Sunday, August 24, 2014

Max Brooks on WWI, the Harlem Hellfighters, Zombies & Him

Max Brooks’s own military service was cut short after a year in the ROTC (pronated feet), but he’s a serious student of warfare and military history. He’s written about those subjects fictionally in his novel World War Z and factually in The Harlem Hellfighters. The latter, a graphic novel that cracked the NYT best-seller list earlier this year, tells the story of a heroic black U.S. regiment in World War One who fought the Germans abroad and racism at home. Max and I talked about the Hellfighters and the nature of bigotry then and now. Also:

  • His thoughts on the “Great War” and its lingering impact on the U.S., 100 years (almost to the week) after its outbreak.
  • The responsibilities of war-waging and nation-building.
  • Our shared affection for Studs Terkel and his oral histories.
  • The popularity of Zombie fiction. Max has been described as the “best-selling zombie writer of all time.”
  • His own battles with dyslexia, self-doubt and the stigma of being a “legacy kid” (he’s the son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft).
  • His current efforts to turn the Harlem Hellfighters into a movie.

Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

image
Members of the 369th Infantry Regiment, aka “The Harlem Hellfighters”

image

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Science Historian Laurel Braitman on Animal Madness
Show for June 29, 2014

Anxious apes, depressed dolphins, parrots on prozac: we homo sapiens aren’t the only ones with mental health issues, and animal psychiatry (and psychopharmacology) is booming. What does this new, broader understanding of mental illness reveal about our fellow creatures and us? We talk to Laurel Braitman about her new book Animal Madness.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

image

image
Laurel and Mac, the difficult donkey.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature (Rerun)
Show for June 22, 2014

I’ll return with something brand-new next week, but this week I had a wedding to attend, so I replayed my 2011 conversation with psychologist/cognitive scientist Steven Pinker on his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Steve argues that, modern mayhem notwithstanding, human violence has been trending downward for centuries. We discussed whether, how and why people have been getting more peacable. Topics include natural selection, game theory, the civilizing effects of civilization, the origin and nature of morality, and Steve’s own feelings about violence.

Click the play arrow above to hear the interview, or the download icon on the upper right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Nikil Saval: The Great Cubing of America
Show for May 18, 2014

In 2006, Fortune magazine estimated that 40 million Americans worked in cubicles. How did an innovation “reviled by workers, demonized by designers, disowned by its creator” (as Fortune put it) conquer our workplaces? And were things so much better before? What forces have driven the evolution of office space, from the cramped digs of Victorian-era clerks to the big open offices of the 20th century to the modern cubicle farm? Nikil Saval pondered these questions when he was trapped in a cubicle in his first full-time job, and finding no comprehensive history, wrote one himself. He and I discussed his new book, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.

image

Click the play arrow above to hear the show, or the download arrow on the right to get your own mp3.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Richard Rodriguez: Darling, A Spiritual Autobiography
Show for April 20, 2014 

I’ve been reading Richard Rodriguez’s essays and cultural criticism for years. I finally got a chance to talk to him with the release of his latest collection, Darling. In this interview, one of my favorites from 2013, we talked about faith, love and loss; 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 the essay as “the biography of an idea.”

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.

Click the Listen arrow above to hear the show, or 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, March 16, 2014

East-West Spirituality, the Recovery Movement and the Birth of the Psychedelic Age.
Show for Mr 16, 2014.

From 2012: writer Don Lattin discussed the overlapping lives of British writer Aldous Huxley, new age trailblazer Gerald Heard and Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson. Don, a former religion reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, also talked about his own addiction and recovery.

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, March 9, 2014

Physicist Howard Haber on the Higgs Boson
Show for Mr 9, 2015

Among those popping the champagne when the discovery of the Higgs boson was announced in July 2012 was Howard Haber. And deservedly so. He’d been studying and theorizing about the Higgs for decades, long before it became headline fodder, and before a sales-minded book editor gave it its sensationalistic nickname. Howie wrote about the then-notional particle in his 1978 doctoral dissertation and co-authored a definitive text on how to find it, The Higgs Hunter’s Guide, in 1989. Though we’ve touched on the Higgs in previous shows, we’ve never gone into detail on the backstory and theoretical significance. I thought it was high time we did, especially as a new documentary film on the Higgs search – Particle Fever – was about to debut in our area (sponsored by the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics, which Howie is affiliated with).


I lifted this slide from a presentation by Howard Haber; I hope he doesn’t mind.

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…”)

Bonus audio: Howie discusses the nature of fields, including the Higgs field and quantum vacuum. Click to listen.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

John Beckman on American Fun
Show for Feb 23, 2014

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 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. 

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, February 2, 2014

Astronomer and Astrophysicist Sandra Faber
Show for Feb 2, 2014

Sandra Faber loves telescopes. It’s one of the reasons she became an astronomer. And if scopes could speak, I suspect they’d have some loving words for her. She’s helped bring major new telescopes into being, developed instruments that greatly enhance their power and saved one famous scope from an early demise. And she’s put them to good use, too, participating in major astronomical discoveries and contributing to leading cosmological theories, like the cold dark matter theory of galaxy formation.

The thing that pleases her most, though, is being part of the 13.7-billion-year-old cosmic story going back to the big bang. Sandy and I talked about her career and accomplishments, her sense of the universe and our place in space.


Sandra Faber getting the National Medal of Science and and some presidential schmoozing in 2013.

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, 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.

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, November 17, 2013

Show for Nov. 17, 2013. David Harris-Gershon: What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?

David Harris-Gershon grew up regarding Palestinians as the enemy: “They were just the latest in a long line of people wanting us dead, lined up throughout history: Arabs, Germans, Russians, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians.” So you might think a Hamas-orchestrated bombing in Jerusalem that left two of his friends dead, his wife badly injured and him with a nasty case of PTSD would only harden those feelings. Instead, it led to a re-evaluation, a visit to the bomber’s family and a more complicated view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. David and I talked about his new memoir and his change of heart.

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, September 29, 2013

Show for Sept. 29, 2013. Mike Jay on James Tilly Matthews and Techno-Paranoia.

For everyone who has since had messages beamed at them through their fillings, or their TV sets, or via high-tech surveillance, MI5, Masonic lodges or UFOs, James Tilly Matthews is Patient Zero,” writes Mike Jay. Matthews was an 18th/19th century British merchant who who believed a sinister conspiracy was afoot in London, employing the latest discoveries in gas chemistry and “mesmerism” to manipulate the minds of England’s leaders and plunge the country into war. He was branded a lunatic and locked away in Bethlem Royal Hospital, aka Bedlam.

A century later, visions of technology-assisted thought control were so widespread that Freud contemporary Victor Tausk felt compelled to give the phenomenon a clinical name. He called it the “influencing machine” delusion. Today, Jay says, the influencing machine has become a defining preoccupation of our age: not just the hobgoblin of schizophrenics, conspiracy nuts and sci-fi writers, but a generalized suspicion that invasive technology, unseen puppetmasters and seductive media hold increasing sway over our thoughts, decisions and collective future. 

So was James Tilly Matthews just cuckoo or was he a canary in the coal mine? 


Mike Jay’s book A Visionary Madness: The Case of James Tilly Matthews and the Influencing Machine, forthcoming in Jan. 2014.

 


James Tilly Matthews’s own drawing of the Air Loom, the pneumatic-magnetic contraption he said was controlling thoughts from beneath the streets of London.

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, September 15, 2013

Show for Sept 15, 2013. James Dawes on “Evil Men.”

We love monsters and villains – can’t get enough of them – as long as they’re confined to fiction, the page or the screen. But how many of us confront real iniquity in human form? James Dawes has written extensively on atrocity and trauma, but he’d never encountered flesh-and-blood perpetrators until he visited Japan in 2008. He went to interview reformed war criminals from the genocidal Sino-Japanese War of the 1930s and 40s, when Japanese forces raped, tortured and killed millions of Chinese. His meetings with the now-elderly men, and the memories they shared with him, left him unnerved and beset by questions. After some years of processing the experience, he’s written a wide-ranging meditation on the causes and nature of inhumanity, the stories we tell about it and the very complicated business of bearing witness.

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…”)

And here’s an extra segment from the interview that didn’t make it into the final edit – further thoughts on the utility of evil as a moral category, on hatred, lifelong culpability and the efficacy of punishment. Click here to listen.

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…”)