhibit A. 21st-century America has a surprising amount in common with Athens c. 400 BCE, Rebecca says, and Plato still has a thing or two to teach us moderns. She shows how well the 2,400-year-old-man has aged by transporting him to our own times in her new book Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t go Away. Rebecca and I talked about the world of the ancient Greeks, the death of Socrates, the relevance of Plato and what philosophy is good for. Also the difference between a toga and a chiton.

Plus a bonus segment: just how timely is Plato? Philosophical rapper Dr. Awkward makes the case in rhymes.

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Show for Feb 23, 2014: John Beckman on American Fun.

Noah Webster, channeling the prejudices of his time, defined “fun” in his 1828 dictionary as “sport; vulgar merriment; a low word.” But John Beckman says vulgar (of the common people) and low are exactly the point. Home-grown, salt-of-the-earth American fun, John contends, is democracy at its best, a way the plebes and proles throw off their bonds, declare their humanity and épater the overseers, elites and killjoys (like Noah Webster). John traces the history of rebellious fun in America from the Massachusetts colony of Merry Mount in the 1620s to the Merry Pranksters of the 1960s, and from the Sons of Liberty to flappers and jazzmen, b-boys and punks in his new book American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt. 

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Show for Feb 16, 2014. Naturalist and Ophidophile Harry Greene.

Harry Greene is a much-admired natural historian and herpetologist with a soft spot for black-tailed rattlesnakes. He’s spent years in the field studying venomous serpents, when not in the classroom or lab (he’s currently a prof at Cornell; before that he was at UC Berkeley, where he both taught and curated the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology). Harry’s a very thoughtful guy and serious writer, as evidenced in his new memoir Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art. We talked about his career, about field biology vs. theory and experiment, about the wonders of snakedom and some of his favorite rattlers (like “Superfemale 21”), and life and death in the natural and human worlds. 


Two-fisted herpetologist Harry Greene.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Show for Jan 12, 2014. Race Manners columnist Jenée Desmond-Harris.

Even the most commonplace social interactions can get awfully dicey when race is involved. Enter Jenée Desmond-Harris, who writes the Race Manners advice column at theroot.com, helping readers sort through racially charged situations in everyday life. Jenée and I talked about her own background, the complexities of contemporary race relations and the predicaments we find ourselves in.

A small sampling of the topics we discussed:

  • Identity as a matter of choice
  • Being biracial in America
  • Talking to kids about race
  • Aestheticizing and sexualizing race
  • The racist uncle at the dinner table and what to do with him

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Show for Dec 29, 2013. Award-Winning Musical Comedy Writers Do “Lunch”

A musical gets a second life as Cabrillo Stage rolls out a new version of Lunch: A Modern Musical Myth this week. I spoke to two members of the Emmy/Grammy/Oscar/Golden Globe-nominated creative team: composer Steve Dorff and book writer Rick Hawkins. They told me why they felt the story of 11th-hour redemption was ripe for revival, and how they updated both script and songs. We also listened to some of the original music, recorded in 1994 with an all-star studio cast including Carol Burnett, Michael Rupert, Laurie Beechman and Davis Gaines. Lunch Reimagined premieres Jan 3 at Cabrillo Stage. More info here.

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Show for Dec 22, 2013. Cognitive Scientist Paul Bloom on the Foundations of Morality.

I’ve spoken to Paul Bloom previously about the precocious moral awareness of infants and the ingenious experiments used to demonstrate it. Now Paul has synthesized those findings in a far-reaching exploration of our ethical capacities and shortcomings.

Topics covered in this interview include: 

  • Are we born with a sense of right and wrong?
  • Gut feelings vs. rational deliberation as a basis for ethical behavior
  • Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments and why it still rocks
  • The roots of racism
  • Mafia morality
  • Modern sitcoms and moral uplift

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Show for Dec 8, 2013. Mathematician Cédric Villani.

Since winning the Fields Medal (the closest thing in mathematics to the Nobel Prize) in 2010, Cédric Villani has become something of a roving ambassador for math and science. He’s well-suited (literally) to the role: a patient explainer and broad-minded thinker, passionate about education and social engagement, with a seemingly limitless range of interests. And just a cool guy.

We talked about Cédric’s emergence as a math whiz, what it’s like to spend years exploring a single equation, his fascination with statistical mechanics and entropy, whether math is “real” in some more-than-conceptual sense, what mathematicians do that computers can’t, his love of comic books, and, yes, his trademark retro look, seen below.

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Show for Nov 24, 2013. Literary critic Helene Moglen.

That old 60’s phrase “consciousness raising” may sound quaint and overblown today, but for a generation of progressive intellectuals it wasn’t hyperbole. Feminism, for example, was more than a push for equality and social justice; it was a wholesale re-evaluation of all sorts of unexamined “truths” about the world and the stories we tell.

I think it’s easy to underestimate at our remove how much the ground shifted back then, which is why I wanted to talk to Helene Moglen. She was there for, and part of, the whole shebang. She began her career as a literary scholar in the Madmen-era 1950s, when the utterly apolitical, de-historicized New Criticism was all the rage. She found her voice in the civil rights and women’s movements in the 60’s and made the turn to feminist criticism, working to show how the complexities and contradictions of gender influence so many narratives, literary and otherwise.

In this interview, Helene offered an engrossing look at her life and times, including:

  • Studying at Yale when the New Criticism reigned supreme
  • Getting swept up in the women’s movement, and what those feminist consciousness raisings were really like
  • The work of her TV-producer husband, Sig
  • Her academic career, from NYU and SUNY to UCSC, where she became the first woman dean in the University of California system
  • An intro to feminist criticism, including feminist readings of Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein
  • What happens when feminists have sons

Helene Moglen in her current role as emerita professor literature and feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Show for Nov 3, 2013. Learning to Live While Doing Life in Prison.

Filmmaker Michel Wenzer isn’t interested in the lurid fare that typifies popular depictions of prison. He is interested in how some inmates manage to find a way to live and to grow in a place of desolation. For the men profiled in Wenzer’s documentary At Night I Fly: Images from New Folsom, salvation comes in the form of self-examination and artistic engagement, helped along by the remnants of California’s once-thriving Arts In Corrections program.

Michel has a very personal connection to his subject; it was his immersion in reading, literature and music that sustained him while growing up in the foster care system in Sweden. We talked about his experience filming in New Folsom (younger sibling of the original Folsom Prison) and the life lessons we could all learn from some of the lifers he met. I played some clips from At Night I Fly and also some bits of interviews I’ve done over the years with prison artists, including the poet Spoon Jackson, who was the inspiration for Michel’s film.

At Night I Fly has its west coast premiere Wednesday, Nov 13 at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz, Ca. in a benefit for the Prison Arts Project. More info here.


Spoon Jackson in New Folsom (photo from At Night I Fly by Michel Wenzer). My 2010 interview with Spoon is here.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Show for Oct. 13, 2013. Richard Rodriguez—Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.

"I consider an essay to be the biography of an idea," says Richard Rodriguez. Yes, ideas not as airy abstractions but as lived, embodied and temporal things. Richard’s writing has always balanced intellectual sweep with lyrical particularity, threading its way between big-picture cultural criticism and intimate memoir. In his latest collection he is as broad and deep as ever, musing on faith in the dark days after 9/11; Judaism, Christianity and Islam as "desert religions"; his own relationship to Catholicism and his argument with the "new atheists"; the role of women in his emancipation as a gay man; and finding a way to live in love and live with death. Richard brings the same intensity and acuity to conversation as he does to the page, which made this interview a special one.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Show for Aug 25, 2013: Henry Jaglom on Orson Welles.

It’s tempting, if you’re tempted by clichés, to call Orson Welles “larger than life.” But he was after all an ordinary mortal, however prodigious his gifts and imposing his persona. He was also, among other things, a struggling artist, and his travails should be familiar to anyone who’s sought creative fulfillment in a practical world.

One person who saw past the Wellesian myth and beheld the man was the filmmaker Henry Jaglom. Their friendship began in 1970, when the upstart Jaglom impertinently asked Welles to be in his first movie (A Safe Place) and the master improbably assented, and it continued until Welles’s death in 1985. They were frequent dining companions at LA’s then-trendy Ma Maison, and Henry recorded many of their conversations. Now film historian Peter Biskind has transcribed and edited some of the Welles-Jaglom tapes into a book, My Lunches with Orson. Though the dishy parts have drawn most of the media attention, I was more interested in the sheer breadth and insight (both Orson’s and Henry’s) on display. In this interview, Henry Jaglom describes the Orson Welles he knew and loved.

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Orson and Henry

Great interview with OW and Dick Cavett, c. 1970?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

"Gypsy Voices": Donald Cohen on Romani Music

I’ve featured Don Cohen on the show previously, discussing two of his favorite musical genres: Portuguese Fado and Argentine Tango. He joins me again with his latest book, Gypsy Voices: Songs from the Romani Soul, which collects Roma songs from the Balkans, Romania, Hungary and other parts of eastern/central Europe. We talked Roma history and music while playing tracks (some classics, some lesser-known tunes) from the book’s companion CD and doing our best not to overuse the term “Gypsy.”

Click the Play arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Show for July 28, 2013. Composers Kevin Puts and Derek Bermel.

Composer Kevin Puts returns to this year’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music with his new Flute Concerto and a Pulitzer Prize to his credit. Kevin and I talked about the new work and its charming backstory; about his love of heartfelt music, whatever proponents of modernist abstraction may say; and about his choice of a contemplative composing career over the athletic rigors of concert piano.

In the second part of the show, globe-trotting composer/clarinetist Derek Bermel describes Dust Dances, an orchestral piece based on his studies of the West African xylophone known as the gyil. Both Dust Dances and the Flute Concerto will be performed on opening night of the Cabrillo Festival, August 2.


 
 
Kevin Puts and Derek Bermel.

 

Want to build a gyil? Don’t forget the spiderwebs.

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Show for June 23, 2013. Soul Man Pt II: The Return of Jazz Singer-Songwriter Gregory Porter.

Gregory Porter says his goal is to make art that’s not forced or contrived, that flows like water from who he is and how he’s lived. This conversation makes it plain just how entwined the singer and his songs are. Our previous interview with Gregory was surely one of our best shows of 2012, and this second one picks up where the first left off. We talked about his precocious taste for jazz, performing gospel in church, the influence of his minister mother and her message of love even in the face of hate, and his seemingly meteoric – but actually long-in-the-making – rise on the jazz scene.  We listened to some of Gregory’s recorded music and some that hasn’t been recorded (at least not until now), including his first original song, composed at the age of six.

Click the Play arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Show for June 16, 2013. Stooges Party: The Stooges Music Group.

New Orleans brass band music is alive and thriving, thanks to a procession of younger musicians who’ve kept things fresh while staying true to the roots and tradition. Following in the path of groups like the Dirty Dozen and the Rebirth Brass Band, the Stooges have put their own stamp on the music with a sound that ladles generous helpings of hip-hop, funk, modern jazz and pop over a body-shaking beat and a propulsive intensity stoked by countless hours of second-lining on the Nola streets. After seeing them perform, I got founder and trombonist Walter Ramsay, saxman Virgil Tiller and drummer/trombonist Garfield Bogan into the studio for some talk and tunes, including a sneak peek at their forthcoming EP, their first CD since 2003’s It’s About Time.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)